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Progreso, located on the northwest coast of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, is a regular port of call on Western Caribbean itineraries, particularly those leaving from New Orleans and Texas ports. Located on the Gulf of Mexico, Progreso serves as an access point for visiting the rich Mayan historical sites found in this part of the world. (There are 2,040 sites in the state of Yucatan, of which only a tiny fraction have been excavated and restored.) The main attraction is the famed Chichen Itza, a new world wonder (be prepared for a long day), along with other less-crowded archeological sites that include Uxmal, Mayapan 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 and food and drink. Other attractions include cooling off in a cenote (a natural sinkhole) or just sampling a shot of the licorice-flavored native drink, Xtabentun.
Cruise visitors can also take advantage of the port's proximity to the charming colonial city of Merida, a 30-minute bus ride away. Merida offers historic ambience, shopping that ranges from boutiques to bazaars, and plenty of restaurants and cafes. It's 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, flanked on all sides by some of the city's most important buildings.
Merida boomed because of the region's haciendas, originally dedicated to cattle or maize. 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. At its peak, Yucatan produced practically all of the rope for the world's shipping 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. Hats, bottled water and sunscreen are musts when sightseeing in the region, while mosquito repellant and good walking shoes will make the trip more pleasant.
Both Progreso and Merida have been attracting expats from Canada and other countries, so amenities for English-speakers are growing.
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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 • Santiago de Cuba • Tampa
Most restaurants and bars will have a bottle of Xtabentun 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; waiters will bring them to you from the restaurants.
Designed for the region's humid weather, guayaberas -- also known as "Mexican wedding shirts" -- offer an easy-to-pack, lightweight gift for men; while the traditional look comes in white or pastels, the shirts also are available in black and colors. You'll also find plenty of vendors selling hammocks, a nod to the sisal plant that used to be a mainstay.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Mexican peso is the official currency; go to www.xe.com or www.oanda.com for current rates. Money can be changed at any bank or currency exchange. ATMs are also available in both Progreso and Merida. Most vendors accept cash only.
Where You're Docked
Progreso Pier juts nearly 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. Telephones and Internet connections are available.
The malecon in Progreso is a short shuttle bus ride from the terminal. Pack your beach bag and be ready to get wet or wander through shops and cafes before heading back to the ship. On the beach, you can capture postcard-worthy snapshots, relax with an al fresco massage or take a long, leisurely stroll along the sea wall. Musicians will play you a song and expect a tip, usually $1-$2.
On Foot: The pier operates a free shuttle from the ships to Progreso. It runs continuously throughout the day. A tip to the driver is optional. Once in town, the center is easily explored on foot.
By Taxi: Taxis are readily available at the pier or in town, though there's no real need for one unless you are going to Merida or one of the nearby ruins for independent exploration. To find a metered taxi, look for the "taximetro" sign on the roof; if there's no sign, make sure you agree on the price of the trip before getting in. The cost of a taxi into Merida is about $40 one way, $50 if you're in a van.
By Bus: A double-decker bus can give you a quick tour of Progreso for $3; you catch it about a block from where the pier shuttle bus drops you off. For those who want to experience Merida, Autoprogreso runs a local bus from Progreso to its terminal a few blocks from the Plaza Grande every 15 minutes. The fare is cheap, and the trip takes about 45 minutes.
Renting a Car: To get to more secluded beaches, Merida or archaeological sites independently, Yucatan Vacations Car Rentals will bring a car to you at the pier. If you want more choice, Merida has all the major car rentals, including Avis and Budget.
Watch Out For
Like many of Mexico's colonial cities, Merida's sidewalks are very uneven and occasionally have steep drop-offs. Watch where you step, or a sprained ankle could be in your future. Otherwise, Merida's historic center is very safe, and you should have no problem walking around.
The Malecon in Progreso: While the Gulf of Mexico is generally not the same turquoise blue you see in the Caribbean, Progreso's beach is fairly clean, with clear water. You'll find plentiful water sports options and stands set up for beach massages. The shuttle bus lets off passengers right by a fairly extensive crafts market, and souvenir shops can be found along the town's few streets. Several nice restaurants line the beach road; they also serve drinks at tables and chairs right on the beach.
Merida: Merida is a major attraction for many visitors. It's about a 30- to 45-minute drive from Progreso by shore excursion bus, local bus, taxi or rental car. Don't miss a chance to people watch and soak in local color in the Plaza Grande. See the Cathedral of San Ildefonso, which was finished in 1598, the City Museum and on the other side of the plaza, the Pasaje de la Revolucion (Revolution Alley), where sculpture exhibitions are set. Other buildings on or near the Plaza include the Museum of Contemporary Art (MACAY), which houses 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.
Chichen Itza: The famed Mayan archaeological site is rightfully popular, though it's at least two hours away from Progreso. (If you opt to see ruins, you won't have much beach time.) The site includes the Temple of Kukulkan, the Ceremonial Ball Court, the Well of Sacrifice and the Observatory. You'll also find a variety of vendors. Many visitors choose to rent a car to provide exploration flexibility and to avoid crowds, although plenty of excursion providers or cab drivers will take you there, too.
Been There, Done That
Cenotes: Yucatan is justly famous for its cenotes, freshwater pools fed by underground springs. There's no better way to beat the heat, particularly after touring an out-in-the-open Mayan ruin, than immersing yourself in the cool water. Some of them, such as Cenote Yokdzonot near Chichen Itza, contain small fish, which you can view through a snorkel mask. While cenotes come in all shapes and sizes, look for the ones found in caves, such as Cenote San Ignacio about 20 minutes from Merida. When the light hits the water just right, it shimmers with an unearthly blue tint you won't find anywhere else. To see them, either book a ship or private excursion that includes a dip, or work out a stop with your cab driver.
Uxmal: Uxmal is a bit closer to Progreso and Merida, about 90 minutes one way, making for a more manageable tour of an archaeological site. Highlights include the Pyramid of the Magician, the Palace of the Governor and the House of the Turtles. Some excursions combine a visit here with a stop at a hacienda.
Dzibilchltun: Though much less popular than Chichen Itza or Uxmal, the Mayan site of Dzibilchltun is just 15 minutes from Progreso. Dzibilchltun 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. There's also a cenote on site where you can swim.
Closest to the Ship: 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.
Best for All-Inclusive Beach Breaks: The Technotel, located in San Benito to the east of Progreso, serves as the base for the all-inclusive beach break packages run by independent operators. The all-inclusive hotel Reef Yucatan also offers day passes (and this is where the cruise lines such as Carnival have their beach breaks).
Outside of Town: If you're willing to rent a vehicle, the beaches get much quieter heading out of Progreso to the east. Chicxulub is particularly nice and attracts a significant expat population, as well as Mexicans who flock here in the summer; it's also home to a large crater. Other beaches popular with expats include Uaymitun (also to the east), home to a wildlife and flamingo sanctuary, and Sisal, a small fishing village west of Progreso.
Because the Yucatan Peninsula remained isolated from Mexico's mainland for many years, the area's cooking style took its cues from Cuba, the Caribbean and important 18th-century ports like New Orleans, which were influenced by European cooking styles. Traditional dishes are more elaborate, in some cases taking days to prepare. Try cochinita pibil -- pork marinated in citrus, slow-cooked in banana leaves and served with handmade tortillas -- or queso relleno, gouda-style cheese stuffed with beef and pork. Adventurous palates can try empanadas de cazon -- shark -- or Michelada, a beer spiked with Worcestershire sauce and served in a glass rimmed with salt and chili pepper. (Think of it as a Mexican Bloody Mary.)
Located within view of the pier, Eladio's, a Mexican-owned chain right on the beach, serves typical Yucatan food, as well as the standards found elsewhere in the country. Outdoor seating and large tables, plus access to prime people watching, make this a perfect hangout for a group (Av. Malecon at Calle 80; + 52 999 927 2126)
Popular with expats and Cruise Critic members, Buddy's on the Malecon specializes in seafood such as ceviche and fish tacos (and tequila, of course). Beach loungers are available with food and drink purchase; deflect the ubiquitous vendors with a simple "no, gracias." (Calle 19 No. 150-H between streets 76 and 78; +52 999 233 3171; open daily 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
After sightseeing, take a taco break at Los Trompos, a Mexican-owned chain with a prime location on Calle 60, a prime historic street. The restaurant is popular with tourists and locals alike and can get crowded at prime dining hours. (Calle 59/60; + 52 999 926 4654)
If you want to experience what Yucatan food is all about, make a reservation at La Tradicion, an upscale restaurant on Calle 60. Start with sopa de lima -- a soup made from "lime," which is more like a sour lemon in this part of the world -- before moving on to poc chuc (pork marinated in achiote paste) or pollo pibil. (Calle 60, between streets 55 and 53; +52 999 923 0100; open daily noon to 6 p.m.)
Cool off like the locals do with a sorbet at Dulceria y Sorbeteria Colon. An institution since 1907, Colon serves up sweet treats in flavors unusual for Americans, such as coconut, guanabana and elote. (Calle 61, on the park; +52 999 928 1497)
Staying in Touch
International phones are available at the terminal where the ships dock, and there's a cyber cafe in the terminal. Mexico has made a point of installing free Wi-Fi in many city parks, including the main downtown park in Progreso and the Plaza Grande in Merida. Several bars and restaurants along the malecon in Progreso will give patrons Wi-Fi either free or for a reduced charge.
Best for Active Travelers: The Jaguar Truck Mayan Adventure Expedition gives you access to the Yucatan's outdoors, with an excursion that combines a bike ride along the salt marshes with a visit to the ruins at Xcambo. An hour of stand-up paddleboarding in a nearby lagoon and time at a local beach completes this daylong tour, during which you are shepherded around by a red bus adorned with the elusive jungle cat.
Best for History Lovers: While Chichen Itza receives much of the publicity, Yucatan is full of other significant Mayan sites that don't receive as much attention. Consider a tour that encompasses Uxmal -- a less-crowded site that boasts elaborate carvings -- and Hacienda Ochill, a plantation that provides a glimpse of the region's wealthy past.
Best for Independent-Minded Travelers: Take the cruise line's bus into Merida, where you can soak up the colonial city's ambiance at your own pace. Besides strolling the Plaza Grande, take the time to browse the shops along Calle 60 (Artesanaria, on Calle 60 at 55, has a particularly good collection of Mexican and Mayan folk art) and grab a drink in the gorgeous Parque Santa Lucia.
For More Information
On the Web: Yucatan Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Progreso/Merida
IndependentTraveler.com: Mexico Travel Guide
--Updated by Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor
Photos courtesy Shutterstock: jgorzynik (Chichen Itza); Javier Correa (beach); NCG (cathedral); Subbotina Anna (cenote)
For More Information