If you like your beaches a bold Caribbean blue
Don’t mind ’em mixed with scenic ruins from way back
And prefer some deliriously good food on the side
You’ve got to head to the Yucatán peninsula!
What! That makes NO lyrical sense whatsoever – well, blame it on those darn sangria pitchers!
Wobbling on… Yucatán peninsula refers to the Mexican states of Yucatán and Quintana Roo, along with northern regions of Belize and Guatemala. It encompasses the luxuriant stretches of Riviera Maya which runs along the Caribbean in eastern Mexico and is counted among the most gorgeous retreats in the world. Inland from the Mexican Riviera are magnificent archaeological sites like Chichén Itzá: perhaps the best known legacy of the Mayan civilization, and one that stands a thousand years on. Folding up our geography maps for the day, the Yucatán peninsula is an absolute dream for beach bummers who don’t really like to just bum all day. Playa del Carmen and Cancún make ideal bases for spending some time here, and my personal vote goes to Playa over Cancún. Wherever you decide to stay, while the first couple of days you can’t help vegetating on the sunshine fringes of a crazily blue shoreline, afterwards you can try to gather yourself up, dust off the sand, and make your way purposefully to the wide world beyond. If you’re still unable to tear yourself away from the coast, it may help to remind yourself of these:
Fabulous things to do in the Mexican Yucatán peninsula
Get a glimpse of the Mayan underworld
Cenotes are underground caves or limestone sinkholes which were often used by the ancient Mayans as sacred sites for all sorts of rituals, including sacrifices. While some cenotes resemble open-water pools, others are smaller and exist as dark, subterranean water basins or tunnels. Cenotes are peculiar to this region and unbelievably cool. I mean, just look at this one!
Water in cenotes is mostly clear, because it comes from rain water filtering slowly through the ground or limestone cracks. Which makes them an amazing dive-through experience, and the kind you’re unlikely to ever forget.
What & Where: The more popular ones are Ik-Kil (near Chichén Itzá) and cenotes near Ek Balam and Valladolid sharing the same name, mainly because they’re close to the archaeological sites you would visit in any case. But to swim in these Mayan sinkholes with as few people as possible, consider taking a hike off the highway near Tulum to visit Dos Ojos, or jump into the lesser-known Yokdzonot a few miles’ drive from Chichén Itzá.
O beautiful food, Imma gorge on you
The region has a unique cuisine infused with the goodness of ancient Mayan cooking, along with influences from across the Caribbean. Not only does this translate into some fun hours experimenting with stuff on the menu, for some reason it makes all the food really good looking! You could wolf it down like I often did, or sing odes to its beauty (and then, of course, Instagram it) before you dig in – but culinary excursions would undoubtedly take up a fair amount of your time here, as they must.
What & Where: Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue for the non-Spanish) is full of all kinds of bars and restaurants. There are shacks, upscale joints and fine dining options, so you can walk around taking your pick, or hunt from your list of recommended places. I loved my meal at Yaxche, sat down at Ah Cacao for a hot cuppa chocolate on a cool evening (also picked up packaged vanilla beans from there), even loved the pizza slice I shamefacedly picked up from La Trattoria before leaving for my day trip to Coba.
Run back in time
Spectacular Mayan ruins dot the region and if you’re one of those who are quick to say “seen one, you’ve seen them all” – well, you’ll miss out on some fantastic experiences that way.
Chichén Itzá, particularly El Castillo, is THE one people flock to see, but personally I loved more the magnificent views of the beach from Tulum (those guys back then created some prime beachside property for themselves) and racing up the pyramid in Coba (never mind that I butt-inched my way down, half petrified). Rent a bicycle in Coba, pedal around the place, climb up the Nohuch Mul and feel like royalty taking in the views of your land from the top – and you’ll know it was worthwhile including Coba in your itinerary.
What & Where: Chichén Itzá can be covered on a day trip from Cancún or Merida (capital of the state of Yucatán; quieter than Cancún and Playa but beautifully charming). Tulum and Coba can be visited on a clubbed-together day trip – or two separate ones, if you wish – from Playa.
Swim, dive, snorkel, repeat
From the northern tip of the Yucatán peninsula begins the Mesoamerican Reef region, which includes the largest coral reef region in the Northern and Western hemispheres! This means dazzling views of corals and marine life and even if deep sea diving isn’t your thing, there’s always the easier and more reassuring option of snorkelling your way through the immense underwater universe of Caribbean waters. What & Where: Cozumel, 45 minutes from Playa del Carmen by ferry, is well known as one of the best dive spots in the world. Hourly ferries ply between Playa and Cozumel from 6 AM to 10 PM. Similarly, Isla Mujeres, another fantastic dive spot with a cool laidback vibe, is 35 minutes by ferry from various points in Cancún. For young kids, places like Xel-Há, Chankanaab Park (Cozumel) and Yal-Ku lagoon (Akumal) are ideal since they have calm and shallow waters with plenty of fish to get excited over.
Get a feel of residential Mexico
Choosing to stay a few nights away from Cancún or Playa del Carmen is a fantastic way of seeing the more local (and less American tourist) side of Mexico. I loved my lazy days at Merida which involved aimless walks through the cobbled streets of the city, with friendly Mexicans mistaking me for a Mayan-descendent, and rows of colourful houses inching past me. It helped that I was staying at a B&B in a somewhat residential area of Merida (still within walking distance of major plazas, though), as opposed to the plush hotels clustered around the fashionable Paseo Montejo.
What & Where: If you’re in Merida, you simply cannot miss dining at La Chaya Maya – hands down the best Mayan food I had in all of Yucatán. Look out for skeletons grinning down at you from various shops and houses, waiting to come out during the Day of the Dead festivities in November. Monument to the Fatherland at a roundabout on Paseo Montejo is quite a sight, as is the Merida Cathedral lit up at night. Stay open to receiving repeated friendly suggestions from locals on buying from a particular handicraft store where “the owner’s mother and sisters make everything themselves”.
Day out at Xel-Há Park or Xcaret Park
Xel-Há and Xcaret are archaeological sites, parts of which have now been converted into privately-owned eco-tourism parks. Xel-Há, an aquatic theme park that promises a mindbogglingly fun time, offers all-inclusive packages that include sea treks, snorkelling, and swimming with dolphins. It is built around a natural lagoon and supports habitat conservation and sustainability research within its confines. Xcaret offers cultural attractions such as a Mayan village replica, a theatre showcasing traditional dances, and Mesoamerican ball games.
Live it up in Cancún
Cancún, of the heart-stoppingly blue waters and sigh-worthy beaches. Cancún, of crazy pirate-boat parties and crazier night shows. If you walk along the beach in Cancún and look out to the sea, there’s a point where you’re convinced you can see two different blues from the mixing of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. If you’re like me, you might find the exclusive air of the city a bit of a dampener after unrestrained Playa. But in terms of night life options, Cancún is unbeatable by far in the Yucatán peninsula!
Does any of this convince you to consider Mexico for your next vacation? Maybe you already have Mexico on your bucket list? If you have been there, do share stories or tips – I’m always up for travel conversations. :D