The Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico really does offer something for everyone: party animals will love the notorious city of Cancun, beach bums will enjoy lazing by the turquoise waters, and history nerds can spend days strolling around Mayan buildings. It’s best to hire a car to fully experience all this region has to offer, including its more remote historical landmarks.
With over a million visitors a year, the UNESCO world heritage site of Chichen Itza is the Yucatán Peninsula’s most-visited Mayan site. It features around five square kilometers of archaeology and stone buildings, surrounded by dense forests.
|Chichen Itza is the Yucatán Peninsula’s most-visited Mayan site.
While popular landmarks like the El Castillo pyramid and the ornate Jaguar Temple are well-worth visiting, there are plenty of other ancient sites in the region if you want to avoid crowds. Calakmul, for example, is a Mayan city located deep in the jungle near the Guatemalan border. It’s surrounded by the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve and has two huge pyramids, the largest of which is 55 meters tall. For smaller, but equally as fascinating sites, check out Uxmal, a short drive from Merida, or Tulum, which overlooks the picturesque Caribbean Sea.
Playa del Carmen stretches from Cancun to Tulum. Its main highlight is the walking street of La Quinta Avenida, lined with boutiques, bars, and restaurants. Once you reach Tulum, you’ll find its own gorgeous beach, where you can scuba dive, kite surf, or head out to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve for mangrove and wildlife tours.
|Tulum is great for scuba diving and kite surfing.
Explore the perfectly pink lakes of Las Coloradas, which get their color from the high salt content. Most of the lakes are privately owned, meaning swimming is no longer allowed, but you can take incredible pictures of the water and matching pink flamingos.
|The pink flamingos live around the pink lakes of Las Coloradas.
Be sure to check out Bacalar Lagoon, which was once overrun by pirates but is now one of the best spots in the region for kayaking. It’s known as the Lagoon of Seven Colors because its different depths make each patch a slightly different shade.
Head to Akumal Beach, just south of Playa del Carmen, to see three varieties of sea turtles in the shallow blue-green waters. For a more thrilling experience, take a 25-minute ferry ride from the mainland to Isla Holbox, where you’ll find whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean. Swimming alongside these bus-sized creatures can be scary, but don’t worry: they prefer plankton to people!
|Isla Holbox is located just 25 minutes from the mainland.
Another great island adventure is Cozumel, located an hour’s ferry ride from the mainland. It’s situated close to the second-largest coral reef in the world, the Meso-American Barrier Reef, making it a great location to spot eagle rays, octopus, stingrays, barracudas, and more!
|Cozumel is another great island adventure!
Once you’ve explored the sea water, head to one of the region’s cenotes (underground caves filled with fresh water). There are about 2,000 of these dotted around the Yucatán peninsula, including Dzitnup, Azul, and Dos Ojos.
|Cenotes are underground caves filled with fresh water.|
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Merida is the capital of the Yucatán state, one of four states that make up the peninsula. Don’t leave the colonial town without buying a souvenir, such as wooden Maya carvings, from its market, or strolling around its beautiful Cathedral de San Ildefonso. The town of Izamal, meanwhile, is often known as the Yellow Town, as almost every building was painted in a deep golden shade for a visit from the pope in 1993. Head just outside of the center to climb a huge pyramid for panoramic views over the town.
|The town of Izamal is often known as the Yellow Town.
While Cancun is notorious for its bars, and clubs, there’s more to the city than nightlife. You can scuba dive, rent jet skis, or head downtown for a more local experience, where you can try local food in more relaxed establishments.
|Cancun is an exciting city day and night.
Looking for more Mexican delicacies? Visit Valladolid for its quaint plaza, Spanish-looking buildings, and great food. Be sure to try dishes such as Cochinita Pibil (pulled pork) and Relleno Negro de Pavo (black turkey soup).
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Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula offers something for everyone from interesting Mayan history to great beaches and cities.