Mérida is, undoubtedly, one of my favourite cities in the world. It is such a great place to spend time and what’s more, it’s a perfect hub for seeing the rest of the amazing Yucatan Peninsula. While it may be a three hour drive from the perfect beaches of the Caribbean Coast that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have plenty to offer. You will never be short of things to do in, or around, Mérida. I’ve written previous articles about what to do with kids in Mérida itself and I’ll shortly write about activities for adults too but for now, you’ll just have to enjoy my favourite day trips from Mérida.
A much under visited site about 40km from Mérida. This was probably my favourite excursion from Mérida as we were practically the only people exploring when we were there. Unlike other many other Mayan sites, here we really could get as close to the structures as we wanted. We could climb, touch and explore to our hearts’ content.
The main building, El Castillo de Kukulcan, is a steep climb that our small daughter (then 2.5) couldn’t manage. She has climbed many other ruins but this particular building isn’t in great condition and the day we were there was pretty wet. She and I went and explored other areas while her dad and brother climbed to the top.
Mayapán is thought to have been the political and cultural capital of the Maya people between about 1220 – 1440.
Information: Entry: 40 pesos per person Open: 8am -5pm Bathroom facilities on site No café
Uxmal and The Chocolate Museum
Uxmal is further away than Mayapán but still perfectly doable in one day. It is about an 80km drive from Mérida, approximately half way between Campeche and Mérida. The Chocolate Museum is directly opposite the entrance to Uxmal and is well worth tying in to your day trip. Unlike Mayapán, Uxmal is popular with tourists and therefore has shops and snacks available.
The site is in surprisingly good condition given that it is thought to have been built around 500 CE and was at its zenith between 875-900 CE. It is in the Puuc region and, as such, the buildings are typical Puuc design (I haven’t driven the Puuc route but it is another good day trip from Mérida). Uxmal is considered to be one of the most important Maya sites, along with Chichen Itzá and Palenque.
The views from this site are stunning and there is plenty to climb and explore.
Information: Entry: 111 pesos (split between two separate tickets, ensure you purchase both or you won't get in!) Open: 8am - 5pm Bathroom facilities on site Café
Once you’ve explored here to your heart’s desire, head across the road (take your car just for ease of leaving) in to the Chocolate Museum. This wonderful place is one of four museums around the world that were created by a Belgian, Eddy Van Belle, who dedicated his life to chocolate (entirely putting to shame my own serious dedication to the stuff!). The site truly engages all the senses as it is situated in a botanical garden that also contains a well maintained animal sanctuary. Not only do you get to experience an ancient Mayan chocolate ritual, see how Mayans lived and worked, learn about cacao and how it becomes chocolate but you can also feed monkeys and marvel at a the jaguars. One of the museum halls has a demonstration of how to make traditional Mayan chocolate, which you can also taste.
Information: Entry: 120 pesos (60 for kids 6-12 and seniors, kids under 6, free) Open: 9am - 8pm summer, 9am - 7pm winter Shop on site selling chocolate
Obviously the first option for a beach day trip from Mérida has to be Celestún to see the flamingos. Celestún is a still a small fishing village, it just happens to get plenty of tourists visiting because they want to see the flamingos in the nearby Reserva de la Biosfera Riá Celestún.
You can either take a tour from Mérida or you can drive out there yourself with no trouble at all. Before setting out just decide if you prefer to start your boat ride at the bridge over the riá or on the beach. We found it hard to figure this out in advance as nowhere seemed to offer us pros or cons for either start point. So here´s the information we found so lacking:
Start at the bridge: Slightly less time on the water so probably better for those with less time or those less thrilled about riding through the waves, yes, I said ‘through’.
Start on the beach: Slightly more time on the water as you ride along the coast until you turn in to the riá (estuary) and head towards the bridge. Starting at the beach means you get a chance to see pelicans hanging out and see where the water turns from normal, green, sea water to brackish red estuary water.
As both cost the same, we opted to go from the beach, which was, um, exhilarating to say the least.
If you do decide to go to the beach, just drive through the village until you can see the beach. Park the car and head down to the sand where the guy organising the boats will quickly find you. No need to haggle as the price is set depending on how many are in the boat. If you don’t speak Spanish it’s worth asking around for an English speaking guide, or finding someone to go with who does speak the language.
The boats are flat bottomed so can travel very close to the shore whilst on the sea. Despite this, we found the ride to be incredibly bumpy as we ploughed through the waves. Once you turn off in to the estuary the water suddenly becomes a beautiful red colour. You zoom up here and under the bridge from where most tours begin, until you find the flamingos. I believe the best time to go is April – September but we went in December and still saw a good number of them.
After watching the flamingos for a while, the boat will then head in to the mangroves to a hidden cenote and an ojo de agua (bubbling spring) where you join other tourists walking around a raised platform and possibly even having a quick dip in the cenote. (Take insect repellent as the mosquitoes were terrible here)
Once you’ve had your fill here the boat will slap slap its way through the water and back to the beach, depositing you near a choice of a few restaurants. We had a great meal of delicious fresh fish before wondering down the beach to play and explore the small stalls set up for tourists.
Progreso wins a day trip mention from me partly because it’s so close to Mérida and partly because I do, actually, like the place, it has a certain charm to it. Progreso is the beach destination for locals wanting to escape the oppressive heat of Mérida in the summer months.
From north Mérida it’s a quick twenty minute ride to the beach here. With its malecon (boardwalk) and enormously long pier (6.5km), it’s an interesting place to spend at least a day, for sure. The long pier (one of the longest in the world) was constructed specifically to cater for the enormous cruise ships that dock a couple of times a week (always worth checking out what days are cruise free before heading off to Progreso).
Take the car, start early, head to the beach (park one street back from the malecon for easy access), enjoy breakfast at the Milk Bar before taking a stroll along the beach or in to the small town. When you’re bored or tired, hire a palapa (thatched umbrella and table combo) and rest with a drink. Note: this is one of the few times I ever experienced ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ prices.
If you do swim, note that the currents can be strong along the beach. There are free showers along the side of the beach and many shops also have public bathrooms and changing rooms. These are never pleasant but are good if you’re desperate!
We really enjoyed seeing beautiful sunsets from the old pier and eating marquesitas (traditional Yucatecan ice cream cone / pancake filled with sweet stuff) before heading for drinks and supper.
If you do have a car and fancy driving a bit further, you can drive in to the next village of Chicxulub, the official landing site of the meteor that hit the earth approximately 66 million years ago, wiping out 75% of all plant and animal species in one swift bash. There is an entirely underwhelming plaque in the plaza. It probably isn’t worth a trip all of its own but if you’re in Progreso, then why the hell not? I’m glad I’ve seen it.
In completely the opposite direction, some 50km west of Mérida, is Sisal, a small and quiet fishing village that really is an unexplored gem of a place. It isn’t linked by road to any of the other beaches and rarely appears in travel guides. What you get here is a quiet beach experience with few tourists (but some locals enjoying their quiet spot). There are a few excellent fish restaurants around the beach but little else.
We enjoyed a fabulous meal of freshly caught fish before heading out on to the breezy beach to grab ourselves a palapa, tie up our kite and head in to the water. The sea seems pretty calm here, despite the strong norte winds we experienced. My son and I enjoyed playing in the sea and watching thousands of tiny fish leaping out of the water all around us.
My favourite cenote experience, by far, was not one especially close to Mérida but it was astounding and perfectly possible as a day trip so I’m including it here. If you would like to read more about cenotes in general, you could check out the article I wrote for Almost Fearless, about taking children to cenotes.
This cenote is run as a cooperative by women in the village of the same name. They spent two years clearing it and making it visitor friendly and now they run it together. It is actually closer to Chichén Itzá and Valladolid than Mérida though, on the Mérida – Valladolid Road (180). We combined it with a day trip to Chichén Itzá and felt there was plenty of time for everything.
There is a small restaurant, with adjoining playground, on site, as well as showers and changing rooms. It is possible to rent life jackets as you enter (well worth it was we were told the water was 90m deep). We took our own jackets for the kids but rented them for the adults. The cenote can be accessed either by a steep flight of stairs, or by rappelling in to the water under trained supervision. The cenote is never crowded as it just isn’t as well known as other cenotes in the area.
The website tells me there is also a zip line option, that you can hire bikes and that there is a second cenote on site, but we didn’t see that.
Information: Entry: 70 pesos per adult Open: 9am -5pm Address: Calle 20 S/N entre 27y29, Yokdzonot.
So there you have it, my favourite day trips from Mérida. If you happen to find yourself wondering about the other side of the Peninsula, you could always check out this article by Sand In My Suitcase all about the Riviera Maya and awesome things to do there.
What do you think? I know I haven’t mentioned any towns, again, you’ll just have to watch this space for further articles!