Things to Do in Merida
Mostly unexcavated, the Chacchoben ruins (Zona Arqueológica de Chacchoben) make up the largest and most visited Maya archaeological site in Costa Maya. Here moss-covered temples sprout from a lush jungle, attracting visitors who want to learn about Maya history, including the collapse of the ancient civilization.
The second oldest cathedral in the Americas, the Mérida Cathedral (Catedral de San Ildefonso) was built atop a Mayan temple in the 16th century. Notable for its relatively austere façade and surprisingly stark Moorish interior, Mérida Cathedral also houses some of Mérida’s most significant religious artifacts, including the Christ of Blisters statue.
As one of the lesser-visited Mayan ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula, the archaeological site of Kabah offers an escape from the crowds at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá. Visit Kabah—the second largest site in the Puuc region after Uxmal—as part of a multi-ruin tour and take time to marvel over the ornate Palace of the Masks which is covered in a rare repeating motif of the rain god, Chaac.
Once one of the Yucatán’s most prominent estates, the remarkably preserved Hacienda Yaxcopoil offers an in-depth insight into the region’s colonial history. Originally built in the 17th century and spread over a vast 22,000-acre (8,900-hectare) agave plantation, Hacienda Yaxcopoil is now preserved as a museum, which showcases the Yucatán’s pre-Colombian, Spanish colonial, and henequen boom years.
Often considered the Champs Elysees of Mexico, tree-lined Paseo de Montejo is one of the few examples of French Colonial architecture in predominantly Spanish Colonial Mérida. Developed in the late 19th century with money from the region’s henequen boom, Paseo de Montejo—one of Mérida’s longest avenues—is nowadays lined by mansions, hotels, and restaurants which retain their elaborate, original facades.
Situated at the heart of Mérida’s historic center, bustling Plaza Grande is home to the city’s 16th century San Ildefonso Cathedral, one of the region’s most important contemporary art establishments, and more. Visitors can relax in this leafy plaza—popular among visitors and locals alike—or use it as a jumping-off point for further exploration of the city.
Largely regarded as the last great Mayan capital of the Yucatan peninsula and inhabited until the Late Post-Classic period, the ancient city of Mayapan has long fascinated archaeologists, as well as becoming a popular tourist attraction. The city was allegedly founded by Toltec King Kukulcan after the fall of Chichen Itza and today its remains include more than 4,000 structures, spread over a 4.2-square-kilometer plot and surrounded by an imposing stone perimeter wall.
The star attraction of Mayapan is the towering Temple of Kukulcan, a terraced pyramid similar to the one found at Chichen Itza, around which are dozens of temples, altars, shrines and residences, many adorned with colorful murals and well-preserved stuccos.
Situated just 17 miles (28 kilometers) outside of Mérida city center, Dzibilchaltún offers a quieter alternative to other Mayan sites such as Uxmal and Chichén Itzá. Here, visitors can explore over 8,000 astronomically and religiously significant archaeological structures, including the Temple of the Seven Dolls, as well as the Cenote Xlacah swimming hole and the Mayan People Museum.
The well-preserved Maya ruins at Uxmal are considered some of the most beautiful in the Yucatan. Temple-pyramids, quadrangles, and a large ball court dot the archaeological site. Highlights include the Great Pyramid and the unusually rounded Pyramid of the Magician. A nightly light and sound show brings the magic of Uxmal to life.
At the turn of the 19th century in Merida, the henequen plant—a type of agave—was such an important producer of textiles that locals would call it “green gold.” All of that changed when the textile industry evolved toward synthetic fibers, but on a visit to Sotuta de Peon Hacienda, on Merida’s southern outskirts, you can journey back to the golden era was henequen was king. Tour an historic, grandiose plantation home that was built with henequen dollars, before visiting the mill to watch as plants are processed into fibers. The equipment used has been pieced together from farms across the Yucatan, and is a way to preserve the traditional methods of henequen production and harvest. Learn how the fiber is woven to make rope, or spun into high quality yarn, before bouncing around on a mule-driven truck like plantation workers of old. Having worked up a sweat on the hacienda, cool off with a dip in the hidden cenotes, allowing the cool, alkaline-rich waters to rejuvenate your senses. You can also enjoy a traditional meal that’s prepared at the hacienda restaurant, and truly cap off an enchanting day of Yucatan history and culture.
More Things to Do in Merida
A must-see site for archaeology lovers and architectural buffs, Labna boasts Maya ruins built in the ancient Puuc style, marked by the use of concrete and decorative elements. Located in the Yucatan Peninsula, near the larger Uxmal ruins, Labna is a compact structure hidden within the Puuc Hills.
Originally built in the 16th century, the Montejo House-Museum--one of Mérida’s oldest buildings--is now a bank and free-to-enter museum. There, visitors can explore the permanent, four-room collection of historic furniture and three exhibition halls which typically house artworks. However, the main draw of Casa Museo Montejo is the original and elaborate Spanish Plateresque-style façade, one of a few of its kind in the Americas.
The MACAY Museum, the only museum dedicated to the promotion and diffusion of contemporary art on the Yucatán Peninsula, is a landmark of downtown Mérida. Originally built in the 16th century, the grand edifice now houses over 20 permanent and temporary art exhibits, which feature sculpture, painting, and other mixed media works, as well as a newspaper archive and garden.
Mesoamerican and Spanish cultures collide at the Aké Ruins and Hacienda, one of the Yucatán’s smaller but still significant archaeological and cultural sites. Explore the remains of an ancient Maya sacbe (raised road), central pyramidal palace, and two concentric border walls before stepping back to the 19th century at the henequen hacienda or climbing to the Aké chapel, which sits atop a Mayan pyramid.
If you’re looking for guaranteed pink flamingo sightings, a trip out to Celustun is your best bet. There’s a pleasant enough beach where you can spread out a blanket, look for shells, or go swimming, but the main reason to visit is to hire a boat captain to take your party out on a flamingo tour. You head into a lagoon area where the big pink birds hang out each day, flying around and settling down in shallow areas in large groups to look for food. It’s rare to come here and not see a few dozen flamingoes in bunches as you troll around on the boat.
The tour also usually includes a “petrified forest” with mangrove stumps sticking out of the mud and a visit to a swimming hole on land filled by cool, clear spring water. It’s a great place to cool off from the viewing time in the hot sun. Afterwards there are a variety of inexpensive seafood restaurants near the beach and town square, all serving shrimp ceviche, fresh-caught fish from the Gulf of Mexico, and cold beer or margaritas.
A landmark of downtown Mérida, the free-to-enter City Hall (Palacio Municipal) spans the west flank of the city’s Plaza Grande and is characterized by its salmon pink façade, arches, and clock tower. Inside, visitors can enjoy murals and paintings on the second floor, cool interior courtyards, and admire sweeping views over the plaza below.
Located on the Yucatán peninsula where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea, the Progreso Cruise Port is home to one of the longest piers in the world. Regularly frequented by cruise liners, this port is a jumping-off point for tours to the archaeological sites of Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Dzibilchaltun, as well as Mérida city.
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