Merida, the surrounding Maya archaeological sites and cenotes

Merida is the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan on the north of the Yucantan peninsula. The city has a very nice and lively colonial centre radiating around the main square (Plaza Grande). Recently, it has also attracted a lot of investors from the US due to its favourable climate, security and proximity to the beaches.

We spent a short weekend in Merida and the surrounding Maya archaeological sites. The city of Merida is not that big and does not offer that many tourist sights. However, the Yucatan food is delicious and is one of the traditional Mexican food varieties. Merida is also excellent to explore the state of Yucatan, which offers archaeological sites, natural wonders such as cenotes and pink flamingos, as well as nice beaches.

We spent the first day exploring the city of Merida, which can be seen in less than a day. On our second day we rented a car and went to the ruins of Uxmal and the Ruta Puuc to the south of Merida, as well as Loltun caves and a henequén hacienda. The day was quite packed and we were still left with things we wanted to see.

Sightseeing in Merida

Most of the tourist sites are concentrated on or close to the Plaza Grande (the zocalo of Merida). The square itself is very nice and is surrounded with beautiful buildings. There you can also find the typical ‘couples’ benches, i.e. benches for two people facing each other.

The main sights are the Palacio de Gobierno (the green government palace), which features some beautiful murals made by Fernando Castro Pacheco. Especially the front room on the upper floor is really worth visiting.

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On the western edge of the square there is the (somewhat) modern Centro Cultural Olimpo where they have art performances and temporary exhibitions. IMG_6137 (800x600)At the time we visited, there was a rather interesting exhibition of Carlos Monsiváis y Francisco Toledo. Definitely worth peeking in what is on offer. Next door is also the Palacio Municipal with a few more murals.

On the south end, there is the Museo Casa Montejo, which features original furniture used by its inhabitants and photography exhibition. But it is most interesting from an architectural point of view, mainly the facade outside and the courtyard inside.

To complete the circle, on the eastern side there is the Merida cathedral and a museum of modern art, which we didn’t visit. However, the best thing in Merida is that everything is open late. I’m sure that is due to the unsupportable heat during the day. The whole square is really cool at night and there is even a video projection onto the cathedral.

Calle 60 is the main street with most of the other places of interest. It leads north from the main square passing by the Parque Hidalgo, a nice church, Teatro Peón Conteras, Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán and Parque de Santa Lucía. IMG_6128 (800x600)All of these are worth seeing, but especially the latter one has a very nice atmosphere in the evening with lots of restaurants.

Another famous street is the Paseo Montejo, which was the local attempt to create a modern boulevard, inspired in French boulevards. There are some nice houses monuments lining the Paseo, but all in all it is a bit sad nowadays.

In the north of the city there is the Museo del Mundo Maya, which shows the Maya civilisation from today all the way back to antiquity. IMG_6123 (800x600)The museum does not have a very large selection of objects, but many are well placed and there are models of Maya buildings, which are quite interactive and show the Maya life. So I think it’s quite worth visiting. In addition, there is a small exhibition on the famous Chicxulub meteorite that fell on Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago and wiped out most of the life on the planet.

From the museum it is another 10km to Dzibilchaltún, a small archaeological site. We didn’t go, but some friends went and they said it was worth it.

Day trip to the South from Merida

We started the day early and drove directly to Uxmal. It takes about an 1.5h to drive there, so we arrived at the height of the heat. Uxmal is quite big and really worth visiting, one of my favourite Maya sights so far. We spent some 2 hours exploring the ruins. There is the main pyramid that you can climb up and also a really nice patio.

After Uxmal we continued along the Ruta Puuc, which is a small road that leads you by several sites – Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná. We decided to stop only at the last one. It is quite small, but has a nicely preserved arch and a pyramid with a roof-comb on top.

The road ends at caves – Grutas de Loltun. There is an obligatory guided tour of the cave, which takes for 1h 20 minutes and leaves at predetermined times (last one is at 4pm). The guide explains some interesting things, but at times is also quite long-winded. The tour could definitely have been shorter.

On the way back to Merida we stopped at the Hacienda Ochil. It is just along the road between Uxmal and Merida and for 40 pesos you can have a look around the old henequén production farm. It also has a cenote, but it doesn’t look inviting at all.

Food in Merida

The Yucatán food is really something special. There is a very large selection of dishes, such as cochinical pibil (or other pibil meat), sopa de lima, panuchos, queso relleno, brazo de reina, relleno negro, marquesitas, and much more. Merida is full of great restaurants to savour their great food.

Mercado 60: A relatively new and very popular outdoor market. The food stalls surround a seating area, so you can choose form whatever food you like and sit in the middle with your friends. They also have live music on the weekends and are open late (until 1am). We chose the food stall serving Yucatan food – Ki’o’och (down at the back). We had some cochinita pibil, costras (taco with fried cheese instead of tortilla) and panuchos. The food was delicious. We also had plenty of beers there, as the atmosphere is great. A must in Merida!

Chaya Maya: A very popular restaurant that has an extremely long list of Yucatan specialities. I really recommend going here for lunch and ordering several dishes to taste the variety of the local cuisine. We had a queso relleno, brazo de reina and plato yucateco. The food was delicious and the seating is in a nice patio of this old colonial house. A must in Merida!

Amaro: A restaurant in a nice patio that serves Yucatan and other international food. There are plenty of vegetarian options and the cochinita was also good, but in general the restaurant was very average and the service poor. They even added 15% tip automatically to the bill, which we found steep and rude, especially as the service was not worth it at all. I think it is very bad practice to include 15% on the bill. Not recommended at all.

Marquesitas are some sort of Yucatan-style crepe. It’s made of similar dough, but it is hard and usually filled with cheese (queso de bola). However, you can chose other toppings, my favourite are banana and peanut butter. You can find them all around Merida in the evenings, however the best one I had was just in front of the Parroquia de Santiago.

Restaurante Loltun: Right opposite to the Loltun caves there is this very simple restaurant. After the caves we were very hungry, so we went there for convenience. We didn’t expect much and we were very positively surprised. The food was actually very good and fresh, especially the sopa de lima and the pork plate.

Bars and clubs: The centre of Merida is full of bars and clubs. We went to one called La Fundacion Mezcaleria and it was a very interesting experience. You pay 30 pesos as the entrance fee to this lady behind bars, and for that they give you a mezcal. Inside it is like an old house with crazy decor and a back patio.

Hotel La Mision Panamericana: Old and kitsch hotel. The rooms were quite old, but decent. The building is really kitsch and the service is quite poor. All in all it was OK, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend staying there.

SPECIAL CONTRIBUTION: Cenotes around Homún by Mauricio Rodríguez

Mauricio (thank you!!!) was very sweet to provide me with his personal experience of a day-trip to the cenotes around Homun, hence here “I” refers to Mauricio.

Homun is a little town with 30-ish different cenotes (sinkholes) and kind people. Cenotes were a holy place for the Maya, who believed that cenotes were the connections to the under-world and so they used them to give offerings to the gods. However, nowadays us tourists just throw ourselves into the cenotes to enjoy the cool water and take awesome selfies.
I’ll start by saying that this was the best and unexpected cenote experience I have ever had and, believe me, I have visited a lot of cenotes in my life. I would like to tell you my story, just promise to treat the guides fairly and preserve the places you visit.
I left from Merida Noreste bus station, where for $24 pesos I got a one way ticket to Homún. The bus takes about 1h20min to Homun as is it stops very often on the way. After you arrive to the town, you will see many tuctuc stile taxis and they show you a variety of pictures of the cenotes they can take you to. They charge $250 pesos (plus tips) for a tour of unlimited time to visit as many cenotes as you want.
IMG_6231 (800x600)The tuctuc taxi has space for up to 4 people but note that it is a very simple vehicle and is part of the experience. If you want, you can also ask your guide to provide you with a bucket of cold beers 😉 From there you just have to relax and trust your tuctuc guide to take you to an amazing variety of cenotes.
He will give you explanations and even take pics for you with your phone/camera (a friend of mine says they even take photo lessons). When you arrange the tour you can tell him if you have any special interests, how much time you have and what kind of cenotes you’re looking for. Or you can simply ask him for recommendations and trust his judgement to take you to nice places.
I arrived to Homun a bit late and didn’t have that much time left, so my guide took me for a basic route of five cenotes. Don’t understand the ‘basic’ wrongly, these five cenotes were amazing and each one was unique. I stayed about 20min at each cenote, but it’s up to you how much time you want to spend at each one. Entrance fee to each of the cenotes was between $20 and $30 pesos.
Here I describe my experience in each one of the cenotes I visited:
1. The first cenote was the furthest away one and the access was along a dusty road. I don’t remember the name but it was an open cenote with big stairs, plenty of space to swim, a platform and a rope to swing in. Really nice for a start.
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2. Cenote Bal-Mil was the next one. It’s quite big and has stalactites and stalagmites so you get a cave feeling as you enter. The guide explained to me that the Maya used this cave as a holy place and he showed some some hands painted on the rocks. I took a quick dip in the water and continued. Really nice one!
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3. Yaxbacaltun was super fun, it’s an open cenote and has lots of space to swim. I liked the fact that it had a swing rope and a diving platform. Plenty of light gets into the cenote so you can see how deep it is. I dove in a few times and continued onward. (There is a tiny zoo at the entrance, which I found a little bit sad)
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4. At this point my guide had noticed I liked adventure, so he took me to a lesser known cenote (sorry I don’t remember the name of this one either) were one can jump in from a tree (12 mts) or from the top of the stairs (9 mts). I didn’t dare to jump from the tree though. This cenote, however, was tiny so after the jump and a bit of floating we were gone, but it was good enough for what I wanted.
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5. Santa Rosa was the last one I visited. There is a tiny entrance through which you descend 5 meters down on a well build wooden staircase. As the sun light does not get in, it’s lit by differently coloured lamps. It’s quite a spooky dive because you can’t see clearly how deep it is. I also got a little nervous as I was the only person down there. It’s the first centote of this kind I have ever seen. Close to the cenote there is a restaurant that looks quite good, so it would be a good idea to go when you get hungry.
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Recommendations: Start early, take water with you and a small towel. You’ll also need some money and maybe your goggles. You can wear flip flops and a bathing suit, but try not to use any lotion/cream that can pollute the water, don’t let anything behind and take everything away with you. Please don’t stay on the trees roots or climb the rocks, we must preserve these places and maintain this type of tourism simple and personal. I have heard nice experiences about all the tour guides, so just go with one who seems nice to you. Happy diving!

For next time: Places we didn’t manage to go to

There’s plenty of really nice restaurants on the Parque de Santa Lucia, but they are also extremely busy for dinner, so I recommend reserving in advance. We particularly wanted to go to Apoala.

The the areas there are plenty of other ruins that can be explored and the ruins of Mayapan have been highly recommended.

There are also the pink flamingos that can be seen on the coast in the village of Celestún.



6 responses to “Merida, the surrounding Maya archaeological sites and cenotes

  1. Thanks Mau, for the description of the cenotes. That sounds amazing! (obviously, I knew about the rest of the Mérida trip already, haha). I’m going again on Sunday, but now I wish I had decided to go on Saturday so that I could spend the Sunday visiting the cenotes…. Oh well, I’m sure there will be another opportunity!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I went to Merida last August and fall in love for the city, the people, the food and the colour are stunning and has such a rich and interesting history. Really enjoyed reading your post, sounds that you also had lots of fun 🙂 Ana xx

    Liked by 1 person

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