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Outdoors in Mérida and Yucatán

The Flamingos of Celestún
Outdoors in Mérida and Yucatán
Visitors who enjoy the outdoors will find lots to love in and around Mérida, such as viewing flamingos in their natural environment, wandering ancient Maya sites, exploring caves and swimming holes, or simply soaking up the city's atmosphere on foot or by bike.
By Julie Schwietert Collazo, AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of Yucatan Tourism Board
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    The Flamingos of Celestún
    The Flamingos of Celestún
    Many of Mérida's natural attractions lie outside the city proper, including the coastal town of Celestún, which is about an hour west. The town is situated amid a biosphere reserve that is best known as a feeding and breeding ground for flamingos. Take a boat ride to see these colorful birds (not to mention herons and pelicans). Ask locals about the best spots for swimming in freshwater springs, or jump on a tour through a petrified mangrove forest. If you just want to relax, head back into town and just lay your towel on the beach, which is lined with plenty of casual seaside eateries selling fresh seafood.
    Photo courtesy of Yucatan Tourism Board
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    Mérida's Archaeological Sites
    Mérida's Archaeological Sites
    Mérida is the capital of the state of Yucatán, which is home to more than a dozen excavated Maya areas that are open to the public. The most famous—and most visited—is Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New7Wonders of the World. It's located 75 miles east of Mérida; though the drive is easy, you may prefer to hire a guide. Closer Maya locales include Mayapán, about 30 miles east of Mérida, and Uxmal, about 50 miles south of Mérida. Climbing is no longer allowed at many of these (including Chichén Itzá), but bring sturdy shoes for long walks and hiking. Some sites (again, Chichén Itzá included) have natural swimming holes, so you might want your bathing suit too.
    Photo courtesy of Yucatan Tourism Board
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    Sunday Cycling in Mérida
    Sunday Cycling in Mérida
    Several of Mexico's larger cities close off main thoroughfares for a half day each Sunday so that cyclists, in-line skaters, and pedestrians can enjoy the empty streets while they get some exercise and fresh air. Mérida is among these cities, ensuring that about three miles of main roads are car-free from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. If you left your rig at home, don't worry; bicycles are available for rent. (Be sure to bring a form of identification to secure your own set of wheels.) The city has designated three primary routes, each of which was chosen to show off Mérida's most beautiful architectural features. Along each route, you'll find live entertainment, games for kids and adults alike, and hydration stations.
    Photo by Sandra Salvadó/age fotostock
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    Swim in Cenotes
    Swim in Cenotes
    Cenotes are natural pools fed by underground rivers; thousands can be found along the Yucatán Peninsula, and a good number are open to the public for alfresco swimming. Close to Mérida's city center, Xlacah is on the grounds of the Dzibilchaltún Maya site; one end of this pool is more than 40 meters deep. If you'll be visiting Chichén Itzá and want to get wet, bring your bathing suit for a dip in Ik Kil, an on-site cenote with waterfalls. Local outfitter Adventures Mexico offers cenote tours from Mérida if you want to learn more about regional flora and fauna as well as the history of the Maya. The cenotes were sacred spots for this ancient people; over the centuries, artifacts of their civilization, including whole pots, have been discovered in the pools.
    Photo courtesy of Yucatan Tourism Board
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    Go Caving
    Go Caving
    The more you learn about the geography of the Yucatán, the more you realize that some of the area's most interesting outdoor experiences are below the surface—literally. About an hour outside Mérida, you can find excellent spelunking at Grutas de Calcehtok, an underground cave system nearly three miles long. Calcehtok has routes for beginning and experienced cavers; for the latter, there are some challenging crawls through narrow crevices. Tours are led by members of the family who serve as caretakers of Calcehtok; they provide historical and cultural context about these caverns that were sacred to the Maya, and can customize tours to suit your available time and experience level. As for fauna, keep your eyes open for bats and harder-to-spot albino centipedes. For something a little different, head to the Loltún Cave along the Puuc Route to view some Maya paintings.
    Photo courtesy of Yucatan Tourism Board
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    Seek Your Spiritual Center
    Seek Your Spiritual Center
    The Yucatán Peninsula has a special draw: Many spiritually inclined visitors contend the area has a unique energy that all but ensures those who tune in can recenter themselves. It's little surprise, then, that Mérida and its surrounding towns attract seekers of all types, including devoted practitioners of yoga. From do-it-yourself sessions in the shadow of Maya temples to in-studio classes and customized package tours designed for contemplative immersion, Mérida offers a number of places where yogis can make a connection with themselves, one another, and the vibrations of the land. One of them is Semilla Yoga, a facility that hosts iyengar and vinyasa classes and organizes retreats in the region.
    Photo by Julie Schwietert Collazo
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    Fly-Fishing on the Yucatán Peninsula
    Fly-Fishing on the Yucatán Peninsula
    With hundreds of miles of coastline, it's not surprising that the Yucatán Peninsula offers plenty of launch ramps from which you can set off by boat to go cast your line. You'll have to travel a bit to get to these sites, since Mérida proper is set inland, but hard-core anglers tend to agree the journey is worth the effort. Bonefish, permit, snook, and tarpon are your quarry; go out with guides from Yucatán Fly Fishing Adventures to find the best spots. In addition to day trips, the outfitter also offers multiday excursions to remote areas, such as Isla del Sabalo, where you can try your luck in tropical saltwater flats and mangrove habitats.
    Photo by Ron Watts/age fotostock
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    Birding in and around Mérida
    Birding in and around Mérida
    The Yucatán's warm weather and diverse habitats—coast, forest, wetlands—attract a variety of avian life, making Mérida and its surrounding area a huge draw for avid birders. In addition to Celestún's famous flamingos, easy-to-spot species include hummingbirds, plovers, and herons in coastal areas, and toucans and parrots in forests and around Maya sites. Mérida also hosts an annual bird celebration, the Toh Bird Festival, with events from April through November. The highlight is a November bird marathon, but don't worry if you didn't bring your running shoes—the only racing involves identifying as many birds as possible. During past festivals, birders have glimpsed over half of the more than 500 bird species known to exist in the state of Yucatán.
    Photo by Wayne Lynch/age fotostock
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    Walk the Paseo de Montejo
    Walk the Paseo de Montejo
    While not physically challenging, walking central Mérida's Paseo de Montejo is an exercise in restraint. It's tough to prevent yourself from stopping every two feet to take a photo of a marvelously preserved colonial-era building, or from engaging in conversations with affable locals who want to regale you with stories about their city. You'll be out of luck if physical exercise is your aim, but if cultural contact and establishing a sense of place are priorities, then a stroll along Paseo de Montejo will suit you just fine. Widely considered the city's loveliest stretch—which is saying a lot, given Mérida's density of romantic paisajes, or landscapes—Paseo de Montejo is ideal for a self-guided walking tour.
    Photo by Stefano Paterna/age fotostock