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Cancun, Mexico’s most popular destination, and the nearby Riviera Maya, are tourist magnets thanks to their white-sand beaches, buzzy nightlife, modern chain hotels and many nonstop flights from the US. But there’s so much more to the Yucatan peninsula than the resort scene. Head west, not south, to discover more authentic and distinctive experiences, like staying in a magnificently restored hacienda, visiting colonial cities like Mérida — which turned 475 years old this year — and touring ancient Mayan ruins.

Mérida International Airport (MID), located about a three-hour drive west of Cancun, is easier to fly to than ever — American Airlines launched daily nonstop flights from Miami in June, joining nonstop trips on United Airlines from Houston and Dallas. In December, Delta codeshare partner Aeromexico will start running daily nonstop flights from Atlanta, while Aeromar, a Mexican regional airline, just launched a bargain air pass connecting other popular Mexican cities like Cancun, Mérida and Oaxaca. To help you start planning, here are seven things to add to your next Yucatan-centric itinerary.

1. Stay in a Hacienda

Many sprawling estates of wealthy landowners — whose mansions typically feature colonnades, charming interior patios, giant ceiling beams and solid wooden doors — are now luxury hotels and make wonderful places to stay. You’ll also find many hacienda-style townhouses in Mérida, a very rich city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to the production of sisal, or rope made from an agave-like plant. In Mérida, look for La Hacienda Xcanatun, an 18th-century sisal mansion, the hot-pink Rosas & Xocolate Boutique Hotel and Spa, Casa Lecanda and Hacienda Mérida. Outside the city, Hacienda Temozon, a coral mansion whose spa is set amid a cenote and rugged rocks, and Hacienda Santa Rosa, a vivid blue 17th-century mansion, are both Luxury Collection hotels under the Starwood umbrella, so put those Starpoints to use.

rosasxocolate
Image courtesy of Rosas & Xocolate/Facebook.

2. Tour Mayan Ruins

Chichén Itzá — the site of the largest Mayan ruins in the Yucatan and a major city back in the 10th-12th centuries — is home to hundreds of buildings a mere 45-minute drive from delightful colonial city Valladolid, or about a 90-minute drive from Mérida. Its tallest ruin is a 100-foot pyramid topped by the Temple of Kukulkan (also known as El Castillo) and during the fall and spring equinoxes, sunlight creates the illusion of a feathered serpent sliding down the pyramid — very fitting, since the temple honors a priest-king believed to be the plumed serpent in human form. At Uxmal, located about an hour’s drive from Mérida, you can climb the 125-foot Temple of the Magician. Mayapan, the last great 13th-century Mayan capital, is refreshingly uncrowded and also has pyramids to climb just 28 miles from Mérida.

Image by Instants/Getty Images.
Image by Instants/Getty Images.

3. Learn About — and Taste — Chocolate

For a real treat, stop by Choco-Story Mexico, a fascinating chocolate museum near the ruins in Uxmal. Learn how the drinking beverage used by the Mayans and Aztecs became very popular in Europe after Spain exported it from its colonies, how it was sweetened and transformed to its bar form and other oddball facts, like how Voltaire attributed his mental sharpness to drinking it with coffee each morning. Watch a chocolate-making demo before tasting the results — it’s very bitter, so don’t say we didn’t warn you.

The cocoa bean, also called cacao bean, cocoa, and cacao, is the dried and fully fermented seed of Theobroma cacao, from which cocoa solids and, because of the seed
Image by ©fitopardo.com/Getty Images.

4. See Wildlife Up Close

More than 40,000 flamingos live in Celestún Biosphere Reserve, a nature reserve outside Celestún, a tiny fishing village 56 miles west of Mérida. It’s a wonderland for bird lovers, with over 300 bird species ranging from hummingbirds and ibises to frigate birds and herons. Four species of endangered sea turtles, like hawksbills and leatherbacks, also live and lay eggs on the beaches of this 146,000-acre reserve.

Image by Katja Schulz/Flickr.
Image by Katja Schulz/Flickr.

5. Swim in a Cenote

Over 6,000 cenotes — natural freshwater sinkholes — can be found all over the Yucatan peninsula. Some are in caves, others out in the sun and you can swim in many of them, like the lily pad-covered one at Dzibilchaltun, a Mayan ruin site seven miles north of Mérida. The ancient Mayans conducted ceremonies in cenotes, so ruins often have them. You can even dive in some, like X’Canche near Ek’ Balam, a Mayan ruin 15 miles outside Valladolid. There’s even a cenote in the Costco parking lot in Mérida, although sadly it’s not swimmable.

Image by Matteo Colombo/Getty Images.
Image by Matteo Colombo/Getty Images.

6. Taste Yucatecan Food — or Learn to Cook It

Yucatan specialties range from cochinita de pibil, slow-roasted pork marinated in sour orange juice and achiote paste; and tikin-xic, banana leaf-wrapped fish grilled with tomatoes, chile peppers and citrus juices; to Dutch Edam cheese in many forms. Street vendors sell marquesitas, rolled crepes filled with melted cheese and caramel that’s kind of like an ice cream flavor. In Mérida, Yucatecan food is served at La Chaya Maya and La Tradicion, while cooking classes are offered at Casa Lecanda and Los Dos Cooking School.

Image by Sergio Dávila/Flickr.
Image by Sergio Dávila/Flickr.

7. Admire Local Art and Mayan History

To see the biggest privately owned collection of museum-quality folk art from all over the country, take the free tour of Casa de los Venados in Valladolid. An American expat couple owns more than 3,000 colorful artworks in their restored 16th-century home, including everything from paper mache skeletons from Mexico City to talavera ceramics from Puebla. In Mérida, Gran Museo del Mundo Maya is a state-of-the-art museum that showcases treasures from a number of archeology sites, explaining the many achievements the Mayans made in areas like architecture, science and jewelry making.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Mexico’s Yucatan? Tell us about them, below. 

Featured by Instants/Getty Images.

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