Where to visit in the Yucatán: 7 step guide
The headline acts of the Yucatán are known the world over, but a visit here need not always proceed along the standard Resort-Chichén Itzá-Mérida axis. Travelling about the region, rather than taking group excursions from a single base, can open up opportunities to also make more intimate and meaningful visits to any of the dozens of lesser-visited (but equally fascinating) Mayan ruins of the peninsula, whilst also avoiding the biggest crowds at the larger sites. Quiet idyllic beaches and small islands stand in contrast to the prized resort hotels of the Riviera Maya and offer a very different experience. Pink flamingos and a varied bird life draw visitors to the protected Biosphere Reserves of the north, whilst colourful colonial era cities, traditional sisal haciendas and back road villages warrant your attention.
The Yucatán is a vast, flat peninsula, covered with thick jungle and dry forest and enriched by a dramatic history that spans centuries. The mighty Mayans flourished here until the 16th century, when the Spanish Conquistadors seized the land, toppled the Mayans and brought a new layer of cultural heritage. Their first cities, Mérida and Campeche, today showcase their attractive colonial era architectural style, whilst numerous monasteries stand as monuments to their early efforts to replace all Mayan beliefs with Christianity. Following the country's independence from Spain, the Yucatán spent most of the 19th century battling for its own sovereignty, driven by a fierce and largely Mayan core. In the 19th century the region enjoyed a sudden influx of fortune, thanks to the exportation of henequen - used to make much of the world's rope and twine. This prompted the conversion of hundreds of haciendas and the building of new ones, many of which serve today as restored luxury hotels. By the mid-twentieth century, the Yucatán become the country's most important trading port, before word got out and visitors from Europe and America began to make it their holiday destination of choice.
Tulum (photo by Martin Falbisoner)
Whether touring the star attractions or finding the hidden gems in the peninsula's quiet back roads, the Yucatán is a delight to explore. With direct British Airways flights from London to Cancún, a welcoming climate, a huge choice of world class hotels and an a-la carte menu of beaches and Mayan ruins to discover, it's no wonder the peninsula remains as popular as ever today. Enjoy our guide to our favourite places, if it inspires you to start planning your own Yucatán experience, we'd love you to get in touch.
Step 1: Marvel at the ancient cities of the mighty Mayans
The ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá is known the world over, recognised as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007. It quite rightly forms the centrepiece to any visit to the peninsula, a fact which means you'll never have the place to yourself unfortunately. Unlike most tours, which visit the ruins on coach trips from Cancun or Mérida, we prefer to stay closer to the site, allowing you to visit at off-peak times and out of the harsh glare of the midday sun, in the company of a local expert. The towering pyramids at Uxmal, noted for their distinctive Puuc and intricate lattice work, are less crowded, but for a more intimate experience, it is best to head to one of the lesser-known and somewhat hidden archaeological sites.
Three sets of ruins that, thanks to thanks to Highway 186, can be easily combined within a day are Chicanná, Becán and Calakmul. They all sit close together in the southern state of Campeche and all within the Calakmul Biosphere, home to a variety of monkeys and other small mammals. Becán was an important town, occupied for over 1,500 years. It represents the finest example of a walled Mayan town and boasts some spectacular structures and stucco masks. Just a short drive away, Chicanná is worth a visit if only for the intricate carvings that adorn the entrance of the 'House of the Serpent's Mouth', one of the finest examples of Mayan artistry on the peninsula. Further south, off of Highway 186, is Calakmul, thought to be the largest of all Mayan cities. Some 6,000 structures make up this vast ancient centre, the highest of which can be seen from the top of Structure II, poking out above the dense jungle canopy, which stretches for as far as the eye can see, towards the Guatemalan border.
Suggested tour: Visit all the above Mayan sites on our 10 day Palapa tour (from £1,517*)
Calakmul (photo by eugene_o)
Step 2: Admire Mexico's first Spanish cities
Mérida was originally a walled city, built by early Spanish settlers around elaborate European-style mansions and hastily erected monasteries. Today it serves as a pleasant base from which to explore the numerous nearby archaeological sites and hidden natural gems, or enjoy a stay at a traditional sisal hacienda (see step 7). This is a city well worth exploring however, with many fine examples of ornate baroque architecture in its historic centre, fascinating museums and art galleries and an array of cafes and restaurants from which you can watch the world go by. It also happens to be the place to buy a proper Mexican hammock.
There is, however, a competitor to Mérida's position as the Yucatán's finest colonial era city. 175 miles south is the city of Campeche, capital of the eponymous state which forms the western side of the Yucatán. Campeche is best known for its wonderfully preserved city walls and the colourful Spanish-influenced baroque buildings, imposing ocean-facing forts and cobbled streets enclosed within them. Protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Campeche is in fact the only remaining walled city in Mexico. From here it is a short drive to the lesser-visited Mayan ruins at Edzná, whilst the aforementioned trio of ruins further south in the state can be reached within a couple of hours.
Suggested tour: Enjoy the colonial cities of Mérida, Campeche and Valladolid on our Cenote tour (from £2,360*)
Campeche (photo by Guillén Pérez)
Step 3: Take a dip in an underground Cenote
The Yucatan is curious in that it has no rivers or streams flowing across its limestone surface, instead secret underground rivers exist below much of the land - in fact, the world's three longest underground rivers are found here. A cenote is a collapsed limestone cave, creating a sinkhole which gives access to this subterranean world and thus forms beautiful and naturally occurring swimming pools. Many centuries ago, they actually played a far more important role than they do today. Because they were such a rare source of water, and no doubt because of their mysterious beauty, the Mayans deemed them to be sacred; a miraculous offering from the gods. They also believed that the cenotes provided a direct route to the underworld and so began the practice of providing sacrificial offerings to appease Chaac, the rain god. These took many material forms, including weaponry, but most significant were the human sacrifices that occurred in some.
There are thousands of cenotes in the Yucatán, but the most important are those next to which ancient cities were built, including the most famous of all at Chichen Itza - Ik Kil - the most well-known and therefore most visited. Characterised by long hanging vines and beautiful natural light, this perfectly round cenote can easily be admired and enjoyed when visiting the famous ruins. A quieter alternative, for those staying at the colonial city of Valladolid on our Cenote tour, are the two grotto-like cenotes at Ditznup (XKeken and Samulá), just a few miles out of town.
Ik Kil cenote, Chichen Itza (photo by Vicente Villamón)
Step 4: Get a closer look at the Yucatán's bird life
Exotic bird life might not be the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of Mexico or the Yucatán Peninsula, but that's exactly what you'll find in abundance in the nature reserves and protected biospheres of the north-western coasts here.
The most noted of these is the Celestún Nature Reserve, reached by a 90 minute drive from Mérida (or a three hour drive north from Campeche). The star attractions here are the flocks of greater flamingos that make their home in the area's shallow lagoon. Hundreds and thousands of these graceful brightly coloured birds gather here to feed in the plankton-rich water and small boat trips can take you up close, without disturbing them. From here, you can continue on to the tunnels of mangrove that line the back waters. The reserve itself provides a home to a huge array of birds, seen on easy walks along wooden platforms. These include egrets, pelicans, kingfishers, cormorants, herons, ibises, mot-mots, hawks and owls. But most interesting are the rare or endemic birds that can be found here, a list which includes the Yucatán's very own jay, woodpecker, wren, flycatcher, bobwhite and parrot. So if you see Celestún advertised as a birders paradise, it really is no lie!
Further along the northern coast, closer to Holbox and two hours north of Valladolid is the Ria Largartos Biosphere Reserve. Famed for its pinkish lagoon, is also home to a huge numbers of flamingos, as well as countless other bird species, making it a suitable alternative to Celestún. The island of Holbox, beloved for its idyllic beaches, is also something of a bird haven and is just a short boat ride from Isla de Pajaros or Bird Island, a home for thousands of marine birds, including many endangered species.
Suggested tour: Stay for two nights at the Celestún Nature Reserve on our back roads Balam tour (from £2,488*)
Brown pelicans at Celestún (photo by Katja Schulz)
Step 5: Drive through the hidden back road gems
One of the best ways to get away from the crowds and find the real Yucatán is on a back road discovery. This 160 mile journey, best spread over a few days or mixed in with other sights over two weeks, carries you from the white sands of the northern coast, to the second most notable Puuc archaeological site on the peninsula, via two 16th century monasteries and a charming market town of central Yucatán.
The starting point for the journey is the quiet coastal town of San Crisanto on the Gulf of Mexico, noted for its coconut tree-lined white sand beaches, mangroves and nature reserves. Tours here can take you closer to the exotic flora and abundant bird life. Heading south, we come to the ancient settlement of Izamal and its beautiful San Antonio de Padua convent. Following the conquest, Izamal transitioned from a sacred Mayan town to one of the first colonial era centres on the peninsula. The monastery is built upon a large Mayan pyramid, and it was here that a remorseful 16th century monk attempted to re-construct the contents of the Mayan scripts that he had previously burned. There remains a Mayan pyramid here, Kinich Kakmo, which can be scaled for views across the town.
We now drive two hours south to the town of Maní, notable for its large open-air 16th century church. Here, in 1562, the monks found Mayans practicing their ancient religious beliefs. Horrified by their discovery, they took the lead of Izamal's famous monk and burned all their sacred scripts and destroyed their statues, this time without repent. The monastery's exterior is in a poignant state of disrepair, but it has been fully restored to its former glory on the inside. From here, it is a short drive to the small and picturesque town of Oxzutzcab, known as the 'Garden of the Yucatán' for the colourful fruit market.
The journey concludes with a short drive west, to the Mayan Puuc style archaeological site of Kabah, dominated by the 'Palace of the Masks', adorned with hundreds of intricately decorated stone masks. The only larger Puuc ruins are those found at Uxmal.
Suggested tour: Take this journey for real on our Balam tour through back roads of the Yucatán (from £2,488*)
Izamal Convent (photo by Eneas De Troya)
Step 6: Find a quiet spot in paradise
The winning combination of soft white sand, crystal-clear water, off-shore coral reefs and deep blue skies of the north-eastern Caribbean coast is what attracts millions of visitors to the Riviera Maya each year. After exploring Mexico's cultural heart and magnificent ruins, there are few better places to relax for a few days, before heading back to reality. Fortunately though, for those looking for a little more isolation to go along with their relaxation, such beaches are not the sole preserve of the luxury resorts.
Holbox is a small village of sandy streets, with lush mangroves, underwater caves and idyllic palm tree-lined beaches. Inviting hammocks hang lazily over the turquoise water and a slow stroll along the beach can sometimes be enlivened by the presence of flamingos, herons and pelicans. This oasis of peace is also a wonderful place to snorkel, often in the company of colourful marine life and harmless whale sharks. Amongst the accommodation options here is Xaloc, a collection of luxury bungalows that provides the perfect base from which to enjoy Holbox. It offers a range of activities, such as kayaking and horse-riding.
Another quieter alternative to the Riviera Maya is Isla Mujeres, seven miles across the bay from Cancun. This flat paradise is perfect for strolling through the relaxed village and white sand beaches, fringed by tropical vegetation, and the off-shore reefs provide excellent snorkeling opportunities. It is possible to hire small carts to traverse the island and to take boat trips to even smaller and quieter outlying islands, home to an abundance of bird life. The Casa de los Suenos is one of our favourite hotels on Isla Mujeres, with ten unique ocean-facing rooms. It also offers the chance to arrange snorkeling and swimming with dolphins and whale sharks, as well as fishing and cycling.
Suggested tour: Enjoy a seven night beach escape to Isla Holbox or Isla Mujeres (from £1,635*)
Isla Holbox (photo by dronepicr)
Step 7: Unwind at a traditional hacienda
Of course, the Caribbean beaches are not the only place you can relax and unwind on the peninsula. The collection of boutique haciendas, which dot the countryside around the city of Mérida, provide an interesting alternative for those looking for a quieter base from which to explore the Mayan ruins, colonial era cities and back road villages of the interior. A stay here can offer the perfect balance of exploration of the surrounding area, as well as some downtime to relax in the tropical gardens, luxury spas and inviting hammocks and swimming pools.
Many haciendas began life as cattle ranches, some as far back as the 16th or 17th centuries. But following the 19th century sisal boom, they swiftly switched their attention to henequen, facilitating the mass production of a fibre that was exported across the world from the nearby ports. This sudden wealth prompted to the building of newer and ever more opulent properties, featuring a mixture of Spanish and French style architecture. A typical hacienda was comprised of a main house, a machine or work house, storehouses, a chapel and smaller living quarters for the scores of men that worked the henequen fields.
Following the invention of synthetic fibre, most haciendas were closed and many were ransacked by revolutionaries at the start of the twentieth century. Fortunately, after decades of abandonment and decay, a number of these properties were reclaimed (sometimes from the encroaching jungle) and tastefully renovated, now living happy second lives as luxury hotels.
Each hacienda has its own story to tell and unique character and decor. We have a small collection of our favourites, all of which offer modern facilities and 21st century hospitality, in historic buildings and with an old-fashioned atmosphere. The haciendas are all within an hour's drive of the coast and important, as well as lesser-known, archaeological sites and most are within a short drive of the city of Mérida. Despite this proximity, staying here feels like a world away from the city, your own slice of the peaceful Yucatán countryside.
Suggested tour: Experience the Yucatán's haciendas for yourself on our 15 day luxury Sisal tour (from £4,574*)
Hacienda San Jose
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Travelling in Latin America can sometimes be a challenging and unpredictable undertaking for even the most well-versed globetrotters. With our vast experience and expertise, Veloso Tours will carefully create the perfect itinerary for you, handling all the tricky logistics, negotiating the best prices, liaising with local suppliers and ensuring everything flows perfectly during your time here. All you have to do is decide where to go! Our collection of local guides will help bring these wonderful places to life, giving you their inside knowledge and offering an authentic and personal perspective, that will leave you both informed and inspired.
The Veloso Tours website has all the ideas and inspiration you'll need to get you started on your Mexican adventure. Our expert staff would be delighted to work with you to craft an unforgettable journey, full of memories that last a lifetime. Get in touch today and start planning your dream trip to the Yucatán Peninsula with Veloso Tours.
*prices shown are per person on a shared room basis. Includes international flights with British Airways or Virgin. Please enquire or call our office to speak to a travel expert for more details.
Flamenco Americano, American Flamingo, Phoenicopterus ruber by Amado Demesa - licensed under CC
Nature and Wildlife in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula
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