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Cantina alliance works to up its game, attract tourists

Bar owners seek ways to replicate success rivals have in reinventing themselves

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Lee Steele
Lee Steele
Lee Steele is the founding director of Roof Cat Media and has published Yucatán Magazine and other titles since 2012. Sign up for our weekly newsletters, so our best stories will appear in your inbox every Monday.
Some cantinas in Merida’s Centro Historic seem to thrive, while others do a modest trade. Photo: File

Merida, Yucatan — The Alliance of Bartenders of Yucatan has undertaken a new survival strategy to protect the city’s cantinas from fading away.

Many, losing hold on their regular working-man customer base, want to catch the attention of national and international tourists.

The group is working with an unnamed brewing company to revitalize the Centro’s cantinas, many of which have remained unchanged for decades. Beer companies often help bar owners with marketing and promotion.

One cantina that was pulled from the grave is La Negrita, a nondescript corner bar on Calle 64, which closed in 2011. Two years later, two new owners modernized it, gave it a hip vibe and elaborate menu, and today it is packed daily with young customers. It survived to see its 100th anniversary.

Dzalbay, down the street, and El Cardenal in Santiago were two of the handful of that have taken that route, and today remain a popular hangout with a younger clientele.

But one historic spot closed in 2017 after 105 years. El Grillon, south of the square, never kept up with the times and shuttered its doors.

El Gato Negro, on Calle 56 and 61; Las Quince Letras, on Calle 67 and 74; and Chemas, on 55 and 66, also closed, although the latter appears to be preparing for a revival.

A sign at Chemas announces a reopening with new owners. It is yet to be seen if Chemas will go the way of La Negrita and El Cardenal, historic neighborhood bars that were overhauled with a more youthful, hipster style.

In addition, the president of the group, Edmundo Echeverría Urcelay, said that in the coming days his group seeks a rapprochement with municipal and state authorities to address the issue of taxes that he said also imperil his industry.

The first few blocks immediately surrounding the main square contain about 120 cantinas, each paying 1,300 pesos for an annual permit.

Whether cantinas can co-exist with residents in the Centro is another matter.

After several years of constant complaints that went nowhere, the “Ruido contra el Ruido”(“Noise Against Noise”) movement was created, resulting in about 200 protest banners displayed on facades across the Centro.

With information from Sipse

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