The Yucatán peninsula in Mexico is home to many archaeological ruins, cenotes and charming historical towns. With so many things to see, it almost feels like a world away from the amazing beaches of Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. If you are a non-beach lover, or if you are ready for some adventures outside the beach resorts, then this guide is for you.
The Yucatán Peninsula is located on the southeastern part of Mexico, and it divides the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea. The two states in the peninsula are Yucatán and Quintana Roo. The beach towns of Cancún, Holbox, Playa del Carmen and Tulum are located in the state of Quintana Roo, while the towns of Valladolid, Izamal, and Mérida are part of the state of Yucatán.
Quintana Roo has a coastline facing the Caribbean Sea, which is why this area is also known as Caribe Mexicano (Mexican Caribbean), and it boasts beautiful white-sand beaches with crystalline waters. You’ve probably also heard of the Riviera Maya – this is just the tourism designation for the beach towns extending from Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Tulum and Puerto Morelos. The idea was to showcase other areas away from Cancún.
How to get there
Cancún International airport (CUN) is the main airport servicing this area, located 18 km from Cancún. The cheapest way to reach Cancún, Tulum and Playa del Carmen is by taking an ADO bus. Purchase your tickets online or at the bus stop right outside the terminal.
In Mérida, the Manuel Crescencio Rejón International Airport (MID) is predominantly a domestic airport, but there are a few flights to the US. If you are planning to visit different areas in the peninsula, consider an open jaw to this airport to save some hours of driving. To reach Mérida from the airport, take an ADO taxi (fixed fares by zone) or a shared shuttle for a similar price.
When to go
For those who want the perfect winter break, the high season to visit the beach areas is from December to April. Note that these areas can get crowded over Spring Break and the holidays.
If you want to avoid crowds and are looking for good deals, the low season is from June to October, mainly due to the higher temperatures and the chance of rain. Remember that this is not only the rainy season, but also hurricane season (June 1st to November 30th).
When we visited during a Christmas long weekend, we spent most of our time outside the beach areas and therefore didn’t see any crowds. Temperatures were pleasant during the day (but don’t forget your hat and sunblock) and just a bit chilly at night (low 60s F, so bring a light jacket).
Transportation options – do you need a car?
We prefer to use public transportation when possible – it is good for the environment and it gives you time to relax while in transit. So we used a combination of colectivos (shared transportation), taxi and private buses. To read more about these options, read our Ultimate Guide to Public Transportation in Cancún and Yucatán.
Renting a car is also an option. Although at first glance the rental fee may seem inexpensive, be aware that there can be many hidden fees not included in your rental quote. If you decide to drive, make sure to read about the reported scams for this area.
Day 1: Chichen Itza and Noches de Kukulkan
Plan to arrive in Cancún early in the morning . Visit the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, one of the new 7 wonders of the world.
For more information (and tips) about how we managed to get to Chichen Itza from Cancún airport, read our full report here.
In the evening, experience the amazing light show Noches de Kukulkan. Read our Complete Guide to Noches de Kukulkan to get all the information you need to plan your visit.
Day 2: Izamal , Ek Balam and Valladolid
Izamal is a colonial town known for its bright yellow walls, and one of the Pueblos Mágicos. Wonder around the town to see the ruins of the 7 Mayan pyramids where the town was built.
In the afternoon, travel to the ruins of Ek Balam. This archaeological complex has one of the few remaining carved stones depicting the lives of the Maya.
Spend the evening enjoying the festivities in the plaza of Valladolid, and even catch a free light show in the Convent.
Day 3: Cenotes, Coba and Tulum
There are many cenotes in the region of Valladolid. Go for an early morning swim, or just explore the sites.
Continue on to Coba, the ruins of a powerful Mayan city that ruled trade in the area.
Finish your day with the beautiful beach views of the ruins of Tulum.
Day 4: Tulum pueblo
On your last day, you can take a walk around Tulum pueblo and do some shopping. If you want some adventure, go on a boat ride in the Sian Kaan Natural Reserve and swim in the canals. Or just spend a glorious day at the beach!
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Things to know
- Time difference – Yucatán (Chichen Itza, Valladolid, Izamal) is one hour behind Quintana Roo (Coba, Tulum, Cancun, Playa del Carmen).
- Entrance fees – INAH sites (museums and other archeological sites) offer free entrance for adults over 60 years, children under the age of 13, and students. Mexican nationals and residents enjoy free entrance to INAH sites on Sundays, so expect larger crowds.
- Luggage – since we were relying on public transportation and changed hotels every night, we traveled with small backpacks that could fit on the space above the seats on the large buses.
- Souvenirs – we found the prices at Chichen Itza (at closing time) much cheaper than in any other of the sites. They also had the best variety of goods for sale. Tulum was by far the most expensive area.
- Christmas in Cancún – we visited the region over the Christmas holiday. Everything was open on Christmas Eve and Christmas. Colectivos, taxis and buses were available. Our hotel restaurant did close early on Christmas Eve, so you may want to confirm closing times before making any plans.
- Health – We enjoyed meals in every town we visited, avoiding things that were served cold or could have been washed (like salads and fruits). As for drinks, we only had bottled water and beverages.
- Safety – One of the reasons we decided to use public transportation and not a rental car was to avoid some of the scams that reportedly occur in the area. We felt safe using the colectivos and taxis, and as far as we could tell, we were always charged the same price as everyone else. As in any other city you visit, you must take the usual safety precautions and always be aware of your surroundings.
- Language – we are native Spanish speakers, so we didn’t have major communication issues. However, it was interesting that most of the time we were greeted in English. So even when people thought we could not understand them we were treated very politely and charged a fair price. I guess I’m just trying to say that you should not be concerned about not speaking Spanish – though learning a few phrases will go a long way!
- Cash or credit? – the archeological sites and most restaurants accepted credit cards. The cenotes and transportation were cash only.
- Currency exchange – ATMs are easily accessible. The restaurant in our Tulum hotel didn’t accept credit cards and we ran out of cash, so we were able to pay in USD and receive the change in Mexican pesos (at a reasonable exchange rate). This option will not be available as you move farther away from the tourist areas, so plan ahead.
- All of the prices listed in our day-by-day posts are in Mexican pesos and can change without notice.
Have you visited the Yucatán Peninsula and the Pueblos Mágicos?
Let us know in the comments!