Tim and Marsha Weaver already have a name picked out for their vacation home in Mérida.
According to New York Post, last October, the Montclair, NJ, couple purchased a historic house with plans to transform it into a B&B named after a famous former occupant — Yucatán governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto.
“He was a socialist who favored land reform, women’s suffrage and rights for indigenous Mayan people,” Tim says. “He had a romance with a United States journalist, Alma Reed, and had a very well-known song written for her, ‘Peregrina.’” They call their new venture, which will include an on-site residence for themselves, La Casa Carillo Puerto.
Beyond its dramatic backstory, the couple — Marsha, 53, a Coldwell Banker realtor, and Tim, 54, a health care company VP — were drawn to the 5,400-square-foot abode for its architectural details. There are beautiful patterned tiles, grand doorways and high ceilings. Also appealing was the home’s prime location, just a few minutes’ stroll from main square and Mérida’s buzzing Santa Lucía restaurant zone. Then there was the affordable price: $385,000 USD.
The Weavers’ home-buying journey, aided by real estate agent Keith Heitke, is colorfully depicted in Thursday’s episode of HGTV’s addictive “House Hunters International,” airing at 10:30 p.m.
With this permanent relocation, the Weavers — who also considered buying in Guadalajara and Mexico City — are joining Mérida’s community of about 5,000 expats. They’re seduced by the city’s Mayan culture, laid-back attitude, colonial buildings, diverse culinary scene and affordable opportunities to live out both new-business and retirement dreams.
“It’s a popular destination for so many reasons,” says Carrie Regan, executive producer of “House Hunters International.” “There aren’t direct flights from New York, so that keeps it from being overrun. You can still get to the beaches and Mayan ruins, but be based in a city that’s so charming.” (Mérida is about a four-hour drive from Cancún.)
In fact, this is the seventh Mérida-set episode of “House Hunters International,” and the third featuring broker Heitke, 56, of Mexico International Real Estate. Formerly an interior designer in New York, Heitke and partner David Sterling used to live four blocks from the World Trade Center. Rattled by Sept. 11, they absconded to Mérida for a break, bought a crumbling casona, or mansion, for $38,000 USD. They restored it and ended up staying.
Sterling went on to found a popular Yucatecan cooking school, Los Dos, and renovate homes through the couple’s Worldstudio International Design Services — including the Weavers’ in-progress B&B. (Sadly, Sterling passed away last November.)
While Heitke concedes that, over the past decade, word about Mérida has gotten out and real estate costs have risen, he says that “you can find a nice completed house starting at about $175,000, or a nice fixer-upper between $80,000 and $150,000.”
Property taxes are low, he adds, while citing myriad modern conveniences — from auto dealerships to movie cinemas — available to residents. “For groceries, you can go to the historic main market, which has been there since the 1500s, or a full-sized Costco,” Heitke says. “The people are so pleasant to be around and, for six months, between October and March, it’s perfect weather.”
A West Village-based travel writer-photographer couple, Adam McCulloch, 46, and Emma Sloley, 47, both fell for Mérida during an assignment there in 2006. They later bought and remodeled three homes that they now rent through Airbnb (while keeping one free for themselves, of course). The latest, acquired in 2014, is called The Tub House, after a clawfoot tub they installed.
McCulloch admits that winter there gives way to punishingly hot, tropical, rainy summers between April and September (Mérida has about the same climate as New Orleans). However, he holds that its pros easily outweigh the cons. Local favorites include antique shop Antiguedades by Julio near San Sebastian park, the rooftop of chic boutique hotel Rosas y Xocolate for cocktails, and BYOB garden-to-table dinner parties from Cook It Raw founder Alessandro Porcelli.
The city is a blend of old and new: Once the domain of wealthy sisal and henequen plantation owners who produced most of the world’s rope with the plants’ fiber, now there’s a hipster food hall, Mercado 60, which opened last year.
“Mérida reveals its secrets gradually,” McCulloch says. “One day, you’ll discover maquech [live beetle] jewelry at the markets, and the next watch a firefly display on the lawns of a great hacienda or, as happened a couple of years ago, attend a New Year’s Eve party with David Byrne from Talking Heads.”
Parties, as it happens, are key elements of Mérida’s social swirl — and can often be spontaneous and surprising. One night, Solange Knowles made an appearance during a shindig at the home of Richard Frazier, 67, and Laura Kirar, who is in her mid-40s.
A Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based couple, Frazier and Kirar bought a former ranch just outside Mérida in 2009 for “the cost of a studio in NYC.” While renovations are ongoing, the scenic 40-acre property — dubbed Hacienda Subin — includes a 9,000-square-foot main house and a 10,000-square-foot factory.
Kirar, an interior and product designer with a shop in the central Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende, notes that one bit of culture shock New Yorkers should anticipate is a different concept of time.
“I would say don’t accept more than one social invitation in a day,” she says, “because lunch will last eight hours. Its like, lunch is at 2 p.m. and you’re probably there still drinking tequila at 10 p.m., and chances are with four generations of the family that invited you.”
Local tradition includes supernatural beliefs, even among younger, Snapchat-savvy Yucatecans. “Apparently there are a lot of witches in our town, or brujas,” Richard says. “They also have curanderos, healers who mix Mayan beliefs and Catholicism and modern medicine with folklore cures.”
Prospective property buyers should indeed expect a whole other vibe and not an “America-lite,” according to Dan Prescher, 62, senior editor of overseas retirement publication International Living, who lived in Mérida from 2007 to 2010. An in-person visit or trial run before purchase is key.
“You can do all the research you want,” Prescher says, “but unless you get boots on the ground, you’ll never know.”
Months after the “House Hunters International” episode airs, when the Weavers’ $100,000 renovation is complete in early 2018, La Casa Carrillo Puerto will boast four bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms, patios, two courtyards, a pool, a bar, a dining room, a kitchen, a living room and a new two-floor casita for the Weavers themselves.
“Our youngest son is a student at the University of Rhode Island,” Marsha says, “and he’s looking forward to summers in Mérida soaking up the sun.”
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