The Yucatan peninsula is definitely the perfect place to go on holiday. Activities you can do vary from exploring underground cenotes, scuba diving with whale sharks, enjoying the white sand beaches, visiting the ancient Mayan ruins, walking around colonial towns, tasting delicious food, meeting friendly people, and experiencing the nightlife.
Have you heard about Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen? If you plan to visit Mexico for Spring Break and all you want to do is hang out at an all-inclusive hotel, go to the beach, and party non-stop, then Cancun is definitely the right spot for you. Otherwise, Tulum has Mayan ruins, trendy spots, and delicious food and Playa del Carmen is a little quieter and offers supreme sandy beaches.
But the Yucatan Peninsula is so much more than just Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen. If you look at the map of Yucatan, you can easily spend several weeks, if not months in the area and still find something new. In case your time is limited and you only have two to four weeks to spend, like most visitors, you should spend some time in advance to plan your itinerary. This blog post will give you information on other top spots such as Cozumel, Bacalar, Coba, Valladolid and Chichen Itza.
Let’s not waste time and dive right into it. I’ll show you my top 15 places in Yucatan, and explain the ways in which you can get around.
a. Top 15 Places
- Cancun (visit beaches and party at night clubs)
- Playa del Carmen (stroll around 5th avenue and party at night)
- Xcaret & Xplor (adventure parks with natural and cultural attractions)
- Xel-Ha (aquatic theme park and ecotourism development)
- Cozumel Island (diving)
- Akumal (swim with turtles for free)
- Tulum (visit the Mayan ruins)
- Sian Ka’an Reserve (kayak among mangroves)
- Bacalar (kayak in the lagoon of 7 colours)
- Coba (temples and pyramids hidden in the dense jungle)
- Valladolid (colonial architecture city)
- Chichen Itza (one of the New 7 Wonders of the World)
- Merida (colonial architecture city)
- Rio Lagartos (the pink lakes of Las Coloradas)
- Holbox (swim with bioluminescent plankton and see whale sharks)
b. Arriving in Cancun
1. Cancun (visit beaches and party at nightclubs)
During the day you can visit the famous Cancun beaches. At night, head to the main road, where all the bars, restaurants, and nightclubs are located. Highlights:
- The most famous nightclub is Coco Bongo, half a club half a cabaret with live performances every night. The entry is 1,800 MXN around 90 USD.
- Another highlight is the MUSA (Underwater Museum of Art) which is a rare opportunity to snorkel or dive around a living museum, where sea life is taking over man-made statues placed under the water. If you don’t have a diving certificate your training + dive can go from 3,160 MXN around 155 USD. However, you can also do snorkeling or take a glass bottom boat for 960 MXN around 47 USD
For more information on Cancun check out MexicanCaribbean.travel website.
2. Playa del Carmen (stroll around 5th avenue and party at night)
In Playa del Carmen, you can spend a perfect day at the beach and stroll through the 5th avenue in the evening. The 5th avenue is where you’ll find all the shops, restaurants, and bars. It gets really heated and bubbly at night. If you want to buy souvenirs don’t hesitate to haggle.
My travel tips:
- Book your accommodation near the beach and 5th Avenue (this is just the place to be).
- Instagrammable spot: Parque los Fundadores has a famous sculpture at the entrance.
- Best daylight clubs: Mamitas Beach Club which is perfect to have drinks or lunch. Martina Beach Club which has a clubby vibe with deep house, funk, and chill music. Coralina Daylight club which has entertainment and music. And Kool Beach Club which is chic, nice and friendly.
- There are many beaches and open-air cenotes you can visit along Tulum road in Playa del Carmen. Among the most beautiful beaches are Akumal, Xcacel, Xpu-Ha, Saasil Kantenah and Chemuyil. The prettiest cenotes are Cenote Escondido, Taak Bi Ha, Media Luna and Dos Ojos.
You can read more useful info on Playa del Carmen TripAdvisor.
3. Xcaret & Xplor (adventure parks with natural and cultural attractions)
Xcaret (Playa del Carmen)
During the day you can explore more than 50 attractions, for example, see typical Mexican dances or explore Mayan archaeological vestiges. At night, a range of breathtaking shows and the awesome Xcaret México Espectacular presentation make your visit worthwhile for sure.
Entrance fee: Adult 2,200 MXN around 110 USD
Xcaret at night: Adult 1,800 MXN around 87 USD
Official Xcaret website: https://www.xcaret.com/en/
Xplor (Playa del Carmen)
Get adventurous and glide through the treetops on zip-lines, enter the depths of the earth in underground paths full of stalactites and stalagmites, or explore the Mayan jungle in fun vehicles.
Entrance fee: Adult 2,600 MXN around 130 USD
Open: from 9am to 5pm Monday to Saturday
Official Xplor website: https://www.xcaret.com/en/parks-and-tours/xplor-admission/
4. Xel-Ha (aquatic theme park and ecotourism development)
Xel-Há is a place to become one with nature. Your entrance includes unlimited snorkeling, river floating on inner tubes, Scenic Lighthouse with 360° views from a height of 131 ft (40 m) and a fun descent, zip-lines, five-meter-high jumps, different rope games, hikes through jungle paths, cenotes and coves.
Entrance fee: Adult 2,000 MXN around 97 USD
Open: from 8:30am to 6pm, Monday to Sunday
Official website: https://www.xelha.com/
5. Cozumel Island (diving)
Catch the early morning ferry to the island of Cozumel. Ferries from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel run regularly throughout the day (normally from 8am to 10 or 11pm), in general, every hour. Check here for up to date schedules for the Ultramar Ferry to Cozumel.
As the island is quite big, you should consider renting a car, buggy or scooter. Some activities are:
- Cozumel is a great spot for diving, there’s a submarine expedition that allows you to see the bottom of the Caribbean Sea at a depth of more than 100 ft. For 1,000 MXN around 50 USD.
- You can also experience a “Sea Trek” that will give you the feeling of walking in space; you just have to put on a special helmet, and a continuous flow of air will allow you to breathe easily while you explore the ocean. The combo of submarine + sea trek is 2,500 MXN = 125 USD
- You can snorkel on a gorgeous reef near The Money Bar.
- Then continue onto the Punta Sur Eco Beach Park to enjoy the beach, play with some local raccoons, kayak, and maybe spot a crocodile! The admission ticket is 360 MXN around 18USD.
Check out the Cozumel Trip Advisor page for more information.
6. Akumal (Swim with turtles for free)
Akumal is a small village on the way to Tulum. Do yourself a favor and stop at Akumal where you can swim with sea turtles for free. It’s one of the best things to do in the area! You have basically three options: bring your own snorkel and do it for free, rent a snorkel, or rent a snorkel and pay for a guided snorkeling tour for the best chance to see turtles.
We didn’t have a snorkel so we rented it and easily saw turtles hanging out and munching on seagrass.
You can read more about Akumal on Trip Advisor.
7. Tulum (visit the Mayan ruins)
Tulum is the place to be, besides Mayan ruins, restaurants and bars make this a hip experience.
- Mayan ruins: seeing ruins at Tulum’s beachfront location, perched on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea is an experience hard to beat. The entrance fee is 80 MXN around 4 USD. It’s open from 8 am to 5 pm from Monday to Sunday.
- Instagrammable spot: “Come into the light” sculpture at Ahau Hotel is one of the most Instagrammable spots in Mexico.
- Hot spot: Casa Malca being Pablo Escobar’s former Mansion is a must-see (is a hotel and restaurant now).
- Restaurants: some of the top ones are Karma, a 3-floor Treehouse experience in the jungle. Tseen-ja & Kin Toh (restaurants from Azulik resort) to enjoy the magic of dining on floating nests. Chambao is a fashionable grill house which has the iconic “bad decissions make better stories” neon sign. Meze aegean taverna. And Arca restaurant with curated dishes.
- For breakfast and snacks: Matcha Mama with healthy smoothies, bowls, açaí, kombuchas, juices, and more. Ziggy Beach with sunbeds and palm trees. And Orchidea Restaurant (from Orchid House Hotel) with a poolside bar with live music.
- Day Parties: enjoy live music and entertainment at Taboo.
- Bars to party: have dinner with a great vibe at Rosa Negra which also has events with world-renowned DJs.
8. Sian Ka’an Reserve in Tulum (kayak among mangroves)
Another must-see on your bucket list should be the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. The reserve is full of birds (and crocodiles so be careful) and mostly consists of mangrove. You can either book a tour from Tulum, and you’ll go around the reserve on a boat, or you can drive to Punta Allen, where you’ll see beautiful beaches on one side and the mangroves on the other.
In 1987, Sian Ka’an was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO and it remains the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean.
You’ll find more info on Sian Ka’an on Trip Advisor.
9. Bacalar (kayak in the lagoon of 7 colours)
In Bacalar, every activity revolves around the lagoon. Most entrances are private and you’ll need to pay a small fee. Some are better than others. For a public and free one, type “Acceso Publico a La Laguna” in Google Maps, it’s near the main plaza. If you want a place with a bit of “beach”, go to “Parque Ecologico Laguna Bacalar“, you’ll have to pay an entrance fee but the place is nice and quiet.
You can also go on a boat tour to visit more of the lagoon. There are a couple of nice spots as well as a cenote. You should also rent a bike and head to Cenote Azul, stopping along the way.
There are several companies offering:
- Kayaking for 550 MXN around 27 USD
- Boat tours for 820 MXN around 40 USD
Trip Advisor is helpful as always to find out more about Bacalar.
10. Coba (temples and pyramids hidden in the dense jungle)
The main attraction in Coba is the Mayan ruins. Coba ruins are completely different from those at Chichen Itza and Tulum. It feels more like you are discovering it for the first time, stumbling across temples and pyramids hidden in the dense jungle. Hire a bike to cycle through the trees and discover ruined temples all across the site.
Also, unlike Chichen Itza, you can still climb the main pyramid called Ixmoja. There are 120 stone steps up to the top, but it’s well worth the effort – the view from the top is breathtaking.
Entrance fee: 80 MXN around 4 USD
Open: from 8 am to 5 pm, Monday to Sunday
You can read more information on the official Coba website from INAH.
11. Valladolid (colonial architecture city)
Valladolid is a friendly colonial town on the way to Chichen Itza offering stunning architecture, including a 16th-century cathedral of San Gervasio.
The historic center is cozy and small – you’ll find your way around on foot easily. Starting from the main plaza, head to the San Bernardino de Siena convent and you will have seen everything. At night, during weekends and holidays, a light show is organized at the convent, the comments of the show are in Spanish but it’s worth seeing even if you don’t understand.
Valladolid is also famous for its many cenotes. You can rent a bike (or a cab) to visit them. Among the nicest ones are Cenote Zaci (right in the city center), Cenote Suytun, and Oxman Cenote.
You can read more about Valladolid on Lonely Planet.
12. Chichen Itza (one of the New 7 Wonders of the World)
Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most visited tourist destinations, one of the seven New Wonders of the World, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a lot of astronomical marvels at Chichen Itza, but one of the most exciting is the Descent of the Feathered Serpent on the main Pyramid of Kukulkan.
On March 21st and September 21st equinoxes (an Equinox is when the day has the same duration as the night), a shadow play is created where a serpent head statue transforms into a full creature through the shadows of the pyramid’s terraces.
If you can’t go on those days, there’s also an evening light show in which a projection on the main pyramid explains the history of the Mayans and the creation of the universe which is also very informative and beautiful.
Please be advised that because it’s so touristy, you cannot climb the pyramid anymore (you can in most other sites), and it’s full of souvenir vendors. Nevertheless, I think it’s still a must-see as it’s so famous.
Entrance fee: 64 MXN around 3 USD
Open: from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Sunday
You can read more about Chichenitza in the Official Website of INAH.
13. Merida (colonial architecture city)
Merida is a stunning colonial city full of beautiful sights. There, you should visit the historic center, the cathedral and the city’s main plaza. From here, head to the Parque Santa Lucia and the Parque de Santa Ana afterwards. Both are great places at night, to eat and watch some traditional Maya dances. Then stroll around the Paseo de Montejo, which is said to resemble the Champs Elysées in Paris. There are two House-Museums you can visit on the avenue.
The impressive Mayan World Museum of Merida has over 1100 Mayan artifacts on display and is useful to give some context before visiting nearby ruins.
Read more about Merida on Lonely Planet.
14. Rio Lagartos (the pink lakes of Las Coloradas)
Rio Lagartos is famous for bird watching and the densest concentration of flamingos in Mexico. You can admire the beauty of the naturally pink lakes of Las Coloradas and cover yourself in mud as a perfect skin treatment. Some local guides offer tours to show you around and tell you the history of the place.
Read more about Las Coloradas on Trip Advisor.
15. Holbox (swim with bioluminescent plankton and see whale sharks)
To get to Holbox take a ferry from Chiquila which leaves every hour. The island of Holbox is all about relaxing and beautiful beaches, but if you’re up for some adventure activities you won’t end up disappointed either. You can go horseback riding on the beach, rent a golf cart (as it’s the only vehicle allowed on the island) or hit the pedal with a bicycle.
Snorkeling and diving with whale sharks (from June to September) are also an option for the more adventurous types. To me, the best thing on the island are the hammocks located right on the water and delicious lobster pizza.
At night, you can go on a tour to swim with bioluminescent plankton (FYI: don’t trust the photos you’ll see, it’s photoshopped, the sea won’t look like a sky full of stars, the plankton is only luminescent upon contact).
You can read more about Holbox on Trip Advisor.
b. Arriving in Cancun
Cancun has the biggest international airport in the region, which makes it the easiest starting and ending point. Arriving at Cancun Airport you can head directly to Playa del Carmen or Tulum with an ADO bus.
If you want to visit Cancun, stay in the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone), where the beaches and the parties are, you can take either a cab or an ADO bus to the bus station in Cancun. Don’t take the taxis right in front of the bus station, walk to the main road to your right, where you can either catch a cheaper taxi (agree on the price first) or take the bus for only 10 MXN (it stops practically in front of every hotel).
The best and most convenient way to explore the area is by renting a car. A car will give you the freedom to explore more and beat the crowds. You will appreciate having the ability to go places a bit off the beaten paths and possibly save money over using taxis and shuttles.
Nevertheless, it is quite easy to move with public transport and the occasional taxi or bus.
Rent a car
You can easily rent a car from Cancun airport to drive anywhere in Yucatan, and as Cancun airport is south of the city, it takes less than 2 hours to drive from the airport to Tulum which is the first stop on this itinerary. If you arrive in Cancun early in the morning, you could spend some time in Cancun or Isla Mujeres, drive to Playa del Carmen for a few hours, or just head straight to Tulum or Bacalar.
- ADO: it’s the most common bus company in Yucatan and has comfortable buses with air-con. Unlike the cheaper 2nd class buses, ADO buses don’t stop outside designated bus stops in the cities, so they tend to be quicker. You can check times and timetables online here (in Spanish), but you can’t buy tickets online unless you have a Mexican credit card. You will need to go to the bus station to get your ticket there.
- Mayab: Cheaper 2nd class buses such as Mayab are useful for shorter trips, for example from Valladolid to Pisté, but they rarely have aircon and tend to stop frequently so they take forever. However, they are considerably cheaper than ADO!
- Collectivo buses: these are minivans which zip around the towns and in between various destinations, such as Playa del Carmen, Tulum (stopping at Akumal), Valladolid and Chichen Itza. They don’t have set timetables, and usually leave once they are full.
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