Let’s Go Exploring! Merida and Cuzama: Cenotes, Where Have You Been All My Life?

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is Canada's youngest retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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This post was supposed to be about one of my favourite countries in the world, second only to Thailand (hint: it has lots of robots), but since a few readers asked about Central/South America, I’m going to fast forward this week just to give you a taste…

***
After going back home to visit family for Christmas, we wondered where we should go next.

It was tempting to go back to Asia, but since we had a busy year ahead of us (going to conferences, speaking at the Chautaquas, and attending my best friend’s wedding) keeping us in (or near) North America, we figured why not explore Central and South America? That way, we’re only need a short flight of 4-6 hours instead of 15-20 hours to get back.

Plus, we already knew our favourite places in Asia. Maybe we can find the equivalent in Central/South America.

Question was, where should we go first?

Knowing that we couldn’t blend in as well as we did in Asia and our inexperience with the region, we knew we had to pick carefully. We needed a place that could ease us into the region.

If it wasn’t for GoCurryCracker and RootofGood talking my ear off about this magical place I would’ve dismissed it completely.

When I met GoCurryCracker in Chiang Mai, Thailand, he scoffed at my excited girlish squeals about Chiang Mai being the best place in the world. “No way. There are WAY better places.”

“Really?” I asked, arms crossed. “Where else can you live like a queen for $30 a day while pigging out everyday?”

“You’ve never been to Mexico, have you?”

“Mexico?” It was hard to keep the scepticism out of my voice. “Really?”

While I scarfed down my shrimp Pad Thai, GoCurryCracker regaled me with all the wonders of Mexico: the scrumptious pastries, the melt-in-your-mouth tacos, the friendly people, and the ridiculously good prices.

Later on, when I asked RootofGood about Mexico, I got the same glowing review. In fact, he bombarded me with so many messages fanboying about Mexico that my Facebook Messenger crashed.

I knew if we didn’t go, RootofGood might just drag us there himself and stuff us full of tacos. So it was settled. We were going to Mexico.

Naturally since I’d never been to Mexico before, not even on vacation (I had written it off as “too dangerous and not exotic enough”), I decided to search on Nomad List for the best town to visit.

The city that met the most of my criteria (safe, warm, cheap, fast wifi, walkable) turned out to be:

Merida.

With a population of 800,000, it was big enough to have things for us to do, but not overwhelmingly crowded.   And as I researched more about it, I realized that not only was it known as “the safest city in all of Mexico”, it was on par with cities in Europe in terms of safety.

And how much did all this sunshine and serenity cost? $530/month for a room and private bath with pool on Airbnb! And we didn’t even have to use up our points since the flight to Mexico was only $238CAD/person!

Our $530CAD/month Airbnb

 

Pool in the backyard

But as soon as we mentioned Mexico to our friends and family, their immediate reaction was “Mexico? Are you nuts? Don’t you like being alive?”

This was the same reaction we got when we went to Thailand, so we just shrugged it off. People who don’t travel and get all their news from scary headlines will always tell you “everywhere is dangerous, just stay home”.

Their loss. Our gain.

We flew out that afternoon and went from this:

photo credit: Ron Bulovs at wikipedia

 

To this:

As it turns out, not only was Merida not dangerous, we often saw families out strolling at night with their kids and old ladies going for a jog in the dark. In fact, we felt safer in Merida than we did in Toronto.

After our first week in Mexico, we realized that some basic Spanish helps a lot.

In Thailand, most cities are so used to tourists and expats that English signs are everywhere and all menus have photos with English clearly written on them. You can pretty much turn off your brain and the Thais will bend over backwards to make things easy for you.

But in Mexico, unless you’re in a touristy place like Cancun, you really have to TRY to speak the language. So of course, having been educated through the Canadian system, our high-school French was completely useless.

“Cuanto queso?” Wanderer asked, pointing to a street cart vendor’s stack of tacos,

She gave us a confused stare. “Cuanto Cuesta?”

“Uhhhh..si?” Wanderer responded, realizing he just asked her “How cheese?” instead of “How much?”

I rolled my eyes at him, handed her the cash, took the tacos, and then confidently responded “Gracias! Buenas NACHOS!”

Another confused stare.

Luckily over the week, with the help of Google Translator and Duolingo, we learned how to order food, ride the bus, and ask for directions in Spanish.

All tacos, all the time

 

Creamy Horchata, a sweet and frothy rice-based drink

 

Pollo (chicken) tacos. The black one is a specialty in Merida called “relleno negro” (black in Spanish = negro. *awkward cough*)

But we were still nowhere near conversational, so luckily our AirBnB host, a Belgian expat who spoke French, English, and Spanish, helped us out.

Not only did he helped us find an English speaking doctor and dentist (who were top-notch and only cost us $35CAD for check-up and cleaning), he also introduced us to one of our favourite things in Mexico:

Cenotes.

If you like waterfalls, caves, and crystal clear water, Cenotes are basically all those things all rolled into one.

Because the soil in the Yucatan province is so porous, in the areas where the ground has collapsed an underground river is exposed, revealing a sinkhole you can swim in.

And less than two hours outside Merida is the tiny town of Cuzama, where for a measly 350 pesos ($23 CAD for up to 4 people), you can go on a horse-drawn cart adventure through the forest to visit 3 cenotes.

The best which is saved for last:

The water is this perfect shade of aqua and so clear you can see straight to the bottom.  And unlike the beach, it’s fresh water so you don’t need to rinse the salt out of your hair afterwards.

Once I swam in a Cenote for the first time I was hooked. We made a plan to visit as many Cenotes as we could going forward.

So how much did we end up spending in Merida, Mexico?

Category Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $19/night
Food: $21/day $14.45 for eating out, $7 for groceries
Transportation: $29/day including the $238CAD/person flight to get to Cancun, and $29/person bus to get to Merida. Riding the bus within the city was dirty cheap at only 8 pesos/person or 50 cents
Entertainment: $7 including activities like entry to Cenotes in Cuzama and tour to Chichen Itza and Uxmal over the month)
Total: $76/couple/day

Food costs ended up being the same as South East Asia…but only because I cooked for dinner. Street food consisted mostly of tacos, corn on the cob, hot dogs and hamburgers, so I started cooking to add variety (spoiler alert: later I found out the lack of street food variety was more of a Merida thing and it got better in Mexico city).  I also noticed I gained 5lbs pretty quickly from eating tacos and tortas (huge ass sandwiches) so I started stuffing myself with as much fruit as possible. Luckily, fruit was fresh and plentiful, with mangos costing only 25 cents to 50 cents each and papayas only $1 or $2 each.

All other costs were comparable with South East Asia. Getting around was especially cheap and easy via the ADO bus.

After spending some time in Merida, we realized that Mexico could actually be a pretty good alternative to South East Asia…especially if we need to be close to family in the future. It’s also nice that you’re allowed to stay in Mexico for 6 months at a time without a Visa.

But man, do I miss my $12 Thai massages….

Chautauqua UK is now SOLD OUT! Click here to add yourself to the waiting list

39 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Merida and Cuzama: Cenotes, Where Have You Been All My Life?”

  1. Looks awesome. My only experience with Mexico was when I was sixteen. I was living in southern California at the time and a friend’s father packed us up in an RV and we stayed at an RV resort on the beach in Mexico. It was great. Gorgeous beach. People selling delicious food on the beach. Awesome surf for body boarding.

    Haven’t been back since, but this post has intrigued me. It’s funny how we allow the media to distort out perception of reality. Thanks so much for sharing. I’m looking forward to the day when we can start doing some long term traveling.

    We are heading to Dallas next week to visit some friends. Not quite Merida, but I’m looking forward to some kick ass tacos.

    Keep up the good work. This blog is quickly becoming one of my favorites.

    1. Aww. Thanks, RJ!

      Yeah, I’ve learned to ignore the headlines after I started travelling. The media definitely distorts everything because fear always sells more newspapers than truth.

      Dallas is pretty awesome too! Never been there but will be checking it out during FinCon2017! Enjoy your time there!

  2. Great great story! I’m reading and responding to this post while in Cancun… I’m here on business !

    As a former American expat who has lived in Mexico for over 10 years I love hearing these stories. As long as you are not in the drug business or “adult services” and you use your travel brain Mexico is safe.

    One quick note to you fine writer: Mexico is actually in North America not central or south.

    Now let me know when you come back and I’ll be happy to share all my Mexican and South American must dos!

    Keep up the great work.

    1. Very cool that you lived in Mexico for 10 years. Your Spanish must be awesome. I’m still learning, but hoping to become fluent after taking some classes.

      Yeah, now that you mention it, I looked it up and Mexico is part of North America. Easy to forget since whenever anyone mentions North America, we automatically assume Canada or the States. That being said, we are also visiting countries in Central and South America, not only Mexico, so it’s still true that we’ll be spending most of our year in Central/South America.

  3. We went to Playa Del Carmen for our honeymoon. It was amazing, and although we stayed at a resort, it was a short walk to town. We would love to go back and you’ve just convinced me it should be to Merida. You paid less for a full month than what we paid for a week. Definitely going to be using Airbnb next time! (although the all-inclusive resort was a nice treat)

    1. We did enjoy the all-inclusive Caribbean resorts when we were working, but now that we’re long term travellers, I find living in more local places gives you a much more authentic experience. We would’ve never found out about Cuzama if it weren’t for our host.

      And yes, the price point is very attractive 🙂 I’m always shocked how little we spend now, compared to when we used to buy vacation packages. Really makes you realized how much profit the travel industry gets to pocket.

      Hope you do make it to Merida one day! It’s an amazing city.

  4. Thank you for this review and the link to the Nomad List (helpful). I admit I am apprehensive about visiting Mexico (yes, from media), but this place looks great. I’ve already bookmarked 3-4 excursions I would do.

    1. Merida is pretty awesome for excursions, I have to admit. From there you can get to Progresso beach (45 mins by bus), Chichen Itza (2 hours by ADO), Cuzuma (2 hours), and Uxmal (1.5-2 hours). There’s also Campeche and other places we didn’t get a chance to visit but have heard great things about.

      Hope you get a chance to go! It’s really safe and a great hub to get to other sites.

  5. Amazing. Let’s be honest here…you should never trust people and especially the media that generalizes an entire country based on a statistic or a bad experience. Most of the stats are build on averages and if you have one city in a entire country that is not safe it ends up staining the whole country’s image. That is so true for most of the countries in South America (Mexico and Brazil being the biggest examples) and some in Asia and Eastern Europe as well.
    Don’t let them fool you or you’ll end up with a pretty harmful preconception (like FC’s friends and family) and will probably keep you from having the best moments of your life in these places!

    1. Well said! Before we started travelling, we would’ve dismissed many of the places we ended up going to because of scary headlines. Now we realize the media is designed to use fear to sell newspapers. There are so many places in one country, you can’t paint the entire country with the same brush. But you won’t know this until you travel.

      It’s always good to do your research so you’re informed about which places are safe and which aren’t, but never let friends or family dissuade you just because of scary headlines.

    1. The Mexican people are wonderful. We met so many friendly locals who are always willing to help us with directions and give us advice about where to go.

      Lake Chapala looks beautiful! Enjoy your retirement research!

  6. Love it! It’s funny – last time we went to Mexico for an extended stretch, I forgot to think about how dangerous it was supposed to be until 2 weeks in. What a joke. Sure crime happens but it doesn’t seem to be the violent gun crime I’m used to here in the good ole US of A. I’m always more worried about transportation-related injuries which are high at home and probably even higher in Mexico. Not much you can do other than cross your fingers and don’t drive drunk.

    Love the cenote pics. We’ll definitely have to go back and visit some of those. And love the food pics of course.

    1. Yeah, I don’t understand why the media makes the ENTIRE country of Mexico seem so dangerous (when in reality it’s the hotspots with advisories that people should watch out for), when cities like Chicago, which have a much higher crime rate than Mexico city, never gets advisories. Weird.

      I’ve also heard from travel bloggers who travelled all over Asia and South America, never got robbed once, goes home to the States and immediately gets robbed.

      Sometimes what feels safe isn’t safe and vice versa.

      And yes, you need to get thyself (and family) to a Cenote the next time you’re in Mexico. Trust me, you don’t want to miss it.

  7. Greetings from Merida. We’re renting a house in the Pensiones area; our street is incredibly sleepy. There’s lots of good Yucatan cooking here: panuchos, salbutes, and tostadas were on the dinner menu last night. Anyone who visits here needs to be aware of one potential danger…the hot sauces contain habanero peppers. Have fun and maybe we can hook up.

    1. Oops! We already left Merida, but had we known you were there we would’ve met up! That’s okay, we’ll likely be back sometime in the future. Will ping you the next time we’re there.

      And you are so right about the hot sauces. Luckily, I grew up in Sichuan (one of the spiciest provinces in China) so I could handle the heat, but Wanderer said it felt like there was a campfire in his mouth!

  8. Great write-up on Mexico FireCracker. I like tacos too! 😉

    The Yucatan peninsula has been on my Mexico travel list for awhile, but we haven’t made it (yet).

    I’ve traveled to Baja, which was nice but seemed expensive since we were in fairly touristy areas.

    That AirBnB house you rented looks pretty sweet! Hard to turn down digs like that.

    1. Baja is beautiful, but yeah definitely will be expensive, just like Cancun.

      If you ever decide to go back to Mexico, give Merida a try! It’s safe, has lots of activities for the family, and is MUCH easier on the wallet.

  9. Hello there!

    I’ve been following your blog for about a year, I have to say I love it. I have never leaved a comment, but this post made me feel I should say hi. I’m from Mexico, I live in Queretaro, and I’m happy you liked the country, as you say, is not quite as news try to make it.

    I first started following because I’m really into the finnancial freedom stuff, slow but steady I hope to get to young retirement. Here in Mexico this idea of is not really a thing right now, so there’s not a lot of information, but I think you do a great job at sharing your knowledge.

    1. Hi Claudia! Thanks for your comment and nice to hear from a Mexican reader!

      I’m so glad Justin and Jeremy talked me into visiting Mexico, because now I realized how unfairly the media portrays it and how reality is completely different from what we read in the news.

      Thank you for the kind comments and I wish you the best on your personal journey to FIRE!

  10. I am going to visit my two cousins in Merida in about 3 years. I am supper excited about this! Your article just makes me more pumped up about the idea of going to Merida. I plan on checking out Chichen Itza, the cenotes (I had never thought about this until I read your review), and checking out the beaches. Can you recommend a few good beaches? How much does it cost for the guide to take you to the cenotes? Thanks for a great article! You guys rock!

    1. That’s awesome! Merida is the perfect hub to visit beaches, cenotes, and Chichen Itza (I’ll be writing about this intriguing place in a future post). Progresso beach is only 45 mins by bus from Merida. It’s a nice beach and easy to get to.

      If you want the best beaches and cenotes, I highly recommend Tulum (another place I’ll be writing about). Cheaper and more laid back than Cancun and there are Colectivos (shared taxis that take you to the beaches for only $2-3). There’s also Akumal beach 30 mins drive away where you can swim with sea turtles!

      Isla Mujeres (near Cancun) also has beautiful crystal clear water and shallow beaches, but it’s expensive to get to and a bit too touristy.

      When you’re in Merida, to get to the cenotes in Cuzama, we took a bus from the TAME bus station, rode a tuk tuk to the horse-drawn cart area in the woods, and then paid only $23CAD for the guide to take us to 3 cenotes.

      If you go with a tour group, you’re probably looking at around $50USD/person to get to the cenotes from Merida. But if you go on your own, the whole day will only cost you around $8 (for bus and tuk tuk) + $12 (for horse cart ride to cenotes) = $20 CAD or $15 USD if you can find someone to share the horse cart ride with.

  11. Hey girl; I must be hooked on your blog as today I was walking at Point Neapean near Melbourne, Australia and swore I saw you. I was on a bus heading back to our car catching a glympse of who I thought was you walking on the path holding hands with a man. Sadly I didn’t get a good look at the man so I hope your hubby isn’t disappointed. Could it have been you and your man?
    I like your article on Mexico and although I have not been there yet partially because of all the negative press I’ve read but have now added it to my bucket list. Thanks for all the great articles you are sending. Looking forward to your next!

    Robert Dunne
    robertjdunne@hotmail.com

    1. I have a doppelgänger in Australia? So cool! Tee hee. Yeah, we haven’t actually gone to Australia yet, so that wasn’t us.

      We hesitated on going to Mexico because of the negative press too. Turns out, just like Thailand, you can’t paint an entire country with the same brush. Hope you get to visit sometime in the future! We actually met quite a few Aussies in Tulum.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  12. Great article – Merida is now on our list! You must visit Oaxaca – a beautiful colonial town at 5000 feet so it has an “eternal spring” climate. No ocean nearby, but incredible archaeological sights and home to the wonderful mole sauce.

  13. You’ve officially piqued my interest in cenotes and Merida for that matter… I know you mentioned South America, I’ll be in Peru in June. Maybe, just maybe you guys might be in the area during that time?

    1. Peru is on our list, but we won’t make it there until the later part of the year. Would love to be there in June but we have a conference to attend 🙁

      Oh well. Hopefully we can meet up another time. Enjoy your trip! I heard the food is amazing.

  14. Me Encanta Mexico (I used to live there a long time ago) and here, here for Cenotes. I highly recommend checking out, if you get to Mexico City, Chapultapec Park and Teotihuacan (the 2nd largest pyramid in the world…Temple of the Sun and the Moon are awesome). Also, any other Mayan ruins you can get to are well worth it.

    Have fun!

  15. Beach accomodation’s are generally more expensive than inland locations .

    so as its only a 45 mins bus ride to the beach .. one gets better value by staying in Merida and visiting the beaches , and also some culture of the city ??

  16. love love reading your travel adventures. I would love to know if it’s not too nosy, how long you stay in each spot. How far ahead do you plan where u will be? Not sure what our next vacation will be, but definitely will be 4 weeks in the winter or six….or seven. Isn’t FIRE grand. We have become much more content to stay home for the other three seasons….but your adventures make me excited to plan our own.

    1. It depends. Sometimes we stay 4-5 days, sometimes 2 weeks, sometimes as long as a month. We usually decide based on feedback we get from Airbnb hosts and other travellers.

      In Merida, we stayed for a whole month because it was our first time in Mexico. We wanted to find an easy and safe city to navigate around in, pick up some Spanish etc before moving on.

      And yes, FIRE is grand! 🙂 I love this lifestyle. That’s not to say staying home and building roots is bad. It works really well for most people. It’s just that I get antsy if I stay in one area too long (I get bored easily…that’s just my personality).

      Excited to hear about your vacation plans!

    1. We flew with Westjet from Toronto to Cancun for $238CAD (including tax). Then got on an first class ADO bus from Cancun to Merida (takes around 4-5 hours) for $30CAD each (you can probably find even cheaper tickets if you book 1st class bus ahead of time or if you choose 2nd class bus. We basically just bought the tickets on the spot at the Cancun bus station 10 min before departure)

  17. I lived in Merida in the early 80s and I am happy to hear that it has not changed. I do remember pescado frito in El Progreso. A cenote in Dzitya (hard to find without a local). Food – escabeche, papadzules, pan de cazón, cochinita pibil, longaniza de Valladolid and “brazo de reina” made from Chaya plant.

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