Most people think of Cancun as being all there is in the Yucatan peninsula, there is much more to see outside of the zona hotelera that is real, authentic Mexico, not an all-inclusive experience limited to the walls of a resort. Yucatan has many things to offer, from mayan ruins to cenotes, to flamingo migration sites, beautiful beaches and colonial towns.
Cancun > Merida > Valladolid > Tulum
Merida is a colorful colonial town with a great art vibe and history, wonderful food and it can serve as a great base to a number of worthwhile sites around. Yucatan food is particularly unique in the peninsula compared to the rest of Mexico, do not miss local fare. There are a number of things to check out while within Merida:
- Museo del Mundo Maya: great for understanding Mayan history and culture before or after you check out the ruins in the peninsula to give you the required background and perspective, I recommend you do this before seeing the ruins, as you will appreciate details more and the implicit value of the events and history right in front of you.
- Paseo Montejo: a nice stroll next to great restaurants, bars and shops along some historic mansions. The road is closed on Sunday mornings until noon for people to ride bicycles and walk around.
- Colonial streets: these colorful streets are located virtually everywhere, but specially around calle 64 with 64A and a block or 2 in each direction, Calle 55 west of 70, 2-3 blocks in each direction off the main plazas.
- Parque La Mejorada and surrounding neighborhood.
- Plaza Grande: the Plaza is a magnet for locals and tourists alike, this is the epicenter of town as there are a number of places to see here, including: Museo Casa Montejo, Catedral de San Idelfonso, Centro Cultural Olimpo, Palacio de Gobierno, Pasillo de la Revolucion.
- Plaza & Mercado de Santa Ana
Sightseeing around Merida:
Mayan Ruins: the Maya history is pretty remarkable, and it is pretty incredible the condition they are in given the wear and tear over the centuries on top of the damage the Spanish imposed on them.
- Dzibilchaltun at north: be sure to walk to the Palacio de las Munecas all the way to the east of the entrance.
- Uxmal: perhaps my favorite of all mayan ruins in the peninsula, Uxmal is in excellent condition and comprised of several buildings. They do a light show at night, and even though it is not the most modern light show, the vantage point and the low light contamination in the area make it really worth while.
- Ruta Puuc: technically it starts with the ruins at Uxmal, but it continues south and east onto Kabah, Sayil. If you have the time once you have seen Sayil, check out the caverns at grottoes Loltun.
Cenotes, basically sinkholes with pristine fresh water, are great places to swim, snorkel (or scuba if you are certified for cave diving) and cool off in the hot days, you should check for conditions, in case they are closed.
- Xlacah, inside Dzibilchaltun, Xbantun, Dzonbacal, Xcoton, Cuzama, Bolonchoojol, Chelentun, Papakal, Oxola, Sambula, Yax Ha, Kankirixche, Chihuo-hol, Tza-Ujun-Kat
Celestun: a beach and fishing village west of Merida, mostly know for the flamingos migrating away from winter weather. You can tour the lagoon where they feed, sometimes tens of thousands between December and February. Eat at Los Pampanos, you can use their facilities and enjoy the beach while have your tab open and zip drinks.
Eating: La Chaya Maya, La Tradición, Patio 57. For a more American fare: Hennessy's, Napoli mia, Bistrola 57.
Staying: one of the great things about Merida is the lack of big chain hotels, there are tons of unique BnBs and boutique hotels, I loved our stay at Ochenta y dos.
Dzibilchaltun, Templo de las Siete Muñecas
Second to Merida in colonial beauty and history is Valladolid, perhaps they have tried to replicate Merida's beauty and formula, but equally welcoming and also central to a number of great sites, primarily Chichen Itza, but do not let the big daddy of Mayan ruins deter you from experiencing other great sights. Stay/eat at: El Meson del Marques
Mayan Ruins, there are two main mayan ruins in the area:
- Chichen Itza: the most popular of mayan sites, perhaps due to its proximity to Cancun and tour companies relying on the massive influx of cruise ship and tourists, but be aware that means herds of anxious and patience less people trying fighting to see the sight. If you get there before 10am you will have peace and plenty of time to properly enjoy this world wonder. Do not miss the night light show. Eat at Restaurants Las Mestizas, have the queso fundido.
- Ek Balam: a lesser popular sight, however, definitely worthwhile as you can hike up 2 of the main pyramids, unlike most of the ruins nowadays.
Cenotes: Xcanche, X'keken, Samula, Suytun.
Playa La Colorada: beautiful salt ponds north of Ek Balam.
Home to the main mayan sight resting on beautiful Caribbean cliffs, Tulum is a low-key beach town that is rapidly growing (some will say unsustainably) to accommodate the influx of tourism given its access to beautiful beaches without the need to enter over commercialized resort complexes. The main attractions are:
- Coba: discovered relatively late, Coba is a massive mayan area even though you only see 5% of the actual land coverage. It also holds the highest pyramid in the region, which you can actually hike. There is local staff on tricycles who can take you to the main sights for a fee, as well as bicycles for rent, both options totally worth it. You can also opt to see the ruins between 630am-8am and 430pm-7pm, for 3 times the regular entry fee but it is quite worth it given the fact that you have the entire park literally to yourself as this is not wildly advertised.
- Tulum: sitting on a beautiful cliff over turquoise water is Tulum, and while the ruins themselves are not as majestic as the rest in the region, the setting is. This is the 2nd most popular site in the region so get there before 10am or take advantage of the 'special visit' explained above, which applies to Coba and Tulum.
Cenotes: Zacil-Ha, Santa Cruz, Gran Cenote, Calavera, Casa Cenote, Cenotes Labnaha, DOs Ojos Park, Yal-ku.
Eat at: La Buena Vida (Akumal), Mateos, Antojitos La Chiapaneca, La Malquerida, La Barracuda.