Yucatan, Mexico

This was my third trip to Mexico and it has quickly become one of my favorite places to visit. I planned this as a one week trip to visit Mayan ruins, explore colorful colonial towns, swim in cenotes, and relax on the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula; followed by a few days in Mexico City, one of the most amazing cities in the world. The flight from NYC to Cancun is only four hours. And once you get away from the Cancun area, Mexico starts to feel like another world.

Day 0: late afternoon flight from NYC to Cancun, overnight in Cancun
Day 1: visit Chichen Itza, drive to Merida, overnight in Merida
Day 2: road trip to Uxmal and surrounding ruins along Puuc Route, overnight in Merida
Day 3: road trip through colonial towns of Izamal, Uayma, and Valladolid, overnight in Valladolid
Day 4: snorkel at Grand Cenote and swim at beaches in Tulum, overnight in Tulum
Day 5: visit Tulum ruins and search for street art Tulum center, overnight in Tulum
Day 6: snorkel and swim in Akumal and Cenote Yal-ku, evening flight to Mexico City

Day 1: Cancun to Merida via Chichen Itza

The first destination on our Yucatan adventure was Chichen Itza, one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. We arrived early to avoid the heat and the crowds. The most famous photo of Chichen Itza is El Castillo “The Castle”. Two and half sides of the pyramid have been beautiful restored, but I preferred the back side of the pyramid that was still very much in ruins. Several smaller temples, platforms, and colonnades surround the perimeter of pyramid.

Away from the main temple area is a second group of temples called the Central Group, where Casa Colorada, El Caracol, and Las Monjas are located. I enjoyed exploring this area more than the main temple group.  It was less crowded and the buildings were less monumental, less restored, and surrounded by jungle. El Caracol “The Observatory” is unique for being the only round building at the site. This was my favorite building at Chichen Itza. Las Monjas includes the Nunnery (government palace) and La Inglesia (the church).

As we were leaving the site, the area around El Castillo was getting much busier with large tour groups, easily identified by their bright colored umbrellas. 

Ik Kil is a very popular cenote. Unfortunately, we didn’t bring our swimsuits, so we paid the entrance fee, snapped a few photos, and then continued driving to Merida.

Days 1-2: Merida

Merida is the capital and largest city of the state of Yucatan.  The city is worth a full day visit on its own and serves as a good base to visit nearby Mayan ruins, Celestun biosphere, and the Carribean Ocean at Progresso. We spent two nights in Merida, but I didn’t feel like we saw as much of the city as I wanted. 

We arrived in the late afternoon, but still had some time to explore the streets near our hotel and Plaza Grande, the main square of Merida. Universidad Autónoma De Yucatán was located next to our hotel and was used as a public performance space in the evening. Many of Merida’s most important buildings are located around Plaza Grande including Catedral de Merida. On the opposite of the square is Palacio Municipal, a bright pink governmental building with a clocktower. Museo Casa Montejo on the southern side of Plaza Grande is the most unique building in Merida.  The former stately house is now a museum that displays vintage furnishings.

Merida really comes alive at night.  Most of the streets around Plaza Grande are closed off and the main square becomes a party zone.  There were live musicians, food stands, DJs, bands and everything in between.  Many buildings also remained open to the public late into the evening. On the second evening we walked to Paseo de Montejo to see the European-style mansions that line the street. On the walk back to our hotel, we discovered Mercado 60, a Mexican-style food market hall, with many vendors sharing a common sitting area.

I woke up early on our last morning in Merida to see more of the city before we headed east.  I didn’t anticipate the huge parades that happen throughout Mexico on Revolution Day. I really enjoyed the music and costumes of the parade, but I wasn’t able to explore as much of the city as I had hoped.

Day 2: Uxmal + Puuc Route

The Puuc Route connects five ancient Mayan sites (Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labna, and X’lapak) in Yucatan state.  Loltun Caves are also usually included in the Puuc Route.  We covered almost all the sites in one very long day from Merida.  We skipped X’lapak since it seemed the least interesting ruins.

Uxmal is less famous than Chichen Itza, but we thought it was the most impressive ancient Mayan city in Yucatan. Uxmal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and located one hour drive south of Merida. The ruins are set in the jungle, contain rich ornamentation, and are absolutely breathtaking.  Several structures can be climbed for expansive views over the large, but manageable city. Uxmal was constructed in the Puuc style of Mayan Architecture with plain stone bases and more richly decorate upper facades that incorporated geometric patterns.

The highlights of the site can be divided into two sections, the Pyramid of the Magician/Nunnery Quadrangle and the Governor’s Palace. The two elevated areas are separated by a large ballcourt area.

The Pyramid of the Magician is the tallest structure at Uxmal at 115 feet and is the symbol of the site. The stepped pyramid has five tiers and is unique in Mayan architecture for it’s rounded corners. The adjacent Nunnery Quadrangle contains four palaces that face a central grassy courtyard. The heavily ornamented facades are very well preserved.

The Governor’s Palace is a long building that sits atop a large mound/platform. The detailed upper frieze contains many traditional Mayan symbols, including serpents and Chac masks – the god of rain and fertility. Other landmarks in this section are the partial wall of Casa de las Palomas, Casa de las Tortugas, and another large pyramid that can be climbed.

Kabah is the closest site to Uxmal and was originally connected by a direct 16km roadway. Today, Kabah is best known for the “Palace of the Masks” or Codz Poop (I know it’s a bad name for a very beautiful building), whose extremely ornate facade depicts the Mayan rain god, Chaac.

Sayil is the next site and is anchored by the main three-level Great Palace. Venturing into the jungle leads to other structures, including El Mirador, a pyramid temple.  All the buildings are in various states of ruin and being taken over by the surrounding vegetation. Not far down the road is the next stop. Labna has a large, ornate main palace similar to the other sites on the Puuc Route, but also contains the magnificent Gateway Arch. Labna was probably my favorite Puuc Route site after Uxmal.

Our last stop was Loltun Caves, an extensive underground cave system. Loltun can only be visited on scheduled group tours.  Our tour was in Spanish, so I only understood a quarter of what the guide was saying, but it didn’t detract from the experience.

Day 3: Izamal, Uayma, and Valladolid

Two days in Merida was too short, but we needed to start heading east towards the sandy, beautiful beaches of the Caribbean Sea; stopping in a trio of beautiful Yucatan colonial towns (Izamal, Uayma, and Valladolid) along the way. After watching the Revolution Day Parade in Merida for a couple hours in the morning, we drove an hour to Izamal. Izamal is known for its architecture with bright yellow facades. When we arrived the town was also still celebrating Revolution Day. We spent a couple of hours walking around town and having lunch on the main plaza overlooking Colonial Franciscan Monastery of San Antonio de Padua.

Izamal was charming and I could’ve spent more time walking along the picturesque streets, but we had one more place to visit before arriving in Valladolid, where we were staying overnight.  The drive along the secondary roads, compared to the toll highway we took from Cancun to Merida, were much more interesting and also much slower due to every small village having an abundance of speed bumps.  It took an hour and half to reach our next stop Uayma. Uayma is known for its colorful, highly decorative convent church, Iglesia de Uayma.  The church was built using stones from nearby Mayan ruins. Walking around the main plaza I was able capture some shots of a few nicely colored buildings.

Valladolid really surprised me. The beautiful colonial town is mostly known for being the closest tourist town to Chichen Itza. We only had a half a day to explore the main streets, but I took a crazy amount of photos of the brightly colored facades. The town’s main architectural sights are the Cathedral of San Servacio on the main square and the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena. The two sites are connected by the picturesque street “Calzada de los Frailes”.

A few kilometers southwest of Valladolid is Dzitnup, where there are two large underground cenotes, Cenote Xkeken and Cenote Sakura.

Days 4-5: Tulum

The entire Maya Riviera is known for its white sand beaches and turquoise water and Tulum is no exception.  We visited four beaches in the area over two and a half days. Our favorite beach was Xcacel, a reserve halfway between Tulum and Akumal; although, we spent the most time at the beach at our hotel PavoReal Resort.

Yucatan and Quintana Roo (the state Tulum and Cancun are located in) have thousands of cenotes.  Only a small number of these are accessible.  We visited several large cenotes around Valladolid.  The cenotes around Tulum are different and many of them are lagoons that are connected by an underground cave system.

  • Grand Cenote – very beautiful, but small and little marine life. Grand Cenote is a good introduction to cenotes.
  • Cenote Nic Te Ha – beautiful lagoon filled with plant and marine life.  This is the most picturesque cenote and had very few visitors when we visited in the late afternoon.  I would recommend this as the best open cenote around Tulum.

The Tulum Ruins are more impressive for their location overlooking the Caribbean Sea than the architecture.  We arrived early to avoid the midday heat and crowds. There is also a white sand beach that can only be accessed from the cliffs where the archaeological site is located.

Tulum town center has a growing street art scene.  The town is small enough that it can be explored on bike.  I was able to find a street art map online that was mostly up-to-date.  We didn’t see everything, but were able to find a lot of good pieces.

DAY 6: Akumal

On our last day we stopped in Akumal for a few hours on our way north to Cancun Airport to catch our flights. We snorkeled for a while at Cenote Yal-Ku. This large lagoon connects to the ocean and had the most diverse marine life.  The lagoon was busy and the current was fairly strong. By the time we finished we were running on empty, but after almost successfully navigating a minefield of sea urchins (I was stuck by one) we made it to safer waters of Horseshoe Bay for quick swimming and snorkeling.


FLIGHTS

Delta (premium economy): JFK-CUN. I paid for an economy seat, but upgraded to premium economy at check-in. It wasn’t worth the cost for the short flight.

Interjet (economy): CUN-MEX. I didn’t have high expectations for this unknown airline, but the flight was comfortable and spacious. They also served full-size snacks. I would fly them again.

Aeromexico (economy): MEX-JFK. Aeromexico is a nice airline and this 5 hour flight was perfectly fine.


ACCOMODATIONS

Ibis Cancun – basic – $
Ibis is cheap and the rooms are super small, but you can’t beat the price. We were only in Cancun for a night after arriving late from NYC.
Recommend: yes

Hotel Merida – moderate – $
I couldn’t find many reviews for this hotel, so I was a little apprehensive. But we arrived to a beautiful hotel with two large courtyards. The room was spacious and well-kept. A tasty breakfast was included and served at the adjoining restaurant.
Recommend: Yes

Hotel El Mesón del Marqués, Valladolid – moderate – $
Best hotel of the trip with a central location and great pool, great views, and great breakfast served in the hotel’s highly-rated restaurant.
Recommend: Yes

PavoReal Resort, Tulum – moderate – $$
PavoReal is an all inclusive resort and the price for a single traveler per night was a great deal. The food was basic, but good and my room overlooked the ocean. There was also a hammock on my balcony, which I used to watch the sunrise every morning.
Recommend: Yes


HIGHLIGHTS

Uxmal
Uxmal has the most amazing Mayan ruins I’ve ever seen. The structures were all distinct and many had rich architectural details. Also, visitors are allowed to climb one of the pyramids for a great bird’s eye view of the site.

Cenote Yal-ku
This large lagoon near Akumal was the best snorkeling of our trip – we saw so many variety of fish. The lagoon was busy but it’s big enough to find a quiet area to fully enjoy the sea life.

Puuc Route – Sayil, Labna, Kabah
We enjoyed all three sites, along with Uxmal (above). This group of Mayan cities were all built in similar styles with heavy ornamentation. The sites are located in the jungle, and there were very few people and vendors, so we were able to enjoy the ruins in peace.

Chichen Itza
We arrived within the first hour that site was open and it was already busy. We walked around the site for approx. two hours and by the time we left, El Castillo, the main pyramid was overrun with tourists. The other temple complexes of the site were more interesting to us. Either way, the site is worth a visit, but definitely arrive early.

Merida
I quickly fell in love with the brightly colored façades of the single story colonial buildings in the historic center of Yucatan’s largest city.


WHAT I MISSED

  • Mayapan – more Mayan ruins that you can climb
  • Muyil/Sian Khan Reserve – Mayan ruins in the jungle adjacent to a bioreserve that can be explored by boat
  • Isla Holbox – chill, beautiful islands in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Cozumel – famous island for snorkeling and scuba diving

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