Like many Canadian tourists, we arrived in Mexico via Cancun, but we knew that we didn’t want to spend all our time in beach towns. We’re not really beach people, or rather we like the beach, but only for a limited amount of time — a couple hours max of sitting on the sand and wading into the water before we get bored. We’re more interested in history and archeology and food and culture, so our decision to get off the coast and cycle inland from Merida to Tulum was a good one.
The cities inland were definitely more our thing! Below I rate the cities we stayed in, starting with our favourite, Mérida.
#1 – Mérida
Mérida Sights = Excellent!
We fell in love with the capital city of the Yucatán state. The downtown is easily walkable, with lots of tree-filled plazas and parks. Just hanging out in these vibrant spaces is entertaining. There are plenty of museums (many free) and tours of the city. At night, the streets are often closed to cars, and food vendors, parades and dances pop up. We even saw a Maya ball game!
If we’d been in Mérida longer, we could have taken advantage of its great location to do more day trips. We did go to the Dzibilchaltún ruins, but would have also liked to go to the seaside towns of Progreso and Celestún (and see the flamingos), as well as go south to see Uxmal and the Ruta Puuc ruins.
Merida Affordability = Excellent!
Compared to Cancun, where we started our trip, Mérida was downright cheap! We got better accommodations, better food and better entertainment options for much less. For example, to stay within our budget, we booked a room in a hostel in Cancun, but in Merida we could afford to stay in a great little hotel that included breakfast!
Speaking of accommodations…
Mérida Accommodations = Excellent!
We stayed at Hotel del Peregrino and it was lovely.
After staying three nights in a hostel in Cancun, we were ecstatic to have our own private bathroom again – which we promptly used to do some laundry. There was also a safe, a ceiling fan and air-conditioning, though the nights were cool when we were there in December and we didn’t need the AC.
Besides being a nice hotel that was walking distance to all the main sights, the best part of Hotel del Peregrino was its included breakfast, freshly made for each guest as they arrived in the dining area each morning, plus all the tea and coffee you want.
Another great thing is there’s filtered water in the kitchen, so we could fill up our reusable water bottles instead of buying plastic water bottles. And after breakfast, we had full access to the kitchen if we wanted to buy groceries and make our own snacks, though we never did because we were only in Mérida three nights and there were so many delicious places to eat — restaurants and markets and street vendors!
Mérida Food = Excellent!
The first place we ate in Mérida was the well-known restaurant La Chaya Maya which serves traditional Yucatecan food. There are women making fresh corn tortillas as you eat. We were seated beside them and they kept sneaking us more tortillas as we ran out. Not that we couldn’t ask for more tortillas (included with the meal), but the women making the tortillas were faster than our waiter!
We ordered “Los 4 Yucas” which is four sample dishes of their most famous Yucatecan food: cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork), pavo en relleno negro (black turkey stew), pipián de pavo (turkey in a sauce made from the seeds of a vegetable called cucurbits), and queso relleno (a dish of Edam cheese and ground beef).
It was delicious and very filling! And for drinks we got Agua de Chaya con Lima (chaya water with lime) — the best way to get your leafy greens in The Yucatan!
We ate such amazing food in Mérida (everything from sopa de lima at a local Mercado to Mayan chocolate) that it warrants a whole other blog post that I don’t have time to write. Just go and eat all the food!
For more about Mérida, check out these posts:
- Sights & Lights in Mérida, Mexico (includes details on a city walking tour)
- Cycling from Mérida to the Ruins of Dzibilchaltun
- Biciruta Mérida – Car-Free Sunday in Mexico
#2 – Valladolid
Valladolid is the Yucatan’s third-largest city (POP 49,000), but it is tiny compared to Mérida (POP 780,000). So obviously there are not nearly as many sights to see, yet Valladolid has comfortable charm, affordable accommodations and delicious food too. It also makes a great home base for day trips, and we wish we’d stayed a couple more nights here so we could do those day trips and cut Tulum out of the trip. (Spoiler alert – Tulum comes in last place on our list!)
Valladolid Sights = Very Good
There aren’t quite as many things to see and do in Valladolid as Mérida, and that makes sense because it’s a smaller city. But we enjoyed exploring it all the same.
We were only in Valladolid one night, plus we were still really sick, so we didn’t make it to all the cenotes (we’d planned to go to three and only went to one). But the reason Valladolid narrowly edges out Izamal in the “Sights” category is because Valladolid makes for a great home base to do day trips to the ruins of Chichen Itza, Coba and Ek’ Balam. Valladolid also gets points for having some bike paths!
Valladolid Affordability, Food & Accommodations
Like Mérida, Valladolid is much more affordable than Cancun. We stayed at the Hotel Colonial La Aurora in the cheapest, street-facing room, and it was still nicer and more affordable than where we stayed in Cancun and Tulum. I suspect the upper floor rooms that don’t face the street are the nicest.
There’s also great food to be had in Valladolid. We ate tamales at La Palapita, which used to be a food stand and is now a whole restaurant with a big patio.
And we discovered this gem totally by accident. After sightseeing at the Convento de Sisal, we walked across the street looking for restaurants and found Yerba Buena del Sisal. Everything was so fresh and yummy! And they had delicious smoothies too, which we drank before I had time to snap a photo.
#3 – Izamal
Izamal is known as La Cuidad Amarilla (The Yellow City) because of its traditional golden yellow buildings. It’s beautiful and worth the visit.
Izamal Sights = Good
Izamal is much smaller than Valladolid, so naturally there’s not as much to see. The two main attractions are the Convento de San Antonio de Padua (monastery) and Kinich Kakmó (archaeological site). Both are free to enter and neither had many tourists when we visited. In fact, we were the only people at Kinich Kakmó!
There are a dozen other ruins to discover in town (all for free too), but we didn’t have time to explore because we were embarking on a 91km ride to Chichen Itza! If you want to know more about that adventure, plus see more photos of Izamal, check out this post: Izamal to Chichén Itzá — Cycling the Scenic Route
Izamal Affordability, Food & Accommodations
Like Valladolid and Mérida, Izamal is very affordable. We stayed in a beautiful hotel (Hotel Rinconada del Convento) right beside the Convento. Not only was the view amazing, but it had the most comfortable mattress of the entire trip!
And though we only ate two meals in Izamal — dinner at Zamnh Restaurant and breakfast at our hotel’s Cafe overlooking the Convento — the food was excellent.
#4 – Maya Ruins Towns: Coba & Piste
There’s not much in these little towns. We had planned to explore Piste (outside Chichen Itza), but we were too sick to do more than just bike through it en route to our hotel. It looked like most other small towns in the area. Nothing special, though we’re sad we didn’t get to eat at the local restaurants here.
Coba & Piste Sights = Good
The main thing to see in these towns is the ruins. We found Chichen Itza well worth it (you can read about that in Mexico’s Maya Ruins: Chichen Itza), but were disappointed in Coba. To be fair, I had extremely high expectations that were immediately dashed. You can read about that in this post: 6 Maya Archeological Sites from Merida to Tulum.
Affordability & Accommodations = Excellent!
Both Piste and Coba have very affordable accommodations. I think this is because their ruins are close enough to Cancun, Valladolid, Merida and Tulum that most people visit via a day trip or bus tour. Because it’s so affordable, we splurged and stayed in the fancy Hotel Mayaland right beside the Chichen Itza ruins! And even though we discovered this place was basically a resort, we only paid $160CAD per night. You can’t even get a decent cabana in Tulum for that price!
In Coba, we stayed at one of the three places in town — Hotel Sac-Be. It wasn’t fancy by any means, but it was the cheapest room we had the whole trip! One of the mattresses was an older spring mattress (but clean) and the other was brand new!
Overall, staying in these towns is worth it. It doesn’t cost much, supports the local economy, and you get to beat the crowds that arrive via the tour buses.
#5 – Tulum
As I said at the beginning of this post, we’re not beach people, so the fact that Tulum is at the bottom of our list isn’t surprising. But it was more than that. Our brief experience in Tulum was pretty awful; we do not recommend staying in this town. Go visit the ruins, but stay somewhere else, anywhere else! Here’s why…
Tulum Affordability & Accommodations = Terrible!
Yes, we were travelling during high season — Christmas break. Anywhere along the stretch of beach towns from Cancun to Tulum was busy. Oddly, the towns inland that we enjoyed more were not busy. Except for Mérida, none of the nice hotels we stayed in were even close to full. Still, when we were looking to book accommodations in Tulum, we were surprised that it was very difficult to find anything in our budget. We booked everything in early September, and there were only two hostels we could afford and everything else was $500 a night or more! WTF? But we read the reviews and booked one of the cabana hostels in town, Rancho Tranquilo. At least we had somewhere to stay, right?
First off, I should confess that I didn’t ask to look inside the cabana before paying. We paid for the first night online, and the next two nights upon arrival. But I didn’t ask because it’s not like we had a choice! We knew the town was fully booked. How bad could the cabana be?
Just to put this in perspective, this disgusting hellhole cost as much as our beautiful hotel room in Merida, and MORE than any of our hotels in Izamal, Valladolid or Coba. And it didn’t even have a bathroom! As you can imagine, the shared bathroom facilities at Rancho Tranquilo were just as gross as our cabana.
Now, there were much nicer cabanas at Rancho Tranquilo. We got a cheap one. Maybe the more expensive ones had nicer beds, I don’t know. But the expensive cabanas in this place cost as much as our room at Hotel Mayaland! Besides, they were fully booked.
We quickly realized that sleeping in this dirty cabana for three nights was unthinkable. We checked online and even walked up to some hotels in town, but all were booked solid. Before we even tried to sleep that first night, we’d booked a room in a budget chain hotel (Hotel Ibis) in downtown Cancun. We were getting out of Tulum as soon as we saw the ruins the next morning.
And in case you were wondering, yes I woke up with bedbug bites. The only place in all of Mexico where I got bitten. Oh, and Rancho Tranquilo doesn’t give refunds.
We biked to the public beach. It’s very far from town, so people bike to get there, which is cool. There’s no official place to park the bikes, though, and everyone just locks them to each other or to the trees.
Apparently, the resort beaches clear the seaweed away every morning, but that doesn’t happen on this small stretch of public beach.
The ruins at Tulum are very nice and worth a look, though we only spent a little over an hour here, much less time than in Chichen Itza, Dzibilchaltun, or even Coba. (For more info on all the ruins we visited, see 6 Maya Archeological Sites from Mérida to Tulum).
And there’s lots of bike parking at the ruins! It was just us and one other bike when we arrived at 7:30am (we hadn’t really slept, so figured we’d get to the ruins early), but by the time we left the bike racks were packed!
The town of Tulum itself is kind of like a mini-Cancun, but more expensive. I heard from friends who went to Tulum about ten years ago that it was a quaint, sleepy beach town. Well, it’s not anymore. It’s loud and crowded, and party buses drive up and down the main street all night! I know because I didn’t get any sleep in our gross cabana.
Overall, Tulum isn’t worth the hype. Even if we’d booked early enough to get a mid-range hotel, the prices are so much more expensive than anywhere else. And for what? I’m not sure. The beach isn’t great, and you could come see the ruins on a day trip.
Mérida and Valladolid are wonderful places to visit! Between them lie Chichen Itza and Izamal, which are both worth a look. As for the rest, this trip has confirmed what we already knew about ourselves — we don’t like touristy beach towns!
For more on our adventures from Mérida to Tulum, check out these posts: