Mexico is an incredible country full of some of the best culture and scenery across the planet. In just the last few years, Mexico has continued to gain popularity and has ranked as high as 8th on the list of most visited countries in the world. In this touristic boom, many people travel to Mexico for one main destination, the Yucatán Peninsula.
The Yucatán Peninsula stretches into the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea whilst being occupied by the three states of Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. This area of Mexico has some of the best history, culture and scenery through out the entire country. While the entire landscape of the peninsula has much to offer, many people only visit a few of the “tourist hotspots”. Cancun, Rivera Maya and Playa del Carmen are not just three of the most visited places in Mexico, but also the world. Yes, these resort towns are appealing and have some of the most gorgeous beaches around, but are they the best places to visit? Unless you are looking to only sit at a spa all day on a resort or party for spring break until the sun comes up, I say no. The best way to enjoy this stunning peninsula and be immersed in Mexico’s amazing culture is by a road trip on the road less traveled.
Below, you will find some of the best locations and recommendations to visit on your adventure through the Yucatán Peninsula along with the most suitable order to visit them in. However, the beauty of a road trip is that you can stop off anywhere or go in any direction you desire. An 8-10 day trip to the Yucatán Peninsula is the perfect amount of time to see a lot, but it will leave you dying to see more. Here is an example:
Follow the Table of Contents if you are looking into a shorter trip or just one destination!
Merida – Day 1
The largest city and capital of the state, Yucatán, is the perfect place to start your trip. Often seen as the safest place in Mexico, this town is teeming with culture. The Centro Historico is surrounded with beautiful, Spanish influenced churches and is one of the biggest in all of Mexico. The Catedral de San Ildefonso towers high above the Centro. It is the oldest church in Latin America and was built with stones from the ruins of the ancient Mayan city, “T’hó”, from which Merida stands on. The rest of the city is surrounded with clean and colorful buildings that were constructed during the 1500’s.
The culture in Merida, as well as the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula, is different from that of most of Mexico. This area has a very large abundance of Indigenous people, Mayan to be exact. Still having a very large Mayan influence, it is not hard to find people who do not speak a different form of Spanish with a Mayan twist. Even without speaking Spanish as my first language, it was not hard to identify the different accent and language.
With the Mayan influence still looming, it brings some different Mexican style foods. Many different fruits as well as Mayan spices are added to Yucatán cooking and Cochinita Pibil may be its crown and jewel. This dish is made in a similar style to pulled pork. The meat is bathed in a spicy and citrusy marinade before being slow roasted in a banana leaf. It is served with tortillas and fried plantains. Do not go to Yucatán without trying it!
One to two days is a good amount of time to spend in Merida. There are plenty of things to do through out the streets and the food/shopping can be very cheap. Keep in mind that Merida and the rest of the Yucatán can experience some intense heat along with a rainy season. Merida is hottest April through June, but it usually reaches the upper 80°’s Fahrenheit all year round. The rainy season hits hard from June to October for those looking to avoid a monsoon.
Izamal – 2 Hours
Izamal lies about one hour or less East of Merida. This Pueblo Magico is also known as the yellow city as most of its buildings are painted in the color. Convento San Antonio de Padua is the top sight as its yellow arches surround a large courtyard. The town itself is not very large, but it is worth stopping for a walk through for anyone looking for some Mayan and Spanish history.
Chichen Itza – Day 2
Possibly the symbol of Mexico and one of the “New 7 Wonders of the World”, this ancient Mayan civilization lives up to the hype.
Upon access to Chichen Itza, you are immediately overwhelmed. The sight of Kukulkan Pyramid, or El Castillo, is breathtaking and very hard to take your eyes off of. It is an architectural masterpiece as it was built for astronomical and calendar purposes. It has 4 staircases for the 4 seasons. 91 steps for 91 days of each season which is a total of 365 steps for the 365 days in a year cycle. Not only are the numbers impressive, during the spring and fall equinox each year at about 3pm, the sun shines down on a staircase creating the illusion of a serpent, or Kukulkan. It is mind-blowing to put this into perspective knowing what they accomplished in building this pyramid sometime during the 9th-12th centuries.
El Castillo is the main event, but it is not the only thing to see in Chichen Itza. This once booming civilization has a lot to offer. The ball court is the most popular as it stands as the largest in ancient Mesoamerica. This game is of course famous as people would use their hips to knock a ball through a tiny hoop with the results sometimes leading to a wonderful human sacrifice. Other popular sights of Chichen Itza include the massive Temple of the Warriors, Temple of Xtoloc and the Steam Bath.
Even though Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s biggest tourist destinations, it does not feel like it. The area of this ancient civilization is big and there is a lot of room to walk around. Not only that, it is often silent. So many people visit with jaw dropping faces of awe and remain speechless for their entire visit. The sound of the jungle and the light breeze that sweeps through Chichen Itza throwing dust into the air sets the ambience of this ancient theatre. The atmosphere in this place is un-relatable as you are engulfed with an incredible history and stunning sights.
Tips for Visiting:
The best time to visit Chichen Itza is right when the site opens up at 8 am. This will keep you away from the larger crowds and the heat later in the day. Anywhere from 3-5 hours will be a good amount of time to spend in the site. Price upon entry is $242 pesos for foreigners (about $12 USD) and another $45 pesos for the use of a camera (about $2 USD). If you want a tour of Chichen Itza, don’t book it in advance as that will cost you a lot of money. You can get a very informative guide upon entry. They will be walking through out the site and give tours in many different languages. If you want to buy a souvenir, learn some useful Spanish and talk it with the vendors around the site. When vendors realized I could speak Spanish, they dropped prices from over $1,000 pesos to $200!
Where to Stay:
Located about an hour and a half from Merida, it is easily accessible as a day trip, but it is much better to stay over night. There are a few hotels and resorts within the ancient grounds that make it easier for people to access. Chichen Itza is tranquil and beautiful as it lies in the jungle. Lodging within the ancient site is an adventure on its own. You are awoken by the sounds of the jungle as you can here song birds singing in the trees and watch parrots squawking over head as they fly in the skies. I would recommend staying at Villas Arquelogicas. You can walk into Chichen Itza through a special entrance in just 5 minutes to beat the crowds. The courtyard of the hotel has a very nice pool and area to listen to the surrounding jungle sounds as you enjoy some fresh Mayan coffee.
Cenotes – Day 2/3
If you haven’t heard of Cenotes before, you should start looking into them now. Cenotes are sinkholes that expose underground water. They can be seen above ground, in caves and in underwater caves. They are each uniquely beautiful and are scattered all over the peninsula. As Cenotes were often seen to Mayans as a doorway to the underworld, there are many close by to Chichen Itza. many of them can be visited within a 20 or 30 minute ride. Keep in mind that Cenotes get very busy in the afternoon as tourists flock to them to cool off after a hot day of ancient ruin hunting.
Cenote Samulá (1 hour)
Cenote Samulá sits in the Parque Xkekén just outside of Valladolid about 35 minutes away from Chichen Itza. This is a nice Cenote to go and swim in to cool off for the day before heading to Valladolid in the evening. The Cenote itself is very deep and has a lot of steps to walk down into. The ceiling of the cave has a tiny hole that if the sun hits it at the perfect time of the day, it creates a spotlight onto a natural platform.
Cenote Xkekén (1 hour)
Right next to Samulá, in the same ecological park, is Xkekén. This park itself is named after this Cenote which makes it a little bit busier. The cave is full of gigantic stalactites and is lit up by man made lights. The water is clear near the edges but becomes more black and cold the more you swim to the middle. There are some very interesting black fish swimming through the water that you will have the opportunity to come into contact with. The cave is gorgeous, but all the man made stuff takes away from its natural beauty.
Valladolid – Day 2 (Evening)
Valladolid is another small Pueblo Magico in Yucatán with a lot of Spanish influence. This town sits 40 minutes away from Chichen Itza on your way South East towards our next destination. Yet again another colorful and old town in Mexico, the city is filled with beautiful architecture and history. Valladolid is a great location for an alternative place to stay in rather than Chichen Itza. It offers a great location as the city is surrounded with Cenotes and ruins. If you don’t spend a night here, it is a great place to stop at for lunch, dinner, or a walk through the picturesque streets.
Cenote Ik Kil – Day 3 (Morning)
The most famous and possibly picturesque Cenote of all is Ik Kil. The beautiful Cenote has a gigantic hole in its ceiling and the drop from water to sky is about 130 ft. A man made stair case leads you down into the deep hole where you can swim and jump into the chilly water. Many vines hang from the ceiling as the sunlight twinkles off of them. However, there is a price to pay being gorgeous and sitting only 10 minutes away from Chichen Itza.
This place is over crowded. When you see pictures of Cenotes on the internet and Instagram, it looks like they are completely hidden in the jungle, this is not the case. Ik Kil has a massive parking lot, restaurants, shops, bars and vendors. Unless you get there at 8 am when it opens, you will have to stand in a line for about an hour just to go down. Not to mention, you have to pay to get in. Ik Kil is gorgeous and worth seeing, but only if you go the second it opens. Tourism and money have taken away the nature and solitude of such a beautiful place.
Keep in mind that there are hundreds of Cenotes through out the Yucatan Peninsula. Some are hidden, and some are touristy. These are a few examples as there are many more to explore through out your trip. If you are in love with these sink holes, you could do a Cenote only trip for weeks.
Coba – Day 3 (Afternoon)
Coba is the next destination on our list. The ruins of Chichen Itza may be more picturesque, but navigating this place is a lot of fun. Coba is a much more quiet site compared to the nearby hot beds of Chichen Itza and Tulum. People often forget about Coba, which is a mistake. This ancient site gives you the opportunity to get into the jungle and explore the ruins. Coba has the largest network of stone sacbes, or roads, in all of the ancient Mayan world for you to explore!
Upon entry to the site, there will be ruins scattered all over the place right in front of your eyes. You have more of an opportunity to walk around by yourself here as there are much less people. These ruins are cool as all ruins are, but they are not the main attraction of Coba.
At the back part of the ruins, there is a very long trail that heads deep into the jungle. Here, you have the option of walking a mile and a half, or renting a bike. The latter is much more fun and really helps with time. The bike paths extend deep into the jungle and leads you to the Ixmoja pyramid. There are many alternative paths along the way that are good stop offs to see some unique structures.
At one point in your bike ride there will be a fork in the path. Left takes you to Ixmoja where everyone else is going, and right will take you to an area that is so deep and dense that it is still being excavated. This spot will give you peace and quiet and the best opportunity to enjoy some ancient history on your own.
When you arrive to Ixmoja, it is necessary to climb the steep 120 stairs to the top of the pyramid.
The climb is not the easiest ever, but the views are worth it. You can get a nice perspective of how deep you are in the jungle and in history.
Tips for Visiting:
Coba is really great to visit any time of the day as it is so massive it never truly feels overcrowded. Like the rest of the peninsula, it gets hot here, so make sure you have enough water to stay hydrated. The cost to get into Coba is 70 pesos per person ($3.50 USD), 45 pesos for a camera ($2 USD), 50 pesos to park the car ($2.50 USD), and 40 pesos to rent a bike ($2). 4 hours here is a good amount of time to spend.
Tulum – Day 3/4
After spending the day in Coba, your next destination is Tulum. Whereas the ruins of Tulum are incredible, the town itself is not as great. The town is pretty and fun, but it is not Mexico. With an increase in tourism, there is a massive increase in price and a change in culture. The streets of Tulum do not feel as magical and charming as the streets of the towns elsewhere in the country. However, Tulum is beautiful and a very good spot to go for some time on the beach or a night out.
The town is packed full of restaurants and bars with some very good food and drinks. The amount of margaritas and music on the streets make Tulum a great spot for night life. As popularity in Tulum has grown, so has its luxurious life style. This is one of the best areas in the Riviera Maya for a romantic getaway or honeymoon destination. The town is loaded with private resorts and beach front property.
If you are looking to go to Tulum for only the ruins, the best thing to do is avoid the party life of the central town area and stay as close to the ruins as possible. There are a lot of nice and cheap options on the same street that leads into the site.
Tulum Ruins – Day 4 (Morning)
Tulum, like Chichen Itza, is one of the most picturesque and famous ancient sites in all of Mexico. While Tulum is a Mayan site like the others aforementioned, it is very different and unique.
The jaw dropping buildings of Tulum sit on the tops of cliffs overlooking the Carribean Sea crashing below. Tulum used to be a very important port town for the Mayan Civilization before the Spanish conquered Mexico in the 1500’s.
Take a walk through Tulum and you will be rewarded with the cool breeze coming off of the Caribbean. The sounds of palm trees dancing in the wind and the crashing of waves below will fill your ears. The site is full of iguanas as it is rumored they are ancient spirits watching over their home. The main architectural attractions of Tulum are El Castillo, the Castle, and Templo del Dios del Viento, Temple of the God and Wind. It makes sense that the Wind God resides in Tulum as it can get quite windy.
Tips for Visiting:
It is best to visit the archaeological site early in the morning when it opens up at 8:00 am. Like Chichen Itza, as the day goes on, the crowds and heat will intensify. Make sure to bring a lot of water because it can get hot quick! Entrance fee to the park is $65 pesos per person ($3 USD) and $45 pesos for a camera ($2 USD). Pretty good bargain, eh? Four to five hours is a good amount of time to spend here
Car Wash Cenote – Day 4 (Afternoon)
The most popular Cenote in this area is either Dos Ojos or Grand Cenote. Both are good options and you can even dive in them if you have a scuba license, but they too can be overcrowded. The best Cenote to visit in the area is one in which barely anyone has heard of.
The Car Wash Cenote sits on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere. Once a spot where people used to wash their cars, hence the name, this is now the perfect spot to go and cool off after a hot morning exploring Tulum.
The water is crystal clear and it is easy to see straight to the bottom. This is a popular spot for scuba divers as the lily pads under the water glow in the sunlight and are a good spot for baby crocodiles to hang out. Yes, you heard that right. Baby crocodiles are often seen by divers in this Cenote as it is so remote and people do not often visit. Don’t worry, they won’t harm anyone.
Punta Allen – Day 4/5/6
Have you ever just wanted to get away from everything and have a Caribbean beach all to yourself? Punta Allen might be one of the only places you can do that. There is a reason this small town of only about 500 people is my favorite place in the entire country of Mexico.
Punta Allen, or Javier Rojo Gomez as some many call it, sits at the Southern tip of the Boca Paila Peninsula. Getting there may be some trouble, but once there you are isolated from the rest of the world. This small Mayan fishing village is situated in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Here you have the opportunity to relax on untouched and pristine beaches, watch dolphins play in the water, swim with sea turtles, or even go fishing in some of the best flats known to man.
The town itself might be small, but there is more to do than you would think. The 10 or so blocks of sandy streets through out the town are full of locals making the best of each day. They are very welcoming to whatever visitors they have.
There are a few boat tours that will take you into the Sian Ka’an reserve on a tour which is worth every penny.
You can rent bikes and ride through a strip of jungle that will lead you to a private beach next to the Faro Punta Allen Light House.
However a tiny town, eating is not a problem as the few restaurants in town have some excellent fresh seafood and every bit of food is cooked with love. This is truly one of the perfect places to get away from everything. The roads make it so difficult for people to get there, that only the brave will venture down. Not only that, the town only has power from 7-11 am and 4-9:00 pm. Not the best place for someone who wants to be on their phone all day.
How to Get There:
Directions to get there are easy, accessibility and weather is the problem. To get there, you drive South through the beach resorts along the coast of Tulum until you reach the entrance of the Sian Ka’an Reserve. From there on, it is straight and all dirt.
The first half of the drive down to Punta Allen is not too bad, but there are still a fair share of holes in the road. This portion of the drive you will see some other cars as people drive into this part of the reserve to see the beaches and wildlife.
Once you cross the Boca Paila Bridge, things start to get messy. Holes are about 3 feet deep and take up the entire width of the road. Unless you rent a jeep, you better be moving slow because I doubt your insurance will cover it. If it rains, you won’t make it.
where to Stay:
There are only a few hotels to stay in Punta Allen, but Airbnb is your best bet. Stay with Juan and Marta in their gorgeous house. They are some of the nicest people I have ever met and their accommodations are amazing. Only a few steps from the beaches and restaurants, it is the perfect location. Not to mention, Marta makes the best Key Lime Pie, or any dessert for that matter, I have ever had.
Here is the link to their listing! https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/22690704
For more information on Punta Allen, follow this link:
Bacalar – Day 6/7/8
Crystal clear and neon blue waters full of pirate ships, kayaks and water hammocks. The Pueblo Magico of Bacalar is the perfect place for a romantic getaway or just a place to kick back and relax.
The town is most popular of course for La Laguna de Los Siete Colores, or the Lagoon of Seven Colors. This large fresh water lake lives up to its name as you can easily see seven shades of blue. The water changes colors in every direction and is best seen by kayaking or from above. In some spots, the water is a bright neon blue whereas in other spots it may be greenish or dark blue.
Bacalar is not only unique for its amazing water landscape, but for its history. This tiny town is said to have been inhabited at one point by Pirates. The infestation of Pirates was so bad that the Spanish who took over the land in the 1500’s built a fort to keep them out.
El canal de los Piratas is one of the four popular attractions in the lagoon because, you guessed it, apparently Pirates traveled through and battled along this canal. The canal is easily accessible by boat or kayak and is probably the most crowded place in all of Bacalar.
The town itself is full of culture and very nice to walk around in. Walking up along the hill overlooking the water is a must to see all of the different kinds of houses that sit on the water’s edge.
The town has some very good (and cheap) food, some of the best I have had in my time in Mexico. For breakfast, a visit to the small restaurant Piña is a must. At dinner time, a reservation with a table by the water at La Playita is your best option
Where to Stay:
There are plenty of options for accommodation in Bacalar ranging from $20 to $800. The best place to stay in Bacalar is hands down, Bluebird Bacalar. This is a place for “glamping” where you can stay in a tent or a little cabaña. Included in your stay at Bluebird, you have a private dock with chairs, beds, and hammocks to relax, a water hammock sitting in the lagoon, kayaks to use with water access, an island you can easily walk to, a bar and incredible location.
The owners of Bluebird are very accommodating and make your stay unforgettable. I recommend Bluebird for anyone wanting to visit Bacalar! You can book your stay at Bluebird through their website or Airbnb as well as follow them on their instagram account @bluebirdexclusivebacalar
For more information on a visit to Bacalar, follow my other blog post below!
Merida – Day 9/10
Your final full day will consist of driving about four hours back north to Merida from Bacalar. The roads will take you through some very small Mayan villages full of people wanting to sell you delicious foods. If you want to stop somewhere on the way back, Uxmal is a good destination. Another Mayan ruin site with some unique architecture. I cannot say that I made it there, but I hear its fantastic.
Before leaving the following morning, your last night can be spent in the beautiful Centro Historico of Merida picking up right where you left off on the first day.
The Yucatán Peninsula has a little bit for everyone. Tranquility, paradise, history, partying and of course adventure. So, the next time you’re thinking about where to go, don’t be ordinary and go to a resort in Cancun. Hop in a car, lay out a map, and explore one of the most beautiful and culture packed areas in North America.
Have you ever been to the Yucatán Peninsula? Let me know below if you agree or disagree with my trip! Am I leaving something out? Is there something that doesn’t belong? Have any questions or suggestions? Please reply and comment below! You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to me on Instagram @travelingle and @egtrotters . Gracias!!!