I’m still not sure what prompted me to get up from my Cancun lounge chair to make the lengthy bus voyage to Chichen Itza on my first trip to the Yucatan in the early 90s. At that time, vacation meant lolling on a beach and I had to force myself to do something cultural since I was in Mexico. Most likely someone at the tour desk of my hotel guilted me into the trip. I recall thinking 3 hours each way on a bus was a ridiculous idea to see some pyramids. As the saying goes, that trip changed my life.
In the years since, I have traveled at least 20 times to the region. Here are my Top 10 Favorite Yucatan places to visit away from the Caribbean beach areas, in no particular order:
Cosmopolitan yet historic town with an active cultural scene. Live music or dancing in squares nightly. Central historic district that is a mix of beautifully restored buildings, picturesque homes, and crumbling ruins. A large percentage of the population is Maya, proving the Maya are still very much alive, just not living in ancient stone cities. Growing expat population and all the creature comforts that brings. A gastronomic destination for sampling Yucatecan regional food whether in a upscale restaurant; at the many stands in Merida’s parks and squares; or via several cooking class options. Many excellent continental restaurants and places from other regions of Mexico.
Tour renovated colonial homes through the English Library, or check out the living museum that is La Quinta Montes Molina. The new Gran Museo del Mundo Maya has a deep collection of Maya artifacts and features clear, informative displays. The main square is lined with important buildings, a contemporary art museum and a massive cathedral. The tourism board’s free daily 9:30am tour of the area around the square is very informative. A picturesque maze of a main market and several smaller markets around town for snacks, prepared and souvenir foods or cookware items. Accommodations range from B&Bs like Cascadas, boutique hotels like Luz en Yucatan, large hotels like the Hyatt Regency near upscale Paseo Montejo, or hacienda hotels outside town with destination restaurants like the one at Hacienda Xcanatun.
Easily reachable by ADO bus from Cancun, as are most of the places mentioned below. ADO has many levels of service from Platino – the most luxurious to their regular, clean, well air-conditioned 1st class buses. Driving in this area is safe, with very well marked roads in most cases, but avoid driving at night – and beware the frequent topes or speed bumps.
One of the first places the Spanish landed in the new world and a thriving city today. Beautifully preserved, colorful UNESCO Heritage central historic neighborhood. Fortified to keep out pirates – the walls and forts can be visited. Excellent seafood and regional specialities; the light and airy chocolate tamales at Chocol Ha were amazing. Well priced straw items, artisanal chocolate and the Campuchana – the regional white and black embroidered blouses are available in quality stores throughout the town, as are guayaberas for men. I bought my Campuchana at Wilma on beautiful Calle 59.
Casa 6 is a restored colonial home that can be visited daily. The excellent Museum of Mayan Culture in the Fort of San Miguel is overflowing with significant Maya artifacts like jade masks from nearby Calakmul, and funerary items from Jaina. A convenient trolley tour showcases the main sights and is a great evening trip.
Buses from Cancun, Merida and service that passes the highway entrance to Uxmal.
One of the most important Maya ruins, but less visited than Chichen Itza and Tulum. Can be visited by day trip from Merida, but stay overnight to maximize your experience. Take advantage of the combo night time Light Show ticket which enables you to return the next morning for better photography and before the tour buses arrive from Merida. Guide highly recommended – you can arrange at the entrance. The Lodge at Uxmal is fine, the Hacienda Uxmal or there are some gorgeous hacienda hotels nearby, like the Hacienda Santa Rosa if your budget permits.
You can arrange a driver from Merida like William Lawson to drive you to the Pu’uc Route ruins and drop you off at Uxmal, or there are buses from Merida that pass by the entrance to the ruins en route to Campeche. I waited for a long time on the highway for the bus back to Merida with a couple from Veracruz, but were able to get a collectivo (mini van) to Merida.
Often included as a quick stop on day trips to Chichen Itza, Valladolid is a worthy destination unto itself. A safe, small town that is a Pueblo Magico, it features renowned churches and the easily accessible Cenote Zaci in the center of town. Excellent place to stay to be positioned for Chichen Itza or Ek Balaam. Lovers of Mexican arts and crafts, or anyone who wants to see the inside of a lovingly restored colonial will not want to miss the Casa de Los Venados – free tours daily in English, Spanish and possibly other languages. There’s an excellent local “food court” in the green building on the edge of the main plaza – it’s pretty obvious which place (toward the back on the left) is most popular by the local crowds. Try the panuchos or salbutes.
Hold out for the ADO bus from Cancun or make sure to visit the bus station facilities before you board – the more frequent Oriente bus takes the picturesque slow route through small Mayan towns I took to get to Chichen Itza before the highway. With stops at every crossroads or path to pick up or drop off passengers – plus stops before, after, and in the middle of every town for speed bumps, it can take over 3 hours to get to Valladolid.
If you love the color yellow, you will love Izamal. For everyone else, it’s a magical city that boasts 5 major existing Maya structures and many more have been located by archeologists. Forty five minutes from Merida, it’s a quick day trip but there are lovely small and hacienda hotels if you want to spend the night, or base yourself in a smaller town.
Check here for hotel options.
Very visible from the center of town is the immense Franciscan monastery San Antonio de Padua, which was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1993. Diego de Landa, famous abuser of the Maya and burner of their codices, lived here. The majority of the current population is Maya. Open air carriages are a nice and surprisingly economical way to tour the city. Kinich is a beautiful and tasty place for lunch. Don’t miss the opportunity to sample the Si Kil Pak, Maya pumpkin seed spread they give you prior to your meal.
Collectivos leave from the area around the Mercado in Merida (check with a local at your hotel) or there are buses.
Pu’uc Route Ruins
The Pu’uc or hill region was a significant Maya center and several excavated ruin sites can be visited in a day trip from Merida or Campeche. If you want to experience ruins free from tourist hoards, these smaller ruins in various states of excavation make for an interesting trip. As a ruin geek, I can spend all day exploring and photographing every rock and structure.
There are haciendas and nice hotels scattered throughout the region for deeper exploration. Overnighting, or starting or ending at Uxmal is another option.
If you’re interested in caves, Loltun Caves makes an interesting first stop. Guided tours at certain hours. Leave time to visit the Museo de Cacao – Chocolate Museum between Labna and X-Lapak. Sayil has a huge palace that once housed 350 people in 90 bedrooms, according to Yucatan Today.
Kabah is known for Codz Poop – or Palace of the Chaac Masks. Believed to be inhabited from the middle of the 3rd Century B.C. most of the current structures are from the 7th – 11th Centuries A.D. Copal incense was reportedly found in the mouths of the Chaac or rain god masks that make up Codz Poop. This was the only place other than Uxmal I encountered more than 3 visitors on the Pu’uc Route – I think there were 5 people including guides.
Turitrans offers day tours from Merida to Uxmal and Kabah. Both Turitrans tours I’ve taken (Dzibilchaltun/Progresso and Celestun) have been excellent with an informative, knowledgable tour guide; safe driver; clean, new vehicle; and plenty of free time.
The Yucatan peninsula is dotted with cenotes – fresh water sinkholes that resulted from collapsing limestone bedrock that make up the surface of the land. A possible result of the Chicxulub Crater, the cenotes are more concentrated near its rim. These cenotes were often used for Maya ceremonies and can often be found near major ruins sites. Today, they’re a great place to take a refreshing swim after a day of exploring the ruins and sights in the heat. Some great cenotes to visit are Ik Kil between Valladolid and Chichen Itza, Dos Ojos south of Tulum, and the cenotes at Cuzuma (check with your hotel about the current situation). Visitors to Dzibilchaltun who want to swim in the cenote should wear bathing suits since you’re not allowed to carry bags into the ruins.
The most visited Mayan ruin due to multitude of tour options from Cancun, the tourism area below Cancun, locals, Mexican vacationers, and Europeans on bus tour circuits of the peninsula. Definitely spring for a tour guide – it will greatly enhance your experience and understanding of the ruins. Incredibly well preserved ruins – from the Nunnery to the Observatory to the Castillo you can no longer climb. Although it’s the most crowded time to go, if your trip coincides with the Spring or Fall Equinox, the late afternoon sun supposedly creates a snake-like effect, moving down the pyramid. Please let me know if you witness this spectacle – I’ve never made it.
I was lucky to visit Chichen Itza on the day of a Maya holiday when 1000s of Maya were meeting at the ruins and making ceremonial offerings at the cenote. The cultural interchange between the Maya women and the braided African American women on our tour is something I remember to this day, 22+ years later. If you do one day tour from Cancun, make it this one; the trip is a lot shorter now with the highway.
Henequen also known as Sisal, due to the port of embarkation’s name marked on the bags, generated the majority of the wealth in the area and huge haciendas flourished as a result. I won’t get into the political aspects of the hacienda system and its impact on the Maya – that’s a topic for another site, but I can’t not mention it.
Today, these haciendas are in various states: historic museums, visitor friendly working haciendas, ruins, or beautifully restored boutique hotels. You can visit museums like Hacienda Yaxcopoil and Ochil. Hacienda Chichen, the oldest hacienda in the Yucatan is now a boutique hotel near Chichen Itza. Hacienda Sac Chich enables visitors to rent their own hacienda. Hacienda Teya outside Merida has a great Yucatecan specialty cookbook which you can find in stores all over the region. Hacienda Sotuta de Peon is the only working hacienda that offers tours of the entire henequen process.
Celestun (or other flamingo sanctuaries)
Close to the Campeche state border, on the Gulf of Mexico is the beach at Celestun. Celestun’s local population swells in octopus hunting season but travelers visit it for the chance of seeing 100s of flamingos in the Celestun Biosphere Reserve. Small powerboats bring visitors as close to the birds as allowed for photography, followed by a trip through mangroves to a freshwater spring for a swimming stop. You can do this on your own or via a day tour from Merida. The day tours usually offer an excellent fish lunch on the beach after the flamingo tour.
Celestun is also a nice, peaceful place to stay for a couple of days. Check here for hotel info.
All of these places and more are covered in DK Eyewitness Travel’s Top 10 Cancun & The Yucatan. Thorough but small enough to carry – I was amazed at what was crammed into this little book. Many of my favorite restaurants, stores, sights and hotels are covered. The included maps are better for a regional overview; better maps for cities or towns are available in Yucatan Today, your hotel, or at each town’s tourism office.
Interested in traveling to the Yucatan? I can develop a custom trip for you, built around your interests. Ruins, food, colonial cities, religious pilgrimage sites, golf, cenotes (fresh water sink-holes for swimming) and the best beach areas. With a good knowledge of the transportation options and huge variety of hotels ranging from restored haciendas to budget hostels, we can develop the perfect trip for you. Contact me via the form here or by emailing Eva @ SuitcaseReady.com