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Yucatan peninsula travel guide

Everything you need to know about the Yucatan Peninsula Mexico

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. In this essential Yucatan Peninsula Travel Guide I will share all the essential information that you will need to travel and have an amazing and worry-free journey.


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 cuisinekite 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.

Valladolid Mexico sign

WHERE IS YUCATAN PENINSULA MEXICO?

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 with the Carretera Federal, the Federal Highway.

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.

MEXICO VISA: You need to apply for a visa if your passport is from the country listed on this page. If your country is not on the list you can enter  Mexico with your valid passport and get a 3 to 6 months tourist permit. If you want to stay longer than 6 months you will need to go out and then go back in. However if a few months ago it was very easy to do it now they are a little more strict on letting you back in in such a short time. 

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.

If your intention is to move to and work in Mexico, you can check this interview with a lawyer for more detailed information.

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 postyou 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

Read the detailed guides I wrote for each destination in the Yucatan Peninsula

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

Car Rental

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.

Also Read: The honest truth about Renting a Car in Mexico 

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  TulumValladolidMerida, 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 bottlesand-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

The Yucatan Peninsula is surrounded by spectacular beaches that you must explore, from the more popular Cancun Beaches to the secluded bays of the Riviera Maya, to the lesser-known, and yet worth visiting El Cuyo, there is a beach for every need. You can party in one of the Tulum Beach club, kitesurf at El Cuyo or bask in the tranquil white sand of Playa Norte in Isla Mujeres.

TAKE A DIP IN A CENOTE

You cannot travel to the Yucatan Peninsula without swimming in one of the cenotes, a natural landmark of the region. Check out all my guides to the cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula to familiarize with these amazing natural wonders and choose the best one for you to visit.

SWIM WITH THE WHALE SHARKS

Summer is the season for swimming with whale sharks in Cancun. Tours are actually available from Cancun, Holbox and Isla Mujeres. And of course if you are in Tulum or Playa del Carmen you can easily get to Cancun to join one. On my post linked above you can read more.

VISIT THE FLAMINGOES IN RIO LAGARTOS

Rio Lagartos is one of the most incredible natural reserve in the Yucatan. I hired a local guide which is also a biologist and photographer and most of all, he’s from there and passionate about showing you around in his own home town. Check out my guide about Visiting Rio Lagartos and the best boat tour in the natural reserve.

GET YOUR INSTAGRAM SHOT AT LAS COLORADAS

While in Rio Lagartos, make sure to take a detour to visiting the pink lakes of Las Coloradas, an impressive salt mine that is also very insta worthy. You can also explore hidden beaches close by.

EXPLORE THE SIAN KA’AN LAGOON AND THE FLOATING RIVER

The Sian Ka’an Lagoon is quite popular now and totally worth visiting but a few know about the nearby floating river in Muyl. I will tell you all about it in my post “A day between Muyil archeological site and Muyil lagoon

VISIT VALLADOLID, THE GETAWAY OF THE COLONIAL YUCATAN

Valladolid is the first colonial town that you will find if you are driving from the Riviera Maya. It’s a pretty town with colorful homes and delicious restaurants besides a delightful historical feel. Valladolid is brimming with places to visit and things to do, including exploring the amazing cave cenotes around the city. I talk about it in my Travel guide to Valladolid.

VISIT ISLA MUJERES

You can’t travel to Cancun and skip a visit to Isla Mujeres. Although it’s become very touristy and crowded, it’s still a charming little island with spectacular beaches, breathtaking sunsets among the exciting things to do. Or you can just enjoy the beach life from your amazing apartment. Make sure you rent a cart, at least for one day, and drive around the Island.

MARVEL AT THE VIEW OF THE 7 SHADES OF BLUE IN BACALAR

Known as the lagoon of the seven colors, Bacalar is a huge blue lake where you can relax and enjoy the views or try out all the available watersports, including sailing, kayaking, or paddleboarding. The pretty laid-back town is not suitable for party lovers but mostly for seekers of tranquillity and peace. Be careful because you may not want to leave. Check out my Bacalar Travel Guide for more detailed information.

LIVE THE TULUM LIFE

Tulum is one of the trendiest beach destinations in Mexico that you must visit at least once if you are in the area. If you do, get ready for a spectacular. Tulum beach, a vibrant party life, the amazing Tulum ruins over the ocean, and world-class cuisine, but also, overpriced hotels, fake-eco-everything, and scammy taxi drivers. To learn more about Tulum, check out my Tulum Travel Guides.

VISIT CAMPECHE

At about 3 hours drive from Merida, there lays the colorful colonial city of Campeche, sometimes underrated, probably because it quite off the beaten path, but certainly worth a visit, for the quaint and safe city and its beautiful surroundings. You can read more about it in my Campeche guide.

SPLURGE IN ONE OF THE LXURY BEACH HOTELS IN CANCUN

If you are ready to splurge, Cancun offers spectacular Luxury hotels catering to adults or families alike. Everything for every need. In my post on the top 5 luxury hotels in Cancun, I share my favorite ones.

SPEND A WEEKEND IN MERIDA, THE WHITE CITY

A few days in Merida are due if you are on a road trip around the Yucatan Peninsula, which you should. The so-called white city is actually brimming with colorful buildings and an interesting cultural heritage which you can learn about during a free walking tour, the best way to get familiar with the most important landmarks of the city. If you are planning to visit Merida keep in mind that summers are outrageously hot.

DISCOVER THE YELLOW TOWN OF IZAMAL

One of the most beautiful Pueblos Magicos, Izamal is called the yellow town because the entire historical center is painted in yellow. It’s a gem that you would want to visit if you are in the area. It’s located between Merida and Valladolid.

LEARN HOW TO KITESURF AT EL CUYO

Deserted beaches, almost Sargasso-free, pristine waters, perfect wind for the kite lovers, unpaved roads, small boutique hotels, nice cafes, and good vibes. That’s what you will find at El Cuyo, a tiny village on the underrated Yucatan coast.

VISIT ISLA HOLBOX

Isla Holbox is one of the quaintest destinations in the Yucatan Peninsula for those who love nature and a laid-back and hip ambiance surrounded by nature and positive vibes.

There is so much to do in Holbox with quite a choice of water-related activities if you get bored of basking in the sun on the beautiful white-sand beaches. Read my guide to the unmissable things to do in Holbox island.

VISIT THE SPECTACULAR ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE OF CALAKMUL

Situated in the State of Campeche right at the door of the Yucatan Peninsula, bordering with the Peten Region in Guatemala, the Calakmul biosphere reserve is one of the largest protected areas in Mexico. The area counts with many species of flora and fauna and it’s a paradise for photographers, bird watchers, and animal lovers in general.

Inside the biosphere, it is located one of the most precious and biggest Mayan archaeological site and the most popular in the region.

I spent a week exploring the entire area and you should know that although it is popular for the magnificent Calakmul national park, the region has much much more to offer. I wrote about it in my guide on how to visit the Calakmul Mayan Ruins and biosphere.

DISCOVER THE MYSTERY OF UXMAL AND THE RUTA PUC, THE MOST UNDERRATED MAYAN SITE

Although Chichen-Itza remains the must-see archeological site and one of the world’s seven wonders, you should consider including Uxmal in your Yucatan road trip.

Uxmal is located at 1-hour drive from Merida and surrounded by small authentic local towns, and cenotes, besides being at the beginning of the Ruta Puuc a complex of 4 small and yet very interesting Mayan archeological sites.

You can check out my guide on how to visit Uxmal Mayan ruins and I would suggest you stay in one of the amazing haciendas near Uxmal.

HIKE TO THE TOP OF THE COBA PYRAMID

The Coba archaeological site is one of the most interesting among the Mayan Pre-hispanic cities and one of the most popular. Located in the Mayan jungle makes it a popular attraction for many tourists. And yet, is not even close to the crowd you would find in Chichen Itza.

Not many people know though that there is much more to see in Coba, where you can in fact explore 3 hidden cave cenotes a few miles from the Coba site.

VISIT THE ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE OF KOHUNLICH

If you are visiting Calakmul, you should consider a stop at Kohunlich Mayan Ruins, a spectacular Mayan city in the middle of the Jungle, more isolated than the others and therefore less crowded and more mystical. It’s just a few hours detour from the road to Calakmul.

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.

Rio Lagartos

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

Old farms, which looked like little villages with the owner mansion and the workers huts, storage rooms and offices. They belonged to the Spanish landlords during the colonial times.  They have now been turned into amazing properties, usually located far from the sea, but deeply immersed in the thick jungle or in small towns in the middle of nowhere, scattered throughout the state of Yucatan, in southeast Mexico; the majority however, are located in the outskirts of Merida. 

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:

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