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Merida, Mexico: The Honest Truth of Life as an Expat!

My writing includes my personal travel experiences, destination, history, and cultural information.

How I Ended Up in Merida From Europe

Having lived in Europe as an expat for a few years, I felt it was time for a change of scenery. Due to immigration requirements, it's can be somewhat of a challenge for expats to settle in countries abroad for any significant amount of time. I had a five-year residency in Albania but was ready to move on.

I found that a stay in Mexico could be up to six months for American citizens before needing to establish residency. Some friends were leaving Europe and heading for Mexico so I decided to piggyback with them. Mexico would offer a lifestyle outside of the United States but still similar offering the convenience of big box stores, familiar product brands, and other lifestyle privileges that I was beginning to miss.

This transcontinental move was one that really was out of the norm for me. Typically, whenever I travel I do tons of research spending weeks making a decision. The choice to move to Mexico was made in less than one hour. With only a few questions asked and answered and with no research, I was on a plane heading to my new home within three days!

Learning About Merida

Although Merida has an international airport, due to flight schedules, I opted to fly to Cancún. This decision would require me to spend the night and make the five-hour drive to Merida the next day. I didn't realize how remote Merida was to the rest of Mexico but the ride was beautiful and gave me a good taste of the geography.

The map states the drive is 3 hours 41 minutes, but in actuality with stops, it is a five-hour drive.

Where is Merida?

Located on the Yucatan Peninsula, Merida (population 1,201,000 including the surrounding outlying areas) is closer to Belize than it is to Cancún or Mexico City. About 30 minutes from the water, the nearest beach town is Progreso. This location offers a buffer of sorts from the volatile storms moving ashore from the ocean but creates somewhat of a humidity blanket over the city. (It can be brutal with a year-round average temperature of 92.5 F and an average of 70 percent humidity)

The driver that had been hired to transport me from Cancún to Merida spoke great English and during the scenic drive, he shared information with me that would prove to be invaluable during my transition to Mexico.

Along the route, I saw massive construction sites. Curious about what was happening, the driver explained to me that I was witnessing the building of the Tren Maya, which will eventually be a 1525 km railway, designed to connect the Yucatan Penisula to the rest of Mexico. Completion of the railroad is scheduled for the end of 2023 and the hope is to make the Yucatan region more accessible not only to locals but also to boost tourism.

Still, Under Construction, Tren Maya Will Connect the Yucatan Region to the Rest of Mexico

Still, Under Construction, Tren Maya Will Connect the Yucatan Region to the Rest of Mexico

What to Know About Life in Merida?

Here are some tips and pointers for you that I learned after living in Merida.

Language

Throughout our lives, we are often warned about the hazards of making assumptions. Oh, how many times that warning has slapped me in the face, and relocating to Merida, once again, proved the necessity to heed that warning! The English language is spoken worldwide and in many countries, it is recognized as a second language. I was moving to Merida, the cultural hub of the Yucatan with an expat population of over 15,000? English would be widely spoken and understood. Right? Wrong!

Hansel, my driver explained to me that yes, Merida was in Mexico but the Yucatan might as well be in another country with the culture being different than the popular tourist areas of Cancún, Mexico City, and Puerto Vallarta. English was not embraced in Merida and was spoken by only a few. Yikes! I asked whether English was spoken in the big box stores, department/grocery stores, Uber drivers, etc and he explained that Spanish was spoken almost exclusively. And to complicate the matter of language, the language of the Yucatan is a different dialect of Spanish stemming from its Mayan roots!

Note to self: Find a language instructor right away!

Potable Water and Fresh Vegetables/Fruit

We have all probably heard of Montezuma's Revenge, a stomach illness induced by drinking the water in Mexico. Merida, was a fairly large city, so certainly the tap water was safe to drink, right? Wrong, again. The waterways in Mexico are so polluted that politicians have re-classified many of them as sewers. To top that off, even if the waterway where water is sourced is clean, the pipes are not. The bacteria and toxins in the water which is piped can and will cause severe gastric illness.

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Even the locals don't drink tap water and research has proven humans do not build up an immunity to this. Everyone uses some type of bottled water; it's widely available and, for a very nominal cost, can be delivered to your home in 20-liter vats. Hansel warned me not to use tap water to make coffee, wash my fruit/vegetables, make ice cubes, brush my teeth, and be careful not to swallow water when showering or swimming. He assured me that it was ok to use tap water when boiling food such as potatoes or pasta and for washing dishes.

Because of the poor sanitation in the water supply, fresh fruits and vegetables were also an issue. When preparing these items at home, I was instructed to soak them in vinegar and bottled water prior to consumption or preparation if they were to be eaten with the skin on.

There are also antimicrobial solutions you can purchase to rig your fresh veggies and fruit from the bacteria that they carry. For example, avocados and oranges were okay to eat, once peeled. For onions, it was necessary to peel the outer two or three layers of skin, and then they would be okay to consume raw. Hansel also warned me to be wary of salad because of the texture of the lettuce (crevices and rough) making it difficult to remove the offending bacteria and toxins.

Make Sure to Rid Fresh Fruit and Veggies from the Offending Bacteria and Toxins They Carry

Make Sure to Rid Fresh Fruit and Veggies from the Offending Bacteria and Toxins They Carry

Flushing Toilets

Out of 195 countries worldwide, as recently as 2020, Mexico ranked as the 74th poorest country. While in many ways it is emerging as a modern country, poverty still plagues its ability to improve. This being said, there are many issues such as plumbing that continue to hamper its development. Merida like all other large cities is not an exception.

The pipes are old and narrow and the cost to replace or improve is prohibitive for this country. While toilets that flush are the norm, the majority are unable to handle any paper products. This includes public restrooms and most homes. Even if you are dealing with new construction, the pipes installed will handle paper products but the issue is the pipes underground that these connect to. Signs (in Spanish) remind you that you do not flush the cleansing tissue but instead dispose of it in the wastebaskets provided.

White City

Merida is known as the White City (La Ciudad Blanca). There are many theories about the origin of this nickname. The most common explanation is that originally Merida was built using white limestone from the surrounding regions. Merida is known as the cleanest city in Mexico and some believe that the modern use of the nickname reflects this. And, in yet another theory, since Merida is also known as the safest city in Mexico, the nickname "White City" reflects its purity and its absence of crime.

After living in Merida, I can tell you that despite the plumbing issues and the non-potable water, it is a very clean city. Many, including myself, would leave doors unlocked, and produce or souvenir vendors would often leave their products unattended through the night. Since I did not have a car while in Merida, I walked to and from most places, often after dark. I never felt unsafe and never heard of any petty crime within the city center.

Merida City Center and Its Mayan Heritage

Centro is set up in a grid-like pattern with most roads designated as one way. The roads are numbered with even and odd numbered roads running in opposite directions. Addresses use an "x" and "y" to designate cross streets of a location. For example, my address was Calle #501 x74 y 59A. This says that my house number was 501 and that I was located between 74 and 59A.

Neighborhoods in Centro are set up around and named for the parks that they are close to. I was in the Santiago district. The city parks are hubs of neighborhood activity and these areas are where you find restaurants and markets and local nightlife.

Music in Merida is not just at night but plays throughout the day in the neighborhoods. The setting is fun and active; colorful and vibrant. And to be honest, that sums up the lifestyle in Merida. Neighborhoods are a relaxed environment where you can truly experience the authentic Yucatan culture.

The culture of the Yucatan, including Merida, is different than the rest of Mexico. Mexico is primarily known for its Aztec ancestry however, the Yucatan is of Mayan origin and more closely resembles Guatemala. In fact, the region is so firmly ingrained in its Mayan heritage that at two times in history, once in 1823 and then again in 1841, the Republic of Yucatan did exist as an independent state from Mexico. Even today, the cultural differences are so vast, that it often feels like you are no longer in Mexico; the language is different as is the food, the dress, traditions, and rituals.

Another interesting feature of Centro is the origin of the building materials used for streets, businesses, and homes. Hansel, my driver explained to me that stones from ancient, abandoned Mayan settlements had been transported to the new site of Merida. These stones were then used to build what we see as Merida today. The fact that these stones were used to build the new Merida is a source of pride for the Yucatecan people in that they feel they are honoring their Mayan ancestry.

Paseo Montejo

This wide boulevard, part of Centro, is patterned after roadways in France and is home to magnificent mansions, fabulous restaurants, and bars, along with shopping. On Sunday mornings, Paseo Montejo is closed to vehicular traffic, and mini-festivals are held with local craft and food vendors setting up shop. Locals, expats, and tourists stroll the area and take in the vibrant atmosphere.

The mansions are a holdover from the wealthy henequen plantation owners. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Merida was considered the wealthiest city in the world with Paseo Montejo being the showcase.

Paseo de Montejo Mérida Yucatán México

Paseo de Montejo Mérida Yucatán México

With wide lanes for traffic and wide sidewalks, these impressive mansions stand in splendor as a testament to the past. Some are still used for residents while others are used for offices, private events, and museums.

One After Another, These Mansions Line the Boulevard of Paseo Montejo in Merida

One After Another, These Mansions Line the Boulevard of Paseo Montejo in Merida

Yucatecan Cuisine

In order to fully grasp the cuisine of the Yucatan, you must understand a bit of the geography and history of the region. The terrain and climate are not conducive to herds of livestock and the tropical climate makes it difficult to preserve fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat. Because of the location, over the years, the cuisine has been influenced not only by Mexico but also by Europe and the Caribbean.

Because of its Location, the Cuisine of the Yucatan has been Influenced by Mexico, Europe, and the Caribbean

Because of its Location, the Cuisine of the Yucatan has been Influenced by Mexico, Europe, and the Caribbean

One of the main staples of the Yucatecan diet is corn being used in one way or another in almost all dishes. Pibil is an acidic based ingredient that is often used as a preservative. Achiote, citrus, habaneros, and smoke are the four pillars behind the cuisine in this region. Many meals are cooked over an open fire; barbeque style.

Merida is considered more cosmopolitan and the recent emergence of European and American-style restaurants presents an array of dining options. This is not to say that Merida doesn't offer authentic Yucatecan food.

One of my favorite meals was breakfast. A Yucatan breakfast favorite is breakfast known as Mexican eggs. Known as huevos motuleños, this dish consists of two sunny-side-up fried eggs on top of two crispy-fried tortillas, a layer of frijoles, then topped with chopped ham, peas, crumbled white cheese, and red salsa.

Shortly after my arrival in Merida, I went out for breakfast with a local friend. She suggested the huevos motuleños and after reading the description, I have to admit that I was skeptical. But, when in Rome! It was absolutely delicious and after devouring this authentic dish, I was glad that I had ordered outside of my comfort zone.

Huevos Montelunes, a Typical Yucatecan Breakfast

Huevos Montelunes, a Typical Yucatecan Breakfast

Things to do in Merida and the Surrounding Yucatan Region

Here are my recommendations of things to check out if you are in the region.

Visit the Cenotes

Cenotes are ancient sinkholes that have been filled with water from underground water sources. In Mayan times, they were often used for water supply and occasionally sacrificial rituals. The Yucatan is famous for them and because of its low elevation is full of them. Today they are used for recreation and there are tours designed as day trips for swimming and exploring.

Cenotes are Popular Recreation activities

Cenotes are Popular Recreation activities

merida-mexico-the-honest-truth-of-life-as-an-ex-pat

Merida

Merida is known as the cultural capital of the Yucatan. Therefore, there are dozens of museums ranging from displays featuring anthropology, music, art, Mayan culture, history of the area, and the henequen plantations.

Beaches

Beaches are a huge part of the Yucatecan lifestyle. Progreso is about a 40-minute drive and offers some of the most pristine beaches in the region. On weekends locals and expats flock to the beaches soaking up the sun and enjoying the restaurants and clubs.

Nightlife

Nightlife in Merida is in full swing every night until the wee hours of the morning. You will find music in the parks, clubs, and restaurants. Many of the more popular clubs tout craft beer and have live music nightly. One of my favorite ways to spend the evening was spending time in Jazz Clubs.

Theatres and Live Performances

These are also very popular in Merida. While in Merida, I did not attend any of the theatres but many told me that the performances were excellent.

  • Teatro Armando Manzanero
  • Teatro Daniel Ayala
  • Teatro Peón Contreras
  • Centro Cultural Tapanco
  • Foro Alternativo Rubén Chacón

Mayan Ruins

Day trips or tours to ancient Mayan Ruins are a very popular activity for visitors expats and locals. Mayan history plays a vital role in the daily life of the region, Merida included. There are about 200 public Mayan Ruins in Yucatan Mexico, with only about five on the main tourist trail.

Influence of the Expats

The city of Merida, not including the outlying areas has a population of about 925,000. That being said, most of the 12,000 (approximate) expats live within the city limits, specifically Centro. The majority of expats living in Merida are from the United States and Canada with notable numbers from Panama and Cuba.

Has the expat Community had a positive influence on Merida? Well, based on research, it depends on your perspective. In my opinion, Merida is like a Hispanic version of any city in the United States. It offers a plethora of American brand stores, restaurants, and services.

Because Merida is so safe, there is a large community of expats from all socio-economic backgrounds. But what has that done for the city of Merida? Well, the expats spend money and frequent not only the American brands but the local venues, they build homes or rent, buy cars, and use the services. At first glance, this seems like a good thing. And perhaps, at last glance, it might also be good.

Let's Look at Some Numbers

From 2000 to 2022, the population in the Yucatan region increased by more the 500,000 people, with about 10,000 expats settling in Merida. This increase in population placed significant demand on housing, goods and services. As of the end of May 2022, inflation hit a historic level in Merida of 8.6%.

A realistic look at monthly expenses quoted in USD:

Housing
Rent: $950 – $2500*
Electric: $75 – $200
*Includes house and pool cleaning, gardener, Wifi, gas, water, trash pick up

Home Purchase

New Construction or Existing Structure: $200,000 to $2,500,000. (depends on location)

Transportation
Uber: $120 – $350
Telephone
Monthly Cell Service: $30

Food
Groceries: $600
Eating Out: $100 – $250

Alcohol

Wine per bottle at a grocery store: $7.00 for midrange quality

Wine per bottle in a medium-priced restaurant: $25.00 and $7.00 per glass

Beer (12-pack) at a grocery store: $9.00

Beer per bottle or draft at a restaurant: $4.00

Tips
Grocery baggers, service providers, deliveries, etc: $10 – $25

Incidentals Including Entertainment: $ 200.00

The above figures indicate an increase of about 25% in costs since early 2016. My monthly spend in Merida was about $2400.00 which included $1200.00 rent in Centro for a 2-bedroom fully furnished home with a pool. I did not own a car and depended on walking or Uber.

Expats and locals alike will tell you that the costs have increased due to the influx of expats who are willing to pay a higher price along with the supply and demand of housing, goods and services, and utilities.

Honestly, I suffered from sticker shock when I arrived and began to search for housing. Over time I read countless articles about the affordable cost of living in Mexico. I had read that a person could easily live very well on less than $1000.00 USD per month. If a person were to rent a one-bedroom unfurnished home or an apartment outside of town with no amenities, this dollar amount might be doable. But, for what I would consider a "good, comfortable life," $1000.00 is simply not the case.

On the flip side, the increase in the expat population has also boosted the local economy with more money being spent and the creation of jobs. Jobs centered around construction, property management, and hospitality have increased exponentially. Spa services such as nails and massage are offered in-home, as are medical services, eye exams, and personal chefs. Those are just a few examples however, prior to the influx of expats, these services were not in demand and therefore have created a plethora of opportunities for native residents.

In conclusion, the influence of expats in Merida has its pros and cons, just like most situations in life.

Community Interaction of Expats

While most expats live in Centro, they also live in North Merida. But, there really is not a geographic location specific to expats. There are several social media groups designed to link the community through the sharing of information which makes it nice not only for newcomers but for established expats. Unlike European cities in which I had lived, there are no real organized expat activities, no mixers. Everyone just kind of lives their own life

My Personal Observations and Thoughts

After living in Europe, I found assimilation difficult in Mexico. I'm of the mindset that when in another country a person should embrace the culture and lifestyle. I found that many expats living in Merida expected the natives to cater to their needs and felt a certain entitlement, resenting that fact when they didn't. I found this very distasteful.

In most cases, respect begets respect and I found this true in Merida and Mexico in general. Running the risk of sounding like one of those entitled expats, I personally, was disappointed. Yes, there were nice restaurants and clubs, shopping malls, and accommodations. But, those came at a high budgetary cost.

I didn't expect "American prices" in Mexico. I did expect to live like a "queen" on far fewer dollars than in the United States. I didn't expect rodents to use my pool or make themselves at home in my outside living area. I didn't expect bats to swoop down at me when I was outside in the evening.

After three months and two moves, I realized that my lifestyle expectations were not going to be met in Merida. I refused to take on that sense of entitlement and expect that things be brought up to my level of satisfaction. Before leaving Mexico, I did investigate other locations and came to the conclusion that I would more than likely find the same conditions anywhere in the country. I also came to the conclusion that the five-star resorts we see in all the travel brochures are illusions—facilities to accommodate tourists but don't represent the authentic experience of living in Merida.

And you know what? That's all okay. Merida wasn't for me. It's not a bad place and I'm not a bad person—it just wasn't a love match. In traveling to 53 countries, I haven't been enamored with every destination and Merida was one that did not wow me. Would I go back for a vacation to Merida or any other Mexican destination? Absolutely! I feel like Mexico is a lovely country with a fabulous culture; it's just not the place I want to live.

Until next time, friends, remember, "To Travel is to Live!"

© 2022 Dee Serkin

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