Mayan Ruins, Haciendas, and Crater Pools: The 4-Day Weekend in Mérida and Yucatán

lunamarina / Shutterstock

Let your friends have Quintana Roo. That is, let them flock to Tulum and Cancún, both along the Quintana Roo coastline of the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s because they’re on this peninsula that we mistake them as being in the state of Yucatán. That’s incorrect: Yucatán is west of Quintana Roo—and its capital, Mérida, is a city whose name you’ve been hearing more and more. (At risk of sounding cringey, let’s call it the next Oaxaca, in terms of its growing prominence for the American traveler.)

While your friends take the coast and do little to immerse themselves in the history and culture of either place, you’ve got a different agenda: With Mérida as your base, you’re going to spend a long weekend eating, dancing, drinking, relaxing, and learning—all of which will simply fall into your lap by visiting the Yucatán state. There are Mayan ruins to see (and not just Chichén Itzá); there are cenotes to dive into (how cool to swim in a crater-made, crystal-blue pool?); as well as tacos, cocktails, and esquites to devour. And you’ll get to the Gulf coast, too, only it’s at the opposite end of the peninsula.

We’d be remiss not to mention how safe Yucatán and Mérida are for locals and tourists alike. You can barely converse with a local without them commenting on this fact. They’re proud of it, and despite the misinformation about how dangerous Mexico is (just be smart about where and how you travel, people), there’s no denying that one of your safest, friendliest picks is Mérida, Yucatán.

You don’t need all-inclusive (sometimes soulless) resorts. You’ve got Yucatán, where you’ll experience a biosphere dotted with flamingoes, and the potential for an immersive four-day itinerary you won’t soon forget.

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How to Get There:

Interjet can get you direct to Mérida from Miami, Houston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Orlando, Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. If you’re traveling through Mexico City, there are multiple flights per day.

Casa Puuc
Casa Puuc Courtesy Image

Where to Stay:

Casa Puuc: At Casa Puuc, you’ll feel like you came home to visit your mother—and her little dog, too. That’s Puuco, the pug, who yelps lovingly at you as you check in. This bed and breakfast is a five-minute drive outside the city center and a welcomed escape from the bustle. You’ll occupy one of just a handful of suites with 5-star decor, Instagram-ready furnishings, a fresh breakfast bounty (with some made-to-order options), and a private pool in the back of the home. You could sell a vacation to Yucatán off the photos of Casa Puuc alone, and that’s before you experience the warm hospitality and awesome details.

Coqui Coqui L’epicerie: Coqui Coqui has its reprieves all across Yucatán (like Valladolid and Izamal, where this itinerary also takes you), but this two-room bed and breakfast in Mérida is the crown gem. L’Epicerie is dripping in velvet, with burgundy and gold accents, freestanding French bathtubs, and iron four-poster beds. It’s deserving of the belle époque building it inhabits, and you’ll feel extremely cared for and looked after by the attentive staff. You can enjoy a swim in the rooftop pool, or make an appointment at the adjacent perfumeries to sample your way through their dozens of destination-inspired scents. (Our favorite, Tabaco, is inspired by the tobacco farms that surround Mérida.) And perhaps you’ll be able to visit their other shops around Yucatán (near their other residences): An artisanal hat shop, suede store, hammock supply, linen shop, barbershop, and teashop.

Hacienda Xcanatún: Haciendas were to the Yucatán what plantations were to the south in the U.S. These large farms operated between the 1600s and 1900s, which is when many of them boarded up. Now, many have been purchased and renovated into luxury hotels. While there are loads to choose from, Hacienda Xcanatún, just outside of Mérida, is the obvious choice. Its owners rescued it from dilapidation and converted the property into a center of rejuvenation, leisure, and exquisite cuisine. Even if you don’t stay, you should book a meal or spa appointment while in town, and enjoy a calming walk through the verdant, soothing grounds.

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What to Do in Mérida and Yucatán

This itinerary gives you one full day’s immersion in Mérida, as well as one in the surrounding area (with a return to the city that night or late afternoon). Secondly, it takes you in two directions from the city: First, west to the flamingo-dotted coast of Celestún (overnight optional, about 1.5-hour drive), then to the opposite side of Mérida, to the yellow-hued magic town of Izamal and the colorful-and-quaint Valladolid (3 hours from Celestún, or 1.5 from Mérida.)

You’ll probably want to rent a car for days 2–4, or hire a driver for the latter half of the trip if you prefer not to drive.

A folkloric Yucatán dancer
A folkloric Yucatán dancer Bret Reyes / Shutterstock

Day 1: Mérida Deep Dive

Your day of submersion in Mérida should center on a few key things: food, history, architecture, music, and drinking. As for food, you’ll want to visit the Mercado de Santiago and taste-test your way through the vendors, stopping for lunch at Taqueria La Lupita (you might remember this little stand and its smiley owner, Pedro, from Salt Fat Acid Heat on Netflix.) If you want to dedicate half a day to food and local cuisine, you could also take a Yucatecan home cooking class; shop for ingredients at the market, then turn them into “salbutes, panuchos, papadzules, codzitos, lemon soup, and more.”

You should check the calendar for the Palacio de la Música. Perhaps there’s a performance in the evening by the Yukalpetén Typical Orchestra or another renowned musician. (However, if tonight is Monday, save it for a traditional dance show in the town square at 9 p.m.—outside at the Vaqueria.) Moreover, when you’re at the Palace of Music, you should meander its new museum, a love letter to Mexican music through animations, interactive exhibitions, and audio.

Direct yourself to the famed Paseo de Montejo for a stroll down the Champs-Élysées-esque avenue, marveling at all of the magnificent mansions—many of them empty for ages—that line the street. Along with the haciendas, these Spanish colonial mansions are a quintessential part of Mérida’s infrastructure. Look out for the most famous duo of mansions, the neighboring early 20th-century Las Casas Cámara (also known as Casas Gemelas, the Twin Houses). They’re on the northwest corner of Calle 45 and Paseo de Montejo, and one of them went on the market last fall for $18M USD.

One such mansion up the street has been converted into a Yucatecan history museum, called Palacio Canton. Stop in for an anthropological lesson in Mayan history, or to gawk at the French architecture of the mansion, as well as to check out its rotating exhibitions.

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Visit the town square, the Zocalo, and peruse its vendors. From there, stop into the free Museo Casa Montejo for an opulent display of furniture, figurines, and masks in a 16th-century home. The Zocalo-adjacent Cathedral is also a must-see, as it’s deemed the oldest church on North American soil, having been built in the 16th century atop Mayan ruins.

From there, visit Nahualli Casa de Los Artistas for a colorful display of local artists in a colonial-home converted gallery space. All of the work is for sale, though it feels very much like a well-curated museum collection at the same time.

End your busy day by hopping between cantinas—that is, watering holes—like the live-music Dzalbay Cantina and Cantina Balam, or the tapa-centric El Lucero del Alba. Each place will leave you stuffed, buzzed, and merry.

Cenote Xlacah at the Dzibilchaltún archeological site
Cenote Xlacah at the Dzibilchaltún archeological site Pe3k / Shutterstock

Day 2: Ruins and Haciendas

Start your day with breakfast and a tour of an hacienda—namely Hacienda Xcanatún, aforementioned in the “Where to Stay” section. This will showcase how the region has transformed many of its one-time prosperous plantations into luxurious, world-class hospitality destinations. Just outside of the city, Xcanatún puts you close to the Dzibilchaltún archeological site and makes for an easy one-two punch between the two.

If you came to Yucatán to see archeological ruins from civilizations past, then you are spoiled for options. There’s the Mayan site of Dzibilchaltún, the most obvious choice for its proximity to Mérida; there’s also a swimmable cenote on-site, too, if you fancy a dip.

Mark your map for Uxmal, another major Mayan ruin one hour south of Mérida. It’s a 1,200-year-old site that was a major seat in Mayan culture, and was home to nearly 20,000 inhabitants. You’ll gawk at the 5-story Pyramid of the Magician and the 19,000-sq. foot Governor’s Palace.

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You’re probably most curious about Chichén Itzá, which is certainly a bucket-list destination. Let’s say this as a side note: Chichén Itzá, a 1.5-hour drive east of Mérida, might be best visited as part of a pre-booked day trip. Many, like that one on GetYourGuide, include stops at cenotes and small towns along the way. Or there’s Valladolid, which is also on the itinerary for Day 4; it’s just a quick 45-minute drive farther east from Chichén Itzá. So it could save you extra time in the process. If you’re set on visiting Chichén Itzá, just combine it with other cities and attractions in that direction. (Perhaps day 4 of this itinerary.) However, if you rent a car, you can probably combine Chichén Itzá with yet another famous ruin site, Ek’ Balam, since it’s also just north of Valladolid.

With whatever time you have left after your outer-city sightseeing, return to Mérida for dinner and a performance. Perhaps there’s something of note at the Palace of Music. (Again, if it’s Monday, then there’s a traditional dance performance in the Vaquería, the city center from 9–10 p.m. Note this for whichever day of your trip falls on a Monday—it’s a thrilling and spirited showcase of the city’s young, talented dancers.)

Celestún Biosphere Reserve
WitR / Shutterstock

Day 3: Celestún

Today, you head west to the Gulf, toward the fishing village Celestún and its undeveloped coastline. Ideally, you can uproot from Mérida with your belongings and spend the night at Hotel Xixim. This resort removes you from data signals and television, offering quiet dinners and languid afternoons on the beach. Book a massage, bring a book, and get a total reset. Contact them ahead of time if you want to add any side trips to your visit, namely a sunrise excursion to see the famed flamingoes that populate the coast, inside the Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

However, you can also visit the bio-reserve as part of a day trip from Mérida, by booking a day trip to the Celestún Biosphere Reserve to birdwatch and swim before returning to the city.

Izamal bypty / Shutterstock

Day 4: Valladolid + Izamal

On your final day, you’ll head east, inland to the artisan town of Valladolid and the official “Magic Town” of Izamal. It’s easy to tack on a visit to the ruins at Chichén Itzá and Ek’ Balam in one fell swoop. To be most efficient, your east-then north drive would go as follows: Izamal, Chichén Itzá, Valladolid, Ek’ Balam. If you want to sleep in Valladolid, you could surpass it on the way up and head first to Ek’ Balam, then double back for a quick drive into Valladolid for the night. Or, do the whole trip in reverse, starting at Ek’ Balam and ending closer to the Mérida airport, with an overnight in Izamal.

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Colonial Izamal, poured with yellow paint, was a core city in pre-Columbian Mayan culture. You’ll visit the city’s archeological site and see its remaining pyramids and ruins, as well as tour the massive Franciscan convent that was built over a Mayan pyramid.

Valladolid has all the ingredients of being the next San Miguel de Allende or the inland Tulum, but that’s just it—it’s not on the water, so it doesn’t attract throngs of visitors, and it seems that many people are still discovering Mérida as a destination itself (just like Oaxaca a couple years ago), so it’s too soon for the artisan-dense, shop-lined, humble Valladolid to pull too much focus. But be sure to meander through its town square and down its colorful side streets as you gather crafts and mementos—be they a hand-woven hammock or a taco spill on your pants. You can also go for a swim in Cenote Zaci, if a crater-pond dip is still on your to-do list.

In Valladolid, stay at one of the two Coqui Coqui Valladolid properties, both of which are within a minute’s walk. There is also a Coqui Coqui Izamal, or the humbling Hotel Villa San Antonio de Padua, that has beautifully converted a convent into a sprawling guest residence.

Sanbravo Courtesy Image

5 Restaurants to Try in Mérida

Tintorera: Chef Alex Méndez is the new “It” kid in Yucatán, having trained in France under Alain Passard and in Brazil under Alex Atala. He returned home to Mérida, and now operates the seafood-specialty Tintorera, which is just the latest of his many ventures. (See also Hermana Republica and Taqueria de la Union, among others.) What Méndez excels at is taking his fine training and passion for flavors, and converting into something more eye-level for his customers. You get world-class Mexican dining, minus any stuffiness (then again, that’s Mexican dining at its best). But you will be stuffed, fair warning.

Néctar: One of the single best moments of your life will be the second you bite into a black tempura onion at Néctar. And that’s just a warm-up to the feast you’ll have at this beloved home of “New Yucatecan Cuisine.” Chef Roberto Solís has made a name for himself as being inventive with local ingredients; he writes his own rulebook by harnessing the many possibilities within Yucatan cuisine.

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Yucatecan Gastronomy Museum: The Museo de la Gastronomía Yucateca (MUGY) is part restaurant, part exhibition. Your fine-dining courtyard experience highlights the flavors central to Mayan cuisine. After eating, you can slip to the backyard and see a small exhibition on the ingredients and customs Mayans employed in the kitchen.

Catrín: Laidback with bustling energy, Catrín is a fun way to spend dinner, with incredible local recipes—esquites, tacos, tostones—along with flavorful cocktails. Eat outside to enjoy the periodic projection that casts a dancing skeleton along the opposite wall, set to boisterous music.

Sanbravo: A seafood and steak house that also serves ornate cocktails. Everything at this luxury spot has originality, thanks to the influence of renowned chef Christian Bravo, who also co-owns the joint. Don’t skip out on dessert—be sure to order the molten-lava cake, which is a replica of the Kukulkan castle in Chichén Itzá. Locals revere Sanbravo because it’s one of the few non-Yucatecan high-end restaurants in the city.

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