Mérida is known for hammocks, guayaberas (lightweight men's shirts worn untucked), and Panama hats. Local baskets and pottery are sold in the central market. Mérida is also the place to pick up prepared adobo, a pastelike mixture of ground achiote seeds (annatto), oregano, garlic, and other spices used as a marinade for such dishes as cochinita pibil (pit-baked pork).
Hordes of people come to Mérida's bustling market district, a few blocks southeast of the Plaza Grande, to shop and work. It is by far the most crowded part of town. Behind the former post office (at calles 65 and 56, now the city museum) the oldest part of the market is the Portal de Granos (Grains Arcade), a row of maroon arches where grain merchants once sold their goods. Just east, between calles 56 and 54, is the market building, Mercado Lucas de Gálvez. The city built a new municipal market on the south side of this building, but has had difficulty persuading the market vendors to move. When they do, the city plans to tear down the Lucas de Gálvez and replace it with a plaza. If you can abide the chaos, you can find anything inside from fresh fish to flowers to leather and other locally made goods. A secondary market is on Calle 56, labeled Bazaar de Artesanías (crafts market) in big letters. Still another crafts market, Bazaar García Rejón, lies a block west of the main market on Calle 65 between calles 58 and 60.
The English-language bookstore Amate Books (tel. 999/924-2222), Calle 60 453-A, by Calle 51, includes some English titles in its large selection of books. Hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 10:30am to 8:30pm. The Librería Dante, Calle 59 between calles 60 and 62 (tel. 999/928-3674), has a small selection of English-language cultural-history books on Mexico.
Instead of sweltering in business suits in Mérida, businessmen, bankers, and bus drivers alike wear the guayabera, a loose-fitting shirt decorated with narrow tucks, pockets, and sometimes embroidery, worn over the pants rather than tucked in. Mérida is famous as the best place to buy guayaberas, which can go for less than 150 pesos at the market or for more than 650 pesos custom-made; a linen guayabera can cost about 800 pesos. Most are made of cotton, although other materials are available. The traditional color is white.
Most shops display ready-to-wear shirts in several price ranges. Guayabera makers strive to outdo one another with their own updated versions of the shirt. When shopping, here are a few things to keep in mind: When Yucatecans say seda, they mean polyester; lino is linen or a linen/polyester combination. Look closely at the stitching and such details as the way the tucks line up over the pockets; with guayaberas, details are everything.
Natives across tropical America used hammocks long before Europeans reached the New World, and they are widely used throughout Latin America. They come in many forms, but none as comfortable as the Yucatecan hammock, which is woven with cotton string in a fine mesh. While we might think of a hammock as garden furniture to laze in for an hour or two, they are beds for most Yucatecans, who generally eschew mattresses. Hotels that cater to Yucatecans always provide hammock hooks in the walls because many guests travel with their own.
A good shop will gladly hang a hammock for you to test-drive. Look to see that there are no untied strings. The woven part should be cotton, it should be made with fine string, and the strings should be so numerous that when you get in it and stretch out diagonally (the way you're meant to sleep in them), the gaps between the strings remain small. Don't pay attention to descriptions of a hammock's size; they have become practically meaningless. Good hammocks don't cost a lot of money (250-350 pesos). Superior hammocks are made with fine crochet thread -- hilo de crochet -- so be prepared to pay as much as 1,200 pesos.
You can also see what street vendors are offering, but you have to know what to look for, or they are likely to take advantage of you.
Another useful and popular item is this soft, pliable hat made from the fibers of the jipijapa palm in several towns south of Mérida along Hwy. 180, especially Becal, in the neighboring state of Campeche. Hat makers in these towns work inside caves so that the moist air keeps the palm fibers pliant.
Jipi hats come in various grades determined by the pliability, softness, and fineness of the fibers and closeness of the weave. A fine weave gives the hat more body and helps it to retain its shape. You'll find Panama hats for sale in several places, but often without much selection. One of the market buildings has a hat store: Walk south down Calle 56 past the post office; just before the street ends in the marketplace, turn left into a passage with hardware stores at the entrance. The fourth or fifth shop is Casa de los Jipis.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.