In Merida (the largest city in the state of Yucatan in the Yucatan Peninsula), you would probably be okay with just speaking English unless you go to a restaurant that is totally owned by a Mexican family and it’s not on a main street. If you go there, you would need to know a little bit of Spanish and you would need to be able to read the menu in Spanish.
One of my favorite restaurants in Merida is Trotters. They have a couple of people who speak English. They have the Spanish menu and the English menu.
In contrast, if you go where I live now in Dzilam de Bravo (an extremely small village in the beach areas around Merida), there are only five expats who live in the village and only around 2% of the people here speak English. Dzilam de Bravo would not be for the average person just coming into Mexico but my wife and I chose to move here in order to get more time for ourselves. The menus are not in English so you need to understand what the foods are in Spanish. When they bring you your bill, it will be in pesos so you need to know how to count your own money.
But if you are in other beach places in the Merida beach area, such as Chelem, you won’t have a problem getting by with just English because even the restaurants there would have one or two people who speak English and they would almost always have an English menu. If you happen to go to a restaurant that didn’t have an English menu, then they will make sure, as a favor, that they would translate the menu to you. They will explain to you that what’s on the menu is breaded fish, shrimp and garlic sauce, for example.
In the state of Quintana Roo (also in the Yucatan Peninsula, and where the more well known expat and tourists areas are such as Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and Tulum) in the more tourist areas, you could easily get by with just English. This is the reason why, when I moved to Chelem and I told the people here that I had already been in Mexico for 7 years, they asked, “How could this be? You hardly speak any Spanish.”
They were right. The reason is that living in Playa del Carmen and in Cozumel, I didn’t need to learn Spanish, so I didn’t concentrate on it. But when I first got here to Chelem, it was a whole different story because all of the gringos hadn’t bought in here yet. There were only around eight other expat couples that lived here when I moved here. There was hardly anyone here that spoke English because they didn’t need to since they hardly ever saw a gringo. All of that has changed now, though. Now there’s so many expats in Chelem that pretty much everybody here also speaks English.
(Dzilam de Bravo, Yucatan, Mexico, pictured.)