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Progreso, located on the peninsula's northwest coast in the Mexican state of Yucatan, is a popular port of call on Western Caribbean itineraries. Located where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea, Progreso often serves as an access point from which to visit to the rich Mayan historical sites found in this part of the world, mainly the archeological ruins that defy description. There are 2,040 sites in Yucatan, of which only a tiny fraction have been excavated and restored.
History, culture and natural attractions are available and whether it is a visit to one of the varied Mayan ruins, poking around the historic town of Merida, indulging in a simple beach day, or just sampling a shot of the licorice-flavored native drink, Xtabentun, it is difficult to disembark in Progreso without picking up a bit of the local flavor.
Indeed, Xtabentun is definitely a local experience. Lots of restaurants and bars stock Xtabentun for locals to enjoy as an after-lunch digestive. Local honey, tree bark and water are the main ingredients, which is distilled until it has a licorice flavor (similar to Sambuca) and it packs a pretty fair punch. Leon Negra is a favorite local beer, and the drink of choice for walking around town or sitting on Progreso's Malecon Beach (they'll bring them to you from the restaurants).
But the port's main appeal is its relative proximity to those Mayan ruins -- such as the famed Chichen Itza, a new world wonder, along with other less-crowded archeological sites that include Uxmal, X'cambo and Dzibilchaltun. Those who have previously been to the ruins might opt to visit the beach on the mile-long Malecon in Progreso, equipped with an abundance of water sports activities, chair rentals, food and drink, or take advantage of the port's proximity to the charming old colonial city of Merida, a 30-minute bus ride away.
Merida offers historic ambience, shopping that ranges from boutiques to bazaars, along with restaurants and cafes. Merida is often called "The White City" for its light buildings and the white clothing originally worn by locals. Named for Merida, Spain, the city was built in 1542 on the Mayan site of Ti'Ho and designed around the Plaza Grande, where some of the city's most important buildings surround the sprawling plaza on all four sides. Food kiosks co-exist with the Cathedral of San Idelfonso, finished in 1598 and the first cathedral built inland in the Americas. The state government building features murals -- which you can visit at no charge -- depicting the often violent history of the Spanish conquest of the Mayans, while the historic home of city founder Francisco de Montejo has been convereted into a bank and, more recently, a museum. The municipal hall is also found on this square, as are a museum of modern art (MACAY) and a cultural center, El Olimpo.
Haciendas in the region were originally cattle plantations (haciendas) or maize-producing farms. They later became sisal plantations, and serve to remind visitors of the economic boom of the region during the late 19th century and into the last. Sisal is a fleshy plant native to the area and yields a stiff fiber used for cordage and rope, and at its peak, Yucatan produced practically all of the rope for the world's shippping industry, resulting in the highest concentration of millionaires anywhere at that time. Some of these magnificent haciendas have been turned into inns and/or luxury hotels. Their ornate colonial architecture has held up well in most cases, and some -- for example, Hacienda Teya, just one mile from Merida -- are regional showpieces.
The climate is typically Caribbean or "tropical" with high temps and high humidity. Temperatures range between 80 and 95 degrees Farhenheit. Hats, bottled water and sunscreen are musts when sightseeing in the region. Mosquito repellant and good walking shoes will make the trip more pleasant.
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Key West • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Samana and Cayo Levantado • Tampa
Most restaurants and bars will have a bottle of Xtabentun for locals to enjoy as an aperitif. Tree bark and water are the main ingredients, which is distilled until it has a licorice flavor. Cold beer is the drink of choice for walking around town or sitting on Progreso's Malecon Beach (they'll bring them to you from the restaurants).
Spanish is the official language, but English is spoken – sometimes it is merely an attempt – in some tourist areas. Maya is also spoken locally. Ninety percent of the names of Yucatan towns are Maya.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Mexican Peso is roughly 10.5570 to $1; go to www.xe.net for up to date rates. Money can be exchanged at any bank or money exchange. ATM's are also available.
Where You're Docked
Progreso Pier juts five miles straight out into the Gulf of Mexico and is touted as the longest pier in the world. The terminal houses several bright and loud cantinas, a few fairly-priced souvenir shops and a taxi stand. Telephone and Internet connections are available.
The Malecon in Progreso is a short shuttle bus ride from the terminal. Pack your beach bag and get set to get wet or wander through shops and cafes before heading back to the ship. The beach – sun, sky and water – provide great photo ops or take a long, leisurely stroll along the sea wall. Musicians will play you a song on the beach and expect a tip, usually $1-2.
On Foot: The pier operates a constant free shuttle right from the ships and into town. Once in town, Progreso's center is easily explored on foot. A tip to the driver is optional.
Taxis: Taxis are readily available at the pier or in town, though there's no real need for one unless going to Merida or one of the nearby ruins for independent exploration. Try Jorge Rabel Medina or Ricardo López Figueroa at (+52 969 934 0888).
Renting a Car: To get to more secluded beaches, Merida, or archaeological sites independently, Executive Rental (+52 999 920 3732) is right at the pier offering cars and small 4-wheel drive options at about $50 per day. Merida has all the major car rentals including Avis (+52 999 946 1524) and Budget (+52 999 925 1900 or +52 999 946-1223).
The beach along the Malecon in Progreso. The beach is clean, waters clear and myriad water sports options are available. There's also a fairly extensive crafts market right where the shuttle bus lets off passengers, as well as other tourist shopping along the town's few streets. There are several nice restaurants along the beach road that also serve drinks at tables and chairs situated right on the beach.
Merida is a major attraction for many visitors. It's about a half-hour drive from Progreso by shore excursion bus, local bus, taxi or rental car. Shopping around the city square is also popular.
Don't miss a chance to people watch and soak in local color in the Plaza Grande in Merida. See the Cathedral of San Ildefonso, finished in 1598; the City Museum, and on the other side, the Pasaje de la Revolucion (Revolution Alley), where sculpture exhibitions are set. Other buildings in the complex include the Museum of Contemporary Art (MACAY) housing permanent modern art exhibits.
Casa Montejo, (House of Montejo),with its famed statues of Spanish conquerors, the Government House offering murals illustrating the history of the region, and the clock tower atop City Hall are all within walking distance of the Plaza.
Been There, Done That
Chichen Itza is rightfully popular, though the famed Mayan archaeological site is at least two hours away from Progreso. Once there, the site includes the Temple of Kukulkan, the Ceremonial Ball Court, the Well of Sacrifice, the Observatory, and much more. Many visitors choose to rent a car to provide exploration flexibility and to arrive when crowds aren't as large.
Uxmal is a bit closer to Progreso (and Merida), making for a more manageable tour of an archaeological site (90 minutes or so one-way). Highlights include the Pyramid of the Magician, the Palace of the Governor and the House of the Turtles.
Less than an hour from Progreso, X'cambo is just starting to be included on shore excursions and this archaeological site is another ideal option for a shorter day of Mayan history. With a pyramid, burial sites, and sacrificial wells, the most unique thing about X'cambo is the lack of crowds (so far).
Though much less popular than Chichen Itza or Uxmal, the Mayan site of Dzibilchltun is just 15 minutes from Progreso. Dzibilchltun is actually the largest, and probably oldest, site discovered so far. It was an important ceremonial center in the Mayan world and is ideal for Progreso passengers who want to visit a Yucatan archaeological site without spending an entire day as it is closest to the port.
Snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters of nearby 'Cenote Caves' is a popular shore excursion offering.
Uaymitun is a wildlife and bird sanctuary that features lots of birds and pretty pink flamingos -- numbering in the thousands. This is best explored by rental car, a 4x4 shore excursion (typically packaged with a visit to Xtampu), or by kayak, which is also a popular shore excursion offering.
La Ceiba Golf Course, just outside Merida, is the best choice for duffers, (+52 999 922 0071)
Progreso's Malecon Beach is really the only game in town and it's a nice one with all the standard offerings: lounge chairs, umbrellas, banana-boat rides, fishing excursions, volleyball, kayaks, changing rooms, showers, and tables and chairs situated right on the sand for drinks or food. For the more adventurous with a rental vehicle, the beaches get much quieter heading out of Progreso to the east (Chicxulub is particularly nice, though Uaymitun, San Benito, and San Bruno further east are also recommended).
Staying in Touch
International phones are available at the terminal where the ships dock, as well as throughout Progreso. A cyber café in the terminal will hook you up and others are located around the Malecon.
For More Information
Call (+52 969 935 0104) for the tourism office right in Progreso.
Call (+52 999 930 3760) for the Yucatan secretary of tourism.
On the Web: www.mayayucatan.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Progreso/Merida
The Independent Traveler: Mexico Exchange