What to see in the Yucatan? During our honeymoon in Mexico, we spent almost a month between Yucatan and Chiapas: this is my personal list of things that I think are not to be missed!
Two Mexican symbols: the skulls and the sombreros!
La Yucatan peninsula has so many of those things to see that you could spend months doing something different: dreamy white sand beaches, imposing Mayan ruins, miles and miles of lush forests, cheerful and colorful towns, in the Yucatan you can't get there. boring even if you try hard.
Unfortunately, many tourists who come here check in at their beach resort and stay there all the time without ever sticking their nose out. My personal advice is don't do it: this beautiful peninsula cannot be limited to a beach and an all-inclusive a Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
We moved by bus and colectivos, but the best way to discover all the treasures of this part of the world is certainly by renting a car: you can move as you wish and at your own pace, detour on small streets and discover small jewels and places away from mass tourism.
This my list of what to see in Yucatan it will help you (hopefully) choose the one you might like best. It does not claim to be an exhaustive list of everything there is to see, but a top list of what I think cannot be missed, based on my personal experience.
Disclaimer: Since I don't agree with certain things, here you will not find anything about many attractions where animals are used to entertain tourists: you will not find dolphinariums, where to take a photo with the shark or the staging of the release of the baby turtle. I have already written what I think in this responsible tourism post in Mexico.
Even the dark and stormy sky fails to extinguish the colors of the Caribbean Sea on the beach in Cancun
Okay, I wrote what to see in a week, but trust me, a week will not be enough for you.
Generally, those arriving in Yucatan land by plane at theCancun International Airport, so it is right (and deserves) to spend a couple of days here. Cancun is divided into two: the hotel area and the Cancun Downtown: to get to know the city a little more, you have to see both.
An advice: if you want to feel the real Mexican atmosphere, go to Downtown in the evening instead of stopping in one of the fake (and expensive) restaurants in the hotelera area, sit in the Park of the Palapas, order tacos and enjoy them outdoors with Mexican families.
- 1 - Playa del Carmen
- 2 - Mayan ruins
- Chichen Itza
- Ek Balam
- 3 - Colonial cities
- 4 - The Riviera Maya and its beaches
- Puerto Morelos
- 5 – Cenote
- 6 - Natural Reserves
- Rio Lizards
- Sian Ka'an
- How to get around the Yucatan
- Map of Places of Interest
1 - Playa del Carmen
Ok, in my opinion Playa del Carmen itself is not very traditional, but it is a good base to start from and there are so many things to do in the surroundings. There isn't much original apart from the beautiful beach (the one where the resorts are) and the tour companies on 5th Street that are at their best for shopping and souvenir purchases.
Unfortunately, if you don't rent a car and don't have much time available, relying on an excursion agency is the only choice available, especially if you want to visit Chichen Itza in one day. So if you really can't do without it, try to negotiate the price to find a fairer one and try to understand if the tour includes stops for shopping in some souvenir shop in cahoots with the agency.
Look here all day tours from Playa del Carmen (including Chichen Itza)
From Playa del Carmen ferries depart forCozumel island, an unmissable place especially for those who love diving.
The whole Riviera Maya is a paradise for snorkelers and scuba divers ... like me
2 - Mayan ruins
Well if we talk about Yucatan we cannot but talk about rovine maya and above all of Chichen Itza named 7 wonder of the modern world. But the archaeological sites of the Yucatan Peninsula aren't limited to Chichen Itza. The ruins are scattered all over the country and in my opinion there are some places that are worth as much as there pyramids in Kukulkan.
The symbol of Mayan culture: the Pyramid of Kukulkan of Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza was the first Mayan ceremonial center of the Yucatan Peninsula: in 2007 it was named one of the 7 wonders of the modern world. The result has been an unprecedented boom in tourism and unfortunately by now visiting it, as wonderful as it is, risks becoming a slalom among the stalls of souvenir sellers. That said, the pyramids in Kukulkan is fabulous and so is the ball field, the largest and best preserved in the world.
Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to climb to the top of the Kukulkan pyramid due to fatal accidents that have involved tourists over the years.
Not to be missed in Chichen Itza is the Sacred Cenote, one of the most famous as a place of pilgrimage for the Maya: here the remains of bones on the bottom have revealed that the ancients used this cenote for sacrifices.
In this post you will find some useful tip for visiting Chichen Itza.
The Mayan ruins of Tulum are the only ones overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Better to visit them early in the morning to escape the horde of tourists
The only Mayan archaeological site to overlook the Carribean Sea it has clearly become the symbol of the country and here too my advice is to arrive early in the morning given the high influx of tourists.
The name Tulum it means in the Mayan language "wall", but its original name was Zamá (pronounced zam-MAH) that is "place of the rising sun" and the complex, with the high walls on three sides and the steep cliff on the Caribbean Sea on the other, was intended to be a fortress, but was mainly used as a religious and ceremonial center.
Il Castle, although certainly not as impressive as that of Chichen Itza, it served as an ancient lighthouse for sailors.
Tulum is easily accessible from Playa del Carmen by bus or colectivo and can be done in the day (the site is in fact 62 km from the city), but in my opinion it is better to stop and sleep one evening near the ruins in order to be among the first to visit them the next morning.
From Playa del Carmen you can visit Tulum, Cobà and a cenote with this tour
One of the archaeological sites that I loved the most: Ek Balam or the Ancient Jaguar City
The ruins of theAncient City Jaguar I personally liked them a lot. I don't know if it was because they are the first I saw or because the view of the forest from the top of the Acropolis Temple is truly unique, the fact is that I fell in love with them.
Probably even though the site is small, the fact that there is no throng of souvenir vendors (for now) helps to maintain its charm.
After visiting Ek Balam, don't miss a dip in cenote X 'Canche which can be reached with an easy path.
Ek Balam is located about 30 km from Valladolid and is easily accessible from the city with the colectivo.
If you want to know more read my post: Ek Balam, climb the ruins of the Jaguar city
Le ruins of Calakmul they are located in the biosphere reserve of the same name, a park rich in fauna such as toucans, spider monkeys and parrots. The Reserve is also the home of 7 different species of felines, such as the puma for example, and it is not uncommon for some tourists to find one in front of them. Clearly it is much easier to have these meetings if you visit the site early in the morning.
Calakmul is still the largest city-state of the Mayan empire, it is said that more than 60.000 people lived here in its maximum splendor.
Calakmul is home to the tallest Mayan pyramid in the world, and more than 6000 other structures have been found, most of which are still buried in a thick, dense forest.
A glimpse of the ruins of Uxmal: in the background the Pyramid of the Soothsayer
According to legend, the very famous Tower of the Soothsayer of Uxmal, was built in one night. Its peculiarity is the base that instead of being square, like the other Mayan pyramids, has an elliptical shape.
Despite Uxmal both a short distance from Merida (50 km) it is not very crowded, perhaps for this reason your visit was one of those that I liked the most.
An excellent alternative (or rather compensatory) to the Mayan ruins of Tulum is the site of Try, which although it does not have the dramatic beauty of being overlooking the sea, still offers one with its pyramid which is still one of the few that can be climbed to the top.
The site is very large, a great way to get around it is to rent bicycles.
3 - Colonial cities
A glimpse of life in the streets of Valladolid
I adore Valladolid: it is one of the most spectacular colonial gems in all of Mexico. The atmosphere is relaxed, it can be easily reached from the main destinations of the peninsula and you eat and sleep well for relatively little money.
Definitely worthy of a mention they are The Church and Ex-convent San Bernardino de Siena House of the Deer (to taste the real folklore) and the Church of San Gervasio overlooking the central square.
Right in the city center, after a walk, you can relax at the cenote Zaci, or if you want to go a little way in colectivo, al cenotes of Dzitnup (which are actually two cenote) about 4 km from the center.
Izamal it is special. Few stop here even if the city deserves to be seen above all for its characteristic that earned it the name of the Yellow City: here houses, shops and churches are all painted in yellow.
Izamal was also an important Mayan center: here there were the two largest pyramids of the North Yucatan and of which the remains are still in the city center.
One of them was destroyed by the Spaniards and a monastery was built in its place. The other is still partially well preserved.
Do not miss the Convent of Sant'Antonio da Padova, also in the characteristic yellow color of the city and the pyramid Kinich Kak the great pyramid, from the top of which you can enjoy a beautiful view of Izamal and the surrounding areas.
Merida is the cultural center of the Yucatan Peninsula: every evening parties, shows and events come to life on its streets for the delight of tourists
Merida it is chock full of art in culture, no other city on the Yucatan Peninsula rivals it on these two aspects. Many did not like it, I spent some good moments there especially for the always different shows and events that come to life here every evening: from music to dance, to events that recall the rituals of the ancient Maya (I witnessed a real game of pelota!) one evening here is certainly not enough to fully appreciate it.
Lovers of architecture and art will find bread for their teeth given the number of ancient buildings, churches, museums and monuments.
Do not miss:
- Plaza of Independence or the large square of the city and the Cathedral of San Ildefonso overlooking it
- Lo Governor's Palaces, that is the government building inside which the murals of the artist Fernando Castro Pacheco are on display that tell Mexican history from the ancient Maya to modern days.
- Casa Montejo Museum, built by Mayan slaves which today is owned by a bank but inside which an interesting museum has been set up
- Shopping! If there is one place in all of the Yucatan to shop, it is the city of Merida. Surely by visiting the craft markets or small family-run shops here you will find something that you cannot help but buy. it happened to me with a splendid double hammock in all the colors of the rainbow, in very soft cotton that still brightens my days of relaxation today.
The network constituted by the city walls of Campeche should be on every traveler's must-see list in Yucatan. Many structures have been meticulously restored and inside contain small but excellent museums.
It is also worth getting lost along the streets around the central square observing the precious historic churches and ancient buildings.
Not to be missed are, as mentioned, the city walls, the Our Segnora de la Soledad bastion and museum of Mayan Architecture located inside, the Fort of San Miguel and Archaeological Museum of Campeche, the Central Square or Principal Park.
4 - The Riviera Maya and its beaches
One of the many sunny beaches of the Riviera Maya
La Riviera Maya it is the best of the Mexican coast overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
More than 130 km long from the south of Cancun to Tulum, the Riviera Maya is the "home" of cities that grow as far as the eye can see, such as Playa del Carmen, and of small, quiet and less known towns such as Puerto MorelosHere you will find everything from large resorts to quiet guest houses.
The second longest coral reef in the world also extends along the coast and is therefore a paradise for diving and snorkelling.
Do you want to experience the thrill of swimming alongside a sweet turtle? You must come to Akumal! credit Emanuele Guidoni of RecYourTrip
Akumal it's my big regret for not having been there. Unattainable until the 60s, the community developed around two bays, Akumal Bay e Half moon bay.
Although condominiums are growing, the place maintains its tranquility and the presence of an incredible coral reef, it is one of the top places for diving and snorkelling.
You must come here if you want to have an unforgettable experience swimming with turtles and you can read on for more information Emanuele's post.
Do not miss the Laguna Yal-Ku.
Incredibly Puerto Morelos it has literally saved itself from the uncontrolled development of mega-resorts so it remains a quiet destination overlooking the sea.
Even though it is becoming more and more assaulted by tourists, Puerto Morelos is still basically a fishing town.
Also worth mentioning here is the beautiful coral reef that develops off the coast, and that since it is a nature reserve and that the passage of yachts and motor boats has been prohibited, it has remained practically intact.
From here also starts what is called the Route of the Cenotes which is becoming more and more touristy but which hides some gems still to be discovered.
5 – Cenote
Cenote, Cenote and Cenote, at every corner of the Yucatan Peninsula you will find one in which to cool off after a "hard" day of vacation!
With more than 6000, you got it right, 6000 cenote scattered throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, the choice is really really difficult. Many are “scattered, difficult to reach but many are open to the public and their fresh and crystal clear waters are perfect for swimming, snorkelling and why not do some nice scuba diving.
We would have to write an entire article on the cenote that I recommend, but here I tell you which ones in my opinion you cannot miss.
Two eyes: spectacular caves to visit and fully enjoy with a nice dive, Dos Ojos is one of the most famous cenote and is a must see.
Gran Cenote: as Dos Ojos one of the most famous, characterized by a huge cave and impressive formations of natural arches and stalactites. Reachable from Tulum.
Cenote Choo-Ha: go there, one of the most beautiful discoveries of my trip especially for the iridescent color of the water.
Cenote Ik-Kil: being close to Chiche Itza it is often attacked by tourists to find refreshments after visiting the ruins. I went back, even if spectacular like all cenote, maybe I would avoid it, but a mention was a must. Instead of this always go close to Chichen Itza al Yokdzonot cenote: little known, it is a small pearl and is managed by an all-women cooperative.
Cenote X-Canché: nice and if you are lucky you will be the only ones to enjoy it in absolute tranquility. it can be reached from the ruins of Ek Balam after a comfortable flat path in the forest.
Cenotes of Dzitnup: two “twin” cenote at a very short distance from the center of Valladolid. You can get there comfortably with the colectivo.
Cenote Angelina: although not very famous, it is well known by diving enthusiasts. Here, at a depth of about 40 meters, there is a crazy spectacle: the salty water found under the sweet one forms a kind of river. If you are an experienced divers you absolutely cannot miss it.
Do you want to experience the cenote in a different way? Read my experience ofdive at Casa Cenote.
6 - Natural Reserves
The Celestun Biosphere Reserve is a must for bird watchers
Every year tens of thousands of pink flamingos come to reproduce and rest in the salty lagoon of Rio Lizards. Just over 100 km north of Valladolid, the reserve would not deserve, in my opinion, a visit if not for these nice birds and for many other species, cormorants, hawks and herons delight for birdwatchers. If you are driving, consider spending a night in the quiet town of San Felipe.
Pink flamingos are present here all year round, but the best months are April-July and October-February, when flamingos nest in the area.
Celestun is a small fishing village located on the Rio Celestun estuary. Its very high salt water is a great place to observe pink flamingos (such as Rio Lagartos).
Celestun can be reached from Merida with a comfortable bus ride. Small boats leave from the beach (negotiate the price) to the lagoon where, in addition to flamingos, you can spot many other species of birds (and not only that, I also saw a small alligator).
The fish restaurants on the beach are good but a bit touristy.
Sian Ka'an it is the Mayan name for "where the sky was born" and it is not difficult to realize why the original inhabitants gave this place such a poetic name. The beaches, the sea and its lagoons are a paradise for those who love birdwatching, snorkelling or like me kayaking. The reserve was created in 1986 and was named UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Spending a couple of days in the reserve is the way to appreciate it more, swimming in its lagoons among the mangroves, relaxing in the sun or observing the thousands of bird species that live there.
Unfortunately, more and more agencies organize daily tours from Tulum and tour operators have recently taken it by storm, ruining its magic a little with noisy groups of tourists who absolutely do not respect the animal species that live here.
7 - How to get around the Yucatan Peninsula
If your budget allows it, I usually recommend renting a car - it will give you the freedom you want and allow you to reach the attractions early in the morning before the crowds show up and the midday heat sets in.
The best site to book your car is RentalCars. They compare local and international car rental companies to help you find the best possible price. This is the easiest way to rent a car in the Yucatan.
Otherwise, you'll be pretty well served by Mexico's fantastic ADO bus system, apart from when you're in the most out-of-the-way places.
You can also hunt down local colectivos, shared means of transportation, where you'll get in your car with the locals (this isn't a great option if you have a lot of luggage).
8 - Map of the Places of Interest of the Yucatan Peninsula
Below is the map of the places of interest in the Yucatan Peninsula.