To be honest, Mexico was never really on my bucket list. Other places always seemed more alluring and interesting, and so when it was time to plan a vacation, our neighbor to the south just never made the short list of possibilities.
This trip happened because a friend recommended a visit to a little town called Progreso on the Yucatan Peninsula after spending a month in the area. She told us Airbnb’s were very affordable (true!), the food was excellent and cheap (also true!), and it was very safe and had great Covid precautions in place (true again!). After having been cooped up together for months on end, we were vaxxed to the max and ready for some new scenery. We booked our trip and were lucky to be joined by my mother-in-law, Mary, and my dear friend Stacey.
Mexico exceeded my expectations. The beaches are incredible, nature abounds, and the history is rich and fascinating. If you decide to plan a trip, here are my top 8 recommendations:
01 Celestun Boat Tour
The day after we arrived, we decided to drive to Celestun on a whim to see the nature reserve. While I had read that Celestun is a wonderful place if you want to see a flamboyance of flamingos (who doesn’t?), I also knew that we had missed the season and that the flamingos had already migrated to Rio Lagartos for the summer. In the future, I hope to come back to Celestun during peak flamingo time, which is December to February. If you can time your trip to be in this window, I would do it!
There are tons of boat tours on offer–some leave from the beach and others can be found on the left just after you cross the bridge into town. There is a big building with giant pink flamingos painted on the side–you can’t miss it.
The Biosphere Reserve
Even without the flamingos, there was a lot to see! I loved watching the pelicans, and we even got to see one swoop down, snag a fish, and gulp it down. Our boat tour took us along the coast and then into the Celestun Biosphere Reserve. We drove through a mangrove, which was jungle-y and slightly eerie and unlike any place I’ve ever been before.
We arrived at a cenote where you could swim if you wanted. Stacey didn’t hesitate to jump in because she is fearless and fabulous. The rest of us stayed on the boardwalk and got pounded by a rainstorm, which was a grand adventure in and of itself. All of us ended up getting equally wet–whether we had gone swimming or not. We found that afternoon rainstorms are very common in this area. The reason, we were told, is that the rain god Chaac “only works in the afternoon.”
Later we learned that there are crocodiles in this particular cenote. Previously, we had asked our guide if there were, and he told us “Don’t worry. They don’t attack.” We figured he was joking and there were no crocodiles. Turns out, he wasn’t. In any case, Stacey gets all the street-cred for swimming with crocodiles.
After we had loaded into the boat to leave, we were surprised to turn around and see a large bird standing stoically on the boardwalk looking at us. In Spanish, our guide told us it was a “tiger bird.” I looked it up later, and it is a bare-throated tiger heron. Pretty magical!
02 Tour the Uxmal Ruins
Uxmal means “thrice built,” although legend has it that this building (known as the Pyramid of the Magician) was built one one night by a magical dwarf. However it came to be, it is spectacular and well worth a visit. It is one of the most important sites in Mayan culture, and the best preserved.
After paying an entry fee (they do not accept credit cards and this is in the middle of the jungle so come with plenty of pesos), you can paying an additional fee to hire a guide to tell you about the history and architecture. We love a tour so we opted in on that.
03 Beach Time in Progreso!
Before we left on our trip, some family members were very curious to know whether or not Progreso would have good beaches. I can confirm they have excellent beaches. Just look at that beautiful turquoise water! The water feels like a warm bath–not at all like the coasts of the Pacific Northwest where it’s so cold you have to give yourself a pep talk before dipping your toe in. The sand is soft and lovely. I swam both during the day and at night. Night swimming was a glorious experience with the moonlight dancing on the waves. I did not get eaten by a shark even once, although my children were very convinced I would. During the day the sun is very hot–be sure to wear plenty of sunscreen.
I felt like beach access was the main benefit of staying in Progreso versus staying in the much larger city of Merida. I loved this beautiful view and it filled my soul with joy every time I looked at it. Blue spaces are healing!
04 Wander the Waterfront in Progreso
The Waterfront near Progreso was a cute place to explore. There are lots of restaurants if you want to grab a bite of food, and many of the offerings of street food vendors looked enticing. You can find many shops with souvenirs, and we also found lots of interesting artwork around the city.
I found the cell phone bench sculpture to be very sobering, with its message about getting distracted by our phones and missing the beautiful “now.”
05 Xcambo Ruins/”Pink” Salt Flats/Flamingo Watching
Even though I knew the flamingos had already migrated, the optimist in me nonetheless hoped to see a flamingo. I thought there might be a straggler or two still hanging around. So we spent a few hours “flamingo hunting.” We were lucky and we did spot some flamingos!!! They were a very bright pink color–much brighter than I expected. They were too far away for me to capture a photo with my cell phone camera, so please accept this picture below as the picture I wish I could have taken for you.
We went to an area near Progreso called Laguna Rosada. I understand that until recently the water here was naturally pink due to tiny microbes. However, I read that a canal was newly built that has changed the balance of things and the water is no longer pink. But I did feel like it was trying to be pink. So there’s that. Maybe pink will win out again in the future.
Xcambo Mayan Ruins
Nearby are the Xcambo Mayan Ruins. I would call this a DIY Mayan Ruins experience. There is a guy in a hut that you can pay a few pesos (the equivalent of about $4), and then you are on your own to explore. It was pretty cool actually. No fancy tour but views for days.
Pink Salt Flats
On the road on the way to the Xcambo ruins, you will pass the pink salt flats. The pink salt flats are not exactly “pink” at the moment. Maybe more of a dusty rose, heavy on the dust. So if you are looking for an awesome Instagram photo, you will probably be disappointed. However, if you are looking for salt, you are in luck! There is a little salt stand where they sell the salt they harvest.
We got to walk around and check out the salt operation, and then I purchased a large bag of salt for about $.50. I really wish I would have bought more salt. At the time I failed to imagine all the things I could use the salt for. For example, I love a salt bath. And they had cool salt crystals you could buy too. Don’t hold back! Buy all the salt.
06 Merida Walking Tour
Merida is a beautiful city! One thing we love to do in new cities is to join a walking tour. These tours are usually free (although a tip is recommended), and a great way to learn about the city and decide where you might want to spend more time. Our walking tour guide was very knowledgeable and kind, and clearly passionate about his country.
I could have used more time in Merida. Some of the things I wanted to do that we didn’t have time for were the Mayan Museum (it was huge and looked really cool) and the Merida Market. Also, if you are in Merida and have a chance to attend a symphony, you can experience really beautiful music for a fraction of what you would pay to attend a symphony in the US.
One of the random things I discovered walking around the city–bedazzled roaches for sale! As a ballroom dancer, I asked myself, what is one thing that makes even a roach appealing? Rhinestones. For just 10 pesos you could have a living, crawling brooch. I did not purchase this jewelry, but the lady was kind enough to let me try it on.
07 Eat all the Food
It was very affordable to eat out, and we ate very well. I love Mexican food, and this was authentic, fresh, and delicious! Since many of the menus were only in Spanish, sometimes I had no idea what I was ordering, which only added to the adventure. I felt like I found many new and wonderful variations of tacos, and also discovered the joy of breakfast nachos.
If you are in Merida for dinner, don’t miss the chance to eat at Picheta (click here for more). It is a rooftop restaurant that overlooks the city. My girls said it was very “bougie,” which they meant as a very high compliment. Such an incredible setting for dinner. I ordered a steak because our friend who had been there said she had one and it was one of the best steaks of her life. It was also one of the best steaks of my life! It was an exquisite meal. We also sampled pretty much everything on the dessert menu, and I can highly recommend the chocolate fudge cake and the lime cheesecake.
08 Visit Cenotes Hacienda Mucuyche
The highlight of the trip for our entire family was visiting Cenotes Hacienda Mucuyche. We did this in the afternoon after touring Uxmal because it was relatively close. We did not have a reservation and were able to get in. However, I recommend making one if you can, especially when tourism starts to pick up again. Click here for information on how to do this.
To begin, you take a 20-minute tour of the Hacienda (offered in both English and Spanish), which was once a sprawling agave plantation. It was fascinating to learn how the fibers of the agave plants were harvested and made into ropes and other items. The agave plant brought a lot of wealth, but the invention of plastic destroyed this industry.
A cenote is a underground cave or chamber that contains permanent water. At this location, there are two cenotes connected by a beautiful tunnel. The water was a beautiful blue color, and it was amazing and refreshing to swim in it.
The second cenote was much darker than the first. New owners purchased the property 4 years ago and it was only then that they tunneled into it and discovered it! There are many deep and unexplored caves connected to this cenote. It would be a cave diver’s dream.
Additional Yucatan Travel Tips
If you decide to plan a trip, here are some additional tips that will hopefully help your trip go smoother:
01 Covid testing
At the moment, you need a Covid test to return to the United States, even if you are fully vaccinated (which we were). You can get tests at the local hospitals and it usually takes 2-3 hours to get results, so don’t leave this task until the last minute. You will need your passport to get a test, so be sure to bring it.
02 Managing Money
It will be important to get pesos as soon as you can upon arrival. I found out the hard way that Mexico is not like Europe where you can get away with paying with a card until you find a convenient place to exchange money. And if you get out into the jungle, there aren’t a lot of ATMs. Also–be sure to call your bank before you leave and let them know that you will be traveling. We did not do this and our debit cards got locked down, which was very inconvenient.
Tips are greatly appreciated for lots of things, even just small amounts. Once, after giving someone a tip, they said this to us: “I wish for you that this money you have given to me comes back to you many times over.” I thought that was a very kind thing to say and a sweet sentiment.
It is very doable to rent a car and drive yourself around, so don’t be afraid of that. Beware of speed bumps, they’ll getcha. If you drive across the peninsula, you will need pesos for tolls. (Although they do accept dollars if you’re in a pinch.)
05 Bugs + Critters
Unless you are staying at a fancy resort or hotel, you’ll probably encounter more insects than you are used to. Our Airbnb welcome book even had an entire section entitled: “What Bit Me?” Be sure to bring bug spray and also a flexible attitude.
If you can, try to learn some Spanish before you go. Even some basic phrases will go a long way. Check out the Duolingo App!
We loved Mexico and we are so glad we went! The people were very kind and welcoming. We loved the sunshine and blue water and made so many beautiful memories. I hope to go back someday!