In the south east of Mexico lies a gem of a spot in the Yucatan Peninsula. You have probably heard of Cancun, full of Americans and students having a wild time on spring break beside beautiful beaches? Well, the Yucatan Peninsula has so much more to offer than skimpy clothes and cocktails. Although it must be said there is time for that as well! If you are going to visit Mexico, thenYucatan has any number of Mayan ruins including one of the ‘new 7 wonders of the world’ in Chichen Itza, it has jungle with countless types of birds, amazing beaches, whale sharks to swim with and the cherry on top are the cenotes that are unique to this area. Cenotes are sinkholes that are formed in the limestone of the peninsula are scattered everywhere. You can swim in them and even dive underground from one to the other. Some have changing rooms and steps into them and others have a dirt track and some slippy rocks. All of them are spectacular.
Time to Do: 10-12 days to do all the towns and activities mentioned below with a car. It is more difficult logistically if you are doing it all with public transport and another few days would be required.
Whether you are there for the white sand of Cancun or Playa del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera, the history of the Mayans or for some of the most spectacular sights of nature, the Yucatan should be on your things to do list. Hopefully my list of what to do in Cancun to Merida will help.
From my time there I’ll firstly go down the coast from Cancun to Tulum before heading west to the other side of the peninsula to Merida and Celestun taking in all the attractions along the way. The map at the bottom shows where everything is that is mentioned. If you are renting a car then you may be interested in a section below (After the Mayan Riviera) on a scam I twice came across when visiting Yucatan.
Mayan Riviera (Riviera Maya)
What to do in Cancun
It almost has a mythical status as a place of relaxation and partying with the beautiful white beaches, luxury hotels and swinging night life. If there was ever a place that grew specifically for tourists then Cancun is it. Before I go on I will say that the hotels and beaches are superb but if you are staying in Cancun that is all there is. You can do many excursions (Chichen Itza – 3hrs, Whale sharks-1hr, Cenotes-1hr) but you must travel outside Cancun for these. It is a great for the beach/hotel and partying but that is it. There are similar places that have a bit more authenticity and feel to them are further down the coast in Playa del Carmen and Tulum and I would recommend them over Cancun.
Cancun is an average size Mexican city of 650,000 in the state of Quintana Roo (not Yucatan) and is very much split into two parts. The main city is just inland and to be honest is not particularly nice. There is not much going on, lots of traffic, fairly dirty etc. The second part is 10km away and is the ‘hotel zone’ and this is where all the tourists hang out. This hotel zone is on a narrow sandy spit approx 18km (12 miles) long and is hotel after hotel. All of the hotels are situated on the beautiful artificial white sand beach and range from very nice to luxurious. There are very few shops on that 18km and the village where all the action is has a shopping mall, plenty of restaurants and plenty of bars. For example Coco Bongos nightclub from Thurs-Sun is US$75 admission fee but it is free drink all night and you have access to 25 different shows when inside!
So what are the what to do in Cancun?
- Plenty of watersports from jetskiing, gliding, snorkling, diving
- El Rey Mayan Ruins – located on the southern end of the Hotel Zone. They are small but if you intend to see other ruins on your holiday then make sure you see them first!
I don’t want to sound grumpy but in Cancun itself that is almost it. Other activities and Mayan ruins are located outside Cancun and I will go into the details below. There is a map at the bottom to show the proximity of any attraction I talk about. All excursions outside the city can be organised in every hotel with none of the attractions being too far away.
Every year from June to September the world’s biggest fish descend on Isla Contoy just north of Cancun and Isla Mujeres. Whale Sharks are huge (12mtrs, 36ft) but also docile and are only interested in feeding on the miniscule plankton in the water. It is a brilliant experience and is for everybody as long as you can swim even a little. I wrote a post specifically about swimming with whale sharks so head there for more info. There is also a short video of snorkelling with whale sharks in the water for a more visual representation of what happens when swimming with giants. This excursion can be arranged in Cancun and boats leave from about 40min north of it. For more info head to the link.
Playa del Carmen
1 hour south of Cancun is ‘Playa’ which lies somewhere in-between the outrageous mega tourism of Cancun and the quite, local tourism of Tulum. Unlike Cancun and Tulum, the town of Playa lies directly on the coast and is full of good restaurants and of course the white sandy beach complimenting the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea.
Things to do in Playa del Carmen:
Isla Cozumel: Mexico’s biggest island is a very busy spot during high season. The island can be covered in a day with main town San Miguel having the usual generic tourist shops and not that much to offer. Isla Cozumel has not many Mayan ruins to speak of but is best for diving and snorkelling. These can be done straight off the beach and has a better selection of corals than the beach in Playa. www.diveparadise.com. Boats leave Playa (1.5 blocks from the main square) to San Miguel (in front of Punta Langosta Mall) in Cozumel on the hour every hour from 5am to 9pm. Round trip costs approx US$13 and takes about 40min each way.
Scuba Diving and Snorkelling: The main dive sites are about a 10-15min boat ride from the Playa del Carmen beach and feature plenty of corals and reef fish. A two dive ocean package will cost approx US$100 including rental equipment (wetsuit, mask etc). A dive in Isla Cozumel will cost around US$100 but does not include the ferry ride over. A cenote dive (2 dives) from Playa del Carmen costs approx US$140 (incl rental gear). www.playadiving.com, www.abyssdivecenter.com, www.reefquestdiversmexico.com . A great place to go snorkelling is in Paamul, 15min south of Playa where there is a campground/beach town.
Mayan Ruins: Of course there are Mayan ruins, they are everywhere. Playa even has some in the town. There are very small ruins on Quinta Avenida between Calles 12 and 14. Another is inside the gates of La Ruina on Calles 2 at the beach and there is a third in Playacar. There are plenty of other bigger sites within 1hrs drive. Such as Coba and Tulum.
Cenotes: There are no cenotes in the immediate vicinity of the town but there are plenty with 30min drive. If you need more info I wrote a post just on swimming in cenotes in Yucatan with a map of cenotes in the Playa and Tulum area. Swimming in a cenote usually costs approx $30Mxn (US$3) and you can swim at your leisure. To scuba dive in a cenote costs approx US$140 (incl rental gear) for 2 dives.
Xcaret: A Mexican Disneyland with dolphins, turtles and beaches only 6km from Playa del Carmen. Plenty of shows about Mexican culture and nature. Open 08:30-21:30. Admission US$89. Expensive for what you get.
Xaman Ha Aviary: It has over 200 birds but charges a very steep US$20 admission for something that only takes 1hr to see.
In the Yucatan Peninsula there are no overland lakes or rivers because the limestone landscape is full of holes and so all the water runs in underground freshwater rivers to the sea. This leads to the spectacular phenomenon of cenotes or sinkholes. These are basically holes or caves in the ground that are full or half full of freshwater. Some are open to the sun and others have only a small opening into some spectacular cavern full of stalagmites and stalactites. There are several beautiful tourist ones near Tulum and Valladolid but are to be found everywhere on the peninsula and are very popular for both swimming and scuba diving. It is a fabulous experience to dive in the underwater tunnels between the cenotes looking at the pale blue light up ahead. I wrote a separate post just on diving in cenotes in the Yucatan so that should provide all information that you need.
The smallest of the 3 towns on the Mayan Riviera but in my opinion the nicest. El centro is small and has plenty of nice restaurants and bars but like Cancun it is inland and about 5km from the hotel zone which lies on the beach. Unlike Cancun though, the hotels are petite and friendly and the road is very narrow and not the 2 lane highway you get further north. This all makes for a very relaxed atmosphere reinforced by the amount of people on bicycles heading into town and to the Mayan ruins of Tulum which are in-between the town and beach. The hotel zone has plenty of restaurants and bars but all are pleasant and quite with most being mainly candle lit. Live music is preferred with some great Mexican songs being performed. The accommodation in Tulum is nice but is expensive considering air conditioning is an extra. The price of accommodation is about US$50 for a non a/c double room.
Things to do in Tulum
Mayan Ruins of Tulum: These very famous scenic ruins are only 4km from the town centre and although small are one of the most beautiful of all the Mayan ruins. The site is famous because of the picturesque surroundings of the coast and it faces the sunrise every morning. The site was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and was used as a trading port for the main town of Coba further inland. The site has a white sand beach you can swim in just below the cliffs the ruins occupy. Another beach inside the surrounding 4mtr high walls is used by turtles to lay their eggs. The site takes about 1-2hrs to see. The site is $57Mxn entrance and a car is $70Mxn. Open 08:00-17:00 daily. If you arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon you will avoid the arrival of the big tour buses.
Scuba Diving and Cenotes: There are plenty of cenotes around Tulum both for swimming and for scuba diving with the fabulous Dos Ojos probably being the most popular for diving just north of the town but there are several others closer such as El Gran Cenote, El Templo, Carwash and Naharon that are good for both snorkling and scuba diving with Cristal and Escondida good for swimming just south of the town. For more information please go to the post I wrote on cenotes which also contains a map of the cenotes in the area at the bottom.
Renting a Car Scam
As renting a car in Yucatan is very popular and one of the easiest ways to get around I will warn you of a scam that I came across twice in 2 different towns (Tulum and Cancun). The roads on the peninsula are quite and very straight so the driving itself is easy. What happens with this scam is that when you pull in for petrol/gas the attendant inserts the nozzle into the car and the litres/dollars go up as normal. After a decent amount of petrol is in your car (so you think) he stops the machine and resets it, as if another car has arrived, and tells you that there is a problem with the machine he must reset it and shows you the amount already on the dial. Then he starts again from zero and fills up the car. When finished they charge you the amount presently on the dial plus the amount from the first time. And you have been had!
I am not exactly sure how they manage it but the first time they stop the petrol going into the car but the dial is running. After resetting it they just put it back to normal and fill you up. I am embarrassed to say that despite my protests the first time at why they were resetting it, I fell for it. It was my first time filling up alright! I know, I know I protest too much! I only knew for sure I was scammed when I filled up a second time and knew how many litres the tank took. In order to avoid this know how many litres your tank takes (it is in the manual) or leave the car running when they are filling up with petrol so you can see the dial ascending. This is not dangerous, in many countries this is the norm but it is obviously preferable to leave the car off.
This seems to be very popular on the Mayan Riviera where a vast majority of the tourist hang out and not a problem if you go further west. Just remember if the attendant resets the machine and you are not finished then you are being scammed.
Valladolid and Surroundings
As you leave the Riviera Maya and head west towards Valladolid either from Cancun or from Tulum you will notice that things get less hectic. There are less tourists, less big hotels, less towns and of course less of the sea!
Valladolid: This small town named after the Spanish version was actually moved! The initial Valladolid was built beside a lagoon a distance from the current location but when the inhabitants complained so much about the mosquitoes they moved it to a Mayan town and took down their buildings to use the bricks in the new Spanish buildings! Valladolid is a pleasant grid designed town with a nice square as the centre piece. The Cathedral of San Gervacio built in 1705 to replace the previous built in 1545 watches over the square. The cathedral gets a few tourists buses in the late morning but the town is quite in general and has clean streets to wander the markets.
Cenotes: 1) Cenote Zaci: Only a few blocks from the main square. This is convenient but not the most spectacular or clean. 2) Cenote Samula and Xkeken (Dzitnup): Located 7km south-east outside town just off the old Merida road , they are perfect to cycle to. They are both in the same location and have dressing rooms and toilets. Cost $56Mxn each.
Museo San Roque: One block east of the main square this museum is located in an old church just adjacent to the Park of the Heroes. This free admission museum gives a history of the town and of the people. Nice pictures and old models but it is all explained in Spanish.
Ek Balam Mayan Ruins: These Mayan ruins of a once thriving 9th century city are now in a middle state of reconstruction and shows off how much work it takes to get to the restoration you see at Chichen Itza (below). These ruins are only 27km north of Valladolid and I would definitely recommend going. The site is small and doesn’t take long to see but you get to see some temples that are still completely covered in trees and you also get to climb the Acropolis which gives great views of the whole site and the surrounding jungle from the 32mtr (96ft) summit. This is one of the largest structures (500ft x 200ft x 96ft) in the Mayan world and excavation only started in 1998! There is also the benefit of no hawkers to deal with.
The iconic ruins of Central America and one of the new 7 wonders of the world, these ruins are 55km west of Valladolid near the accommodation town of Piste. The central pyramid of El Castillo dominates the Mayan ruins but also the Yucatan as tourist buses flock every day from all surrounding cities to wonder at its longevity and grandeur. If you want to know more on Chichen Itza read up on my separate post on it.
Merida and Surroundings
Merida is my favourite town on the Yucatan peninsula because it felt the most genuine. Everybody wasn’t there to entertain the tourists and some beautiful buildings were free into. The colours around the main square during dusk were incredible. Deep orange from the bells in the cathedral, wine red of the walls on the street and strong green in the government’s palace against the dark purple in the sky all contribute to a very colourful town. Getting around is relatively easy with grid of the town running with even numbered streets from north to south and uneven from east to west. The Yucatan capital has lots of historic buildings and relaxing parks to enjoy.
Here is my list of things to do in Merida:
Cathedral de Ildefonso: Looking onto the funky seats of Plaza Grande this big 16th century Spanish cathedral is another church built on Mayan ruins. It is lit up beautifully at night time. The lane to the south of the cathedral is often used for art displays.
Walking Tours and Palacio Municipal: Free short walking tours take place from the western part of Plaza Grande outside the municipal building at 9.30am each weekday. The municipal building is worth a look from the outside and inside in itself.
Palacio de Gobierno (Governments Palace): Over 100years old and well worth a wander inside to see the huge murals painted by the local artist Pacheco about the conflict between the Mayans and the Spaniards.
Paseo de Montejo: The rich end of town with lots of trees and fancy houses and cafes. Worth a lazy walk down during the evening to enjoy the atmosphere. The southern end is at Calle 47 north of the cathedral.
Chicxulub, Meteor Plaque
One of the most important events ever to happen is commemorated in Chicxulub Puerto. The landing on the moon? The invention of the wheel? The founding of Facebook? Nope, in this dingy little seaside town lies a very amateur looking plaque that commemorates the landing of the Chicxulub meteor. This meteor is widely credited with the extinction of the dinosaurs and was 10 km in diameter and left at crater 180km (112miles) wide. This area is the centre of the meteor and so half of the crater now lies in the Gulf of Mexico. The plaque is located in a small park (Parque Principal) directly south of the main boardwalk in Chicxulub Puerto (not Chicxulub town) east of Progreso on the coast. Even if this little plaque doesn’t wipe you out (sorry) you can always stroll on the very long beach or take a dip in the warm sea. It is 40km (25miles) north of Merida and might not be on everybody’s list when they visit Mexico but how often do you get to see something this significant??
Celestun (Celestun Biosphere Reserve)
This unique fresh and saltwater reserve and tiny town is 90km west of Merida on the Gulf of Mexico. What make this place worth a visit are the mangroves and flamingos that inhabit it. There are other birds such as heron, pelicans among many other but it is the flocks of pink flamingos that most people want to see. The tours bring you up the brown waters of the inlet to see the flamingos and into the mangroves with great speed and skill in the outboard motored boat to see the fresh water (agua dulce) bubbling out of the ground. You cannot get that close (maybe 150mtrs, 450ft) to the flamingos as they may be frightened but with a decent zoom on your camera or binoculars they are brought to life. Tours mean renting a small boat which cost roughly $1200Mx for 1hr or $1500Mx for 2hrs and tickets can be bought when there. If you are only in a group of one or two this is expensive but just ask an incoming group if you can join them as the boats take roughly 10-12 people. We waited a few minutes and joined a tour company and the $300Mx went straight in the guide and boat owner’s pocket. The town with a beautiful beach is tiny but still managed to have a police officer manning the pedestrian crossing between the market and the square. She even stopped the limited number of tuk-tuks in order for a dog to cross!
Uxmal, Mayan Ruins
Although I haven’t seen close to all the Mayan ruins, this was my favourite site of the ones I did see which included seeing Chichen Itza. A much bigger site than Ek Balam mentioned above and although not as big as Chichen Itza it is still formidable. You are greeted by the Pyramid of the Magician which stands an imposing 38mtrs high (115ft). The smooth surface is the first thing that struck even me with my unknowing tourist eye and is because it is in the Puuc style compared to the more established step formation. This UNESCO heritage site also contains the Great Pyramid which has a great overview of the site but is restored on only one side but the other 3 have been left as found which gives a better appreciation for what restoration work is done.
This was one of the most important Mayan cities and was at its zenith around the 9th century. You can tell by the size of site and buildings (some of which are huge) that it wasn’t just cards they were playing here! Uxmal is 80km south of Merida after the town of Muna. Admission is $125Mx plus $57Mx for INAH. Parking is $25 and a guide is approximately $700Mx for English etc.
Practicalities – About Mexico
If you are going to visit Mexico then the Yucatan Peninsula has something for everyone (a cliche I know). If you want some beaches, history, ruins, culture or adventure then you can find what you are looking for
€1 = 17.5 Mexican Peso, US$1 = Mxn $13
- Language – Spanish. English is spoken by the general public and spoken well by anybody involved with the tourist industry. ie. hotels, tour operators, restaurants etc.
- Bus – Mexico has a good bus service between all the main cities and the roads are also in decent shape. A good list of which companies go to which city and which bus station in Mexico City to use is on this site. Buses cost about $70 Mxn per hour of travel. The main companies are www.ado.com.mx, www.estrelladeoro.com.mx, www.etn.com.mx, www.futura.com.mx, www.estrellablanca.com.mx, www.ticketbus.com.mx (searches all companies)
- Flights- Cancun’s main international airport (Benito Juarez International Airport) is very close to the city and hotel zone being only 16km (10miles) away. Main Mexican airlines are www.aeromexico.com, www.volaris.mx/en but a huge number of international carriers fly into Cancun from all over the world.
- Driving – Aside from the scam mentioned above driving is very easy in the Yucatan Peninsula. The roads are very straight in general and also quiet. There is a motorway from Cancun to Valladolid to Merida that is tolled (cuota) and expensive but there is also the free (libre) road that longer but a little more adventurous. It also means you can stop and get water whenever you want. Each town has an annoying amount of speed bumps to make sure you don’t go fast. Prices for petrol/gas are approx $12Mx per litre or $45Mx (US$3.50) per gallon
- Safety: With the recent war on drugs the government has been waging there is a perception that Mexico is a dangerous country. From my time in the Yucatan peninsula and in Mexico City it looks like in these parts at least the police and government are doing a lot to make sure it stays peaceful. These are important tourist areas so police presence may be higher but the police are everywhere including driving everywhere with their flashing lights on to make sure everybody knows they are there. From talking to locals, most of the violence is confined to the north of Mexico and to the provinces near the USA border.
- Accommodation – $400 Mxn per night for an average double room but more expensive along the Riviera Maya (Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum)
- Beer – 1 bottle of beer costs between $25 – $40 Mxn
- Visa: All foreigners must get a visa for Mexico but a large number of tourists can get a visa on arrival. A tourist visa last for 90days on arrival in the airport/border. Your passport must be valid for at least the following 6 months. To see if your country is on the list see http://www.inm.gob.mx/index.php/page/Paises_No_Visa
- Population of Mexico: 112 million. Yucatan and Quintana Roo state populations are 2million and 1.3million respectively.
What to do in Cancun to Merida: Map of Yucatan, Mexico
|Cancun, Hotel Zone|
|Cancun, Mayan Ruins|
|Whale Sharks - Marina (different companies from 2 x different Marinas)|
Isla Cozumel, Tulum, Mexico
|Playa del Carmen - Xcaret Park|
Xcaret Park, Tulum, Mexico
|Xaman Ha Aviary|
Paseo Xaman-ha, Playacar, Playa del Carmen, Mexico
|Cenote - Dos Ojos|
Two Eyes Cenote, Tulum, Mexico
|Cenote- Gran Cenote|
Gran Cenote, Tulum, Mexico
|Tulum - Hotel Zone|
|Mayan Ruins of Tulum|
|Cathedral de San Gervacio at main plaza|
|Valladolida - Cenote Zaci|
|Valladolid - Cenote Samula/Xkeken|
|Ek Balam Mayan Ruins|
Ek' Balam, Mexico
|Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins|
Chichén Itzá, Mexico
|Merida - Cathedral de Ildefonso at Plaza Grande|
Catedral de Merida, Centro, Mérida, Mexico
|Merida - Paseo de Montejo|
Paseo Montejo, Centro, Mérida, Mexico
|Chicxulub Meteor Plaque|
Chicxulub Puerto, Mexico
|Celestun Biosphere Reserve|
|Uxmal Mayan Ruins|
What to do in Cancun to Merida: My photo Gallery when visiting Yucatan, Mexico
Visit Mexico – My Route