It’s been three years since I started dwelling on life’s possibilities in Mérida. Just three years. Look at how much has changed since then. Certainly more than in any city in the U.S. that I can think of.
We arrived following a couple of watershed years. After several years of major groundwork laid by the Working Gringos, Mexico International, and of course, the tourist guide Yucatan Today, major U.S. newspapers were publishing glowing reports of this charming, affordable, and safe destination. The city became a newsworthy perhaps in part because of the sharp economic downturn that we were all handed. But it also had a lot to do with all that groundwork, paving the way for neophyte expats. We had never considered investing abroad before this, and here I was watching neighborhood tours on YouTube.
Also, the government invested like crazy. By the time we arrived, La Ermita was already spiffed up. Then, areas around the square The Centro were freshened with a coat of paint, and some new street surfaces. You can still use Google Street View, which documents 2009 Mérida, to compare to more recent pictures. The new, already cracking, slippery-when-wet fake cobblestone street surface have been an huge bust, alongside the malfunctioning Made-in-China street lights. But the city looks better in travel photos! That’s something, I suppose. Sidewalks, however, are still ridiculously hazardous. Astonishingly, that hole outside the Comex at Santa Ana Park is still there, three years later.
On the bright side, in 2010 the startup convivium (chapter) Slow Food Yucatán brought a select handful of vendors each Saturday to Monique’s bakery. Today it’s firmly established in the city’s culture, and it has moved within walking distance to the Centro. Last week we became card-carrying members because we have become more insistent on finding organic, small-farm, sustainable food options wherever possible. There’s something about making ambitious plans for the future that make you more conscious of your health. Slow Food adds a couple of points to Mérida’s livability quotient. I suppose it was considered progress when all the fast food chains arrived; gaining a Slow Food convivium is the right kind of progress.
Speaking of chains, the Hilton opened up a very attractive Doubletree on Avenida Colon, not too far from the Hyatt and the Holiday Inn. But it’s the rise of the boutique hotels and guesthouses that has upped the ante for the hospitality industry. Three years ago, Rosas y Xocolate, a big, pink Reyes Rios + Larrain-designed boutique hotel, upscale restaurant and luxury spa, was big news, and raised the profile of the Paseo de Montejo, where fashion shows and movie premieres today seem right at home. Today there are a least a dozen new, upscale places that have opened since. Casa Lecanda, lushly designed by Roger González Escalante, made it into Ambientes magazine, which at the time I thought was nice because, hey, it’ll be nice to have pictures of it after it shuts down. I doubted Mérida could support more upscale, premium-price accommodations. But they seem to be going strong! They are booking steadily and are earning raves online. It seems there is a market for travelers at a luxurious price point.
All those hotels that haven’t been upgraded since the 1980s — and you know who you are — should be concerned. When I think of the missed opportunities of so many places which have great bones but fall short on details, according to the online reviews from disappointed guests.
Then, the restaurants, a favorite blogger topic. And of course it is. We’re seeing the sad, slow dimming of Alberto’s Continental, once a Centro hot spot, and now for sale because Alberto will finally retire (he says). When we first arrived, Hennessy’s on the Paseo de Montejo was still under construction. Today it seems like it’s always been there. Up the street, there was the Olive Café, now called La Boheme, which now has stiff competition from the Starbucks to the north and Café Crème to its west. Café Crème operates in a space that was a cocina economica a few years ago, and is part of a small cluster of great shops on 60 and 41, where I used to get my haircuts. The same guy cuts my hair today, but Robert Abuda now works his magic at his fabulous new salon, designed by Victor Cruz, next to La Boheme on the Paseo. The building that houses this cluster of shops on 41 has been dubbed La Maison Bleue, which also includes El Estudio and Bodega 41, a pair of gift shops that were linked when they cut through the inside wall that divided the stores. (The stores saved my hide, because I was having trouble finding a good souvenir for Mom, and Bodega 41 had something perfect: a pair of beautiful embroidered pillow cases that went over big!) On the other side of the café is another charming small shop, where we bought a tiny framed picture. I can’t think of the name of that shop, but if anyone wants to refresh my memory, I’ll update this post.
Back to the chains. Sometimes, getting their attention and investment really does improve things. Not long after our first trip there, the Mérida blogging community (which has seen some churn) was excited to see the La Europea chain of wine shops open at City Center. That tells you something about the priorities of the Mérida blogging community, but it also says something about the supply chain and the growing diversity of all kinds of products in Yucatán, even with the advent of supermarkets. Used to be, you had to buy celery by the stalk, if you could find it at all. The advent of Greek yogurt caused a stir as well. Things are getting better, although you still occasionally read the plaintive cry for anything from spinach to contact paper on the online f0rums.
I like seeing more creature comforts enter Merida, but I don’t want to see the old ways vanish. Will anyone still wear a hupile in 10 years?
You know what hasn’t changed in all these years, even going back to 2006 or 2007? The Rolodex of the reporters who write about Mérida. The visionaries, the designers, developers, architects, the early frontiersman expats, of the 2000s, are by and large still around. Mérida isn’t for everyone, and some people leave, but look how many have stayed to enjoy their lives and either say goodbye to their careers or to explore a new one. I can’t think of any new faces as prominent as the people who were forming our expat industrial complex six or seven years ago. There’s no new real estate star, no new YouTube celebrity. The unofficial spokespeople of Mérida have not been displaced.
These are changes I’ve seen mainly from following along online from my couch in Connecticut. If I had been fortunate enough to actually live there all that time, I’d have more keen insights into the changing culture. Are the “old ways” really fading? Is the growing middle class causing a social shift all around?