When you look at Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, your eyes probably go to Cancun, Playa de Carmen or Tulum. These spots along the east cost of the peninsula are beautiful beach towns with international appeal; no one will argue you that. My Yucatan adventure, though, didn’t go that far east. I loved my time in the Yucatan–I miss the dry heat, the music, the tacos and my friends–and the fact that I didn’t make it to these popular destination spots doesn’t shame my experience in the least.
1. i explored different centotes
When the limestone bedrock collapsed across the Yucatan, fresh, ground water was exposed. These pits or sinkholes are called cenotes. The Mayan people once used these pools for drinking water or for human sacrifices, which was eerie to think about while floating lazily in the cool water. Cenotes come in all forms–small or large, shallow or deep, crowded or private, under ground or in open air. I went to nine different cenotes during my time in the Yucatan and not one was like the other. My favorite cenote–Cenote Canunchen–was down in a cave. The people who owned the cenote–or the land the cenote was under, I guess–built a playground with rope swings and platforms to jump from.
Ik-Kil Cenote near Chichen Itza, Mexico
other resources about cenotes:
- The top 20 cenotes in the Riviera Maya according to Selvatica.com.
- The most gorgeous cenotes in Mexico from Thrillist.
- Lonely Planet’s secret swims: the cenotes of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula
2. i took spanish lessons
Can I speak Spanish? No.
Did I try? I showed up to class every day for three weeks, so I pretended to try if nothing else.
Seriously, though, attempting to learn the local language is the easiest way to immerse yourself into the culture. My language tutors and I stumbled through conversation about family, friends, likes and dislikes, occupation and music. While I was trying to learn a language, I learned about a local and it gave me a small sense of belonging.
I took Spanish lessons at Calle 55 in Merida.
The Mayan city of Uxmal.
3. i explored mayan ruins
The Mayan culture is still strong in the Yucatan. Fun fact, Mayan cuisine is the only food with a World Heritage status. The people hold to the fact that Mayan culture is different than the Mexican culture visitor thing they understand; by the time you leave the Yucatan, you’ll understand.
The major sites I visited were Uxmal, Dzidzantún and Chichen Itza as well as other Mayan site that cities like Merida or Izamal built around. Each ancient city I saw was unique, but it carried the same haunted weight of importance. The intelligence and the passion of the people who built and lived in these sites is easy to see despite the cruelty of time.
The shadow snake of Kukulkán at the spring equinox at Chichen Itza during the spring equinox of 2017.
If you are venturing to Chichen Itza on your own, I recommend you stay in Valliod at the Candeloria Hostel. Even if you don’t stay but are just in Valliod for a visit, go to the shop Colibrí Maya for a tequila tasting and ask about a bike tour; one of the workers told me about a tequila-tamale bike tour!
4. i celebrated spring equinox
On an equinox, the sun will rise directly in the middle of Dzidzantún’s Temple of the Seven Dolls and the shadows of a late-afternoon sun will awake the shadow snake of Kukulkán at Chichen Itza. By grace of fortune and friendship, I got to see both during the Spring Equinox of 2017.
Just after sunrise at Dzidzantún’s Temple of the Seven Dolls on the spring equinox.
5. i rode in collectivos
I started leaning toward public transportation while traveling because of my budget, but I’ve come to love it for the experience. Doing as the locals leaves an impression of what life is like where you’re visiting. I took collectivos for a few dollars to the beaches and cenotes outside of Merida.
6. i stayed in merida
I picked Merida because it is a safe city and an easy distance to other attraction on the peninsula.I later found out that it’s considered the safest city in the Yucatan–maybe all of Mexico, I forget–because it’s where a lot of drug dealers moved their mothers; and you don’t fight in front of mom. Whether or not this fact hold water, Merida is a beautiful city, and I felt completely safe there.
Merida is built on and with Mayan ruins. As a grossly ignorant American, I identified Mexican culture as Spanish-based. Merida showed how wrong I was. Most the people here identify as Mayan and even tried to teach me a few Mayan words. The main square of Merida celebrates its ancient heritage with various events throughout the week, my favorite being the Pok ta Pok games on Friday evenings.
Sort-kind what the Mayan game of pok ta pok is like.
There is live music with dancing nearly every night and a festival every Sunday in front of the Catedral. I loved the Mayan museum. Merida is in a great location to visit Mayan sites throughout the Yucatan; I found it easy enough to make my own way around, but I went on a few La Jarana Tours as well.
Suggestions for food and drink in Merida:
- Pipiripaw so great music and dance.
- La Fundación Mezacion for salsa lessons on Wednesday evenings.
- La Negorita Cantana for cool, outdoor vibes.
- La Chaya Maya for typical, Mayan food.
- Apoala has fantastic food! You need to make a reservation. I suggest you make one for Thursday nights when there is live music and dancing in the square.
- Sukra Cafe for yummy drinks, outdoor seating and wifi!
Hostel Catedral has a great price, great location, great people. It also has a free, hot breakfast every morning.
I’m not the only one who thinks Merida is amazing: A Tour of Mérida, Mexico’s Most Creative and Affordable City from Conde Nast’s Traveler.
View of Merida, Mexico
7. i took my yoga practice to the roof
I’m still not 100% certain I was allowed on the roof of Hostel Catedral, but if I didn’t ask no one could forbid me. I’d sneak up these in the mornings face the west while I stretched and let my mind and body wake up together on my yoga mat. By no means am I a skilled yogi, but these early-morning moments stay with me when I think of Merida.
8. i attempted salsa
The La Fundación Mezacion in Merida had free salsa lessons on Wednesday evenings. I was really bad at this game, but I attempted, and appreciate anyone who can salsa dance that much more.
9. i drank (a lot of) local tequila
Brace yourself for an annoying statement from an obnoxious traveler: the tequila was so good in Mexico and I swear it didn’t make me hung over (as bad).
Chicxulub near Progresso in Mexico
10. i went to progresso
Progresso is the beach closest to Merida. For carnival–ya know, Fat Tuesday celebrations–this is where the party is at. Nearby is the Chicxulub crater where the asteroid that supposedly killed the dinosaurs hit earth. Did I see a huge crater? No. I’m not 100% sure there is anything to see. I think it’s underwater. But I was nearby, and that’s pretty cool information to drop on friends over drinks.
11. i saw the laguna rosa at los coloradas
Las Coloradas is known for its salt ponds… specifically the pink water at their salt ponds. When my friends asked where I wanted to day trip, I jumped at the chance to visit Los Coloradas. The water was pink, it was super cool, but it wasn’t as mind blowing and fantastic as travel bloggers led me to believe.
A cool video from the Expert Vagabond, featuring Los Coloradas.
The Laguna Rosa is pink because of a pink algae. This algae is what makes flamingos pink, too. I learned that in Los Coloradas. Anyway, it’s a cool place. I have cool pictures and really enjoyed my time there. What I really loved about Los Coloradas, though, isn’t something I can post to Instagram.
When we pulled up to the Laguna Rosa, we were approached by a local on a motorbike. There were several men on motorbikes around. We had assumed they worked at the salt mine or were locals gathering to watch silly tourist, but they were unofficial tour guides. For 10 pesos a head, he beaconed us to follow him on his motorbike. He told us the process of making sea salt, how the company emptied and filled sections of the large pond to optimize production. We scooped up pink water in a glass to saw that the water was actually clear, but the algae was so densely populated, the it all reflected together as one color.
I picked up chunks of dried, packed together sand, the result of salt concentration. It was a fun day, an education day and a tribute to how much knowledge and love the Mexican people have for their country.
12. i spent the day in to izamal
Izamal is called the yellow city. It was a charming town that is best known for being painted completely yellow. There are two stories for this. The first, it was painting all yellow to impress Pop John Paul II when he visited Mexico. The other–and my favorite of the two–is that Izamal was victim to a rampant disease. The citizens could not figure out how to cure the disease nor how to stop it from spreading, so they decided to mark the homes those fallen ill with yellow paint, an unpopular paint at the time. As the story goes, the citizens of Izamal realized that the plant they used to make the color yellow kept away whatever insert was carrying the disease. In a wise act that is also aesthetically pleasing, the whole town was painted yellow!
Izamal has a beautiful convent, Mayan ruins and a fantastic restaurant with traditional, Mayan food: Kinich Izamal.