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Exploring Mexico’s Yucatan State

SmarterTravel

The Yucatan State may see fewer tourists than its Mayan Riviera neighbors to the south, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in things to do. In fact, if you’re looking for something extra to spice up your beach vacation, the Yucatan State is the perfect destination. Once home to the ancient Mayans, it offers everything from rustic colonial villages to bustling, modern cities, and of course, Mayan ruins. History and culture influence everything, from satiating sopa de lima served at popular restaurants to crumbling temples. If you want to experience the “real Mexico,” here are a few activities that are not to be missed.

Beaches

For most foreign tourists, Mexico is synonymous with beaches, and it’s no wonder: they’re stunning. However, don’t come to the Yucatan State expecting azure Caribbean waters and sugar colored sand. Save that for Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum. The beaches here border the Gulf of Mexico, not the Caribbean, and the water is more emerald green than blue, while the coastline boasts larger surf. Still, they’re perfect for working on your tan while sipping margaritas.

Be sure to check out the beaches at Progreso or Celestun. Progreso, with a population of about 45,000, is popular with Mexican tourists as well as cruise travelers from the United States. Celestun, on the other hand, is much smaller and less developed. It’s the place to go if you want to experience what the entire Mexican coast was like before tourism took hold in the 1970s. It’s rustic and charming, and you might just be the only gringo on the beach.

Flora, Fauna & Flamingos

A few miles from Celestun center you’ll find Ria Celestun Biosphere Reserve, a huge estuary home to thousands of brilliant pink flamingos, exotic plants, and other birds. If you visit during the winter months, you might be lucky enough to see up to 30,000 flamingos, along with other bird species. Viewings in the late spring, summer, and early fall are more modest, although still impressive. While admission to the estuary costs only 40(about $4; see XE.com for current exchange rates) pesos per person, you’ll also need to hire a boat with a driver, which costs 500 pesos per hour. Without a boat, you won’t be able to see the flamingo nesting grounds or ride through the estuary’s mangrove swamp. In addition, if you speak Spanish—or are lucky to snag an English speaking guide—you’ll be treated to a guided tour of the entire area.

Colonial Cities

Originally the Mayan city of T’ho, Merida was founded in 1542 by a Spaniard, Francisco de Montejo, and is now the state’s capital and cultural center. Although forcibly taken from the Mayans, the modern city retains some of its ancient ties. Toppled Mayan temples make up the foundations of some of the city’s oldest buildings, including the Cathedral of San Idelfonso, the oldest cathedral on the continent. The Government House boasts gorgeous open-air murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco depicting the long history of the region.

With a low crime rate and many cultural attractions, Merida is quickly growing as a tourist destination. Certain nights of the week are always busy with events. Visitors might want to spend Thursday night at the Santa Lucia’s serenade in Santa Lucia Park. Saturday night is ideal for dining, dancing, and drinking micheladas (dark local beer mixed with lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, and hot sauce) on the streets surrounding the main square. And the Sunday market is the place to go for local wares such as handmade hammocks, pottery, and jewelry.

Other colonial cities in the area are Valladolid, home to the beautiful colonial Church of San Gervasio, and Izamal, which is famous for its vibrant yellow buildings and the convent that houses the miraculous Virgin of Izamal icon.

Mayan Temples

The Yucatan State is most famous for its Mayan ruins. It is estimated that between 2,600 and 2,700 archeological sites exist in the state alone; some 4,000 dot the entire peninsula. Seventeen sites have been restored and are open to the public, the most famous being Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and Uxmal.

Chichen Itza is undoubtedly the most visited Mayan site in the state. Get there early to avoid to the tourist crowds. Uxmal and Ek Balam are less busy and allow for more time alone with the stone temples. Although more out of the way, Ek Balam is especially worth a visit. Restoration began in 1997, and archeologists are still uncovering buildings on the site. Tall stone mounds lay covered in grass and moss, reminding visitors that almost two thousand years have passed since the temples were used.

Expect to pay a small entrance fees at each site, and be prepared to spend about 215 pesos an hour for the services of a good local guide. As very few of the ruins are marked, a guide is necessary to explain the history and importance of each site.

Cenotes

Cenotes are underground fresh water pools originally used by the ancients either to cool off in the hot summer months or for the ritual sacrifice (no one is quite sure). Today, tourists can take advantage of the region’s 2,600 cenotes without fear of being sacrificed to the gods. Many small, rural hotels and haciendas have access to them on their properties. In addition, the recently opened living history museum, Sotuta de Peon, offers day tours of its property for those interested in learning about hacienda history. The tour concludes with a dip in the museum’s private cenote. Briskly refreshing, it’s worth the 450 peso tour (which also includes round-trip transfers to/from your Merida hotel, call +52 999-941-8639). You can also try the famous Cenote Dzitnup in Valladolid for a small admission fee of about 10 pesos.

With so many things to do, a trip to the Yucatan State is sure to keep you busy and stimulated. Bursting with historical and cultural sites, the area is beckoning to be discovered, but remains pleasantly off the beaten path for the time being. Plus, you can always work in a day at the beach after you climb the temples, swim in the cenotes, or dance the night away in Merida. You might need it.

For more information about things to do in Yucatan State, visit www.yucatantoday.com.

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