Down Mérida way: homebuyers flock to Mexico’s safest city

Before the pandemic, New Yorkers John Newton and Marc Perrotta bought a one-time dental office in the Mexican city of Mérida, about 300km west of Cancún. The city’s laid-back lifestyle fit nicely with their plan to relocate from Brooklyn. “We wanted to leave New York and had thought about Canada and even Germany,” says Newton, a writer and editor. “In Mérida we could afford to build our dream house in a city that’s safe, with a true cultural scene and where there are lots of younger people — not just retirees.” 

The couple spent $55,000 for their lot — and an additional $230,000 to build a contemporary-style new home, designed by Perrotta, an architect. Even during the height of the pandemic, “construction only shut down for a few weeks”, says Newton. “Moving to Mérida was in no way an insignificant decision,” Newton continues, “but now we have a house paid in full.”

Long overshadowed by nearby beach towns such as Cancún, Tulum and Playa del Carmen, Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán, is a midsized metropolis with colonial-era architecture. Offering a tropical climate, easy access to beaches, nature and Mayan ruins, the city has enticed second-home buyers for more than a decade.

An international-style school, well-connected airport and fast-rising economy — fuelled by investment from US services giants such as Amazon, Tesla and Walmart — have also added to the city’s allure. At the same time, Mérida has a reputation for being among the safest cities in Mexico — in 2019, CEO World magazine named it the second-safest in all of the Americas (bested only by Quebec City in Canada). 

“The safety factor, particularly for women, is absolutely part of why people are buying in Mérida,” says Shirley Hisgen, an agent at Mérida Properties, who moved to the city from New Mexico a decade ago. Nicholas Sanders, an agent at Yucatán Beach and City Property, insists that he could leave his door unlocked and his home wouldn’t be burgled. “That was definitely not the case when I was living back in Indianapolis,” he adds.

Mérida dates back to 1542, when it was founded by Spanish conquistadors on the site of the Mayan city of T’hó. Initially, it was a walled settlement protecting colonists from Mayan revolts. But the town grew wealthy — fabulously so — during the late 19th and early 20th centuries owing to the production of henequen, a fibre derived from agave plants used to make rope and twine. Vast haciendas were established on Mérida’s outskirts for cultivation and riches poured into the city’s centro histórico, which abounded with grand Belle Epoque-style mansions — many still standing.

It’s within Centro — one of the largest preserved colonial town centres in the Americas — that most newcomers are buying property. While some, like Newton and Perrotta, are tearing down original homes to build replacements, many are opting for restoration projects.

Emma Sloley and Adam McCulloch, for instance, now own three city-centre Mérida residences, purchased between 2010 and 2013 — which they renovated and let out to holidaymakers. Two are colonial style, the third Art Deco, “and we live in whichever one happens to not be rented”, says McCulloch. Like most newcomers, they had to adjust to Mérida’s intense heat. “You learn to rise early and get things done [ . . .] Siesta is a must when it’s 100 degrees and 99 per cent humidity,” he jokes. (McCulloch is not exaggerating by much, humidity peaks at around 80 per cent in late summer.)

Demand for land in Mérida rose by some 200 per cent between early 2019 and 2021 — the most in all of Mexico, according to real estate company Eme Dos Desarrollos. Over the same period, says local real estate company Nahil Alianza Inmobiliaria, house prices rose by between 10 and 20 per cent. The most dramatic increases have been recorded in Centro. “The demand for colonial homes has seen prices rise some 65 per cent during the past three years,” says Sanders.

Whereas a standard lot of the size Newton and Perrotta bought would have cost just under $100,000 before the pandemic, Sanders says, it would now fetch $200,000-$250,000.

Prices are also rising just outside of the city in Caribbean coastal communities such as Sisal, Chelem and especially Progreso — all less than an hour by car from Centro. Beach towns became particularly popular with Canadians during the pandemic, says Carlos Betancourt, co-founder of Mérida Living Real Estate, and a native meridano. “Many were stuck in Mérida because of border closings.”

But the beaches also appeal to Mexican families looking for lower-priced — and certainly safer — alternatives to traditional holiday destinations such as Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast and the Riviera Maya near Cancún.

Paraíso Sisal, for instance, is a beachfront development in Sisal, one of the coast’s lesser-known resorts, which was recently awarded Pueblo Mágico (or “magical town”) status by the state of Yucatán. A main port during Mérida’s henequen boom, Sisal today is beloved for both its sandy beaches and surrounding nature.

Since commencing sales in 2017, Paraíso Sisal’s beachfront lots have risen from 700,000 pesos ($34,925) to over 4mn pesos ($199,570), according to local lawyer Ricardo Humberto Bastarrachea Basora. His family co-developed Paraíso Sisal, and installed the local infrastructure: access roads, water supply and electricity. “The buyer mix is roughly 70 per cent Mexican, 30 per cent international,” says Bastarrachea Basora, who’s spent summers along the coast for his entire life.

Although foreigners still number in the low thousands — out of a total Mérida population of 1.2mn — their impact is being felt across the local economy, particularly in Centro. Housing lawyer Carla Escoffié, director of the Human Rights Center of the Free Law Faculty of Monterrey, says the combination of “increased gentrification, tourism and Airbnbs” has left locals rattled. “The issue is not that these folks are foreigners — this isn’t about xenophobia,” she insists. “The newcomers come with American-level incomes and this is boosting the cost of living in every aspect for locals who are living at Mexican-level salaries.” 

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