When you come to Yucatán for the first time, there are a few things/places you just have to see. They may be clichés (and in some cases, you’ll find not all Yucatecos find them exciting anymore), but you can’t really go home without seeing them for yourself.
It’s not you, it’s Maya
The number one reason most people come to Yucatán is to see what is left of the ancient Maya culture, visiting some of the myriad sites that once stood as city states. From the majestic and very commercialized Chichen Itzá at one end of the spectrum, to the magical lost city of Chacmultún at the other, some of these sites are large, internationally renowned, and even World Heritage material. Others are more sublime, unrestored, and mysterious among the foliage of our dense dry tropical forest (the technical name for what some call the jungle, or “Monte,” on the northern part of the peninsula).
That is not to say that the ancient Maya are the only ones worth your time. The present-day Maya are very much alive and relevant in Yucatán’s daily life, and many of them offer visitors their services as guides, cooks, and even traditional cuisine teachers.
But back to the archaeological sites. For the perfect combination of restored buildings, temples, and the “lost city in the jungle” feel, Uxmal is the place to visit, especially if you’re looking for that experience that will shape the rest of your ventures into Maya history. There’s also a quite spectacular video mapping show at night; check our event calendar for more information.
Beneath the Yucatán Peninsula many an underground river flows. Fresh water moves silently between the Gulf of México and the Caribbean Sea, occasionally bubbling up to the surface in lagoons and along the coast as “ojos de agua”, natural springs used by Maya navigators back in the day. The traders would fill their fresh-water canteens at sea, thereby avoiding landfall and making their progress along sea trading routes that much speedier.
Over the millions of years since the Yucatán Peninsula was violently thrust out of the ocean by the impact of a meteor (read more about Yucatán’s extraordinary prehistoric past here), some of the surface rock has caved in, revealing cavities where the groundwater is exposed. These openings, some large and others tiny, often resemble water-filled caves and were used by prehistoric people and then the Maya for ceremonies, as they were considered a portal or gateway to the underworld. Maya elders in small villages still speak of spirits inhabiting these spaces. You may find places where a local will make an offering at the entrance of such a cave to appease these spirits and ask them for permission to enter.
Today, many people visit cenotes for their refreshing fresh water swimming possibilities, but if you arrive early on a weekday, you might be able to feel the mysterious, magical vibe of these underground wonders. Regardless of when you visit, try to be mindful of the history and sacredness of your surroundings.
The haciendas, or plantations, are also on many people’s lists of “musts.” These are reminders of another time, when predominantly white Yucatecan families became enormously wealthy thanks to the work of the predominantly brown Maya who planted, harvested, and processed Henequén, or sisal, the fiber that brought prosperity to this region in the 1800s.
With that caveat in mind, they are still interesting from a historical/architectural standpoint. The almost feudal estates vary from very large (such as Yaxcopoil with 25,000 acres) to the remarkably ostentatious and castle-like Chenché de las Torres. Smaller, more modest plantations trying to emulate their grander cousins include Mucuyché, Sotuta de Peón, and Sabacché, just to name a tiny fraction of the many you will find. Some are completely abandoned and crumbling, while many others have been restored as hotels, private residences, or restaurants. One of the first to be restored is the Hacienda Teya, now a venue for social events and a popular destination for visitors looking for authentic Yucatecan cuisine.
Speaking of Cuisine!
Yucatecan cuisine is recognized as one of the most varied, complex, and delicious in the country. Visitors are enchanted by such strange and wonderful foods as Sikil P’aak (a pumpkin seed/roasted tomato dip), Queso Relleno (what IS a Dutch Edam cheese doing in Yucatán?), and, of course, the internationally renowned Cochinita Pibil.
There is any number of places to sample the delights of the Yucatecan kitchen, both in the traditional and newer versions. Don’t miss La Lupita and La Reina Itzalana in the Santiago market in Mérida; Rick Bayless’s favorite street taco joint Wayan’e; the award-winning Kinich in Izamal; the smoky, darkly elegant Pueblo Pibil in Tixkokob; and fusion-istic Maya de Asia in a fancy mall in northern Mérida. Any and all of these places (and there are more) are sure to satisfy your craving and curiosity when it comes to the spectacular cuisine of Yucatán. Skip the burgers, pasta, and McDonald’s and go local.
Finally, and as if all of the above wasn’t enough, Yucatán is also blessed with some appealing natural attractions. On the beaches, besides some interesting pink salt evaporation pools in the areas where salt has been produced for hundreds of years, there are the coastal birds. Sisal, Progreso, Telchac, and Celestún beckon with kayak and boat tours designed to put you in the mangroves to see unique marine wildlife up close and personal.
Pink flamingos are a common sight in both Celestún and Río Lagartos; how many you’ll see varies by season, but it’s very rare to not see any.
If you go to Celestún, take the boat tour through the estuary and submerge yourself in the fresh water spring that feeds it, creating the unique combination of fresh and saltwater that is vital to the flamingos and their food. Tip: go early, as early as you can. If you’re there by 7-7:30 am you’ll see the birds before they head off to feed for the day. Also, keep an eye open for crocodiles, as they can be spotted on low-hanging semi-submerged branches of the mangrove forest.
Birdwatching inland is also very rewarding. Again, sacrificing a few winks will reward you with a wide variety of birds that can be observed; the Yucatán Peninsula is one of the places on the continent with more birds than any other!
Whatever you decide to do, all of us here at Yucatán Today hope you will make time to enjoy as many of these Yucatán highlights as possible!
By Ralf Hollmann
A Yucatecan born in Germany and raised in Canada, with a degree in Hospitality and Tourism from the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Ralf has experience in leisure tourism, journalism, research, editing, writing, and creative writing. He’s also a musician.
Photography by Violeta H. Cantarell, Elizabeth Llanes, MUGY, CO’OX MAYAB, Nelly Quijano, and Marco Saenz for use in Yucatán Today.
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