Merida is a city in the heart of the Yucatan — far removed from the resorts of Cancun and Quintana Roo. It is best known for its indigenous culture and languages, superb food scene, and archeological sites. Given the number of excellent day trips that travelers can make to nearby ruins, cenotes, and cultural hubs, Merida is easily the best base from which to explore the Yucatan.
From ancient Mayan temples to pristine biosphere reserves and a pink lake, here are the best day trips from Merida.
How to Get Around
Although many of the day trips mentioned below can be done by public transport, consider renting a car for the day to give yourself more flexibility and independence. Your own four wheels allow you to be in control of your time and schedule, and depending on how many people are in your group, renting a car might even work out cheaper than other forms of transportation. You can compare car rental deals and find the cheapest prices at Rentalcars.com, an aggregate site that searches and displays prices and availability from hundreds of car rental companies so that you can be sure of getting the best possible car for your budget
Don’t want to drive or deal with the hassle of public transport? No worries, we have listed the best tour for each day trip (where available).
1. Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most visited and well known archaeological sites, but few tourists to the region realize that it’s closer to Merida than to Cancun. Located just an hour and a half away from Merida, these Mayan ruins in Mexico truly are one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Heavily restored in recent decades, Chichen Itza is the clearest and most vivid example of the technological, cultural, and artistic prowess of Mayan civilization. Chichen Itza grew to prominence from the eighth century CE onwards, but by the time the Spanish colonists arrived many centuries later, the Mayan population center had shifted to Merida.
Upon rediscovery, the ruins were carved out of the jungle once again, and today, the iconic Temple of Kukulcan (also known as El Castillo) is a towering reminder of former Mayan power. Combine a day tour to Chichen Itza with a refreshing dip in the nearby cenotes, freshwater pools that are perfect for swimming. The closest is Cenote Ik Kil, which is just a short walk down the road.
Getting there: ADO buses depart from Merida bus station direct to Chichen Itza early in the morning, with returns running until late afternoon. Alternatively, Chichen Itza is a 90-minute drive by private car from Merida.
If you’re looking for Mayan ruins that are even closer to the city center, then the archeological site of Dzibilchaltun is a short trip from Merida, just 30 minutes to the north of the city. Even if the surviving temples aren’t nearly as imposing as those at Chichen Itza, their history is perhaps more fascinating.
Dzibilchaltun was inhabited long before Chichen Itza, and while other Mayan cities rose and fell from power (many being abandoned entirely), Dzibilchaltun was a thriving city of tens of thousands when the Spanish arrived and conquered the peninsula in the 16th century.
The ruins continued to be inhabited for many years, and the ruins of a Spanish colonial church can be seen amongst the ruins of Mayan temples. There’s also an intriguing museum, and as with many Mayan sites, there’s a cenote where you can cool off after your tour.
Getting there: Dzibilchaltun is a half-hour drive by private car or taxi from the Merida city center. Public colectivo buses heading to Progreso from Merida can drop you off on the highway close to the entrance, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to flag one down heading the other way on the return journey.
The Yucatan was the center of southern Mexico’s Mayan civilization, and so it’s no surprise that there are many more archeological sites to be found near Merida.
One of the best day trips from Merida for history buffs is to the ruins of Uxmal. This former Mayan center is just an hour south of Merida, and day trips constantly depart from the city. Uxmal is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in recognition of the fact that it was once a titan of the Mayan world.
Best known for the well-preserved Pyramid of the Magician, Uxmal’s temples stand out for their smooth walls, a stark contrast to the stepped pyramids of other Mayan sites. Uxmal is great to explore during the day, but stay until dark and you’ll catch the fabulous light-and-sound show that lights up the ruins magnificently.
Getting there: Public buses depart to Uxmal from Merida’s second-class bus terminal (Known as TAME, it is separate from the ADO bus terminal!) Private tours and private car hire are also options.
The best Merida day trips don’t just have to be to Mayan ruins. Puerto Progreso, a 45-minute drive from the city, is Merida’s sunny beach town. It’s long been a popular stop on cruise itineraries, but if you plan a day trip here when there are no cruise ships in port, the place is pleasantly quiet.
There’s not much to do in Progreso except walk along the promenade, enjoy the white sands of the beach, and dine out on fresh seafood and drink cervezas. It makes for a great escape from the city, in our opinion!
Getting there: It’s a 45-minute car or taxi ride from Merida city center to Progreso. ‘Auto Progreso’ run dedicated colectivos to Progreso on a cheap, regular basis from their departure point in the city center.
Izamal is a small town in the center of the Yucatan. It’s perhaps better known by its nickname, the Yellow City, so-called because the vast majority of its buildings are painted yellow.
It’s bright, and it’s colorful, but there’s much more to this Pueblo Mágico than the color of its colonial buildings. At first glance, it’s the imposing colonial fort (which is yellow, of course) that steals the show, but dig a little deeper and you discover that all of the colonial buildings were built atop or around Mayan pyramids. Indeed, Izamal was once an important Mayan city and a revered place of pilgrimage.
You can still see many of these pyramids dotted around the town center. They are crumbling, but some can be climbed for wonderful views over Izamal. It’s history at its best, hidden in plain sight!
Getting there: It’s a one-hour drive from Merida to Izamal. Colectivos departing from Calle 65 are the most direct option.
Head two hours east of Merida, and you’ll find the charming small town of Valladolid. This destination is becoming increasingly popular, and while many travelers use it as a base to visit Chichen Itza (with the famous ruins just half an hour away), the town is worth a day trip from Merida in its own right.
Valladolid is small-town Yucatan at its best. It’s getting more touristy, of course, but it hasn’t lost its Mexican markets and local bars and restaurants just yet. There are several museums within Valladolid, including the 16th century San Bernardo Convent and the Casa de Los Venados (where you can find Mexican artworks).
There’s even a cenote where you can cool off with a swim before heading back to Merida. Cenote Zaci is hidden in the middle of town and is one of the most dramatic cenotes in Mexico’s Yucatan.
Getting there: Valladolid is a two-hour drive from Merida. ADO buses depart to and from Valladolid throughout the day. Alternatively, join a day tour to Izamal that also takes in Valladolid, or hire a car.
7. Ek Balam
You can combine a visit to Valladolid with a trip to Ek Balam, which is easily one of the best places to visit in Mexico if you’re fascinated by the Mayan civilization. Yes, you’ve barely touched the surface of Mayan history, and Ek Balam offers yet another unique insight into Mayan life.
On a clear day, you can see Chichen Itza from the top of Ek Balam’s tallest temple, an acropolis dedicated to a long-dead ruler. Ek Balam demonstrates just how closely connected Mayan cities were, while the sense of abandonment and encroaching jungle also shows how much of the Mayan world was unfortunately lost to time and conquering Spaniards.
As with other sites on this list, you can explore the ruins, then chill off in the local cenote!
Getting there: There’s no direct public transport from Merida to Ek Balam. By car, it’s around two hours, and you can combine a trip to the ruins with a trip to nearby Valladolid. At a push, you could see Valladolid, Chichen Itza, and Ek Balam on a long day trip.
8. Rio Lagartos
One of the best places to visit from Merida is Rio Lagartos, where you can find a spectacular lake that has a vivid pink hue and a fantastic area of biodiversity.
Rio Lagartos (which means Alligator River) is the small town at the head of a large lagoon and protected biosphere reserve on the northern shores of the Yucatan peninsula. Los Colorados Pink Lake, not far from the sleepy fishing port, has water that looks pink in the right light (Try sunrise or sunset.)
From Rio Lagartos, you can join boat tours across the wider biosphere, which encompasses much more than the pink lake. It’s a popular bird-watching area and the biosphere is well known for its many pink flamingos, but you’ll also see crocodiles and alligators.
Getting there: Rio Lagartos is a long day trip from Merida, so we suggest hiring a car or driver for the day. It takes at least 2.5 hours to get there.
One of the best side trips from Merida is a day out in Celestun, a small coastal town that’s surrounded by an enormous biosphere reserve. Located an hour and a half to the west of Merida, Celestun is another Yucatan reserve that’s known for being home to countless flamingos.
This complex wetland environment is where the sea meets freshwater, and wildlife thrives in this unique habitat. In addition to flamingos, day-trippers can spot pelicans, crocodiles, alligators, and hundreds of species of birds.
The biosphere is over 140,000 acres in area, and importantly, it’s a breeding ground for rare sea turtles as well as flamingos. Make sure you time your trip to Celestun during their breeding season, when tens of thousands of flamingos can be seen congregating on the water. The season is between November and April, which is also the dry season and the best time to visit the Yucatan peninsula!
Getting there: By car, it’s 1.5 hours to Celestun. There are hourly public bus departures from Merida’s northeast bus terminal.
10. Homun and Cuzama
The Yucatan’s unique landscape is in part the result of a devastating meteorite strike that hit millions of years ago (the same meteor that killed the dinosaurs). One of the lasting legacies is thought to be the peninsula’s many cenotes, which, if you’ve been to any Mayan ruins, you’ll already be well acquainted with.
These freshwater sinkholes were important water sources and places of religious pilgrimage for the Mayans, and many of their cities were built around them. These days, cenotes are best known for their dramatic beauty and clear, cool water. And if you love swimming in cenotes, you’ll love a day trip to the small towns of Homun and Cuzama.
Located just a few minutes drive from one another, Homun and Cuzama are both surrounded by these natural wonders. This is cenote central, and there are at least 12 cenotes you can visit. Join a dedicated Cuzama cenote tour from Merida, and you won’t miss any of them.
Getting there: The cenotes are spread out, so it’s best to hire a car for the day or to join one of the many dedicated day tours from Merida.
Culture-vultures can’t miss out on a day trip to the intriguing town of Becal, where the local artisans are highly regarded for the Panama-style hats, known locally as jipi, that they weave mostly by hand. Becal is the place to go if you’re looking for a new hat – and in sunny Merida, you’ll need one!
It’s best to join a dedicated cultural tour from Merida for this visit, particularly if you don’t speak much Spanish, as a tour will give you thorough insight into the hat trade and the art of making jipi.
Hat shops line the streets of the town, and a day tour provides you with a fascinating look at a highly prized local industry. Many of the best hats are sold overseas and can attract large bids from hat connoisseurs!
Getting there: Becal is best reached by car, or as part of a tour from Merida (as it’s just one hour away). If you are hiring a private driver, it’s a good stop on the way to Campeche City.
12. Campeche City
Campeche City is one of the longer day tours from Merida, but this colorful seaside city is well worth an outing. Campeche is two-and-half-hours away from Merida and is the UNESCO World Heritage-listed capital of Campeche state (You can call in at Becal to buy a few hats on the way to Campeche City, if you have your own transportation.)
You’ll be crossing state borders as you travel from Yucatan to Campeche, and along the way, you’ll pass the sunny coastal scenery that’s found all along the Gulf of Mexico. Campeche City was an important trading port and fortress for the Spanish conquistadors, who built it atop an existing Mayan city.
The colorful streets and houses of the colonial quarter are surrounded by high walls and stone towers that face out to sea, a testament to the fact that Campeche City played a prominent role in the history of piracy and was often raided for its wealth.
Getting there: It’s just over two hours by car from Merida to Campeche City. There are regular ADO buses, but since these can take up to three hours, you’ll need to leave early!
From the famed ruins of Chichen Itza to the pink lake of Rio Lagartos, there truly are a lot of things to see in Mexico outside of Merida!
Skip the crowds and high prices of Cancun and Tulum, and make the cultural hub of Merida your base when you’re next in the Yucatan.
With so many fantastic day trips from Merida, there’s no chance of getting bored in and around this city!