On my second evening, while visiting Isla Mujeres, a small island a short ferry ride away from Cancun, my wife Nicole and I stood before a chorus of Mexican singers proudly singing Catholic anthems that are a huge part of the Catholic church in this part of Mexico. Although this Island’s economy is almost 100% reliant on tourism, the local population here does not hesitate to show the importance of family, tradition, and religion in a small plaza adjacent to the main tourist hot spot. Kids, who are most likely the children of restaurant and hotel workers, goof around and sing Christmas carols on the street lined with restaurants, bars, and gift shops that attract visitors from around the world. This all happens amongst visitors who are sipping on locally made margaritas and enjoying some of the best shrimp tacos you can find…anywhere.
With the drug cartel and related murders, it is very understandable that many tourists would not understand how the same country that embraces life and family so openly could, at the same time, show such a disregard for life. Yes, these things do happen, and they are impacting many lives in Mexico. However, it is important to understand that murder and kidnapping very rarely target tourists. Just like traveling anywhere else, as long as you avoid known dangerous areas, use common sense and get basic advice from locals, your trip to Mexico will be a great memory.
Welcome to the Yucatan Peninsula. This is one of the most popular destinations in Mexico for tourists around the world. Of course, Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and Cozumel are the most well known. But this region of Mexico is also home to Tulum, the beautiful city of Merida, and the World Heritage site, Chichen Itza among others
A city I highly recommend is Merida. The easiest way to get to Merida from Cancun is to rent a car. It is about 3-hour drive on a smooth, safe and scenic highway. There are tolls, but the tolls are used to maintain the roads in this part of Mexico.
Merida is beautiful. This city was in large part built by the Spanish during their conquest of the region. The architecture is beautiful, and the oldest Catholic cathedral in Latin America stands in the main town plaza, Plaza Grande.
We arrived in Merida two weeks before Christmas. Christmas decorations were displayed all over Plaza Grande and along Paseo De Montejo; the main thoroughfare with museums and important diplomatic buildings. Merida is full of museums that tell the story of the Yucatan Penninsula, the Spanish invasion, and the Mayan culture in an easily digestible but extremely interesting way. The art renditions, along with the easy-to-read descriptions give you a sense of why this little-known city is so important to Mexico’s history.
Merida is bigger than it looks on Google Maps. It takes a little while to walk from your Airbnb, which might be a few blocks away, to Plaza Grande. However the architecture is cool to look at, and go ahead, walk all you want, this place is known as the safest big city in Mexico. The 21,000-strong, neighborhood watch force in this city is working to ensure that it remains a safe place for residents, visitors, and the growing ex-pat community.
If you go to Merida, you might as well stop in Chichen Itza on your way there or back to see this World Heritage site. This is the most well known and well preserved Mayan site in the world. The El Castillo pyramid towers over a large open area where you can just sit and gaze for hours. If you have any interest in ancient history or prehistoric civilizations, then you can stand on this site and imagine the people that used to live and operate here.
Although this is one of the more impressive and well-preserved Mayan sites on the Yucatan peninsula, there are other smaller ones, but equally as important, that have far fewer tourists. As impressive as this place is, I will admit the thousands of tourists that visit every day make the place feel more like Disneyland. Selfie sticks and general tourist douchery abound I am sorry to say. Also the vendors…ugh…they were pretty successful at annoying me just about every twist and turn I took on one of the footpaths.
They would hawk anything and everything they sold, and many of them kept blowing on these annoying noisemakers that were supposed to mimic the sounds of jungle animals. If you decide to purchase an item, rest assured, you can put those negotiation and haggling skills to work. Do not purchase for the price they quote you up front. This is an unfortunate side effect of popular tourist destinations. Still, Chichen Itza should not be missed, but if you can visit other Mayan sites in Campeche or Tikal in Guatemala, you will find impressive ruins with much smaller crowds.
As you start to make your trip back to the Eastern side of the Yucatan, you may want to visit the coastal town of Tulum. Tulum stole my heart when I visited this part of Mexico for the first time in 2013. As you drive into the town, don’t be fooled, but it looks more like a strip with a bunch of lame shops and restaurants. However, if you get out and walk a bit, you will notice the awesome array of local stores and restaurants with mouth-watering food. If you are a seafood fan, it is not to be missed in this town. On our last night here we treated ourselves to one of the best seafood dinners I have ever had, at a local establishment called Mateos. The place is crawling with tourists, but the fresh Snapper, along with the chips and guacamole will make you wonder why you are even keeping your flight home.
The beaches here, stretch for miles and miles. They are not too crowded, and the turquoise blue water and soft sand will make it clear why Tulum beaches are consistently ranked in the top 10 in the world. When you plan your next trip, remember Mexico, even with all of its social problems is a beautiful place with friendly people. Treat the place and your hosts well, and I promise as you fly home, you will leave with a smile on your face.