It's a common (and unfortunate) misconception among many wary travelers that all of Mexico is either violently unsafe or unauthentically commercialized. And while this may be true of many areas, we determined discoverers don't give up so easily at the mention of such mass generalizations. And that's how we've come to love the Yucatan. Here are five reasons to look past the beachfront mega-resorts and racks of sombreros of Quintanna Roo hot spots like Cancun and the Riviera Maya and travel deeper into the Mexican countryside.
The cosmopolitan and culturally vibrant city of Mérida is located about four hours west of Cancun on the Yucatan's lesser-trammeled Gulf Coast. A home to many expats, the city is not without its modern-day deprivations (there's a Wal-Mart and Home Depot lurking on the outskirts of town), but it's in the heart of the city where you'll find architecture, culture, and history beyond compare. Be sure to visit the breathtaking campus of the Yucatan University, check out the 100-year-old churches hidden in every square, and visit the Anthropology Museum. Perhaps most importantly, however, be downtown on a Friday or Saturday night when the streets are closed down and Mariachi bands, food and handmade souvenir stalls, as well as hundreds of festival-goers speckle the streets.
Only a half-hour north of Mérida, the port city of Progreso is a bustling little metropolis that boasts the world's longest pier (nearly four miles) as well as a number of delicious dining and shopping options. The fruit market is a must-see (or taste) and the cruise terminal offers up some sweet souvenirs.
Chelem and Chuburna
Two of the closest and most charming villages near Progreso are Chelem and Chuburna. Both come alive with locals escaping the heat of inland Mérida every weekend, with small fairs and festivals filling the town squares with color and revelry. Beachfront properties abound in these small communities, not to mention delicious seafood and an awesome array of bird-watching opportunities. Ask any of the locals and they'll tell you where you can take a local fisherman-guided trip through the mangroves.
The land surrounding the cities and villages of the Yucatan Peninsula is literally littered with amazing Mayan Ruins. Most are still in the process of being uncovered, and you'll likely see hard-working archeologists digging away as you climb to the tops of the towers where chiefs and priests once looked down on their people. Some of the best in the area are Dziblchaltun and Campeche, but honestly, you can't go wrong no matter which you visit.
In many spots around Mexico, openings to subterranean rivers have surfaced and become small cave areas which create underground swimming holes to climb down and explore. The most popular by far is Dzitnup, located about an hour and a half east of Mérida. A more remote option is to visit the village of Cuzama, where you can score a horse-and-buggy ride down an old railroad to visit three different cenotes in the middle of the Mexican countryside.
After completing a dual degree in English and anthropology at the University of Georgia in 2007, Shannon Donnelly embarked on an adventure abroad, never to return. Years of random rambling have taken her throughout Europe, South and Central America, and—most recently—over to Australaisa, where she has settled herself in the South Pacific islands of Fiji. There, she happily spends her days writing and relaxing with a cold beer in her hand and a smile on her face.
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