Merida: Mexican Revolution
TEXT BY SARA RUFFIN COSTELLO • PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAUL COSTELLO
On arriving in the sleepy Mexican town of Mérida, one might wonder what all the recent fuss is about. The historical center, with its faded limestone mansions, narrow cobblestoned streets and monumental cathedral — one of the oldest in all of the Americas and built out of limestone rocks from ancient Mayan structures — is indeed picturesque. And the handful of modest-looking restaurants in town can certainly serve up a decent bowl of lime and tortilla soup. And if you’re in the market to unload some pesos on a colorful hammock or an embroidered blouse, a few mom-and-pop tourist shops can help you do just that. But in truth, there’s not much to shake a stick at here in this remote corner of the Yucatán.
And it’s precisely for this reason, the town’s languid, low-key atmosphere, as well as some nicely priced real estate, that a savvy group of early adopters — artists, architects and designers — has descended on this lost-glory town, snatching up old, dilapidated haciendas and refurbishing them into year-round retreats or Shangri-Las for rent. As once-laid-back Tulum has become headquarters for the vacationing fashion crowds, and San Miguel de Allende is overrun with American snowbirds, Mérida has quietly evolved into a sophisticated refuge for those who like to be far from the touristy crowds.
The food author Jeremiah Tower, 70, famous for helping to kick-start the California locavore restaurant scene at Chez Panisse and then at Stars in San Francisco, stumbled upon Mérida in 2004. He remembers driving past the town one day and feeling an indescribable urge to stop the car. A year later, he found himself stranded in resort-clogged Cozumel with all his worldly possessions underwater in a Katrina-soaked New Orleans, where he had recently moved. After several visits to Mérida, he claims he was enchanted, literally haunted by the city, “which is totally ridiculous, it’s not like we are talking about Venice,” he said, dragging a corn tortilla through a chili mole sauce at La Lupita inside the Santiago Market. “But there is something undefinable about Mérida,” Tower explained. “Perhaps it’s the spirituality of the Mayans and the city itself, which has nothing to do with attracting tourism.” He eventually moved here full time to write, scuba dive and rehabilitate colonial houses.
For Nicolas Malleville, an ex-model from Argentina, the discovery of Mérida was more gradual. Nico, as he is called, moved to the Yucatán after vacationing there several times. In 2003 he decided to open the Coqui Coqui hotel on the beach in Tulum. His Zen-like spa and hotel quickly became popular with the chic bohemian set. A few years ago, he and his Italian wife, Francesca Bonato, followed up with two smaller properties in the region, first in Valladolid and then in nearby Coba. In September 2011, the couple turned a turn-of-the-century building in Mérida’s historical center into a perfumeria. Last December, they opened an adjoining guesthouse, complete with Venetian plaster walls, marble baths, red velvet settees and the original ornate tile work. Their boutique features hand-crocheted hammocks, gold filigree necklaces designed by Bonato and their own line of locally made fragrances. Malleville distinguishes his Mérida destination as “more belle époque compared to the minimalist Mayan ruin look of our Tulum place.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Mérida was one of the richest cities in the world, due to the lucrative export of rope, which was made from the local agave plant. As the money flowed in, the Casta Divina — elite, wealthy families of Spanish descent — built impressive working haciendas outside of town and created a kind of Paris within the city, even a Champs-Élysée-inspired grand boulevard called Paseo de Montejo. Children of the elite were educated in New Orleans, an easy stop on the trade route, and shopped for clothes in Europe. By the 1920s, however, synthetic nylon replaced sisal and the lucrative rope business dried up.
It was the potential of that last-frontier aspect, gloriously abandoned ruins and haciendas for a song, that lured the expat John Prentice Powell to relocate full time. It was also “the Mayans themselves, who smile even when there’s nothing to smile about,” he says. A model from Texas by way of Paris and New York, who in his post-mannequin life made custom buttons for Sonia Rykiel and Hermès, he says local real estate prices nearly tripled from 2000 to 2008. (After a dip during the global recession, sales have recently spiked again.) Over the past decade, Powell has renovated a dozen houses in the city, which he rents out to visitors. He also has an inside track to some of the finest haciendas outside of town. He’s the town’s social conduit, and if he likes you, he might bring you to a late-night Mayan soiree. At the very least, he’ll let you know where there’s a Mescal tasting.
This comes in handy since the local night life is for the most part made up of small dinner parties thrown by this loose-knit group of expats. “The mix here is New Yorkers who come down for a week every six weeks, the locals and the Casta Divina and art crowd. Throw in some younger, richer more attractive folks from Mexico City and things get interesting,” Powell says over margaritas at Alberto’s Continental restaurant. Certain weekends will find a supernaturally good-looking group of artists and actors lunching poolside at the Mexican sculptor Jorge Marín’s hacienda about 40 minutes outside of town, while other gatherings are slightly more formal.
Not too long ago, the Mexican banking billionaire Roberto Hernández Ramírez and his wife, Claudia, hosted a benefit to raise money for the conservation of Mayan culture. For the concert, the composer Philip Glass performed in an amphitheater that had been designed and built by the artist James Turrell. (Turrell also created a light installation inside a cenote for the occasion.) “Both Roberto and Claudia are the genuine article. They are classic Renaissance patrons,” explains James Jordan, the vice chairman of the World Monuments Fund, who shuttles between his apartment in New York and his vacation house here in Mérida. The Ramírezes are renovating several properties in the area and have enlisted the help of Jorge Pardo, the Los Angeles-based sculptor, who happens to own a place in the historic town center. Pardo just finished up work on a 150-year-old house here for Mima and César Reyes, longtime friends and art collectors from Puerto Rico. They became intrigued by Mérida after visiting Pardo here.
It’s this organic, serendipitous nature that has all roads leading to Mérida. For the American painter James Brown, it was his friend’s 50th birthday party in Mérida that convinced him to relocate here from Oaxaca eight years ago. Today, Brown, his wife, Alexandra, and their family divide their time between the house and studio in Mérida and a place in Paris. On my last day in town, Dec. 20, 2012, I received a hand-delivered invitation to the Browns’ house for an “End of World” party. The whole lot of Mérida was there, along with a bohemian mix of international friends. At the stroke of midnight on the eve of the last day of the Mayan calendar, magic happened. The heavens opened up, contradicting what they are supposed to do during the dry season, and released lashings of rain. The multigenerational crowd of Americans, South Americans, Europeans, Yucatecans and Mayans all stood in the street laughing. Despite our collective disabuse of foolish world-ending threats, there were Mescal-soaked hugs of relief. But if our fates had been different that night, so be it. As one guest announced around 4 a.m., when the Mexican reggae band was packing up, “If we do wind up dying later today, this is not a bad way to go.”