Yucatán is one of the most wonderful states in México. It has everything: beaches, lagoons, lakes, wildlife, hiking trails, museums, pyramids… No wonder it is a very popular destination. However, it is hard to choose where to go once you’re there because it’s huge! This is why I put together a few places that are less than two hours away —by bus or car— from the capital, Mérida, and which I believe will help you get an idea of Yucatán.
There are many archeological sites in Yucatán, most of the wonderful. However, Uxmal is my favourite so far. It is only one hour away from Mérida by bus and, unbelievably, usually not crowded. The biggest pyramid in the complex is The Pyramid of the Magician, which is pretty impressive. There are also many smaller structures in which you can get in or go up.
Celestún is small beach town one hour and a half away from Mérida by bus. Apart from enjoying the beach, you can go on a expedition to watch flamingos and other animals that live in the Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Lagartos, a protected area. You can also swim in some of the natural pools around town, or enjoy wonderful seafood by the beach.
The closest beach to Mérida. Takes thirty minutes by bus to get there, and all you need to bring is some towels. It’s the perfect escapade after sightseeing in Mérida.
Homún is a small town one hour away from Mérida. To get here you’ll have to drive or take one of the vans that stand outside the bus station. The wonderful thing about Homún is its cenotes. There are around 10 cenotes open to the public and many more that are being worked on or belong to private properties. It’s quite far to walk from one to the other, so I recommend you hire a moto-taxi for the day (the charge $200 for the whole day, up to four people) and see as many as you can. Each cenote charges $30.00 for the entrance. It’s totally worth it and one of the most wonderful things you can do in México.
Cuzamá is just 10 minutes away from Homún and it’s cool for the same reasons: cenotes. You can spend another day exploring the cenotes here.
More tips for Yucatán
Sunscreen is necessary in Yucatán. However, you should make sure you’re wearing eco friendly sunscreen or no sunscreen at all when going in the cenotes. Cenotes are super cool but also very delicate ecosystems for birds, fish and flora.
Try Yucatecan food. You’ll see “Mexican” food everywhere, but don’t go for tacos or quesadillas, instead try cochinita pibil, sopa de lima and other dishes that are typical of the region. Yucatán has one of the most unique cuisines of the country, do yourself a favour and try it.
Stay at an eco-hostel! Hostels are booming in the area, especially in Mérida. They offer wonderful prices and the chance to meet like-minded people, which can be helpful when organizing a trip. I last stayed at Nomadas and could not recommend it more! It was truly amazing in every way.
If you’d like to receive posts like this in your inbox, subscribe to my newsletter below!
Success! You're on the list.
Whoops! There was an error and we couldn't process your subscription. Please reload the page and try again.
There are two things that come to mind when I think of Yucatán now, and they’re both pink: flamingos and salt lakes. They were one of the reasons I chose Yucatán for my last trip. I travelled with a friend and we stayed in Mérida. Incredibly, after almost 24 years of living in México I still, somehow, manage to misjudge distances: when we were at the hostel planning our days out, I realized that while Celestún, the place where you can see pink flamingos, was fairly close to Mérida, but the pink lakes, Las Coloradas, were actually pretty far.
Our transportation options were very limited. A bus would take almost 5 hours, which seemed excessive for a day trip, and renting a car was too expensive for my budget —and it would take three hours. The most reasonable thing would have been to spend a night in Las Coloradas or nearby, but that was again an extra expense. As much as we wanted to see the pink lakes, we decided to set more realistic goals for our days there and leave the pink lakes as an optional adventure for our last day in Yucatán.
Pink flamingos were still on the list though, so the next morning we took a bus to Celestún, a small town in the Yucatán peninsula just one hour and a half away from Mérida. I was also queasy about this trip. Although the flamingos are not the only reason why you’d visit Celestún—they have a natural reserve called Ria Lagartos, habitat to thousands of species—, the flamingos were certainly the most compelling one for us, and we were offseason. The best time to visit Celestún is during March and April when they are mating. In June and July, they’re not that active and handed to spot, but we had to give it a chance.
Once in Celestún, a picturesque but definitely not prosper town, we went straight to the beach, where we saw a couple of boats on the shore. Most boat drivers offer a two-hour flamingo-watching ride, the problem is boats can fit up to 8 people and if you’re in a small group you’ll still have to pay full price. A boat ride is expensive, at around $1,600 MXN. Thankfully we met an awesome boat owner who arranged for us to share with two other girls, so we paid only $400 each.
These boat rides are operated by a Mayan cooperative whose members, as I gathered from our driver, are also concerned with conservation. The boats never get too close to the flamingos and the drivers make sure no one disturbs them or tries to feed them. Our driver William explained all of these as we made our way from the beach towards the Ría Lagartos reserve.
It’s a long ride in which all you can see is water, some pelicans and birds, even small alligators. And then, as if out nowhere, flamingos appear. Now, I don’t think I have ever been so fascinated by birds before. William stopped the engine when we were some 20 meters away from a group of 20 or so flamingos, and we stayed there, watching. The birds came and went, flew close to our heads, landed in the water, fought each other, played around. At some point, there must have been 50 or 60 birds around us, some of them still young and white. The flamingos, we were told, get their pink colour from the waters where they feed. Unlike most birds, flamingos feed on plankton and have no teeth but some kind of filters in their beaks, like whales.
They are a really weird species, gracious and somehow clumsy at the same time. I felt very humbled to be among them but I couldn’t help but doubt if it was okay to intrude in their habitat, even if we were assured that there was no harm being done. It was, as our guide said, not the right time to go and I wonder if many more people disturb them during the mating season.
On this trip, I learned that tourism is basically the only thing supporting people in small towns like Celestún nowadays. There are so many people that will take you on a boat to watch flamingos even though they’re not prepared or informed, only because there are no other jobs. Once again it’s clear that there is a very strong link between poverty and environmentally harmful practices.
Speaking of environmentally harmful practices, I have to say that I am very saddened about the amount of plastic lying close to the beach and on the roads of Celestún. In just a short walk I picked up a full bag of trash, mostly plastic bottles. This is extremely alarming considering how close the public beach is to the “protected” reserve of Ría Lagartos.
Speaking to our guide William on our way back to the beach he mentioned that flamingos were probably the most famous “attraction” of the area apart from the pink lakes. He mentioned most people travelled to Las Coloradas for that, which wasn’t really necessary since salt lakes could be found in many places in Yucatán. In fact, he knew a pink lake not five minutes away from where we were. After that, we spent five minutes convincing him to take us for a small extra fee ($50 each). He turned to boat around to shore just before where the river comes into the sea, we got off and walked for ten minutes among mosquitos and under a scorching sun and we finally came to it, a pink lake.
The colour pink comes from all the minerals and salts dissolved in the water, and it changes a bit depending on the light. This lake was actually very shallow, perhaps up to my waist in the middle, and the water was very hot and slimy. The sand underneath was also slimy and weirdly sticky. I had not experienced something similar before but I can tell you I didn’t want to go all the way in, not even to see if I would float like in the Dead Sea (which I have heard happens).
The area was completely empty, although you could see salt deposits in the distance and tools like shovels and buckets, there even was a truck parked not very far away. Most pink lakes like these are still worked for salt. That day, however, it was peaceful and eerie-looking.
After exploring a bit we went back to the boat and straight to the beach. It was a pretty interesting day and we crossed two things off our checklists, which gave us an extra day to stay in Mérida and chill. We had a pretty good lunch that day, too, shrimp and octopus, and hung out at the beach waiting for the last bus to Mérida. It was a pretty good day, “best day here so far”, we thought at the time, but we were quite mistaken.
Yucatán and Quintana Roo are famous for their various mayan ruins, of which the most famous are Chichén Itzá and Tulum. Both of these archeological sites attract an evergrowing —and alarming— number of visitors each year; Chichén Itzá had around 2.6 million visitors in 2017 and Tulum reached its own record last year with more than 300,000 in the summer. These are the reasons why I am always dubious about visiting pyramids, I’m not the kind of person to actually queue in a 40ºC weather for a picture in front of an ancient temple, no matter how cool or old it is.
When I was in Yucatán last week, however, I really wanted to show a foreign friend some Mayan architecture, it was really unthinkable to spend a few days in Mérida and not visit any pyramids. So after some thought we decided to visit Uxmal. We chose it because it was nowhere near as popular as Chichén, but I must say I was prepared to pay an expensive entrance ticket and battle with crowds.
My first pleasant surprise was to learn how easy it is to travel anywhere in Yucatán from Mérida. You basically just walk to any of the two bus stations and they’ll get you on the right bus in no time and for a very reasonable price. This time we paid $120.00 MXN for a round ticket to Uxmal. The bus actually dropped us right outside the entrance and the driver told us to wait for the return bus right there. When we got out of the bus I could not believe my eyes: the place was empty, except for the 15-20 people who got off the same bus as us.
My second pleasant surprise was to learn Sundays are free for Mexicans, a very welcome piece of information since it meant I could now afford dinner. Foreigners do pay for the entrance, but if you have a valid student ID you’ll get a discount. I remember the same disounts apply in both Tulum and Chichén Itzá, but both are more expensive and have enormous queues this time of year. When I went to Tulum last year the queue must have been some 200 meters long, zigzagging around souvenir stands. These same stands could be found everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, in Chichén Itzá, making it look more like a market than an archaeological site.
Uxmal was nearly empty. I guess there were other 25 or 30 people in the site with us, and for such a large area it felt like we were alone. The first thing you see when you enter Uxmal is a magnificent pyramid, the Pyramid of the Magician, and it is a sublime sight because it’s only surrounded by other structures, but there are no people around, drones or selfie sticks. Also, there’s not much shadow around, so bring plenty of sunscreen.
Another aspect that sets Uxmal apart from other sites is the fact that you can climb many pyramids and even go inside of many ritual chambers. On our time there we climbed up and down stairs, went through tunnels, entered houses and chased iguanas through narrow corridors. I kinda felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, to be honest.
It took us three hours to go around—including several water breaks and picture posing— and by the end we were exhausted and very happy (in my case, also severely sunburnt). As it happens with many archeological sites, there’s some kind of open air lounge at the entrance where there are restaurants and snack bars, but we decided to have a nice dinner back in Mérida. Next to our bus stop there was a coffee stand though, so that proved a perfect endind to the adventure.
All in all, I think Uxmal provides the same archaeological value as other archaeological sites —perhaps the pyramids don’t face the ocean or are not as big, but they sure are impressive— minus the hassle, the expense and the crowds of more popular places. Uxmal, or Oxmal, means “thrice rebuilt”, and seems to allude to the city’s history and the times it had to be rebuilt over time. It is, alongside Chichén Itzá and Tikal, one of the most important remnants of Mayan culture in the area, so I’m happy its being taken good care of.
Mérida, Yucatán is currently the safest city in Mexico, which is in itself a luring aspect for female travellers. It was really one of the reasons why I chose it for my last holiday: I wanted to show a foreign friend around while keeping a very tight budget, which meant public transport, hostels and as little shopping as possible. I was looking for cheap and safe, and Mérida was the right answer.
My friend and I stayed in an eco-hostel called Nómadas, which I can’t recommend enough. It was a small, homey place with a beautiful pool surrounded by tropical plants and hammocks. It was also packed with young travellers, so we felt at ease always, plus the staff was wonderfully kind (everybody in Yucatán was awfully kind, come to that). I have stayed in many hostels over the last few years and I can honestly say this is one of the best. Also, it is very, very cheap.
Immediately after we arrived we wanted to go to the beach, so we dropped our bags and asked for the nearest beach. The only possible downside about Mérida is that it doesn’t have its own beaches. This is not a problem, however, as you can easily drive or take a bus to one of the many beaches nearby. This time we took a half-hour bus ride to Playa Progreso.
Apart from its closeness to beautiful beaches, Mérida is a wonder in itself. Also known as “the white city”, it has a rich history and played an important part in during the Spanish Conquest, when the Yucatán Peninsula was an important spot for trading with Europe. So it’s not strange that it is full of old, baroque buildings that almost seem out of place in a 40ºC weather. Its most remarkable building has to be the cathedral, an austere two-towered structure surrounded by trees. Another great spot for architecture lovers is Paseo de Montejo, where the poshest and nicest houses in town used to be. Now it is full of restaurants and cafés, and it is the perfect spot for a walk. My favourite café was Latte Quatro Sette.
Speaking of restaurants, I don’t think I have ever enjoyed food as much as when I was in Mérida. Whether you go to a food stand in the centre or a fancy restaurant, food is amazing. My favourite spot was a restaurant called Micaela Mar & Leña, close to our hostel. It is one of those places that offer a “food experience” rather than just food. It is also reasonably priced and the service is excellent. Seafood is amazing in Yucatán, but so are the traditional “cochinita pibil” (pork) and “sopa de lima” (soup with sweet lime).
Nightlife in Mérida is also pretty awesome. If you’re into Latin music I definitely recommend going to Mercado 60, where you’ll find live Cuban music (there’s a lot of Cuban influence in Yucatán’s culture due to the closeness between the two countries). There you can even learn to dance and have some cocktails or artisanal beer. The food is also pretty good.
We just stayed five days in the white city, and spent some travelling to some cities nearby, but I just fell in love with the city! Its culture, vibrance and most of all the kindness and good humour of its citizens—not to mention it is a pretty international spot, specially for young backpackers— make it, in my opinion, one of the greatest cities in Mexico. There’s just so many things to see and do! I can’t wait to go back.