Surprising and Gay-friendly Merida

Cancun might seem like the obvious pick for gay travelers to eastern Mexico, thanks to its flashy gay discos and hedonistic reputation. But 200 miles west in Merida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, offers a welcome alternative for gay visitors who appreciate a serious dose of Mayan culture with their cocktails.



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

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

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

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.

Tags: Travel