Moon Yucatán Peninsula
By Liza Prado
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- Flexible itineraries including a ten-day eco-adventure and a two-week road trip across the whole peninsula
- Strategic advice for road-trippers, foodies, wellness seekers, outdoor adventurers, honeymooners, families, and more
- The top outdoor activities: Kayak through lush mangrove forests, or sign up for a mountain bike tour through the jungle for a peek at hidden ruins, remote beaches, and dazzling marine life. Spend a day relaxing on the beach, dive into crystal-clear cenotes, or try standup paddle-boarding
- Unique, authentic experiences: Peruse the markets, museums, and churches of Mérida or Tulum, or take a short walk from the shore to visit jaw-dropping Maya ruins. Find the best spots to fill up on authentic salbute and panucho, and stay up late for live music, cocktails, and fire dancers on the beach
- Honest advice from Yucatán Peninsula experts Liza Prado and Gary Chandler on where to stay, where to eat, how to get around, and how to avoid crowds and support local and sustainable businesses
- Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
- Reliable background on the landscape, climate, wildlife, and history, as well as health and safety advice and common customs and etiquette
- Handy tools including a Spanish phrasebook and travel tips for families with kids, seniors, travelers with disabilities, and LGBTQ travelers
Looking for más Mexico? Check out Moon Baja or Moon Mexico City.
DISCOVER Yucatán Peninsula
IF YOU HAVE . . .
Planning Your Trip
The Best of the Yucatán
A FAMILY AFFAIR
10 Days of Ecoadventure
CLASSICS OF YUCATECAN CUISINE
Pyramids and Palaces
Best Diving and Snorkeling
INTO THE WILD
On the northern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula is a place called Uaymitún, where just a thin strip of land separates the ocean from a swampy coastal lagoon. But the swamp is not just a swamp—climbing a roadside tower, you discover it's also home to thousands of flamingos, their bright-pink feathers a stark contrast to the gray-green surroundings. Behind you are the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a favorite spot for windsurfers and kiteboarders. To the east is a small Maya ruin. To the south is the great colonial city of Mérida, and just down the road is the spot scientists believe a meteor smashed into the earth 65 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and ushering in the age of humankind. Uaymitún is not a major tourist destination—except for the flamingos, it hardly rates a mention. But that's just it: The Yucatán has so much history, culture, and natural wonder, even a dusty roadside town is rich with stories and possibilities.
It's hard to exaggerate the number and variety of attractions here: stunning Maya ruins, vibrant colonial cities, wildlife-watching, a web of caves and underground rivers, and ideal conditions for kiteboarding and sportfishing. For divers, there are world-famous reefs at Isla Cozumel and eerie inland cenotes. And if you're looking for a beach vacation, well, you know you've come to the right place.
The Yucatán is also a place of many stories. Maya hieroglyphics tell complicated tales of gods, kings, and conquest. The exploits of its pirates and buccaneers are still the subject of fairy tales and feature films. The colonial era was rife with the boom and bust of products like henequen and chicle. The Maya have suffered unspeakable exploitation, but not passively—in the Caste War, they nearly drove European settlers off the peninsula for good. More recent is the remarkable story of Cancún, which in a matter of decades was transformed from a mosquito-infested sandbar into one of the world's top resort destinations.
The Yucatán Peninsula is all this, and even more—a place of endless mystery and beauty, fun and fascination. Enjoy!
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
Cancún has two parts: The Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) has Cancún's top resorts and nightclubs, plus miles of beautiful beaches. But if you don't mind hopping a bus to the beach, downtown has cheaper food and lodging, plus some unexpectedly cool bars and cafés. Most travelers visit Isla Mujeres, a sliver of an island offshore from Cancún, as a day trip, but nice hotels and a mellow ambience make it a tempting place to stay. Isla Holbox is even smaller, with sand roads and virtually no cars. The beaches aren't glorious, but the tranquility is sublime.
Cozumel's pristine coral reefs and crystalline water attract divers the world over; fewer people realize the island also has a scenic national park, numerous beach clubs, a tournament golf course, even an important Maya ruin. Beat the cruise ship crowds by heading to the east side's isolated beaches and dramatic surf. Most people arrive by ferry—it's just a half-hour ride from Playa del Carmen—but there's also an airport with international arrivals.
The Riviera Maya
Stretching 130 kilometers (81 miles) from Cancún to Tulum, the Riviera Maya has megaresorts and boutique bed-and-breakfasts, busy cities and quiet villages, great reef diving and amazing cenotes (freshwater sinkholes). Playa del Carmen has the area's largest selection of hotels, food, nightlife, and services; try Puerto Morelos and Akumal for something a bit smaller, or isolated clusters of beachfront hotels like Tankah Tres and Soliman Bay for even more R&R.
Tulum and the Costa Maya
Tulum is justly famous for its stunning beaches, eco-chic bungalows, and namesake Maya ruin, with a dramatic view of the Caribbean. An hour away is Cobá, boasting the second-tallest Maya pyramid and a lovely forest setting teeming with birds. Directly south of Tulum is the pristine Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve and beyond that the isolated towns of the Costa Maya. There's a lovely freshwater lagoon, Laguna Bacalar, a short distance from Chetumal, the busy Quintana Roo state capital and gateway to Belize.
Chichén Itzá is one of the most impressive and recognizable of all Maya ruins, especially its iconic main pyramid. There also is a nighttime sound and light show, and interesting villages and cenotes are nearby. The sister town of Pisté is unmemorable—better to base yourself in Valladolid, a lovely and convenient colonial city. Ek' Balam is a small but remarkable archaeological site, with an impressive stucco frieze. On the coast, Río Lagartos has tours into a neighboring biosphere reserve to see huge colonies of flamingos.
Mérida, the Puuc Route, and Campeche
Mérida, the Yucatán state capital, is a beautiful colonial city with excellent museums and nearly daily music and dance performances. Doable day trips from Mérida include the flamingo reserve at Celestún, the mellow beach town of Progreso, and the lovely colonial town of Izamal. South of Mérida, the Puuc Route includes must-see Maya ruins like Uxmal and myriad smaller sites, plus caves, cenotes, and colonial villages. Farther still, Campeche City, the capital of Campeche state, boasts a gorgeous colonial center and impressive walls and forts that once warded off pirate attacks. Southern Campeche state is home to numerous Maya sites, including Calakmul, a massive city now buried deep in a forest reserve that's home to parrots, monkeys, even jaguars.
Chiapas isn't technically part of the Yucatán Peninsula, but no tour of the Maya world is complete without seeing the intriguing temples and superb inscriptions at Palenque. From there, a series of lovely waterfalls makes a terrific day trip, as do the ruins of Yaxchilán and Bonampak in the Río Usumacinta valley. Palenque is also a jumping-off point for trips into the Lacandón rainforest, with its rich ecology and reclusive indigenous communities.
When to Go
Considering weather, prices, and crowds, the best times to visit the Yucatán Peninsula are from late November to mid-December and from mid-January to early May. You'll avoid the intense heat from June to August, the rain (and possible hurricanes) in September and October, and the crowds and high prices around the winter holidays.
The big caveats with those periods are spring break (March/April) and Semana Santa (the week before Easter), when American and Canadian students, and then Mexican tourists, turn out in force and prices spike temporarily.
Be aware that certain attractions are only available (or recommendable) during specific months, whether snorkeling with whale sharks (June-September) or visiting Chichén Itzá on the spring equinox. Even many year-round activities like sportfishing, kiteboarding, and bird-watching are better or worse according to the season.
Before You Go
Passports and Visas
American and Canadian travelers are required to have a valid passport to travel to and from Mexico. Tourist visas are issued upon entry; you technically are allowed up to 180 days, but agents often issue just 30 or 60 days. If you want to stay longer, request the time when you present your passport. To extend your visa, visit the immigration office in Cancún.
No special vaccines are required for travel to the Yucatán Peninsula, but it's a good idea to be up to date on the standard travel immunizations, including hepatitis A, MMR (measles-mumps-rubella), tetanus-diphtheria, and typhoid.
Cancún International Airport (CUN) is far and away the most common and convenient entry point to the region; airports at Mérida, Cozumel, Chetumal, Campeche, and Palenque are secondary options. There are plans (but nothing more) for a new airport outside Tulum; there also is an airport near Chichén Itzá, but it is used exclusively for charter flights. An excellent network of buses, shuttles, and ferries covers the entire region, though a rental car makes a world of difference in more remote areas.
What to Pack
Bring to the Yucatán Peninsula what you would to any beach destination: light cotton clothing, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, flip-flops, etc. Beach buffs should bring two or even three swimsuits, plus snorkel gear if you've got it. Water shoes come in handy wherever the beach is rocky, while sneakers and bug repellent are musts for the Maya ruins. Finally, it's always smart to bring an extra pair of glasses or contacts, prescription medications, birth control, and a travel clock. If you do leave anything behind, no worries—there's a Walmart in all the major cities.
The Best of the Yucatán
See and do a little of everything in the Yucatán Peninsula in just two weeks. With beaches to enjoy, ruins to explore, museums to visit, cenotes to snorkel in, and cities to discover, this is a trip for travelers with plenty of energy and a hankering to see it all. Renting a car for the entire trip will give you added speed and flexibility, and ensure you have time to enjoy every stop. But if a rental car is out of your budget, most of the route can be done easily enough by bus. A good compromise is to rent a car for a few key days. Here goes:
Arrive in Cancún but head south to Playa del Carmen, which is a better base for exploring the Riviera Maya. (Puerto Morelos, Akumal, Tankah Tres, and Soliman Bay also are good choices if you prefer something smaller.) If you plan to get in some serious diving, consider heading directly to Isla Cozumel to save yourself the ferry ride the next day. That, or just fly straight there!
Spend your first full day underwater in the Riviera Maya. Just about every town along the coast has a dive shop (usually several) offering snorkeling and diving tours on the ocean reef. The waters in front of Puerto Morelos and Akumal have less boat traffic than Playa del Carmen. Or take the plunge in one of the Riviera Maya's myriad cenotes, either at a park like Dos Ojos or on your own at a site like Jardín del Edén. Budget some beach time in the afternoon.
Head inland. Get an early start and go straight to Chichén Itzá, getting there as close to opening time as possible. That way you'll have a jump on the big tour buses and can enjoy these magnificent ruins with fewer people to weave around. Budget at least three hours here. Check into a nearby hotel, have lunch, and spend the afternoon cooling off at Cenote Sagrado Azul, a popular site in Ik Kil ecopark. In the evening, head back to Chichén Itzá for its high-tech sound and light show.
Get up early and head straight to Mérida, one of Mexico's great colonial cities. Go to the anthropology museum or the modern art museum, the market, or just visit the church, the murals in the government buildings, and the plaza. See what's happening that evening—there's a free cultural performance almost every night of the year.
You can spend this day in a couple of different ways. There are a number of great day trips from Mérida, including a flamingo tour in the town of Celestún, or visiting the colonial town of Izamal and swimming in cenotes near Cuzamá. Then again, if you especially love the Maya ruins, you won't want to miss those along the Puuc Route. For this option, get an early start and visit Uxmal first—it is the biggest and the best of the sites here, and you don't want to shortchange your time there. Afterward, cross the road to the Museo del Chocolate, an engaging museum about the history of chocolate, which dates to the ancient Maya. Time permitting, visit one or two of the smaller Puuc ruins too. Check into a hotel in Ticul or Santa Elena, have dinner, and wind down with a relaxed evening in the town’s central plaza.
Plan to drive to the beautiful colonial town of Campeche City this morning. Check into a hotel and then pick a few of the sights to take in. The museums along the city walls and at El Palacio Centro Cultural or Fuerte de San Miguel are especially good. If it's a Saturday or Sunday, stroll down to the central park for a free musical performance and elote (corn on the cob) from a street cart. Most evenings, there’s also a spectacular sound and light show, a multimedia celebration of Campeche’s history.
Start early for the long drive to Palenque. Check into your hotel and have dinner at Don Mucho in the jungle neighborhood of El Panchán. If you’re up for it, stay late for live music and fire dancers.
Spend the day visiting Palenque archaeological zone. Be sure to leave time for the terrific on-site museum.
Stay another day in Palenque to see some of the nearby attractions. If you still haven't gotten enough of the Maya ruins, consider booking an all-day tour to Yaxchilán and Bonampak. Or visit the impressive waterfalls at Misol-Há and Agua Azul for a bit of outdoorsy fun.
From Palenque, drive toward the southern Campeche town of Xpujil. Depending on your time and energy, visit one of the many small Maya ruins clustered along Highway 186 like Balamkú or Becán. Check into a hotel in Xpujil, or if your budget permits, at one along the highway.
If you want to see even more ruins, a daylong trip into Calakmul is a terrific experience, albeit tiring. Otherwise, jump ahead in the itinerary—you can always use the extra day at Tulum, either for more beach time or for exploring more of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve.
Drive to Tulum, where you can treat yourself to a beachside bungalow on one of Tulum's glorious beaches. Spend the afternoon relaxing.
Spend another beach day on Tulum's quiet and dreamy southern beaches. If you get restless, get some snorkeling in at the great nearby cenotes of Gran Cenote or Car Wash. If you’re tired of the car, walk to Tulum ruins, dramatically overlooking the turquoise Caribbean Sea. Be sure to take your bathing suit for a dip in the ocean from the site’s small beach.
Take a tour of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, an ideal place for fishing, bird-watching, and snorkeling and a perfect way to end your vacation.
10 Days of Ecoadventure
Lazing on a beach or contemplating museum displays is all right, but some travelers crave a little more action. The Yucatán has plenty to offer active travelers, including kiteboarding, fly-fishing, kayaking, and mountain biking. This tour is a workout for the eyes too, taking you to some of the peninsula's most stunning (and little-visited) natural areas, from tangled mangrove forests to limestone caverns filled with the clearest, bluest water you've ever seen. The only thing this tour doesn't include is snorkeling or diving on the coast, which are covered in a list of their own.
Ease into things by spending a day stand-up paddling (SUPing). It's challenging but fairly easy to master, and especially rewarding in the Riviera Maya’s warm clear water. Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel are all great places to start. Farther afield, Xpu Há, Tulum, and Mahahual are fine alternatives.
Kayaking is another low-key, easy-to-learn activity that’s perfect for exploring the region’s rich mangrove forests. The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Laguna Bacalar, and Isla Holbox all have fascinating kayak tours that include paddling through mangrove canals, spotting birds, and locating hidden beaches and lost Maya ruins.
Today's the day for pushing yourself. Why not try kiteboarding? Isla Blanca and Cozumel are good for both, with perfect wind, forgiving surf for beginners, and some surprisingly challenging spots for the more advanced. If you want to head inland, Isla Holbox and Progreso also have first-rate kiting schools.
You may want to spend a second day kiteboarding—few people master it in a day! Otherwise, dig out your sneakers and sign up for a mountain bike tour. Both Tulum and Laguna Bacalar have fun and moderately challenging rides, pedaling through the jungle to little-visited Maya ruins and remote beaches.
- On Sale
- Nov 19, 2019
- Page Count
- 528 pages
- Moon Travel