By Guest Author: Lindsay Bright
You might not know the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico by name, but you definitely have heard of places like Cancun and Cozumel. Spring break, anybody?
Yes, the Yucatan is probably better known as party central, but there TONS of amazing experiences for the adventurous backpacker.
The Yucatan Peninsula has an incredibly rich history, and is blessed more than just beaches (and so is the rest of Mexico). You can walk amongst the Mayans, get lost in the jungles of Sian Ka’an and experience the region’s vibrant culture in Merida. Not mention tacos, tacos, and more tacos!
Here are our 6 MUST do experiences in the Yucatan
But step one… Leave Cancun
Being one of the biggest airports in the area, you can find cheap direct flights to Cancun from many U.S. cities. But other than flying in, and possibly staying the night if you get in late, just leave.
One of the easiest ways to get around Mexico is by driving a rental car, and it would make your time around the Yucatan so much easier. You get to explore on your own, it’s safe, and crazy cheap. We got a rental car in Costa Rica for so cheap one day, we decided to keep the car for two weeks. We use RentalCars.com to search for the best deals on rental cars around the world.
1. Feel the Vibes in Merida
A sprawling city with lots of charm, Merida can occupy you for days with it’s beautiful parks and squares.
If you're in town on a Sunday get ready for a real party. On Sundays mornings, downtown streets shut down for parades of cyclists, and the streets around the Plaza Grande burst to life. I’m talking craft markets, food vendors, bandshells, and throngs of locals enjoying the day.
The best cheap eats can be found in the bustling Mercado Lucas de Galvez. Indulge in essentially all you can eat tacos and tortas (the best sandwich on the planet as far as I’m concerned).
To top off the night, the large avenue of Paseo de Montejo holds a night of cultural performances and music from around the country, all for FREE.
2. Get lost in the Ruins of Uxmal
Everyone will want to see the legendary Chichen Itza, but there is an even more impressive site that too many travellers overlook.
Uxmal is one of the few remaining Mayan ruins where you can still explore inside the temples Indiana Jones style. This makes a big difference because you get to see the well-preserved details in the stonework up close.
You will feel like you’ve gone back in time standing atop of the pyramids imagining what the city must have looked like. If you were to only see one Mayan ruin, make sure it is Uxmal. But if you have more time, head across the border to Guatemala and visit the spectaular ruins of Tikal.
How to Get There: Buy a two-way bus ticket to Uxmal from the Merida bus station between Calle 68 & 70. Ask for the arrival times for your return because you will need to wait for the bus outside the site.
3. Become a Cenote Hunter
Throughout the Yucatan there are thousands of natural sinkholes known as cenotes. From the moment you first lay eyes on one you will be captured by their magical aura. It is easy to understand why the Mayans worshipped cenotes as sacred.
Tulum is a great jumping point for cenotes with tons just a short bike or shared taxi ride away. There is Cenote Dos Ojos, Cenote Cristal, Cenote Escondido, Cenote Carwash (who named this one?), the list goes on.
Our personal favourite is Cenote Oxman, just outside the city of Valladolid. Birds nest sit in jungle vines that drape down into the crystal blue waters of this stunning cave cenote. Oxman’s beauty is so surreal I mistook the birds for angels singing!
How to Get to Cenote Oxman: Rent a bicycle in the centre of Valladolid and head southwest. Take Calle 54 out of town until you see a small dirt road off to the right with a sign for Hacienda Oxman.
TIP: For an off-the-beaten-path adventure check out Los Tres Cenotes in little Chunkanan. By far our sweetest ride in Mexico, we took a horse-drawn rail car deep into the thick brush to visit three mysterious cave pools. Take a shared taxi from Merida to Cuzama, and then hire a bixi-taxi to take you to Chunkanan (and make sure you actually get to the village!). Excursions from Chunkanan directly benefit the villagers.
4. Lounge for Days in Tulum
Thankfully, Tulum is more than just glamorous resorts.
We stayed in Tulum Pueblo and spent our days lounging on lengths of spectacular beaches. There are tons of public beach clubs, run by locals in town, where you can pay a small fee for lounge chairs, bar service, and a taste of paradise.
It’s a fun town with a great backpacker culture. Every night you can walk up the main drag to find quirky bars, and lively hangouts. I dare you to not get sucked in to the beach bum lifestyle!
TIP: At the northern end of Tulum’s public beach there is an abandoned lighthouse. Officially, it is off limits, but locals know it as a great hangout spot for viewing the endless ocean and beautiful sunsets over the Yucatan jungle.
5. Explore the Sian Ka’an Reserve
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is teeming with life, and makes for an unforgettable DIY day-trip from Tulum.
The diverse, jungle ecosystem takes your senses on a trip. Not to mention the reserve offers one of the most unique experiences in the region.
You don’t know relaxation until you’ve floated effortlessly down clear blue channels surrounded by lush mangroves. Hire a boat to take you out into the lagoons of Sian Ka’an where you can bob along ancient waterways used by Mayan civilizations.
How to Get There: Take a shared taxi from Tulum headed south to Muyil. Enter the ruins and keep exploring the trails at the back of the site. A guide will most likely meet you there, offering to show you around and bring you to the lagoons.
6. Swim With Sea Turtles in Akumal
The small town of Akumal not only is home to beautiful beaches, but also to a colony of Green Sea Turtles!
We rented snorkel gear in Tulum, packed a big lunch, not enough sunscreen, and crossed our fingers for some turtles. Turns out that was not a problem at all since I swam alongside 4 of them! Out of respect, make sure you don’t touch the turtles and simply enjoy their company.
NOTE: Swimming at Akumal Beach and viewing the turtles is FREE and open to the public. Touting “guides” will try to tell you otherwise. This has caused a contentious issue between authorities, nearby hotels, and touts who may be aggressive towards tourists.
There is a long story behind these unfortunate circumstances, but you should be aware of the situation before going. Message us at email@example.com for more deets.
More Things To Do Around the Yucatan Peninsula
And this list doesn’t even include the amazing places we didn’t have a chance to visit! If we could do it all over again, we would try to check out the following
- Rio Lagartos: Pink lagoons and flocks of pink flamingos? Have to see it to believe it!
- Isla Holbox: A peaceful, car-free island paradise for a quiet getaway.
- Campeche: Colourful, colonial streets with a swashbuckling history.
If my math is correct, those are 9 reasons why the Yucatan Peninsula should be bumped to the top of your dream travel destinations.
Traveling through the rest of Mexico? Here are some more places to check out:
About the Author
Hey there! I’m Lindsay Bright and I'm travelling with my boyfriend, Jordan. We are a fun loving couple with no money and big dreams of travelling this beautiful world.
I like to think we travel a little differently. We combine our love for exploration and culture to bring to life authentic travel stories. By sharing these stories and building genuine connections with the people and places we meet, we hope to make the world a little bit brighter.
If you’re interested in our journey or want to know how you can live your backpacking adventures on any budget, be sure to check out our website www.brightintheworld.com and follow us on Facebook and Instagram at @brightintheworld.
Have you been to the Yucatan Peninsula? What was your favorite part to travel in? Do you have more adventures to add to this list? Please leave comments and questions below in the comment section.