We’ve all heard about the most popular destinations in Mexico. Local Phoenix friends rave about Rocky Point, Cancun, or Playa del Carmen where they stay in all-inclusive resorts to, well…experience next to no Mexican culture. Although each city has its own charm, the real magic happens in the smaller cities scattered throughout Mexico. During my study abroad program I was based in Merida and the charming little city quickly became one of my favorite places in the world. Below, I’ve shared my top five events and places near Merida in order to facilitate a more unique and authentic Mexico experience while studying abroad.
The name implies it’s the center of activity and it could not be more accurate! This town square is always full of things to do and locals to mingle with. Here you’ll find one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas, the Saint Ildephonsus Cathedral, as well as numerous shops, restaurants, cafes, museums, live music and cultural events. The entire downtown area is also equipped with free Wifi! El Centro is the perfect place to practice your Spanish, snap some amazing photos or purchase traditional Mexican souvenirs. Visit Yucatantoday.com to see a list of all the things to do in El Centro, Merida happening in real time.
Of the many cultural events Merida has to offer, Pok-ta-Pok is the ultimate occasion. Locals of Mayan descent simulate a game of Pok-ta-Pok, in which the ancient Mayans volleyed a ball up and down the court in an effort to make it through an enormous hoop twenty feet above the ground. In Pok-ta-Pok, players are only permitted to use their hips, head, shoulders and elbows. Back then, the losing team would often be sacrificed to the gods. In this simulation, the players don traditional Mayan face paint and clothing, begin the festivities with a traditional Mayan chant and even set the ball on fire.
Off the beaten path, this small town offers boat rides out to picturesque waters where flamingos are local to the area. About an hour away from Merida, Celestun boasts beaches, natural springs and ample opportunities to see native wildlife in one outing. On your way out to the water, you’ll be able to see how the locals live and get a taste of traditional Mexican food from street vendors and fisherman that reside there. Celestun is also home to the Reserva de la Biosfera Ría—a 146,000 acre wildlife reserve and Hacienda Chunchucmil, the site of an ancient pre-Columbian Maya city.
The beaches anywhere in Mexico are gorgeous, but Chicxulub offers unparalleled beauty and privacy. This hidden oasis is only thirty minutes from Merida and offers an entirely different beach experience. On most popular Mexican beaches, you can expect larger crowds and determined vendors, but in Chicxulub you’ll find the beach is well-maintained, quiet and primarily serves as a fishing site for a handful of local fishermen. If you’d prefer to buy some souvenirs or get a massage on the beach before committing to Chicxulub, you can visit Progreso, just forty minutes outside of Merida and then hop on the bus to Chicxulub, which is just twenty-five minutes away.
Of all the ruins in Mexico, Uxmal is by far my favorite. It’s not a typical tourist trap, although it does attract visitors from all over the world. The guides at this location are top notch and you can actually climb on a few of ruins. You can take some time to reflect on top of a ruin or visit the gift shop for some unique souvenirs. Uxmal also offers numerous restaurants and lodging in the surrounding areas.