Merida: Explore The Capital Of The Stunning Yucatan Peninsula!

Mérida is the capital and largest city of the Mexican state of Yucatán as well as the largest city of the Yucatán Peninsula. Southern Mexico.

We stayed for a week in Merida while we were exploring the Yucatan Peninsula during the summer of 2021 and we came away really impressed!  Merida’s beauty, nature, variety of activities, food, we loved it all! Merida is a vibrant, safe, city with close proximity to many interesting places – we visited impressive archaeological sites, lovely haciendas, gorgeous cenotes, a cool old school beach town, and the city itself over the course of the week.  


Where Is It

Merida is located on the western side of the Yucatan Peninsula, i.e. the opposite side from Cancun.  We visited during July and stayed for about a week. Merida is about a three-hour drive from Cancun or there is an international airport in Merida with several direct flights from the US.  Note that the airport is incredibly well-run, customs were super efficient and the get-a-taxi process is fast, modern, and peaceful.

How To Get There

You definitely need a car to explore Merida and the Yucatan Peninsula – there is no easily available public transportation to most of the things we loved and you will be driving a lot on this trip.  The good news is that renting a car is pretty affordable and the roads are generally excellent as this part of Mexico is very tourist-friendly.  Also, the surrounding nature is pretty much everywhere we drove on the trip, so it is a pleasant driving experience.  Note that the Yucatan car rentals are cheap but not quite as cheap as they appear online because they will inevitably (in our experience) require you to purchase insurance for an additional $20-$40 per day from the rates quoted online (which are ~$10/day type of thing).  


Why Go

This part of the country is on the map most notably for the Mayan ruins.  There are several amazing archaeological sites to visit and, most notably, Chichen Itza was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and draws more than two million visitors annually.  This was one of the main reasons we originally planned a trip to the area.  

However, when you start researching the region, you quickly realize that the gorgeous haciendas and the beautiful cenotes are amazing attractions that do not get enough credit.  They are frequently worth visiting on a standalone basis, even without these amazing archaeological sites nearby.  Visiting and staying at the haciendas is an experience in itself – they are generally large properties with relaxing vibes, beautiful grounds, nice restaurants, amazing spas, and some interesting quirks to explore by foot or by bicycle.  The same “experience in itself” commentary goes for the cenotes scattered around the same area.  These cenotes are natural pools within caves, formed when the asteroid that wiped out dinosaurs hit the Yucatan Peninsula and created “The Ring of Cenotes.”  There are more than 6,000 cenotes in this part of Mexico and many of them are gorgeous to explore and swim through.  It is a really unique experience.    


Everyone is so friendly! We had four little kids with us on this trip and everyone was spoiled with special treats and attention by all the hotels and restaurants.  Second, the haciendas had beautiful grounds and big rooms with plenty of space for the kids to run around and explore during the non-activity time.  Third, most of the activities we loved on this trip were outside in nature, which our kids love.  

When To Visit

We visited in July, which was driven by the timing of summer vacation for the kids in our family more than the best time of year to visit.  As you might guess, July in Mexico is hot.  We live in Miami, so you’d think that we are used to hot summers, but it was hot even for us.  We used a lot of A/C.  December-March is really the sweet spot for visiting Merida – low 80s type of weather with no rain.  


We Liked

For the adults, we loved the wide variety of interesting activities – the trip was a good combination of adventure plus city time.  Merida is a proper city, with excellent restaurants, a charming city center, and some unique galleries and shops.  Our favorite restaurants are highlighted below and our favorite shops were the Casa THo Concept House and the shop at Coqui Coqui .  Merida also has a really highly regarded Mayan museum, which was closed due to covid while we were in town.  


For the kids, they loved being outside in nature, particularly when swimming or climbing.  In Merida, they really enjoyed the zoo. The zoo is free and safari park style: there’s a safari truck and a boat ride around to view the animals.  Tours are every 10-15 minutes on weekends and every 30 minutes on weekdays.  The boat only runs on weekends.  There’s also a large playground and splash pad at the zoo.  The kids loved this zoo but for the adults, because it is free and really well-done, it is also quite crowded, so it may be worth it to go early or mentally prepare yourself for crowds.  The kids also loved the plaza in the city center, where they chased pigeons in front of the giant Merida sign until exhausted heading into naptime.   


Outside of Merida proper, everyone loved visiting several cenotes and ruins.  Our favorite cenotes were the Seven Cenotes Tour and the Hacienda Mucuyche.  The Seven Cenotes Tour is super well-done, although we would not recommend it for little kids – our two-year-old stayed behind for the day.  There was a lot of driving on this day because the property is far from most other things.  For kids older than maybe five years old or so, this day was our favorite day on the entire trip – it was a super cool adventure swimming the cenotes (although side note: it is not seven cenotes on the tour), enjoying an incredible private meal, and participating in some entertaining Mayan mini-rituals.  The Hacienda Mucuyche works well for all ages and it is also uniquely beautiful.  There’s a little sisal museum tour that is part of the experience which is only in Spanish but is mildly interesting to wander around and see, then you go through to swim in two gorgeous connected cenotes. There’s also a small store where we actually ended up buying several very cool souvenirs.  

For ruins, we enjoyed visiting Chichen Itza and Uxmal.  In both cases, we took the stroller, which worked reasonably well.  You definitely need a guide at Chichen Itza to understand what you are looking at – we had a great experience hiring an official guide inside the park.  The official guides are past the turnstiles, speak English, and cost 600 pesos.  There are also unofficial guides before you enter the park.  El Castillo is the main attraction, but there are lots of interesting things to explore and learn about here.  It took about two hours to wander around, although we shortened the trip somewhat because of the heat.  There is not a lot of shade.  


Uxmal was also a wonderful day trip to learn about Mayan history via these ruins and there’s more shade and fewer people, so everyone enjoyed this experience a bit more than Chichen Itza.  Unfortunately, due to covid, there’s a pre-set wheelchair-and-stroller-friendly walking path here now and you cannot climb the ruins, but normally you can wander everywhere and also climb the pyramid and other structures.  There’s also a terrific chocolate museum right in front of Uxmal called Choco-Story.  Here, they have a little Mayan ceremony every twenty minutes, a playground, some animals, and, of course, chocolate tasting.    


Lastly, we wanted to check out the beaches on the west coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, so we took a morning trip to visit Progreso and have lunch on the Malecon, which was a surprisingly close and lovely excursion.  The beach is beautiful white sand with no seaweed at all and the beachfront area has the feeling of an undeveloped old school surfing town, with many charming restaurants lining the water.  We had read that Progreso is sometimes inundated with cruise ship visitors, so perhaps check the cruise ship schedule when planning a visit, but we found it to be a laidback and beautiful stop on our trip.    

Day Trips

For more exploring, the Mexican government has highlighted some towns for their cultural richness and designated them “Magical Towns.” There are over 100 Magical Towns in all of Mexico and one of them is relatively nearby to Merida, called Izamal.  Izamal is a small town with the buildings all painted a bright golden yellow and is an easy-to-explore town by foot or by horse-drawn carriage.  It appears to be super charming and photogenic, with several good restaurant options for a nice lunch or dinner. Izamal also has a touristic light show in the evenings that sounds fun to see.  The town is about an hour away from Hacienda Xcanatun.  


There is also a town called Celestun on the coast, which has a pretty natural reserve area with hundreds of flamingos during the correct season. Flamingo season is November-April, so we did not visit while we were in town in July, but we have heard that this is a really memorable experience.  Celestun is about an hour and fifteen minutes away from Hacienda Xcanatun.  


Where To Eat

The food everywhere we went on the Yucatan Peninsula was incredible.  Mexican food is consistently amazing and the favorable exchange rate right now (~20 pesos:1 dollars) means that food was well priced in dollars.  Both the haciendas we stayed at, Hacienda Temozon and Hacienda Xcanatun, had outstanding restaurants serving excellent Mexican food – these in-house restaurants were our most frequent dining choice during the week and we highly recommend both options, even if not staying at the hotels.  There were frequent non-overnight visitors at both hotels, dining and wandering around the beautiful properties.  


For non-Mexican food, our favorite dinner was 130 Grados Steakhouse ($60 per steak-eating person with one drink), which was a terrific steakhouse with a cool atmosphere as well.  We actually visited twice during the week because the food was so excellent.  Right by 130 Grados, there was also a great Italian restaurant called Olivia Enoteca ($30 per person with one drink).  Salon Gallos was also a fun option – this restaurant is new and a fusion of Lebanese and Yucatan food, plus a wine bar and a movie screen with arthouse features (largely in Spanish).  The food was delicious (~$25 per person with one drink) and the environment was really lively.  The mixologist cocktails were also interesting and well-priced at $5-$6 each.  

Where To Stay

We stayed at two haciendas during our Merida trip, both of which were around $200/night and we recommend each of them super highly.  They were each restored older colonial buildings with really nice mixes of charming historical details as well as luxurious modern details, plus lush gardens and grounds to explore (excellent for kids, too).  


The first one was the Hacienda Temozon, a Marriott luxury collection hotel.  It is about 45 minutes outside of the city and there is not so much nearby, so you will eat most of your meals at the hotel.  Fortunately, the hotel’s restaurant is outstanding.  This location is closer to many of the cool ruins and cenotes, however, and it has a lovely pool for the kids.  Uxmal is about 45 minutes and Hacienda Mucuyche is about 20 minutes from Hacienda Temozon.  The Mayapan archeological site is also about 35 minutes away from the Temozon, which we did not highlight above but is also worth visiting if you enjoy Mayan ruins.  


The second hacienda we stayed at was the Hacienda Xcanatun , which is owned by the Accor Group of hotels.  One thing we especially loved about the Hacienda Xcanatun’s rooms was the large, free-standing bathtubs.  These bathtubs brought a surprising amount of joy to the kiddos nightly, particularly when combined with the hotel bubble bath.  The hotel also has the feeling of a charming locally-run property – I assumed it was not a chain hotel until I looked it up for this article.  It is about 25 minutes outside of the center of the city, but there are many things nearby so it is easier to eat out more frequently while staying here.  Chichen Itza is about an hour and a half from Hacienda Xcanatun.   


For more haciendas, there are a couple of other highly recommended haciendas that we did not stay at but are on our list for our next more luxurious trip.  The first is a hacienda called Chable Yucatan, which has an incredible spa and a top-rated chef.  It is possible to visit for a lunch as well as stay overnight.  It is about 40 minutes away from Hacienda Temozon.  The second is a hacienda called Hacienda Sac Chich.  This hacienda is owned by an American couple who invested in some incredible architectural and design projects to create a really stunning property.  This hacienda can also be rented for smaller parties – it is on our list in life for a landmark event or birthday party because it is so lovely!   It is about 40 minutes away from Hacienda Xcanatun.  


Within Merida, we know the hotels less well.  We knew we would be visiting the ruins and cenotes a little far from Merida city center so these beautiful and spacious haciendas outside the city made more sense for our group as opposed to a hotel inside the city.  However, we visited the charming store at Coqui Coqui Merida and the hotel also seemed lovely.  

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