Exploring Mexico’s Yucatán
Vibrant colonial cities, delicious regional Mayan food, unique cultural experiences, and largely undiscovered beaches make the Yucatán state of Mexico an up-and-coming tourist destination. Abutting Cancun and the Riviera Maya which have become crowded, commercial, and very expensive, the Yucatán region offers a more authentic Mexican experience.
Safety is another factor adding to the growing attraction to this region. “No travel advisory in effect,” according to U.S. Department of State’s July 2013 report. The safety of this area has been compared to the rural U.S. states of Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and North Dakota.
Mérida, also called “the White City” is the bustling capital of the Yucatán state. There is much to explore in this city of beautiful old colonial buildings, art galleries, shops and restaurants. It is an interesting juxtaposition of vibrant Mayan culture and modern city amenities.
The Paseo de Montejo, which locals refer to as their Champs-Élysées, is a lovely tree and sculpture-lined boulevard with upscale shops, restaurants, cafes, nightclubs, boutique hotels and museums. Many of the buildings have been converted from the exquisite centuries-old colonial mansions. Day or night, walking along the boulevard is always a treat. There are also many horse-drawn carriages all along the way for the foot-weary.
The central square in Mérida, Plaza Grande, is also surrounded by 18th century colonial mansions such as the pink Palacio Municipal (city hall) and the Cathedral de San Ildefonso, one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas, constructed with stones that came from one of the Mayan ruins. On Sundays, the Plaza Grande becomes a vibrant, festive, cultural extravaganza with live music and dancing and rows and rows of stalls selling Mayan and Yucatán street food, Mayan clothing, Panama hats, art, and souvenirs.
Izamal, is called the “Yellow City” because the shops, restaurants, churches and other buildings in the town square and outskirts are all painted a golden yellow. Izamal is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos (Magic Towns), a distinction from the Mexican Tourism Council to towns with historical or cultural importance.
Close by are four pyramids from which you can view the city square and adjacent is the Convent of San Antonio Padua, painted the same yellow, and the Franciscan monastery which is one of the oldest Catholic monasteries in the Americas.
In the plaza square, you’ll find horse-drawn carriages and a variety of shops selling all sorts of handcrafts made from henequen and other materials.
Izamal is a good base for exploring many important Yucatán sites, such as Chichén Itzá, Mayapan and Cuzamá.
Valladolid, located approximately halfway between Cancun and Mérida, also enjoys the label as Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos (Magic Towns). As is typical, the main square in the downtown plaza is anchored by the picturesque old cathedral of San Servacio. There’s a park in the middle which frequently holds open-air markets, live music and food stands; outside the park you’ll find an arched arcade building with restaurants and shops with Mayan handcrafts and souvenirs, and beautiful pastel colonial churches and other architecture.
Just outside of downtown you’ll find Casa de los Venados, a wonderful home-turned-museum owned by American expats John and Dorianne Venator. They open this home to the public where you can see their vast collection of over 3,000 pieces of Mexican folk art, many of which were commissioned to the artist.
About a 10-minute walk from the main square in downtown is the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena, a Franciscan missionary built around 1552 where you can explore the interior as well as the vast surrounding park.
Valladolid is close to a couple of famous cenotes, the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam, and Chichén Itzá, and Ría Lagartos where flamingos nest, making it a great base for exploring much of the Yucatán.
Progreso, more a beach town than colonial city, is located right on the Gulf of Mexico. Its crystal, emerald-green surf laps onto a white-sand, palapa-lined beach. You can take a leisurely stroll along the newly–paved Malécon which begins at Progreso’s four-mile-long pier, the longest in the world.
The beach scene near the pier is bustling, sometimes with live mariachi bands playing and locals hawking their wares. Across from the beach are cafes and cantinas, and myriad open-air shops selling hand-made crafts, multi-coloured blankets and unique hand-made art and jewellery.
For those desiring solitude, that too can be found in Progreso. Continue walking east along the beach, away from the pier and downtown, and you’ll soon find yourself on a private, secluded beach.
What To Do
In addition to exploring the colonial cities and beach mentioned above, there are a lot of unique cultural experiences and activities in the Yucatán. Not to be missed are the two types listed below, which can be found in many sizes and locations across the region.
Cenotes are underwater sinkholes which the Mayans considered to be sacred places. While there are a variety scattered throughout the Yucatán, at Cuzamá you can visit three cenotes located on the same property. The cenotes are located on the grounds of an old henequen hacienda. They are only accessible by horse-drawn railcart, which is an experience in itself. To enter the cenotes, you descend down a vertical ladder down into a cave until you reach a fresh, cool-water pool where you can swim. Two of the three cenotes here have an open top where sun streams in and the tree roots from the surface reach down to the water, giving it an otherworldly atmosphere.
Mayan Ruins are also found throughout the Yucatán. It is estimated that there are over 4000 sites in Mesoamerica. Chichén Itzá is by all accounts the largest and best excavated and is a marvel to behold. However, it is usually very crowded with tourists and you can no longer climb El Castillo, the main pyramid. Another great option is Mayapan, considered one of the “big three” sites, along with Uxmal and Chichén Itzá. Driving distance from either Mérida or Izamal, Mayapan is not as well-known with international tourists and because it is not driving distance for a day tour from Cancun, is far less crowded, although an excellent example of an ancient Mayan city and well worth seeing. Climbing the stone structures is still permitted at Mayapan.
Where to Stay
Luz En Yucatán, Mérida. Don’t be fooled by the plain façade on the street. As soon as you open the heavy, old wooden door, you will enter a beautiful tropical urban retreat concealed within the city. From the many colonial corridors beautifully furnished, to the pool in the secluded courtyard, the Luz En Yucatán is a hidden gem. The penthouse unit has an outdoor kitchen, patio, and even an inviting hammock – all overlooking the city. And the location could not be more perfect,… adjacent to Santa Lucia square which has live music, dancing and shops, a 5-minute walk the bustling Plaza Grande and a 15-minute walk to Paseo de Montejo. Owner Donard O’Neill is a very amicable and helpful host for whatever needs his patrons might have.
Hacienda San Pedro Nophat, San Pedro (outside Mérida). Converted from an authentic hacienda into a bed and breakfast, this place offers local Mexican flavor and is an oasis just outside of Mérida Centro. The aged grounds are well-kept and picturesque, maintaining much of the original charm. Host Iona Chamberlin is very friendly – giving suggestions for nearby restaurants and will even organize a group dinner excursion for the guests, including a unique bike “taxi” which is a lot of fun. The rooms are very spacious and the beds are the most comfortable in the entire region.
Casa Hamaca, Valladolid. Located right on San Juan square, behind gates and a path through a lush “jungle garden,” Casa Hamaca is an unexpected refuge in the city of Valladolid. The location is walking distance to myriad restaurants, shops, and museums. The suites are very spacious and immaculate including very large bathrooms with built-in closets and huge walk-in showers. Casa owner, expat Denis Larsen personally greets guests at check-in and will provide helpful information and directions to activities and sites specific to your desires. He also has breakfast every morning with the guests, chatting amicably from table to table, sharing his extensive knowledge of the area and giving sightseeing tips.
Hotel Macan ché, Izamal. The extensive path-lined lush, tropical gardens weaving around personal casitas give this property a unique secret paradise charm. Just a few blocks walking distance to downtown Izamal gives access to all the restaurants, shops and sights without the noise of the city. Hotel Macan ché has one of the most unique pools in the area, with the bottom made from a huge slab of rough-hewn stone, making it look more like a natural grotto than a swimming pool.
What to Eat
The regional Yucatán and Mayan cuisines are different than traditional Mexican food, and quite delicious.
Hacienda Teya, Mérida. This beautiful, upscale hotel and restaurant is renowned for their flan, which is very good, but it’s the tapas that bring tourists and locals back – they are excellent, probably the best in the Yucatán, especially the salbutes, an authentic Yucatán specialty. These small, puffed, deep fried tortillas are topped with pulled pork, chopped cabbage, tomato, pickled red onion, avocado, and are served with optional 5-alarm habanero pepper puree.
Kinish, Izamal. Filet de Yucatán is a regional Mayan dish – pork filet marinated in tamarind seeds and chile peppers and sour orange then sautéed and served with pickled onions and black beans. The restaurant is very large, airy and nicely decorated, with festive Mayan music playing while you eat.
Eladio’s, Progreso. Located right on the beach with free parking, you can sit inside for more formal dining or outside under an umbrella table just steps from the shore. Their chimichangas – burritos, delicately fried to a satisfying crunch and filled with shredded beef, cheese, salsa and sour cream – are a treat. Unlike the Tex-Mex version, the Yucatán chimichangas are not filled and folded over before deep frying, but folded over empty before frying then adding the fresh ingredients to order. They can be messy to eat, but worth the extra effort.
La Susana, Kanasin. Though not as good as the tamales at Susana’s in Rosarito, the tamales here are listed as an appetizer, but are more than enough for a meal. Try the local chaya drink made from spinach. The best part of going to this restaurant if you are staying nearby is to take one of the “local” taxis – an open-air cart where customers sit while being pedaled by a bicycle or sometimes a small motorcycle. Very fun!
Throughout the Yucatán you can readily find Churros, a crisp, deep fried doughnut coated liberally with cinnamon sugar. They are usually sold in bags, because just one is seldom enough.
All photos are © Doug Stead