If you’re looking for white sands, great food, culture, history and friendly people, you could do a lot worse than head to Yucatan for some R&R. Sara Darling dodges the Cancun crowds to discover the true magic of Mexico.
I first went to Cancun in Mexico about ten years ago after a big break-up and just wanted to fly and flop. It did the job admirably and I drowned my broken heart in a luxury resort in Punta Nizuc, along with lots of all-inclusive margaritas and the odd foray to the local beach.
However, on this visit to Mexico, I was determined to stretch my wings and explore the magical region of Yucatan. Jetting into the international airport at Cancun, I was once again overwhelmed by the noise, heat and irresistible smell of tacos. Once I had collected my luggage in the sweaty arrivals hall, I headed out for that first waft of new country air that always hits you. Outside the airport was even more manic than inside. Dance music boomed from a juice and tequila bar, tanned tourists grooved to the tunes whilst arriving tourists’ eyeballs nearly popped out of their heads and they forgot every word of Spanish as they tried to navigate the festival-like landscape to get to the taxis. Meanwhile, I was searching the minicab boards for my name, as I had astutely booked in advance.
I decided to base myself in the region’s capital as I wanted to get a feel for city life, see different beaches and explore the beautiful historical haciendas and cenotes that the area is known for. Merida itself is a sprawling, commercial city with a bustling centre fused with a touristy vibe. Known for its galleries, contemporary restaurants, great shopping and traditions, it offers a vibrant metropolis compared to the seaside-y Cancun, but you can get to the beach in just 30-45 minutes.
Yucatan only opened to tourism in the mid-1900s and until then its only contact with the outside world was by sea. However, that just adds to the rich history that centres around the Mayan tribes who ruled the area. Seventeen archaeological sites of their sprawling cities have been restored and are open to the public, the most famous being Chichén Itzá, Ek Balam and Uxmal.
The largest, Chichen Itza, is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and you don’t have to be a history geek to appreciate the Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo.
This impressive, stepped pyramid demonstrates the accuracy and importance of Mayan astronomy and each side has 91 steps, with the top platform making the 365th. Devising a 365-day calendar was just one feat of Mayan science. Incredibly, twice a year on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow falls on the pyramid in the shape of a serpent. As the sun sets, this shadowy snake descends the steps to eventually join a stone serpent head at the base of the great staircase up the pyramid’s side. Along with female sacrifices, whose bones and jewels have been found by archaeologists, the main leisure activity was a ball game where players tried to hit a 12-pound (5.4-kilogram) rubber ball through stone scoring hoops set high on the court walls. Perhaps this is where Squid Game got their ideas from, as losers were put to death.
Everyone who visits Merida will be able to rave about their favourite cenote and I too have joined that tribe. Cenotes are basically sinkholes in the earth and Yucatan is home to more than 2000 of these freshwater pools, which the indigenous peoples used for drinking water and sacrificial offerings.
Most of the cenotes are located in rural parts of the Yucatan Peninsula, you’ll either need to rent a car, navigate the (not so great) public transport or join a tour. Cascabel, Chaksikin, and Xoch are popular tour-led day trips. And the Hacienda Mucuyché offers a complete organised experience that includes a guided group tour around the old hacienda in either English or Spanish before donning your swimmers and taking a further guided tour through the stunning cenotes. At the end of the channel, you get out, grab a mask and enter the second cenote, which feels as if you’re swimming in a cave you’d normally walk through and is truly magical.
However, if you want to go it alone, there is a hidden gem – Yokdzonot, near Chichen Itza, which is run as a women’s collective and not many people go there, meaning you can splash about as much as you like!
Every cenote is different so you mustn’t assume that because you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Some are open to the skies, others more cave-like. Some require you to climb down rickety old ladders or stairs whilst others have a rope dangling over the side. Some are shallow while others can reach over 80m deep. Check out to see if there are life jackets available if you’re a little bit nervous – most cenotes are run by locals, who earn a living from this.
I also found my favourite beach. Totally chilled and away from the tourist trail, Sayulita is a cute, hippy beach town, serving amazing street food and boasting a gorgeous beach popular with surfers.
You won’t get the white sand beaches and crystal waters of the Caribbean, but you will find a more rustic atmosphere that’s perfect for combining beach time with laid back vibes.
The closest beach to Merida is the long and sandy Progreso, with its cabana massage beds and the longest pier in the world.
Merida is also a great place to pick up a souvenir or two. You don’t have to go all out with tacky Frida Kahlo or Day of the Dead memorabilia, (although this is a popular choice). IMOX Curated Boutique is worth checking out for local up and coming designers such as Cynthia Buttenklepper (winner of Who’s on Next Mexico), and Jesús de la Garsa, winner of Mexico Designs by ELLE. It also stocks jewellery, perfume and men’s and women’s fashion collections. B&G Atelier studio combines the craft of shoemaking with unique designs that use 100% Mexican materials. Bags, belts and a range of leather accessories are also on sale.
Nick-nack fans will love rummaging through Muebles en Transito, a treasure chest of consignment and handmade furniture and home accessories. It’s easy to get lost in this gallery/store based in an old warehouse. The eclectic mix of antiques, modern, contemporary decor with lots of ‘one of a kind’ pre-loved pieces proves that you can still shop with a conscience.
Whether you’ve come to explore the ruins, shop ’til you drop or go cenote-hopping, you won’t be able to avoid Mexican’s signature food dishes. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to overdo the spices. Everything from street stalls and the central market to Michelin starred restaurants will have options, and if you don’t speak Spanish, fish tacos and tequila are always recommended!