Mexico: Campeche | Cancun | Merida | Mexico City | Oaxaca | Palenque | Riviera Maya | Chichen Itza | Milta | Monte Alban | Uxmal


Merida is the capital and largest city in Yucatan state and the cultural and financial capital of the region. It's a modern, cosmopolitan city with museums, art galleries, restaurants, shops and boutiques. A major center of commerce, Merida Yucatan is considered the crossroads of the region and one of the most important places to experience the Mayan heritage.

Mérida was founded in 1542 by Francisco de Montejo "el Mozo" (the son), and built on the site of the ancient Maya city T'ho, meaning "city of five hills." T'ho was the center of Mayan culture and activity in the Yucatan region. After the arrival of the Spanish, the ancient city's five main pyramids were destroyed and their ruins used in the construction of Merida's cathedral and other important buildings.

Merida was built as a walled city and several of the old Spanish city gates remain. The city boasts the second-largest historic center in Mexico; only Mexico City's historic center is larger. Mérida gets its nickname, La Ciudad Blanca (The White City), from the predominance of white limestone that was used as a building material; although locals today will tell you that it also has to do with the cleanliness of the city's streets and public areas, not to mention how safe is Merida, Mexico.

As a result of its unique geographic location, strong Spanish influence and isolation from other parts of Mexico, Merida developed a distinct cultural and political identity. The unique culture and traditions that you'll experience when you travel to Merida, Mexico are overwhelmingly apparent in the local dress, language, cuisine and the observance of holidays and celebrations.

Not only is Spanish spoken with a distinct accent in Yucatan, but Yucatec Maya is spoken by one third of the population of Yucatan state. The cuisine in Merida Yucatan is also distinct in that it differs from traditional Mexican cuisine and is representative of the local indigenous culture and the Caribbean, Mexican, European and Middle Eastern influences in the region.

The traditional music and dance of Yucatan is known as Vaqueria Regional. It plays an important role in the Vaquerías Feast which was originally associated with the branding of cattle on Yucatecan haciendas. You can catch weekly performances in Merida's central plaza.

Chances are that you'll spend at least part of your Yucatán vacation shopping for handicrafts. Merida is famous for the guayabera, a loose fitting men's shirt with tucks and pockets. Traditional guayaberas are white, made from cotton or linen and often embroidered. Here you'll also find hipiles, dresses or tunics worn by the indigenous women of the region. Hipiles are often white with colorful embroidered designs that traditionally convey some sort of meaning within the local community.

Or perhaps you'll choose to spend part of your Yucatán vacation relaxing in a hammock. The hammocks that you'll find in Mérida, Yucatán are of a high quality and made from cotton string that's woven into a fine mesh. They're extremely popular and commonly used throughout the region.

Finally, explore more of the Yucatán region when you travel to Mérida, Mexico with visits to nearby towns, Mayan ruins and cenotes (underwater sinkholes).


See & Do

• Mysteries of the Maya at Chichen Itza

Easily the best known and well-restored of Yucatan Maya archaeological sites, Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was named one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World." The ruins at Chichen Itza cover an area of 6.5 sq km (2.5 sq miles) and can be toured in a day.

Chichen Itza has two distinct architectural zones. The southern zone dates back to the 7th century and showcases Chichen Itza's early construction in the traditional Puuc Maya style of the Yucatan region. The central zone was constructed after the arrival of the Toltecs around the 10th century and showcases a unique fusion of highland central Mexican and Puuc architectural styles.

Chichén Itza's most impressive sights and structures are located in the central zone. Here you'll find the Juego de Pelota (Ball Court), several platforms, temples and the spectacular El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulkan), a massive 25m stone representation of the Maya calendar. Toltec warriors are represented in the carvings around the doorway at the top of El Castillo.

Local guides at the site can provide detailed information about Chichen Itza and even lead you to a cenote (underwater sinkhole). The Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) at Chichen Itza is believed to have been used by the ancient Maya for ceremonial purposes including human sacrifice.

Each year during the spring and autumn equinoxes the sun produces the illusion of a serpent ascending or descending the steps of the Pyramid of Kukulkán, a fantastic phenomenon that attracts huge crowds. The illusion is reproduced at the sound and light show that takes place nightly at the archaeological site.

You can visit these Mexican ruins on a day trip or tour to Chichen Itza, or stay overnight in a restored hacienda. The nearby Hacienda Chichen is the oldest hacienda in the Yucatán region and has been beautifully restored and converted into a luxury hotel and spa.

• Uxmal's Jungle Ruins

A majestic layout, spectacular jungle setting and pink-hued limestone pyramids and temples make Uxmal one of the most picturesque ancient cities in the Puuc region. The name Puuc translates to hills in Yucatec Maya, and the Uxmal ruins are situated on hilly terrain. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Uxmal was one of the most important Maya settlements in Yucatán and flourished during the late-Classical period.

The name Uxmal means "thrice-built" in Yucatec Maya, and refers to the construction of the Piramide del Adivino (Pyramid of the Magician), a one of a kind oval-shaped Uxmal pyramid and the tallest structure at the site. Uxmal was built in phases and its influences, which are believed to extend as far away as central Mexico, are reflected in the variety of architectural styles at the site.

Puuc-style architecture features intricate carvings, cut-stone geometric mosaics and masks of the rain god Chaac. These details can be seen throughout the Uxmal ruins and are best admired on the Cuadrangulo de las Monjas (Nunnery Quadrangle) and the ornate facade of the Palacio del Goberndor (Governor's Palace). Climb to the top of the second-tallest Uxmal pyramid, the Gran Piramide (Great Pyramid), for good views overlooking the Uxmal ruins and surrounding Puuc region.

Unlike other Yucatan Maya cities, Uxmal lacked natural water sources and as a result, the rain god Chaac was held in especially high regard among the ancient city's inhabitants. A chultun (cistern) near the entrance to the Uxmal ruins was used to store water at the site.

These days, the Uxmal ruins are home to a population of enormous iguanas and you'll often spot the giant creatures sunning themselves on the ancient platforms and temples. You can visit Uxmal on day trips and Uxmal tours, or combine a visit to the Uxmal ruins with travel along the Ruta Puuc (Puuc Route) to visit nearby Maya ruins at Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labna.

• Merida's Historic Heart

Merida's centro historico (historic center) is one of the largest in Mexico and laid out on a grid pattern. Many of the buildings in the historic center of Merida, including those on and around the Plaza Grande (central plaza), were built during the colonial period through the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Cathedral de San Ildefonso (San Ildefonso Cathedral) is the oldest cathedral on the continent and one of the top Merida attractions. It was built between 1561 and 1598 using stones from ruined Mayan pyramids and temples. The interior is sparsely decorated and a crucifix behind the main altar symbolizes the reconciliation of the Spanish and Mayan heritage of the city. Housed in a chapel off to the left, you'll find the most important religious artifact in Merida, the Cristo de las Ampollas (Christ of the Blisters).

The Christ of the Blisters figure that's found in the cathedral is a replica of the original Christ figure that was recovered from a burned church in the nearby town of Ichmul. The original figure dates to the 16th century and was carved from the wood of a tree that had burned after being hit by lightning, but did not char. When the church in Ichmul caught fire, the figure was blistered but unharmed. It was named Christ of the Blisters and relocated to Merida's cathedral in 1645. The replica that's on display in the cathedral today was created to replace the original after the sacking of the city by revolutionary forces in 1915.

Located on the south side of the central plaza is the Casa de Montejo (Montejo House), a 16th century Spanish plateresque-style building and former home of the Montejo family. A visit to the Montejo House, with its monumental carved stone facade, is one of the important things to do in Merida.

Another of the important things to do in Merida is to tour the interior of the Palacio Municipal (City Hall). The interior of the City Hall building is decorated with murals by Yucatecan artist Fernando Castro Pacheco. The murals depict scenes from Merida's history. The adjoining building houses a cultural center and frequently hosts performances and exhibitions.

Merida's central plaza is especially popular on Sunday evenings when the city hosts its weekly Merida en Domingo (Merida on Sunday) street festival with live music and dancing. The central plaza is also a great place to sample some of the city's local flavor. Street food vendors offer marquesitas (cheese filled crepes) and champolas (milkshake style beverages made with sherbert) to hungry festival-goers

• Izamal: The Magical Yellow City

After departing Mérida, travel east to arrive at Izamal, a colonial town with a distinct small town feel. Izamal is one of Mexico's Pueblos Magicos (Magic Towns), a designation given by the Mexican secretary of Tourism to towns that have an important historical or cultural significance. Houses, shops and churches throughout Izamal are all painted the same shade of golden-yellow and the town has been nicknamed La Ciudad Armarillo (The Yellow City).

Izamal was an important Maya religious center and today you can visit the ruins of four large pyramids that overlook the center of town. Climb to the top of the Kinich Kak Mo Pyramid. Built during the early-Classic period, this pyramid to the Mayan sun god spans an entire block and offers magnificent views of the town and surrounding Yucatán region.

After the arrival of the Spanish, the Maya pyramids and temples were destroyed and colonial buildings and churches built in their place, often using the original Maya stones and building materials. In the center of Izamal you'll find the Convento de San Antonio de Padua (Convent of San Antonio Padua), an enormous Franciscan monastery and one of the oldest Catholic monasteries in the Americas. The Convent of San Antonio Padua is painted the same shade of golden-yellow as the rest of Izamal.

Take a tour of the yellow city of Izamal in a calesa (horse-drawn carriage). Tours often include stops at local artisans' workshops where you can browse a variety of local handicrafts and folk art including colorfully embroidered hipiles (dresses or tunics), hammocks and jewelry made from local materials such as henequen, native woods and cocoyol seeds.

After touring Izamal, head southwest toward the town of Cuzamá where you can visit three cenotes (underwater sinkholes). The cenotes are located just outside of town on the grounds of an old hacienda henequenera (henequen plantation) and accessible by horse-drawn railcart.

• Valladolid, The Sultan of the East

Located mid-way between Mérida and Cancun, colonial Valladolid is the third-largest city in Yucatan and a good base from which to explore the surrounding region. Visit Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and Ek' Balam, the Balankanche caves and Rio Lagartos, a coastal fishing village and flamingo colony located within the Reserva de la Biosfera Rio Lagartos (Lagartos Biosphere Reserve).

Valladolid is built over the ancient Maya ceremonial center of Zaci. The city centers on the Parque Francisco Cantó Rosado (Francisco Cantón Park) where you'll find the Iglesia de San Servacio (San Servacio Church). There are seven colonial churches located in Valladolid Yucatán, and the city is nicknamed the "Sultan of the East," because of its rich colonial splendor.

Head southwest of the central park and main plaza to arrive at the 16th century Iglesia y Convento de San Bernardino de Siena (San Bernardino Church and Convent). Locally known as the Sisal Convent, the San Bernardino Church and Convent is one of the most beautiful colonial buildings in Valladolid Yucatán. Inside the church are original frescoes and housed within the walls of the convent building are orchards, gardens and a large cenote (underwater sinkhole).

Valladolid is a great place to sample some of the distinct regional cuisine of Yucatán, including the city's signature dish lomitas de Valladolid (pork in a tomato and garlic broth). Other Valladolid Yucatán Mayan dishes that you're likely to find on the menus at local restaurants include longaniza (smoked sausage), pollo escabeche (Yucatecan-style marinated chicken) and pavo oriental (turkey casserole).

There are three underwater sinkholes that can be easily visited from Valladolid's downtown area. Cenote Zaci is the easiest to access and located just a few blocks east of the central park, whereas Cenotes Dzitnup and Samulá are located several miles to the west. All are good for swimming.

• Spirited Fiestas in Yucatan

Vaquerias are traditional feasts and celebrations of music and dance unique to Yucatán. The traditional Vaqueria Feast is influenced by the traditions of the both the indigenous Maya and the Spanish and is usually held in honor of the patron saint of a village or hacienda (plantation). The fiesta typically lasts for several days and includes traditional food, music, dancing and fireworks.

Vaquerias were magnificent displays of wealth during the sisal boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, they continue to be important celebrations for the people living in Yucatan.

The music at a Vaquerias is provided by a Jarana orchestra. Also called charangas, Jarana orchestras play the traditional music of Yucatan and provide the musical entertainment at Vaquerias as well as at processions honoring patron saints and local bullfights. In addition to wind and brass instruments, Jarana orchestras include a guiro (dry gourd with slits) and timbales (kettledrums).

The Jarana is the traditional folk dance of Yucatán and blends European rhythms with Mayan traditions. Women wear the traditional hipil (embroidered dress or tunic) with a shawl and white high heel shoes, and the men wear a guayabera shirt, Panama hat, red scarf and leather sandals.

Bombas are playful or comedic rhymes recited during the Jarana to entertain the audience. They're usually recited by the male dance partner during breaks in the music, but they can also be initiated by shouting, "bomba!" which causes the music to stop and the bombas to begin.

Deciding what to do in Merida? Make sure that your plans include attending a traditional Vaquería Feast. Vaquerias are held on Monday nights in front of the Palacio Municipal (City Hall) in Merida's central plaza. The dancers are part of Mérida's Folkloric Ballet and the music is provided by a traditional Jarana orchestra. The weekly event is free and open to the public.

• Yucatan Green Gold

The haciendas henequeneras (henequen plantations) in Yucatán state first emerged in the 17th century as family-owned cattle ranches, farming and manufacturing centers that produced products for export, before later converting to henequen production.

Henequen is a type of agave plant that grows extensively in the Yucatán region. Henequen was first discovered and cultivated by the indigenous Maya in the eastern region of the Yucatán Peninsula. The leaves of the henequen plant are used to make a fiber which can be used to make rope or twine. When the Spanish arrived they renamed the fiber "agave sisal," mechanized the production process and began exporting agave sisal to other parts of the world.

Agave sisal was an important export of the region as early as the late 1800's, but never on a large scale due to the lack of shredding machinery. The invention of shredding machines in the late 19th century revolutionized henequen processing and led to a boom of prosperity in the region surrounding Mérida.

As a result of the fortunes made from henequen processing and export during the late 19th and 20th centuries, the haciendas in Yucatán became a symbol of wealth and culture in the region and agave sisal was dubbed "green gold." It was also around this time that the plantation owners began building extravagant homes and mansions along the Paseo de Montejo in Mérida.

Today, the haciendas in Yucatán are in varying states of restoration. Some have been converted into private homes and are closed to the public, while others have been fully renovated and converted into luxury boutique hotels and spas, vacation rentals, restaurants, and event spaces.

Some of the region's best known haciendas turned luxury hotels and spas include Haciendas Santa Cruz, Misne and Nophat. Haciendas Petac and Sac Chic have been converted into vacation rentals, and Haciendas Yaxcopoil and Ochil now house restored workshops, antique furnishings, on-site museums and guest houses that provide an authentic small-town experience.

Don't miss a visit to Hacienda Chichen, a luxury hotel, spa and nature reserve located next to the Chichén Itzá archaeological site and housed in the oldest hacienda in Yucatán.

• Yucatan Sun and Surf

Merida residents flock to the port city of Progreso to stroll along the malecón (waterfront promenade) and take a dip in the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Progreso's lovely waterfront promenade is always bustling with food and craft vendors, local residents and beach-goers, and the waters just off the coast are calm, clean and good for swimming.

Progreso is also a popular cruise ship destination, and the city is famous for its pier which extends an impressive four miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Cruise ship passengers arriving in Progreso are often bused the length of the pier before embarking on Progreso excursions, many heading inland to visit the city of Merida or tour the Mayan ruins at Uxmal and Chichén Itza.

Grab a seat at one of the many palapas (thatched-roof restaurants) that extend the length of the beachfront. Progreso is an excellent spot to sample some of Yucatan's distinct regional cuisine. Seafood dishes are popular and include sopa de mariscos (seafood soup), pescado tikin-xic (grouper seasoned with achiote and baked in banana leaves) and chivitas (river snail ceviche).

En route to Progreso, stop off at Dzibilchaltun, an ancient Maya administrative and ceremonial center. Dzibilchaltun is located just north of Merida and gets its name, meaning "place of the stone writing," from the numerous stelae discovered at the site.

The on-site museum has an interesting exhibit on Mayan culture and displays artifacts discovered at Dzibilchaltun including dolls discovered during the excavation of the Templo de las Siete Muñecas (Temple of the Seven Dolls) and artifacts discovered at the bottom of the 40m deep Cenote Xlacah, many of which are believed to have important ritual significance.

You can also enjoy Progreso excursions to neighboring coastal towns and villages to spot flamingos and visit small archaeological sites.

• Seeing Pink in Celestun

Celestun, meaning "painted stone" in Yucatec Maya, is a tranquil fishing village located west of Merida along the coast of Yucatan state. Celestun is home to secluded stretches of beautiful beachfront and palapas (thatched-roof restaurants) serving up some of the best seafood in the state. It's the perfect destination for those looking to escape the city crowds and get back to nature.

The main attraction in Celestun is the Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Celestun (Celestun Biosphere Reserve), a large coastal wetland reserve and wildlife refuge.

Situated near the border with Campeche and spanning an impressive 146,000 acres, the Celestun Biosphere Reserve is one of the most beautiful natural areas in Yucatán state and comprises one of the largest areas of mangroves in the Gulf of Mexico. The reserve is shallow, overgrown with vegetation and dotted with lagoons, salt flats and cenotes (underwater sinkholes).

The Celestun Biosphere Reserve is part of a fragile eco-system. Freshwater from the ria (estuary) mixes with saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico creating a habitat that's perfectly suited to flamingos and waterfowl, and the reserve is home to more than 300 species of birds including egrets, pelicans, herons and a large flamingo colony numbering into the thousands.

Once in Celestun, you can hire a boat to tour the reserve. The Celestun Biosphere Reserve can be visited in a day and the experience is truly exhilarating. Boat excursions typically last a few hours and travel along the Ria Celestun where you can spot a variety of wildlife, including the pink flamingos for which this region is famous, as well as swim in freshwater springs and visit a petrified forest.

Feeling adventurous? Rent a kayak to navigate the narrow waterways that lead through the mangroves and explore some of the most remote areas of the reserve.

• Paseo de Montejo, Colonial Splendor in Merida

Merida's elegant tree-lined Paseo de Montejo is the city's main boulevard and most fashionable district. Once a primarily residential area, the Paseo de Montejo in Merida has since been commercialized and many of the historic 19th century mansions that line the boulevard have been converted into restaurants, nightclubs, boutique hotels, shops, office buildings and museums.

Located northeast of the central plaza and architecturally reminiscent of Havana, Cuba, the area surrounding the Paseo de Montejo in Merida was developed during the henequen boom of the late 19th and early 20th century as plantation owners looking to move out of the city's historic center built gorgeous mansions along this stretch of boulevard.

The Paseo de Montejo is home to Merida's Monumento a la Bandera (Flag Monument) and Museo Regional de Antropologia (Regional Anthropology Museum) which is housed in the pink Palacio Canton, one of the grandest mansions along the boulevard. Visit the Regional Anthropology Museum to learn about the pre-Columbian history of the Yucatan Peninsula as well as to tour one of the city's most splendid colonial buildings.

Merida's Paseo de Montejo can be easily explored on foot. Not up for walking? You can also take a tour of the boulevard in a calesa (horse-drawn carriage).

On Sundays the Paseo de Montejo in Merida is closed to traffic to accommodate the city's cyclists and there's also a busy art market that sets up along the boulevard just south of Avenida Cupules.

Each year on January 6th the city of Merida celebrates its founding. The celebration takes place during the Festival de la Ciudad (City Festival), and falls on Three Kings Day, also known as the Epiphany. To celebrate, the city of Merida hosts its annual Rosca de Reyes Más Grande del Sureste festival along the Paseo de Montejo. Show up to take part in the celebrations and sample the traditional rosca de reyes (king's ring cake).

Each year on January 6th the city of Merida celebrates its founding. The celebration takes place during the Festival de la Ciudad (City Festival), and falls on Three Kings Day, also known as the Epiphany. To celebrate, the city of Merida hosts its annual Rosca de Reyes Más Grande del Sureste festival along the Paseo de Montejo. Show up to take part in the celebrations and sample the traditional rosca de reyes (king's ring cake).

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