Growing up, my family made a few trips to Mexico, mainly to Mexico City, where our relatives lived. This meant we never got to explore other parts of the country. So, when my cousin got married last month in Merida on the western side of the Yucatan Peninsula, we were excited to have an opportunity to not only visit with family but also to get to know a new part of Mexico.
Photo by Second-Half Travel
Merida and the state of Yucatan
When most people think of the Yucatan Peninsula, they think of Cancun and Riviera Maya, the most popular tourist destinations. However, if you’re looking to get away from the touristy and the tacky, head west. The state of Yucatan offers much of the same attractions, but with a much slower pace. Think more eco-tourism and Mayan ruins, less obnoxious tourists getting ruined.
Merida, the state capital, is full of a good mixture of locals and tourists and its currently having its moment in the sun. On weekend nights, the downtown is packed with people of all ages enjoying a cool evening out after a hot day. Overall, it’s a beautiful, safe, and friendly city where you can eat a ton of great food, practice your dance moves, and have a great base to explore the Yucatan from.
Cenotes, Ruins, and Beaches
Cenotes are natural pits or sinkholes that dot the Yucatan Peninsula. These gorgeous natural formations, believed to be formed by the meteor that killed the dinosaurs, are all unique. Some serve as small swimming holes, while others are much larger cave-like formations that attract curious underwater explorers.
Within an hours drive you can find a few ancient archaeological sites with little foot traffic and lots of opportunities to walk along ancient streets. Dzibilchaltun is a popular destination. It has all you can ask for—it’s 30 minutes from the city, it’s a Mayan ruin, plus there’s a cenote you can swim in. Uxmal is a bit further away, but you should not pass up an opportunity to see this UNESCO World Heritage site.
While some are more attracted to the white sand beaches of the east side of the Yucatan Peninsula, the beaches near Merida provide a good opportunity for quiet time on the water, great seafood, and friendly small towns with very welcoming locals. The closest you’ll probably find to a tourist infested party town is Progreso. However, if you time your visit right, when there aren’t cruise ships docked, you’ll find plenty of local tourists and families having a good time at this port town disguised as a beach town.
24 Hours in Merida
Stay downtown. We found a beautiful little house near the neighborhood of Santiago. It was close enough to all the downtown sites, a few minutes from the city zoo, and close to many plazas, parks, and playgrounds.
Have lunch and shop at the Mercado Lucas de Galvez. The bustling downtown market is full of street eats, fresh food, and is a great opportunity to see how the locals live. The market and the surrounding streets are jam-packed with chaos. It’s lots of fun, but can be overwhelming if you’re not ready for it.
Ride a bike down closed streets. Every Sunday, for a few hours, select streets are completely closed off to cars to give way to bicycles. This creates a pretty relaxed, family-friendly event. There are lots of places that will rent bikes and stops set up along the way to hang out.
Hang out at a plaza. Merida is full of plazas and each of them always seems to have something unique going on—live music, dance rehearsals, or festivals. Plaza Grande is the main square and your best bet for a good time.
Have a beer at Nacion Brava. The Yucatan’s two independent craft brewers have setup an awesome brewpub in downtown Merida. If you’re anything like me, after a while, you get tired of light lagers and pilsners and start craving a big milk stout or an IPA. These guys have the stuff. We met one of the head brewers and his girlfriend who also happened to be the head chef. They were really cool, laid back, and told me to tell you to go drink their beer.
Drink mezcal and practice your dance moves at La Fundacion Mezcaleria. The Yucatan’s first mezcaleria, this place was full of older tourists, backpackers, and locals all dancing to live music and drinking some great mezcal and buckets of beer. Truly a laid back time, though it did get a bit crowded.
Eat all the food. Though Oaxaca may be the crown jewel of regional cuisines, Yucatan cuisine is not far behind. With a mix of Mayan, Caribbean, African, and Middle Eastern influences, there is nothing to miss.