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.
Chichen Itza #1
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.
Calles de Merida, Pink Carriage
Piramide del Adivino #8
I was actually apprehensive about booking a trip to Mexico City, I grew up in South America and know too well the dangers; pick pocketing, organized crime, corrupt cops, express kidnapping, I mean, have you watched "Man on Fire"? It is pretty intense! However, Chris kept telling me he had been to the city before and never had any issues, and for months before this trip I heard friends refer to their experience in CDMX as some of the best cities they have been to. So, I had to see it for myself, and I must confess, I regret not going earlier.
In fact, I have seen more pickpocketing on the streets of Barcelona in one day than I saw any resemblance of crime or lack of safety in CDMX; I saw nothing, the people are very warm, welcoming and helpful. Oh and my favorite part was Uber, Uber rides are $1-$5 in the city, and a trip to the airport (1.5-2hrs) will set you back $15, unheard of!
This big city of 9M people is the 2nd largest in the Americas after Sao Paolo, but most of the action is in the Centro, which is relatively small and very manageable. Traffic is congested and air pollution a thing to consider, not only due to CO2 from car emissions but fires around the city perimeter are common and given its a valley, the smoke/smog concentrates in the city. So if you have allergies like me, do wear a mask, others do.
Here are some things to do and see in CDMX:
- Museo Nacional de Arqueologia + Chapultepec: hosting the largest museum of pre-hispanic Maya/Toltec culture and artifacts in the world, the Museo Nacional is a must see. The size of the collection along with the beauty and powerful items like the Sun Calendar is not to be missed. Allow a good 3 hours for a visit. The Chapultepec neighborhood is also host to the Castillo de Chapultepec, Zoo and Bosque de Chapultepec; a park with tons of green areas, some compare it to NY's Central Park. Set time to explore as much as Chapultepec has to offer as possible.
- Teotihuacan: these pyramids are the largest known structures of pre-hispanic origin, and another must see destination. Its about 1.5 hours outside the city and there are a few options to get there. A public bus leaves daily just before 9 from the central station and arrives near the ruins just after the pyramids have opened, this is the cheapest option which is probably <$10. We opted for taking an Uber for ~$60 both ways, we met the uber driver the day before on a different ride, asked him if he could and he said yes, we exchanged numbers and he picked us up on time at 7:45am, by 9am we were at the pyramids just at the time they opened, with very little people on sight. If you use uber the driver will likely wait for you, you just need to know which gate you want to be picked up at. The 2 main pyramids are the Sun (largest) and the Moon (smaller, only 1/4 of it can be hiked), but there is at least a mile long strip to be explored. Do bring water and snacks as they are not available in the area, as well as sun screen and a hat as there is little shade. The pyramid of the Sun is ~300 steps to the top, and it is very manageable as long as you pace it out, there are 3 terraces before you reach the top and you can rest if needed. one section of the 4 is very step and where you need to be the most careful. Also consider: there are air balloons that allow you see the pyramids during sunrise for ~$100 an hour, I wish I would have know in advance. Weekdays 9am-11am are the best times to visit since weekends and later times are very crowded.
- Zocalo: this is the proper 'center' of CDMX, and it features a few things, the Plaza de la Constitucion with different events going on at different times/days. There is also the Catedral Metropolitana, the oldest and largest roman-catholic cathedral in Latin America, the Palacio Nacional, known for hosting the elected president's inauguration, and last but not least; the Templo Mayor, the ruins of former large Toltec temple that has been excavated overtime. Some large and consequential artifacts found on the site are located in the Museo del Temple Mayor just next door, be sure not to miss it!
- Barrios/neighborhoods: there are several areas in the city to explore, and each has a different vibe of its own, consider these: La Condesa, Roma, Centro, Polanco, San Angel, Cuahtemoc/Juarez (Zona Rosa), Santa Maria la Rivera.
- Museo del Frida Kahlo (Casa Azul) & Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Friday Kahlo: these are 2 different locations and each provides a window into the lives of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 2 of the most consequential artists in Mexico, and perhaps the world when we talk about Frida. Casa Azul is located in Del Carmen, and it is recommended you buy tickets online ahead of time since you won't want to be in line without a reservation/ticket. The Casa Estudio is a much smaller site located in the San Angel neighborhood, less crowded than Casa Azul is more of an architecture gem compared to a collection on art and Frida's belongings as she did not live long at this site, it is still worth seeing, specially the neighborhood it is in, known for being a magnet for artists. Plan to come on a Saturday and you will be rewarded with the Bazaar del Sabado at the Plaza San Jacinto, where dozens of artists showcase and sell their art.
- Architecture: if you are into architecture as I am, you won't want to miss some gems in this city, Mexico is known for cheap concrete and respect for modern design, which translates into brutalism being a common denominator. Check out the UNAM Central Library, Biblioteca Vanconcelos, Museo Soumaya, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Palmas 555, Cineteca Nacional, Elena Garro Cultural Center, Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe. For more architecture sites check out Archdaily.com CDMX.
Food, food in Mexico City is as elevated as you'll find in Europe, there is everything and anything, from cheap tacos to notable sushi. Here are some spots to check out: Restaurante Temporal, El Merito de Mar, El Pescadito, Señor Taco Condesa, La Casa de Toño, El Califa, Parian Condesa (which has about 7 different restaurants to order from while they all share the same venue, including renowned Yucatecan 'La Tradicion'), Don Vergas, La Opera, Salon Espana, La Faena, Bosforo, El Parnita, El Pujol, Meroma, Salon Paris, sushi Kyo, Cintli.
CDMX is also a magnet for great art, there are hundreds of galleries and other museums showcasing vibrant and emerging artists, as well as wonderful pieces adorning buildings and streets all over town.
Teotihuacan Air Balloons