When planning a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, you may automatically think of Cancun, however, there is a city to the west that should also be on your radar. Merida, Mexico is not only the capital of the Yucatan state, but also the largest city in the region. It’s filled with Spanish-colonial history, museums, art galleries, shops and a bustling food scene. Outside of the city you can dive deeper into the history of the area and the natural and manmade wonders of the region.
Merida was once one of the wealthiest cities in the world thanks to the henequen plantations that populated the area. Wealthy owners built their Spanish colonial mansions in town, while workers lived in or near the plantation. This wealth lead to a promenade fashioned after the wide, tree-lined boulevards that were being built in Europe at the time, the Merida Cathedral and other prominent buildings in the area. Sadly, banks and other major businesses that have the money to pay for the upkeep now own most of the mansions, but a few are still privately owned. The area’s unique geographic location (the original Mayan city was built on five hills), allowed it to grow separately from much of Mexico, bringing out their own traditions, as well as preserving the Yucatec Maya language, which is spoken by about a third of the population, along with Spanish.
Outside of Merida, you will find the haciendas—the old henequen factories—many of which are crumbling, but a few have been restored. Hacienda Petac is a luxury property that can be rented out for a few days or even weeks at a time. It was lovingly restored a decade ago, but preserved the history the area is known for. Other haciendas have been turned into luxury hotels, while even more have been left to crumble. You can bike the area to find a few old haciendas, or you can hire Ralf Hollmann at Lawson’s Yucatan to bring you to his favorite spots. Hollmann doesn’t believe in a one-size-fits-all type of tour. He gets no kick backs and only takes you to what you want to see. Make sure he brings you to the lemon meringue lady. You won’t be sorry.
Dancing and Bicycles
Every Saturday night visitors can enjoy a traditional folk dance performance at the Remate Paseo Montejo. Chairs are set up, but you can also camp out on a bit of turf or curb and enjoy a snack from one of the vendors serving up local bites. Paseo Montejo (the main boulevard that is home to some of the most incredible mansions from colonial days) also becomes a bicycle free for all, as it shuts down to cars late Saturday night and all day Sunday.
Cenote Caves and Mayan Ruins
The Yucatan peninsula is known for its Mayan heritage and ruins. Outside of Merida you will find Uxmal, an ancient Mayan town that was home to about 25,000 people and was founded in 700 A.D. There are several Mayan structures on the grounds of this UNESCO World Heritage site, but you can only climb to the top of one of them. Bring plenty of water and a snack, especially in the summer months, as the hike is worth it, but very hot.
After you finish your walk through Mayan history, head back towards town and jump into one of the community run cenote caves. The Yucatan is full of cenotes, which are collapsed caves that have lost their roof, but now allow humans better access to the fresh water flowing through the region. Some cenotes are clearer than others, just as some are much more crowded than others. Ask your hotel for suggestions if you have a car or grab a guide to take you to a few of the best in the area.
Many people know Merida, Mexico because of the cruise ships. Visitors pop in for the day and leave without really exploring anything beyond the town center or the beach. That beach, Progreso, is OK, but not one of the best beaches in Mexico. Like most cruise ports, it’s just a port. You need to get out of the area to hit the best beaches, or simply book a tour of the cenote caves.
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