Planning a trip to the Yucatan peninsula? In winter 2018 I spent one month taking Spanish classes and exploring Valladolid, Merida, and Campeche. Check out my Yucatan itinerary and trip report.
|1||Fly to Cancun from US & take bus to Valladolid||Valladolid|
|5||Travel -> Mérida||Mérida|
|9||Travel -> Campeche||Campeche|
|12||Travel -> Mérida||Mérida|
|13-29||Mérida - 2 weeks of language study + 4 free days at end||Mérida|
|30||Fly back to US from Mérida|
I timed my visit to coincide with the Yucatan’s cool season, from November to February. By mid-February the days were getting pretty hot (highs of around 92°F, 34°C). Personally, I would probably not visit the Yucatan any later than the end of February, but others who are less heat-sensitive might not mind.
The Yucatan does not experience earthquakes and has been relatively sheltered from the drug-related violence that has plagued other parts of Mexico. Merida in particular is known as the safest major city in Mexico.
Getting There and Away – Merida has a small airport, but Cancun often has cheaper and more frequent connections from North America and Europe. I used American Airlines frequent-flyer miles for a ticket to Cancun and continued on to Merida by bus after spending a few nights in the picturesque town of Valladolid. Returning, I used United miles to fly from Merida back to the States through Houston.
Getting Around – Mexico’s long-distance bus system is excellent and economical. I prefer first-class service with ADO or Primera Plus, but sometimes for shorter routes only second-class buses are available. Minibuses (colectivos) are also a common form of transport for shorter routes. They often have more frequent departures but are less comfortable than the larger buses.
Uber in Mexico – Uber is now available in a number of cities in Mexico. The cars are much newer and nicer than traditional taxis. More importantly, they actually have seat belts in back and are considered much safer than street taxis. Unfortunately, Uber recently suspended service in both Cancun and Campeche due to conflict with the powerful taxi unions, but is still available in Merida.
Airbnb provides incredible accommodation bargains as well as the opportunity to experience life from a local perspective. I also like being able to pay with a credit card, since many budget hotels in Mexico are cash only. To avoid unpleasant surprises, I look for Airbnbs with Superhosts and stellar reviews. In general on this trip, I paid US$11-25 for a private room with bath or even an entire apartment.
I recommend installing WhatsApp since it’s commonly used for messaging in Mexico.
Valladolid is a charming, laid-back Pueblo Mágico with a pleasantly surprising amount of things to do. For me, four nights was a good amount of time, but I could have easily stayed another day and visited more cenotes in Valladolid’s environs.
Getting to Valladolid from Cancun airport:
There are no direct buses to Valladolid from the airport, but there are several daily first-class ADO buses running from the downtown Cancun bus station to Valladolid.
I exited the Cancun airport, following the signs for buses. There was an ADO kiosk outside, and I was able to buy both a ticket to the Cancun central station as well as my onward first-class ticket to Valladolid. The bus to the central station first circled around the airport picking up passengers from other terminals, so the trip took about 40 minutes. The bus to Valladolid from Cancun’s central station took about two hours.
Valladolid is small and it was an easy walk to my Airbnb.
Things to do in Valladolid
I visited the charming bustling municipal market first thing in the morning and then headed to Cenote Zací. This cenote provides a tranquil oasis in the heart of Valladolid. Named for the Mayan settlement demolished to build the colonial city of Valladolid, it features in a fascinating local Mayan legend.
I got to Cenote Zací just as it opened at 8:30 am. At that hour I had it virtually to myself and could appreciate its serene beauty. Look for the black eyeless catfish that inhabit the cenote’s waters. The entrance fee of 30 pesos (US$1.60) includes a wristband for all-day access, so it’s possible to return later for a refreshing dip to cool off from the afternoon heat.
Other recommended sights in Valladolid include the Convento de San Bernardino de Siena and la Casa de los Venados.
Don’t miss sampling the local cuisine. Valladolid is famed as the culinary heart of the Yucatan; try classic dishes like cochinita pibíl (slow-roasted marinated pork), morcilla (blood sausage), agua de chaya (juice made from a local plant), and marquesitas (a dessert like a crunchy crepe).
In Valladolid I took two (self-funded) tours with MexiGo. I highly recommend this tour operator! I took the Go Wonders and Go Flamingo tours on consecutive days and they were both great.
On the Go Wonders tour, we arrived at Chichén Itzá right as it opened, which was perfect because a couple of hours later the masses arrived. Afterwards we went for a refreshing swim in the gorgeous Yokdzonot cenote and visited the lovely Pueblo Mágico of Izamal.
Izamal is known as the Yellow City since almost all its buildings are yellow. Izamal is a charming, laid-back place and deserves a longer visit. I recommend going as a day trip from Merida.
The Go Flamingo tour I did the next day is MexiGo’s most popular and my favorite of the two tours. Taking a tour to Río Lagartos is a great idea because it’s difficult to get there by public transport for a day trip.
Since Go Flamingo is a popular tour, we had far more participants than for Go Wonders. At first I thought I preferred a smaller group, but it really was a great mix of friendly international folks, several of which I stayed in contact with.
In Río Lagartos we saw pelicans, flamingos, and even a crocodile at extremely close quarters! We took a side trip to the pink Las Coloradas salt lakes, which I had inquired about; I really appreciated it being added to our itinerary. According to our guide, the water was not as pink as it is at other times, but I still found the scenery fascinating.
The ruins of Ek‘ Balam were also fantastic. I enjoyed them more than Chichén Itzá since there were no crowds and you could climb the pyramids.
Las Coloradas, pink lakes created by the salt industry in this area, which dates back to Mayan times. The color is due to red-colored algae, plankton, and brine shrimp that live in the salty environment.
The clay of Las Coloradas has been famous since Mayan times for its rejuvenating properties. It’s supposed to take 10 years off your age. Not sure it worked, though.
Ek’ Balam is a Yucatec-Maya archaeological site near Valladolid. It’s uncrowded, unlike Chichén Itzá, and you can still climb the pyramids (if you dare – it’s incredibly steep and there are no ropes or handrails).
Charming Merida is known as the safest major city in Mexico and has become justifiably popular as an expat mecca. I spent three weeks in Merida in total; two weeks of my stay were dedicated to studying Spanish at La Calle Spanish school. After attending school during the week, I spent my weekends taking interesting excursions. Read more about my experiences at the school and in Merida.
Progreso is the closest beach town to Merida. To be honest, I didn’t find it all that attractive, but it’s a laid-back place to eat seafood and have a beer. I went for Carnaval and it was a small parade without crowds, which I prefer.
While in Merida I took a three-day trip to Campeche. Campeche is often overlooked, but I loved its relaxed, colorful charm.
This church is famous for its Cristo Negro, which is venerated by the faithful.
I highly recommend a day trip to Edzná Maya archaeological site from Campeche. It’s not well-known, and I had it virtually to myself. What a contrast from Chichén Itzá! I went in a colectivo minibus from the market. Bring sunscreen, mosquito repellent, snacks, and lots of water. There are no vendors at the site.
Leaving Merida I took a traditional taxi to the airport for my flight to Houston (Uber drivers occasionally refuse to take passengers to the airport due to the potential for conflict with traditional taxi drivers, and I didn’t want to risk it with my early flight). Merida airport is small and the check-in and security processes were quick. Adiós, México lindo y querido. ¡Hasta pronto!
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Have questions about visiting the Yucatan or a recommendation? Please share your feedback in the comments.