Uxmal: Pyramids Minus the Crowds

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.

Have you visited any pyramids in México?

Falling in Love with Mérida

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.

Have you visited Mérida?

Late-Night Burgers in San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende is yet another wonderful small city in Guanajuato. Not unlike Guanajuato city, San Miguel is a cultural centre, a place where baroque architecture comes together with the many modern artistic manifestations that take place in the city centre. San Miguel is also a very chic, touristy place — about one fifth of its population is foreign— with a vibrant atmosphere day and night. In terms of gastronomy, nightlife, culture, nature and climate, this is one the best cities to visit in Mexico.

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The streets of San Miguel are not that different from those of any other colonial town in Mexico, and yet the number of art galleries and absence of traffic lights gives them an extra charm. San Miguel combines some of the most characteristic things about Mexico, including the food, the mojigangas (giant dolls), baroque architecture and narrow, crooked alleys— but it is also one of the most cosmopolite, global cities in the country. You can find food from all over the world — I recommend, for example, Mare Nostrum for great pizza—, a nightlife scene that brings together people from all countries and ages, a very varied cultural scene and a paradise for cheese and wine lovers.

The first stop should be the main square. There stands the principal landmark of the town: la Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, which is unmissable because it’s some kind of pink neo-gothic, and it is visible from almost everywhere in town. In front of it there’s the Allende garden. Around the area there are many restaurants and cafés, as well as ice cream stands and all kinds of handicrafts. However, most of the really good restaurants are not at the main square, and the best place for handicrafts and souvenirs is the Mercado de Artesanías, just a 10-minute walk north. Right next to it there’s a nice guest house called Casa de los Soles, which is a moderately priced and nice accommodation.

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As with most other places in the world, the best thing is to just get lost and wander around. The streets of San Miguel are just beautiful, with their buganvilia vines, cobbled paths and colorful balconies. Walking south from the main square you’ll find Parque Juárez, a nice park in which to take a stroll, buy souvenirs or snacks and even watch local basketball games.

During the day and specially on weekends, the centre of San Miguel is usually busy. However, it is at night that it really comes alive. Last time I was there, my friends and I really enjoyed our evening at Limerick, an Irish pub. Early in the evening it is a regular pub, but later it becomes a nightclub, and a really fun one. I think what makes San Miguel’s nightlife special is the international, chill vibe it has. Another cool place for dancing is El Grito (both places are near the main square), or Mamma Mia for live music and food. After hours of dancing, you’ll step out into the street, walk towards the Parroquia and see many food stands lined up in the street. One of those offers some of the best (and cheapest) burgers I’ve tried in a while. San Miguel does not sleep during the weekends, so no matter how late you find yourself hungry, out in the cold, windy streets… you’ll find something to eat.

If it is during the morning that you find you’re hungry, I would definitely recommend going to a small place called Bagel Café. They have different kinds of home-baked bagels, good coffee and bacon.

The charms of San Miguel are, however, not just in the city centre. Its geographical location and altitude (1,900 m above sea level) make it a wonderful place for a hike. Just half an hour away from the city you’ll find a protected area called Cañada de la Virgen. There is an archeological site there that is huge and not very well known, but the real thrill about it its the views you can get while hiking or horseback riding there. You can hire a horse or a hiking guide that will take you into the main canyons of the area, there are different eco-tourism companies you can contact directly once in San Miguel. If you’re interested in wine, you can also visit one of the many vineyards around San Miguel. Last september I visited one called Cuna de Tierra, which is beautiful and I totally recommend (they also sell their wine at a small store in the centre of San Miguel, try the nebbiolo), it is only 40 minutes away by car from San Miguel.

 

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These are mojigangas.

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The more you walk, the prettier doorsteps you’ll find.

Basically, what you need for a weekend in San Miguel is a hat, sunscreen, a jacket and an empty stomach.

Cenote Yokdzonot

When visiting Chichen Itzá, most people usually also visit a nearby cenote called Ik Kil. Undoubtedly it is one of the most beautiful cenotes in Yucatán (there are more than 6,000), and it is one of the busiest too. When talking to friends from Yucatán, they told me that it is indeed an amazing place. However, they admitted too that it is probably not the best idea to go there in mid July.

We were indecisive about visiting Ik Kil, but we were not about visiting Chichen Itzá, so once there, after queuing for like half an hour and seeing that most groups of tourists were on some kind of package tours that would take them to Ik Kil after the pyramids, we decided not to go there. Most of TripAdvisor’s reviews warn about its being crowded anyway, so my friend, after searching for a while, found a thread where people talk about cenotes that are not that crowded. That’s how she heard of Yokdzonot.

You could argue that crowded places are so because they’re also the coolest, but is it really worth it to visit an incredible location if you can’t really experience it because of crowds? It is not only a matter of how much you enjoy toilet queues, unwanted physical contact, iPad pictures and crying toddlers, it is a matter of sustainability too.

Most natural locations are not prepared for large numbers of people at a time and, even if marketing makes them look like the most wonderful sites of its kind, it is likely that there are many more less developed places that are just as beautiful, just not as advertised. Visiting not-very-hyped natural locations responsibly might also help grow the economies of the communities that live there instead of those of big-chain hotels. So why not skip the eternal queues?

This was the speech I gave to myself while driving to the small town of Yokdzonot, in search of the cenote of the same name. The first sign that you’re visiting a great place (or that you’re undoubtedly driving towards your death) is the absence of official road signs to direct you. Instead we got handmade signs at random places and a very big, very old fashioned sign on top of a house: a giant arrow pointing very vaguely at the west or the ground, under huge letters that read CENOTE. And a piece of advice here, don’t trust Google maps.

We made it to the cenote after a bit of blundering. The entrance to the area where the cenote is consisted of a palapa where you could get your tickets, which included a mandatory lifevest, and optionally rent some snorkeling equipment. The fee was only $70 mxn, the cheapest fee we had in the whole holiday. Once inside we saw that there was a restaurant, a resting area with hammocks and chairs and some ziplines. We decided to go to the cenote first though, and descended a series of slippery stairs that led a magnificent view. Everything you imagine a cenote is, Yokdzonot is. It’s like a huge round hole in the ground filled with the bluest water, lianas and thin, tall trees growing from the walls, hundreds of birds chirping and flying in circles near the water, huge stalactites coming down from the roofs of the small caves around the cenote. It really is a mystical experience to look at the way the light falls on the water, filtered by the many roots and leaves.

There must have been some other ten people there with us, half of them children. We did have the place almost to ourselves and the only downside was the mandatory use of lifevest (it is understandable though, the cenote is aproximately 40 meters deep altough they can’t really say). If you’re in Yucatán, I would definitely recommend Yokzonot for a chill day; it is not as exciting as other, bigger cenotes, but it’s definitely a place to admire nature. Also, the place is run by a cooperative of local people, so you’d be definitely helping the local economy.

My pictures of this one were really bad too, so here’s a video instead.

Have you visited any cenotes?