The Yucatán peninsula is where the Mayan civilization reached the peak of its development. It is home to important Mayan cities, including Chichen Itza, Mayapan, and the city that is now the capital of the Yucatán, Mérida. In this itinerary, we show you how to spend 5 days in the Yucatán based out of Mérida, discovering the ancient Mayan sites.
If you have the vacation time (and especially if your flight connects through Mexico City), consider combing this with our 5 Days in Mexico City itinerary.
Day 1 – Mérida Historic Centre, Santa Ana Market and Paseo de Montejo
We’ll start day 1 by exploring and getting our bearings around Mérida. The Mérida Historic Centre is compact and many corners look more like Europe than Mexico.
Start by exploring the area around the Plaza Grande Park. This beautiful park is surrounded by historic buildings. Opposite the park is the Mérida Cathedral.
For lunch (or dinner), make your way noth on Calle 60 to Santa Ana Market (in the Santa Ana Park). This food stall market has vendors that serve classic Yucatecan cuisine. Don’t worry about trying everything on your first visit; you’ll probably find yourself here for dinner on multiple evenings.
Must-try dishes include sopa de lima (I could start every meal with this chicken stock and citrus soup with chicken and fried tortilla), panuchos (shredded turkey tacos on a fried tortilla that is stuffed with refried beans), queso relleno (Edam cheese stuffed with a ground pork mixture), cochinita pibil (marinated suckling pig cooked in a barbecue pit), papadzules (tortillas rolled around a hard-boiled egg filling and topped with a tomato and pumpkin seed sauce).
Afterwards, take a stroll down the picturesque Paseo de Montejo.
Day 2 – Day Trip to Uxmal and Yaxcopoil
The next several days will involve day trips into the Yucatán province to explore ancient Mayan cities. Some of the larger sites can be accessed using public transportation, but the smaller ones are more easily accessed with a private tour and are easily arranged in advance. (Although you should be able to book them upon arrival if you find the right people.)
As of writing this, we can highly recommend Lawson’s Original Yucatán Excursions. They will happily arrange private or group tours to anywhere in the Yucatan. Tell them Matt & Keith sent you.
Uxmal (pronounced Oosh-mal) was a Mayan city 62 km south of Mérida and has some of the best-preserved and more unique Mayan buildings you’ll see in the Yucatán. It is reported to have been the most powerful site in western Yucatán, and had an alliance with Chichen Itza to control the entire northern Mayan area. The Pyramid of the Magician is particularly unusual with its rounded corners.
Ask Lawson’s to make a detour to Yaxcopoil for fresh panuchos under the tree.
Day 3 – Day Trip to Mayapan and Swimming in Cenotes
Mayapan is another day trip that’s worth the effort, 40 km south-east of Mérida. It was the political and cultural capital of the Yucatán from around 1220 to 1440. Mayapan is off the beaten track, and it’s possible that when you visit you’ll be among only a handful of visitors in the entire site (or possibly the only ones!). While not as elaborate as Uxmal, Mayapan has several piramids that can be climbed, offering amazing birds-eye views of the city and the surrounding jungle. The entrance fee is also quite cheap compared to other archaeological sites at MX$35 (as of December 2013).
Afterwards, get Lawson’s to take you for a dip in a cenote. These sinkholes were sacred places being the only source of freshwater for the Mayans. Lawson’s took us to 2 cenotes in the village of Pixyah. At both of them, we had the cenote all to ourselves. The water was clear and blue. The first cenote we visited had a convenient area for jumping mid-way between the ground surface and water level. I was brave enough to make 2 jumps into the water (quite the experience). Apparently some (much braver) people will actually jump from the ground level. I guess I’ll have to make another visit in the future to try that out.
Enjoying a cenote all to yourself is a magical experience that cannot be described. Contact Lawson’s and ask to visit the Pixyah cenotes!
Day 4 – Day Trip to Chichen Itza
I’ll start by warning you that Chichen Itza is the Disney World of the Yucatán. It gets Cancun cruiseship visitors by the busload. Paths are lined with vendors selling cheap souvenirs and trinkets.
But the grounds are massive and the Mayan architecture is amazing. Unlike Mayapan, there is nothing to climb or touch (with the crowds they get it’s not feasible). If you have the patience to deal with the crowds (just stand back and let them pass), then it’s worth a visit.
Chichen Itza can be accessed by an inexpensive first-class ADO bus that departs from the Mérida CAME bus station and goes directly to the Chichen Itza site in just under 2 hours. (Double check the departure bus station since ADO busses depart Mérida from several stations.)
Day 5 – Day Trip to Progresso
Progreso is a small beach town 1 hour by bus north of Mérida and makes a perfect day trip to relax at the end of your stay in the Yucatán.
The Autoprogresso bus company operates between Mérida and Progreso, with very inexpensive local busses leaving every 10 minutes from their bus terminal. It brings you within 3 blocks of the beach in Progreso.
In Progreso, take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico.
Stop for drinks and snacks at Eladio’s Bar, located on the beach at the base of the cruise ship dock. At this cantina-style bar, you order a round of drinks and they bring you a handful of small appetizers. Order another round, and you get a different set of food. (Sometimes they save the better food for rounds 2 or 3.) And so it continues until you can’t eat any more.
They’ll give you a menu, but locals (and wise tourists) know that you really don’t need to order anything, unless you have a craving for something specific.
(Eladio’s also has 2 locations in Mérida.)
Have you visited these attractions or tried this itinerary for your 5 days in the Yucatán? Let us know what you thought in the comments!