Where we’re at: I’m recapping my 2019 travels, which kicked off with this brief New Year’s Eve trip to Mexico.
For a long time, there was a glaring omission on my destinations map: from Panama to Canada, I’d been to every country in North and Central America, with the embarrassing exception of Mexico.
Finally, I was ready to right that wrong! Long before I abruptly moved back to Albany, I’d planned to spend Christmas of 2018 in New York, followed by a New Year’s Eve trip to Mexico with my college friends, and a long solo backpacking trip around the country to kick off 2019.
I cancelled the trip when my mom was diagnosed, then — for reasons I’ll delve into in my next roundup — spontaneously rebooked a seriously abbreviated version of it on Christmas, just days before departure.
Why Merida? My former roommate Zo was turning thirty on December 31st — on which night her brother decided to get married. As a peace offering, he welcomed her to invite as many friends as she wished to the New Year’s Eve after party at the hacienda where the wedding was being held.
Four days. I was flying to Mexico for four days. For someone who once regularly set aside four months to explore a new region, spending so much on a flight felt ridiculously indulgent. But, I hadn’t stepped foot out of Albany in over three months, and I was itching for sunshine, sea, and some familiar faces.
All my friends had booked out Airbnbs months before, but I snagged one of the very last dorms at the popular Nomadas Hostel in the center of town. I loved the pool I blogged beside, the yoga garden I took a chill morning class in, and the yummy complimentary breakfast. I definitely would have preferred a private room, but those had been booked up long before.
Due to a true nightmare travel day on the way there, I’d lost one of the four nights of my short trip and arrived after midnight, flopping exhausted into my dorm bed and trying to convince myself I hadn’t made a mistake. The next morning I woke up in the sunshine, pulled on jean shorts and went for a walk around the colorful streets of colonial Merida, and suddenly no further convincing was necessary.
I strolled around for a bit, just happy to have my camera in my hand and no particular destination in mind.
Eventually, Rachel directed me to Chilakilez for a traditional Mexican brunch with a side of great wifi to upload a work project I was agonizing over. It was modern, fun and delicious — I’d definitely put it on your list for where to eat in Merida if you’re headed this way, too.
After, I rushed back to the hostel to get ready for the day’s adventure. The whole Brooklyn crew was heading out to Sotuta de Peon for a day of pre-wedding festivities.
Visiting haciendas — large, nineteenth century ranches — is a big part of the Merida experience. Henequen, an agave plant native to the Yucatan, was once grown here en masse, and processed into rope and other products. Some haciendas became like mini-cities with hospitals, schools, chapels and housing for the workers — today, they’ve been turned into hotels, event spaces, and museums, like this one.
We took a tour of the grand house, learned about how henequen was produced, took a mule-pulled cart through the henequen fields, stopped at a traditional Mayan house, and finally, our highlight, spending an hour at the Dzul Ha cenote. To be honest, the rope production information was tad detailed for our rope personal level of rope enthusiasm, however, we were all pretty happy just to be together whispering and catching up in the back.
Tours of Sotuta de Peon run twice a day, last 3.5 hours and cost 600MX, or about $30USD. We had a meal at the onsite buffet restaurant afterwards and it was really good, so factor in a meal here beforehand if you take the afternoon tour. The hacienda is about 45 minutes south of Merida and we took an Uber to get there, which was affordable and easy. However, we majorly struggled with getting back — maybe try arranging a pickup time with your Uber driver or taxi driver for after the fact.
Personally I wish there was an abbreviated version, but tours are the only way to visit this particular cenote — and it is a spectacular one. It was beautifully lit, had a controlled number of people inside, and had a cute little bar up top where you could warm up and grab a drink after plunging into the refreshing subterranean waters.
I’d long been dreaming of visiting one of Mexico’s famed cenotes, and this was a magical one.
I was just so dang happy to be surrounded by some of my favorite girls! It’s wild looking back now and realizing we’ve all been friends for thirteen years.
It was evening by the time we turned around and headed back to downtown Merida.
Yet we weren’t there long before we turned around and hightailed it back to another hacienda, this time looking a bit fresher. The bride and groom had generously invited us to the welcome dinner at Hacienda Itzincab, which was truly magical all lit up at night. It was great to meet up with even more of the Brooklyn crew who’d spent the day elsewhere — it was a Pratt Institute reunion in the Yucatan!
Don’t the boys look cute in their guayaberas? I loved that the bride and groom had a suggested traditional dress code — it was so fun!
The next morning we’d discussed hiring a driver to take in more of the area’s cenotes, ruins or beaches, but organizing in a big group is always a hot mess so we ended up just wandering around town instead — and since I’d spent so little time there, I wasn’t mad about it.
Merida is pretty darn cute! And I can’t tell you what a grateful heart I had just to be spending the day wandering around laughing with friends — it really felt like such a luxury.
Merida is chock full of amazing restaurants but we just had a simple lunch in the town plaza and it was perfect. Plastic chairs, big margaritas, cheap tostadas, and a table full of friends. What more could a girl ask for from her first trip to Mexico.
Well, we did go for a luxe dessert with ice cream from the chic Pola Gelato.
We also did quite a bit of wandering into Merida’s lovely boutiques. I’m not much of a shopper when I travel but with a group of artists and designers, it’s no surprise we ended up there.
Downtown Merida doesn’t have much in terms of major sights — at least not that we were drawn to — but it’s a cute and colorful town to wander around.
We’d planned to try to go out and have a nice big group dinner somewhere before heading back out to the hacienda for our New Year’s party, but we actually hit a bunch of dead ends. I overhead someone at my hostel saying that it wasn’t actually a huge night in Merida — most people spend it at home with their families. And the many restaurants I popped into throughout the day trying to make a dinner reservation were all closed for a few days, as were some of the bars!
Later in the trip, when I went to stay with Rachel (more on that in my next post) I finally got a small taste of Merida after dark when we headed downtown for dinner at Hermana Republica and ice cream at Casa Pipí Cucú. I would have loved to have tried dinner at Illuminati, and drinks at El Beso de la Flaca, Casa Chica, and La Negrita Cantina, too.
But, back to New Year’s Eve. We finally scarfed something down while pre-gaming at one of the hotels and smartened up to catch the shuttle to and from Hacienda Itzincab for the big party. While we’d technically been there the previous night, it’s such an expansive property and we were in a totally different part of the grounds, so it felt like a whole new adventure.
And wow, had they done an incredible job making it feel magical! Just look at this place!
I feel like New Year’s Eve comes with so much hype and pressure, it can be pretty hard for it to live up to the expectations. Some of my best New Year’s have been abroad — like the year we were so off the grid we just guessed when it was midnight in the Bahamas, or the year I marveled at the fiery traditional celebrations of a mountain town in Ecuador, or the year I partied my face off on the beaches of Thailand at the biggest annual edition of the Full Moon Party.
This too, a private party in a gorgeous Mexican villa with some of my favorite old friends, will also go down in the books as one of those years I couldn’t have asked to be in a more perfect place.
I was so thrilled too, to be able to spend Zo’s thirtieth birthday by her side!
Like any truly great villa party, it ended in the pool! A few days prior I certainly wouldn’t have guessed I’d have rung in the new year splashing around in a borrowed bathing suit. It was a lucky night indeed.
So I have to admit that I’m not sure I fell madly in love with Merida — but I also don’t know if I spent enough time there to give it a fair shake. I didn’t love being thirty minutes from the beach, and as far as colonial cities go, I’ve been more charmed by places like Granada, Nicaragua. However, I also don’t know how much of my mental fog at the time contributed to this feeling of apathy.
Regardless, I’m so, so grateful to this trip for so many reasons. I really needed to make a change at home and this trip was a catalyst for that. I also needed a hit of friendship and fun in a period of loneliness and loss.
And I think I needed a little bit of sparkle.
Where are you spending New Year’s Eve this year? Have you been to Merida? What did you think?