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Explore charming colonial towns and Mayan ruins – what to do from the Mexico cruise port of Progreso

Chris Moss
Mérida is one of the loveliest and most unsung of cities in Mexico - John Woodworth

Why go?

Progreso is a pleasant, if sometimes bustling, small port town and balneario (seaside resort), with snorkelling, swimming, windsurfing and boating on offer to daytrippers. It’s just 43km (40mins by bus/taxi) north of Mérida, one of the loveliest and most unsung of cities in Mexico. Before Cancún was developed, Mérida had north Yucatán’s main airport; now, it’s more like a quaint, convivial provincial town with some pretty colonial architecture and the airport is very quiet. 

Many operators – including Carnival, Ponant and Royal Caribbean – make use of this stop on the north-west tip of the Yucatán peninsula to explore some of the wonderful Mayan sites that are found there.

Cruise port location

The port is north of Progreso’s centre. Cruise ships dock at the end of the town’s main pier which, at four miles, is the longest in Mexico. It had to be like that as the coastal limestone shelf slopes gently and the inland water is very shallow. Two large cruise ships can dock beside the dedicated jetty. 

Can I walk to any places of interest?

In Progreso, the malecón (coastal prom) is the place for strolls, sunbathing and sipping a sundowner. It can get busy but there are some nice bars and seafood restaurants. The beach is long so good for stretching your legs. South of the malecón is a handicraft market and the central square or zócalo, which hosts dancing on Sundays. Note the 120-foot lighthouse, built 1885-1891. It can be windy from December to March when seasonal winds (called nortes) blow.

Getting around

Free buses shuttle people back and forth between the cruise dock and the centre of Progreso, which is very walkable. To go further afield, taxis are reasonable and you can get from the port to Mérida from as little as MX$ 350, around £15. Shared taxis (taxis colectivos) are cheaper still. To get to the Mayan sites you’ll have to join an excursion or pay a taxi to wait.  

The charming town of Mérida is a 40-minute drive from Progreso Credit: Getty

What to see and do 

The first, and easiest, thing to visit is Mérida. Despite being the capital of the state of Yucatán, Mérida has a compact centre, which lends itself to a gentle stroll. The best place to start is the main plaza, surrounded by elegant colonial buildings, including the Casa de Montejo – a house built for soldiers in 1540. 

What can I do in four hours or less? 

If the cruise is offering a tour to Mérida, then definitely go for it. Try to spend an hour in the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, a top-class museum with a permanent collection of more than 1,100 well-preserved Mayan exhibits. There are some nice coffee shops and bars just off the main plaza. Note, too, Mérida’s grand mansions. These were the homes of the great hacienda owners who got very rich indeed on sisal (henequen) in the 19th century. Known as oro verde or “green gold” this agave fibre was used for rope and baskets, and may be making a comeback as the world shuns plastic.

The Mayan site nearest to Progreso is Dzibilchaltun (16 miles or 25 minutes by road), which has an impressive pyramid known as the Temple of the Seven Dolls after seven effigies found there. It also has a large cenote (sinkhole) where visitors can take a dip. 

Just 65 miles from Progreso (42 miles from Mérida) is the handsome town full of Izamal. At its centre are the 75 arches of the Convent of San Antonia de Padua, atop a hill  where once stood the Maya Temple of Popol-chac. Like all the old buildings here, it’s painted ochre-yellow. Izamal is an important regional centre for crafts, including wood carvings and henequen jewellery.

Cenotes, or natural swimming holes, like this one near Dzibilchaltun are found all over the Yucatan Credit: iStock

What can I do in eight hours or less? 

Some cruises will offer a full-day trip, in which case you should be offered excursions to Chichen Itza (100 miles away) and/or Uxmal (71 miles). The former, the best-known of all Mexico’s Mayan ruins, is overlooked by the imposing El Castillo pyramid. Away from this photo-stop you can walk around the palaces and temples, the huge Great Ball Court, and sun-baked plazas; stands of trees provide shade, welcome when the humidity and heat are soaring.

Uxmal, while attracting smaller visitor numbers than Chichen Itza, is also becoming popular with coach tours. A large site, it’s set amid the rolling hills of the hilly Puuc region – the architectural style is also known as Puuc – and its ornamented walls are striking. The main restored buildings are set out on a north–south axis, an alignment that probably has astrological significance. The face of Chac, the Mayan rain god, is at every turn – no doubt because there were few cenotes here and rainwater was precious.

Eat and drink

Whether you’re in Progreso or Mérida you’re travelling in one of the world’s great culinary destinations. Mexican food is less fiery than the Tex-Mex variation, and features lots of chillis that are smoky rather than hot. Yucatán classics include pibil (marinated meat, often suckling pig, wrapped inn banana leaves) and sopes (stuffed tortillas). In Progreso there’s excellent seafood – when ordering ceviche, check what’s used as Mexicans sometimes add ketchup to the dish!

The Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza can be visited with a full day trip from Progreso Credit: Getty

Don’t leave the island without…

The local mezcal is a subtly flavoured white spirit made from a mix of magueys (agaves); tequila is made from just one. Anything in henequen/sisal is a nice reminder of a visit to Yucatán. Handmade hammocks, in vivacious colours, are a lovely gift – the ones made in Tixkobob are the best.

Need to know

Flight time

Mérida airport is reachable via Cancún, Houston or Mexico City. Flying time from the UK – 15-20 hours

Safety

Cancún and the Mayan Riviera have seen a spike in street crime and violent crime but Progreso, Mérida and Izamal are far quieter. Avoid back streets after dark and don’t carry valuables.

Best time to go

December to April, the high season, is balmy warm but not rainy. Visitor numbers are quite high, peaking at Christmas, Spring Break and Easter. The summer can be swelteringly hot and wetter – though hurricanes are very rare here. July and August are busy.

Closures

Shops close Sundays. Museums and restaurants tend to have their days off on Monday.