MÉRIDA, YUCATÁN – If you’re in the Yucatán capital, and fancy a day trip involving both climbing up pyramids and descending underground, the Mayapán ruins and Grutas de Loltún caves are an easy drive from the city, and can be combined with a lunch stop in Maní to make a brilliant day out.
Mayapán ruins are located just off the main Mérida – Chetumal highway, between the towns of Tekoh and Tekit, and just south of Telchaquillo. It’s a pre-Columbian Maya site, which was the cultural and political capital of the Maya in the peninsula from the 1220s until the 1440s. It is estimated that more than 15,000 people lived in the city, and the site has more than 4000 structures. Mayapán is well excavated and a pleasure to visit; additional benefits are the fact that climbing on the structures is permitted, unlike at the major sites of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, and that as a lesser-known site, you may just be the only visitor. While small tour vans do visit the site from time to time, it is highly unlikely you will be sharing the area with busloads of tourists. It’s also a compact site; the excavated area is relatively small, making it a great option for anyone who can’t (or doesn’t want to) walk too far. Mayapán ruins are open to visitors from 8am to 5pm, seven days a week.
Continuing south from Mayapán towards the caves, you’ll pass through the town of Maní, where you’ll find a perennial lunch favorite, El Príncipe Tutul-Xiu. A Yucatán institution since 1973, the restaurant serves up some of the best Poc-Chuc to be found anywhere, as well as other local staples such as Sopa de Lima, Queso Relleno, and Escabeche, in a wonderfully atmospheric palapa. If you visited the ruins early and it’s too soon for lunch when you pass, consider stopping on your way back, after you have visited the caves and really worked up an appetite!
The Grutas de Loltún (Loltún Caves) are located about 6km south of the city of Oxkutzcab and are considered to be among the most extensive in Mexico. Evidence indicates that they were occupied by humans in pre-historic times. The Maya used the caves as shelter and extracted clay to make tools. The caves have been illuminated to allow safe passage for visitors, although the floor is slippery in areas, and there are occasional steep climbs and difficult rocky sections, making the tour unsuitable for anyone who is not relatively fit and sure-footed. Suitable closed shoes are strongly recommended! Guided tours are mandatory, and depart at 9.30am, 11am, 12.30pm, 2pm, and 3.30pm seven days a week (subject to change.) Most tours are conducted in Spanish, although the option to hire a private English speaking guide is also sometimes available. The beauty of the caves can be appreciated whether or not you understand the commentary however, and don’t be put off joining a Spanish speaking tour just because you are worried you won’t understand. A little online research before or after your tour will give you just as much information as you would have gained from your guide, and much of the underground commentary is of the “this stalagmite looks like a horse… this one looks like the Virgin Mary…” variety. The tour lasts about 75 minutes, and you exit a good distance from the entrance, which means a long-ish walk along a well maintained path back to where you parked your car.