Mérida is one of Mexico’s greatest cultural cities with a rich Mayan heritage. As the capital and center of the Yucatan, this thriving Mayan city also serves as the best hub to explore the nearby colorful colonial-era cities, beautiful tropical beaches, cenotes, and ancient Mayan ruins, all within a two-hour drive in any direction. Twice named “the American Capital of Culture,” you will likely run out of time before you run out of things to do as you tour Merida!
- Getting Around
- 1. Historic City Center
- 2. Beaches
- 3. Mayan Ruins
- 4. Cenotes
- 5. Food
- 6. San Pedro
- 7. Izamal
- 8. Valladolid
- 9. Campeche
- 10. Conclusion
In Mérida, Mayan heritage is at harmony with new trends. Some 60% of locals are self-proclaimed indigenous and handmade goods and traditional clothing can easily be found.
We rented a car to tour Mérida. It was safe and fun and I loved my Yucatan road trip. There are major highways from Cancun to Campeche, but we most enjoyed getting lost on rural backroads in small villages where other modes of transportation were limited to scooters, rickshaws, horse carts, and livestock.
If you’re comfortable with international driving, then I highly recommend it as it also provides an opportunity for exploring without hordes of tourists from tour groups. But if you’d prefer not to drive in Mexico, I’ve got you covered! For your convenience, I’ve provided links to day tours around Merida below.
Whether you have a weekend or a month to tour Merida, here are the best things to do.
1. Historic City Center
Walking through the city center, it’s difficult not to be taken in by the colonial atmosphere. The city is host to a plethora of museums, churches, government buildings, and theaters, restaurants, and squares, for public use.
Zócalo (main square) Plaza Grande is arguably the most important part of Mérida. This centralized square hosts the most important buildings.
The splendid Government Palace (Palacio De Gobierno) is worthy of a visit. It’s home government and tourist offices, and impressive wall murals throughout painted by local artist Fernando Castro Pacheco depicting troubled Mérida’s history during the Spanish occupation.
Built in 1598, Mérida Cathedral (Catedral de San Ildefonso) is one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas built on the foundations of the Mayan city of Th’o. The site includes stones from a Mayan temple juxtaposed against Renaissance and Mannerist architecture. It’s not lavishly decorated, but there are some interesting Spanish and Mayan artifacts that can be appreciated regardless of your religious practices.
There’s also a wide green space and square where there is always a lot of action. I loved spending Sunday mornings at Mérida en Domingo (craft fair) the square, listening to the festive music, and buying Mayan-made souvenirs (hand-embroidered belts and blouses). Here you can also find hammocks, handicrafts, and street food such as empenadas, salbutes, tacos, of course, ice cream.
For art-lovers, Museo Fernando García Ponce-Macay art gallery exhibits modern and classic works of both local and international artists.
Named for Francisco de Montejo the Younger, the Conquistador who founded Mérida in 1542, the impressively-long, French-styled, tree-lined avenue is lined with impressive examples of 19th-century architecture, Mérida’s heyday as the producer of sisal and henequen made from agave plants. Henequen (once known as “green gold”) landowners who were part of the booming industry constructed extravagant mansions here, some of which have been converted to B&B’s.
There are several roundabouts along the boulevard. One you can’t miss…it’s marked by Monumento a la Patria, a massive neo-Mayan stone monument by 20th-century sculptor Rómulo Rozo which depicts Mexican history from the 14th-20th centuries.
The polished boulevard provides a wonderful place to stroll, both day and night.
Palacio Canton is a museum on Paseo de Montejo if you’d like a little information on Mayan culture and history.
I also indulged in a horse carriage ride as a different way to view the night scene.
Casa de Montejo
Casa de Montejo is a 16th-century mansion and landmark of colonial architecture. Entry is free, and you can get a peek into what wealthy Mérida looked like in the 19th-century.
Gran Museo Del Mundo Maya
Inaugurated in 2012 to commemorate the end of the Long Count cycle in the Mayan Calendar, this museum is a must-see if you are planning to visit any of the Mayan ruins. On display are over 1,150 artifacts, textiles, and religious relics of Mayan civilization, from the colonial period and up to contemporary times.
Santa Lucia Parque
This small plaza is just a few blocks north of Plaza Grande. On Thursday nights the square comes alive. You can catch a local salsa dance performance while dining al fresco at one of the small restaurants.
Where to Stay
I loved staying at Luz en Yucatan, a boutique hotel just steps from Santa Lucia park. I must admit, I didn’t expect much when I saw their rather plain street-facing façade. But I soon entered a lush urban retreat. Exquisitely furnished with a small but luxurious pool and courtyard, Luz En Yucatán is a hidden gem. I stayed in a penthouse unit overlooking the city. My patio had an outdoor kitchen and my own hammock. Luz is just a 5-minute walk the bustling Plaza Grande and a 15-minute walk to Paseo de Montejo.
Mérida is landlocked, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some beach time. There are plenty of nice beaches within a short drive, and they are far less crowded (and no spring breakers!) than those you’d find at the other end of the Yucatan, in Cancun and Riviera Maya.
Just 27 miles away from downtown, Progreso is the closest beach to Mérida. A palapa-lined powder-white sand beach sits next to bathwater-warm, iridescent emerald-green water from the Gulf of Mexico.
There’s a lively mile-long Malecón along the beachfront, with a few beach bars and seafood restaurants (Eladio’s is my favorite), and a souvenir market just across from the beach.
Progreso has the longest pier in the world and is also a Carnival Cruise port, so you may want to avoid when a cruise ship is in port. It can also get crowded with locals from Mérida on weekends.
If a cruise ship is in port, don’t fret. 20-minutes west of Progresso is the popular expat town of Chelum with small, but pretty and uncrowded beaches.
About a half-hour drive east of Progresso is another beach town called Telchac Puerto. The road from Progreso to Telchac drives along a lagoon (you may spot a few pink flamingos here).
Reef Yucatán All Inclusive is on this beach. It’s not too expensive, as all-inclusives go, but it’s also not the high-end quality or services that you may have come to expect from similar all-inclusives in the Caribbean. And the beds are too firm.
Celestun is a sleepy little fishing village on the western side of the Yucatan peninsula. The attractive beach is uncrowded, and you can dine on freshly-caught seafood overlooking the sea.
However, most people don’t come to Celestun for pretty beaches – they come for the pretty flamingos. Flamingos are my favorite wildlife, so I could not wait to take an eco-tour boat trip through the lush mangroves of Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestun (Celestun River Biosphere Reserve).
I was very eager to spot the first flamboyance (aka a group of flamingos – don’t you love that word?). There were flocks of wild pink flamingos on the shores of both sides of the boat. Much to my chagrin, my boat driver would not get too close, so as not to disturb the birds. He even turned off the motor of the boats. Regulations, he said.
Ultimately, I do support eco-tourism but couldn’t help be a bit disappointed not to get a closer look. So do be sure to bring a camera with a long zoom lens if you want good photos, and be sure to check ahead because flamingo visitations are seasonal.
Celestun is a little farther away at three hours, but it is also one of the few places in the Yucatan where you can catch a beach sunset.
Take note: the Yucatan sun is really strong so when on the beaches or exploring the sites, be sure to wear a UPF-protective hat (mine is also so stylish!)
3. Mayan Ruins
Chichén Itzá is probably the best-known Mayan ruins in Mexico, and it lives up to its reputation, e.g. it’s the largest pre-Columbian archaeological site in the Yucatan, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Highly-excavated, I’ve been to the site twice (once in the 80s above and again recently) and learned more each time. Unfortunately, climbing inside the serpent’s mouth is no longer permitted!
Looking across the ground to the imposing main Castillo (Kuklakan) pyramid will take your breath away. At my first visit, when I was in my 20s, I climbed to the top – no longer allowed due to people falling and/or getting injured.
It’s also popular for equinoxes when the Castillo (castle) temple forms a shadow of a serpent slithering down the pyramid’s steps.
Chichén Itzá is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, along with Palenque and Uxmal in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala.
Because Chichén Itzá is the most-visited Mayan archaeological site in the Yucatan and it’s easily accessible from Mérida and Cancun, it gets very crowded. It’s around 90 minutes from Mérida, so you can get there right before it opens, you’ll be able to explore a bit before the masses invade.
Just an hour southwest from Mérida, Uxmal (pronounced óˑʃmáˑl) is one of the best ancient Mayan cities in Mexico. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but nowhere near as crowded as Chichen Itza and easy to explore and roam around.
Built between 700 – 1000 AD, the spellbinding jungle city once had 25,000 inhabitants. Uxmal was well-preserved, even before restoration began. It is believed to have been taken over by Toltec invaders during the 12th century.
The ruins are well-preserved, giving a glimpse into Mayan life. The intricate grounds include the famous five-level Temple of the Magician, and the Governor’s Palace, which rests on a massive platform and is aligned with the path of Venus when viewed from the Pyramid of Cehtzuc. Fine examples of carved stone are displayed throughout.
Unlike Chichen Itza, it is still permitted to climb on and inside the ruins.
Mayapán (pronounced mī-ä-ˈpän) may be the most underrated of the Mayan cities, but it just might be my favorite.
A mere 25 miles from Mérida, the archaeological ruins sprawl out in tranquil splendor, with hardly anyone around, even during the afternoon. Mayapán is a jaw-dropping metropolis, with more than 4,000 individual structures spread over about 1.6 square miles.
In the Late Post-Classic Period of Mayan civilization (13th-15th century), Mayapán was home for up to 17,000 people and the political and cultural capital of the Maya in the Yucatán Peninsula. The grounds include shrines, temples, halls, and 12 gates.
Nothing beats climbing all the way to the top of Temple of Kukulcan for those Instagram shots. Even the escalation itself was photo-worthy. Oh, the fun and corny moments I had!
Mayapan is so incredible, it’s difficult to understand why it’s less-visited than some of the other Mayan sites; perhaps it’s because it’s just one of many ancient ruins in the Yucatan.
The Mayan complex of Xcambo is small, but worthwhile if you’re near Telchac Puerto. I was staying at Reef Yucatán All Inclusive just a few minutes away and I was glad I made the stop. Xcambo is believed to be a former fish curing and salt-producing center, which makes sense given its location near the coast.
There was hardly another soul I sight, and it was another of the ancient ruins where I was able to climb up the structures and ham it up.
I didn’t get the change to here, but Dzibilchaltún archaeological site is close to central Mérida and you’re likely to be the only tourist at this small site. The main attraction is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, which had seven figurines set on a platform, discovered when the monument was first excavated in the 1950s.
The temple is oriented so that at sunrise during spring or autumn equinox, the sun flows through the doors of Templo de las Siete Munecas, making them glow, since they are perfectly aligned with the sun.
Dzibilchaltún also has ruins of a church and a small museum.
Cenotes are natural sinkholes. These incredible pools were formed when an asteroid slammed into the seafloor off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula 66 million years ago. Limestone bedrock gave way to reveal more than 6,000 caves and reservoirs of water beneath.
In ancient times, Mayans considered these to be sacred places to perform spiritual rituals. Today, they are sought out by tourists looking for the quintessential Yucatan adventure or a refreshing swimming hole to escape the heat.
There are many of these ethereal, photogenic places close to Mérida. My favorite was a day at Los Tres Cenotes aka the Cuzama Cenotes.
Half the fun is getting to the first cenote. The only way to get into the jungle sites is in a cart pulled by a horse/mule. Hang on to your hat, because it’s a bumpy (albeit fun) ride!
I was surprised when we stopped at a hole in the ground surrounded with tree roots leading to the sky. My first thought was that they wanted us to look down into the hole, but incredibly, they told us we had to descend down on a rudimentary wooden ladder into the hole to reach the cenote (not for claustrophobics!). I sucked it up and descended down into the depths, and was not disappointed.
This and two different cenotes enveloped me in an otherworldly subterranean abyss filled with dark aquamarine water surrounded with unique rock formations with jungle vegetation hanging down. I jumped right in, shocked by the cold water. It didn’t take long to get used to the water temperature and enjoy floating around, but I wished I’d brought my favorite vision-correction snorkel mask to see underwater.
Note: If you are planning to swim in cenotes, please pack biodegradable sunscreen before you leave home. Regular sunscreen damages cenotes and eco-friendly sunscreen is difficult to find in Mérida.
Yucatán cuisine is delicious. It’s different than traditional Mexican food in that it has been strongly influenced by European and native Mayan foods. Strong flavors such as sour orange, honey, habanero, achiote (a spice used for flavor and color) and smoke are favorites along with turkey, pork and chicken.
Lucas Galvez Market
Not a tourist market, Mercado Lucas De Galvéz (Lucas Galvez Market) is the real deal and a gastronomic treat. Chaotic and lively (you’ll likely get lost), this is a great place to try street food, exotic fruit juices, and taste things that you may never have heard of.
Foods to Try
- Cochinita Pibil – slow-roasted pork you can have on tacos
- Chilaquiles –breakfast nachos
- Papadzules – similar to enchiladas
- Panuchos – small fried corn tortillas topped with turkey and vegetables
- Papadzules – flour tortillas stuffed with chopped egg and herb sauce
- Sopa de Lima – a broth-based soup made from a local lime
- Rambutan – red shell fruit with sweet white pulp
- Churro – a yummy fried-dough pastry
- Flan –a custard dessert with a layer of clear caramel sauce
You may be interested in “Yucatan Food: What to Eat and Where to Find it.”
6. San Pedro
The tiny town of San Pedro is just outside Mérida Centro. With the Great Depression and invention of synthetic fibers in the 20th-century, the sisal/henequen industry came to an end and most of the large hacienda estates were abandoned. Recently, however, efforts have been made to restore them into restaurants and boutique hotels.
Where to Stay
I loved staying at the blue Hacienda San Pedro Nophat. The B&B accommodations were so authentic and the owner and guests so friendly.
They even invited us to join them for a local night on the town and casual dinner in a local favorite restaurant.
Read about Angela Damon’s efforts to restore a hacienda, run a henequen business and raise a family near Mérida.
Called “the Yellow City,” Izamal is about an hour’s drive from Mérida. It’s one of the most Instagrammable places in the Yucatan which is why it is officially listed as one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos (magic towns).
I spent hours strolling up and down lovely cobblestone streets, gazing at yellow haciendas and bits of Mayan ruins strewn throughout.
Most notable is the Convento de San Antonio de Padula monastery, built in the 14th-century by the Spaniards with stones from a Mayan temple which was located on-site. Like the city, the monastery offers some picturesque spots.
Climb up the steps of the Mayan pyramid of Kinich-Kakmo for a magnificent panoramic view of Izamal.
Where to Stay
Hotel Machan ché was one of the more unique properties that I experienced in the Yucatan. It was a labyrinth of lush jungle paths leading to individual private casitas. Just a few blocks walking distance to downtown Izamal are restaurants, shops, and sights but without the city noise. I especially like the pool, which had a bottom made from a huge slab of rough-hewn stone, making it look more like a natural grotto than a swimming pool.
The charming colonial town of Valladolid is surrounded by beautiful historic architecture and plazas. Parque Francisco Canton, Valladolid’s main square, has a fountain that overlooks the Church of San Bernardino.
Walk up the stairs above Palacio Municipal (Municipal Palace)to get a birds-eye view of the plaza from the palace’s balcony.
You can tour Convent of San Bernardino of Siena, dating back to the late 1500s.
Don’t miss touring Casa de los Venados (“Deer House”). It’s in an exquisite private hacienda-turned-museum and has the largest quality collection of Mexican folk art in private hands, numbering over 3,000 pieces. I absolutely loved looking at whimsical, artistic, and quirky pieces of art, and owner/curator John Venator could not have been a more gracious host.
The unique thing about Valladolid is that Cenote Zaci is located right in the middle of town.
Valladolid is about a two-hour drive from Mérida and is also designated one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos (magic towns).
Where to Stay
I stayed at the jungle gardens of Casa Hamaca while in Valladolid and could not have loved it more. Located right on San Juan square, the boutique is an unexpected urban refuge. All attractions were within walking distance and my suite was massive with the largest walk-shower I’ve ever had in my extensive travels throughout Mexico. Casa owner, expat Denis Larsen has breakfast every morning with guests, generously sharing his extensive area knowledge and giving sightseeing tips.
A port city on the Gulf of Mexico, Campeche is known for its preserved baroque colonial buildings painted in different colors, giving the city a whimsical vibe which reminds me of Trinidad, Cuba. The city was a critical defense to pirate attacks, additionally fortified with high walls in the 17th century and two hilltop fortresses that now host museums.
Campeche is about a two-hour drive from Mérida.
Where to Stay
The location of Hotel Boutique Casa Don Gustavo is unbeatable. The beautiful colonial-style hotel is located within the walled city, it’s walking distance to the pedestrian street full of restaurants, the Baluartes, Cathedral, and stores.
Mérida has not attracted the same kind of attention from tourists as some other large Mexican cities but that is quickly changing. This versatile city is sneaking onto the radar of visitors who are beginning to comprehend its convenient location and multitude of activities to experience when they tour Merida.
In Mérida, when you say “there is something for everyone,” it is not just a rhetorical statement.
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