Top Attractions in Mérida and Yucatán
Soak in the spa of a boutique hotel that adheres to age-old indigenous purification practices, wander the rooms of a plantation manor house, or explore the great sites of the Maya, all in this culturally rich and historic region.
Calle 59 572, Barrio de Santiago, Centro, 97000 Ejido del Centro, Yuc., Mexico
English explorer and draftsman Frederick Catherwood and American adventurer John Lloyd Stephens were the first foreigners to rediscover Copán and numerous other Maya cities. Catherwood’s extraordinary lithographs, on view at the Catherwood House Museum, portray those monuments as they appeared when the pair first witnessed them; the institution’s Belle Époque setting transports visitors to Catherwood’s day and conjures the wonder he experienced as he wandered the Maya world of Mexico and Central America. A coffee enjoyed in the courtyard and a poke through the elegant gift shop are icing on the cake.
San Felipe Municipality, Yucatan, Mexico
In addition to its cultural riches, the Yucatán is home to astounding biodiversity; it’s easy to get deep into nature on short hops from towns and cities. Ría Lagartos (the name translates to “alligator estuary,” a Spanish misnomer due to the river’s crocodile population!) is a great jumping-off point for exploring several fascinating ecosystems. Boat excursions ply waterways with mineral and salt content so dense that sinking isn’t really an option; travelers and locals alike soak in the surrounding mud for its health-giving properties. Bright pink lakes known as Las Coloradas host huge flamingo flocks between June and August; the marvelous birds also roost 200 miles away at the Celestún Biosphere Reserve from November to April.
Carretera Merida-Campeche Km. 78, 97890 Uxmal, Yuc., Mexico
Overshadowed by its larger and more well-known cousins, Palenque and Chichén-Itzá, Uxmal (“Oosh-mahl”) is the ruins of an ancient Maya city located near present-day Campeche. In its heyday, Uxmal was one of the largest cities of the Yucatan peninsula with a population of about 25,000 Maya. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ancient Maya architecture in this part of Mexico is referred to as Puuc architecture, and Uxmal is a prime example of this style. Though there are some Puuc structures in Chichén-Itzá, Uxmal is unique in all of Mexico. Puuc design is most notable for buildings with a plain lower façade and a richly decorated upper façade. Carvings most commonly found include serpents and latticework. Uxmal is dedicated to the Maya rain god, Chaac, and you can see his image everywhere. On the day we were here, it was blisteringly hot and humid; I could’ve used some rain! When I first laid eyes on the four buildings that make up the complex known as the Nunnery Quadrangle, I thought they were the most elegant Maya ruins I had ever seen. The clean lines of the buildings give them a modernity that is surprising considering Uxmal was built more than 1,000 years ago! The carvings on the upper facades are just spectacular and give the entire structure a very delicate feel. Uxmal is located close to Chichén-Itzá, so if you go to Chichén, consider going a bit further to visit Uxmal. You won’t regret it!
Carretera Federal 180 Km. 120
A brilliant work of architecture and astronomy, the Pyramid of Kukulkán at Chichén Itzá is so precisely engineered that on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the sun casts shadows that slither like snakes and seem to descend the structure’s stairways. Said to represent the plumed-serpent deity Kukulkán, the shadows return to earth twice yearly to drink from sacred sinkholes known as cenotes. Today the phenomenon attracts thousands to the already crowded archaeological site, but almost-identical light-play can be seen the day before, alongside a mere fraction of the visitors.