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Trip Report Trip Report - Merida, Ruta Puuc, Chichen Itza, Tulum

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Note - I also posted this report on Trip Advisor - I wasn't sure if I should just post the link or the whole report, so here is the report. I hope people find it helpful:

Earlier this month, my husband and I took a 2 week trip to the Yucatan. Our main goal was to view Mayan Ruins, which was a Bucket List item for both of us. On this trip, we spent time in Merida, the Ruta Puuc area, Chichen Itza, and Tulum. Here is the report...

Day 1: Wednesday - Travel

We flew United using frequent flyer miles from San Jose, CA to Merida, Yuc. We had a long layover in Houston, but otherwise everything was fine. Upon arrival in Merida we processed through immigration and customs, which went smoothly – ours was the only flight arriving and the airport is pretty small anyway. We were through in about 30 minutes.

A taxi to the hotel was a flat rate of 200 pesos, I believe. Quick and easy – bought a ticket from the taxi booth and got into the next available taxi.

Our hotel was the Casa De Las Columnas (www.casadelascolumnas.com) on Calle 59 at 80 and 82. The location is a bit outside the city center – 10-15 minute walk or 5 minute taxi ride. The neighborhood is relatively quiet, but there is traffic on Calle 59. On the one hand the traffic means noise, but on the other hand, it means it is easy to flag down a taxi.

The hotel itself is pretty good. We had a rate of US$ 45 per night for a double room, so we weren’t expecting luxury – just a clean place to stay with a little atmosphere. The hotel is in an old house with wonderful colonial details and a terrific courtyard. There are tables and chairs around the courtyard, making it a nice place to read and relax. The breakfast area is in a gallery overlooking the courtyard, which is great. There is even a small pool, which was a nice bonus after a day of wandering around in the sun and the heat. Our room was pretty good although the bed was uncomfortable. We did have plenty of places to put our things though and the bathroom was nice.

Day 2: Thursday - Merida

After breakfast we walked from the hotel down Calle 59 and into the city center. We visited the central plaza first – walked through the park and just tried to absorb the atmosphere. The plaza is lovely – large shade trees, plenty of people about, lots of benches.

Our first stop was the Governors Palace. This is a neat colonial building and free to explore. We were especially taken by the murals done by Fernando Castro Pacheco showing the history of the Yucatan. I spent quite a lot of time there viewing the artwork. (yucatantoday.com/en/…castro-pacheco-murals)

We also went to the Casa de Montejo and wandered around the Plaza some more, then wandered down some neighboring streets to see what we could see. We did a little souvenir shopping – lots of shops in this area – we only went into a few since we aren’t big shoppers.

In the afternoon we took the Turibus tour around the city. This is a double-decker bus tour with an open top. The tour took about 90 minutes and cost about US$ 12 per person. Way touristy thing to do, but we thought it would be a nice way to get an introduction to the city and get our bearings. It was fun and we saw some good stuff along the way.

When we finished with the Turibus tour, Mass was still going on at the Cathedral, so we decided to stop for some refreshment and then see the Cathedral afterward. My husband had seen a sign about a bierhaus from the Turibus and convinced me that we had to go there. Me: But it is our first day in the Yucatan! Him: But it is a Bierhaus! La Bierhaus (www.facebook.com/labierhausmx) is on Calle 62 just north of the central plaza – nice friendly bar with some good beer and German food. They also have a nice courtyard out back. So we had some beer and sausage.

When mass was over, we returned to the Cathedral and were able to wander around freely and see the architecture and the artwork. This is the oldest Cathedral in the Americas.

We walked back to the hotel – spent a little time relaxing in the courtyard and then got cleaned up and changed for dinner. This time we took a taxi into the center – 50 pesos for a zone taxi.

Dinner was at Amaro, which we fully enjoyed. This was our first real experience with Yucatecan food and we were quite pleased. The restaurant is in a nice courtyard with a big tree and some interesting art displays. There was also a solo guitarist playing during dinner.

After dinner we walked north to the Parque de Santa Lucia to see the traditional Yucatecan dance performance that was scheduled for that night. Very nice. We caught a taxi back to the hotel – radio taxi this time for about 25 pesos. For rides between our hotel and the city center, radio taxi was about half the cost of a zone taxi.

Day 3: Friday – Celestun Tour

We had scheduled a guided tour to Celestun with Adventures Mexico (adventures-mexico.com/day-trips/…). The van picked us up at the hotel around 9:30 and we were on our way to Celestun with a group of about 8 people. The ride took around an hour, I guess, and we arrived at the dock area of Celestun along with several other van loads of people. We were all divided into smaller groups and assigned boats.

The boat tour was wonderful – we saw plenty of different types of birds, including lots of flamingos, which of course are the main attraction. We also took a side trip into the mangroves and then docked at an elevated walkway to wander through the mangroves a bit. We saw a crocodile snoozing away below the walkway. There is also a freshwater pool in the mangroves and we had time to swim, but only a couple people went in – that crocodile was on all of our minds.

After the boat tour, everyone got back into their respective vans and went into town for lunch and beach time. Each group went to a different beach restaurant – lunch was included, drinks extra. The food was fine and the beer was cold. We sat out on the beach under a thatched roof and we had time to walk along the beach and explore. It was nice, but the beach really isn’t that good.

If I had a do-over, I would probably just take a public bus from Merida to the docks for the boat tour – then skip the beach and go straight back to Merida.

Back at the hotel for a swim in the pool and then get dressed for dinner.

This night we ate at Casa de Frida ( http://lacasadefrida.com.mx/) which I loved. The food was excellent – I had the Chile en Nogada and was in heaven. My husband had the duck mole, which was also very good. I definitely recommend this restaurant. It is on a side street – not immediately noticeable, but definitely worth looking for. And they have a pet rabbit that hops around the courtyard – too cute.

After dinner, we were in the mood for some music and drinks, so we wandered around, following our ears. We ended up at Parque Hidalgo, which had quite a lot going on. The adjacent street was closed off to traffic and a few of the restaurants had set up tables outside on the street and had live music. There were also a lot of vendors out. It was great for a while, but then one of the bars started blasting cheesy music over a really bad sound system, drowning out the live music playing at the other places. So we decided to move on.

We walked around and popped into another couple places and then followed our ears – the sounds of a good rock cover band – turned out it was at La Bierhaus, so we went in. We sat out on the patio, had some beers and listened to the band. The crowd was great – very friendly and lively – we struck up some conversations with people at the next table and had an enjoyable time and some good beers.

It was getting late, so we hopped in a taxi and went back to the hotel – another 20 or so pesos – taxis in Merida are cheap and plentiful. Unfortunately…despite being told that the hotel reception was open 24-hours a day (we asked specifically when we chose that hotel because we like to stay out late), we returned to find the place locked up tight. It was actually only about 12:30 at night, so not even particularly late in my book. But even the front gate was locked. No bell anywhere, no buzzer – no way to signal those inside to come open the door. Damn. We tried our room key, but it didn’t fit in the gate lock. The taxi had already pulled away, so we couldn’t ask him to call the hotel for us. So my husband hopped the fence and tried our room key on the front door – no dice. So he knocked. No one came. After a couple minutes of alternately knocking on the door and rattling it, some sleepy person finally opened the door and then opened the gate for me to come in too. Success. We didn’t have to sleep in the street.

Day 4: Saturday – Merida

Being Saturday, we decided to visit the market south of the main plaza. This is a huge complex with indoor and outdoor areas where they sell everything from produce to hardware to pets to dresses for your first communion. The surrounding streets also have shops selling everything you could ever need in your life. The whole place was crazy and chaotic. And being Saturday, everybody was out shopping. It was an experience. We wandered around for ages and then took a break and good some food from one of the stalls outside.

Next we walked north and east to see the 2 of the remaining city arches on Calle 50, I believe it is. My husband being a photographer has to take pictures of every and all city gates, arches, etc. He really enjoyed photographing the market too.

Then we went to the Museum of Popular Art on Calle 50A and 57. The museum was actually free, which was a neat surprise. The building is a lovely early 20th century building (I believe) and houses a wide variety of artwork from around Mexico – pottery, baskets, clothing and textiles, etc. There is a special photo exhibit on now – a German photographer who was quite prolific in Mexico in the early 20th century – I can’t remember his name, but the work is very good.

Since we had been walking all day, we thought we would walk some more. We headed to the market at Santa Ana for some food – Jamaica and salbutes were the older of the day – and they were exceptionally good. We were hot and thirsty and those Jamaicas went down well.

Enough walking, so we caught a taxi back to the hotel. Had a swim in the pool, read for a while, and then went out for dinner. We had an absolutely unremarkable meal at an outside café at Parque Hidalgo. We chose it because I was reading Maya Sacrafice by Grant Spradling – the characters stay in the Gran Hotel and spend a lot of time sitting outside the hotel in the café, so it seemed apropos to at least have a meal in the same spot. That part was fun, but the food was just whatever.

We had planned to go to Noche Mexicana, but we were totally beat from all the walking in the sun and heat that day. So we caught a taxi and went back to the hotel after dinner and a drink – and this time the door was open.

Day 5: Sunday – Last day in Merida

Domingo in Merida – we went straight to the central plaza downtown to see the festival. It was a lot of fun with great street food and lots of vendors selling merchandise. We bought a few things, ate a bunch, and wandered around. There wasn’t much music, which we thought was disappointing – we hoped that there would be more music and live performance. There was a clown doing a funny circus and comedy show on the side of the plaza which was ok – the clown screeched into the microphone a lot though, which was not. Overall it was a lot of fun though.

We also went to the MACAY to see the artwork – that was really wonderful – definitely loved that.

In the afternoon we spent a couple hours popping into this place and that for a beer and/or a snack. Overall it was a great day.

Later on we went to dinner at La Chaya Maya – the location on Parque Lucia which has the nice courtyard. The atmosphere was lovely and the food was pretty good. Amaro and Casa de Frida were both much better though.

Merida was lovely – we really enjoyed our visit. The city and the architecture are very interesting, the people are warm and gracious – we would definitely return. Next up – Haciendas, Uxmal, and the Ruta Puuc.

Day 6: Monday – Hacienda Sotuta de Peon

Today we rented a car and left Merida, driving south toward Santa Elena. We stopped for a tour at Hacienda Sotuta de Peon (http://www.haciendaviva.com/tour), which is an hour or so south of Merida. We missed our intended tour, so we had lunch at the restaurant onsite while we waited for the next tour. Lunch was pretty good – we had panuchos and jamaica. The restaurant is open-air and rather large – clearly intended for larger tour groups. We were the only ones there though.

The tour itself was really good. One of the best house/plantation/etc. tours that I have been on. The guide was great – gave the tour in English and Spanish. He gave us a good history of the hacienda system. We saw the main house, which was beautiful. Then we saw the process for getting the henequen and making rope by hand as well as the mechanized process. They have a working machine house with the big loud machinery for separating the fibers from the henequen leaves, the baling machines and rope making machines. It was all quite interesting to see. Next we took a ride on a mule-driven cart out through the henequen fields, stopping to visit an elderly mayan man who used to work on the plantation when he was a young man and the plantation was still in commercial production. The tour ended with a visit to a cenote where we were able to go for a swim. Overall, this was an excellent tour and I highly recommend it.

By the time we were finished with the tour, it was getting to be late afternoon, so we drove straight to Santa Elena where we were staying at the Pickled Onion B&B (http://thepickledonionyucatan.com/). The drive there was easy – through some small towns, along narrow roads, but signage was good so the route was easy to follow. We went a back way through some small towns before we reached the main Merida-Campeche road.

The Pickled Onion B&B was wonderful – absolutely wonderful. This is one of my favorite places that I have ever stayed. Valerie, the owner, has done a wonderful job and the staff is great. We stayed 3 nights and wished we could have stayed longer. If we are in this area again, this is definitely where we will be staying. There is an attached restaurant where we had our meals while there - the food was very good.

Day 7: Tuesday – Uxmal

We awoke early and had breakfast – this is a rural area, so the roosters start crowing at the crack of dawn. Breakfast was good – the standard is fruit, break, coffee, tea, juice and you can order more items from the menu if you like.

We got to Uxmal fairly early, not at opening, but before it got crowded and spent a few hours wandering around the site. It is an incredible site and absolutely worth seeing. You can’t climb the main building, but there is a pretty large temple near the back of the site that we were able to climb. Of the large sites that we visited, I think it was my favorite.

After leaving Uxmal – which by then was quite crowded – we stopped for lunch at a restaurant along the highway. We didn’t have high expectations, but we were hungry, thirsty, and hot, so we stopped. There was a tour group already there having lunch, so we got a table off to the side. The food was actually pretty decent and the sodas were cold. A grand spectacle was occurring around the tour group – the restaurant had a guy going around preparing shots – tequila, sparkling mineral water, and something else. There was lots of shouting and laughing, head shaking, etc. Seriously touristy stuff, but entertaining to watch. At home when people break out the tequila shots, it usually means that within a half hour, someone will be fighting, but these appeared to be French tourists, so we figured it was pretty safe ;-)

After lunch, we checked out some of the local towns and then went back to the Pickled Onion. We relaxed around the pool for a while and I had a massage – Valerie does a nice massage on-site. We relaxed some more, had a great dinner at the restaurant, and called it a night.

Day 8: Wednesday – Ruta Puuc

This day we went further south to check out 4 smaller sites on the Ruta Puuc: Kabah, Sayil, Labna, and Xlapak. These sites were wonderful – interesting, uncrowded (sometimes we were the only ones there) and just a really neat experience. And at several of the sites, there were buildings that could be climbed – nothing as large as the temple we climbed at Uxmal, but still good. Not much was roped off at these sites. The folks at the Pickled Onion had packed us a sack lunch, so we had lunch along the way when we got hungry.

We went to the Loltun Caves, but didn’t take a tour. With the cost of the tickets plus the required guide, it was going to be US$70 for the 2 of us to tour the caves – caves are neat, but we’ve toured caves for less in the US. It just seemed highly overpriced, so we left.

Back to the Pickled Onion to hang out by the pool and relax. This time my husband got a massage. After wandering around Merida for several days, the Pickled Onion was a wonderful respite – I wished that we had another night there and could have had time to see the Ruta Conventos as well. Next time…

Day 9: Thursday – off to Chichen Itza

We left the Pickled Onion late-morning and drove to Piste/Chichen Itza. The drive was uneventful and easy. We had planned to make a few stops along the way, but we got a late start and it was a particularly warm day, so we just headed straight for Chichen Itza. We stopped for lunch at a loncheria in Piste and had some very tasty food for cheap.

We checked into the Mayaland hotel (http://mayaland.com/), chosen for its proximity to Chichen Itza. It is literally just over the fence from the site. When we arrived, the place was a zoo – quite a shock to the system after spending the last few days in the Ruta Puuc area, which is very quiet and relaxed. I think we just had bad timing as the tour buses were loading people up and chaos reigned. An hour later, everything was much more calm.

Our room was pretty good – with a nice balcony and a view of the Chichen Itza observatory – we could actually see the site from our room. Amazing. The hotel grounds are lovely with wonderful old trees, beautiful gardens and plenty of wildlife, including a peacock. After a stroll around the property, we spent a little time at the bar and then decided to go for a swim – unfortunately the staff was setting up for dinner around the pool, so all the pool chairs were gone and people were already sitting out having dinner. Even though the pool was technically still open, it clearly wasn’t meant for swimming at that time. That was a bummer since a swim would have felt really nice at the end of a warm day. I have since learned that there is another pool on the property, but it wasn't clear on the map, and when I asked about the pool at the hotel, the people I spoke with didn't mention it, so I didn't realize. Too bad.

We had dinner at the buffet, which was disappointing – we didn’t expect much and were still disappointed, but whatever. It was edible and we didn’t starve. We weren’t there for the food. If we hadn’t already imbibed at the bar, we probably would have gone out to have dinner someplace else.

Day 10: Friday – Chichen Itza and Ek Balam

We were up at dawn, had breakfast at the hotel (much better than the previous night’s dinner), and were at the site at the 8am entrance time.

Chichen Itza was amazing – and seeing it first thing in the morning was perfect. There weren’t many people there and the vendors were just setting up. We spent about 3 hours there, escaping just as the place was starting to fill up. And I now understand what people were saying about the vendors – absolutely unreal. Vendors were set up everywhere – literally all over the site. It definitely detracted from the experience. I like souvenir shopping and appreciate the presence of vendors, but this was complete and utter overkill. I am very glad that we were there before most of the vendors. Otherwise I think that would have marred the experience more than the crowds. We visited Tulum later in the trip with crowds and, while not ideal, it wasn’t too bad – and the reason was no vendors in the site.

After leaving Chichen Itza, we stopped at Cenote Ik Kil, just down the road. This is a cenote that is open to the sky and very picturesque – it is also very busy since there are a lot of services there (restaurant, gift shop) and buses can stop there. But we thought it was very much worth the visit anyway – and even with the people, it didn’t feel overly crowded. Plus, if a big cenote monster decides to come up from the depths and grab a sacrificial swimmer, the odds are with you that someone else will get taken.

We stopped in Valladolid for lunch at a little loncheria in the shopping hall right off the main square. Then town was lovely and we enjoyed our short walk around. Lunch was so-so. Actually, I got a stomach ache from it – my only food issue from the trip, and it did stick with me for a few days. Nothing serious enough to slow me down though. My purely anecdotal, non-scientific theory is that it is a safer bet to eat at food stands and loncherias run by women than by men. I think women tend to be more mindful about food handling safety.

After lunch we went north to Ek Balam. We hadn’t planned to go here, but decided last minute that we had time to see it. We were very happy that we decided to make that detour. It is a wonderful site and not at all busy, even mid-afternoon. You can climb the main temple and there is a wonderful carving near the top of the temple that is worth the trip in and of itself. I also liked the way they handled the vendors at this site – there are vendors lined up on both sides of the path as you walk from the ticket area to the site, but only in that area – once you get into the site, there aren’t any vendors. I thought this was very well done.

It had already been a full day and was getting late - we needed to get to Tulum by nightfall, so we headed straight out. The drive seemed interminable, but really it was only a couple hours. The towns we passed were interesting, but otherwise it was mostly just straight road with a wall of plant matter on either side, so not much to look at.

We arrived at Cabanas Tulum where we would stay the next 4 nights (www.hotelcabanastulum.com) right at dusk. Perfect timing. The hotel was great – exactly what we were hoping for. The people were wonderful from the moment we arrived and throughout our entire stay. Our room was a beach front room, which was literally on the sand. We had a front porch with a couple chairs, small table, and a hammock and a magnificent view of the Caribbean. This was my first trip to the Caribbean, but it was already too dark to really see the water – I would have to wait until morning for the “wow factor”.

Once we got settled, we immediately went to the bar at Ziggy Beach, which is the beach club associated with our hotel. Instead of bar stools, they have swings. Fab-u-lous. First margarita on the beach, second margarita on the beach = heaven on earth. We also had dinner at the restaurant – El Bistro. It was quite good – a bit on the expensive side, but definitely good – and nowhere near what we would pay for the same meal at home.

After dinner walk on the beach and then to bed – listening to the waves as they lulled us to sleep.

Day 11: Saturday – Tulum

I convinced my husband that we needed a day to just relax on the beach and do nothing, so that is what we did. I was up at the crack of dawn, threw on my swim suit and went out for a sunrise walk on the beach. The view took my breath away. I had never seen the sun rise over the sea. I walked probably a mile in each direction of the hotel - white sand beach, warm water, plenty of interesting little hotels.

When I got back, we went to El Bistro for breakfast – which was included in our room rate: any entre on the menu, a hot beverage and a cool beverage. This is one of the most generous included breakfasts I have encountered at a hotel. It was great.

The rest of the day we swam in the sea, relaxed on the beach, walked up the beach, had snacks, had drinks, swam in the sea… Perfect day.

We had dinner at Playa Azul just down the beach, on their second floor deck, which had a wonderful view. Food was good too. We had stopped there earlier in the day for drinks – nice bar.

Day 12: Sunday – Coba

The day dawned very stormy, but no rain yet. After breakfast we went inland to Coba. This is a neat site near a lake, which is different. The site is large, so we elected to hire a bike taxi guide to take us around. The cost was 100 pesos plus tip for a little over an hour. It was mostly transportation with a little information from the guide – there were other guides you could hire for more that had more information. We had read up on the sites already and had a good book, so we skipped those guides at every site we visited. It was a lot of fun to see the site on the bike taxi – it is in a jungly forest, very different from the dryer sites we had visited earlier in the trip. We stopped at the different buildings. The main temple can be climbed although by this time it had started to rain, making the stones slippery. People were still climbing up, but we opted not to.

We had originally planned to spend the afternoon visiting cenotes, but the rain really started coming down. So, what do you do with a rainy day on the coast? Why, go to the bar, of course. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Ziggy Beach bar, drinking daiquiris, sitting on the swings, and playing pool.

By dinner time, the rain had stopped, so we walked up the beach road to Co-Co, which has a restaurant serving pizza cooked in a brick oven. After an afternoon of drinking and playing pool, pizza really hit the spot. And their pizza was good – thin crust, flavorful, good toppings.

We walked back on the beach and took an evening swim. I could get used to this.

Day 13: Monday – Tulum

This was our last day of the trip, and the day dawned sunny and nice – so we visited our 9th and final mayan ruin – Tulum. It is just up the road from Tulum town. We got a late start, so we arrived at Tulum ruins as some tour groups were also getting there. It was crowded, but such is life. It was still a very interesting site and well worth the visit. While it doesn’t have a big main monument or temple, the smaller buildings are quite good and the location on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean can’t be beat. One of the beaches was closed for the turtles, but the other was open. There were a lot of people swimming, so we skipped that part.

Being our last day and a sunny one at that, we decided to spend the rest of the day on the beach. It was a perfect end to an amazing trip. I would return in a heartbeat.

Day 14: Tuesday – Home

We drove to Cancun, returned the car, caught our flight and were on our way - vowing to return, of course...we are supposed to go visit my sister-in-law in the fall, but maybe we can blow her off and come back to Tulum...yes, I am contemplating political suicide with the in-laws to come back... :-)

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