In sharp contrast to the resort lifestyle of Cancún and Riviera Maya, the Yucatán and Campeche states cater to a more tranquil traveler who is looking to avoid the spring-break atmosphere. Here you'll find innumerable natural and historic wonders, including mangrove forests, unspoiled beaches, quaint colonial villages, and more than 50% of Mexico's bird species.
Unlike Quintana Roo,
Yucatán and Campeche states have few international residents, and there's much less emphasis on beachside activities. With the largest indigenous population in the country, these states are defined by Mayan culture and traditions; the area's history, people, and food set it apart from the rest of Mexico.
One of Yucatán State's biggest draws is its capital, Mérida. As it's the hub of art and culture, locals and travelers alike gather in the town square for weekend performances. Izamal, the oldest town in the Yucatán, will take you back in time with its cobblestone streets, iron lampposts, yellow-painted buildings, and horse-drawn carriages. Near the state's eastern border, the budding cosmopolitan town of Valladolid offers excellent bird-watching and freshwater cenotes where you can explore underwater caves.
More than 2,000 Mayan ruins lie within these two states, but only a handful have been restored for tourism. Nestled amid rampant jungles are the magnificent archaeological sites of Uxmal, Kabah, Labna, Sayil, Dzibilchaltún, and Chichén Itzá, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site. Roughly one hour southeast of Uxmal, the Grutas de Loltún show signs of human civilization dating as far back as 800 BC. At these natural caverns, illuminated pathways meander past stalactites, stalagmites, and limestone formations.
For nature lovers, the beach town of Celestún serves as a natural habitat for hundreds of pink flamingos. To combine wildlife and adventure, head to Río Lagartos where you can kayak through the mangroves. Off the coast of Isla Holbox, diving with whale sharks is possible from June through August. This small island, void of cars, is one of the area's best spots to relax and enjoy beach life. The laid-back beach community of Progreso (near Mérida) is another coastal favorite.
Campeche, the neighboring state, is more remote and less visited than Yucatán, and is known for its haciendas and colonial towns. The state's capital, by the same name, sits within a 26-foot wall that once served as a protective border against pirates in the 17th century. Today this harbor city is centered by colorful buildings and a charming plaza where people gather to admire the cathedral, browse the market, or enjoy pan de cazon, traditional shredded fish with black beans. For a mellow alternative, you can explore the coastline by boat or spend a day bird-watching at the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.