The Best Things to Do 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.
Calle 60 476A, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico
Mérida’s many historic plazas are jam packed with open air event throughout the year. Popular with tourists and locals alike is Yucatecan “Jarana”, a traditional form of dance accompanied by live music. One of the best places to see the show is at “Serenata Yucateca”, a free event each Thursday in the newly restored Plaza Santa Lucía, a traditional square just four blocks from the main Centro plaza. The musicians, singers and dancing “mestizos”, decked out in their colorful costumes begin the show at 9 PM, as they have for the last 40 years. There are plenty of benches to sit to enjoy the show. Also, with restaurants and bars spilling out on the sidewalk, its a great way to catch a dinner and show. Santa Lucía in not just a park, it is also the name of the neighborhood that has come alive since the recent renovation. With traditional cafes, restaurants and shops such as La Chaya Maya and Coqui Coqui Perfumerie, it is fast becoming the “it” place to be in downtown Mérida. Many colonial houses with a private pools are available to rent in Santa Lucia and in the surroundings so you can close the action. (Images courtesy of and
Calle 62 #466 x 55 y 57, Parque Santa Lucia, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico
This new museum in a historic casona in downtown Mérida opened at the end of 2018 with the goal of introducing visitors to the ingredients and flavors of Yucatecan cuisine. The gallery spaces cover the staples of the region’s cooking—beans, a variety of chiles, turkey, pork, and more. In the rear of the museum an outdoor “village” includes thatched palapas that house more displays and are also used for live demonstrations, from cooks making tortillas by hand to traditional Mayan cooking methods like covering whole pigs with coals and roasting them in the ground. The museum includes a restaurant where you can sample traditional dishes in the sunny courtyard or one of the rooms of the grand 19th-century building.
Calle 62 354 x 41 y 43, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico
While increasingly restaurants throughout Mexico are able to cater to vegetarian and vegan diners, the ubiquity of pork and lard in cooking means that it can still be hard to find a plate of “safe” enchiladas. At El Apapacho, you can rest assured that no animals were harmed in making your meal. The cuisine is Mexican, with some specifically Oaxacan dishes alongside Yucatecan specialties. Carnivores won’t feel like they are making a sacrifice if they come with their vegetarian travel companions—the food from the aguas frescas to the vegan desserts is all delicious. The leafy courtyard painted with murals and the small bookstore, heavy on politically radical and feminist books, add to the appealingly alternative atmosphere.
Calle 56 465, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico
Regulars call it “la Mezca” and, within a few minutes, you’ll understand why it’s so popular. The Yucatán’s first mezcalería (i.e., mezcal bar), La Fundación serves more than fifty Mexican mezcals and, to keep hunger at bay, Oaxaca-style bites. Don’t miss the mole tacos. The bar is decorated with drawings of one of the most famous skeletons in art, la Catrina, as well as vintage photos, and works by emerging regional artists. Regularly scheduled DJ nights serve up sounds from around the world. But Wednesdays are, easily, the best night to drink at La Fundacion. The salsa musicians and dance classes start at 9 p.m. And an extra glass of mezcal will take the sting out of showcasing your moves.
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