Chichen Itza

The most famous, the most extensively restored and by far the most visited of all Maya sites, Chichén Itzá lies conveniently along the main highway from Mérida to Cancún, a little more than 200km from the Caribbean coast. A fast and very regular bus service runs all along this road, making it perfectly feasible to visit as a day’s excursion from Mérida, or even as a day out from Cancún, as many tour buses do. But both to do the ruins justice and to see them when they’re not entirely thronged with tourists, an overnight stop is well worth considering – either at the site itself or, less extravagantly, in the nearby village of Pisté or in Valladolid, which is both convenient and inexpensive.

chichen-itza-
Chichén Itzá is also just a few short hours from Akumal and one of the largest ancient Mayan cities in the north-central Yucatan. The first large- scale archaeologial investigations began in 1924 and were conducted for 20 years by the Carnegie Institution. Chichen Itza means “opening of the wells of the Itza”. Chichen Itza has many elaborate structures, the most impressive being “El Castillo”, the Great Ball Court, Temple of the Warriors and The Caracol. Plan to spend the day at this site. Wear your hiking boots and go early in the morning, as it can get very hot and humid later in the day.
Climbing the Great Pyramid of Kulkulkan or El Castillo, is no longer allowed. Neither is climbing up the Temple of the Warriors. The route into the smaller pyramid inside the Great Pyramid is also closed.
Many visitors choose to visit the site as a day-trip from either Merida or Cancun, but this leaves little time to explore the ruins. Also, it means arriving at the hottest part of the day. The trick is to overnight at one of the hotels near the ruins, which means that you get the ruins almost to yourself in the morning!

Accommodation:

Visitors to Chichén Itzá have a choice of staying in a handful of more expensive hotels immediately east of the ruins (all but one are on the short access road off Hwy-180, signposted “Zona Hotelera”), or along the main street in the town of Pisté, to the west of the site. In Pisté, most hotels are on the main road, between the village and the ruins, so it’s easy to shop around for the best deal – though quality can be low and occupancy high; the reliable posadas have only a few rooms apiece.

Merida in Mexico

Even if practically every road didn’t lead to Mérida, it would still be an inevitable stop. Nicknamed “La Ciudad Blanca” after its white limestone buildings (now covered in peeling layers of gem-coloured paint), the capital of Yucatán state is in every sense the leading city of the peninsula, with a population of some 1.6 million. But within its historic core, there’s a sense of small-town graciousness coupled with an extremely lively and sometimes avant-garde cultural scene.
Also known as “White City” because of the large use of white limestone and white paint this traditional city depicts much of the splendor of Colonial Mexico. This is by no means to say that Merida still exists in a time warp and the contrary could be said. There is old and new exhibited in everything from fashion to architecture.
The Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo founded present day Merida in 1542. An insight into the horrendous pain and suffering of the people who were brutalized by the conquering conquistadors exists in magnificent paintings that are on display in the Governor’s Palace located in downtown Merida. Left in seclusion for many years because of the difficulty of traveling to Merida the people of this region have cultivated a distinct contemporary society that is unique in Mexico.
Merida is a safe place to visit and the people are warm and friendly. Being such a close-knit society I took it to mean that violent acts of crime are simply not committed here that often because they are more or less one big family. It draws thousands of visitors, both Mexican and foreign, and has seen a rash of expat investment in the last decade. But even as the buzz increases, the city retains its grace and manners: every street in the centre boasts a well-maintained colonial church or museum, and locals still ride in little horse-drawn taxis, which gather by the plaza in the evenings. Not only can you live well here, but you can also find good beaches nearby, and it’s a great base for excursions to the Maya sites of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.
There is lots of traffic in Merida, especially downtown. Taking the local bus can be tricky if you do not speak Spanish. The majority of streets are one-way and the bus routes wind all over the place and if you are not on top of things you can end walking more than you expected. If you are in relatively good shape and don’t mind the heat (it’s hot in the summer) then you can walk to almost every attraction if you stay near the downtown main plaza. This is a great way to get to know the city and once you figure out the street numbering system, getting lost is unlikely.
The biggest problem you will encounter in Merida is finding a hotel with a swimming pool that fits into your budget. You may want to inquire if the pool is indeed in operation before you make your booking if you feel you need to have the use of a pool, especially in the summer months.
Merida is nothing like Cancun or Playa del Carmen and if you want to experience Mexican culture while staying relatively close to the Caribbean Sea then Merida is a great place to go. There are lots of interesting shops to browse in, if you seek some familiarity, the Merida WalMart is well stocked and also has a food-court.
Outstanding regional dishes and traditional music and dances local to this region can be found in restaurants, theatres and shops housed both near the main plaza and in palatial mansions along Paseo de Montejo – a boulevard fashioned after Paris’ Champs Elysée. Progreso, Merida’s port city, is 30 kilometers north and is an interesting area to visit to see the salt-flats and flamingos.
Being centrally located, Merida is a practical hub to explore numerous ruin sites and ecological wonders. Many charters fly into Merida or you can take a four-hour bus ride from Cancun. There are also two highways connecting Cancun and Merida plus many roads winding their way through the jungle from Tulum.
Eating and drinking

Good restaurants are plentiful in the centre of Mérida, though the best (and some of the least expensive) are open only for lunch. At dinner, many restaurants are a bit overpriced and cater largely to foreigners; locals tend to frequent the snack stalls on Plaza Santa Ana (Calle 60 at Calle 47) and Parque de Santiago (Calle 59 between calles 70 and 72) for panuchos, salbutes and sopa de lima.
There are also sidewalk cafés on the Parque Hidalgo, along Calle 60 between calles 61 and 59. Juice bars – notably Jugos California, on the southwest corner of the plaza – serve all the regular juices, as well as home-made root beer, and La Parroquia (Calle 62 between calles 65 and 67) is a lechería, serving cinnamon-laced chocolate milk, fruit plates and yogurt. The bakery Pan Montejo, at the corner of calles 62 and 63, also makes a good breakfast.
Accommodation

Although Mérida can get crowded at peak times, you should always be able to find a good, reasonably priced hotel room. Unless you have a very early bus to catch, there’s not much point in staying in the grimier area near the main bus stations, nor in the generic upmarket hotels along Paseo de Montejo; the far more desirable options are all within a few blocks of the central plaza – which is still just a long walk or a short cab ride from the furthest transport and sights. In addition to the usual hotels, Mérida has excellent B&Bs, smaller inns and even hostels, all housed in converted old homes complete with vintage tile floors and lofty ceilings.

Yucatan

The three states that comprise the Yucatán Peninsula – Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo – are among the hottest and most tropical parts of Mexico, though they lie further north than you might imagine: the capital of Yucatán state, Mérida, is actually at a higher latitude than Mexico City.

Until the 1960s, when proper road and rail links were finally completed, the Yucatán lived out of step with the rest of the country and had almost as much contact with Europe, Cuba and the US as with central Mexico, resulting in a very distinct culture. Tourism has since made major inroads, especially in the north around the great Maya sites, such as Chichén Itzá, and on the Quintana Roo coast, where development has centred on the “superresort” of Cancún and the islands of Mujeres and Cozumel, but is now shifting to the so-called Riviera Maya, the stretch of beachfront that includes Playa del Carmen and Tulum. But away from the big centres, especially in the south, where towns are sparsely scattered in thick jungle, there’s still a distinct pioneering feel. In northern Yucatán state, the landscape is relatively spare: shallow, rocky earth gives rise to stunted trees, and underground springs known as cenotes are the only source of water. Campeche state, by contrast, boasts a huge area of tropical forest, the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve – though the trees are being thinned in places for cattle ranching and timber.
The entire peninsular coastline is great for spotting wildlife – notably turtles at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Quintana Roo and flocks of flamingoes at Celestún and Río Lagartos in Yucatán – but the most spectacular, white-sand beaches line the Caribbean coast, where magnificent offshore coral reefs form part of the second largest barrier reef system in the world.

Yucatan beaches

The Yucatan is full of beaches.

Caught between the relentless beat of progress and the echoing shouts of tradition, the Yucatán Peninsula stands at a crossroads. On one side you have the brawny mega-resorts like Cancún and Playa del Carmen with their oft-preposterous pomp and circumstance.
On the other are the proud, steadfast traditions of the Maya, the mystery of the ceremonial centers created by their ancestors, and the Old World allure of colonial masterpieces such as Mérida and Campeche. And in between, on every peroxide­-blonde beach and every patch of jungle still echoing with the roars of howler monkeys, beats the heart of Ixchel, the earth goddess, marveling at her remarkable creation.
Despite overzealous development, the natural beauty of the Yucatán abides, and with it, the reverberations of civilizations past. Set in a vast, jungle-swathed natural reserve, the pyramids of Calakmul are a prime example of nature and ancient history in perfect harmony.
Far more famous and crowded – but absolutely unmissable nonetheless – are the ruins of wondrous Chichén Itzá, seventh modern wonder of the world. There’s a Maya ruin near Xcalak, too, although that’s probably not the reason you’d be visiting – this tiny beach town in the middle of nowhere has another attraction: its absolute isolation from the tourist trail…