Updated: by Matthew Karsten
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is a vast coastal region brimming with tropical beaches, spectacular wildlife, ancient Mayan ruins, small villages, and adventure activities.
The Yucatan Peninsula is a place of emerald waters turning to turquoise waves crashing on perfectly white coral-sand beaches. Some of the best in Mexico!
It’s home to lush green forests dotted with Mayan ruins, cool shades of colonial-era architecture, and sea-life ablaze with color – all under Caribbean blue skies.
Many people shorten “Yucatan Peninsula” to “Yucatan”. That’s actually misleading since the peninsula itself is made up of four different states: Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Tabasco.
The peninsula separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, and everything tropical you associate with the word “Caribbean” is on full display along its shorelines. It’s one of my favorite parts of Mexico!
Understandably, the Yucatan is an increasingly popular place to take a vacation, with cheap & easy flights from many major cities to Mexico’s notorious party town of Cancun.
But there is sooooo much more to the Yucatan Peninsula than Cancun!
This UNESCO world heritage site is a centerpiece of the Mayan archaeological scene in Mexico, and gets around 1.4 million visitors a year — the region’s 2nd most popular Mayan ruins.
For over a thousand years Chichen Itza was one of the great cities of Central America – located here because of proximity to deep cenotes with access to fresh water. The modern site covers 5 square kilometers of exposed archaeology and impressive stone buildings, surrounded by dense forest.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the temple of Kukulcan – also known as El Castillo – because it’s breathtakingly photogenic. However, a century’s worth of excavations means the rest of Chichen Itza is equally cool.
In a corner of the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, about 3 hours from Cancun, you’ll find a magical place where sea water turns bright pink on an epic scale.
It’s all down to salt production. The Las Coloradas pink lakes are used for industrial-scale sea-salt production. As the water evaporates, salinity causes an explosion in the growth of red algae, plankton and brine shrimp, tinting the water reddish-pink.
You can visit the lakes (and small town by the same name) if you have a car, and walk along their shores taking surreal photos of the pink water. It’s a really weird sight – and, curiously, the reason why flamingos are pink!
You may even spot some flamingos hanging out in the area too. Las Coloradas has become Instagram famous recently, and it’s no longer possible to get into the water, but you can still take photos.
Who doesn’t want to swim with sea turtles? Well you can at Akumal beach, just 30 minutes South of Playa del Carmen. This shallow blue-green water is home to 3 different kinds of sea turtles that you can swim with.
For years you could simply swim with the turtles at Akumal on your own, bringing your own snorkeling gear. However, to help preserve the area, they’ve implemented some new rules in 2017.
A lifejacket is required (which you can rent along with snorkel gear), and lifeguards patrol the water on paddleboards. Organized sea turtle snorkeling tours are also offered by locals.
The capital city of Yucatan state has colonial history is written into the architecture of most of the buildings in the beautiful, pedestrian-friendly city center, and liberal use of white limestone has given Merida the nickname “the white city”.
It’s a cosmopolitan place, meaning there are plenty of tourists – but broad streets and high rooftops never make it feel crowded or heavily populated. It’s a great place to base yourself for exploring the rest of the peninsula.
There are some great Maya ruins located nearby, like the site at Uxmal. Along with huge flocks of pink flamingos just 2 hours away at Celestun Biosphere.
Merida is also a perfect place to pick up a locally made Mexican hammock. Hammock weaving in the Yucatan Peninsula is a 700-year-old tradition, producing some of the most beautiful hammocks in the world.
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, growing up to 40 feet long and weighing up to 20,000 pounds. And, you can swim with them! However you don’t have to worry about them eating you, as they prefer plankton.Swimming next to a 30-foot long sea creature, the size of a bus, was a wild experience. It’s a bit intimidating to be honest… they’re huge!
Whale shark snorkeling trips can be organized from Cancun, but if you want a real adventure, I recommend doing it from Isla Holbox, a small sleepy island paradise off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Welcome to another city obsessed with a primary color! Almost every major expanse of wall and building facade was painted a deep golden yellow for a special visit from Pope John Paul II in 1993, and they just never changed it.
Izamal is built on a series of hills that once housed Mayan pyramids (and much of the town still speaks the Mayan language). There is still one big pyramid overlooking the town that you can actually climb.
Like Merida, the town of Izamal is designed to be walkable (be sure to check out the enormous yellow-painted Franciscan monastery in the historic center) – but you can also get around by hiring horse-drawn carriages.
What’s a cenote you ask? It’s an underground cave filled with fresh water. The Yucatan Peninsula has tons of them — sinkholes that open up into underground rivers with the clearest water you’ve ever seen.
Cenotes are the perfect way to cool off on a hot day, Mexico’s natural swimming holes created when the limestone bedrock caved in to reveal underground rivers below.
There are around 2000 different cenotes across the Yucatan. I’ve visited many of them, but some of my favorites are Dzitnip, Azul, Dos Ojos, and La Noria.
For the more adventurous, scuba divers can also explore these underwater caves if you’re a certified PADI diver. The Yucatan is one of the world’s premier cave-diving destinations included in our yucatan travel guide.
Not to be confused with its Spanish counterpart, this sleepy colonial city is also built on top of an ancient Mayan settlement. The central plaza is full of classic Spanish-looking buildings, museums, and many wonderfully tasty traditional Maya restaurants and food stalls!
Valladolid is another good base for exploring the Yucatan Peninsula with affordable accommodation, close proximity to Chichén Itzá (only 45 minutes away), and a bunch of different freshwater cenotes nearby.
The Yucatecan food here is awesome, and I highly recommend you try some traditional favorites like Cochinita Pibil (pulled pork) and Relleno Negro De Pavo (black turkey soup).
A rough translation of the word Cancun in Mayan is “pot of snakes” – and this accurately describes how you might feel about this riotous city of hotels, bars and every kind of party you can dream up.
Cancun does have a lot going for it though, with all sorts of fun things to do. You can swim with whale sharks, rent jet skis, relax on the beach, take a scuba diving course, race Lamborghinis, or sail around at sunset with a drink in your hand.
Plus, of course, the awesome nightlife you’ll find there.
Most people visit Cancun for the all-inclusive resorts and late-night debauchery, but if you skip the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula, you’re totally missing the best stuff in my opinion!
When it comes to Playa del Carmen, aka “Playa”, I’m a little biased – I spent over a year living and working here. It’s one of the major tourist spots along the Riviera Maya, an impressive stretch of coastline from Cancun to Tulum.
Despite its popularity, the town is a lot less party-oriented than its neighbors, and the nightlife isn’t as crazy. It’s also pedestrian-friendly and laid out in a grid, making exploring on foot an absolute breeze.
Playa del Carmen’s highlight is a walking-street called La Quinta Avenida, lined with all manner of shops, beach bars, and restaurants. For more details on what you can do in Playa del Carmen, check out my dedicated blog post.
A short ferry ride away from Playa del Carmen, the island of Cozumel runs at a completely different pace of life. This low limestone island is lined with scenic rocky beaches and jungle.
It’s also on the cruise ship route, as clearly seen from the amount of gift shops near the docks at San Miguel, home to most of the island’s population – but get away from town and the island’s rich emptiness reveals itself.
Unsurprisingly, Cozumel is a premier destination for scuba diving & snorkeling, catering to all skill levels.
One of my favorite things to do is just rent a car or moped and drive around the island, stopping at pretty beaches and fun bars along the way (careful not to drink too much!).
Tulum has the best beaches in the Yucatan Peninsula. The area originally served as a major port for the nearby Mayan jungle city of Cobá – but these days it’s full of hippies, backpackers, and celebrities looking to unwind.
Strictly speaking, there are three “Tulums.” There’s the pueblo (local town) where you can find affordable places to eat and sleep. The Tulum Archaeological Site features Mayan ruins perched on the edge of a sea cliff.
Lastly, Tulum’s playa is the stretch of coastline where you’ll find fancy resorts, vegan restaurants, health spas, and yoga studios. Rent a beach cruiser bicycle and check out all of Tulum’s great beaches!
Tulum has ample scuba diving, snorkeling, kite surfing, yoga, and cenote opportunities. You can also head a little out of town into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve for awesome mangrove & wildlife tours.
It’s hard to imagine this sedate lakeside town being overrun by pirates – but that’s the history in these parts. A lack of defensive power in the 17th Century saw the arrival of Caribbean pirates, using natural waterways from the sea to aid their plundering.
Today it’s a quiet, relaxing place of 12,000 souls, well-preserved fishermen’s houses – and lots of boats. If you come to Bacalar and don’t rent a kayak for the day, you’re missing all the fun!
Paddling across the glowing blue waters of the Lagoon of Seven Colors, you’ll notice how it gets its name from the effect of different depths and contrasting ground soils upon sunlight, giving the lagoon a multi-hued appearance.
Throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, especially along the Riviera Maya, you’ll find a series of outdoor adventure theme parks built to take advantage of the natural landscape.
Some of the most popular ones are Xcaret, Xel Ha, Xplor and Rio Secreto. They’re like organized adventures that will take you zip-lining through the trees, swimming in caves, driving ATVs, or snorkeling with colorful fish.
A great way for families to spend a day in Mexico, but adults will have a good time at these theme parks too. I think my favorite was Rio Secreto, because it feels a little more authentic and less touristy.
Calakmul is an ancient Mayan city located deep within the jungle in Campeche state near the border with Guatemala. Not many people make it out this way due to its remote location.
Surrounded by the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, it’s extremely remote, and a true adventure for those looking to get off the beaten tourist trail in the Yucatan Peninsula. You’re likely to see only a handful of other visitors.
Among the many interesting structures found at this archeological site are two gigantic pyramids — with the largest one reaching 55 meters high (165 feet). It’s the 2nd highest pyramid in Mexico, and you can still climb it!
Despite Mexico’s troubled history with cartel violence, local governments in the Yucatan Peninsula have worked hard to keep their major tourist attractions crime-free.
It’s significantly safer for visitors than other parts of Mexico, making it a popular vacation destination for Mexicans as well as foreigners.
Petty crime and common travel scams can be an issue in more touristy towns like Cancun & Playa del Carmen, but the more serious drug cartel-type violence usually doesn’t target tourists.
If your budget can stretch it, I usually recommend renting a car – it’ll give you the freedom you want, and allow you to get to attractions early in the morning before crowds turn up and the midday heat sets in.
The best site to book your car is Discover Cars. They search both 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 great ADO Bus System – apart from when you’re in the more out-the-way places.
You can also hunt down local colectivos, shared transportation, where you’ll be squeezing into cars with locals (this isn’t a great option if you have a lot of luggage).
There are all kinds of options for accommodation in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. From budget backpacker hostels, to local guesthouses, to 5-star luxury resorts.
If you’re from a relatively chilly part of the United States or Europe, plan to visit Yucatan between the end of October and the beginning of April. It’s when the skies are clearest and the temperature is the most bearable.
Busy season in the Yucatan Peninsula starts in December and goes on through March. Basically when all the snow-birds from the US and Canada fly down to escape the winter snow. ★
Original text: 15 Awesome Things To Do In Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula by Matthew Karsten