Let’s Go Exploring (with a baby)! Merida, The Safest City In Mexico

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Continuing from where we left off last time, after Cancun we headed to Merida.

Since this was the first time we travelled with a baby, I was reluctant to go anywhere that required a long bus ride. A 5-hour bus ride for a couple is a breeze. A 5 hour bus ride with a shrieking 5-months old who refuses to nap and constantly threatenes to unleash Montezuma’s revenge into his diaper is a nightmare.

But then I read about Tren Maya.

I had first read about Mexico’s new train on a travel blog back in December when we were still in the mist of travel planning. I had completely dismissed Merida since I thought it would be too annoying to get to with a baby from Cancun. But then these travel bloggers mentioned that the train would be operational by the end of December which meant that it would be an option for us in January!

One of my favourite things about Europe is how convenient it is to use my favourite mode of transportation—the train.  Mexico always fell short because back when we visited in 2017 there wasn’t any train coverage at all. Getting everywhere required buses, cars, or flights. But now, Mexico was stepping up its game by building a whole rail network in the Yucatan, enabling tourists to visit places once considered off-the-beaten-path like Palenque, Valladolid and Merida with ease. Tren Maya is a $29 billion mega project that is Mexico’s new pride and joy and everyone was excited for its inaugural trip.  

So, I reached out to some Home Exchanges in Merida, and lo and behold, got 2 acceptances right away even though it was the super busy in high season.

We were on our way to Merida and we were going to be one of the first people to ride Mexico’s shiny new train! How exciting!

Little did I know, getting on the train was not what I expected at all.

We booked train tickets a whole week in advance because we knew from research that tickets sell out fast. Plus, there were only 2 departure times a day, one at 8am and another at 9am.

Our first hurdle was getting through the glitchy website which we had to refresh multiple times to accept our entries. Then when we finally got through to pay, it refused to accept our credit card. Some more research on travel forums revealed that they have trouble accepting non-Mexican credit cards. Luckily, we had our Wise card which not only acts like a debt card, it lets us pay in multiple currencies.  

We high-fived each other when we finally got the ticket e-mail confirmation. Strangely, only the receipt was attached but we figured an e-mail with the actual tickets would soon follow.

It did not. After waiting for minutes, then hours, then days, we realized our tickets were not coming. Multiple e-mails to Tren Maya’s customer services went unanswered. There was no phone number to call either.

The day before our train was set to leave, we still didn’t have our tickets. Wanderer figured we could probably wing it and assume they’ll be fine with our receipt as proof of purchase the day of, but with our broken Spanish and an infant to take care of, I did not want to chance it.

 Since we were on Isla Mujeres and would have to take a taxi, then ferry, then taxi to the train station, we preferred to not waste time and money trying to sort it out in person (plus it takes forever to go anywhere with a baby). So, in desperation I contacted every social media platform they had, to try to get some answers. During my search, an article came up saying the train was going to be delayed for the next few days due to issues with the track.

F*CK.

After a lot of nervous pacing, aggressive e-mailing, and social media shaming, I finally got an e-mail response from customer service.  Our train tickets were attached. This ended up being one of the most annoying travel days during the 2 months we spent in Mexico, though still not nearly as bad as our worst travel day ever .

PROTIP: If you decide to take the Tren Maya, make sure you contact info@ventaboletostrenmaya.com.mx. That was the only e-mail address that responded back to us. Also, if you run into issues using your foreign credit card like we did, use the Wise Card (full disclosure: this is an affiliate link so we may get a small commission if you sign up).

After finally getting our train tickets, we breathed a sigh of relief. There was no farther communication about track work or train delays so we thought we were on easy street.

Turns out there was another hiccup in the escape room that was “trying to get on the Mayan train”.  It wasn’t obvious what time we needed to be at the airport or which terminal to take the shuttle from the airport to the train station. So, we decided to be cautious and get to the airport early at 7am from our hotel (I cannot stress how important it is to book an extra hotel day in between places when you are travelling with an infant). We happened to go to the right terminal (4) which was the first one the shuttle arrived at. And looking at the shuttle schedule (which wasn’t posted anywhere online by the way) we realized if we had come at 8am, prepared to get to the train station for a 9am train, we would’ve missed the shuttle.

That’s when I realized being one of the first people to ride a brand new train with a brand new route may not have been the greatest idea.

When Tren Maya finally pulled out of Cancun station, I breathed a sigh of relief. We could relax and there were no more warnings about delays due to track work or any other paperwork we had to present.

Turns out the train ended up being way more than I expected. I was pretty sure we’d somehow teleported ourselves out of Mexico and into Europe because it was modern, spacious, and the accessible bathroom conveniently came with a changing table! It was just as good as any of the many trains we’d taken in Switzerland, Germany, or France. There was also a little cafeteria where you could buy sandwiches and drinks.  And as expected, Little Matchstick started to get fussy after about halfway through the 4 hour trip. It was no problem at all because Wanderer was able to put him in a baby carrier and walk around the train car.  He had a great time pressing buttons to open the doors between cars and settled down easily after that. This is why I’d rather take 100 train rides over 1 flight or car ride. We even met a local from Merida who offered to show us around her city because Little Matchstick was being super adorable and smiled at her.

When we got to Merida, I couldn’t believe how much it had changed since the last time we were there in 2017. Here’s what it was like to stay in Merida for over a month with an infant:

Authenticity

I finally got the authentic Mexico vibe I was looking for. Very little English was spoken, the locals were super friendly, especially to our son since Mexican culture is very family oriented and they adore babies. Apparently, when you take your kid travelling, it’s much easier to make friends with locals. They get super impressed that you love their country enough to bring your precious kid and as a result, they go out of their way to help you.

We learned from our new local friend Abbi that the best time go out in Merida was in the evening since it gets hot during the day. We ended up going to the Domingo en Merida night market on Sunday based on her recommendation, and it reminded me of the night market in Chiang Mai!

Wanderer, inexplicable, was desperate to try this weird street food called “Tostilocos” or “crazy  chips”, which is this abomination concoction consisting of tortilla chips, cheese, chilli powder, lime juice, and peanuts, all mashed together and served inside a green Tostitos bag.

I tasted exactly like it looked. I wasn’t drunk/high/frat boy enough to appreciate it but Wanderer seemed to, even though it wasn’t 2am in the morning and we weren’t coming back from a rave.

Note from Wanderer: What are you talking about? It was good!

Me: Uh huh. Look at the picture and judge for yourself.

I decided I need to wash the taste of stoner food out of my mouth with some real food, so I got some maquesitas (crunchy crepes with nutella, banana, and cheese inside). The combination is perfect mix of salty and sweet, just like the food cart ladies who smiled at me and pretended not to notice how badly I was butchering their language.

We also got some poc-chuc (Mayan grilled pork), pavo en relleno negro (black turkey stew), and cochinita pibil (slow roasted pork) and they were all delicious and much better than the overpriced burgers, pizza, and “tacos” in the Cancun hotel zone.

This was authentic Yucatanian street food, eaten by the side of the road on a red stool, surrounded by locals. Not a single burrito, fajita, or nacho in sight.  Just the way I like it!

Instagram-worthy Food

Back in 2017, the food scene in Merida was not great. For a city of a million people, I was expecting more diverse food options, but other than fast food and Yucatanian cuisine, there was very little else.  I was horrified to find their definition of “sushi pizza” consisted of a soggy tortilla shell with a few microscopic pieces of tuna drenched in soy sauce. There was so much soy sauce I ended up using a stack of napkins to soak up the excess. No bueno.

But now, not only do they have Uber Eats (the uber one subscription was 1/3 the price in US/Canada!), but the selection was also way better than I expected! I even counted not one, not two, but 6 bubble tea shops! 7 years ago, they didn’t even have basic tea shops.  This made it super convenient and affordable to order take out and grocery delivery—a Godsend when you have a family.

Plus, I was amazed to find that I could go to a Korean restaurant, an Asian grocery store, and there were too many Japanese restaurants to count. Lots of new co-working spaces had also popped up all over the city.

7 years ago, the thing that attracted me to Merida most was safety. After all, not only is Merida considered the safest city in Mexico, it’s ranked the second safest city in all of North America! But that came at the cost of convenience (hard to get to, no subways, no uber/ubereats) and food variety. The first word that came to mind to describe Merida was “boring”.  

Now, somehow Merida has morphed into a food mecca, almost rivalling Oaxaca (ok, I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s seriously stepped up its food game).

Feast your eyes on some of the incredible meals we were able to have while we were there:

Chilaquiles at “Chill-Akil Centro”:

Octopus and shrimp ceviches at “La Chichi Merida

Octopus ceviche with fig and mango at “La Chichi Merida

Sashimi bowl and Shoyu ramen at “Miyabi Japanese Cuisine

Fusion pork ramen and pork belly bao at “Wah Bao”:

Mango Bingsu (shaved ice) at “Korean Grill & Ice Cream

“Los 4 Yucas” (Yucatan tasting plate) and Mucbil Pollo (chicken tamale, Yucatan style) at Chaya Maya:

Convenience

Not only was it easy to get affordable food delivery, Ubers were also affordable and plentiful. The last time we were here we had to rely on local buses, but now it was easy to get an Uber from the train station to our Home Exchange, which took less than 30 mins and cost only $9 USD. This was a huge improvement over the taxi mafia in Cancun that charges a minimum $50 USD for a 5 min drive! (PROTIP: if you ever need a taxi to/from the Cancun Airport, use Didi, which will reduce the cost by half. Ubers get threatened by the taxi drivers so they avoid the airport at all costs.)

And if I didn’t feel like bringing the car seat/stroller with us (Merida sidewalks are the height of a small dog and notoriously NOT stroller friendly), I could take the new, air-conditioned “Va-y-Ven” bus straight down from the suburbs to downtown Merida in less than 30mins. Plus, it came every 7 mins and cost only 12 pesos (less than $1 USD) per person. All you need is a card that you load with cash and you can do that at the Super Aki grocery store. Merida had completely overhauled their bus system!

Attractions

Since our adventurous activities were limited by us having to haul Little Matchstick around, we were extra grateful we got to enjoy the Mayan ruins and Cenotes that we got to visit last time. If you ever go to Merida and you have older children or aren’t travelling with kids, you’ll have a ton of fun at these attractions: Uxmal, Cuzama sinkholes (including a horse drawn carriage ride through the woods to visit 3 cenotes/sinkholes!), Celestun (pink flamingos!), and Progreso (beach town only an hour bus ride away!).

Family-friendly Attractions

Travelling as a family meant doing more low-key activities and only choosing to do one activity a day to save you and your child’s sanity, so we spent more time eating out, going to zoos, parks, and museums. Amazingly, Merida also had a ton of free activities to do as a family. These ended up being our favourites:

Paseo de Montejo:

The only street that is wide enough and flat enough for strollers with excellent shade the entire way since it’s lined by mature trees across many city blocks. It’s lined with beautiful stately mansions and upmarket restaurants and has a Parisian “Champs-Elysees” feel:

Merida Zoo:

This was a surprisingly big and FREE zoo near downtown Merida! We saw giraffs, tigers, lamas, monkeys, hippos, birds, etc. The tigers were gawking at Little MatchSticks fat little sausage legs so we quickly moved on from that area. He slept for a good part of it so he had no idea what was going on:

La Plancha

This was a giant outdoor park with pond, a playground, and old decommissioned trains. It also had a nice covered outdoor food market. Great place for locals to hang out and just chill.  

Inri, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Plaza Grande

This is the center of Merida and the place where you can see cultural performances. It’s also where the night market and other performances happen on Sundays during Domingo en Merida.


Museo Casa Montejo

This is the free museum that is a stately 18th century mansion. It used to house soldiers back in 1540 but was converted to house the Montejo family in the 1800s.

Free Accommodations

One of the best things about our trip to Mexico with is that we got to stay in amazing Home Exchanges for free.

The first home exchange in Merida was a 30 min walk or 10 min Uber ride to downtown Merida and it came with its own private pool in the backyard!

This place must’ve been a renovated factory because it had 20 ft ceilings! There were two bedrooms each with their own bathroom and the massive modern kitchen was a joy to cook in (and I don’t even like cooking). We took full advantage of the pool in the backyard and went swimming nearly every day. Luckily Little Matchstick wasn’t mobile enough to make us worry about him escaping into the backyard and getting into the pool.

The second place we stayed in was a brand new 2 bed 2 bath condo with shared pool on the first floor. Again, we swam a lot to work off all the calories from eating out.

I am not normally a suburbs person. I need everything to be within walking or public transportation distance. But surprisingly, I enjoyed this location better even though it was in the suburbs because it was in the San Ramon Norte area and right outside was the R63 bus which came every 7 mins and could get to downtown in just 30mins.

Conveniently (geez I’ve been using this word so often in this post to describe Merida, I should turn this into a drinking game), this building had the Tren Maya headquarters downstairs, so when we bought our tickets back to Cancun, we could just take the elevator downstairs and get the tickets from them. Coincidentally, the neighbourhood happened to be the same neighborhood of the Airbnb we stayed in seven years ago! I didn’t recognize it at first on account of how much it’s modernized since then, but I discovered that was the case when we went shopping at the familiar Super Aki! That seems to be the only thing that stayed consistent though.

If you’re ever in Cancun and are curious about visit Merida, I would recommend it without hesitation. It’s so safe, convenient (there’s that word again), and affordable that I would consider living there. If you ever want to get free accommodations, I highly recommend Home Exchange (use my referral code “kristy-d61e2” to get 250 guest points after you make a booking), as they have the best hosts and customer service.

Here’s how much we spent in Merida:

CategoryCost in USD/family of 3 per dayCost in CAD/family of 3 per dayNotes
Accommodations$5.59$7.49Since we stayed in Home Exchanges we ended up spending nearly nothing on accommodations, except for the rent back home ($53/day for a family of 3).

We did have to pay for 1000 pesos for the cleaning fee for one of our Home Exchanges and we also spent 1 night (1909 pesos) in a hotel near the train station because we didn’t want to risk having to get on multiple taxis and a ferry with an infant to catch an early morning train. This works out to be an extra $173.36 USD, amortized over the 31 days we stayed in Merida, gives us an average cost of $5.59 USD/family per day.
Food$40.88$54.79 ($31.39 eating out; $23.40 groceries)We ended up spending less eating out in Merida than we did in Isla Mujeres/Cancun but for way better food, which isn’t surprising since we were no longer paying tourist prices.
Transportation$4.69$6.28Transportation costs consisted of the train to and from Merida, ubers to and from downtown to the train station, and buses to downtown which totalled just under $150 USD for our family (kids under 2 ride the ferry for free. Averaged out over 31 days, it ended up averaging only $4.69 USD/family/day (kids under 2 ride for free on the train and ferry)
Entertainment$0$0Surprisingly we spent $0 on entertainment because all the family activities (parks, zoo, museum, paseo montejo) were all free. This is also because we didn’t bother with any tours since we’d already gone on the best ones back in 2017.
Baby$2.13$2.85Baby stuff consisted of only diapers and wipes since I was exclusively breastfeeding and cost us only $66 USD for the time we were there. Averaged over 31 days, that’s only $2.13 USD/day
Misc$1.39$1.87We spent $43 USD on toiletries and cell data, which average out to be $1.39 USD/day
Total$54.68$73.28Merida ended up being extremely affordable. Groceries had gone up significantly in cost compared to 2017, but compared to other parts of North America, is still very affordable. There were lots of free activities for families, you barely have to spend much money at all to enjoy yourself.


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8 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring (with a baby)! Merida, The Safest City In Mexico”

  1. I am so glad you are enjoying Mexico. I am in our home away from home in Pedregal in Cabo. Did not know about the train…adding this city to our ever-growing List.

  2. Those baby expenses are going to bankrupt you guys!
    Really enjoy these travelogues.
    Would love to see a post about what percentage % of the travel expenses are able to be claimed as a tax write-off, since the photos and info goes on this blog, then those are business expenses for the blog and book business.
    Has a post been made like this?
    BTW its similar to when celebrities sell photos of their wedding and new house, etc, as then they can claim a portion of all that as a publicity and marketing expense.

    1. I think they’ll do fine.

      All together — blog, book, social media, etc. — the income from their new career now is probably in the $150,000 to $200,000 per year range, at least.

      1. My investment portfolio dollar wise is about the same as theirs. It has generated about $180,000 so far this year. If I apply their portfolio make up, they are over the $200,000 mark. Don’t see bankruptcy in their future.

        They don’t need to generate income from any business ventures but if they do, good for them.

  3. We spent two weeks in Mérida for my 40th birthday in January 2020 (…just before the world imploded) and made some fantastic memories. We’ve found some legit Yucatecan cochinita pibil at a local place here near DC, but it’s tough to recapture the joy of a top-notch dinner and stroll down to Tuesday night dancing in a massive friendly crowd at Parque de Santiago — or just relaxing on a shaded backyard patio while back home there are winter weather warnings in effect. Thanks for catapulting me for a few minutes back into that beautiful city!

  4. If you like that train experience let me recommend the Lao-China Railway! We took it twice in the last month (has been in service several years now) and while the train ride itself was fine (1st class on the fast train was best), the ticketing and lines were idiotic! They have an app you can use to get tickets if you use a Lao/China/Thai phone number, but at some stations they don’t accept the QR code you get as your ticket and you have to wait in a line to get a paper ticket with the same QR code! Oh but it gets better, the lines you wait in also have all of the people who didn’t buy theirs ahead, don’t know which station they want, don’t have enough cash (no cards accepted in person, only on the app!), or are otherwise confused and very slow and people cut in line like crazy. To top it off they have 6-8 windows but only 3 open. I waited 45 minutes in 47 degree C temps with a hundred other people just to get a paper version of what I already had on my phone. At the next station we left from I went ahead and did the same process and it also took forever, only to find other people were able to get the code scanned off their phone!!! They need some serious updating of their processes.

  5. As much as I admire you guys, I can’t tell how disappointed I was with this post.

    I guess you didn’t have time to do any research, but the Tren Maya has been one of the most environmentally and culturally destructive projects in Mexico. It is AMLO, the Mexican President’s, vanity project, and the military-run project, which violates Mexican environmental laws and international conventions has been a nightmare. At least 6,659 hectares of rainforest, and many millions of trees, were cut down for the Tren Maya, as documented by environmental organizations in Mexico. The project is having a massive negative impact on the livelihoods and rights of the Indigenous people of the Yucatán Peninsula. In addition, many of the beautiful cenotes that you enjoy were destroyed: speared with metal rebar, filled with cement, and cutting off the underground water flow, the army contaminated the immediate areas as well as further out. Time will tell what effect the poisoning of the water has on the wildlife and local people.

    Currently there is a federal injunction on continuing line 5 (Playa del Carmen to Tulum). Even so, AMLO intends to finish it by August (when he leaves office). I encourage everyone to keep up on the issue and take whatever limited action you can to discourage the further growth of these trains.

    Trains themselves are great, my favorite form of transportation in fact. But trains with no environmental planning or consideration for the community are not. After all Kristy, you said you were hoping to get some authentic Mexico in Merida, yet you also went on about the convenience. I humbly suggest: not every place needs to be convenient (or have sushi and bubble tea. Surprise: these things are not authentically Mexican.) Can we leave a few places on earth that aren’t “family-friendly”, “kid-friendly”, and super-easy to get to? When I lived in in Quintana Roo 20 years ago, it definitely wasn’t convenient, and there were very few foreigners and lots of intact forests and cenotes. Now, it’s the opposite.

    People with little ones can travel to “authentic” places, but maybe not always on their exact schedule and not “right now”. If they can wait til their kids can walk around and tolerate a bus ride, the kids could swim in clean cenotes and visit intact forests, rather than take Ubers and eat sushi (like they can do in Cancun, Mexico City, and Europe, and the US, and Canada, etc).

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