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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Journeys Mérida: 5 friends offer new option for curious travelers

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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.
Adventures in gastronomy, culture and history, by Journeys Mérida, are directed by: (from left) Keith Heitke, Michael Berton, Robert Klie, Shirley Hisgen and Lucinda Young.

Mérida, Yucatán — Five friends living in the Centro have combined their talents to offer three-day adventures to curious travelers.

Now that they have announced Journeys Mérida, we find ourselves asking: Why didn’t they do this sooner?

These friends’ varied but complementary backgrounds, along with the acquired knowledge of the area amassed from years of living and doing business here, make them naturals:

  • Michael Berton and Robert Klie are the owners of Villa Verde Mérida, a top-rated guesthouse they built themselves in a converted mansion. Guest house proprietors, by nature, become local experts because their guests typically have plenty of questions for them.
  • Shirley Hisgen and Lucinda Young are accomplished artists with a firm handle on the city’s contemporary cultural scene. They hold occasional pop-up art shows featuring their work and lead studio tours and offer concierge access to private art and design studios not available to other tourists.
  • And Keith Heitke, who has been in Mérida since the early 2000s, owns Los Dos, the acclaimed cooking school that leads students from local market stalls to the city’s most famous kitchen. He has been featured as a sales agent three times on House Hunters International, and has designed residential and commercial properties all over the city.

Together, they have designed a three-day travel package for like-minded travelers who are eager to explore Yucatán from all angles. In a nutshell, the adventure unfolds at Los Dos with a hands-on exploration of the region’s gastronomy. It continues the next day with a tour of the city’s contemporary art scene and historic architecture. Then, on the third day, the group travels far from the city to see one of the Peninsula’s most magnificent Maya ruins, and for a taste of hacienda life.

Here is our conversation with Lucinda:

You’ve all been friends for years but as far as I know, you’ve kept your professional lives separate. What gave you the idea to combine resources and create Journeys Mérida?

Over the past couple of years, a spontaneous and lively social format arose in which Shirley and I, together with Keith Heitke, started getting together with Robert and Michael, sharing observations, ideas (and occasional gossip) about life here in Mérida over coffee or cocktails at Villa Verde. At a certain juncture, Robert and Michael raised the notion of us all combining our various talents. interests and particular expertise to create a new and creative spin on an “Introduction to Mérida” travel package, an invitation to first time visitors to join us on a sort of “cultural immersion” Magical Mystery Tour, personally curated by all of us as “insiders.”

What exactly are you offering?

The Journeys Mérida format seemed to take shape very organically, inspired by our collective desire to create something we thought our own friends would appreciate and enjoy. We wanted to combine forces and come up with an experiential travel adventure that offered luxury, opportunities for authentic cultural engagement and, yes, a little adventure, a format both informative and fun. We decided to use the arts in the broadest sense – culinary, architectural, visual, cultural, artisanal, to provide a wide-angle lens for a tour offering a unique perspective on Mérida as both a historical landmark and a contemporary hot spot, hence “Merida Then and Now.”

Explain the tour, day by day.Five friends living in the Centro have combined their talents to offer three-day adventures to curious travelers.

The tour first plunges our visitors into the main Mercado, the cuisine, the spices and trading heritage, the culinary history of the Yucatan and the kitchen itself. On Day 2, though not any kind of conventional City Sight Seeing gig, Shirley and I take folks all over the city – including Plaza Grande, hidden studios in grand mansions and Centro backstreets and others in the Mid-Century Modernist neighborhoods toward the north. The day includes a fabulous lunch and concludes their exposure to art and artists in town with a wine tasting at one of a number of glamorous private houses filled with art. Day 3 takes them out of town on an adventure which traces Mayan history, takes in Uxmal and some haciendas, introduces the landscape, and gives context to the rural cuisine and craft culture of the Yucatán. Dinners are not included but recommended and reserved, with an emphasis on Mérida’s destination restaurants, but reflecting the tastes and style of a given group.

How many people are in each tour group? How can travelers prepare themselves to make the most of it?

The minimum is four, the ideal is eight and we could likely go to eight — all this based on double occupancy rooms at Villa Verde. Our target clients are probably anywhere from 35-75 and more importantly open minded, curious, somewhat adventurous, folks who appreciate art and food, and who would enjoy walking outside the conventional grid into a multi-dimensional experience. There’s not really any mandated or even suggested “preparation,” though we’ll probably get together a suggested reading list.

This particular tour format, at this pretty appealing price point, is primarily conceived as an Intro for Mérida “first timers” and as such not highly customizable. However, there is sometimes some limited flexibility to reflect specific interests on Days 2 and 3. We also plan to offer several one-day “add on” options. With sufficient advance notice and room reservations, guests could stay on at Villa Verde for additional days and — for example, do a day that combines a greater emphasis on architecture, both historic and contemporary, an architectural walking tour including some stops for house tours, studio visits to architects and designers, perhaps a catered lunch in a private home or out at a private hacienda. Another possible day might be more Urban Hip, graffiti art in the more “way out” neighborhoods, young/street fashion local designers and retailers, some hipster bars and gastro brew pubs, music and a late afternoon beer at somewhere like La Negrita.

Price is $1,475 per person through 2018, based on double-occupancy. That includes breakfast and one drink at Villa Verde, event transportation, lunch for Day 1 and 2, all entrance tickets for museums, galleries, historic and archaeological sites that are part of the tour, and the market tour and class at the Los Dos Cooking School. See journeysmerida.com for more information. 

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