Where once Mayan thrived (video included)

A 72-hour travel guide of intense culture and high-quality food in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico

Glad you are here, dear friends! This is our first time travel to Mexico and the first time for me to really write down a travel guide personally. Even though we already back home for a few days, I still feel excited when I think of the trip, and wanna tell the truth and what we have seen on the road. This trip completely changed my image of Mexico, not only about its food, but also of the modern city, and the Mexican people and how it all seems more connected to the Mayas. It was an amazing experience for us, as a huge fan of history, so If you are also into this, you are my audience, and I wish this travel guide will help you. Beware of one thing though, we are pretty crazy travelers, not resorts and we try to do as many things as we can so the schedule is pretty intense… this is a crazy 72-hour plan but also a solid culture experience. 😛  

This plan takes three full days, using the city of Merida as the central place to come back to every night. First of all, to make most of your time, I highly recommend renting a car. It’s not easy to go anywhere without a car outside the city and although the rental cost was more than we budgeted (around $200), mostly because the insurance charge,  the freedom it afforded us was essential. (you can see more info at Tripsavvy https://www.tripsavvy.com/renting-a-car-in-mexico-and-crossing-the-mexico-border-3149964)

Let’s get started!

Day one:

Merida ⇒ Chichen Itza ⇒ Izmal ⇒ Merida (east route)

Our plan is head to the east to Chichen Itza, many of you may notice there are a lot of tourists sharing their plans are from Cancun then drive to Chichen Itza. but the truth is, Chichen Itza is actually closer to Merida, only 1.5 hrs drive, compare to 2.5 hrs drive from Cancun. (Once again Merida is the winner!) overall the driving is pretty good, direction to the main highway is clear and we haven’t encountered any traffic jam. Chichen Itza is one of the most important Maya ruin in Yucatan, Mexico. So if you can wake up early and go on the road as early as possible the better. Chichén Itzá is a complex of Mayan ruins on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. A massive step pyramid, known as El Castillo or Temple of Kukulcan, dominates the ancient city, which thrived from around 600 A.D. to the 1200s. You can see Mayan the ball court, The temple of the jaguar, Temple of the Warriors and the Wall of the Skulls, and the Sacred Cenote. I recommend at least spend 3-4 hours to go through all of them. And better carry your own bottle of water, there are many sellers of crafts but no one sells water once you entered the park.

After we visited Chichen Itza, it was quite a hot afternoon…the heat is not a joke seriously (about 104F/ 38C)…so please remember always keep hydrated, and apply sunscreen all the time. There are some restaurants nearby the park, we have a late lunch break, then on the way back to the city Merida, which we visited another famous city Izamal. It’s a city in between Merida and Chichen Itza, about 50 mins driving. The city also has a nickname- the Yellow city, the magical town, where most of the walls are painting in yellow. btw, when you see the sign of Izamal, off the highway will still take you about 20 mins drive on smaller roads, there are some signs of yellow buildings at the beginning, but you have to keep going until you hit the center, which is the famous Convento de San Antonio. It truly is a lovely photogenic town just to wander around, if you also like photography, you will return home with hundreds of photos of yellow buildings, antique carriages. Izamal gave us a completely pleasant afternoon, I believe you will also love this city once you visit it. Also, Izamal the city was named after an infinitely wise mythical entity, which means”God – Creator of the Maya”. since In ancient times Izamal was a center for the worship of the supreme Mayan god, Itzamná. A dozen temple pyramids were devoted to these or other gods. You will be amazed there are ancient Maya pyramids are just beside the residential houses!

After visited Izamal, we headed back to Merida, had a nice dinner at a downtown restaurant called Coyote Maya (fun name!). there are many choices just nearby our hotel, which we are also very happy about this choice and will recommend to anyone who wants to visit Merida. the name is- El Gran hotel, the whole building is truly antique, the floor tiles, the sofa, the drawer are all antique, if you like vintage feel, you will enjoy this. The deal also is very reasonable. Just one thing I have to mention, the location is really great, totally at the center, and has Starbucks just right downstairs. You can see the Parque Hidalgo (Hidalgo park) from the patio, where it is a nice hangout place to local, also has a small craft market on Friday night. The whole city is pretty alive, many music and light shows, and street performing are going on at weekends, so if you are a light sleeper, you may need to consider about it more, besides it we really like this place.

Chichen Itza from  Merida
Chichen Itza Merida Mexico
Chichen Itza Merida Mexico
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza Mayan ruins
Chichen Itza Mayan ruins
Chichen Itza Mayan ruins
Mayan ruins
Chichen Itza Mayan ruins
Mayan ruins

Day two:

Mayapan Maya ruins ⇒ Cenotes Kankirixche ⇒ Uxmal ⇒ Merida (south route)

We got up pretty early again hit the road to the south. Our plan is to visit Mayapan ruins (about 50 mins drive from Merida), which is not lots of tourists talk about. At the beginning, we all kind of skeptical about what we will see, there are not many reviews on the internet, so we still worry it may be a waste, however, it was totally an out of expectation experience!!! Mayapan was known as “The Walled City” and was considered the last great Mayan capital. Its name means “The Forgiveness of Maya”; It is one of the oldest sites, it was occupied from before the Christian era, but its heyday was between 1200 and 1450 D.C. the whole place is much smaller scale than Chichen Itza, but it does give more intimacy since you can actually climb up on the pyramid and walk around the houses, step on the stairs, totally a close up to ruins is really incredible! The best thing is- a quiet site not crowded with tourists, the day we visited just has 5 people there at the same time, we feel so much relax and ease spend 2 hours here,  wander around about Maya, taking as many pictures as we want, feeling completely exclusive!

After Mayapan we drove to the nearby cenotes. it’s said that there are more than 600 cenotes in Yucatan region. So we try our luck to see on our way. We found one which is pretty close to Mayapan- Cenote Kankirixche. This one is quite a hidden gem, the driving to here is not as easy as we thought. you will have to drive on a very small one direction road for a long time. (Though it’s pretty and rare tourists) However, the view is definitely worth it! It seems own by a local family so you will have to pay 30 pesos to enter. this cenote mostly is covered, only the ladder toward entry and a small hole that will have sunlight shining through, what a beauty! The water is so crystal clean and green, not to mention is so refresh when you jump into it escape from the sun! you can see some small fishes are swimming around. This is completely surprised us with the dramatic view. Don’t forget to bring your swimwear and towels! and you may like bring a waterproof camera!

The refreshment and relaxation at cenote gave us some more energy on the road, we keep going to our main goal today- Uxmal.  

Uxmal is another beauty we can’t get enough of, is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, along with Chichén. It is located in the Puuc region and is considered one of the Maya cities most representative of the region’s dominant architectural style. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its significance. Once you enter the cite, you will be impressed by the temple of magician immediately! The construction style is very different to Chichen Itza, Uxmal and innumerable Puuc cities created some of the most vivid expressions of the Mayan culture, this especially evident in their monumental architecture and the art of their carved stone facades. Personally love it very much, I couldn’t help myself from thinking about Rome’s emperors and that kind of luxury, fearless, and elegant. We got stopped for a while in Uxmal during to a pouring rain, therefore we found a temporary shelter at the turtle house, seeing the city with a different view, wondering about the ancient Mayan life was like. What did they do when it rained? Would they pray to gods or ask fortunate to predict the forecast? The soil was getting a little bit muddy, luckily the rain stopped before it got wicked. The city was washed out nicely and we keep going again, We got so lucky to be stopped by rain, see a whole view of the peaceful city. Uxmal is not smaller than Chichen Itza, so here I highly recommend to stay here at least 2-3 hours.  

Uxmal Merida
trip Uxmal Merida
Uxmal Merida mexico trip guide
Uxmal Merida mexico trip guide

Day three:

Celestun ⇒ Marida (west route)

The final day we want to explore the coast, we heard about there could have wild flamingos watching at Celestun, to be honest, I didn’t have high hopes about how many flamingos we may going to see since we saw some reviews on the internet that mentioned the timing or the season was wrong… with the slightly unsettled minds, we still drove forward. The traffic from Merida is totally fine, mostly on the highway so no big problem, just like the other two days. we had a pleasant time driving about 1.5 hours. Celestun is a nice little town, the big sign of watching flamingos is their main tourist attraction that you can easily be guided through. The tourist center selling tickets, the price depends on how many people on the same boat is, a boat will take 1500 peso, can be divided by 1-12 people, once you pay, just go straight up to the pier, there will have captain waiting for you. The whole reserve is an incredible natural resource! And very luckily we saw numerous flamingos who were talking and having lunch since they are very social animals, they talk so loud and seemed to have pretty good mood with the fine weather! That was completely delightful to us to see the pink society in real life! How excited that was! We also asked some questions to our captain about flamingos, he mentioned yes, flamingos do fly around in the whole Yucatan region so they may show up on east side or west side. He doesn’t mention a specific time frame, but as we observed, definitely highly suggest to come as early as possible, better before 11 am.

Animals have their own behaviors, they are not going to follow human beings’ schedule, they eat, they fly and they take a nap, wait for no one! We saw at least 400 at one point and then down to 10 flamingos within 30 mins after they all take off to somewhere else. So once again, timing is so important!

Celestun Marida bird watching
Celestun flamingos Marida
Celestun flamingos Marida trip guide
Celestun flamingos Marida guide
Celestun flamingos bird watching Marida guide
Celestun flamingos ojo de aqua  Marida
Celestun flamingos ojo de aqua  Marida
Celestun flamingos ojo de aqua  Marida
Celestun boat service bird watching guide
Celestun boat service bird watching guide

After the nice flamingos watching, we continue to the next attractions, the island of birds, the mangrove jungle, and the beautiful Ojo de aqua (eye of water) where is the beginning of water resource, you can take a dip into the refreshing water, the water is as clean as crystal! That is an hour tour which is an amazing experience we will never forget, and really would like to do it again and again if we got chance!

We had a nice lunch at Celestun beach, ohhh…. that is one of the most beautiful beach I have ever seen, really no kidding! The sand is so smooth and white, the sea is clean and light green, they are some restaurants just by the sea, you can just grab a chair and having the lunch meanwhile enjoying the incredible pleasant view. The best thing is- not crowded at all! very calm and relaxing, if we didn’t plan to go back to Merida in the afternoon, I really highly recommend to spend at least a full day here. If you are a huge fan of beach, wanna soaking the sun in and getting a nice suntan, this place will not fail you!

Celestun beach seafoods
Celestun beach seafoods
Celestun beach seafoods

However, we had a pretty compact schedule, we drove back to Merida, want to visit the museum. We didn’t have much time left but only allowed to hit one museum before it closed at 5 pm, in general, their museums open hours. Gran Museo del Mundo Maya (Maya world museum of Merida) is a great place to come if you want to know a lot not only about Mayan history, how is Mayan calendar works but also their knowledge about nature, such as how cenotes were formed. Truly a world-class museum that reinforces our ideas of this trip. Highly recommend taking 2-3 hours visiting time.

Gran Museo del Mundo Maya Maya world museum of Merida
Maya world museum of Merida
Gran Museo del Mundo trip guide

At night we take our time to enjoy the city, stroll around the town is really a nice ending to us! we had a nice dinner and some shopping action! I wanna confess that I actually want to buy a lot of stuff… I really like their handcraft skills, such as a lot of nice embroidered shirts, espadrilles, and hammocks, but the truth is we had not brought a big suitcase, and our home is not ready for hammock yet… so I must put down my desire this time… 😛  There are many stores at the main streets, 55×62 streets. I found one shop I really like and bought some nice earrings and a table runner for decoration, the name is- Kukul Boutik, address: Calle 55 513 Col. Centro 97000 Mérida, Yucatán Mexico. I really would love to visit them again one day, since they have so many good quality artisan stuff.

Also, there is one thing is worth to keep in mind, every Sunday from 9 am to 9 pm, the Main Plaza and surrounding streets become the scene of a traditional event called “Sunday in Merida”. they provide huge variety entertainment like street art performances, musicians, and block off the traffic, so it is filled with a lot of stands selling handicrafts, antiques, and visitors or locals all can enjoy it.

Sunday in Merida
Merida street Mexico
Sunday in Merida street Mexico

Alright, I wish this information will help you get some idea of Yucatan, Mexico. Especially around Merida, After this visit, we totally feel satisfied and can’t wait to visit some other cities in Yucatan peninsula soon. If you have any questions, please feel free to let me know. My wish is to provide truth and useful info for you! Thanks for reading! if you also take a trip based on this plan, let me know if you like it or not!!  

What should I pack?

  1. nice airy clothes, the heat is pretty serious! I found my kimono also help me a lot this time, provide a nice shade under the sun.
  2. sunscreen (so important!)
  3. small umbrella
  4. passport, some said had experience that police ask for checking, though we haven’t encountered this at all, we did carry around our passports all the time, but secure it nicely.
  5. water bottles. please drink water all the time!
  6. always have some small dollars in pockets, they work very hard and mostly rely on tips. Anyone who provides help is worth to give some tips.
  7. save digital maps on your cell phone.
  8. A nice travel guidebook!

    ♠Here is a video “Merida, Merida” made by my husband Fabio. It’s based on our footages in Merida, a short film about our trip around the Yucatan peninsula in 2018. Showcases Chichen-Itza, Merida, Mayapan, Uxmal, Izamal, Celestun, and several other locations in Mayan area. It attempts to break from the overuse of abstract shots in slow motion, drone work, etc so typical of travel videos and have a layer of narrative. We wish you enjoy it! :)xoxo,