Chichen Itza, Merida, and Cancun Itinerary
This 8 day Working Joe Travel Chichen Itza, Merida, and Cancun itinerary aims to combine the best elements of a relaxing beach vacation with enough historical and cultural elements to make you feel as if you have fully experienced both.
Cancun's Hotel Zone is a 14 mile strip of lavish resorts, restaurants, and retail spaces bordered by white sand beaches and crystal clear Caribbean waters. The vibe is what you make it; laid back, romantic, family-oriented, or party hopping. With an efficient airport and oodles of tour operators there are many things to do in Cancun. The city is a good base from which to explore the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, and the city of Merida. A Cancun day trip is an affordable and fun way to see Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
Chichen Itza is a fascinating and haunting complex of Mayan ruins about 2 ¼ hours outside of Cancun. The national archeological (and UNESCO World Heritage) site contains the towering Pyramid of Kukulcan as well as many other structures and carvings dating back to 550AD.
Further west, near the Gulf of Mexico, you will find the colonial city of Merida. Originally a Mayan city, Merida was later re-built by Spanish conquistadors. Over the last 500 years the two cultures, Mayan and Spanish have blended into a unique Mexican city.
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Where to Stay: In Cancun, Mexico there is a hotel for every price range and the beach is never far. One main road, Kukulcan Boulevard, runs the length of the narrow strip of land that the Hotel Zone sits upon. These 3 questions should help you decide where to stay. Do you prefer the beach or the pool? Do you like to be in the middle of the action or in a quieter area? Do you like the convenience of an all-inclusive resort or the freedom to choose where to eat and drink?
If you like the beach choose a hotel on Cancun’s Caribbean Sea (rather than the Nichupte Lagoon). If you like to be in the middle of the action, choose a hotel between Plaza Famingo and Punta Cancun. If you prefer a less hectic environment choose a southern hotel between the Ritz Carleton and Museo Maya de Cancun. Joe and I prefer the Caribbean side in southern Cancun that is a non-inclusive (although non-inclusives are becoming increasingly hard to find).
Transportation: During the day, Joe and I take buses when we cannot walk a distance or access a hotel shuttle. Buses are clean, plentiful, and cheap. After 9pm we generally use taxis, taking care to make sure they are officially licensed (TRAVEL TIP: If possible, have your concierge or restaurant maître de call a licensed taxi for you.) If you want to travel outside of the Cancun/Cancun City area we recommend doing so in a group tour or with a licensed guide.
Also, try to find a hotel that has its own transportation to shuttle you back and forth to the airport. It makes the day go so much smoother, and you lose less beach time.
Day 1: Resort and Beach Exploration
Check in. Confirm and/or make reservations for the week. Explore the resort, beach, and pool areas. Have dinner at your hotel or a nearby restaurant (as you will likely have had one too many margaritas).
Day 2: El Rey Ruins & Cancun City
If your hotel has bikes, cycle down the Kukulcan Boulevard to the El Rey Ruins (or take a bus). You will find remnants of some 47 small structures at this Mayan archeological site. The temple complex was thought to be a ceremonial, astronomical, and coastal lookout on the trade route between Chichen Itza and Talum. The site can be toured in a half an hour with time for photos. Go early in the morning and wear a hat as there is little shade. There is a small admission fee.
Leaving the ruins, bike across the street to Playa Delfines (Dolphin Beach). This long, wide beach is just past the hotel zone. It’s often quieter than other beaches, and you tend to see more locals here. Lock up your bikes and walk the beach next to the brilliant turquoise water.
Back at your hotel, take a siesta or pool break through the hottest part of the day. In late afternoon grab an empty backpack and take the R-2 bus to Downtown Cancun (Ciudad Cancun or El Centro). Tell the bus driver you want the stop for Mercado 28.
Exiting the bus, walk past the “Mercado 28” orange mall-like building. Continue for 6 blocks (about a five-minute walk) to the sprawling Mercado 28. This authentic Mexican market has over 100 stalls. There are toys, housewares, dishware, textiles, and crafts of varying quality and price. It is loud, busy, colorful, and haggling is expected. When you are done at the market, wander into the adjacent Plaza Bonita. This outdoor mall is set against the backdrop of quaint colonial streets. The wares are more upscale in this pretty little space.
Linger here, in the shade of a courtyard as the sun begins to dip. Finish your drinks and walk (15-20 minutes) or grab a cab to La Habichuela (make reservations). The dining room of this well-established seafood restaurant is an impossibly romantic, open-air courtyard framed by flowers and Mayan sculptures. The food, the smells, the service, the atmosphere – perfection (and the prices are reasonable).
Day 3: Chichen Itza and Merida
For safety and efficiency, we recommend you book a tour or private guide to help you navigate these sites. The trip can be done in one or two days (if you chose to do it in two, give up a beach day). There are many small group tours that will include these destinations, some also include Uxmal and/or cenotes (water-filled sinkhole). This itinerary packs both sites into one 16 ½ hour day (5am to 9:30pm). The trip begins with a colorful ride through the countryside.
The ride from Cancun to Chichen Itza is about 2 ¼ hours. It is best to arrive, park, buy tickets, secure a guide, and be at the gates by 8:00am. Bring a hat, sun glasses, sunscreen, and appropriate footwear for winding jungle paths.
Joe and I recommend hiring a local guide at the site. There is much to learn, and little written information. A guide can highlight the architectural, astrological, and cultural significance of the site in a way that makes it come alive.
The complex encompasses roughly 2.5 sq. miles. Plan to spend around 3 hours touring what was once the ceremonial heart of Mayan civilization. Sitting in the middle of a grassy knoll, the centerpiece of the site is the Pyramid of Kukulcan (aka El Castillo), an impressive 82’ temple.
In addition, there are several other temples, an observatory, a ball court, sculpture platforms, a nunnery, a sacred cenote, and many remnants of ancient daily life to explore.
Leaving the heat and crowds of the site behind, choose a restaurant along highway 180D and take an hour for lunch. The city of Merida is about 1 ½ hours (75 miles) west of Chichen Itza.
The charm of colonial Merida is its genuine-ness. It is not glitzy, sparkling clean, or new. It is a hard-working little city full of history, diverse neighborhoods, and the families who live there. The city has several plaza, many churches, and narrow streets lined by pastel painted houses.
Begin your discovery of Merida with a driving tour of the city. Don’t miss the Monumento a la Patria. The monument tells the story of the Yucatan in intricate stone carvings. Then, continue down the tree-lined avenue of Pasejo Montejo to view palatial Beaux Arts mansions.
Next, make your way to Merida’s main square and historic district to the Plaza Grande (aka Plaza de Armas). This green space is filled with fountains, benches, food, and handicraft stalls. It is a great place to rub elbows with city inhabitants. Spanish style government buildings and retail space surround the park.
Walking the perimeter of the park, visit the Palacio Municipal building (City Hall), the Palacio del Gobierno (Government Palace), and the beautiful Merida Cathedral. Shop a bit, then grab a drink and settle in on a bench. Watch the shoe shine men, carriage drivers, mariachis, and children chasing the pigeons. It’s a wonderful slice of life.
When you are rested, investigate the side streets off of main plaza. Or, if time permits, head over to Mercado Lucas De Galvez where you will find bustling stalls full of clothing, crafts, and street food. It’s great fun! (Closes around 6 pm.)
Plan to spend around 4 ½ hours in Merida. Driving back to Cancun, it’s a straight shot following Highway 180D. If you leave Merida by 6pm, you should reach your hotel by 9:30pm (with a bathroom break).
Day 4: Beach Day
Sleep in. You deserve it! Today is yours to relax by the pool or beach. You can do absolutely nothing or never stop. All up and down Cancun’s white-powdered beaches there are operators who can assist you in renting snorkeling gear, body boards, surf boards, jet skis, and parasailing trips (to name a few!). Most all of the resorts have spas where you can book a facial or message. And there are beach bars galore.
A perfect beach day for Joe and I goes something like this: Up early before the sun is too strong for a walk on the beach. Stop for breakfast at a resort that offers an outside buffet and palapas (there are many ranging in the 20-30 dollar range). Eat, digest in front of the clear blue Caribbean water, and walk back to our resort. Spend the remainder of the day drinking frothy frozen drinks and wandering between the pool and the ocean. Even though we have done nothing all day, we will be late for our dinner reservation because we will not be able to pull ourselves away from the setting sun to shower.
Day 5: Snorkeling on the Isle of Mujeres
Today we head to the chill Isle of Mujeres for a peaceful and relaxing day. To get to the island, take the Ultramar ferry out of Puerto Juarez. It only take 15 minutes dock to dock. It’s also cheap, clean, and the ferries run frequently.
Once on the island, rent a golf cart and take a spin around ‘downtown.’ The approximately 4 x 6 block area is full of cool shops. We don’t typically book a tour for this day. The island is small, easy to navigate, and the golf cart rental shops are within close proximity to the ferry docks. (TIP: Make reservations for the ferry and for a golf cart.)
Downtown is located on the northern tip of the island. Leaving the area take Avenue Rueda Medina until you reach a roundabout. Then head south following the signs for the ‘Garrafon.’ Along the way, veer off when something looks interesting. You can’t get lost. The whole island is only 5 miles long by 2.5 miles wide.
Admission to Garrafon Natural Reef Park is pricey, but we think worth it. The price includes a buffet lunch, open bar, snorkeling equipment, use of kayaks, gorgeous pool areas overlooking the reef, beach chairs, hammocks, and changing rooms/showers (zip lining and dolphin discovery are extra). You are barred from swimming directly over the reef, but the fish are plentiful and you are not limited for time. Overall, a good value.
When you have had your fill of the water sports and activities, find the path by the ocean that leads to Punta Sur. After a short walk you will leave Garrafon, and enter a sleepy little nature reserve. The reserve holds a lighthouse, small Mayan shrine, a restaurant and a few shops. Adjacent to these buildings there is a gorgeous sculpture garden that follows a path along the southern tip of the island. Viewing the sculptures against the back drop of the cobalt colored sea is breathtakingly beautiful.
Later in the day, leave Garrafon and loop around to the Caribbean-facing side of the island. Take your time on the coastal route leading back toward the downtown area. It is equally fun checking out the million dollar beach houses as the crowded villages where workers from the many hotels and restaurants reside.
If you have any steam left, head toward Playa Norte to have a drink at a beach bar and watch the sun set. The water is calm and the views are stunning at this white sand beach minutes from Downtown. Next, drop off your golf cart and wander the nearby streets for bargains before taking the ferry back to Cancun.
Day 6: Beach Day
Repeat of Day 4 with Dinner and Mayan show at La Habitchuela Sunset.
Day 7: Water Sports and Shopping
Get out on the water in the morning. There are so many things to choose from: Sailing and catamaran trips, tours of lagoon on mini-speed boats and fishing charters. Be adventurous.
In the afternoon, check out the Kukulcan Plaza or La Isla Shopping Village (both upscale shopping malls).
Day 8: Homeward bound
Pack, check out and fly home. Hope you had fun! Gypsy & Joe
Restaurants / Dining:
Here are a few of the places Joe and I find ourselves revisiting year after year:
Hacienda Sisal – Mexican food. Decorate in lovely, atmospheric earth tones. Consistently good service and food. Mariachis roam the dining room.
La Habitchuela Sunset – (sister establishment to La Habichuela in Ciudad Cancun – see Day 2). Seafood. Located in the hotel zone. Decorated with a modern flair. Can sit inside or out. Quality Mayan show.
Captains Cove – Seafood. Thatched roof dining room sits on the lagoon. Fresh fish options, moderate prices. Not sure why it’s a favorite – but it is.
Lorenzillos – Seafood (Known for its lobster). Large, but intimate. On the water with fine views. Eat inside or out. Longtime favorite.
La Destileria – Mexican food. Love the mariachis. Views of the lagoon and Cuidad Cancun. Offers tequila tasting in a family friendly atmosphere.
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