Parque Animaya, or, to give it its full name: Parque Zoológico del Bicentenario Animaya, is a true hidden gem for Merida. It doesn’t feature in the guidebooks (or at least, it isn’t in our 2016 Lonely Planet) and we didn’t see many tourists when we were there at the weekend. One reason for its non-appearance might be its distance from town. Buses do go that way from the corner of San Juan, down town, however.
The park is entirely free. Yes, free. This quiet and understated small safari park is free from carpark to ‘catamaran’ and ‘safari’ tour around the animals; it’s free. Yes, I’ve said that a number of times now but finding something entirely free and truly fun is quite a special thing, right?
The first thing you see upon entering is a huge obelisk with Mayan style animals all over it. This is an observation deck. If you’re lucky there won’t be a queue for the lift (elevator) and you’ll be able to shoot up to the roof for a fantastic view of the park and environs. There are two short flights of stairs to go up once you leave the lift so it’s not great if you have mobility issues. They also make you leave buggies (strollers) at the bottom.
After we’d been up and checked everything out I thought I’d tire out the kids while Col (husband) returned to OXXO to buy terrible sandwiches as we’d assumed there would be a restaurant in the park. I had them running around the obelisk for a good fifteen minutes (suckers) before we sat down to work out all the animals in English and Spanish.
From the obelisk, turn right to queue for tickets for the ‘catamaran’ and bus safaris and to have a gentle wander around. Turn left to walk to the playground, water park (not open in December or during the week, it’s a weekend thing), some sort of bird park that closed by the time we got to it, the picnic benches and a good walk around the animal enclosures.
Animals: the animals are pretty much roaming as they please. They have a large area with a big lake in which they can move. It’s obviously nothing like a real safari but it’s probably the best zoo type experience we’ve ever had. There are no cages and you see giraffe, zebra, ostrich, wildebeest etc all together. My kids loved that they could sit on the swings and watch a mummy and kid giraffe together.
We didn’t make it all the way around on foot, partly because the kids are little but mainly because we were having so much fun just chilling out and feeling super relaxed out of the city. We will absolutely be returning to check out the bits we missed very soon, especially because a friend told me there’s a lion in there somewhere (update, there absolutely is a lion enclosure).
We did manage to get on the ‘catamaran’. It’s small, maybe takes twenty people. Everyone has to wear a lifejacket and kids under 90cm aren’t allowed. They do care, we saw one family who had clearly tricked the ticket person in to letting them through then get stopped when trying to board the boat. I also tried holding our small girl up a bit when she was measured. I was spotted and told to leave her alone. Luckily she seems to have grown recently and we were fine! The kids loved the ride. We went all around, seeing monkeys, capybara, terrapins, giraffe, loads of interesting birds, zebra and more.
Food and drink: there are no restaurants inside so take a picnic. There are drink machines around selling fizzy drinks and water for 8pesos each and there is a OXXO (7 Eleven type of store) opposite the entrance should you need more fizzy drinks, bad sandwiches or any flavour crisp you can imagine. There are also a few stalls set up outside the entrance but nothing at all inside. We saw a picnic area just as we were leaving. I’m sure it was fine.
Facilities: bathrooms were nice and clean but we only saw any near the entrance. Free wifi and motorised wheelchairs for older people are provided. We found two ‘cooling stations’ – big tents with water dripping and steaming for you to walk through (we assume). They kids loved playing in them and we actually found them very refreshing. There are bins everywhere and the place is spotless. Signs all over remind people that this is their park and they should look after it. It felt loved.
BIG, IMPORTANT TIP: the safari rides only run at set times and you can’t get on without tickets. They run every 15 minutes or so on the weekend (the park is open during the week but the rides are only at the weekend) but with a gap from 1200ish to 1300ish. When we arrived we saw people sitting on benches in a long line but didn’t really know why. We soon learned: they were killing two birds with one stone and having lunch while they waited for the ticket office to open. Because we didn’t do the same we ended up at the very back and didn’t get tickets early enough to get on the bus as well as the ‘catamaran’. So, when you arrive, check out the ticket kiosk immediately and join any queue to ensure you get tickets. We were told we could only have tickets to one ride at a time and that when we got back we could queue again. We did but there were none left. The last rides are at 4pm.
Our day out here was so relaxing, even though there were lots of people it didn’t ever feel crowded and as I said, there were barely any tourists there, just lots of Mexican families having fun in the sun.
Address: Animaya: Calle 60 866, Fracc. Ciudad Caucel, 97314 Mérida, Yuc.
Far more popular (read busy) is the zoo in downtown Merida (Parque Zoologico del Centenario). It’s more easily accessible and also free but there is no comparing the two. The zoo has some truly incredible animals but they’re in tiny cages that are totally inappropriate and it’s just depressing to walk around and see how badly treated the animals are. My visiting mother even saw an adult poke a chimpanzee with a stick and laugh. The cages are bare and the animals pace. It’s almost worse that the bulk of the animals are apes and large cats because they just shouldn’t be caged at all. We will admit to enjoying watching the terrapins throw themselves in the water and the snake room is very good.
To be honest, we don’t understand why the municipal government doesn’t just move all the animals out to the other zoo park and keep this just as a play area. Our four-year-old, of his own volition, told me that he likes the safari park better than the zoo because the animals can move around and they don’t look so unhappy. And he’s not exactly an observant little guy!
Upon entering this zoo you can purchase tickets for the mini train that runs around the circumference of the park. Tickets cost a whopping 1 peso each. On quiet days the queue is minimal, on busy days, the queue can get pretty long. The ride is nice enough though and small kids love it. In addition to the small zoo there is also a funfair type area with trampolines, a small chairlift and some other small rides. These are not free but they’re not expensive either. The playground is more of the same Merida-esq playground (metal and brightly coloured) but they add a train and aeroplane for the kids to climb on. There is also a small area of the playground just for kids with disabilities.
The water fountain area wasn’t on when we were there but it looks as if it would be fun once the days of warm enough for Mexicans to consider outdoor water play.
Food and drink: there are lots of small stalls selling food. We sampled some of it and quickly decided it wasn’t for us. Some of it smelled really bad and some of it just tasted wrong. Maybe we were unlucky but I don’t think that this was necessarily a one off (and I’ll eat just about anywhere). We walked around for a while and eventually found a pizza and sandwich restaurant in an old train. The food was fine and the guy working there was very nice.
There are bathrooms and they’re ok for Mexican bathrooms.
Address: Avenida Itzaes (any taxi driver could get you there and any google search will bring it up but it’s officially ‘por las calles 59, 65 y 84’ – this is its address using the complicated [but eventually understandable] Merida format)
If you have enjoyed these zoos and need more fun things to do, why not check out my other articles on things to do in Mérida with kids: free activities for kids in Mérida and finding fun for kids in Mérida.