Some suggestions for an unforgettable visit to the archaeological sites in Merida.
- Don’t forget your camera or cell phone. There is so much to see! Remember there is a $45 pesos ($2 US) camcorder usage fee.
- The Yucatan, of all the places in Mexico, feels like the safest place to drive because of its flat topography – long straight highways, w/no hills, makes for easy navigation. Just be sure to check the distance and time it will take to get there! So, if you prefer to drive, we suggest visiting the ruins in the morning for two reasons: you can avoid the heat and sun, and it will be the only time you can take photos free of inadvertent photo-bombers.
- Bring, Bring, BRING the essentials: a bottle of water, a cap, sunscreen and insect repellent, wear comfortable shoes and light clothes (this last point is very important – we visited Dec/Jan timeframe and it was hot & humid).
- Going as a family? Bring snacks or even a picnic basket full of goodies! In every site we visited, there was plenty of space for you to claim a spot and enjoy the view. Think you will feel self-conscious? That’s OK! We saw several locals (some families, a few couples) doing this, and I was mad I didn’t think of this. You won’t be alone.
- Bring your swim gear and a towel. Why? There will be Cenotes nearby (think a fresh water swimming hole), because there are literally thousands in the Merida (or Greater Yucatan) region. Planning a day-trip? You can beat the heat by factoring the distance/location of a few cenotes on the way to (or back from) a site.
Map Source: Travel Yucatan
Here are the top archaeological sites in Merida to visit:
Entrance Fee: $45 pesos
Honestly, best to visit this one if you are the type to learn by touching or interacting with the things. We loved it! We did A LOT of climbing and exploring (3 pyramids, 1 round temple, and a temple dedicated to fisherman). The best part was the photos we were able to take on top of the pyramids! We suggest you get the on-site tour guide – they turn a 45min aimless walkabout into a 90min lesson about the indigenous peoples (i.e. the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Teotihuacan, and Mixtec), their culture, and their architectural styles. This place was the most overlooked by tourists. In our 90 minutes there, there was a total of 8 other people!
Castillo de Kukulkán:
As the name suggests this pyramid is a tribute to the feathered snake god Kukulcan. In fact, the only real difference from the one you will see in Chichen Itzá is the overall size – this one’s much smaller. There are two other temple/pyramids you get to climb. One was used for ritualistic sacrifice and the other was used solely by the high priest for ceremonial requests such as beseeching Chaac the Mayan rain god for fertile lands and water.
The round temple located here was initially, like most archaeological sites, thought to be an observatory or dedication to the stars. However, it now considered a small sanctuary of sorts. Aside from pillars and roofless building, there is more to see like murals, frescos and carvings of Chaac.
Have a bit of free time, and want an enjoyable 6-8hr day trip? Mayan Ruins and Cenotes w/Antonio will be unforgettable AirBnB Experience! Just bring your gear and relax because transport, drinks snacks, and lunch is included.
Entrance fee: $500 pesos (~$25 US) per person [Mexican Citizens get in for free on Sundays].
There is also a $45 pesos ($2 US) Camcorder fee. Roughly 45 – 60 min to see everything, but with guide expect 2-3hrs.
This archaeological site was nominated as one of the new 7 wonders of the world! As you can imagine, everyone wants to see why that’s the case. As such, this place is crazy packed – with both tourists and desperate vendors.
It’s good to keep the below tips in mind:
- Tip # 1: get there ASAP (especially on Sundays). The site opens at 8am and there was a line when we got there at 7:30am. This advice is for taking pictures of the temples and pyramid with far fewer people around! Once it opens you can expect 15-20mins of peopleless photos.
- Tip # 2: Get a guide! There is so much information and sights to take in. There will be guides (private, English speakers) making themselves available there. However, sometimes the best option is to do your research beforehand and come with a guide (AirBnB Experience was our choice).
- Tip # 3: You will walk along a path leading to a clearing, and the Kukulcan pyramid. Your instinct will be to start taking photos immediately, but if you go around to the opposite end you will get better lighting, and less people (especially if you followed the first tip), because they will be too busy snapping photos to realize every other sides is less cluttered!
There is so much to see and learn about what was once a great Mayan city. Our tour guide was a great help in that regard. He explained the significance of the jaguar, owl, bat, and gods venerated by the Maya. He also pointed out the many carvings that can be seen on the pillars of the temple of warriors and the ‘ritualistic game’ of getting a pelota (ball) into a ring/hoop using only your hip and shoulder – played by the esteemed warriors – the victors were beheaded as sacrifice to the Gods! Gnarly right?!
A day long process:
Kukulcan is the Mayan feathered snake god. The Kukulcan temple, a 30-meter high pyramid, was constructed in a specific way, and for a specific reason. To inform the high priest (or upper class) when it was time to prepare for the next harvest. On March 21st (Spring Equinox), as the sun sets, it hit the pyramid in such a way that it would cast a shadow – in the shape of a small triangle – along each step of the staircase. The snake’s body was from the pyramid’s top all the way down to the sculpted snake heads at the base; completing Heaven descent to Earth.
For what purpose:
Imagine a time when the masses new little about science and nature, or lacked access to Google! If you could tell the masses when the solar or lunar eclipse would occur and/or that it will rain tomorrow, and will due so for the next three months; how would those people see/treat you? So you spend years building a structure designed to tell you just that!
Cenote Sagrado de Chichen Itza:
There is not much to see as it is cordoned off – you won’t be able to see the bottom due to the fence. It is huge! It is murky! It is dying! We had a guide for all the sites of Chichen Itzá, and was told thousands of objects were found inside: bones of small children and animals; pottery; and other ritualistic pieces. Clearly, this is not your ‘bring a picnic and go swimming at your local watering hole’ kind of event. Why come? Although it has been ravaged by time, it is steeped in history. At one time, this was the main water source for 30,000+ people! Take one look, and I think you will agree the cultural significance is grand.
Entrance fee: $495 pesos (~$25 US) per person [Mexican Citizens get in for free on Sundays].
There is a $45 pesos ($2 US) Camcorder fee. The site opens at 8am and is roughly 1hr away from Merida. I suggest you get there as early as possible. Roughly 45 – 60 min to see everything, but with a guide expect 1-2 hrs. We finished our guided tour in 90 mins.
On-site Guided tour: $800 Pesos (English) and $700 Pesos (Spanish) – there are 3 to 5 other language options. Personally, I think the service is worth it. We got Antonio (Highly recommended); he has been providing tours for 30+ years. He speaks Mayan, Spanish, English, German, and Dutch. He was also very knowledgeable, personable, and helped us understand the significance of many of the hieroglyphics and structures.
The Tree of Life:
Is a very important concept in Mayan culture, and is best represented by the Ceiba tree – a tall tree with a straight trunk, buttressed roots, and widespread horizontal crown supported (usually) by 4 branches. The branches represent the 4 cardinal directions, the roots to the underwold, and the crown to heaven. All this is important because the Nunnery Quadrangle, a 4-building structure, also represents a man-made tree of life!
Pirámide del adivino (Pyramid of the Magician):
Is an odd duck when comparing them to the other pyramids we’ve seen! For instance, the walls/layers are rounded or oval; not square in shape. The pyramid consists of 4 level consisting of 5 unconnected temples within. Overall, it is a 131ft (40m) tall stepped pyramid.
Boot shaped stones & the Mayan Arch:
Once you round the Pyramid of the Magician, but before you climb the stairs leading to the Nunnery Quadrangle, I would like you to sift through the pile of large stones scattered about. Take notice the long L-shaped stones.
Why is it important?
The Mayan Arch – with it the Mayan people were able to build structures on top of itself! The pile of stones are important because through them most – if not all – of what you see was constructed: The Governor’s Palace, House of turtles, and Nunnery Quadrangle. In fact, when climbing up to explore the Nunnery Quadrangle, keep in mind that the vaulted platform you walk upon is man-made! The natural height was the ground the pyramid sits upon.
I’d say it is busier than Mayapan, but no where near as busy as Chichen Itza. That is a shame because this place is far and away the best of the three options! So, what makes Uxmal the site to visit? It has the best of what both have to offer; the interactivity of Mayapan and the scope of Chichen Itza. However, what sets it apart will be your walk with nature! Mother Earth has left its mark here; the trees both inside and surrounding the site add a sense of mystique to your trek by obscuring your view. The humidity in this region causes plants to grow everywhere – even sprout within cracks in the buildings themselves. The fallen branches and dead leaves have mixed with the weeds and caked dirt to all but devour the base of one of the two pyramids. Suffice to say, this particular archaeological site is yet to be fully excavated – only 5% is accessible to the public.
More importantly, there are more carvings found here, and they are far better preserved. The different levels of elevation – due to the Mayan ingenuity when it comes to making man-made foundations/structures – will provide different perspectives of the two pyramids and ballcourt. While standing on the sacbebs (man-made paved roads) supporting the Govenor’s Palace, you will feel both awed by the ‘House of the turtles’ and equal to the ‘Pyramid of the Magician’.
So, which one should you choose?
Having gone to the three major archaeological sites (with a tour guide), I would like to help you choose which to visit; if let’s say you only have time for one:
1st Go to Mayapan, because you can climb the pyramids and interact with the site. The pyramids are the highest point as far as the eye can see – in all directions – you will feel on top of the world!
2nd Go to Uxmal, because it’s gorgeous – there is lush trees almost swallowing the city. You can go inside a few of the structures, there are many angles for fantastic photos, and there is a dynamite chocolate museum across the highway.
3rd Go to Chichen Itza, because the Kukulcan Pyramid and Temple of the Warriors is a sight to behold. However, it will have the most people; there are no vendors within Uxmal or Mayapan. And you will have the least amount of interaction with the structures – everything is cordoned off. Don’t get me wrong, Chichen Itza is great! It just loses a few points for me, because it’s the road most travelled.
Honorable Mentions: archaeological sites in Merida
There are thousands of archaeological sites in the Yucatan Peninsula (which consists of Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala). We, of course, will only concern ourselves with the many sites located near Merida. Unfortunately, only a few were open because of the COVID-19 Pandemic. We like you to be aware of the many site you can visit, and why you should.
Roughly 30 minutes from central Merida; the closest Mayan archaeological site. Expect to take 1-2hrs to explore. The 9-metre deep cenote Xlaca is also nearby.
We were told it is a journey and a half to get to (half way between Chichen Itza and Tulum), and is totally worth it if you have a flare for the adventurous. Why? It has two lagoons; a long winding sacbeob (mayan paved roads) you must traverse; several Pyramids, including the tallest (Nohoch Mul), in the Yucatan at 42 meters; and crocodiles. All this is under the backdrop of a lush Mayan Jungle. Yes! An archaeologist’s dream. The downside? It’s near Cancun so an extremely long day-trip from Merida!
Two hours from Central Merida. Entrance fee: $495 pesos (~$25 US). Expect to take 2 hrs to explore. The takeaway? The Acropolis or the ‘Black Jaguar’ figure that guards the entrance to the 32 meter tall pyramid! There is also a Cenote (X-Canche) nearby, and this site is within an hour’s drive from Chichen Itza.
More a round-trip series of archaeological sites – Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labna. You can also tack on Two Haciendas (Yaxcopoil & Ocil) and an extensive cave (Loltun) system. Truly, the ultimate Mayan cultural day trip.