Mérida is many things to me, all of them anchored in the senses in some way. It's the sensuous coolness of hand-painted tiles underfoot; the sharp scent of lime squeezed over papaya sprinkled with red pepper flakes; embroidered flowers blossoming across the top of women's huipil, the traditional white Mayan dress; the raucous morning broadcast of birds chattering in the sour orange trees. Sometimes it's torrential rains that swell the gutters and flood the stoops, and always it is a languid, almost dreamy beauty that feels stolen from a Gabriel García Márquez novel or Frida Kahlo painting. Increasingly, it's also home, at least for part of the year, ever since my husband Adam and I decided to restore a dilapidated Spanish colonial house in the city's historic centre several years ago.
The hot, flat capital of Mexico's Yucatán state, Mérida is the kind of city that creeps up on you. Our favorite places are those whose charms aren't obvious. Sure, we admired Plaza Grande - also known as "the Zocalo" after Mexico City's famous square - lined with grand buildings built by the conquistadors from the ruins of the ancient Mayan city, T'ho. We enjoyed the majestic elegance of Paseo de Montejo, the wide avenue modelled after the Champs-Élysées where the city's most ostentatious Beaux Arts mansions are found. We delighted at the cuisine, which is unique even within Mexico, and instantly warmed to Méridanos, who are almost uniformly welcoming. But from the beginning, the biggest draw was the sense of ease that prevails here, the slower pace and the novel notion it embodies that life's moments should be savoured rather than rushed.
Yucatán, in many ways, has always been a land apart. Closer to Cuba than Mexico City, this peninsula was independent for a brief period in the 1840s, when it was known as the second Republic of Yucatán; it rejoined the rest of the country in 1848, only to be torn apart by a brutal caste war that raged until the early 20th century. In the late 19th century, Mérida entered a Belle Époque based on wealth generated from the lucrative trade in henequen (also known as sisal), a fibrous agave plant used for making rope. Vast haciendas sprung up across the peninsula, and many local families became fabulously wealthy. The city's newly minted aristocrats looked to Europe rather than Mexico City for inspiration, and the traces of this French, Dutch and Spanish fixation can still be felt.
(It always amuses me to hear Méridanos mention "going to Mexico" if they have to visit Mexico City.)
Henry Ponce, one of Mexico's most talented contemporary architects whose style fuses streamlined design with a devotion to space and light, was born and raised in Mérida. He acknowledges this subtle sense of Yucatecan apartness. "Since we were almost an independent republic, Yucatecos have felt like we've been separate," he says. "It's like Barcelona in some ways. It's in Spain and yet people there feel like they're from Barcelona before Spain."
There's also a growing desire here to preserve and respect the Mayan culture, evident in the popularity of the new El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya de Mérida, an imposing museum outside the historic centre, modelled after the sacred cieba tree, that's devoted entirely to this fascinating and ancient culture. Two extraordinary Mayan archaeological ruins - Chichén Itzá and Uxmal - are an easy daytrip from Mérida.
This isn't some vanished culture, either; some estimates indicate about 60 per cent of Méridanos claim Mayan ethnicity. Ask any Méridano what they love about the city and the answer will inevitably involve the people who live here. "I love the connection here," says Ponce. "The people are very friendly, open, warm. The Mayans are the nicest people, always smiling, always happy. Sometimes it's a lesson even for me - if I'm complaining about not having this or that, seeing people that have so little and are still happy."
Former New Yorker and Mérida tastemaker Keith Heitke agrees. "Everyone is so friendly and every interaction is a pleasure," he says. Heitke wears several hats, including co-founder of an interior design firm, host of weekly tours of historic homes in Centro and vendor of real estate, while his partner David Sterling runs a highly regarded cooking school called Los Dos out of the couple's show-stopping colonial home.
Sterling has almost single-handedly raised the profile of Yucatecan cuisine during his decade in Mérida. It's a regional style of cooking that's distinctive, intricate and utterly different from the concept of Mexican cuisine understood by most travellers. Signature dishes - cochinita pibil, suckling pig marinated in achiote paste, wrapped in banana leaves and pit-roasted; sopa de lima, a nourishing, broth-like soup made from chicken, lime and torn tortillas; and relleno negro, turkey stewed in an inky black sauce made from charred chillies and spices - are ubiquitous regional staples hard to find done well elsewhere in the country. Unlike the popular perception of Mexican cooking, Yucatecan fare is rarely spicy, though some restaurants offer xnipek, a piquant sauce akin to a pico de gallo made from habaneros, tomato, onion, coriander and sour orange.
You don't have to wander far to experience Yucatecan cooking here. For a handful of pesos, alfresco food stalls in the city's leafy squares dish up street food staples such as tamales, panuchos and salbutes, usually served in two variations on a fried tortilla with black beans, avocado, pickled pink onions and shredded chicken or turkey. It's also worth looking out for cocinas económicas; many Mexican housewives make extra money by serving cheap and flavourful homemade dishes to workers straight out of the front room of their homes.
There are plenty of upscale alternatives if plastic chairs and fluorescent lighting aren't your thing.
One of the most popular is La Chaya Maya, which serves traditional Yucatecan fare to Méridanos, curious tourists and in-the-know expats. The restaurant is so popular it has expanded to a second location off Parque de Santa Lucía. The first location resembles a diner, with bright lighting, kitschy décor, paper placemats and a huipil-clad woman in the window cranking out fresh tortillas, while the second is set in a restored colonial home with a leafy central courtyard. It's a more refined atmosphere in which to sample rustic standbys such as cochinita and papadzules, tortillas stuffed with boiled egg and coated with a sauce of crushed pumpkin seeds.
Close by is La Tratto, the latest in a collection of on-trend restaurants run by the Trotter family, the town's most prolific restaurateurs. Here's an approximation of the kind of neighbourhood bistro you can find from Manhattan to Milan displaying all the fashionable rustic tropes: a low-lit bar; open kitchen with brick pizza oven; artful stacks of tomato cans. It's slightly gimmicky - as is its nearby sister restaurant, Pancho's, an alfresco hotspot whose walls are adorned with fabulously kitschy paintings of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa - but it works.
When we're in the mood for something quirky, we head to La Casa de Frida, whose riot of colour, portraits of La Kahlo and mascot Cocquito the rabbit create a palette of surrealist fun. More serious is the restaurant's signature dish: chile en nogada, a poblano pepper stuffed with ground beef, cooked with apple, pear and plantain, and covered with pecan sauce - a little work of art.
While the city's culinary scene could best be described as evolving, there are several high-end restaurants, including the upscale Mex-Euro fusion fine-diner Nectar and the big-night-out restaurant at Rosas & Xocolate hotel; both are developing a refined yet distinctly Yucatecan style of cuisine. At the latter, dishes such as octopus ceviche with nopal (a cactus), sour orange and a habanero sorbet, and duck with Brussels sprouts, apple and xtabentún, a fiery local liqueur, are served in an elegant dining room. Curiously, one of the city's most popular hubs for expats and locals isn't Mexican at all, but a convivial Irish pub called Hennessy's in a converted Spanish colonial home on Paseo de Montejo. Owned by a couple of Irish lads, it might be the only place in town where you can eat a beef and Guinness pie chased with a Bohemia Obscura.
For all its daytime bustle - which might involve elbowing through Plaza Grande past hammock sellers, socialising Méridanos and men in guayaberas selling horse-and-buggy rides - Mérida has remained largely off the tourist trail. So, while the city increasingly attracts foreigners who are snapping up real estate gems, there's little commerce directed at tourists beyond the main square. It's possible to mingle with Méridanos: at traditional evening dances in the squares, at performances of the highly regarded Mérida State Symphony Orchestra at the stunning Teatro José Peón Contreras, or haggling over hammocks, mangoes and bunches of chaya (an earthy spinach-like green) at the central market. Traditions die hard here: vendors in tuk-tuks selling everything from fresh milk to knife-sharpening services trundle the streets heralding their presence with tooting horns that create a cacophonous soundtrack on balmy evenings, when old-timers take to their stoops to catch the breeze.
While long-time residents and recent arrivals are united in their desire to preserve these old-fashioned aspects of life in Mérida, many are also dedicated to keeping the city on the jet-set radar. One of the most fervent of these is Carol Kolozs, the dapper hotelier at Rosas & Xocolate, Mérida's first true boutique hotel. His property comprises a pair of Spanish colonial mansions bought in 2007 and restored under the direction of Salvador Reyes Rios and Josefina Larrain, among Mexico's most acclaimed architects, and it has become something of a bellwether for the fortunes of Mérida as an international destination. "We get a high-end clientele," Kolozs says. "We have a lot who fly in on their own private jets. The real challenge now is to create a destination out of the city."
Like many Méridanos, Kolozs rhapsodises about the atmosphere of tranquility and safety that sets this place apart, especially from more troubled parts of Mexico. "All the things that are affecting cities and places around the world somehow haven't touched Yucatán or Mérida," he marvels. "You can walk the streets at night, leave your car unlocked, visit the villages and get a real sense of how the people live. Twenty-five minutes out of the city is the ocean, the haciendas, the ruins and nature. Where else in the world do you get all that?"
Ponce is equally enthusiastic about the changes he has seen in Mérida. "The historical district is amazing, the amount of revitalisation that's going on," he says. "Even Mexicans are starting to move to downtown, and it's so important that Mexicans are paying attention to the city's history. There's a real passion for architecture here. Look at the haciendas - they were places of work and yet they're incredible. The story of Yucatán shows great design, from the Spanish colonial days to the French period to contemporary architecture. And the Mayans were fantastic architects."
The city is slowly developing an art scene, with an impressive modern art museum, MACAY (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Ateneo de Yucatán), next to the 16th-century cathedral - the oldest cathedral on the American continent - and a growing number of galleries showing contemporary Mexican and South American artists. Still, for all the signs of progress, one of the city's greatest charms is how little things change. When Adam and I cycle around the cobblestone streets of Centro on weekends it feels like a sorbet-coloured ghost town dozing through a decades-long siesta.
I love that locals still gather in the squares on sultry evenings to socialise; that you can buy hot, freshly made tortillas at the markets; that along with the rumbling of diesel buses through the old streets you can also hear the clopping of horse's hoofs and the cry of street vendors peddling their wares. I love that we can choose to spend $12 on an icy tamarind Margarita on a fancy rooftop bar, or for less than a dollar opt for Yucatecan street food in the shade of a 17th-century church. And every time we step from the tropical heat into the cool tranquility of our casa, I love that it feels like home.