Ole! Today, communities all over the country are celebrating the historic Cinco de Mayo battle by guzzling cheap tequila and wearing oversized novelty sombreros. But on my recent trip to Yucatan, I experienced the natural beauty and rich Mayan culture that represent the more authentic side of Mexico–and I can’t wait to go back. If you think Yucatan is just the beaches of Cancun, you couldn’t be more wrong. The capital city, Merida, is a destination in its own right, complete with boutique hotels like Luz en Yucatan. Here are 5 other reasons to go to Yucatan and experience “The real Mexico:”
There are no aboveground lakes or rivers in Yucatan or Quintana Roo, as the locals will remind you. What they do have are cenotes–underground caverns that were sacred to the Mayans, and it’s easy to see why. Some are above ground, some are in caves, and every one is different.
Practically every municipality in Yucatan has at least one or two, some nearly undiscovered (at least by tourists). Two of my favorites I visited were Casa Cenote, an above-ground oasis (perfect for claustrophobes) where the mangrove roots seems to sparkle under the water, and the Cenote Zaci a colossal cavern smack in the center of Valladolid that Batman would be proud of.
Most people go to Yucatan to relax and beach out, but they forget to take time out to visit the best art museums in Mexico. These include the MACAY museum in Merida, which features works by abstract painter Fernando García Ponce and muralist Fernando Castro Pacheco, and the utterly charming Casa de los Venados in Valladolid, the single biggest collection of Mexican folk art in private hands, including the most colorful examples of Day of the Dead Catrina art and Oaxacan alibrijes (fantastical animals) I’ve seen. The colonial architecture in Merida and the surrounding towns, including the Palacio Municipal (below) and the Casa de Montejo, built from recycled Mayan temples, is not to be missed.
The sleepy fishing village of Rio Lagartos, a few hours north of Merida, offers guided boat tours through the mangroves where you can spot flocks of flamingos up close, then have a refreshing natural spa day bathing in the same clay that makes the flamingos pink. Celestun and Progreso are other coastal areas off the tourist path, popular with vacationing Mexicans, where you can observe eagles, pelicans, crocodiles and other critters.
Stale tortilla chips and guac can’t compare to the traditional Mayan specialties of Yucatan sopa de lima from La Chaya Maya, salbutes and panuchos from the Merida central market, or the delectable oddity known as marquesitas, a confection made like a rolled-up waffle and with the texture of a thin potato chip, filled with Nutella and cheese, sold at every event.
At night, Yucatecans love to get outdoors and have fun–and usually it’s for free! Every weekend, streets close to traffic and you can stroll up and down the avenues listening to Yucatecan Serenade, traditional big band music that Mexican old-timers will come out for and dance salsa all night long
Or you can see traditional Mayan athletes strain human endurance by playing pok ta pok, the traditional Mayan ballgame that involves hitting a ball through a stone ring using only their torsos. It’s not for weaklings!