In late-October / early-November last year, I spent eight days on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico attending Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festivities, climbing the ancient ruins of Chichén Itzá, sunbathing on the beautiful beaches, and searching for the most authentic Mexican tacos. I traveled from Cancun to Playa del Carmen to Merida and met super friendly locals and foreigners, learned about the country’s rich history and culture, and did not miss a day without eating ceviche.
We landed at Cancun Airport in the afternoon and spent the night at Cancun. After settling in, we drove to Downtown Cancun to Parque de las Palapas where there was a performance and a tamales competition going on. The street food, although we were skeptical at first, was delicious! A bit on the greasy side, but it was amazing Mexican food and for only $10 for two people!
The next morning, we drove two hours to Chichén Itzá. It’s named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and is like the mecca during Mayan times. The name Chichén Itzá means sacrifice and mouth of the wizard (as in the cenotes), and the pyramid was used to honor sacrifices. But the actual sacrifice happened at the cenotes where a common method was drowning. The construction of the pyramid was very well thought out with nine layers carefully built so that during the solstices, the shadows from the sun and moon casted a serpent climbing down the steps. From the top of the pyramid, the speaker’s voice was able to project very far because of how the acoustics were designed. There was also a lot of history around how the Mayans developed a calendar system and lived life around it, but I don’t remember all the details.
Chichén Itzá was fairly big with different sections for sacrifices, ceremonies, and other events. We saw other interesting ruins, but the Chichén Itzá pyramid was by far the most impressive. While walking around, there were vendors selling handcrafted goods and they get your attention by saying ‘Almost free!” It was also extremely hot, so we were scrambling from shade to shade.
Afterwards, we drove to Ik Kil Cenote, the most famous one in the Mexico. Cenotes are sinkholes and were created when asteroids crashed into Earth. Ik Kil Cenote was pretty deep underground so we had to descend steps to reach the water. We jumped off a small ledge into the water and swam around a bit, but without the sun it was too chilly to stay long.
We reached our hotel in Mérida in the evening and went out for dinner at La Negrita Cantina. I’d highly recommend going here because the food was bomb, drinks were cheap and tasty, and there was live music!
We did a walking tour in Mérida with Pink Cactus. We started at Plaza Grande at Mérida Cathedral where it houses the largest indoor cross in the world. Next to it was Francesco de Montejo’s mansion where Francesco, his son, and nephew (all named Francesco) lived when they settled and governed Mérida. Around the downtown area, there were a bunch of fancy houses and hotels built by the wealthy because they didn’t know how else to spend and show off their wealth. The main staple of Mérida was a material from cactus that was used for twine, used for ships and sacks. However, the manufacturers and the sellers didn’t get along and over time the industry fell apart and Brazil became the top exporter.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Mérida on our own and checked out the Lucas de Galvez market. It was super local and packed with people doing their grocery shopping. There were indoor and outdoor sections, both of which were packed with people and vendor.
At night, we went to Mercado 60 for food and drinks. Mercado 60 was an outdoor food hall with live music and a really lively ambiance. However, we looked around and it was all foreigners…
The main reason we came to Mexico was for Día de los Muertos, but we messed up the dates and Mérida celebrates the festivities the week prior and spent this week at home with family. So, the city was pretty quiet. Instead, the next day we went to another ruin, Mayanpan, to climb the ruins. This one was much smaller and less well known, but we were able to climb to the top of the pyramid unlike at Chichén Itzá. The steps were irregular and super steep so we climbed on all fours. Once at the top, the view was amazing especially when there were only like ten other people below us. I actually enjoyed this more because we got to climb around the ruins and explore more.
We then drove to Progresso Beach on the northern part of the peninsula. The seafood at El Toro was great and the server was super friendly (although I couldn’t understand any Spanish). We walked around the beach before plopping down to watch the sunset.
At night, we attempted to do a cemetery tour, but the tour was canceled to respect family members spending time at the graves. So, we walked around Plaza Grande and saw a reenactment of Francesco and the Mayans encounter. We also saw traditional dances to celebrate Día de los Muertos at San Lucia Square. The last stop for the night was La Mezcaleria where we learned how to salsa (not really) and hung out with three people from our walking tour. They were friends who met from New Zealand and were traveling for several months until they’re out of money – so bold but cool! At this bar, there was also a deal for 50 pesos for 2 mezcal shots and a beer. Mezcal is disgusting.
The next day we drove back to Playa del Carmen and spent the last few days there. Our hotel, Playa Palms, was a villa-styled suite right on the beachfront. The views were beautiful and we were only a block away from all the clubs.
The first night, we got tickets for Xcaret which was an amusement park but they had Día de los Muertos festivities. Tickets were expensive, but we figured we might as well see festivities since that’s what we came for. There were different events, shows, exhibits and activities throughout the park. We painted our faces skeleton and after an hour decided to wash it off because it was too itchy and sweaty. It didn’t come off completely so it just looked like we had black eyes. Then we visited the tombs area that were lit with candles and scattered with Chrysanthemum flowers to honor the dead. I think the tombs were empty, but the names were of real people who bought a spot at the park. They were very well decorated and designed and it felt more of an exhibit than a spooky place. We also stumbled into Aleks Synter’s concert, and he’s supposedly a really popular Mexican singer known worldwide. I didn’t understand anything but the music was good.
We started the day with a run around Playa del Carmen to familiarize ourselves with the town. It was more of a chill day where we walked around the main street, chilled at the beaches, and went for a swim. We also went standup paddling boarding and it was so hard with the waves and the wind. We both struggled and kept falling over, but after an hour we finally got the hang of it. Super tiring but a lot of fun SUPing in the ocean.
The hotel owner invited us to his annual party by the beach with free food and booze. He started the resort ten years ago with only $11K and now it’s doing great! All the staff were super friendly and kept offering us drinks, pulling us to dance and do limbos, and talking to us about the local culture. The party turned out to be a lot of fun and it was all on the beach!
On our last day, we took the ferry to Cozumel in the morning. For such a large ferry, it was surprisingly rocky so it wasn’t the most comfortable 45-minute ride. Our first activity for the day was snorkeling, supposedly the second best place in the world to snorkel after Australia. It was 20ish people in small boat that looked like a fishing boat, and everyone except me spoke Spanish. We snorkeled at two locations, both of which were great. The water was shallow enough to see the reefs clearly and there were a lot of fish in the area. It was also not too rough so it was easy to swim and dive deeper. The guide let us take off our PFDs and dive deeper to get a closer look at the reefs, but told us not to touch them as some were poisonous.
After snorkeling, we rented mopeds and scooted around the southern tip of Cozumel. The island was way bigger than we had anticipated so we had to go pretty fast. Probably around 50-60 mph; don’t know for sure because the speedometer was broken. The beaches of Cozumel were so beautiful and well maintained because it’s not as crowded. We should’ve spent more time on the island just to chill on the beaches.
Overall it was a relaxing weeklong trip to Mexico. Although we didn’t see much Día de los Muertos festivities, it was still fun doing spontaneous adventures to different sites on the Yucatan Peninsula. I’d recommend Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and driving out to Chichén Itzá. And of course, eating all the Mexican food and ceviche possible because there’s nothing as good and authentic in the US.