The Yucatán is rich in history and there are literally thousands of archaeological sites. Steeped in magic and mystery, they are the legacy of the Maya. Don’t miss the chance to visit Mérida, the state capital, and the smaller colonial towns and impressive haciendas (estates) scattered throughout the area. Here’s a look at some of the state’s major attractions to whet your appetite.
Exploring the white city, cultural capital of the Yucatan
Founded in 1542 by Spanish conquistador Francisco Montejo amidst the ruins of a much earlier Mayan capital called T’ho, Merida or “la ciudad blanca” (“the white city”) as residents call it is a historical treasure trove. Its churches, civic buildings and mansions span the ages, dating from the 16th century through to the first years of the 20th century. Yet history is only the start, the Yucatan state capital will charm you with its colorful traditions, delicious cuisine, culture and warm hospitality.
Start your Merida wanderings in the main square in the colonial heart of the city. The massive 16th-century San Ildelfonso Cathedral, City Hall, State Government House and the Casa de Montejo, the former home of the Montejo family and now a museum, line the square. Heading north, Calle 60 boasts churches, theaters and tree-lined squares where local guitar trios gather to play romantic serenades.
Paseo Montejo is the most famous attraction outside the city center. A wide boulevard built in the late 19th-century to emulate the Champs Elysées in Paris; it is lined with the elegant mansions of estate owners who amassed huge fortunes from the cultivation of henequen or “green gold.”
A visit to the city’s museums and art galleries, especially the ultramodern multimedia Gran Museo de la Cultura Maya, the Regional Museum in Canton Palace on Paseo Montejo, the City Museum, the Folk Art Museum and the Ateneo Art Gallery, is recommended. Don’t miss the murals depicting the history of the Yucatan by local painter Fernando Castro Pacheco which are on display on the second floor of the State Government Offices in the main square.
If you like shopping you’ll love Merida. Pick up Yucatecan hammocks, embroidered dresses and palm hats in the State Craft center and the bustling markets. Shop for silver, Talavera pottery, hand woven textiles from Chiapas, Oaxaca and other Mexican treasures in craft stores and boutiques. You may also find paintings, sculptures, photographs and fashion by gifted local artists.
Merida is a cultural center with something on somewhere in the city every night of the week. Take your pick from open-air concerts and the vaqueria or traditional folk dance, Mexican fiestas, theater, art exhibitions and movies to the Merida en Domingo Sunday all-day gala.
Ancient Mayan Masterpieces
Discover Chichen Itza, ancient capital of the Itzae Maya and a sacred center where rulers and astronomers once watched the heavens for messages from the gods. A masterpiece of architecture and art, the city still has an air of mystery.
Archaeologists have found fragments of pottery in Chichen Itza proving that there was a settlement at the site as far back as 300 B.C., although it wasn’t until the Late Classic period of Mayan history A.D. 750 -900 that the city began to grow.
At some point during the 10th century, Chichén was invaded and colonized by the Itzae, a Chontal or Putun Maya tribe from the Gulf coast of Campeche and Tabasco. They brought architectural and artistic influences from central Mexico and it was under their rule that the city became a major power.
At the height of its glory (A.D. 800 – 1150), Chichen Itza controlled the Yucatán politically, commercially and militarily. The city extended for 30 square kilometers and had a network of 70 sacbes or roads, which linked different temple complexes, markets, residential areas and surrounding satellite settlements. The city went into decline around 1150 and was abandoned by 1250.
The principal buildings in the central plaza are the Pyramid of Kukulcan (El Castillo), Temple of the Warriors, Ball Court, Temple of the Jaguars and Tzompantli and the Temple of a 1000 Columns. A short walk through the forest from the central plaza is the Sacred Well, a huge cenote, which was the site of sacrifices in honor of the rain god Chaac. Another path links the central plaza with the Ossuary, Observatory or El Caracol and Las Monjas complex, including several small temples with impressive carvings depicting masks symbolizing Chaac, the rain god. To the south of Las Monjas other temples lie deep in the forest in an area known as Chichen Viejo (Old Chichen).
The Pyramid of Kukulcan is a solar clock. It is so precisely aligned that during the Spring and Fall Equinoxes (March 21 and September 21), the north face of the pyramid catches the rays of the setting sun and triangles of light and shadow form along the staircase, creating the illusion of a gigantic serpent, Kukulcan (the feathered serpent god) returning to earth to rejoin his followers.
The magnificent buildings you’ll see as you explore the site have earned Chichen Itza a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. In 2007 it was also voted one of the Seven New Wonders of the World in a global poll.
After your visit to Chichen Itza why not have a late lunch in one of the nearby hotels and stay on for the impressive evening light and sound video mapping show in the central plaza (separate admission fee).
An hour’s drive from Merida, Uxmal is one of the loveliest ancient cities in the Maya World. During the Late Classic period (A.D. 600-900), it was a regional capital, controlling southwest Yucatán and a chain of smaller cities referred to as the Puuc Route: Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná.
Apart from location, these sites share a unique architectural and artistic style called Puuc. In recognition of their outstanding cultural worth, UNESCO declared them a World Heritage area in 1996.
Highlights at Uxmal are the Magician’s Pyramid, the Nuns’ Quadrangle, a gracious courtyard surrounded by four palace-like buildings with magnificent friezes, the Temple of the Birds, Palace of the Governor and the adjoining Great Pyramid, The House of the Turtles and El Palomar.
The Puuc Route
A 30-minute drive from Uxmal, Kabah is the second largest Puuc site and is famous for the Codz Pop, a temple with an impressive frieze featuring 250 chaac masks. Sayil is next with its three-tiered Palace, and the smallest site, Xlapak, lies nearby. The highlight at Labná is the magnificent freestanding carved korbel arch.
Just north of Mérida en route to the port of Progreso, this site was continuously inhabited from 1000 B.C. up to the Spanish Conquest. Highlights include the Temple of the Seven Dolls, Xlaca’ Cenote, a colonial chapel and the Museum of Mayan People.
A 30-minute drive from Valladolid is the ancient city of Ek Balam, “black jaguar or star jaguar” in Maya. The city flourished between A.D. 250-1200 and its crowning glory is the façade on the upper level of the Acropolis, the principal building, which features the magnificent stucco figure of an ancient lord thought to be the first ruler of the city and founder of a powerful dynasty. The figure is known locally as “en angel” because it appears to have wings. Archaeologists believe that it is actually an impressive feathered headdress and cape.
Mayapan was the last capital of the Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula. It was founded around A.D. 1250 during the post-Classic period of Mayan civilization and abandoned in 1450. Mayapan’s two most important buildings are smaller copies of El Castillo and the Observatory at Chichen Itza and archaeologists believe that it was settled by Maya fleeing the fall of Chichen.
Yucatan’s Colonial Twin Towns
Valladolid & Izamal
Founded in 1543 by Francisco de Montejo the Younger, the state’s second largest city is steeped in history and tradition, earning it a place on the Mexican Tourism Board’s listing of Pueblo Magicos.
In the days of the ancient Maya, it was known as Zaci and during the Colonial Period, it was the commercial center of the eastern Yucatan. It played an important role in the 19th-century Caste War when it was besieged and overrun by Mayan rebels in 1847.
Dominated by the 17th-century San Servasio Cathedral, the tranquil central square is a wonderful place to people watch. Spend time in the central park; visit City Hall, San Roque Museum and the Craft Center. A short walk from the square on Calle 40 is Casa de los Venados, a restored 17th-century private residence and museum with an impressive collection of Mexican folk and contemporary art (guided tours at 10 a.m.).
Other sites of interest in Valladolid include the Zaci Cenote, the churches and squares in barrios or neighborhoods such as Santa Lucia and La Candelaria neighborhoods, the restored Calzada de los Frailes street which links the town center with San Bernardino Church and the adjoining Sisal Convent (1552-1588). Don’t miss the evening video mapping light show projected on the convent façade during the week.
On the outskirts of town en route to Ek Balam is the Mayapan distillery where agave azul is harvested and processed using artisanal methods to make a liquor resembling tequila. Across the road is the Valla Zoo with native fauna, a botanical garden and nature walk.
Accessible from Merida or Valladolid, the town of Izamal is a blend of pre-Hispanic and Spanish architecture and the traditions of the Yucatán.
As the birthplace of the legendary Zamná or Itzamná, the principal god in the Mayan pantheon, Izamal was an important shrine in the pre-Hispanic period and five Mayan pyramids are still visible on the outskirts of the town
The town’s pride and joy is the dazzling yellow San Antonio de Padua Convent, which was completed in 1618. It has one of the largest atriums in the world and is the shrine of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, the patron saint of the Yucatán. Don’t miss the evening video mapping show on the convent façade.
Izamal is also a Pueblo Magico and a handicraft center with wood carving, embroidery and hammock workshops in different parts of the town.
The Convent Route
From Mérida visitors can follow the Convent Route, a string of 16th and 17th-century churches and convents in villages along Highway 18. The route starts at Acanceh, which also has a Mayan temple, and continues to Tecoh (caves and cenotes), Telchaquillo (take the short detour to visit Mayapán, the last city of the ancient Maya), Tekit, Mama, Teabo, Tipikal and Maní, site of a Franciscan convent with a small museum.
Other communities in southern Yucatan with colonial churches are the pottery-producing community of Ticul, the market town of Oxkutzcab and Muna.
Native to the Yucatán, henequen or sisal is a gray-green agave plant that yields a tough fiber used to make rope, sacks and baskets. In the late 19th century, global demand for twine and sacking increased and large-scale cultivation of henequen began on haciendas in the area.
A handful of families grew fabulously rich and spent their fortunes on the finest European furniture for their estate houses, trips aboard and mansions in Mérida.
Exploring a hacienda gives visitors a glimpse of the henequen production process and the very different lives led by the plantation owner and his workers. Worth a visit are Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, Yaxcopoil and Ochil (museums), Teyá (restaurant), Santa Rosa de Lima, Temozón, San José Cholul, Xcanatún and Katanchel (hotels).
Back to Nature, on the trail of the Yucatan flamingo
Río Lagartos Biosphere Reseve
Ria Lagartos biosphere reserve to witness one of the wonders of the Yucatan Peninsula: thousands of flamingos in their natural habitat. Located on the Gulf coast, this wetland reserve is home to a 30,000-strong breeding colony of these gawky birds, which are even pinker here than in other latitudes due to their diet of a microscopic crustacean found only in the brackish lagoons that stretch along the shoreline.
The mangroves, marshes and jungles of the reserve also harbor 364 other species of bird, including osprey, skimmers, egrets and herons, along with the crocodiles or lagartos that gave the reserve its name.
Fishermen from the waterfront village of Río Lagartos offer boat trips along the estuary to see the birds in the lagoons and saltpans. The cruise is a Yucatán highlight, don’t miss it! If you are interested in nature and are a birder longer trips are available on request and some of the fishermen are excellent guides.
Rio Celestun Biosphere Reserve
A one and a half hour drive west of Mérida, Celestun Biosphere Reserve is an area of mangroves, marshes and beaches that is rich in wildlife, especially flamingos. Local fishermen offer boat trips along the canals to see the birds.
Caves & Cenotes
This pool of spectacular turquoise water in a cave is the state’s most famous cenote. Located seven kilometers to the west of Valladolid.
An impressive cenote with towering walls festooned with vines and tree roots that is a short drive from Chichen Itza.
Located six kilometers to the east of Chichen Itza, Balancanche was a sacred place for ancient Mayan priests who visited the cave to perform rites in honor of Chaac, the rain god. Incense burners, statues and other offerings were found when the caves were first explored. The site also boasts a small museum and a botanical garden.
A huge cave system in southern Yucatan near the small town of Oxkutzcab, Loltun boasts impressive stalactites and stalagmites and was used as a refuge by nomadic hunters in prehistoric times and by the ancient Maya.
Exploring the Gulf Coast
Twenty minutes to the north of Merida
The port of Progreso is a good place to start exploring the Gulf Coast and sample some of the fresh seafood for which the area is famous. Also worth a visit are the fishing villages of Sisal, Yucalpetén, Telchac Puerto and Dzilám de Bravo.