While Quintana Roo is largely a beach vacation get-away, the neighboring state of Yucatán is more complex. Anchored by cosmopolitan Merida, travel around the state is punctuated by architecture left by the Maya, the Spanish, and the henequen plantations – clear evidence of the varied cultures that still inform daily life in this part of Mexico. The state has nice mix of urban places, including Mayan villages where daily life has changed little over time. For those seeking nature, cenotes pierce the ground and the coastline teams with birds. Yucatán does have nice beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, but they are nearly an after-thought.
Yucatán is home to a number of major Mayan sites, including Uxmal and Chichèn Itzá. In many ways this was where Mayan civilization reached its peak. It was also where the Spanish established the city of Merida atop an important Mayan city. Later still it became the heart (and major financial beneficiary) of Mexico’s henequen boom. It’s the perfect place to slow down and explore on your own.
Exploring Yucatán State
While only a few hours from Cancun, relatively few of visitors to Cancun venture into Yucatán state. Even those who do generally get no more farther than the magnificent Mayan ruins at Chichèn Itzá. As amazing as Chichèn Itzá is, it’s only one component of the Yucatán. They are missing so much!
Exploring Colonial Cities
Most cities in Yucatán state follow the Spanish colonial model later codified as the Laws of the Indies, with a gridded street pattern that begins at a large central plaza surrounded by important religious, government, and secular financial institutions and businesses. The location of each type of land uses was proscribed, as were design details such as the use of porticos and the recommendation that buildings be constructed in a single style to increase the beauty of the city. (This development pattern was used throughout the America’s from Lima, Peru, to Santa Fe, New Mexico.) Today you can see this pattern in even the smallest of towns, where the main road into town will inevitably lead to the central plaza with a church, government offices, and a bank (or just an ATM cash machine) and/or major businesses. Here too you will find the heart of the community, as the central plaza is where the local residents come to socialize, shop, and play. It’s a great place to people-watch! Despite the Spanish layout, many smaller cities retain a distinct Mayan flavor as well. Since each city blends these influences differently, there is always something different and interesting to see.
Mérida is the political capital of Yucatán state and the financial and cultural capital of the entire peninsula. With a population somewhere over 800,000, it is also the peninsula’s largest city. Mérida as it exists today was founded in 1542. It was built over the over the ruins of the Mayan city of Ichkanzihóo (T’ho) with the stones of the destroyed Mayan city used to construct new buildings for the Spanish. Since that time the city has experienced a number of economic booms and busts. Today it is a lively city with plenty to see and do.
- Touring expat homes
- Merida after dark
Valladolid is the second city of Yucatán state. We didn’t get to spend time here, making just a quick stop downtown to see the plaza and get some cash. That quick glimpse was enticing though: the city looks like a good place to spend some time. In many ways it is a smaller version of Mèrida, which would make it an excellent base for travelers seeking a colonial city experience, but at a more manageable scale than Mèrida.
Mexico’s Yellow City, Izamal literally glows: Almost every building in the historic colonial core is painted a rich yellow. This is a quiet city with a limited number of restaurants and hotels, but plenty of sites to keep a visitor busy for a day or two.
- A carriage tour of Izamal
- A crafty wonderland (the Centro Cultural y Artesanal)
- The Church and Monastery of St. Anthony of Padua
- Restaurant Kinich
The Convent Route
The Convent Route winds through the Mayan villages south of Mèrida along Route 18. While the designated route features eight churches, there are additional churches worth visiting along and just off the route, as well as a hacienda, Mayan ruins, and a couple of caves.
Exploring Ancient Mayan Culture
Ek Balam is notable for two things: 1) Well-preserved stucco panels located high on one of the temples and 2) freedom to climb the ruins. The restored area is quite small in size, but packs a lot of great sights into that small space. The site is located a short drive north of Valladolid.
- A quick tour of Ek Balam
Recognized as one of the most stunning Mayan sites, Chichèn Itzá is a beautiful puzzle. The site was fist occupied around the 5th century and then abandoned in the 13th. Today it is one of the best preserved and most visited) sites, but one that still holds many mysteries. Chichèn Itzá is located between Mèrida and Valladolid, making it an easy day-trip from Cancun; however, visitors would do better to spend a night in the area to have more time at the ruins.
- Touring Chichèn Itzá
The Puuc Route
The Puuc Route winds through the hilly countryside south of Mèrida. Although most famous for the Mayan ruins found throughout the area, this route also brings visitors to traditional Mayan towns, twisting caverns, and restored haciendas. (It combines nicely with a tour of the Convent Route.)
- Mayan ruins
- Lodging and eating
- Flycatcher Inn
- The Pickled Onion
Uxmal is generally considered to be the finest example of Puuc architecture, with stone friezes, intricate cornices, lots of columns, and vaulted arches. It’s the primary site along the Ruta Puuc and is well worth a visit.
Yucatán State has many, many miles of fine beaches, but none as fine as those on the Caribbean side of the peninsula. Instead it has coastal estuaries and wetlands that support huge numbers of birds, a variety of caverns that are open to visitors, and a number of notable cenotes.
Celestun is part traditional fishing village and part beach vacation get-away, but since most of the visitors here are either Mexicans enjoying time at the beach or eco-tourists looking for birds, it feels like an undiscovered part of Mexico. There is just one truly fancy hotel near here (there are none in the town itself) and best restaurants apparently prepare whatever the local fishermen brought in that morning. (We didn’t actually find a good restaurant, but I keep hearing they exist.) The beach is ok, but it isn’t as spectacular as elsewhere on the peninsula and it appears that attempts to turn the town into an expat beach town like Progresso or Chelem will continue to fail.
Under construction. . .
Haciendas and the Sisal Boom
Planning Your Trip
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All Mexican Yucatán posts