Mexico has been on my travel bucket list for such a long time. Having lived in the southern US for more than a decade, with Mexico on my doorstep, I honestly don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get there… I blame the kids. I’m joking of course (sort of) but I was so happy when my husband and I settled on the Yucatán for our family summer vacation this year.
While many tourists flock to popular spots on the Riviera Maya like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Mérida is not a destination on most people’s radars. And yet it’s a such vibrant and friendly city. And it’s packed full of history and culture.
It was a combination of factors that led us to choose Mérida. Firstly, my parents had been there and recommended it to us as an incredible place to visit. Secondly we were looking for a destination that would balance our need to relax and get away from it all with a desire to experience something new and different.
Finally, we wanted to push our children out of their comfort zone a teensy bit (they’ll thank us later!). In my opinion, travel is the best way to teach our kids first hand that not everyone lives as we do in the US, and that those differences are something to embrace and enjoy.
Mérida offered us a more authentic taste of Mexico, all while in a safe and beautiful setting. What more could you ask for?
A brief overview of Mérida
Mérida is the capital city of the Yucután region and is known for its culture, architecture and unique heritage.
In general, we found the city to be just lovely. It’s a happy, bustling, interesting place; full of shops, restaurants, cafes and with non stop festivals and events taking place. It’s a magnet for artsy and creative types. The locals are very warm and welcoming. And it’s generally more affordable than the Riviera Maya.
Mérida also has a reputation for being one of the safest cities in Mexico. We certainly felt extremely safe the whole time we were there, even while walking around the city after dark.
For a more in-depth perspective on Mérida, I’d recommend checking out this great write up from the New York Times.
How to get there
Assuming that you plan on flying to Mexico like we did, there are two main airport options: Cancun or Mérida. While the latter is a lot more convenient, we found the flight prices to be cost prohibitive. So we opted to fly in to Cancun, and endure the three hour drive to Mérida.
Although the drive isn’t exactly interesting, the highway is very well maintained and the route is straightforward. It’s also worth noting that car rental prices in Mexico are extremely reasonable. We rented a large SUV to accommodate our family of six and it was about a quarter of the price we paid in San Francisco last year.
Where to stay
We booked our accommodation through AirBnB and couldn’t have been happier. It was surprisingly affordable for us to rent an entire hacienda style house, and we definitely appreciated the space (not to mention the pool!) with four kids in tow.
Our neighborhood of Santa Ana was just charming. I loved the colorful houses, the contrast of beautifully restored and slightly dilapidated buildings, and the wealth of shops and bars on every corner.
While we were wandering around the city we also noticed many lovely looking boutique hotels like this one and this one. One day I’d love to go back with just my husband and stay at one of these beautiful places!
What to see and do
It’s hard to know where to begin, because the city and surrounding areas just have so much to offer. But here are a few highlights from our trip, and a some things we didn’t get around to but definitely want to do next time we’re there!
Explore the city
Mérida is a very walkable city, so it’s easy to get around on foot. At the main city square – Plaza Grande – you’ll find the iconic Mérida sign, the imposing Cathedral de San Ildefonso and many other beautiful colonial-style buildings.
Venture a little further and you’ll come across plenty of other lovely squares like Santa Ana and Santa Lucia. I’d also recommend a stroll along the Paseo Montejo, a wide European style boulevard lined with shops, restaurants and colonial mansions.
While we were exploring the city, we made a quick stop at the Lucas Galvez Market, which is the main city market. Packed full of vendors selling everything from local produce to clothing to housewares, it’s a loud, busy chaotic place – be prepared for a sensory overload. It was quite the eye opener for our kids!
Visit some ancient Mayan ruins
My number one recommendation for anyone visiting the Mérida area would be to head out of the city one day and drive to the phenomenal ruins at Uxmal (pronounced oosh-mahl).
The ancient Mayan site, which is a 45 min drive south of Mérida, was built between 700-1,000 AD and provides a fascinating glimpse into Mayan history. It’s also a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.
Although they’re described as ruins, most of the buildings are incredibly well preserved. The majestic Pyramid of the Magician you see upon entering the site definitely sets the tone, and from then onwards you’re treated to a host of impressive and intricately designed structures. You can climb on almost all of the ruins and some of them offer amazing views.
Perhaps one of the best things about visiting Uxmal as opposed to the more famous Chichen Itza is that you’ll encounter very few other tourists there. That’s right – no crowds! There were times when we felt as though we really had the whole site to ourselves (iguanas aside!) which only added to the magic of the experience.
Hit the beach
Even though we decided against the Riviera Maya for this trip, it didn’t mean that we had to forgo the beach completely.
There’s a beautiful white sand beach at Progreso, just a 30 minute drive north of Mérida. The beach itself is a perfect place to collect shells (one of our five year old’s current favorite hobbies!) and the water is lovely and warm.
When you’ve had your fill of swimming and sunbathing, you can stop for drinks or a bite to eat in one of the many bars and restaurants that line the promenade just across form the beach.
Sample the local cuisine
When it comes to restaurants, you really are spoiled for choice in Mérida. It’s a cosmopolitan city and you can more or less find any type of food you want, but I was personally on a mission to try as many local specialties as possible.
My favorite Yucatecan dish had to be the Poc Chuc, which is pork marinated in citrus juices and cooked on a grill. I sampled it in a few different spots but especially enjoyed the version I had at well-known restaurant La Chaya Maya (in fact we ALL enjoyed the food there!).
Other dishes to try include Sopa de Lima (chicken soup with a citrus kick) and Papadzules (tortillas rolled around a filling of hard-boiled eggs and dipped in a pumpkin seed sauce).
Take a dip in a cenote
This was the one thing on our to-do list that I was gutted we didn’t get around to.
The area around Mérida is full of cenotes – essentially fresh water sinkholes – which were created when an asteroid crashed into the sea floor off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula 66 million years ago (yes, the same one that wiped out the dinosaurs!).
There are lots of different types, from caves to open air cenotes. Many include an option to have lunch served too. For more, check out this round-up of some of the best cenotes to visit from Mérida.
See flamingos in the wild
If you head over to the coastal town of Celestun (an hour or so drive southwest of Mérida), you might be lucky enough to see the large flocks of flamingos that reside there. Surrounding the town is the Celestun Biosphere Reserve where you can go on a flamingo tour and get up close and personal with hundreds of these beautiful birds.
I think our kids would have loved this, and so would I for that matter!
Apparently the best time of year to see the flamingos in high numbers is November-March.
Visit a pink lake!
Another day trip from Mérida that was recommended to us was the pink lakes at Las Colorades. The giant pink lakes get their vivid color as the result of a salt production process. Unfortunately you can no longer swim in them, but they are still quite the spectacle and would make for some great photo ops.
All in all we had an amazing time in Mérida and would return in a heartbeat. The ONLY slight drawback was the heat – temps were up to 100° F every day. We were there in June though and there are certainly cooler times of the year to visit.
Have you ever been to Mérida or other parts of Mexico? I’d love to hear your recommendations!