The Yucatan Peninsula is a must-see on many a traveller's list. Safe, beautiful, and incredibly varied, the region offers many riches beyond the crowds of Cancun
A thirst for sun, sea and Caribbean sand is what brings most to the Yucatan peninsula. And so it should. If, however, spending two weeks on the beach is more of a challenge than a pleasure, venture beyond the resorts and the Yucatan Peninsula offers a window into the real Mexico.
Merida, the capital city of the state of Yucatan, is a hive of activity. This is particularly true at Carnival time (the Yucatan and Belize celebrate the Carnival on the same weekend as the Brazilians do, 46 days before Easter), when the Zocalo (town square) comes alive with dance, music, and the smell of tacos floating through the air. Each night for seven nights there are parades, concerts and general merriment throughout Merida’s main streets and squares. Find out what’s on during your visit by reading Yucatan Today (online and printed, see Directory below).
At other times of year, Merida is a big draw to history and architecture buffs, intrigued by the stately mansions built in the prosperous early 20th century along Paseo de Montejo. You can even stay in one - the InterContinental Merida occupies a mansion bought by a Mexican General for his fiancé. Delve deeper into Yucatan’s rich and long history by visiting the Anthropology and History Museum. If it is local art that interests you, a selection of the Yucatan’s contemporary treasures are beautifully presented in the Museo MACAY and the very peaceful Instituto de Cultura de Yucatan. A number of private galleries and shops offer a superb selection of Yucatan art for sale, including the Galeria Enrique Trava (between Calles 53 & 55 on Calle 60) and the small but perfectly formed Artisan Shop on the corner of Calles 60/51.
Conveniently located just down the road from the Artisan Shop is the Café Chocolate (Calle 60/49), which does exactly what it says on the tin. If it isn’t too hot outside, the trademark Café Chocolate hot chocolate (see picture) is one of the best hot chocolates I have ever had, which is saying a lot after the copious amounts of hot chocolate I drank across Mexico. The beautiful courtyard and well-decorated interior also provide the perfect setting to a laid-back lunch. This café can however feel a little ex-pat, so if you are looking for something more authentic, and cheaper, head to el Trapiche where $65 pesos gets you a scrumptious and very filling serving of guacamole, tacos and pollo (chicken).
Venturing beyond the city walls, Celestun, within about an hour’s drive from Merida, makes a great day trip for its beautiful nature reserve brought to life in pink by large flocks of flamingos. If you are lucky (I was not), you can also spot crocodiles – so keep your fingers in the boat! Renting a car is probably the best way to get there, as it gives you the freedom to stop off at some of the traditional Mayan villages along the route, where you will see typical Yucatan housing resembling the trulli (houses with conical roofs) of southern Italy. If you book a tour, you will get picked up from your hotel and taken straight to the reserve, followed by lunch on the beach, for $500 pesos.
Of course one of the biggest draws in Yucatan is Chichen Itza, dubbed one of the ‘Official New 7 Wonders of the World’. Wonderous the historic sites may be, but unfortunately they are somewhat tainted by the massive tourist circus it has inevitably become. If you want to stay away from the crowds, and the lines of hawkers selling their wares, head to the beautiful coastal site of Tulum. If you have a couple of weeks or more in Central America, it may be worth the trip further inland to either of Palenque (Mexico) or Tikal (Guatemala), both of which keep their jewels further from the crowds and hidden amid lush forest.
As a relatively big town, Merida offers a wide range of accommodation. I stayed at Casa del Tio Dach, a small hostel where the warmth, hospitality and local knowledge offered by the owner, Edwin, provided the perfect base to exploring this area. If you’re looking for something a little more up market, or more suited to a family, try Luz En Yucatan, a top-rated central hotel with a pool and doubles from $50 per night.
Yucatan Today: www.yucatantoday.com
Anthropology and History Museum: Paseo de Montejo and Calle 43 (Tues-Sun 8am-5pm, entry $41 pesos)
Museo MACAY: by the Cathedral at Calle 60 (Mon, Weds, Thurs & Sun 10am-6pm, Fri & Sat 10am-8pm, free entry)
Instituto de Cultura de Yucatan: opposite the Parque de Santa Lucia, (Tues-Sat 9:30am-6:30pm, Sun 9am-2pm, free entry)