The Yucatan Peninsula delights tourism brochures with its azure waters, ancient Mayan temples and tantalizing cuisine. There are enough activities jam-packed into this coastal region to last a lifetime, let alone one spectacular vacation.
Where do you even begin to plan an itinerary for a Yucatan Peninsula vacation? Whether you’re searching for adventure or relaxation, a vacation here will never disappoint.
Backpackers, thrill-seekers, luxury travelers and families will all find the right ingredients for an unforgettable trip to Mexico.
Top Yucatan Peninsula Attractions
Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo are the three Mexican states in the Yucatan Peninsula. The peninsula also covers parts of Guatemala and Belize, but this article will focus on activities in Mexico.
Don’t make the mistake of trying to rush through this region or you’ll miss many of its treasured gems. Dreamy coastlines, abandoned ruins, quaint colonial towns, and tropical jungles are waiting for you to discover.
Here are my recommended attractions for your trip, but this just scratches the surface when exploring this sliver of paradise.
The crystal-clear waters of this freshwater lake are a surreal escape from the glitzy resorts in Cancun and Playa del Carmen. It will take around 4-5 hours to reach Bacalar from Cancun International Airport but witnessing the lake’s seven shades of blue is worth the journey.
Paddling through its turquoise waters by kayak is the proper way to spend your time in Bacalar. Just make sure to keep your eyes peeled for crocodiles. Although these majestic creatures typically stay on the side near the mangroves, there have been a few reported sightings.
My advice is to visit this coastal, hipster paradise sooner rather than later due to its ongoing development. The once rustic fishing village exploded in popularity with its numerous celebrity sightings and there’s no turning back now. Tulum is the hottest destination for any Yucatan Peninsula vacation and resorts are going up.
The town has some of the world’s most dazzling beaches and the only Mayan ruins on the Caribbean coast. And after you’ve spent the day with your toes in the sand, there are tons of restaurants to grab authentic Mexican dishes.
In a few years, Tulum will likely become a full-fledged Cancun with swathes of resorts overtaking the town.
With Chichen Itza stealing all the glory as one of the Wonders of the World, Ek’ Balam gets cast aside by many visitors. But the overbearing crowds and pushy vendors are making some look elsewhere for Mayan ruins.
This fascinating site is mostly unexcavated, and the well-preserved sculptures are an astounding sight to behold. Best of all, you can still climb to the top of the main Acropolis for a dramatic panorama overlooking the jungle. Those days are long gone at Chichen Itza.
Swim in the Cenotes
If there is one thing that makes a Yucatan Peninsula vacation stand out compared to others, these magical swimming holes take the prize. Going for a swim in the shimmering waters of these underground sinkholes is a delightful way to escape the heat.
There are hundreds of these mineral-rich pools scattered across the Yucatan in mind-boggling environments. You can swim with a gorgeous view of the lush jungle above or be surrounded by limestone rock deep underground.
The Yucatan may be famous for its turquoise waters of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, but you can also find an alluring lagoon in a bright shade of pink. Las Coloradas is only 3 hours from Cancun and is responsible for a full-scale salt producing operation. The sun dissolves the salt water in the lake, leaving behind lots of the prized commodity for local communities.
Algae, plankton and brine shrimp become more visible as the water evaporates, turning the lake pink. Although Las Coloradas has skyrocketed in popularity, seeing this pink lake and its resident flamingos is a rare treat.
Marine Life Galore
It’s no secret that the Yucatan is a snorkeling paradise and one of the world’s hotspots to swim with marine animals. For those looking to spend much of their Yucatan Peninsula vacation in the water, you’ll have plenty of chances to discover life under the sea.
Isla Holbox welcomes the migration of whale sharks from June to September, and you’ll have the chance to swim with the largest fish in the ocean. Cozumel is just off the coast near Playa del Carmen and is renowned for its snorkeling and scuba diving adventures. If you’d rather swim with sea turtles, head to Akumal Beach to meet these incredible creatures.
The Spanish influence is evident throughout the Yucatan and you’ll find several colorful cities in the region. Merida is the capital of the state of Yucatan and decorated with vibrant plazas and gorgeous cathedrals. This hotbed of culture is a convenient gateway to lots of Mayan ruins, and you’re never too far from history or art museums.
Elsewhere, Valladolid greets visitors with delicious Mayan cuisine and has one of the most impressive plazas in the Yucatan. Also, Izamal is a magical town with cobblestone streets, joyous music, and a crazy obsession for the color yellow.
Anyone who knows me is aware of my love for Mexican food. It’s my favorite cuisine with its wide range of vegetables, intense flavors, and superb use of spices and juices. Tasting all sorts of new dishes was a thrilling experience for my taste buds and any foodie will love being here.
From savory cochinita pibil to deep-fried panuchos, your palate will be in paradise on your Yucatan Peninsula vacation.
Is the Yucatan Peninsula Safe?
It seems that news outlets constantly report of cartel violence sweeping through Mexico. Although violence plagues certain areas of Mexico (particularly close to the US-Mexican border), the Yucatan remains one of the safest regions in the country.
The Mexican government has worked tirelessly to protect popular tourist destinations, and it’s extremely rare for visitors to get caught up in violent crime.
You’re more likely to run into petty crime such as theft and travel scams due to the number of tourists in the region. Keep your wits like in other destinations and you’ll have a safe Yucatan Peninsula vacation.
Money-Saving Tips for Yucatan Peninsula Vacations
Mexico is generally seen as a place for a cheap vacation, but you’ll quickly find out the Yucatan Peninsula is a bit pricier. Food, transportation, accommodations and activities can add up quickly, and you can blow through your budget quicker than you think.
Here is my advice to save money on your Yucatan Peninsula vacation.
The Yucatan is well-serviced by the ADO Bus System, but tickets can be expensive for longer routes. If you plan on getting around the whole peninsula, try riding with the locals in Colectivos. These shared vans don’t leave until every seat is taken, but the rates are more favorable for the same routes.
Plus, it will be a more authentic experience where you get to mingle with the locals.
Use Mexican Pesos
Although the U.S. Dollar is widely accepted in Mexico, the exchange rate will cost you money when not paying in pesos. To save more on your daily purchases, head to an ATM to take out pesos.
Shop at Local Markets
Chedraui is the biggest grocery chain in the Yucatan, and you’ll even find a Wal-Mart as well. You’ll have no problem finding everything you need for your trip, but the prices are comparable to shopping at home.
My favorite way to save money on food is to get as many items as I can from the local market or even a street-side stand. The prices are cheaper, and it goes straight into the pocket of someone in the local community.
Save Money for Tours
One thing that surprised me about the Yucatan was the price of day tours to popular sites. There are combo packages to Mayan ruins, cenotes and colonial towns sold in places frequented by tourists.
It’s hard to find tours under $100 USD and many itineraries seem rushed without taking the time to appreciate each destination. Make sure you list the sites you wish to see before your trip and set money aside for tours.
If you’d rather not take a tour, you can reach many sites by public transport or renting your own vehicle.
Don’t be Afraid to Haggle
Unless you’re in a chain store, the prices for souvenirs are negotiable for the most part. Just be aware that the initial price a vendor offers will likely be way more than the item’s value.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate to pay what you think is right or when to walk away when you know the price isn’t for you.
Vacation for any Style
Whether you’re an overstressed business executive looking for an escape to paradise or an intrepid backpacker in search of Mexico’s most exciting thrills, a Yucatan peninsula vacation has a lot in store. That’s why the region continues to shatter tourist records year after year.
Spend your days relaxing on sun-kissed beaches, swimming with marine life or delving into one of mankind’s most fascinating civilizations for your next trip.