In this guide, we’ll explore everything you need to know about the Yucatán Peninsula, including why it’s worth visiting and some of the very best places to explore. I’ll also share various customized itineraries to help you get the very most out of your trip.
Why Visit the Yucatán?
First things first: the beaches here really are unrivaled. While Mexico has some awesome beach towns along the Pacific Coast such as Puerto Escondido, it’s hard to compete with the white sands and perfect weather in the Yucatán. (Just be aware of the sargassum seaweed problems, which I’ll discuss further below.)
The atmosphere in this region is also great, which is due to decades of steady tourism and infrastructure improvements.
Towns like Playa del Carmen and Isla Mujeres are great for meeting others and enjoying the good life by the beach, where they also have some really heated nightlife scenes.
However, what really makes the Yucatán Peninsula stand out is its Mayan history. This civilization flourished from roughly 7000 B.C. up until 900 A.D., which predates many other well-known Mesoamerican groups such as the Olmecs and Aztecs.
Ancient ruins are found all over the region, such as those of Chichén Itzá, Tulum, and Coba. Cities like Mérida offer a great glimpse into the once-strong empire, with many worthy museums and historical sites to learn from.
We can also find many cenotes found throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, which are sinkholes and river caves that are often of stunning beauty. They’re perfect for swimming and snorkeling within the turquoise waters, and also for divers who want to head further into the deep network of caves below.
The Yucatán Peninsula encompasses 3 Mexican states, though the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan State offer some of the most worthwhile sights, so it’s best to focus your travel route here. These are three suggestions based on your available time:
1 Week (Playa del Carmen – Isla Mujeres)
With just one week it’s best to base yourself in Playa del Carmen for 4 or 5 days, where you can easily explore ruins such as Chichén Itzá and Tulum on day trips. You can also visit various cenotes with ease.
For your last 2 days, I recommend heading to Isla Mujeres and enjoying the picturesque beaches.
2 Weeks (Tulum – Valladolid – Mérida – Playa del Carmen)
Arriving in Cancún, we’ll first take the bus down to Tulum, where we’ll spend 3 days enjoying the natural landscapes and bohemian scenes.
From here we’ll then head to Valladolid for 3 days to enjoy a more authentic space in the Yucatán Peninsula, before heading over to Mérida for another 3 days.
I’d then recommend spending your last 5 Days in Playa del Carmen, and following the itinerary as outlined above.
1 Month (Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen, Akumal, Tulum, Bacalar, Mérida, Valladolid)
One month is the perfect timeframe for those backpacking throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. It will let you easily see everything — including the more hidden gems.
You can spend 4-5 days in each place, and also visit other destinations such as Bacalar which is known for its stunning lagoon, as well as the beachside town of Akumal where you can swim with Green Sea Turtles.
Best Places to Visit in the Yucatán
Playa del Carmen
Don’t Miss This: Xcaret Park
While Cancún is the major gateway into the Yucatán Peninsula, you’ll find that a strong majority of arriving tourists are flocking straight to Playa del Carmen – and for good reason too.
Playa is known for its lively atmosphere, with various hotels, restaurants, and nightlife found along the beach. The epicenter of it all is found along the Quinta Avenida, which is a legendary pedestrian street known for its bustle and vibrant markets.
Although there are more beautiful beaches nearby (such as Xpu-Ha), the beach in Playa is still lined with white sand and palm trees, and has that “feel good” factor. You can easily rent jet skis here too.
There are also some must-do day trips from this city, such as to Xcaret Park.
This eco-adventure park is home to many animals such as Pink Flamingos and Toucans and has various jungle paths, rivers, and caves all waiting to be explored. It’s just a 20-minute drive from Playa, and I recommend heading with this day tour which also includes a cultural night show.
There are also various cenotes in this part of the region, such as Cenote Azul and Chaak Tun. However, the cenote of Aktun Chen is the most underrated, filled with crystallized stalagmites and fully-sealed turquoise pools.
Where to Stay
Those on a budget will want to stay at the Hostel MXV, which is located right on the Quinta Avenida. There are various dorm rooms to choose from, and there’s also a really warm social scene which is perfect for meeting other travelers.
If you’re looking for a comfortable experience, then you’ll want to stay at the Hacienda Del Caribe Hotel. Here you’ll be staying in a king-sized room in an old colonial building, which also has an on-site swimming pool.
How to Get There
Playa del Carmen is perhaps the easiest destination of all to get to on this list.
Located roughly 55 km south of Cancún, you’ll first need to fly into the international airport here and then take the ADO bus south (about a 1-hour ride, which departs right outside of arrivals). The buses have air-conditioning and spacious seats, with the ride costing around $10.
Of course, you can also take taxis, which are readily available here, however, they tend to be quite expensive (roughly $40).
If you’re already traveling within the Yucatán Peninsula, then you can easily take buses to get to Playa del Carmen. From Tulum, it’s just a 2-hour ride north, while those in Mérida will be traveling for around 3 hours by bus.
Don’t Miss This: Las Coloradas
If you prefer colorful streets and quaint colonial neighborhoods, then Valladolid will be a must-visit for you.
Located in the heart of the Yucatán, there are plenty of picturesque buildings worth exploring here such as the Convent of San Bernardino of Siena, as well as the vibrant houses along the Calzada de los Frailes.
From the city, we can also head to the nearby Las Coloradas (just over an hour away), which has become somewhat famous in recent years. This is because these pools have a bright pink color, and are also teeming with local wildlife such as Crocodiles and Pink Flamingos.
Valladolid is arguably the best place to base yourself to visit an abundance of nearby cenotes and ruins, with those such as Suytun and Xkeken amongst the most popular.
While there are many other incredible ruins to visit throughout the region, it would be a big regret to miss out on Chichén Itzá.
It was once one of the most important Mayan hubs for its trading and religious activities, and even the temples were perfectly designed to keep track of Earth’s orbit around the sun.
Although it’s really touristy nowadays, you can head on this early-entrance tour to beat the crowds.
Where to Stay
Hostal Guacamayas is a good place, which is just a couple of blocks from the main plaza. Featuring a garden and swimming pool, you’ll also have air conditioning in the dorm rooms. They also include a free breakfast in the room rate.
Those who want an upgrade will love the Hotel San Clemente. Located right in the heart of the historic center, you’ll have two on-site pools to enjoy as well as an option to book online without a credit card (pay in cash on arrival).
How to Get There
Similar to Playa del Carmen, there’s no airport here in Valladolid so travelers arriving internationally will first need to head to Cancún.
ADO buses are the best way of traveling the route, which costs around $15 and takes just under two hours to arrive.
As well as taking a taxi, there are also numerous car rental companies you can choose from such as Avis and Hertz which can be as cheap as $10 a day! This is definitely a better option for those looking to head around the Yucatán more freely.
There is also the option of coming from Mérida which is ideal since it has its own airport, with the bus taking around 2 and a half hours. There are also buses from Tulum which take just 30 minutes.
Don’t Miss This: Isla Contoy
Although we can find beautiful beaches all over Mexico, those of the Riviera Maya are the most special.
Here we’ll find gorgeous white sands, year-long great weather as well as calm turquoise waters which are perfect for swimming in.
Isla Mujeres is on a whole different level though, with its most famous beach of Playa Norte constantly being ranked amongst the 20 most beautiful on the planet. It’s also great for snorkeling, where you can spot everything from Sergeant Major and Bluehead Wrasse to Surgeonfish.
The island is also more relaxed when compared with the mainland, and you can easily rent a golf cart and freely head around the island.
Some of the best stops along the way include Punta Sur, the Mayan ruins of Ixchel as well as the Hacienda Mundaca.
One of the best trips you can take from the island is to nearby Isla Contoy, which is a protected national park.
It’s a must for nature lovers, who can head on this day trip where you can spot various sea turtles and over 150 species of exotic birds. We’ll also see the dramatic meeting of the light blue Caribbean Sea along with the darker hues of the Gulf of Mexico.
Where to Stay
Isla Mujeres has definitely gone up in price in recent years, however, you can still find bargain accommodation options. Those who want to keep things cheap can stay at Nomads Hotel Hostel & Beach Club. Here you’ll be right on the beach, staying in a dorm room with AC.
If you’re after a truly memorable experience, then you’ll want to stay at the Selina Poc Na Hostel. Offering both deluxe dorm rooms and private rooms, you’ll be right next to the beach with a great social atmosphere.
How to Get There
The only feasible way to get to Isla Mujeres is by boat, which departs directly from the ferry terminal in Cancún.
The journey takes just 20 minutes, and there are departures every half an hour. Ultramar is the main route provider, and for a one-way ticket you’ll pay $9 (it’s best to get a return ticket which is slightly cheaper, which makes sense as we can only depart the same way we arrive).
If you look closely at a map you can also see that there is an airstrip here, however, it’s not for commercial use yet unfortunately!
Don’t Miss This: Dos Ojos Cenote
By far one of the most recognizable on the list, Tulum has surged in popularity with backpackers over the last few decades.
Although it’s much more touristy than before, it’s still a great place for exploring nature and enjoying a less hectic atmosphere.
Within the town, we can find many local restaurants that are perfect for trying Mexican food (and more regional dishes). Some of my top recommendations include Los Aguachiles and Antojitos La Chiapaneca.
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is one of the best day trips to head on, and you can easily rent a bike from town to explore various low-key beaches and see wildlife such as Bottlenose Dolphins and wild Tapir.
We can also find the Mayan ruins of Tulum nearby, which have a memorable backdrop of the blue Caribbean Sea. You can easily get to these ruins using the local colectivos, followed by chilling out on the palm-fringed beaches below (the archaeological site is located on a cliff).
Other beaches such as Playa Paraíso are known for their tropical settings and local amenities, and if the sun is getting too hot you can always head to the nearby Dos Ojos Cenote for a cool-down in the semi-closed caves.
Where to Stay
When it comes to finding solid yet inexpensive accommodation in Tulum, I highly recommend the Aldea Tzunun Hostel. Featuring a swimming pool, you’ll be in a great location and can easily meet other like-minded backpackers here.
If you’re looking for a more comfortable stay, then Los Arcos Hotel is a great option for you. Staying in a cozy room in Tulum’s center, you’ll have an on-site swimming pool as well as breakfast included in the room rate.
How to Get There
Tulum is the most southern-lying destination of all on this list, however, it’s still only a 3-hour bus ride from Cancún International Airport.
Again you can either pre-book or pay for your bus ticket at the booth on arrival, with multiple departures every hour. A one-way ticket with ADO costs roughly $25.
Those who are already in the Yucatán Peninsula can easily get to Tulum using local buses, such as from Playa del Carmen (around an hour), Valladolid (30 minutes), and Bacalar further south (a 3-hour ride).
Travelers heading up from Central America can also reach Tulum once they’ve crossed the Belizean border into Chetumal. There are multiple departures to Tulum daily from here, with the bus taking roughly 4 hours.
Don’t Miss This: Uxmal Ruins
There are so many worthwhile reasons to visit Mérida when you’re in this area of Mexico.
The first is to explore the inner city, which is thriving with local culture and tasty foods (Cochinita Pibil is a must-try, however, it’s also worth sampling other local staples such as Panuchos and Botanas).
Walking around the historic center we’ll also find many stunning buildings such as the Museo Casa Montejo, Catedral de Mérida as well as the Quinta Montes Molina.
The Mayan World Museum is an absolute must-visit, which leads us deeper into the ancient culture with over 1000 unearthed artifacts. I recommend heading here first before exploring the ruins, as it paints the picture well and you’ll also know what you’re seeing when walking around later.
There are many ruins located close to the city, many of which are found along the infamous 60 km stretch known as the Ruta Puuc.
Uxmal is the most notorious, which is known for its earth-coloured temples which tower above the surrounding jungle. Others worth heading to include Kabah and Dzibilchaltún.
Where to Stay
Those after a great yet inexpensive accommodation option will love the Hostal Zócalo. Located right in the heart of Mérida, you’ll be close to many of the best sites as well as having breakfast included in the room rate.
If you want more luxury, then you will want to stay at the Hotel San José. You’ll be staying in a comfortable private room within a charming colonial building, right on the main zócalo.
How to Get There
Mérida is one of the easiest destinations to get to in this part of Mexico.
It has its own international airport, with flights arriving from various countries such as the USA, Guatemala, and Cuba.
Of course, nearby Cancún is still the best option, especially for those who are further away in the world (it will be much cheaper this way). The bus from Cancún International Airport to Mérida takes around 3 hours and costs roughly $40.
Most other destinations in the Riviera Maya also connect up well, with buses taking no longer than 6 hours.
Mérida is also the gateway for those arriving on buses from Central Mexico, with the most popular route departing from Palenque in the state of Chiapas (roughly a 9-hour bus ride).
Don’t Miss This: Swim with Whale Sharks
Known as “the Maldives of Mexico”, travelers heading to Isla Holbox are all heading here for the same reason; stunning waters, natural beauty, and total relaxation.
While sargassum seaweed can plague other beaches along the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, Holbox does well to avoid this given it’s located further north from the shores of Cancún. (Tip: check this official sargassum monitoring page on Facebook for up-to-date maps on where the seaweed can be found currently.)
Playa Holbox and Playa Mosquito are two of the very best you can visit here, where you can even find wild Flamingos roaming along the shores!
You can take a kayak out to explore the quieter mangroves, and even see bioluminescent plankton light up the sea a bright blue at nightfall (it’s best to head on the tour to Punta Cocos during the new moon for the best viewing conditions).
The other absolute must-do here is swimming with Whale Sharks. Although you can do this anywhere along the Mexican Caribbean, there’s something more special about meeting these sea giants off the coast of Isla Holbox.
Just remember that you can only see them between May and September during their annual migration to warmer waters.
Where to Stay
Those after a budget accommodation will want to stay at the Hostal Holbox. Staying in an air-conditioned dorm room, you’ll be just a few blocks from the beach. As well as featuring a garden, they also have on-site rentals for snorkeling gear and other equipment.
If you want a more comfortable stay, then AKBAL Holbox is a perfect option. Located just a block from the beach, you’ll have your own apartment along with an on-site swimming pool.
How to Get There
The most popular way for travelers to get to Isla Holbox is by taking a bus from Cancún to the port town of Chiquilá, and then the ferry ride over to the island (around 3 and a half hours in total, which costs $30).
Another way is to head on a day tour to Isla Holbox, which is best for those short on time. I highly recommend this day tour from Cancún which includes all transport as well as visits to top destinations such as Isla Pasión.
Yucatán Backpacking Tips
Getting around the Yucatán Peninsula is very easy nowadays, with a wide range of transport options available.
While the ADO buses are great for longer distances (given they’re air-conditioned and reliable), I highly recommend also taking advantage of the local collectivos.
These small minivans are perfect for getting around the region, and only cost a few dollars a ride. They can be a bit hectic though, so always keep an eye on your belongings and watch for when your stop is getting close. If you’ve done any backpacking in Mexico, you’ll surely be using the collectivos a lot.
Another important thing to consider is when you’ll visit. Although it’s going to be hot year-round, there’s a district dry and wet season that can really vary your experience.
The dry season (from December until April) is the most popular time to visit, where there are just 1-2 inches of rainfall throughout each month. This makes it perfect for hitting the beaches and hiking through the jungle.
Although the wet season usually brings stormy weather (between 3-6 inches of rainfall each month), the benefits here are that everything will be much cheaper and that there will be fewer crowds.
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