Mérida, a Yucatecan city, is mesmerizing; if visiting, try to stay at a hotel within walking distance of the Plaza Principal. There are many nice walks to be had in Mérida itself, to enjoy shopping, eating, people watching, museums. It’s an attractive, electric, yet manageable city of one million people. I felt extremely safe traveling there as a single woman – safer, in fact, than I feel in most parts of the U.S. There are wonderful, free, cultural events like music and dancing at the Plaza Principal; most of the attendees will be locals. The locals are as much fun to watch as the performers.
But one of the best things about Mérida is the day trips you can make from there to somewhere else. I had a rental car, a secure spot in which to park at the hotel (the wonderful and charming Casa SacNicte Bed & Breakfast, http://www.casasacnicte.com), and enjoyed, by day, some of the best vacation adventures I’ve had anywhere.
My numero uno recommendation, by far, is to go to Izamal for a half or full day. Izamal is located 45 minutes northwest of Mérida by car. It’s the little yellow city that could, with buildings bathed in a uniform vibrant yellow and buzzing with energy. The imposing Franciscan Monastery was built as a partial amends to the Maya people for Bishop Landa’s almost incomprehensible destruction of ancient Maya culture. Pope John Paul visited in the early ‘90s. Small Maya ruins can be visited within town limits.
My second suggestion is to visit the three fantastical cenotes (swimming holes, sinkholes, caves, and caverns of all descriptions) at Cuzama. Gentlemen will be hanging around waiting for gringo and Mexican families to choose them, their miniature horses, and their fashionably decorated buggies for a modest and well-worth-it fee of $20 U.S. to bring you deep into the woods where you will be left to visit and swim in each cenote. I did the whole trip in a couple hours and felt rushed; it would be better as a half day excursion. Be prepared for climbing up and down steep stairs and ladders, and bring your camera’s tripod. If you can’t easily open your eyes underwater, bring goggles so you can see the beautiful underwater sights – bring snorkeling gear, if you have it. The water in most cenotes is crystal clear with excellent visibility. Expect a significant amount of physical jostling while in the buggy. Add a visit to the nearby ruins of Mayapán to make it a full day trip. I loved these ruins – they are compact and dramatic and you can still view color art friezes on several walls. I recommend visiting Mayapán first thing in the morning and then the cenotes at Cuzama in the afternoon.
My third recommendation: driving the Ruta Puuc (the Puuc Ruins Route) to see all the Maya ruins, especially Uxmal. This would make for a long day, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world to just see Uxmal. Uxmal is a wonder and deserves a full day of exploring, if not two. As with all Maya ruins, the noteworthy suggestion is to arrive early, before the tour buses arrive. I made it a habit to arrive at ruins by opening hour – usually 8 a.m. – and was able to enjoy quiet moments without the hordes of tourists (not to mention the hot sun). If there’s one suggestion worth taking, this is it: ruins = arrive early.
My fourth suggestion is a shorter excursion than the others – drive north of Mérida to see the Maya ruins of Dzibilchaltún (less than a half hour away); bring your walking shoes as they’re beautifully sprawled. Don’t forget your bathing suit and a towel so that you can enjoy a quick swim in the clear, fresh cenote with the lily pads and curious fish. Afterward, continue driving north another half hour to the little beach town of Progreso. Progreso is worth visiting just to see what a beach town on the north coast of the Yucatán Peninsula looks like – it’s a small, scrappy place, but you’ll be able to enjoy a good meal and there are decent and moderately priced Maya and Mexican goods to be purchased. Be prepared to be harassed by vendors.
My fifth recommendation would be to drive to the well-known, jaw dropping Maya ruins at Chichén Itzá, and since you’re going all that way, plan on visiting the nearby Ik Kil Cenote. Chichén Itzá is filled with tourists and vendors by 11 a.m., so if you go, go early. Ik Kil is also filled with tourists and you’ll have to pay more than you think you should to get in; it’s so beautiful, do it anyway. As is the mantra, bring your bathing suit, a towel and plenty of film. A tripod may be helpful since the cenote is deep and sufficient natural lighting is not guaranteed.
All this being said, I prefer the smaller and more recently discovered Maya ruins north of Chichén Itzá called Ek’Balam. Ek’Balam has some of the most beautiful Maya art and carvings I’ve seen; they look like they were created last year, not in 800 A.D. If you arrive early enough, you may be the only one there to enjoy the site for the first hour. See these ruins now before all the other tourists catch on to their wonder.
BONUS! My sixth suggestion is a bit of an “adventure” and not for the fainthearted. Drive to the remote Maya Oxkintok ruins down a long, deserted, potholed road to enjoy these ruins (probably alone), then take a short drive to the nearby Calcehtok Caves for a private, impromptu tour of a (dry) cave system in which many ancient Maya families used to live. There’s no lighting of any kind, there will be hundreds of bats flying overhead; the pungent (and potentially toxic) fumes from the bat guano may be more than you can stand. It’s also one of the coolest things you can do and see in Mexico.
Get your little butt out there!