By Mary Holland
Lured by majestic old haciendas and vibrant artistic energy, creative visionaries are flocking to the Mexican city—and staying for good.
Twenty years ago, the capital of the Yucatán was a beautiful time capsule. Ornate pastel French-style mansions lined Mérida’s grand boulevard, Paseo de Montejo, their elaborate walls and colorful façades hardly changed in the hundreds of years since they were built, save for climbing vines and cracked paint that only enhanced their appeal. Imperfectly preserved—that’s how Cuban American artist Jorge Pardo remembers it being when he first arrived in 2000. “It was amazing to walk through the city, past ruin after ruin,” he recalls. “It’s not a place that represents typical Mexico. It’s different—it’s Yucatecan, it’s Mayan.”
Pardo soon bought a 19th-century hacienda—which, at the time, was little more than a dilapidated shell—and set about bringing it back to life, reconstructing inner gardens and landscaped courtyards and sourcing local ceramic tiles and native plants. It was around the time he completed his new home that he realized he was no longer one of just a few expats in town: An influx of other newcomers had begun to put down their own roots after being drawn by Mérida’s historic architecture, art scene, and raw beauty. “When I began visiting, there were only a handful of people who were coming and going,” he says. “Then six or seven years ago it just amplified.”
What Mérida has experienced since is not so much a transformation as an evolution. When I arrived in the city’s downtown, the Centro, last August, it had been six years since my last visit, and evidence of the boom was everywhere—if I looked hard enough. The colonial buildings I remembered weren’t much different, but fresh coats of paint hinted that something new was hidden behind their walls. In Santa Ana, tucked away behind a lavender exterior, I found La Cúpula, a cultural center opened by contemporary art collector Leila Voight that features regularly rotating exhibits, including a recent Roger Ballen retrospective. An old bus depot was in the process of being rehabbed into a new art space by Steve Hanson, the founder of L.A.’s China Art Objects Galleries, and his wife, Tuesday Yates. A gleaming white 19th-century mansion on Paseo de Montejo bore the sign for Casa T’ho, a shop selling pieces by Mexican designers, such as caftans from Carla Fernández and vintage-coin necklaces from Daniela Bustos Maya. Across from Parque Santa Ana, behind a chipped and sign-less pilastered exterior, I dined at Mérida-born chef Roberto Solís’s Huniik, which was designed by Pardo and serves modern Yucatecan cuisine.
One of the most significant additions to Mérida is Salón Gallos. Located on a sleepy street in the Centro, behind a set of large rusty doors, the multi-use complex is invisible from outside. But inside, the contemporary space—comprising an exhibition gallery, a restaurant and bar, a stark cement courtyard, and a cinema—reminded me of Mexico City. Perhaps that’s because Salón Gallos was created by someone from the capital: The salon’s owner, José García, moved to Mérida in 2016 for a change of scenery—and a change of pace.
“Mérida is a provincial city, but it’s also very connected and international,” García told me as we sat at a table in his Lebanese-Mexican restaurant while listening to an afternoon thunderstorm pummel the roof overhead. The gallerist left behind his flagship location in Mexico City to open two establishments in Mérida, with the goal of bringing an artistic enclave of locals and expats together. “We wanted to create a place where you could spend the whole afternoon—see a show, grab lunch, watch a movie. It was really about creating a community,” he said. “There were a lot of creative people and artists here, but not a community.”
Whether García intended it or not, the opening of Salón Gallos helped put Mérida on the art-world map. “When I heard José García was opening a second place in Mérida, I thought, Okay, this is interesting,” says L.A.-based art consultant and curator Sylvia Chivaratanond, who has a home in Mérida and is currently developing a multidisciplinary residency in an old schoolhouse in the Centro (she previously worked with the Pompidou in Paris). A collaboration between Chivaratanond, creative director Monica Calderon, and architect Ezekial Farca, Casa Escuela will offer monthlong residencies in a renovated building that will also be home to retail and gallery space.
Chilean designer and restorer Josefina Larraín Lagos had a similarly civic goal in mind when she built Plaza Carmesí in 2019. Centered around a small pebbled square and dotted with slender palm trees, the complex is home to stores selling artisan-designed ceramics and handmade hammocks, as well as a coffee shop. The space is intended to be a hub where locals can sip cold brews and read. “From a place that was abandoned, it has life again,” she says.
Larraín Lagos’s moving-to-Mérida story has become a familiar one. “I came here in 1990 with a backpack and left with a hacienda,” she says, laughing. The historic structure she snapped up 30 years ago is the magnificently restored, now-rentable Hacienda Sac Chich. It’s one of the many grand estates that were built during the 18th century, when the henequen fabric industry, which is deeply woven into the Yucatán’s history, was thriving. Derived from agave, the textile was the source of Mérida’s great wealth, but it eventually became the source of its decline: When nylon replaced it in the 1940s and ’50s, the Yucatán fell into an economic depression, leaving many without work and thousands of buildings abandoned—remnants of the city’s gilded past. “A hundred and twenty years ago it was the richest city in the world,” says Leila Voight, who purchased her house ten years ago. “So it still has a memory of what it was.”
Laura Kirar, an artist and designer whose work has been displayed at the Maison Gerard gallery in New York, relocated three years ago from a loft in Brooklyn to a Mérida property that has 22,000 square feet of historic buildings enveloped by jungle. (Real estate is so affordable, one resident joked, that until recently, you could put a house on your credit card.) When I arrived at her hacienda, an oasis outside the city, she greeted me in a flowing black dress, her pack of rescue dogs in tow.
“This is the kind of project that I’d never be able to do in the U.S.,” she told me as she led me through Hacienda Subin, past rooms with crumbling walls sprouting plants, a glimmering pool, and a restored portico with billowing white curtains. “I see this as a blank canvas. There is such an opportunity to create.” We stopped in a room where I spied one of her latest artworks in the making: a chandelier made from the native fibers jipijapa (used for Panama hats), sansevieria, and henequen—a clear indication of the area’s influence on her. “People who come here fall in love with it,” she said. “They’re seduced by the creative energy.”
The number of influential people who have restored haciendas and homes in and around Mérida in the past decade also includes interior designer Marjorie Skouras, architect Bruce Bananto, writer Laureen Vonnegut, and David Serrano and Robert Wilson, the former owners of the L.A. design showroom Downtown. But tastemakers don’t just flock here for the real estate; they come for inspiration too, be it in the form of Baroque and Beaux-Arts architecture, Mayan temples, or the works of the Yucatán’s many artisans. After moving into one of the city’s Art Nouveau mansions, Skouras established a design studio where she collaborates with local designers to produce home and fashion collections using native materials. Argentina-born model Nicolas Malleville and Italian designer Francesca Bonato were similarly inspired—this time by the Yucatán’s flora—when they first arrived in the early aughts. The duo established the cult perfumer Coqui Coqui in 2003 and has since gone on to create the Fundación de Artistas, a nonprofit that hosts exhibitions and performances for Mexican artists. They’ve also opened a stylish guest residence called L’Epicerie. “It’s not a new thing that Mérida has been attracting people like this,” says García. “Historically, people in the Yucatán take culture seriously. The first operas would come to Mérida before Mexico City.”
Learning the Mayans’ ancient techniques has become a source of inspiration too. “The Yucatán is still pretty raw,” says Angela Damman, an artist who became fascinated with henequen after she purchased a hacienda on a property covered with the plant in 2011. Her curiosity drew her to collaborate with regional artisans to create a fine henequen-based textile that resembles horsehair. One of her most magnificent pieces is a statement hammock made for the Fundación de Artistas that drips with thousands of wisps of thread. It’s a celebration of the simple sling—which can be traced back nearly 1,000 years to the Mayan civilization—as well as local plants and craft.
For his part, Pardo maintains he’s in good company with Mérida’s newcomers, even as he compares the evolving city to the grittier version he encountered when he first arrived two decades ago. While the influx continues, he insists, that old-world charm is in no danger of being lost. “This is one of those places where people come, and if they really like it, they anchor themselves here,” he says. “For people who have artistic interests, this is a natural place to be. Mérida is ready for the opportunities they bring.”