As the summer continues to intensify, so does the number of tourists flocking to Mexico’s famous Caribbean beaches. While some cruise ships will anchor down at popular Caribbean destinations like the island of Cozumel, located just offshore from Mexico’s Playa del Carmen, others will dock north of the Riviera Maya on the gulf side of the Yucatan Peninsula. One site these ships are sure to visit – the capital city of Merida, Mexico.
Named the American Capital of Culture in both 2016 and 2017, this culturally wealthy city makes it an ideal destination for those looking to explore beyond Mexico’s white sandy beaches. With opportunities to visit nearby UNESCO-listed archeological sites, nature reserves, and historic, picturesque towns known as “Pueblos Mágicos”, Merida is every traveler’s dream.
1. A Fusion of Culture
With a unique blend of traditions inherited from the ancient Mayan civilization and those of the Spanish conquistadors (who built the city atop the ancient Mayan city of T’ho in 1542), the city of Mérida has proven to be home to a vibrant and distinctive cultural identity. While colonial influence can be seen in the architecture and culture of cities throughout Mexico and Latin America, Mérida’s unique inclusion of Mayan culture makes it a standout destination.
Not only are visitors exposed to Mayan traditions as they walk the city’s historic streets, but they are also nearby some of the most well-known ancient Mayan archeological sites. The most famous is that of Chichen Itza, located just 75 miles (121 kilometers) to the east and designated as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. While it is highly recommended to visit Chichen Itza, there are numerous other sites well worth your time. Such sites include the Mayan cities of Dzibilchaltun and Uxmal.
This comparatively small, yet impressive ancient Mayan archaeological site is located approximately 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of Merida, making it easily accessible to those briefly visiting the area. With impressive structures such as the 16th Century Franciscan church found at the sites center, and the Temple of the Seven Dolls (Templo de las Siete Muñecas), visitors are able to get a real feel for what Mayan culture must have been like during both its thriving years and at the time of its demise.
In addition, the Temple of the Seven Dolls was constructed in such a way that on the Spring and Fall equinoxes the Temple’s doorways capture the light of the rising sun. On these days, visitors can arrive early to watch the phenomena unfold. The site is believed to have been occupied for nearly 3,000 years up until the arrival of the Spanish, making it the longest functioning city of the Mayan world.
Designated as another UNESCO-listed Mayan archeological site, the city of Uxmal is located about an hour and fifteen minutes south of Merida. One of the most visited and, according to those who have witnessed it, most attractive of all the Mayan archeological sites, Uxmal receives thousands of visitors each year. With nearly 150 acres (60 hectares) of preserved ruins, this site exposes visitors to the ancient Mayan world.
With structures such as the Governor’s Palace (which contains a 320 foot (97 meter) long mosaic facade making it the longest in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica) and the Pyramid of the Magician (the tallest structure on site with a height of 115 feet / 35 meters), visitors not only observe the monstrosity of ancient Mayan structures, but also the incredible artistic ability used to tell their stories. To arrive to this impressive Mayan city it’s best to book a tour directly from Merida. You will need at least half a day for this excursion – but oh is it worth it!
Learn, Relax, Reflect
The distinctive and intriguing Meridian culture not only showcases the traditions and customs of ancient Mayan civilizations, but of the immense Spanish influence that arrived in the 16th century. It is the fusion of both cultures that give this destination its truly unique attraction. One such place that captures the complexity of its culture is the Hacienda Sotuta de Peon. One of the Yucatan’s cultural treasures, this living museum welcomes guests all year long. As a hacienda originally dedicated to the growth of henequen to be processed into rope and other products, Hacienda Sotuta de Peon takes guests back to a time of hard labor and wealth. Nicknamed “green gold” because it resulted in large amounts of wealth pouring into the area, henequen was a hot commodity that naturally grew (and continues to grow) in the Yucatan. The wealth is evident in some of the homes built on Merida’s Paseo de Montejo. With tours of the original grand home built in the 19th century, its gardens, the maya house, and surrounding natural wonders such as ancient cenotes, this experience is sure to leave you feeling educated, yet rested.
Once your excursions have come to an end, the time to reflect will arrive. This is best accomplished over a meal at either a local restaurant, the Mercado Lucas de Galvés, or Mercado Santiago. Merida has quite a few exotic food items sure to impress your pallet. If that isn’t enough, learn to cook Mexican food with local chefs offering cooking classes, including at some of the city’s finest dining locations such as Nectar, Apoala, and K’u’uk.
While the list of places to go and things to see in Merida is nearly endless, taking advantage of visits to these sites while anchored on the shores north of the city is a must. Afterwards, feel free to enjoy one of the many natural wonders and cenotes close to Merida or any one of its outstanding museums, such as the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya de Merida or the Museum of Anthropology and History. One thing is for certain – what to do in Merida is a no brainer. Learn as much as you can. Relax while you can. Reflect on what you can. What more could you ask for?