There is much more to the Yucatan Peninsula than just beaches and rich history. Discover ancient ruins, explore Mayan jungles, and indulge in the region’s incredible culture and food. Here is our guide to the very best things to see and do in the Yucatan Peninsula aka Quintana Roo.
Yucatán is probably better known for its resorts and beaches, but it offers many fascinating experiences for travelers of all kinds.
1. Tour the ancient Mayan ruins
The Maya people were the original inhabitants of what is now southern Mexico and Central America and were known as the most advanced civilization in ancient Mesoamerica. Mexico and Central America. Now, travelers can find and explore literally hundreds of Mayan ruins strewn throughout the peninsula.
Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is probably the best known of the archaeological sites. It draws over a million visitors per year and is an excellent example of beautifully-preserved Mayan ruins.
It was once one of the greatest cities in the Central American region, strategically located adjacent to cenotes. This provided the ancient inhabitants with constant access to freshwater.
Today, the site spans over 5 square kilometers of stone and rock fortresses, amid a dense jungle environment.
You’ve probably seen images of the Kukulcan temple – also known as El Castillo – because of its stunning beauty. Still, considering the fact that the area has been excavated for over a hundred years, means there is much more to explore in Chichén Itzá.
Another worthy site of Mayan ruins to explore is Calakmul. This ancient Mayan city is situated deep in the jungle in Campeche, near the Guatemalan border. Due to its remote location, it’s far less touristy. It’s definitely a great option for travelers looking for a unique, less well-known ancient city.
At Calakmul, visitors can find two humongous pyramids that you can still climb!
Uxmal offers travelers the opportunity to explore ancient temples from the inside, a la Indiana Jones. This allows you to admire the beautifully-preserved detail in the stones from up close.
Coba, which is an ancient city a short-ish drive up from Tulum, boasts two lagoons and a huuuuge network of rocky causeways. There are also a number of pyramids, also open to visitors to climb if they’re feeling adventurous.
Take a dip in the world-renowned cenotes
You may have heard of the Yucatan’s famous cenotes, but what exactly are cenotes? Put simply, a cenote is an underground cave with varying depths of freshwater. The area is littered with cenotes, which open up into a large network of underground rivers. The Mayans strategically placed their ancient cities with access to the cenotes water.
Cenotes are a super fun way to cool off in the (sometimes brutal) Mexican heat. These natural swimming holes were made when the bedrock above caved in, allowing access to the water below.
There are literally thousands of different cenotes on the peninsula. Some of the most famous are Dos Ojos, Azul, Gran Cenote, and Jardin del Eden. Don’t forget your biodegradable sunscreen!
If you are a certified PADI diver, scuba divers can also explore these underwater caves.
Explore the Island of Cozumel
Cozumel is a relaxed island accessible by ferry. It makes for the perfect day trip from Playa del Carmen. Much of the island is untouched, meaning there are less ostentatious resorts and bawdy tourists to deal with.
On Cozumel, you can explore the ‘capital’ of San Miguel, experience some of the best diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean Sea, learn about pearl farming, and much more. Taking a day trip to Cozumel will give you a great taste of what life is like on the island, but there are also accommodations available if you want to dive a little deeper (pun intended) and experience all it has to offer.
Indulge in Local Cuisine
Mexico is known around the world for its delicious local cuisine that is steeped in culture and tradition. You could live exclusively off of street food in the Yucatan, making it also one of the most affordable places to get delicious food.
Local Yucatecan cuisine consists of Sopa de Lima, Cochinita Pibil, Queso Relleno, and Dulce de Papaya. Of course, there is no shortage of tacos and tortas in the area, either!
Be sure to try huevos motuleños for an excellent, traditional breakfast.
Experience Nightlife in Cancun or Playa del Carmen
Cancun has earned itself the reputation of being nothing but tourists and resorts. What was once the most popular area in the Yucatan to visit has slowly become one of its least visited, for this very reason. Travelers are instead opting to visit Playa del Carmen or Tulum for an (albeit only slightly) more authentic experience.
Still, Cancun still has a thriving nightlife, with plentiful tequila and mezcal, margaritas and more.
Playa del Carmen may not have the same debauchery, but it also has an amazing nightlife scene.
Both cities are great for party-goers. Just remember some ibuprofen for the inevitable hangover!
Snorkel or dive
The best snorkeling and diving in the area can be found off the island of Cozumel. The crystal clear turquoise waters here give you a clear view of the underwater realm.
The Yucatan peninsula also offers some unique experiences to swim with marine life. This includes swimming with sea turtles at Akumal beach and swimming with whale sharks from Isla Holbox.
Be sure the tour operator you are going with facilitates a sustainable, eco-friendly experience that is minimally invasive. Avoid any tour operators that ‘guarantee’ anything, as well as those that don’t require the maintenance of a safe distance from the underwater critters.
Soak up the sun on its white-sand beaches
The most beautiful beaches in the Yucatan peninsula are undoubtedly found in Tulum. Tulum is a great place to explore on the peninsula, particularly if you’re into spirituality and yoga. Despite the fact that the area has substantially grown in tourism over recent years, it still offers somewhat of a reprieve from the more touristy areas in the region. Expect to see plenty of hippies, backpackers, and alternative crowds here, as well as the occasional celebrity.
Tulum’s stretch of Caribbean coast boasts the most beautiful white sand beaches with clear, cerulean waters. You can dive, snorkel, kite surf, take a beach yoga class, or plenty of other water activities.
There are a number of private beach clubs that are operated and owned by locals, where you can rent a chaise, order drinks, and bask in the Caribbean sun.
See the pink lake at Las Coloradas
A few hours drive from Cancun, on the perimeter of the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, is a wondrous place where visitors can see the environmental magic of a pink lake. Who doesn’t love pink lakes?!
One can come here and truly appreciate the magic of chemical reactions, where red algae, plankton, and shrimp inhabit the salty environment. As the water evaporates in the smoldering Mexican sun, the organisms become more concentrated, amplifying the bright pink hue of the lake.
The Las Coloradas lakes are used in sea salt production at an industrial level. You can meander around the shores of the lakes, taking epic photographs, on a trip to Las Coloradas. A rental car is the best way to access this magical area.
Explore cities like Merida and Valladolid
Mérida is a city on the tourist radar, but not nearly as widely visited as Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum. Still, it’s a very charming city that has plenty to do. While you’re here, don’t forget to pick up a handwoven Mexican hammock, available in a myriad of brightly colored threads. There are a number of green parks and city squares that provide ample opportunities for relaxing, people watching, or simply sipping a drink, taking in the colorful vibes.
Sundays are a great day to visit, as the city fills up with markets, local food vendors, cyclists, and more. Also on Sunday nights are cultural shows and concerts featuring local musicians, all available for free! The Sunday night events take place on Paseo de Montejo.
Grab a bite to eat at Manjar Blanco, for some of the most delicious Yucatecan food in the area. But make sure you head there for lunch, as they are closed for dinner service.
The town of Izamal, pictured above, is a gorgeous Mayan town painted in shades of vibrant yellows.
If you’re into architecture, head to Valladolid to see some gorgeous examples of local, ornate buildings.
Finally, head to the small fishing village of Puerto Morelos. This is a lesser-known small town that still boasts that authentic Mexican charm that you may be seeking. It’s located roughly halfway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
Head to the shores, stick your toes in the water and enjoy a glass of chilled tequila.
Get lost in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
If you head a little south of Tulum, you’ll encounter over one million acres of protected land and sea at the Sian Ka’an Bio Reserve. This place is chock full of indigenous flora and fauna, including some species that are rare and endangered. These include the West Indian manatee and the black-handed spider monkey.
Sian Ka’an is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and boasts the title of ‘largest protected area in Mexico’.
The best way to experience Sian Ka’an is to take a boat (available for hire) into the lagoons, where you will lazily float through the network of water channels surrounded by dense jungle and mangroves.
If you visit the coastal side, an ocean safari experience awaits. You can catch a glimpse of dolphins and sea turtles in their natural habitat while having the experience of snorkeling over the protected coral reef system.