Yucatán Beyond Cancún: Top Places For Culture, Nature & Beach Life

September 14, 2018

Contributor Tiffany Mead spent several months traveling around the Yucatán Peninsula, and shares with us her favorite spots and top travel tips.

If you’re dreaming of sunny days in Mexico, I get it… this magical destination has long been a top choice for a getaway to paradise.

It’s gained a reputation over the years for parties, sun, tacos and margaritas on the beach. Tourist hubs, like Cancun, have capitalized on these experiences leading many vacationers to kitschy all-inclusive resorts. But, don’t be mistaken. While you’re sure to enjoy some of the best tacos, tequila, and turquoise waters on your trip, Mexico holds so many more treasures to be discovered. Many of them lie just outside these resort areas in the Yucatán Peninsula, the place I admiringly refer to as the “Magical Land of the Maya.”

The magic of the Yucatán starts with an incredible array of natural wonders, historical and archaeological sites, great food, and a laid-back vibe. The peninsula, which consists of Yucatán state and Quintana Roo states also touts some of Mexico’s most accessible, safest and cheapest destinations for adventuring out independently or with a small group.

In this Yucatán travel guide:

 

Mérida

Colonial Charm and Gateway to Maya Culture
  • Tour some of the most important Maya archaeological sites on the Ruta Puuc
  • Discover hidden cenotes by mule-ride at Cenotes Cuzamá

If you’re looking to discover some of the Yucatán’s rich and interesting culture, history, and natural sites, then you’ve likely heard about this colonial gem, Mérida.  Also called T’Ho by the Maya people, Mérida is the largest city in the Yucatán and was once an impressively wealthy place due to production of sisal, a type of agave used to create fibers for rope-making.  Its wealth, however, was also deeply rooted in slavery and with a class war as well as the invention of synthetic rope, Mérida was abandoned by many.

Decades later, as colonial mansions sat vacant, opportunities for investment were seen and expat movement rose as people bought properties to restore. Today, you can see clearly the passing of time as renovated buildings stand bright, colorful and impressive in contrast to neighboring decrepit, overgrown, and equally beautiful colonial buildings. Simply strolling the different colonias, or neighborhoods, is a treat in itself.

Mérida’s convenient location “in the middle of the most” also adds to its appeal.  It’s easy to spend a weekend, a week, or in my case… a couple of months in Mérida due to its variety of activities including free nightly cultural events, art markets and tours, a great array of restaurants and bars, and convenient access to neighboring attractions.  Check out the Monday night Vaqueria dance, Friday night Pok ta Pok Maya Ball game, and Sunday BiciRuta free bicycling event through the historic center.

If you have more than a couple of days in Mérida, rent a car for the day and complete the Ruta Puuc, which includes 7 major cultural and archaeological sites of the Maya.  You must start early in the morning to see it all, and highlights include the Lol-Tun cave system, Labná Archaeological Site, and Uxmal Archaeological site.  Sundays, the local bus also completes this route.

Well off-the-beaten path is Cenotes Cuzamá, about 45 minutes out of town via bus.  A tour here takes you to a series of underground cenotes, which are fresh-water limestone sinkholes considered highly sacred to the Maya as portals to the underworld.  At Cuzamá, you’ll access the cenotes by being pulled on a mule-cart 2 miles via an old railway system.  These are absolutely some of the most magical cenotes I found in the Yucatán.

After a mid-day siesta, spend the evenings crawling to the various cantinas, where small plates of food are INCLUDED in the price of your drinks.  My favorites are La Negrita Cantina and El Cardinal Cantina.  As you walk the streets, also keep a look out for the Yucatan street food specialty, la marquesita, a crepe filled usually with cheese and cajeta, a goat milk syrup.  Other popular fillings include Nutella and fruit for those with a super sweet tooth.

 

Celestún

Biodiversity and Natural Scenery on the Yucatán Coast
  • Search for wildlife in the mangroves of Celestún Biosphere Reserve
  • Enjoy a natural Maya mud bath in the Celestùn river

While the Yucatán state boasts a fairly long coastline along the gulf, you won’t find the crystal clear waters and party resort towns found in Quintana Roo.  What you will find is a brilliant array of diverse habitats, excellent wildlife-viewing opportunities, and relaxed beachside villages. Celestún, just an hour drive from Mérida is a definite favorite spot for these reasons.

Most people come to Celestún to witness the spectacle of flamingos congregating in the estuary during early spring before flying to Rio Lagartos for breeding.  Boat tours are available, with non-motorized tours throughout the Celestun Biosphere Reserve having the least impact on the ecosystem.

Mangroves of Dzinitun tours are highly recommended for their attention to the environment, having reforested hundreds of acres of mangroves and committing to non-motorized tourism.  Their tour travels through the mangroves providing spectacular opportunities for viewing birds and other critters, such as caiman.  The brothers who run the tour recommend arriving early morning (around 7 am) for wildlife viewing.  I arrived later in season and later in the day, discovering many birds, but unfortunately only one lone flamingo left in the lagoon and a few in the river.  The rest had already started their way to Rios Lagartos.  I found that the other wildlife, deep immersion in the mangroves, education about reforestation and conservation, and opportunity to partake in the natural Maya mud bath in the river made this tour special and well worth the trip.

After your tour, the beach is just a short stroll away and provides options for dining, drinks, and beachcombing.

Valladolid

World Wonders and Preserved History
  • Marvel at the Greatness of Chichen Itzá’s El Castillo Pyramid and Ancient Ball Court
  • Spend the day at a historic hacienda and cenote

Valladolid is an excellent destination for travelers setting out to see Chichen Itzá, one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.  Visitors to Valladolid will find many day trips to other ruins as well as breathtaking cenotes and small traditional Maya villages.  But the town of Valladolid its a treasure in itself.

Much smaller than Mérida, Valladolid also sports predominantly colonial architecture and has been greatly restored. Historic plazas, churches, shops, and cobble stone streets line the town center and walking is by far the best way to enjoy this place.  Of all destinations in the Yucatán peninsula, Valladolid impressed me most with its selection of truly locally-crafted souvenirs, such items made from sisal, hand-carved masks, ceramics, and paintings. Arte Rosa Mexicano has a unique, curated selection.

In terms of the quintessential trip to Chichen Itzá, some travelers waiver on whether its worth it. I argue, absolutely…but definitely try to get their early in the morning, as tours arriving around 10 am make for a crowded, Disney-like experience.  Staying in Valladolid overnight makes this much more feasible.  Chichen Itzá has earned its reputation as a wonder for many reasons and if you can spend some time there in relative peace from crowds, you’ll better appreciate the magnitude of the ruins in terms of their scale, story-telling carvings, and historical importance.  While I typically forgo guided tours, this is one archaeological site where I do suggest hiring one of the local guides at the entrance.  They really share an incredible wealth of knowledge, explaining the site’s significance in the Maya culture in a way you likely won’t discover on your own.

After Chichen Itzá, consider venturing to Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxman for the afternoon.  Wanting to enjoy one of the Yucatán’s famous well-cenotes, I found that Cenote Ik Kil was certainly the most popular, but again came with Disney-like crowds.  Cenotes are just some of those magical places that beg to be experienced with as much serenity as possible.

The cenote at San Lorenzo Oxman was a great alternative, just 15 minutes outside Valladolid’s city center.  While I opted out of Ik Kil, the San Lorenzo cenote appears to be very similar and through mid-morning it was relatively secluded.  It also has a rope swing, which adds a thrilling element.  Mid-day more people do come to enjoy the cenote, but it still remained quite enjoyable.  The hacienda where the cenote is located also has a pool, bar with small restaurant, and gorgeous gardens onsite to enjoy.

 

Ek Balam

Connections with the Maya Community
  • Experience daily life in a small local village
  • Explore the impressive ruins and cenote at Ek Balam Archaeological site

Ek Balam is a special place, certain to leave a lasting impression.  I chose to include Ek Balam on my itinerary after seeing photos of the temple’s massive stucco sculptures and tomb at the main temple, El Torre.  Later, as I searched for a place to spend a couple evenings at an eco-lodge in the Yucatán, I discovered Geneses Eco-Oasis in Ek Balam Village.

Most people who visit Ek Balam only go for the day to visit the ruins, and perhaps the cenote.  The small local village lies just a couple minutes drive from the archaeological site and attracts a special type of visitor.  No major restaurants, hotels, or tour providers are found.  Mainly, thatched huts with locals weaving hammocks for sale line the two main roads.  This is the type of place to slow down and unwind.

Geneses Eco-Oasis was wonderful with a tranquil garden setting and cenote-fed pool. The owner partners with local community members to lead immersive cultural tours, morning village walks, and farm tours. The morning walks gave me deeper connection with the area as we stopped and conversed with various local people along the way and even discovered remnants of old archaeological sites.  Bikes are also available and make for easy transport to the main ruins and cenote at Ek Balam. Genesis may not be for those who would struggle with the sounds of roosters crowing early morning or the possibility of discovering small critters in their screened in cabana room.

Isla Holbox

Mexico’s Timeless Island Paradise
  • Tour three islands around Yum Balam Ecological Preserve
  • Chill out in the ocean hammocks at Punta Cocos

Isla Holbox has made it onto the scene as Mexico’s “best kept secret” in recent years.  It certainly deserves recognition, but also means that it is less than secret now.  Still, this island is simply breath-taking with palm-lined beaches, hammocks strung throughout the island, and decidedly rustic island vibes.

You’ll still find few cars as most people get around by motobici or golf-cart.  You’ll discover brightly colored murals, breathtaking sunsets at the pier, and many remote natural areas perfect for rejuvenating.  Several boutique hotels and restaurants have opened in recent years adding to the allure for hip travelers.  Still, with its seclusion from the mainland, you’ll need to be prepared for mosquitos and the possibility of food poisoning as conditions are a bit more rustic.

Holbox is a long strip of island, and as such, most visitors don’t venture out far from the town.  But do spend some time at nearby Punta Cocos (known for bioluminescence at night during certain times of year) and Punta Mosquito.  When tide is out, Punta Mosquito reveals a large sandbar perfect for day-time water and sand play.  Golf carts and bikes are easily rented, but can’t be taken out much further than the town in order to preserve the coastal ecosystems.

A three-boat tour is a great excursion and your only way to visit neighboring small islands.  The tours provide opportunities to bird-watch at Isla Pajaros, swim in an open mangrove cenote at Yum Balam Ecological Preserve, and potentially see flamingos at Isla Pasión.

Celito Lindo offers affordable bungalow rooms set around a relaxing pool area.  The location just outside the hub of town is convenient, but encourages some walking in the local neighborhoods.

 

Cozumel

Cruise Shippers and Resort-Style Attractions
  • Snorkel in Calm Waters
  • Eat fresh ceviche and party at your own pace

Cozumel deserves mention as one of the top tourist destinations boasting some of the most breathtaking water in Quintana Roo.  Offering a bit more charm and ambiance than neighboring Cancun and Playa del Carmen, visitors here can find a balance between kitschy attractions and natural areas.  If you’re hoping to get away from crowds, you may be hard pressed as cruises typically dock here every day but Sunday.  On Sundays, you’ll find some major establishments closed.  However, just about any day, you could spring for a pricey taxi or car rental and drive down to Punta Sur Ecological Reserve, the island’s uninhabited beach.  This pristine area is equipped with basic provisions such as chairs, hammocks, a lighthouse, and a bridge overlooking the crocodile lagoon.

Otherwise, embrace the party spirit of the island.  As soon as you depart the ferry from Playa del Carmen, shops and restaurants catered to tourists abound.  If you walk a few blocks back, you’ll find more local establishments, such as Pescaderia San Carlos, which serves up massive plates of ceviche for cheap.

Buccanos Beach Bar is a short taxi ride away and offers a small, but beautiful bay, lounge chairs, a restaurant and bar, and snorkel gear.  Snorkeling here is decent in terms of large schools of fish and the occasional interesting oddity.  Admission is $15 USD, which gets credited towards your food bill.  This is great for those seeking a semi-inclusive experience, but it can get crowded and closes at 5pm.  For snorkeling, arrive before 1:30 as gear is locked away by 2pm.

 

Cobá

Jungle Adventures and Roadside Markets
  • Scale the tallest pyramid temple on the Yucatán Peninsula
  • Encounter monkeys in the wild of Punta Laguna
  • Eat the best grilled chicken…ever

One thing to note about the many Maya ruins in the Yucatán Peninsula is that most of the popular temples have been closed for climbing.  This comes after injuries and even deaths have occurred over the years.  So, as Cobá, the tallest temple in the Yucatán is still open to climbing, I made it a priority to take the trip.  Also appealing is Cobá’s setting in the tranquil jungle.  In contrast to many other sites found in large flat areas, Cobá is surrounded by dense trees as if it still hasn’t been discovered.

In actuality, tourism here is booming.  After 10:30 am, you can expect to share views atop the main temple with hoards of other people.  And yet, the entire archaeological area offers many more interesting sites to explore.  Ruins are tucked away in the jungle at various points along the route, which is accessed by walking, bike, or riding in a bicitaxi rickshaw.  Having done the walk myself, renting a bike is the way to go.  The jungle is hot and humid and biking keeps the air flowing while helping you navigate along the couple miles of route much more efficiently.

At the archaeological site, you’ll find many tourist shops selling sourveniers.  These were some of the most overpriced souveniers I have found at any of the major tourist destinations in Mexico…and many were certainly not from Cobá.  Instead, find your way towards Tulum and you will encounter a long roadside market a couple of miles from the archaeological site.  Locally-made furnishings are in abundance on this strip, but you can also find some other more typical souveniers for a decent price.  On the same strip is a local honey factory and store and several families who have set up small grilled chicken stands.  A lunch plate runs the equivalent of about $5-6 USD and comes with a hefty portion of delectable chicken, rice, tortillas, a small salad, and the typical local spaghetti made with canned tomato sauce.  This isn’t your posh eatery, but I keep coming back just for that chicken!

Just outside of Cobá, Punta Laguna is a remote lake and natural wildlife sanctuary home to spider monkeys, howler monkeys, jaguars, pumas and more.  This is a protected area which requires a guide to enter.  While you’re likely to see many monkeys on an hour hike around the lake, the larger mammals tend to stay on the other side of the lake out of the way of human interaction.  Canoes can be rented to enjoy out on the lake as well.

 

Tulum

Boho-Chic Utopia Surrounded by Natural Beauty
  • Snorkel through the underground cave system of Cenote Sac Actun
  • Enjoy the secluded wilderness of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere

Tulum… the place in Mexico I have had perhaps the most difficult relationship with. Tulum is a bucket-list destination for most. If you haven’t been, you’re probably eagerly awaiting when you can go. And I am not going to dissuade it…it’s absolutely one of the most stunning places on the Yucatán Peninsula. However, know that the once sleepy bohemian place where people came to enjoy eco-sanctuaries and wellness is a little overdone at this point and local community members and culture are being pushed out.

If you decide to spend some time in Tulum, do try to support local business, perhaps by staying closer to Tulum Town, rather than the trendy, more prescribed beach area.  Look to see that local people are on staff, and if you’re shopping—get to know your local artisans if possible.

Now, with this in mind… have an amazing time getting to know this jewel of a place. The natural scenery is delightful. Just outside of town there are many amazing cenotes to visit.  One of the most popular is Dos Ojos, and you should drive there, but then continue past it to make it to Cenotes Sac Actun.  Fewer visitors know about this place and it is simply breath-taking.  You must take a guide due to risk of getting lost in the underground cave system.  Snorkel gear and life jackets are provided and you’ll spend about an hour navigating through various caverns and enjoying the aqua-marine waters.

To go deeper into the wilderness, consider driving down or taking a tour to Sian Ka’an Biosphere.  With a car, you can drive partly into the biosphere and enjoy views of the rugged ocean and mangrove.  Much further down is Punta Allen, and it is not advised to drive here due to poor road conditions.  A 4×4 tour can take you there, where boats are available for hire for dolphin viewing, fishing, etc.

On Tulum Beach, a delicious, unpretentious, and affordable option for eats is Taqueria La Eufemia.  Back to tacos and margaritas…this place has amazing fish tacos and Maracuya (passionfruit) margaritas.  They also serve delicious hand-crafted mezcal from Oaxaca.  This traditional Mexican beverage is distilled from wood-fired agave giving it a unique smokey flavor.  In town, Batey’s Mojito Bar is another fun choice for drinks and atmosphere, where the sugarcane for your drinks is manually pressed in front of the restaurant.

If you can get a room in town at Hotel Howlita, you’ll enjoy the comforts of a boutique hotel with more opportunities for interactions with the local community nearby.

 

Planning your Yucatan trip

Getting In and Around

Traveling the Yucatán peninsula is fairly effortless in terms of connectivity between destinations and transportation.  Both Cancun and Mérida host international airports.  With a major highway between Cancun and Mérida, you’ll find that access between Yucatán state and Quintana Roo is simple.  Buses are abundant and can get you between destinations within a few hours in most cases.  Occasionally, arranging passage on a shared shuttle may be more cost effective.  For example, Cancun Shuttle runs from Cancun to Chiquila (ferry departure point for Isla Holbox) for a little less than the bus, but with less comfort.  Overall, the buses are economical and you will find local, 2nd class, and 1st class options available to major destinations.

Car rentals can be a headache, but serve well for people who want to venture out to multiple places in a day.  Mexico requires purchase of third party liability insurance, and so while many people find quotes online for cars renting at $1 a day, after added insurance people often get scammed into spending a lot more once they’re at the counter.  Having rented cars numerous times in the Yucatán I can vouch for EasyWay Car Rental (in Cancun and Mérida) who gives up front, all inclusive pricing online.  A small car with all coverages cost me about $28/day and they were extremely helpful on each of my trips.  Highway tolls between states are frequent, but can be avoided if you opt for the scenic, slow routes.

Uber and a local ride-share app, called THO are available in Mérida, offering safe and reliable transport around town.  Other areas in the Yucatán have not approved ride-sharing apps.

Yucatan travel budget

On a backpacker budget, $40 a day is doable, but limiting.  Hostels average $10-12 a night.  Meals in local restaurants cost the equivalent of $4-7, while mid-range options cost $7-10.  Markets and street booths offer cheap fresh produce that you can wash and prepare yourself, as well as traditional dishes, such as pibil (pit roasted pork) tacos and soda de lima for $1-2 per serving. Local beers run about $2-3, but at a cantina will include several small plates of food, giving you much more bang for your buck. Cantinas don’t typically require a minimum purchase, but it is good practice to order 2-3 drinks.

Transportation and attractions are where your budget needs the most fluff.  Bus rides between states can be costly ($28 USD between Mérida and Cancun), but local buses typically cost about $1-5 to nearby destinations ($4 Mérida to Celestún).  Entrance to attractions, such as archaeological ruins, sometimes involves payment of both state and federal admissions.  Most major attractions cost between $10-15 USD, not including extras such as bike hire.  Remember, there are many free activities in the area.  You would do well with $60-70 USD per day if you plan to change destinations frequently. 

Yucatan: what to expect

If you’ve traveled to other places in Mexico, you will find that the Yucatán is a unique place. Time seems to move slower, the heat can be downright oppressive, and preservation of local traditions and ecosystems is certainly at the forefront of community members’ minds as tourism continues to take off. Due to mid-day heat, siesta culture is pervasive… so expect some early morning activity and a predominantly night-focused atmosphere. Truly, going out in some towns at different times of day reveals multiple distinct personalities.

Expect lowland, coastal scenery. There are no volcanoes or mountains to be climbed here. Many natural areas are highly regulated and require entrance with a guide. Guides in this area have been among the most eager to share about their culture, history, and preservation of the area.  Connecting with the local Maya people and their sacred places are some of the more enriching aspects of a journey in the Yucatán.

All photos unless otherwise stated by Tiffany Mead, La Mesa Mariposa.

Traveling around Mexico? Be sure to check out our guide to the rest of the Mexico.

1 comment

  1. Lewis Johnson Reply September 25, 2018 at 5:07 pm

    The are beautiful places. They look like paradise on earth. I hope I have the opportunity to visit them one day.

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