Near the ancient town of Merida, you’ll find the massive but beautifully ruinous structure known as the Dzibilchaltun Ruins. Though somewhat of a tongue twister for traditional English speakers, the name means “place where there is writing on the stones,” but unfortunately, due to erosion, you’ll no longer find much writing on the stones here. Instead, the intrepid explorer is rewarded with over 8,400 architectural structures to discover, many of which have astronomical (as well as religious) significance. Explore the stunning interior of the Temple of the Seven Dolls, listen to stories of absolute power at the Open Chapel and learn about the rich ancient Mayan civilization that was inhabited all the way through to 1500 A.D. when the Spaniards arrived.
While the center of Merida is all Spanish Colonial in architecture and layout, Paseo de Montejo is the product of a brief period when the French controlled Mexico and built a grand boulevard lined by mansions. Several upscale hotels, nightclubs, and hot restaurants are on this stretch, retaining their original interesting façades. It’s a pleasant street for walking, with wide shady sidewalks and interesting shops and galleries here and there. It ends at a roundabout with the city’s history laid out in stone on a relief in the center. Just before that are two places showing where we’ve come: a small tourist shopping mall on one side and a Super Wal-mart on the other.
If you stay on this boulevard heading north in a car, eventually it turns into a highway that goes 40 minutes to Progreso’s beach and cruise ship dock, on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a long, hot walk to get here from the center, however, so most visitors see Paseo de Montejo on a horse carriage.
This minor archeological site on the Puuc Route south of Merida is worth visiting to see its Palace of the Masks, an ornate structure covered with hundreds of masks of the same figure: the rain god Chaac. This repeating motif is rare in Mayan art and perhaps illustrates the importance of water—or the lack of it some years. There are no underground cenotes in this area, so rainfall was the only source of water.
Artifacts have been found here going as far back as the third century BC, but most of what remains was built between the 7th and 11th centuries AD. It was abandoned soon after and was empty when the Spanish conquistadores arrived.
Some of the sculpted elements of the site have been whisked off to various museums, but several low stone buildings and pyramids remain. Since Kabah is in a region dotted with other ruins, it’s usually a quick stop as part of a multi-site tour.
Labna is an excellent site for archaeology lovers and architectural buffs with its Mayan building ruins that were built in the ancient Puuc style. Located in the Yucatan Peninsula by the larger Uxmal ruins, Labna is a compact structure hidden within the Puuc Hills. Though smaller than some of the other Mayan ruin compounds in Mexico, it is impressive nonetheless. Labna was once used as a ceremonial center by the Mayans during the pre-Columbian era.
Labna’s impressive Gateway Arch is still standing today, and visitors can stand under it and walk through it while marveling at its intricate construction. It is believed that this arch was used to signify the start of the area of the ancient village where the priest and the elite people of Labna lived. Relief designs are etched into the side of the arch, providing impressive details that visitors love taking pictures of.
Located on the Yucatan peninsula where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea, the Mexican port of Progreso is a jumping-off point for tours to the Mayan archaeological sites of Chichen Itza (100 miles/160 km away), Uxmal (70 miles/115 km) and Dzibilchaltun (18 miles/30 km). Book a shore excursion or make your own way to the site of your choice by taxi or rental car (both found at the port). If you’re looking for a more cosmopolitan day in port, head to the city of Mérida, the capital of Yucatan both politically and culturally, where you can soak up the colonial atmosphere by walking along the square, admiring the European-style architecture or stumbling upon a free concert.
If you’re looking for guaranteed pink flamingo sightings, a trip out to Celustun is your best bet. There’s a pleasant enough beach where you can spread out a blanket, look for shells, or go swimming, but the main reason to visit is to hire a boat captain to take your party out on a flamingo tour. You head into a lagoon area where the big pink birds hang out each day, flying around and settling down in shallow areas in large groups to look for food. It’s rare to come here and not see a few dozen flamingoes in bunches as you troll around on the boat.
The tour also usually includes a “petrified forest” with mangrove stumps sticking out of the mud and a visit to a swimming hole on land filled by cool, clear spring water. It’s a great place to cool off from the viewing time in the hot sun. Afterwards there are a variety of inexpensive seafood restaurants near the beach and town square, all serving shrimp ceviche, and fresh-caught fish from the Gulf of Mexico.