Surprising and Gay-friendly Merida

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com April 11 2008 12:00 AM ET

When the Spanish
came to the Yucatan in 1542, Merida was a thriving Mayan
city called T'ho. They promptly destroyed it, taking the
stone of its great pyramids to build the Cathedral of
San Idelfonso, which still stands in the city's main
plaza. The violent founding of Merida is visible in
the 27 murals by Fernanco Castro Pacheco that grace the
second-floor walls of the plaza's neoclassical Palacio de
Gobierno.

What those
large-scale paintings don't reveal is Merida's modern role
as a magnet for American expats -- many of whom are
gay and have opened restaurants, hotels and shops
throughout this city of 1 million.

"When I left a
two-decade career in dance, my partner and I started
looking for a home in Mexico," says John Truax, who visited
Merida with his partner of 18 years on a friend's
recommendation and fell in love with its accepting
people. "We wanted to purchase a house before all the
U.S. baby boomers retired, relocated and pushed up the
prices."

That was five
years ago. The couple bought a colonial six-bedroom home in
Merida's historic Santiago neighborhood and opened Angeles
de Merida, a bed and breakfast catering to gay
travelers.

Angeles has
recently been sold to a husband and wife from Washington who
are still more than happy to welcome gay guests. Truax and
his partner remain in Merida, where he now raises
funds for Brazos Abiertos, a U.S.-based nonprofit
organization that operates HIV prevention and
treatment programs in the Yucatan.

Although Mexico
has only recently become more accepting of homosexuality
and supportive of gay rights -- Mexico City recognized civil
unions in November 2006 and the northern state of
Coahuila followed suit in January 2007 -- Merida has
long been known for its tolerance. The city has a
strong Catholic influence, but the city's history of trade
with Europe is believed to have led to its generally
progressive attitude.

For former New
Yorker and gay chef David Sterling, Merida represented not
only an opportunity to leave behind the crowded streets of
Manhattan for quaint, music-filled neighborhoods, but
also an adventurous culinary frontier. In 2003,
Sterling moved in and opened Los Dos, the first
cooking school in Mexico dedicated exclusively to the
cuisine of the Yucatan.

His interactive
classes include a tour of the sprawling, colorful Merida
market, where Mayan history lessons mingle with shopping for
fresh ingredients, followed by meal preparation and a
lively feast. "It is a whole world unto itself with a
wholly unique cuisine," Sterling says.

Checking In
During the past decade a number of
gay-owned/gay-friendly guesthouses have spread across
Merida. The properties were typically large, private
homes in Merida's historic center abandoned when their
owners move to the suburbs. Now owned by expatriates,
the houses have been restored and upgraded with air
conditioning and Internet. Casa Santiago offers
four bedrooms, each with its own bath, a swimming pool
and well-landscaped courtyard. Los Arcos has
two private poolside garden guest rooms separate from the
main house. The main residence is filled with the
owner's extensive private art collection with many
pieces from local artists. For a full-service hotel,
look to Hyatt Regency, which consistently earns
high marks for its gay-friendly corporate policies; the
modern 300-room Merida location is in the business
district.

Dining Out
It may have taken 1,000 years, but today's top
chefs from Douglas Rodriguez to Bobby Flay are paying
homage to Yucatecan cooking. However, just as Merida
has been influenced by other cultures, so has its food. At
the beautiful downtown hotel Villa Maria, a gay
chef from Austria not only makes tasty Yucatan lime soup for
patrons of its atrium terrace restaurant but also a
great Wiener schnitzel. Nectar, a five-star
restaurant located on the northern end of the city
(near the Plaza Fiesta shopping mall), serves amazing
Yucatecan dishes with strong European influences. Other
gay-popular choices: Trotter's, where steak, tapas and wine
is a winning formula, and La Pigua, a fabulous seafood
restaurant.

Dancing the Night Away
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are when the gay crowd
comes out to play. (Thursdays draw the largest local
crowd because it's often the night without a cover
charge.) Although signs of gay life are visible
throughout Merida, the city's gay nightlife is still
relegated to the outskirts of town; to the south are
Pride and AngeLuz, and to the north is
Scalibur -- each a 30-minute cab ride from
downtown Merida. The setting is similar at all three: tables
and chairs surround a stage that plays host to drag
shows and male dancers for the first half of the
evening. Between and after the performances, the stage
doubles as a dance floor. As with any city, the popularity
of the clubs change often but they each have their
fans and attract regular crowds. Don't plan to arrive
before midnight.

Cultural Immersion
Schedule a walking tour or horse-drawn carriage
ride through downtown Merida to take in the Cathedral
of San Ildefonso, the oldest cathedral in the
Americas, and the Paseo de Montejo, often called Mexico's
Champs Elysees, which is lined with opulent colonial
mansions. Merida's location in the middle of the
Yucatan also makes it an ideal departure point for
excursions to the Mayan ruins at Uxmal, a tour of the
ancient, cavernous underground Cenotes of Cuzama or a
boat ride among the flamingos at the Celestun nature
preserve.


INFORMATION

STAY

Casa Santiago, Calle 63 No. 562, between 70 and
72, 314-266-0378 US or 52-999-928-9418, www.mexicanbedandbreakfast.com, from $59
Arcos, Calle 66 No. 448B, 52-999-928-0214, www.losarcosmerida.com, from $85
Hyatt Regency, Ave Colon, Esq Calle 60;
52-999-942-1234 Mexico; www.merida.regency.hyatt.com; from
$110

EAT

Villa Maria, Calle 59 No.553, 52-999-923-3357,
www.villamariamerida.com

Nectar, Ave 1 No. 412; 999-938-0858 Mexico
Trotter's, between Calle 60 and Prolongaci?n
Montejo, 52-999-927-2310
La Pigua, Calle 62 and Cupules, 52-999-
920-1126, www.lapiguamerida.com

PLAY Pride, 200 meters from the Uman
bridge, near the Merida airport; 52-999-947 9874
Mexico; www.pridedisco.com

AngeLuz, KM 7.5 on the Carretera between Merida
and Uman; 52-999-240-3931, www.angeluzclub.com

Scalibur, Calle 4B No. 39A, 52-999-108-2046

EXPLORE
Cathedral of San Ildefonso, intersection of
Calle 60 and Calle 61 Los Dos Cooking School,
Calle 68 No. 517, www.los-dos.com
Uxmal, two hours south of Merida, highway
261 Cenotes of Cuzama, 45 minutes southeast of
Merida Celestun, 90 minutes west of Merida,
highway 281

GETTING THERE
Merida has a small, but modern and
easy-to-get-around airport five miles outside the
city. Continental has frequent flights to Merida from Miami,
connecting through Houston. Aeromexico and Mexicana Airlines
offer connecting service from Miami via Mexico
City.