Most frequent flyers have explored the beautiful beach cities of Mexico at one time or another. But when you desire somewhere sunny but less explored, you should head to Merida, the largest city in the Yucatán and its cultural hub. In Merida, you’ll find history, flavor and adventure that will send you home with original stories and leave you feeling like you’ve found a hidden gem. The people are hospitable and eager to show off all their destination has to offer.
Merida is bustling with life yet submerged in history. Its location opens access to a number of amazing excursions with very little drive time between them. The Merida experience, really, is more than the city itself; in some ways it embodies the entirety of the Yucatán region. And while there are countless things to do in Merida and the surrounding area, in my experience there are some that you just can’t miss.
Here are five can’t-miss things to do in Merida, Mexico:
1. See the ruins at Uxmal
The archaeological ruins of Uxmal—located only an hour and 15 minutes from Merida—compose one of the most important of all surviving Mayan sites. This partially restored world offers a well-preserved look into life in the ancient civilization. There are no frills, and it isn’t over touristy, so it’s easy to find your way into the mindset of a Mayan living in the years around 850 AD. It’s an easy excursion and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
You can pay to enter and walk the grounds yourself or pay for a guide. I suggest a guide to get the most out of the visit. The history at Uxmal is fascinating, and you can really visualize life back then with a guide’s help.
Tip: Wear comfortable clothes and shoes as there is some walking and climbing involved if you want to see it all.
2. Swim underground at Cenotes Hacienda Muyuche
One of the coolest excursions I’ve ever taken was to Cenotes Hacienda Muyuche. A cenote (pronounced: seh-no-tay) is a kind of sinkhole that contains groundwater, but the definition doesn’t even begin to describe how cool it is. Imagine a huge underground cave, millions of years old, filled with the most magnificent blue water and lined top to bottom with enormous stalactites and stalagmites.
At Cenotes Hacienda Muyuche, a guide takes you through a plush pathway to a set of stairs that lead down to a series of connected caves. You float through them and have snorkel gear to take in all that lies below. You feel like you’ve swum back in time! These specific cenotes have only been open to the public for several years, and when you leave you’ll feel like you’ve experienced something very special.
3. Cruise the Rio Lagartos to Celestun
Take a short boat trip on the Rio Lagartos to Celestun and you’ll be seeing pink—thousands of pink flamingos in their natural habitat, that is. It’s an amazing sight, full of photo opportunities. The unique ecosystem at Celestun is created by a confluence of saltwater from the gulf and freshwater from an estuary and it supports over 300 species of bird. It’s a place to enjoy nature undisturbed.
A boat tour via Rio Lagartos includes a stop at the freshwater springs to go swimming, so wear your swimsuit. It’s a great way to leave the city behind for the day and enjoy a really untouched part of the Yucatán that not everyone gets to see.
4. Eat the Yucantán at Museo de Gastronomía Yucateca
The city of Merida itself is a destination of its own, abounding with music, architecture, cultural attractions, life…and definitely food. The city boasts a plethora of great places to dine. If you really wanted, you could eat your way through the city for a week. But if you want to make sure you hit one of the best, you should go thrill your taste buds at the Museo de Gastronomía Yucateca. Here, they don’t just feed you, but instead take you on a food exploration of the region.
It starts with a tour of ingredients indigenous to the are such as the habañero pepper as well as the tools and utensils used by the ancient Mayans to prepare their meals. Next, in the beautiful courtyard in the back of the in-house restaurant, a series of huts host an education in the history of meal preparation. One hut even has someone making tortillas from scratch to be used in the meal that will follow. The dishes and cocktails are delicious, too, and beautiful, and made with fresh ingredients. The simplest of cooking techniques are used to create the most tantalizing of dishes. It’s not just dinner; it’s a dining experience.
5. Relax away from crowds at Xixim
Now if you do want a little beach on your trip but not the normal line of high-end hotels down the sand, then less than two hours from Merida—in Celestun—is a special place: the secluded beach resort of Xixim. This unique Mayan hotel sits alone on a private beach far from the rest of the world. On your way there, you’ll realize how off-the-beaten-track you are. And at the beach resort, you’ll have everything you could want, from wellness and gastronomy to romance and breathtaking views of the water all to yourself. You can stay for the day or check in for a few. Either way you’ll be delighted you did. It doesn’t feel like a resort, rather your own private village by the sea.
How to get to Merida
Multiple U.S. cities offer direct flights or connections with short layovers in Mexico City to Merida. If you’re departing from southern California, I recommend taking the Cross Border Xpress (CBX) from San Diego directly into Tijuana International Airport (TIJ) and then a non-stop flight on Volaris from there.