You’ve probably heard of the Yucatan peninsula if only for its most well-known destinations, between Cancun with the older, fancier resort crowd frequented by tons of Canadian and American tourists, and then Playa del Carmen where you’ll find the younger and more rambunctious party scene.
But the Yucatan is a diverse and beautiful state which merits a bit more time to get off the well-worn tourist track. This is definitely one of the best places to visit in Mexico.
Here is a mix of lush, expansive jungles with little to no development for kilometers, with stunning white sand beaches that give way to the Caribbean Sea. Little islands dot the coastlines and ancient pyramids rise from the depths of the jungle!
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Pyramids in the Jungle
Development of the Yucatan peninsula is actually relatively recent, with construction in Cancun and Playa del Carmen only really taking off in the 1950’s.
Before that, Isla Mujeres was a common vacation destination for North American celebrities; other than that, the landscape was quite barren compared to all of the resorts that have cropped up in the Riviera Maya of today.
However, the Yucatan peninsula has long been an important site for the Mayans and there are tons of archaeological sites where you can explore various ruins. These are some of the best sites in Mexico if you’re looking to visit some ancient architecture:
This pyramid is one of the best preserved, not only in Mexico but the world over and as such it’s been named one of the seven wonders of the modern world. As a result, it’s one of the best-known archaeological sites in the Yucatan Peninsula, receiving 1.4 million visitors a year; it’s the 2nd most visited site in Mexico.
While it’s not exactly off the tourist track, but it really is worth a visit. It’s stunning, and is definitely one of the best things to do in Cancun.
How to get there: Chichen Itza is about halfway between Merida and Playa del Carmen on highway 180D and you have two options about how to get here. Either you can organize a tour from Playa del Carmen or Cancun if you’re so inclined and it will cost you around 1,000-1,300 pesos.
You can also stop at Chichen Itza on your way to Merida or Valladolid, a charming colonial town which is worth a visit in and of itself. The closest town you can stay to the site is called Pisté and if you do stay here you’ll be able to wake up early and get to the site when it opens at 8am, so you can avoid the crazy crowds and heat of the later afternoon.
I would recommend this second option if you have time.
Located about 65 kilometers from the city of Merida are these puuc style ruins. The architecture here is unique in that the edges of the pyramids are round, rather than square. You’ll also encounter many carvings of the rain god, Chaac , scattered throughout the site.
Don’t miss the incredible Governor’s Palace (which covers 1,115 square meters), the Pyramid of the Magician and the Great Pyramid.
Uxmal makes for a great day trip from the city of Merida. The entrance fee here is $12.
Located just 15 kilometers from Merida are the off-the-beaten-path ruins of Dzibilchaltun, which are tucked away from any main roads. During its height, there were over 40,000 people living here, making it one of the largest centers in all of Mesoamerica.
The main temple here is called the Seven Dolls, as 7 stone dolls were discovered upon excavating this site. During the summer and autumn equinox, the sun shines directly through a small doorway in the temple. The Mayan people used this passing of the sun as a way to determine the seasons, and the beginning and ending of the harvest.
If the sun is too intense for you, there’s a refreshing cenote that you can swim in! Bring your bathing suit and some water as well. The entrance fee here is $7.50.
Spanish is spoken throughout the Yucatan Peninsula but you will also likely to hear some Mayan. In some of the smaller villages (Xochen for example), Mayan is spoken predominantly and Spanish is only taught as a second language.
To greet someone in Mayan: Ba’ax ka wa’alik?
Maybe you’re not going to learn more than that in Mayan, but you should try to speak even just a little bit of Spanish.
The Yucatan peninsula is a flat lowlands that is mostly composed of limestone, which has led to the unique formation of a whole series of underground cave systems. In some cases they are filled with clear blue water, called cenotes.
Historically, ancient Mayan populations would often depend on the cenotes as a sort of water-purification system that guaranteed them clean drinking water. Cenotes are stunningly beautiful and I haven’t seen them anywhere else in the world.
Each one is a little different and they are scattered all throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. If you are heading south from Cancun or Playa del Carmen area you will come across many along highway 307.
You should know that most cenotes have been privatized and they range in price from 20-200 pesos ($1-$10) for the entrance fee. The most expensive in this stretch is Dos Ojos, where they were charging a 200 peso entry fee.
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If you’re into diving, this is an amazing place to go because you can see the external light streaming into the caves, as well as the mixing of salt and fresh water and the underground/underwater stalactites and stalagmites.
Sometimes you will see coral as well from when the sea level was higher and the area of the Yucatan peninsula was actually underwater.
Dos Ojos is very popular and thought to be one of the best sites, but because it is so well-known it can also be very crowded. Some alternatives are the Pit, Chac Mool and Kukulcan (this is where I went and it was beautiful!).
For two cave dives it will cost around $100 USD minimum. I shopped around a ton and this was the absolute best rate I could find anywhere in Playa del Carmen.
You can choose a dive shop either in Playa or in Tulum, depending on where you’re staying. Although there are some dive shops located right at the cenotes, they don’t offer any cheaper rates; sometimes it’s actually more expensive.
READ MORE: Dos Ojos – a Cave Dive in Mexico
For another stunning cenote, don’t miss the cave system of Rio Secreto!
White Sandy Beaches
If you’re really just looking to hang out on a beautiful beach, there’s plenty of that as well, but in my experience it’s worth the little bit of effort to get farther away from the crowds.
Isla Holbox is a magical little island about an hour and a half drive from Cancun. You can get a bus from the Cancun bus station but this will take about four hours. From there, you’ll have to take a ferry (about a half an hour ride) to the island itself.
The island is a mix of middle to upscale resorts and the downtown area that feels charmingly preserved. It hasn’t lost or sold out its authentic spark and in some ways coming here feels a little like a trip to Mexico of the past.
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Los Panchos: best price on seafood, local joint, best mojitos in town.
Tribu Hostal: yoga by Lulu, 50 pesos if you’re staying at Tribu, 100 pesos if you’re not staying there. Great hatha yoga classes offered twice a day.
Where to stay:
On a budget: camping at Ida y Vuelta
High end: Casa Tortuga
Another, more off-track beach in the Yucatan is Progreso, which is located just 40 kilometers from the city of Merida.
The next time you are planning your trip to the Yucatan, consider visiting some of the lesser-known towns, ruins and beaches. This region of Mexico has so much to offer travellers who are willing to leave the popular resort towns and experience the real Yucatan.
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