Since my grandmothers passing a few years ago, my mother has decided that Christmas at the house shall be forfeited and vacations abroad are mandatory. I usually never go with my family on vacations, this being that I need to work or the thought of traveling during such a horrendously busy time makes me feel nauseated. This year, I figured that I wouldn’t be such a grinch, and participate with my immediate family on a trip to Mexico ( I didn’t really have a choice actually, my mother bought our tickets without our knowing). So off Angelo and I went, along with my dear parents and my spritely little (big) brother, we headed out on Christmas Eve from Tijuana to Merida, located in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.
Out of the airport, the weather was warm, humid and slightly breezy. It was a nice change from the chilly climate of Southern California in late December. We unfortunately waited over an hour for our shuttle service to pick us up and take us to our car rental business. Eventually we took a cab to our VRBO rental, and found out later that day that our car reservation had been given away. This slight change of plans foreshadowed some of our trip, but more on that later. My first tip is that if you plan to visit Merida, either secure a rental car or plan to stay only a few days in the city. There are so many places to see in the Yucatan peninsula, but you need a car to drive those distances. Another option would be to rent a hotel for two days in Merida, then take a bus to different areas like Tulum or Cancun, and stay there. Day trips from Merida proved to be somewhat costly, as we had to hire a driver, and it was more expensive than having our own car.
For all of the sites that we visited in the Yucatan, I will not be giving much historical information. This is what books and the internet is for. Also, Angelo has done some beautiful time lapses’ and took many photographs – you can then decide if you would like to visit these places someday. Chichen Itza is a large (and one of the most popular, aka – touristy) ancient Mayan cities in the Yucatan. You can visit the ruins either with a car or take a bus from central Merida, it takes about 1 hour to get there from downtown Merida. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has two ticket fees, one for state – “CULTUR” and one for federal – “INAH”. These are two separate lines, therefore you will need two tickets to enter Chichen Itza. I wouldn’t recommend a tour guide, if anything, rent a set of headphones in your native tongue, and move within the parameter at your own pace. Since traveling around the world, I prefer to just take in the sights quietly, move about without narration, and let all of my senses contribute to what I am seeing. At the time we visited, December 2015, there were no backpacks allowed inside or tripods. The locker rooms were nothing but open cubbyholes with a “guard” overseeing everyones valuables, I personally wouldn’t trust it. If you must, bring a fanny pack and a small camera. It is quite hot in the Yucatan all year long, especially now since global warming – a hat will not hurt.
The site itself reminded me of many of the sacred sites on the other side of the world in northern Cambodia. I am always in awe of these large structures like El Castillo and the great ball court, and enjoy seeing firsthand the craftsmanship that ancient cultures have put into their sacred temples and stadiums. There are two cenotes (natural sinkholes) that are within the city, one was used as a water resource and the other – Cenote Sagrado – was a sacred cenote used only for ritual and sometimes that meant human sacrifice. Chichen Itza is open 365 days a year (we went on Christmas) and from 8am-5pm.
This cenote is only 5 minutes driving from Chichen Itza, so if you plan on going to one, might as well visit the other. My suggestion is to visit the ruins early in the morning, get some tacos in the town square, then head over to Ik Kil for a swim to cool off from the heat. This swimming hole is underground, and from the top you can see all the vines draping and falling into the cenote. The water was supposed to be clear, but when we visited there was lots of tourists, thus the water being murky and cloudy. There are lockers, changing rooms and showers on your way to the water. Oh, and there is only one ticket for Ik Kil, it cost us 70 pesos to get in. Small black catfish hover at your sides in the water, and all around the large sinkhole is beautiful vines and plants growing around the limestone. Try not to think about what lies underneath yourself, this cenote has a depth of 130 feet.
Like Chichen Itza, Uxmal is another ancient Mayan city just 84 km from the center of Merida. My family decided to save some money and take the bus from downtown Merida to the archeological site. It took a little over an hour and was about $3 each way. The bus drops you off right in front of Uxmal and across the street from the Chocolate Museum. On the way into the site, we saw a very large iguana hanging out on the path. It is normal to see large iguanas lounging around in the Yucatan. For Uxmal you will need two tickets to enter. The same as Chichen Itza, an Inah ticket and Cultur ticket, each having its own line. Once inside, we encountered the massive Pyramid of the Magician – a very regal and dominating temple. At Uxmal, you are allowed to bring your backpack inside. I had some extra mosquito repellent wipes for my hands and ankles, which I would advise you to use because my poor Mom and brother Miles got bit up the legs.
While sitting on top of one of the highest structures, you can relax and enjoy the beautiful green jungle that surrounds all of the structures. All you see is a green topography and then these wonderful ancient structures that pop up in-between. I liked Uxmal way more than Chichen Itza, less people, and the buildings were more intact.
Celestun Beach and Celestun Biosphere Reserve
Celestun Beach and Biosphere Reserve is about 1 hour drive the other direction (towards the beach) from Merida. It cost us 1200 Pesos to have a driver take us to the reserve, go to the beach for food and back to town. The Biosphere is surrounded by a mangrove forest, and is a popular tourist destination because of the flamingos. We hired a boat with a lovely french couple (we spilt the price) and had a nice tour of the reserve and went inside part of the mangrove forest. Despite the lack of flamingos to see, I still really enjoyed the boat ride and tour.
After, my family went to la playa to get some comida. The beach was five minutes from the reserve. We had a lovely lunch right on the beach. I was surprised at how clean the beach was and how clear the water was. It was particularly hot that day, and I was a little upset I didn’t bring my bathing suit with me. I wish that we had more beach time in the Yucatan like Tulum or Cancun, but because we didn’t have that fundamental car rental – those destinations were just too far.
My parents rented a house to stay at while we were in the Yucatan, it was really beautiful and even had a pool in it! Merida is a small enough city to walk everywhere. The first night in the city, we went to a restaurant near our place out of convenience. It was delicious! I was able to try a vegetarian dish called Papadzules. It is two corn tortillas stuffed with boiled eggs and topped with this pumpkin seed sauce. My family had roasted chicken roasted with achiote paste which gave it this vibrant red color. The entire meal that night was delicious, including our appetizers of sopas and spicy verde salsa.
The entire city of Merida has lots of color and vibrance. I took many pictures of the doors that were painted pink, red, blue, green and brown. I loved all the old cobblestone streets and old churches as well. There was also a lively Sunday Market in the old town square where you can buy lots of handmade crafts, delicious food and Mayan styled clothing for a very reasonable price. If you were to plan a trip to Merida, you would probably need two days to see everything.
Stay tuned for part two of our Mexico trip! Feliz Ano Nuevo everyone!!