I arrived in Merida, the capital of Yucatan state, at 2:00 p.m. after a 19-hour bus ride from San Cristobal de las Casas. (Yes, 19 hours. It was supposed to be 17.5 hours, but it ended up being 19. Oyyyy.) As is usually the case on my first day in a city, by the time I had settled into my hostel, there wasn’t much time to do anything except grab a meal and walk to the city’s main square, the Plaza Grande, to stroll around and take a few pictures.
The next day I took a day trip to Chichen Itza, the most famous Mayan ruins in Mexico and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. I walked to the second-class bus terminal (right next to the first-class ADO bus terminal) and caught the 8:00 a.m. bus. (Buses leave every hour on the hour, and the trip costs 105 pesos each way.) The bus arrived at Chichen Itza at 11:00. I reluctantly paid the exorbitant entrance fee of 254 pesos (!) and stepped into the park.
After having previously seen the pyramids at Teotihuacan and Monte Alban, Chichen Itza failed to wow me. Of course the ruins are historically fascinating and all (if you’re a history buff, which I am not), but you can’t even climb the main pyramid, like you can at the other sites. Not that the view would have been that great at Chichen Itza anyway, since everything is spread out over such a vast area. So instead of there being a viewpoint that provides a cohesive, panoramic view of the site as a whole, you can only walk around at ground level and look at each ruin individually. This means that I wasn’t able to get any really Instagram-worthy photos out of my visit — just pictures of each individual building. And after a while, all of the ruins started looking the same. My lack of enthusiasm for Chichen Itza wasn’t helped by the grey skies and constant rain sprinkling down all day, but I don’t think I would have liked the place that much even if the sun had been shining. For me, it was one of the most overrated places in Mexico.
Anyway, here are the most interesting photos I was able to take there:
The next day, I went on a day trip that I enjoyed a lot more than Chichen Itza. I went to the nearby town of Izamal, also known as “the Yellow City.” Why it’s called that is obvious as soon as you arrive in the town: All the buildings there are painted in the same vibrant, mustard-yellow hue. It’s a wonderful place to stroll through the streets and take photos.
Getting to Izamal from Merida is cheap, quick, and easy. I took a colectivo from Calle 65 between Calles 52 and 54. The ride only took one hour and cost 35 pesos each way. The driver dropped us off right near the centre of town.
The most important building you’ll see in Izamal is the convent, the Convento San Antonio de Padua. It’s only about a minute’s walk from where the colectivo drops you off, so it’s impossible to miss it. I spent a good chunk of time taking photos here.
The second-most noteworthy structure in Izamal is the pyramid known as Kinich Kakmo. There are a few Mayan ruins scattered around the town centre, but Kinich Kakmo is the largest. And guess what? Unlike the famous pyramid at Chichen Itza, you can actually climb this one. There’s a nice view of the town from the top.
I spent about two-and-a-half hours exploring the beautiful streets of Izamal, then took another colectivo back to Merida. It was a great day out, made even better by perfect weather (the polar opposite of the previous day’s weather). The air was warm and the skies were as sunny as the paint on Izamal’s walls. As I strolled through the vibrant streets, I thought to myself that it must be impossible to be unhappy in such a pretty town. I felt completely rejuvenated after my disappointment of the previous day.
On my fourth day in Merida, I decided to check out Progreso Beach, which is the closest beach to the city and the easiest to reach by public transportation. I took one of the frequent buses (apparently there’s one every 10 minutes) from the AutoProgreso bus terminal near the city centre. The ride costs 21 pesos one-way or 38 pesos for a return trip. Travel time between the two places is one hour.
A fun fact about Progreso is that it has the longest pier in the world. It’s almost four miles long!
There’s not a lot to do in Progreso besides lying on the beach, so after taking some pictures of the pier and strolling along the malecon for a while, I headed back to the bus station and took another bus back to Merida.
When I got back to Merida, I had to go to Walmart to pick up a couple things. I walked there by way of the Paseo Montejo, which is a wide, tree-lined avenue dotted with monuments and lined with beautiful old buildings. Even if you’re not headed anywhere in particular like I was, the Paseo Montejo is a lovely street for a scenic stroll.
The next day I took a really cool day trip to the cenotes near the town of Cuzama. To get there, I walked to the spot where the colectivos to Cuzama depart, on Calle 67 between Calles 50 and 52. I found a colectivo bound for Cuzama and waited about half an hour for it to fill up with passengers so that we could depart. The ride to Cuzama took one hour and cost 27 pesos.
When I got out of the colectivo in Cuzama, I saw a line-up of motorcycles with their front wheels removed and with carts attached where the front wheel should have been. They were kind of like the tuk-tuks you see all over Southeast Asia, except that they were built so that the passengers ride in front of the driver instead of behind. When I disembarked from the colectivo, I mentioned the word “cenotes” to the driver to make sure I was getting off at the right spot. He said something to one of the drivers of the tuk-tuk-like vehicles, and then indicated to me that I should go with that driver. So I got into the tuk-tuk (that’s what I’ll call it from now on) and we drove a few kilometres until we came to a little railway where a bunch of horse-drawn carts were waiting. I paid my tuk-tuk driver 50 pesos and then climbed into one of the horse-drawn carts. The driver of the cart didn’t speak a word of English, but he explained to me in slow, clear Spanish that the ride to the cenotes and back would cost 400 pesos. I had known beforehand that this was the cost of a cart, but I wished I had tried to find two or three people at my hostel to accompany me, so that we could have split the cost. Ah well. I paid the 400 pesos and was on my way to the cenotes with my own private guide (whom I couldn’t understand most of the time) and a horse pulling us along the tracks.
The first two cenotes my guide brought me to were honestly nothing special. The first one was called Cenote Tzapakal. It was little more than a small hole in the ground filled with water that you could only access by climbing down a ladder. It was too dark to take any good pictures there.
The second cenote we visited, Cenote Santa Cruz, was slightly more impressive than Cenote Tzapakal. It was only a few steps away from the former. This one was a little bigger than the first one, but it was also too dark to take any good pictures.
The third and final cenote my guide took me to was a short drive away from the other two, and considerably more impressive than the others. It was called Cenote Chelentun, and it was much more spacious than the first two. The water was so clear and so blue. There were two other people here who had come via another horse-drawn cart.
After my visit to the three cenotes, my guide took me back to where the tuk-tuk had dropped me off. After less than a minute of looking around, I saw my driver coming toward me down the street. He stopped beside me, I jumped into the cart, and we headed back to where the colectivo had dropped me off in the morning. When we got there I paid the driver another 50 pesos, and hopped into the colectivo that was already waiting on the street. In about 10 minutes, I was on my way back to Merida.
I wholeheartedly recommend a trip to the Cuzama cenotes if you can find two or three other people to go with. (The horse-drawn carts hold up to four people.) I can’t recommend that you go alone like I did because it’s so expensive to have a cart all to yourself. This was the most expensive day trip I have done so far on this trip, and it wasn’t the most enjoyable or the most interesting. If you split the cost with two or three other people, then I think it would totally be worth it, but 554 pesos (the grand total I paid, including the colectivo, the tuk-tuk, and the horse-drawn cart) is too much to spend on your own just to visit a few swimming holes. That being said, my trip to the Cuzama cenotes was definitely interesting and different from any other excursion I have been on so far in Mexico. I’m glad to have had the experience.
On my last day in Merida, I took my own advice that I had failed to follow the previous day. I found two girls at my hostel who wanted to go to the Celestun Biosphere Reserve to see the flocks of flamingos there. I was so happy to find other people who wanted to go there because a boat ride through the Celestun Biosphere Reserve was actually the #1 thing I wanted to do while in Merida, but I didn’t want to go alone because the boat ride costs 1500 pesos. I could have gone by myself and just hoped to find people at the dock that I could share a boat with, but I didn’t want to risk having no one else show up. Obviously I wasn’t going to pay 1500 pesos for a boat ride, no matter how glorious the flamingos were.
The two girls and I walked to the second-class bus station in Merida and caught the 11:00 a.m. bus to Celestun. (Buses leave every hour on the hour.) It cost us each 60 pesos for the 2.5-hour trip. Luckily, we met three more people on the bus who were also planning to take the boat ride, so we made a deal to all go together. That way, each of us would only have to pay 250 pesos.
When we got off the bus in Celestun, we hunted down a taxi to shuttle us the short distance to the docks. When we arrived, we were given some extremely disappointing news by the lady selling the boat tickets: We would not see many flamingos on the boat ride, due to the water levels being too high for them to stick around in the area. We were pretty upset by this news, naturally, but we had to still take the boat ride since we had already come so far.
Just as we were about to get into the boat, we spotted something in the water that partially made up for our disappointment regarding the flamingos. A crocodile! Just lying there next to the dock, about a foot away from our feet! At first we didn’t think it was real, but a couple of my companions said they saw it open and close its eyes. (I didn’t see that, and I’m still not entirely convinced the animal was alive. Not only did I not see it make the slightest movement the whole time I was standing in front of it snapping photos, but when we returned from our boat ride an hour later, it was still floating there! It hadn’t moved a single inch. I’m not in the least familiar with normal crocodile behaviour, and I guess it could have just been sleeping, but that seemed strange to me. I wanted to throw something at it, to see it make some kind of movement, but something told me that was not a good idea.)
As the ticket lady had predicted, our boat ride was sadly lacking in flamingo sightings. When I had left my hostel that morning, I had had visions of seeing thousands of flamingos standing in the water and soaring through the sky, dazzling my vision and transforming the sky into an endless pink blur. Instead, guess how many of these fuschia beauties we saw during the hour we spent on the water? Seven. We saw exactly seven flamingos. Not only that, but we didn’t even get close enough to them to take a single decent picture. I was tremendously disappointed.
Even though we didn’t see many flamingos, the boat ride was still nice. We saw many different kinds of birds, including tons of pelicans.
The best part of the ride was when we drove through a tunnel that wound through an amazing mangrove forest.
There was also another mangrove forest where a boardwalk had been built. Here we were allowed to disembark from the boat and walk around for a few minutes.
After our boat ride was over, we took another taxi back to the town centre. Four of us had a nice dinner at a restaurant on the beach before taking the bus back to Merida.
We finally arrived back in Merida at 8:00 p.m. after a long, exhausting, and disappointing day. Oh well. Travel always has its ups and downs. Every day can’t be amazing, now can it? And hey, at least we saw a crocodile (that may or may not have been dead)! Oh, and I didn’t have to pay 1500 pesos for the boat! Thank God — that would have been the rip-off of the century.
On the whole, I had a good time in Merida. There are tons of great day trip options in the surrounding areas, so I never ran out of things to do during the six days I spent in the city. Some of the day trips I took from Merida were disappointing, yes, but that was mainly due to unfortunate circumstances or poor planning on my part. I’m sure most people who take the same day trips I described in this post enjoy them a lot more than I did. Anyway, by the time I left Merida, I was more than ready to spend some time relaxing on a beach in my next destination: Tulum!