Everything you need to know about the Yucatan Peninsula
One of the most visited regions of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula attracts millions of visitors, from backpackers to curious explorers, style-conscious travelers, luxury escape seekers, and nature lovers.
With countless amazing things to do in Yucatan Peninsula, it’s the favorite destination of many different types of travelers, from family trips, to couples romantic escapes, or solo travelers.
The land of the famous Cenotes, the Caribbean turquoise water, delicious cuisine, kite surfer paradise, and the magical Mayan archaeological sites, a witness of a millenary culture and ancient wisdom.
On this page, I will offer you a complete guide to the Yucatan Peninsula, with everything you need to know about this amazing region to help you plan for your trip.
WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THE YUCATAN PENINSULA?
Before moving forward on the fun part, I believe a clarification on the geographical location of the Yucatan Peninsula and on the ancient population is due.
- We call Yucatan Peninsula the entire region that includes the Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo.
- Merida is the capital city of Yucatan
- Campeche (city) is the capital city of Campeche (State)
- Chetumal is the capital city of Quintana Roo.
- Quintana Roo is mostly known for its very popular tourist destinations of Cancun and the Riviera Maya than as a state itself.
- The Riviera Maya is the Caribbean coast of Mexico that goes from Puerto Morelos down to Punta Allen, right past Tulum all along the Carretera Federal, the Federal Highway.
WERE THE AZTECAN OR THE MAYAN LIVING IN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA?
The prehispanic civilization that lived in what is now the Yucatan Peninsula is one of the Maya, which are different from the Aztecas, who instead, lived in the central and northern regions of Mexico, where is now Mexico City.
The Mayan civilization is much older than the Aztec and is renowned for its impressive architecture and scientific discovery, their advanced agriculture techniques, their magnificent pottery works, and hieroglyph writing, their knowledge on astrology and mathematics, and left behind an astonishing amount of impressive architecture and symbolic artwork.
Differently from the Aztec Empire, the Mayan civilization was already extinguished when the Spanish conquerors arrived on their land, where they only found agricultural villages. Their great cities were buried under thick layers of the jungle.
The reason for the decline of such a great civilization is still unknown, although scholars have developed different theories, such as severe droughts, overpopulation, and endemic warfare. However, there aren’t enough evidence to document it.
The Aztec instead, was overthrown by the Spanish invaders by the conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1521, who was the cause of the end to Mesoamerica’s last great native civilization.
PLANNING A TRIP IN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA
YUCATAN PENINSULA PRACTICAL TIPS
CURRENCY: Mexican Pesos 1 USD = 19 MXN (approx)
WHERE TO EXCHANGE MONEY: Avoid exchanging your currency at the airport or in your hotel. The best place to do it is a bank or an exchange bureau. There are many commercial plazas in the main cities.
ELECTRIC SOCKET: In Mexico, there are two associated plug types, types A and B. Plug type A is the plug that has two flat parallel pins and plug type B is the plug that has two flat parallel pins and a grounding pin. Mexico operates on a 127V supply voltage and 60Hz. Make sure to pack a universal travel adaptor so you can still use all your electronic devices.
Working in Mexico is more complicated and you should put yourself in the hands of a good lawyer that can look after all the paperwork for you and spare you all the hustle and headaches.
IS IT SAFE TO TRAVEL TO THE YUCATAN PENINSULA?
The Yucatan peninsula is generally very safe to travel, and the State of Yucatan is the safest of all Mexico.
Cancun has recently been in the news for some dreadful episodes that can’t be ignored.
However, tourists and travelers are not targets for organized crime unless they are personally involved in drug-related matters.
I would always use lots of common sense and a vigilant eye but wouldn’t let the facts prevent me from traveling.
I put together a very detailed guide on how to stay safe while traveling in Mexico which will offer great guidelines on being smart when you travel here, besides some helpful Spanish vocabulary.
DO I NEED TRAVEL INSURANCE?
Yes, you do. I always recommend it and I always have one. In this post, I am explaining the multiple reasons why.
I specifically recommend going with World Nomads as they have the best adventure travel coverage, covering activities like snorkeling, hiking, etc. And if you upgrade to explorer status, it’s a little more expensive but it has more extended coverage, including diving.
I have recently discovered also SafetyWing as it’s been specifically recommended by different travel companies and professional travelers, especially for their user-friendly website and fast response. Safetywing has many advantages especially for nomads, one of which is being able to pay on a monthly basis and cancel at any time. You can check out my complete review on SafetyWing as well and compare the two companies to chose what works best for you.
WHAT LANGUAGE TO THEY SPEAK
The official language is Spanish, or better said, “Castellano”. Most people, especially those who work in tour activities and hotels will speak good English. If you are like me and love to explore rural areas, there are chances that you will encounter people who don’t speak English at all. Worry not!
In some rural areas, some people don’t even speak Spanish. They only speak Mayan language, as it is still commonly used in villages and thought at school.
Mexican people are very hospitable and warm and with a smile and gestures you will be able to get along very well with locals and it’s the best way to get to know them.
Smiles and a fun game of charades is a great way to get to know the locals. In any case, it’s always good to know a few words.
In this post, you will find some words and phrases to help you out.
Knowing a few words and have a basic understanding of the language is always helpful especially in unwanted circumstances.
YUCATAN PENINSULA BY DESTINATON
BEST TIME TO TRAVEL TO THE YUCATAN PENINSULA
Despite in Cancun you have 2 seasons, winter and summer, the climate is very similar, warm and sunny most of the time all year round. However, there are a couple of things to consider:
- Summers are much hotter and humid
- In August through October, you are more likely to find a rainy day and a better chance to see a hurricane
- December through March is the high season for the milder temperature and lower humidity and less chance of rain
- Towns like Valladolid, Izamal, Merida are extremely hot in the summer.
- The above information cannot be 100% reliable because it can rain a lot in February and not one drop of rain in September
Having said that I wouldn’t really bother and I would travel in the season that is most convenient for you.
GETTING TO THE YUCATAN PENINSULA
Cancun International Airport is one of the most important international hubs in Mexico with flights connecting from all over the world makes it easy and much cheaper to travel to Cancun and the entire Yucatan Peninsula, including the Riviera Maya.
It’s very easy to find cheap flights to take you there, what’s tricky is coming out of the airport, which can become a hassle if you are not prepared. I wrote a detailed guide on all the steps you will go through. It’s nothing to worry about but it’s better to know before you get there.
The post includes also the best way to get to your hotel and how not to get scammed by the airport vendors.
Check out the post: What to do when you arrive at Cancun Airport
HOW TO MOVE AROUND THE YUCATAN PENINSULA
You can rent a car, and you will find a lot of car rentals agencies around, but you should be careful of the very low rates that are advertised but will inflate significantly when you need to add insurance and all the extras, which you will need. Unfortunately, your credit card insurance is not valid when you rent a car in Mexico. More on Driving in Mexico in this post.
From Cancun to anywhere by bus
If you wish to travel around Mexico from Cancun by bus, it’s super easy as Cancun is connected to the most important city and turistic locations in the Yucatan Peninsula and outside. At the ADO bus terminal, you will find buses to anywhere including Tulum, Valladolid, Merida, Playa del Carmen, and Chiquila’ (Holbox), Chichen-Iza, Uxmal. You can even get to San Cristobal de las Casas or Mexico city by bus. It is a little long way but certainly an experience.
WHAT TO PACK FOR TRAVELING TO YUCATAN
I have written a complete guide on what to pack for your trip to Cancun. However, as a quick overview, a few of my must-bring items when you travel to Cancun are a travel water bottle, sand-free beach blanket (you will get beach towels in your all-inclusive hotel, but it’s useful if you go visit other beaches, and you should), RFID travel wallet, a plug adaptor (if you are coming from US you won’t need it as the sockets are the same) and a good pair of travel sandals that are fancy and comfortable at the same time depending on the kind of trip you want to have.
THINGS TO DO IN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA
BASK IN THE SUN ON ONE OF THE AMAZING BEACHES
Among all the things you can do in the Yucatan Peninsula, laying on one of its amazing Caribbean beaches is one of the reasons most visitors come this way. So much understandable. Imagine soft white sand swiped by turquoise pristine water, few people around, and nothing to worry about. This is what you will get if you are looking for it.
And because I love to hang out in the sun too, these small guides on the beaches of Cancun and the Riviera Maya were such easy write! I hope they help to find out your favorite beach in the Yucatan peninsula. A special post was dedicated to a hidden gem Isla Blanca a paradise for kitesurfer and not only.
If you want to escape the touristy areas you might want to visit El Cuyo, instead, a new laidback beach resort in Yucatan, where you might be able to see dolphins flipping around by the harbor and stingrays coming and see you by the shore. It’s my magical place in the entire region.
TAKE A DIP IN A CENOTE
Cenotes are natural sinkholes that the ancient Mayas considered sacred places, probably because that’s where they found water, source of life, and were used as religious used both as water supply and religious place there are about 600 scattered around the Yucatan peninsula, some very close to Tulum other to Cancun and all along the Riviera Maya you can find some refreshing stops as well.
If you love to drive around on your own you can stop by some others scattered around the Yucatan Peninsula or explore the spectacular Cenote Ring, where the highest concentration of cenotes is located.
SWIM WITH THE WHALE SHARKS
The encounter with these amazing marine giants is something that you will remember for a lifetime.
You can only Swim with the whale sharks if you join a tour, be it from Cancun, Isla Mujeres, or Holbox.
In the link above I am going to explain how to organize a tour besides great tips on how to enjoy your experience while respecting the environment.
VISIT THE FLAMINGOES IN RIO LAGARTOS
Hands down to the beauty of those graceful flying creatures. They are really a joy to look at. But we must say, Rio Lagarto is more than that. The experience you will get, if you book with the right guide, is one of full immersion with nature. Rio Lagartos is a protected area, home of more than 400 bird species and 100 registered species of fish about 105 species of reptiles and 57 of mammals.
The boat tour will take you around mangroves, a natural spa 🙂 (so much fun!), a deserted beach, and a part of the pink lake, less pink than the one at Las Coloradas, but still amazing. In this thorough guide to Rio Lagartos will tell you all about it, how to get there, the best tour, where to stay and much more.
GET YOUR INSTAGRAM SHOT AT LAS COLORADAS
It doesn’t really need much of a presentation with 55.000 Instagram pictures and counting, those pink lakes are quite impressive to look at and make it a unique background for a good selfie, or maybe not so unique anymore. It’s a quick detour from your trip to Rio Lagartos and it takes only 30 minutes to visit but it’s totally worth the journey. In my guide to las Coloradas I will explain everything you need to know about this amazing pink lakes
EXPLORE THE SIAN KA’AN LAGOON AND THE FLOATING RIVER
Not many know that the spectacular biosphere of Sian Ka’an can be visited from a different point from the traditional jeep tours. A boat ride through the Canals among the mangroves and floating in the lazy rivers are quite an original adventure.
The town of Valladolid is the getaway of colonial Yucatan, the closest town to Cancun and the Riviera Maya that reveal the most authentic part of Yucatan versus the more touristic beach resorts. Here you will taste the traditional local cuisine, admire the colonial architecture, and meet the genuine kindness of the Mexican people.
VISIT ISLA MUJERES
This tiny island is the perfect 1 day trip from Cancun. After only 30 minutes ferry you are right there, free to spend your day exploring the island on a golf cart and enjoying a spectacular sunset from the beach among all the things you can do. In this thorough guide, I explain the multiple ways you can visit Isla Mujeres and why you should do it.
MARVEL AT THE VIEW OF THE 50 SHADES OF BLUE IN BACALAR
Bacalar is one of the Magic towns and its lagoon is called the lagoon of the seven colors, for the 7 shades of blue that the waters show. Unfortunately, it’s not anymore swimmable as it used to be as they have found polluting elements in the water and some guests had experienced a skin rush because of some bacterias in it. That’s unfortunate but It’s still a beautiful place to visit and relax. There are amazing hotels and retreats where you can get pampered and plenty of things to do in the surroundings.
LIVE THE TULUM LIFE
Probably a little too overpriced right now, for the service you actually get, Tulum, still remains one of the coolest spots in Mexico that attracts the style-conscious crowd, artists and the jet-setters from all over the world.
Fashion trends aside, it still remains a fascinating place to visit, not only for the endless white sand beach, now sargasso-free but also for the unique Mayan site, the only one built by the ocean, the countless restaurants, the vegan community, and the natural beauties in its surroundings.
Check out my Tulum travel guide for more details and serious travel planning.
If you are more interested in the trendy side of Tulum, this guide to the Boho-chic Tulum is what you really need.
Otherwise, on this Tulum directory page, you will find everything I have written about Tulum and its surroundings.
A colorful city, most of the times underrated, probably because it’s a little off the traditional routes, Campeche is a real gem and certainly worth visiting, besides the spectacular archaeological sites of Edzna’ and the Celestún Biosphere Reserve, home of large flocks of flamingos, and other birds like herons and pelicans.
SPEND A FEW NIGHTS IN CANCUN
Cancun is mainly renowned for its exciting nightlife and all-you-can-eat-and-drink all-inclusive hotels. But there is much more than that. I can tell you, after living in Cancun for 7 years.
In the guide of Cancun I wrote, you can find all the necessary information to make the most of your trip to Cancun, from practical tips to what to do, where to eat and much more.
SPEND A WEEKEND IN MERIDA, THE WHITE CITY
You cannot miss the white city, so rich in history and culture, with its opulent houses from the colonial times and traditional customs, Merida managed to develop up to speed with the modern times while still maintaining the charm of the old colonial town that it was. Daily free walking tours will show you around and fill you in with interesting anecdotes of its past.
DISCOVER THE YELLOW TOWN OF IZAMAL
A cute little town in the heart of Yucatan, at an only a 1-hour distance from Merida and 1 from Valladolid, will surprise you with its yellow buildings and its interesting history. See more on this post.
LEARN HOW TO KITESURF AT EL CUYO
I have just recently discovered this little corner of paradise, but please don’t tell anyone, because we want to keep it intimate. El Cuyo is a little fishing village on the east coast of Yucatan which has been on the map of the hard-core kitesurfers
VISIT ISLA HOLBOX
Isla Holbox is a beautiful island with a laid back lifestyle, spectacular white sand deserted beaches and cozy boutique hotels, great food, and no cars. Basically paradise.
It is definitely more enjoyable to spend a couple of nights there but if you only have one day you can check out these daily tours from Playa del Carmen and Cancun.
VISIT THE SPECTACULAR ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE OF CALAKMUL
I do believe that if you only want to see one archeological site, you should pick this one. Calakmul is a magical place. I have visited twice and I am thinking about going back one more time. It’s immersed in the thick jungle of the Peten region bordering on the west side with Guatemala, it’s one of the biggest natural protected reserves in Mexico and it’s home of a wealth of animal species, among which Jaguars, multicolored birds, monkeys, and much more. Both times I was hoping to spot a Jaguar myself but I wasn’t lucky. However colorful parrots and tucans accompanied me through my visit throughout the site. Consider one full day to visit it all and take with you at least a couple of bottles of water. It’s hot and humid. I loved it so much that I wrote a complete guide on how to visit Calakmul, which includes great insights on the logistics and everything you can do in the surroundings as well. There is so much to do that you can easily stay for 1 week as I did.
DISCOVER THE MYSTERY OF UXMAL AND THE RUTA PUC, THE MOST UNDERRATED MAYAN SITE
Uxmal is the biggest Mayan site within the Ruta Puuc region, Puuc means hills in the Mayan language. Uxmal is the second most important Mayan city after Chichen-itzà and way the layout of its buildings is a witness of Mayan deep knowledge in astrology. It’s actually one of my favorite sites, besides Mayapan.
HIKE TO THE TOP OF THE COBA PYRAMID
Discover the spectacular archeological site of Coba, at only a 1-hour drive from Tulum,
VISIT THE ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE OF KOHUNLICH
Very few know about the Kohunlich archeological site and yet it is spectacular. Located right before getting to Calakmul, you will need to drive into the jungle to find it. But the road is nice and the site very easy to find. If you want to splurge, there is even a spectacular hotel right halfway where you can relax and enjoy the silence of the jungle.
TRAVEL ITINERARIES IN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA
Renting a car is always something I would suggest to do if you are an insatiable explorer like me and want to reach to more secluded places, where local buses don’t go, but also if you don’t like to join groups and already made itineraries. The Yucatan Peninsula is a very easy place to drive around. You can stop by a cenote along the way, stay at a prestigious Hacienda, a luxury hotel in the middle of the jungle, and discover the lesser-known ancient Mayan sites driving through small villages and salt-flats, spotting a flamingo or maybe a Jaguar. Oh well, that won’t happen although I had wished.
If you have plenty of time this 3 weeks itinerary around the Yucatan peninsula will help you find your way around and build your own itinerary.
If you have just a few days, you can follow my 2 days itinerary that I have made up when my parents came to see me. I have included the highlights of Yucatan, what I considered the unmissable spots.
If you have 15 days you can check out my two weeks itinerary suggestions.
An inspirational post that I loved to put together, is my photographic journey through Yucatan and Campeche, the last trip I made with my car before selling it and leave for my boundless journey.
2 2-weeks itineraries in the Yucatan peninsula on the road are the most popular road trip. Check out my sample itinerary.
TOURS IN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA
If you prefer traveling with a group tour, I have recently joined a partnership with G Adventures. They are a super reputable company and have been running tours around the world for ages. The reason why we love G Adventures is that they have loads of different tours that cater to different age groups. And if you are traveling alone, because you love it but you wish to join a tour for certain parts of your journey for different reasons, there you will certainly find people of your age and with similar interests whenever you feel like mingling with likeminded people. They have tours that spam from Mexico city all the way to Guatemala or even farther south to central America if you wish to combine different countries or tours that focus on specific regions.
So if you don’t feel like traveling by yourself, it’s understandable. I love traveling on my own, with the freedom to do whatever I want and at the time I want, but there are certain situations in which I prefer to have a guide to take me around so I don’t have to think about anything, other than enjoying the place.
On the other end, you also have the possibility to book daily tours that will take you to wherever you want to go but you will be “free” again at the end of the day. This is the ideal solution if you really don’t feel like renting a car, or you have limited time and want to visit many places and/or you wish to have a professional guide that gives you information on the area.
Cancun offers a wealth of day tours to absolutely anywhere you want to go. You can either decide while you are there in your hotel and ask the concierge or the agents at tour desk to give you advice.
Or you can even book in advance so you know beforehand the costs and you don’t have to think about other expenses once you are on vacation.
Here I am including some organized daily tours that you might want to consider.
PLACES TO STAY IN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA
STAY IN ONE OF THE MAGICAL HACIENDAS
THE BEST HOTELS IN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA
I have written my personal review based on my experience with the hotels I have visited and the opinion that I gather from fellow travelers and friends. I normally use Airbnb if I want an apartment or a cheap private room, always with a private bathroom. If I want to choose a hotel I always use Booking.com because they always have great deals and I love their interface and system.
Here below my hotel reviews and suggestions by destinations.
WHAT AND WHERE TO EAT IN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA
The cuisine in Mexico, you know is among the most savoury in the world. I believe a Mexican chef just won an international price, and with a reason. You just can’t get enough.
Although tacos, and Guacamole are the most popular dishes, there is so much more than that. So much to taste and try. Here is my small guides on the Restaurants that I have explored so far. More will come:
MY MOST IMPORTANT TRAVEL RESOURCES
GET YOUR TRAVEL INSURANCE
When you travel, I always recommend to have a travel insurance. In this post I explain why.
FIND YOUR HOTEL
There are many different search engine for hotels but my favorite is Booking.com. Find your hotel using the search box here below.