From scaling Mayan pyramids to diving into cenotes, here are the best places to go exploring on the Yucatán Peninsula.
The Yucatán Peninsula—not to be confused with Yucatán State—includes the states of Campeche, Quintana Roo, and the Yucatán, as well as parts of Belize and Guatemala. While many visitors flock to the Yucatán Peninsula to enjoy the beaches and resorts of Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and the Riviera Maya, there are far more things to explore in the region. From flamingos and whale sharks, to tiny off-shore islands and historical cities, here are just ten of the must-visit places on the (Mexican) Yucatán Peninsula.
All the Islands
While you may have heard of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres—two of the most popular island day trips from Cancún—Isla Holbox and Isla Contoy might not ring quite so many bells. Even so, all of them are worth a visit (or two) during a trip to the Yucatán Peninsula. Cozumel is the biggest and best-known, mainly for the abundance of cruise ships that dock there daily, but it’s still worth heading over for a spot of snorkeling or scuba diving. Off Isla Mujeres, dive into an underwater museum world at MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte) and admire all manner of sea birds, turtles, and tropical fish on Isla Contoy. Isla Holbox—with its pristine beaches and laidback Caribbean vibe—is the ideal place to relax. Is it cheating bundling so many destinations into one entry? Probably, but it was too tough to choose.
Celestún Biosphere Reserve
An easy day trip from Mérida, tranquil Celestún is a fishing village towards the northwest of the peninsula. Alongside quiet beaches and extensive mangroves, Celestún is perhaps best-known for the Celestún Biosphere Reserve which is home to an abundance (or should that be flamboyance?) of flamingos, as well as herons and pelicans. Getting there early is always the best bet if you want to see the flamingos at their most active.
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Centered on an underground cave system and crisscrossed with natural rivers and cenotes, Xcaret Park is an adventure playground for grown-ups and kids alike. Typically described as an ecotourism destination, at Xcaret Park on the Riviera Maya you can zipline, tube down a river, explore the Mayan jungle, sweat in a temazcal, wander through a “Mexican village” and more…all without leaving the boundaries of the park. Similar attractions owned by the same company include Xel-Ha and Xplor.
Of the trifecta of Mexican states which make up the Yucatán Peninsula, Campeche is undoubtedly the most underrated. Stop by sooner rather than later before everyone figures out it’s worth a visit, starting in the capital city of the same name. There, in this colonial city with a pastel-painted historic center (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), admire the San Miguel Fort, before soaking up ocean views from what remains of the city walls and making time for a quick stop at each of the seven surviving baluartes (bastions) along the way.
Tulum may no longer be the undiscovered (by who, we wonder?) paradise it once was; in fact, it’s a popular day trip from nearby Playa del Carmen or Cancún, as well as a destination-with-a-capital-D. However, that doesn’t mean you should write off Tulum all together, especially given that its beaches are arguably some of—if not the—best in the region. Yes, really. Whether you stop by Playa Las Ruinas, Paraíso, or Las Palmas, it’s all postcard-ready, powdery white sand and turquoise waters as far as the eye can see.
If you can drag yourself away from the palm-shaded shores for longer than it takes to order another beer, the crumbling Tulum Pyramid is worth a visit if not for its precariously perched cliff-side position and spectacular coastal views.
All the Ruins
As with the islands, it’s impossible to choose just one ruin to spotlight on the Yucatán Peninsula, especially given that the region has over 30 separate archaeological sites. Chichén Itzá is perhaps the most obvious must-visit ruin on the Yucatán Peninsula, but is it the best? That depends, but if you’re looking for an under-the-radar experience, then you can certainly do better. Consider checking out Calakmul and Edzná in Campeche or Cobá in Quintana Roo. Meanwhile Ek Balam and Uxmal, both in Yucatán State, are excellent options within easy reach from Mérida.
Related: 14 Must-See Mayan Ruins in Mexico
Speaking of which, you can’t miss the largest city on the Yucatán Peninsula during your next visit. Rich in history, art, culture, and handicrafts, Mérida is a laidback city with a small-town vibe and a striking historic center bedecked with colonial buildings. Stroll the length of the Paseo de Montejo, snack on the crunchy-crispy, sweet-and-savory marquesitas (rolled crepes typically stuffed with chocolate and cheese) sold by street vendors, and watch locals dance the night away in the plaza of a Sunday evening.
All the Cenotes
In a region arguably more famous for its coastline than its inland attractions, cenotes—freshwater sinkholes—make ditching the beach look easy. And given that there are even more cenotes than ruins to choose from, there’s always going to be a good one nearby, whether you fancy a big-name spot—like the Gran Cenote, Cenote Dos Ojos, or Cenote Suytun—or a smaller, lesser-known cenote such as Tak Be Ha.
Stay inland for the Bacalar Lagoon. Otherwise known as the Lake of Seven Colors, Bacalar Lagoon is the main attraction of the small town of the same name. Spend your days swimming, snorkeling, and boat tripping around the lake or just pick one of the balnearios (literally, spas; more accurately, lakeside spa clubs) to hang out at, before dining in a restaurant overlooking the water. Don’t miss the stromatolites (living mineral structures) at Cocolitos.
While Cancún is far from the most original destination on the Yucatán Peninsula, its beaches and luxury resorts are popular for a reason. Pamper yourself at onsite spas, enjoy all-inclusive accommodation, and make the most of shallow waters and pristine beaches…just don’t forget to venture beyond your resort bubble every once in a while.