We start the Merida page with a picture of the zocalo (central square) because it's where everything seems to begin in Merida. Merida is the capital of the Yucatan state and the largest city on the peninsula as well. It was also our base for almost a week so we got to know it pretty well. The cathedral is sort of a standard issue Spanish colonial version without a whole lot inside as it was sacked during the Mexican Revolution. The park itself is a lovely shady setting surrounded by food stands and juice bars. The key is to find a bench sequestered in the foliage so that you aren't set upon by people selling panama hats. We left Merida with 0 panama hats total, and may in fact be the first tourists to ever do so.
The other side of the square features the Merida city hall with obligatory clock tower and shady colonnade. At night the street in front of the city hall becomes a parking lot for mariachi bands in search of someone to mariachi at. If you walk past looking interested you'll have a wake of hopeful mariachis trailing you to the nearest juice store. There's an unusually high concentration of juice stores in this corner of the main square in Merida. Most of them sell decent liquado too, which is basically milk and the fruit of your choice blended together.
If you were to take the horse-drawn carriage tour of Merida (which we did not do), after the loop around the zocalo, they'd take you up to the Paseo de Montejo. It's a big road with shady trees and large mansions and an ultra-wide median modeled loosely after the Champs d'Elysees but with fewer airline offices and Virgin Megastores. Also, much more bougainvillea.
If your hotel isn't on the Paseo, then the main reason to come here is the Merida Musem of Anthropology. It's a grand sounding name and a grand looking building but in reality this is the museum of objects found at nearby Mayan sites. Since none of the Mayan sites has much of a museum on location, most of the interesting objects from Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Coba etc.. have been brought here. There are useful and detailed exhibits on the Mayan number system and calendar as well. Perhaps they are too detailed, the finer points are rather mind-boggling even if you are comfortable with base-20 mathematics.
The horse drawn carriage tour would return you to this side street. As you can see there are plenty. Incidentally this is the first trips page done with our newest digital camera and as you might notice, the finer points of twilight photography hadn't been mastered yet. The oldish looking building in the back of the picture is the Merida city museum. It's small and it's free, and it's cooler than the outside streets in the middle of the day. There are actually some interesting exhibits besides.
Central Merida is pretty lively at night. The more touristy restaurants assault people on the streets with menus and free drink coupons. Most of the food is Yucatecan, with Italian as the most popular second choice. Yucatecan food is distinctly different from traditional Mexican food. The format is the same but the spices vary. There is some form of sour citrus involved in every conceivable dish (and mixed drink) so an outbreak of scurvy in Merida is highly unlikely.
Merida has several markets but the main one, a few blocks south of the Zocalo is an incredible place to spend a morning, or an afternoon, or both. You can't buy everything here. Large bolts of fabric for instance have their own district a few blocks away. So do hammocks. Other than those two things though, you might be able to get everything else here. This is one or two of maybe 100 produce stalls.
We spent most of our stationary market time in either the traditional Mayan clothing section, or the spice market. Spices come in either enormous columns (bottom) which you purchase by weight, or in little plastic pre-measured bags that hang from an overhead rack. There are dozens of chili peppers used in Yucatecan food and you can find all of them fresh, dried or ground into powder here. As in so much of the world, there are local names for all the chiles. Our favorite local chili name is the Xcatic which is related to Cayenne. At Ki'Bok (a fine restaurant near Santa Lucia Park) you can order tequila shots that come inside a xcatic pepper in fact. We'd like to recommend this but we didn't actually try it.
If you're at the market, you might as well eat there. The south end of the market has a nearly infinite line of taquerias. The most common taco filling in Merida is either chicken or pork pibil. Pibil meats are marinated in achiote and citrus and then grilled and are generally served with guacamole and onions that have been pickled in bitter orange juice. They're quite good. Another local speciality is the seafood cocktail and ceviche which are really variations on the same dish. They can be found inside the market in the cocteleria section (it's nice the way you can add the 'eria' suffix to anything in Spanish speaking countries). There can be no doubt this picture was taken in Mexico because there is a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe on the far wall.
Ceviche comes in shrimp or mixed. Mixed would include assorted sea creatures like squid, fish, snails, oysters, scallops, whatever they might have handy. The seafood of choice is mixed with cilantro, onions, lime, tomatoes, lime oil, habanero sauce, brown sauce, tamarind, salt and pepper and then served. This is a 'small' which has been half-eaten and should run about 40-50 pesos (US $4 at the time of this writing). If you take this plate and dump it into a big margarita glass and then add pureed tomato and some sour orange to it, you have a cocktail. Ceviche is generally served with some form of fresh tortilla. Actually, everything is served with some form of fresh tortilla except tequila. Tequila shots are not served with lime and salt as they are in assorted beach resorts across the rest of North America. They are served with a chaser of sangrita which has NO relation to sangria, and is in fact tomato, sour orange and chili. We'd like to recommend this too, but we did try it.