Things to Do in Merida
The second oldest cathedral in the Americas, the Mérida Cathedral (Catedral de San Ildefonso) was built atop a Mayan temple in the 16th century. Notable for its relatively austere façade and surprisingly stark Moorish interior, Mérida Cathedral also houses some of Mérida’s most significant religious artifacts, including the Christ of Blisters statue.
Mostly unexcavated, the Chacchoben ruins (Zona Arqueológica de Chacchoben) make up the largest and most visited Maya archaeological site in Costa Maya. Here moss-covered temples sprout from a lush jungle, attracting visitors who want to learn about Maya history, including the collapse of the ancient civilization.
At the turn of the 19th century in Merida, the henequen plant—a type of agave—was such an important producer of textiles that locals would call it “green gold.” All of that changed when the textile industry evolved toward synthetic fibers, but on a visit to Sotuta de Peon Hacienda, on Merida’s southern outskirts, you can journey back to the golden era was henequen was king. Tour an historic, grandiose plantation home that was built with henequen dollars, before visiting the mill to watch as plants are processed into fibers. The equipment used has been pieced together from farms across the Yucatan, and is a way to preserve the traditional methods of henequen production and harvest. Learn how the fiber is woven to make rope, or spun into high quality yarn, before bouncing around on a mule-driven truck like plantation workers of old. Having worked up a sweat on the hacienda, cool off with a dip in the hidden cenotes, allowing the cool, alkaline-rich waters to rejuvenate your senses. You can also enjoy a traditional meal that’s prepared at the hacienda restaurant, and truly cap off an enchanting day of Yucatan history and culture.
Near the ancient town of Merida, you’ll find the massive but beautifully ruinous structure known as Dzibilchaltun. Though somewhat of a tongue twister for traditional English speakers, the name means “place where there is writing on the stones,” but unfortunately, due to erosion, you’ll no longer find much writing on the stones here. Instead, the intrepid explorer is rewarded with over 8,400 architectural structures to discover, many of which have astronomical (as well as religious) significance. Explore the stunning interior of the Temple of the Seven Dolls, listen to stories of absolute power at the Open Chapel and learn about the rich ancient Mayan civilization that was inhabited all the way through to 1500 A.D. when the Spaniards arrived.
Largely regarded as the last great Mayan capital of the Yucatan peninsula and inhabited until the Late Post-Classic period, the ancient city of Mayapan has long fascinated archaeologists, as well as becoming a popular tourist attraction. The city was allegedly founded by Toltec King Kukulcan after the fall of Chichen Itza and today its remains include more than 4,000 structures, spread over a 4.2-square-kilometer plot and surrounded by an imposing stone perimeter wall.
The star attraction of Mayapan is the towering Temple of Kukulcan, a terraced pyramid similar to the one found at Chichen Itza, around which are dozens of temples, altars, shrines and residences, many adorned with colorful murals and well-preserved stuccos.
Originally built in the 16th century, the Montejo House-Museum--one of Mérida’s oldest buildings--is now a bank and free-to-enter museum. There, visitors can explore the permanent, four-room collection of historic furniture and three exhibition halls which typically house artworks. However, the main draw of Casa Museo Montejo is the original and elaborate Spanish Plateresque-style façade, one of a few of its kind in the Americas.
This minor archeological site on the Puuc Route south of Merida is worth visiting to see its Palace of the Masks, an ornate structure covered with hundreds of masks of the same figure: the rain god Chaac. This repeating motif is rare in Mayan art and perhaps illustrates the importance of water—or the lack of it some years. There are no underground cenotes in this area, so rainfall was the only source of water.
Artifacts have been found here going as far back as the third century BC, but most of what remains was built between the 7th and 11th centuries AD. It was abandoned soon after and was empty when the Spanish conquistadores arrived.
Some of the sculpted elements of the site have been whisked off to various museums, but several low stone buildings and pyramids remain. Since Kabah is in a region dotted with other ruins, it’s usually a quick stop as part of a multi-site tour.
Often considered the Champs Elysees of Mexico, tree-lined Paseo de Montejo is one of the few examples of French Colonial architecture in predominantly Spanish Colonial Mérida. Developed in the late 19th century with money from the region’s henequen boom, Paseo de Montejo—one of Mérida’s longest avenues—is nowadays lined by mansions, hotels, and restaurants which retain their elaborate, original facades.
Once one of the Yucatan’s most prominent estates, the remarkably preserved Hacienda Yaxcopoil offers a unique insight into the region’s rich colonial history. Originally built in the 17th century and spread over a vast 22,000-acre agave plantation, the ancient estate is now preserved as a museum, showcasing the three periods of the Yucatan – the pre-Colombian era, the Spanish colonial era and the 19th- and 20th-century agricultural boom.
Highlights include an impressive collection of antique European furniture, a Maya room containing ancient artifacts excavated on the ranch, and original oil paintings of 19th-century owner Don Donaciano Garcia Rejon and his wife Doña Monica Galera. Most fascinating are the machine house, engine room and workshops, where it’s possible to view the agave shredding machines, water tanks and motor pumps still used to run the plantations.
A landmark of downtown Mérida, the free-to-enter City Hall (Palacio Municipal) spans the west flank of the city’s Plaza Grande and is characterized by its salmon pink façade, arches, and clock tower. Inside, visitors can enjoy murals and paintings on the second floor, cool interior courtyards, and admire sweeping views over the plaza below.
More Things to Do in Merida
Situated at the heart of Mérida’s historic center, bustling Plaza Grande is home to the city’s 16th century San Ildefonso Cathedral, one of the region’s most important contemporary art establishments, and more. Visitors can relax in this leafy plaza—popular among visitors and locals alike—or use it as a jumping-off point for further exploration of the city.
A must-see site for archaeology lovers and architectural buffs, Labna boasts Maya ruins built in the ancient Puuc style, marked by the use of concrete and decorative elements. Located in the Yucatan Peninsula, near the larger Uxmal ruins, Labna is a compact structure hidden within the Puuc Hills.
Located on the Yucatan peninsula where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea, the Mexican port of Progreso is a jumping-off point for tours to the Mayan archaeological sites of Chichen Itza (100 miles/160 km away), Uxmal (70 miles/115 km) and Dzibilchaltun (18 miles/30 km). Book a shore excursion or make your own way to the site of your choice by taxi or rental car (both found at the port).
If you’re looking for a more cosmopolitan day in port, head to the city of Mérida, the capital of Yucatan both politically and culturally, where you can soak up the colonial atmosphere by walking along the square, admiring the European-style architecture or stumbling upon a free concert.
The MACAY Museum, the only museum dedicated to the promotion and diffusion of contemporary art on the Yucatán Peninsula, is a landmark of downtown Mérida. Originally built in the 16th century, the grand edifice now houses over 20 permanent and temporary art exhibits, which feature sculpture, painting, and other mixed media works, as well as a newspaper archive and garden.
About 25 miles east of lovely Merida lies the architectural site of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization, Ake. A small slice of vintage Yucatan, this ancient treasure’s name translates roughly into "place of reeds," and is one of the Yucatan's greatest examples of Toltec settlements in the region. Not to be missed by anyone interested in the ancient Mayan ruins of Mexico, the ruins of Ake are famous for the Toltec use of concentric walls, an extensive road system dating back to 800 A.D., and incongruous giant steps giving the ruins an air of mystery. A pyramidal palace, a step-pyramid platform, and a church also lend to the site’s notoriety, while the neighboring sisal fiber plant is a step back into more recent bygone times.
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