On a sultry November afternoon in Mérida, Mexico, I sat with my friend David Serrano on the terrace of Apoala, a Mexican-fusion restaurant on the Plaza de Santa Lucia, tucking into Flores de Amarillo - zucchini blossoms stuffed with Oaxacan cheese - and people-watching.
David, a Mexican by birth and a Mérida resident by choice, deftly picked out the holidaymakers (in shorts, like myself, because of the heat) from the locals (in long pants, like David, because of the insects).
An elegant woman drifted over to say hello to David - Elena, he explained, a fashion designer from Milan. A few minutes later a couple, the husband leaning on a cane as a result of a riding accident, dropped by - Ralf and Yvonne, the Germans who run the Yucatá* Polo Club.
After lunch we stopped at Ki’Xocolatl - the chocolate store next to the restaurant run by two Belgians - and bumped into Carmen, a painter from Mexico City, and Marcela, a Yucatecan artist.
“People go to San Miguel to retire,” David, acting as my host and tour guide during my first visit to the city, said. “Here you come to work.”
Our taxi driver, Israel, a Yucatecan of Lebanese descent, cranked up the air conditioning as he negotiated the narrow streets lined with tall colonial houses in sherbet colours to David’s place.
The 200-year-old pale blue house in the Santiago barrio that David and his partner, Robert Willson, bought a few years ago features high ceilings and boldly patterned concrete tile floors, terracotta sphinxes and French chairs made of steel and twine. The scent of plumeria wafts from the courtyard, where a Piranesi-inspired mural overlooks a pool.
I repaired to my guest room, settling in for a siesta on the steel canopy bed. When I awoke my room was dark, and rain pelted the roof - a steady, cooling volley.
The next morning we set off for the ruins of Uxmal, a Maya city 80km south of Mérida, known for its ornate Puuc-style architecture and its fine state of preservation.
After touring the oldest remnants of Yucatá* civilization, we set out for its newest frontier. Many of the affluent Mexicans moving to Mérida are settling not in centuries-old casas in town or haciendas in the country but in the new suburbs of el norte - a long swath of gated communities and giant malls. Our destination was a restaurant called Tatemar in Plaza La Isla, a just-opened 180-store mall.
Carlos Arnaud, who owns the Oaxacan-flavoured Tatemar with his sister Sara, steered us to a table overlooking La Isla’s artificial lake and handled the ordering: grouper with guacamole, octopus with maize purée, pork and shrimp tacos.
Meals can go on for hours here. When we left the mall the sun was sinking below a stand of tamarind trees. Suddenly there was an explosion of bird chatter - the evening song of blackbirds known locally as X’Kau - a reminder that, for all the golf courses and Porsche dealerships, we were still in the jungle.
The Wages of Progress
Among Mérida’s best exhibition spaces, Lagalá, Galeria La Eskalera, the Fundacion de Artistas, and Centro Cultural La Cupula are all in the centro historico. La Cupula, a sprawling garden-linked complex, hosts music, dance and theatre performances as well as exhibitions.
We had been asked to lunch at the country hacienda of Laura Kirar, the designer, and her husband, Richard Frazier. So we picked up a roasted chicken at a roadside stand, and Israel navigated narrow village roads lined with shacks in taffy colours and teeming with mototaxis, pedestrians and dogs.
After a full day, my host had planned a casual dinner in town. But this was Mérida: the meal, at a simple cantina called Catrin, was a long, festive, Mezcal-fuelled affair. Richard and Laura showed up, as did Marcela, a sisal sculptor. There was Jason, an artist from Chicago, and Kate, from Poland, who did hair, and Ross, from New York, who works in real estate.
The conversation returned to Mérida’s recent growth. Not everyone shared David’s and Carlos’ enthusiasm for the changes. But Laura opined that anybody looking for “a good place to be creative” still couldn’t do better than Mérida - a point disputed by no one.