Last Updated on February 5, 2023 by Janine
Wondering about the best things to do in the Yucatan, Mexico? This guide outlines incredible attractions throughout the Yucatan peninsula, on and off the beaten path!
Chances are you’ve heard of a few major attractions in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, but this region is full of incredible hidden gems that you may know nothing about. From tiny, off-the-beaten-path villages to biosphere reserves, cenotes, Mayan ruins, and beyond, the Yucatan is bursting with alluring attractions.
It is home to North America’s safest city (Merida), Mexico’s top tourist destination (Cancun), and vast biosphere reserves such as Sian Ka’an and Calakmul, where you can experience this region’s biodiversity.
You can get around the Yucatan easily (and affordably) using Mexico’s extensive bus system, but it’s also one of the best areas of Mexico to take a road trip. Driving is easy, renting a car is straightforward, and there are tons of incredible hidden gems that are much easier to reach when you have your own vehicle.
However you choose to travel the Yucatan, it will be an incredible experience.
Whether planning a trip to Cancun, Merida, Tulum, or somewhere in between, this guide will help you make the most of all the best things to do throughout the Yucatan Peninsula!
Traveling soon? Don’t forget to buy travel insurance for Mexico. Insurance gives you peace of mind knowing you can get the help you need if anything goes wrong. SafetyWing is the provider that I recommend.
Where is the Yucatan peninsula?
The Yucatan peninsula is the most eastern part of Mexico, bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on the northwest side and the Caribbean Sea on the east side. The peninsula is made up of three states: Campeche and Yucatán, along the Gulf of Mexico, and Quintana Roo, which stretches along the Mexican Caribbean coast.
Map of the Yucatan
When to visit
The winter (aka dry season) is the best time to visit the Yucatan peninsula because the climate is the mildest. From November through April, you’ll be greeted by warm weather, low precipitation, and lower humidity. This also happens to be high season, which, of course, means higher prices.
If you’re curious to experience Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) in Mexico, Merida has many festivities at the end of October and early November that you can participate in!
The rainy season, May through October, is the best time of year to visit if you want to beat the crowds. But be prepared for high heat and humidity, especially in places throughout Campeche and Yucatan State (Quintana Roo is a little more forgiving thanks to ocean breezes, but it’s still hot AF, don’t get me wrong)!
The biggest downside to the rainy season is that it’s also hurricane season, and the possibility of a storm making landfall could put a damper on your vacation. October is typically the wettest month, and it might even rain all day! Usually, rain showers are condensed to a few hours in the afternoon or evening, so you can still enjoy plenty of beach time during these months!
The state of Campeche is often overlooked by travelers, but it has a lot to offer, especially if you’re hoping to skip the crowds found in Mexico’s more buzzy destinations. Campeche is home to an enormous biosphere reserve, Calakmul, full of lesser-known ruins and incredible nature. The state capital, Campeche City, is a charming colonial town set on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a wonderful place to soak up the scenery and ambiance of this gorgeous region without competing with hordes of other tourists. If you’re planning a southern Mexico road trip, don’t leave Campeche off the route!
1. Explore the walled city of Campeche
Campeche City is a gorgeous colonial city that is often overlooked in favor of Merida. If you’re looking for offbeat things to do in the Yucatan, make the journey over to Campeche. The city’s historic center is surrounded by a thick fortress wall built to keep pirates out during the 17th century. These days you can take leisurely walks along the top of the wall and admire the views of the city and the coastline.
Campeche’s Centro Historico is full of shops, restaurants, and colorful buildings. It’s worth spending some time wandering the streets and poking around in the boutiques. You can also take a tour of the city on trolley cars that depart from the main square. Tours are conducted in Spanish, but even if you don’t understand what the guide is saying it’s a great way to see the sights!
Despite being on the coast, Campeche isn’t a great beach destination (there are some, though, and you can swim). The city holds a couple of museums, colorful colonial buildings, and charming cobblestone streets that you’ll enjoy wandering through (in the evening, when the heat dissipates). There’s a malecon (boardwalk) along the shore of the town where you can enjoy the views over the Gulf of Mexico.
There are several lesser-known ruins and cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula that you can visit on day trips from Campeche. It really is a fantastic destination for those looking to get off the beaten path.
2. Visit the remote ruins of Calakmul
By Shandos of Travelnuity
Countless Mayan ruins can be found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, but one of the most impressive is Calakmul. Hidden deep in the jungle in a biosphere reserve close to the Guatemalan border, these ruins were only rediscovered in the 1930s.
At the site’s core are two massive pyramids, amongst the largest in the Mayan world. It’s rumored that from the top, you can glimpse El Mirador in Guatemala if you know where to look. That’s because, unlike at Chichen Itza, you can still climb these pyramids. Another highlight is the many stelae dotted around the site, plus the glimpses of howler monkeys in the treetops.
Due to its remote location, visitor numbers at Calakmul are low. From Tulum, it’s a 4-5 hour drive or bus ride to the nearby town of Xpujil, where you’ll find basic lodgings. It’s then a two-hour drive through the forest on a narrow road. It’s easy to organize transport in Xpujil, although it’s pretty pricey.
Yucatan state is located on the tip of the Yucatan peninsula. It’s home to popular destinations like Merida, Valladolid, and Chichen Itza, as well as many lesser-known but equally compelling spots like El Cuyo, Progreso, Izamal, and more.
This region was once the heart of the Mayan civilization and is home to many ruins, including the world-famous Chichen Itza. The less famous sites like Ek Balam, Uxmal, and those along the Ruta Puuc should not be overlooked, especially if you’re curious to learn more about the history of this region.
Whether you’re curious to learn about Mayan culture, are drawn to the stunning colonial cities of this region, or want to sample authentic Yucatecan cuisine, Yucatan state is a fantastic travel destination. Yucatan isn’t nearly as crowded as the towns found along the coast of Quintana Roo and it offers many similar attractions without the Americanization that characterizes so many of them.
The beaches may not be as impressive in Yucatan State, but the cenotes, ruins, and beautiful cities more than make up for it!
3. Learn about Mayan Culture in Merida
Merida is the capital city of Yucatan State, and it is known for its beautiful architecture, rich culture, and as one of the safest cities in all of North America!
If you’re interested in Mayan culture, Merida is the perfect place to begin learning about it. Start by visiting El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, which is devoted to Maya culture and houses a huge collection of artifacts.
There are also several historical sites and ruins in and around Merida where you can learn more about the region’s history. Chichen Itza is about 2 hours from Merida and makes an excellent day trip. You can also visit other sites, including Uxmal, Mayapan, and Ruta Puuc.
Merida is also known for its fantastic culinary scene, so it’s the perfect place to try out Yucatecan cuisine, which has Mayan influences. Yucatecan cuisine uses many flavors you won’t necessarily find in other regions of Mexico. It often uses habanero peppers, which are incredibly spicy– beware! One of the signature dishes you’ll find throughout the Yucatan is cochinita pibil, citrus marinaded pork, which is traditionally slow-cooked underground! It’s fantastic. Trust me.
🏨 Looking for hotels in Merida?
Here are a couple of excellent options near centro!
- Hotel Santa Ana: Just a 5-minute walk from Merida’s cathedral, this hotel is an affordable, safe, and convenient place to base yourself within the city. Each room is air conditioned and features cable TV, free WiFi, and complimentary toiletries. The hotel has a beautiful garden courtyard with a pool, an on-site restaurant, and a comfortable lounge area to unwind and mingle with other guests. Reviewers rave about the excellent service and the comfortable accommodation! Click here to check rates!
- Casa del Maya Bed & Breakfast: This colorful B&B offers a complimentary breakfast and a peaceful setting. The rooms are outfitted with beautiful textiles, colorful tiles, and traditional Mexican furniture. The lovely garden and pool area is the perfect place to relax and refresh after a day out and about. The central location and helpful hosts will help you feel right at home in Merida. Click here to check rates!
4. Watch a Pok-Ta–Pok Game in Merida
By Cynthia of Sharing the Wanders
While exploring the Yucatan, don’t miss a free demonstration game of Pok-Ta-Pok in Merida! We visited Merida as part of our Six Weeks Across Mexico starting in Puerto Vallarta and ending in the Yucatan, and Pok-Ta-Tok was one of the coolest events we witnessed.
One of several cultural events hosted weekly by the city, you’ll get a great introduction to this indigenous ball game that is a bit similar to basketball. Players compete to get a heavy rubber ball through a stone hoop without using their hands. There is a lot of sliding and hip-bumping to get the ball through the hoop!
A version of Pok-Ta-Pok was played by the Maya, Olmec, and Mixtec, among others. In the Yucatan, teams and leagues have recently formed to reinvigorate and spread the sport.
The presentation begins with a cleansing ceremony, music, and a fire ritual. Then the players, dressed in loincloths and body paint, begin two rounds of play. Next, you’ll see a “shoot out” scenario where players take turns trying to score. Finally, they light the ball on fire and play a game with the lit ball!
Pok-Ta-Pok takes place each Wednesday at 8 pm in front of the Cathedral de Merida in Merida’s Plaza Grande. The cleansing ceremony starts a little before 8. The seats fill up fast, so plan to get there at least by 7:15 to get a seat.
💃 More great things to do in Merida:
- Learn to cook Yucatecan cuisine in a Taste of Yucatan cooking class.
- Check out Merida’s colorful cantinas and learn about the city’s culture on a guided bar-hopping tour.
- Learn about the workings of an agave plantation and how the plants were converted into fiber on a private tour of Sotuta de Peon Hacienda, an ongoing restoration project.
5. Enjoy the beaches of Progreso
The beach town of Progreso is located about 30 minutes north of Merida along the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a popular beach escape for those living in Merida, especially in the summer when the hot weather becomes unbearable in the city.
While the beaches in the Yucatan don’t hold a candle to those along the coast of the Caribbean, they offer a more down-to-earth atmosphere and better prices. Instead of competing with bikini-clad influencers for a place in the sand, you’ll share the space with local families and expats who want to relax and have fun!
You’ll find beachfront restaurants, bars, and plenty of comfortable hotels to post up for a day or two while you enjoy the laid-back atmosphere!
To get to Progreso, take the AutoProgreso bus from Merida’s bus station. The journey takes about an hour and costs 21 pesos!
6. Relax in the sand at El Cuyo
By Isabella of Boundless Roads
El Cuyo, Yucatan is a relatively new and hot destination that locals and visitors alike chose as a worthy alternative to the busy and pricey Riviera Maya.
In El Cuyo, you won’t find the Caribbean sea. However, a whole lot of deserted beaches, an emerald green sea, and lots of peace and tranquillity await you.
This laidback town on the Yucatan coast had been first noticed by kite surfers who came here attracted by the favorable weather conditions, cheap facilities, and deserted beaches.
Fast forward 10 years, El Cuyo is now the new hype! You will find cute boutique hotels of all prices, great local restaurants and cafes, but not too many, and a welcoming community of locals and expats that strive to keep the quality of living and safety as it is.
Now El Cuyo is suitable not only for kitesurfers but for anyone searching for peace and tranquillity, beach life, and natural spots to explore.
You can, in fact, go birdwatching, kayaking in the lagoon or in the sea, paddle boarding, take infinite walks on the beach, and much more, or just bask in the sun and relax. At El Cuyo, you’ll find all you need for a perfect vacation on the beach.
7. Swim in cenotes in Homún
By Isabella of Let’s Travel to Mexico
The village of Homún is where you will find some of the best cenotes in Yucatan. It is located in the heart of the popular Anillo de Los Cenotes (cenote ring), where you will find hundreds of cenotes, some of which are still hidden in the thick vegetation.
You could really spend a week there and still not be able to see them all. Many of them are properly managed by local communities and equipped with comfortable facilities such as toilets and showers. Some also have bungalows and a restaurant for those wishing to try the jungle experience and spend the night.
Others are still in the wild with just a simple ladder to get to the water.
However, all of these cenotes are cave cenotes, the most exciting to visit as you need to climb down into mother earth’s womb to access them.
Although you could get there on a day trip from Merida, using local busses, it’s preferable to spend a couple of nights in Homún and take your time to explore different cenotes.
If you don’t have your own transportation, worry not. You can get there by bus and hire one of the local guides who will be happy to take you on their motor rickshaw. It’s so much fun, and you don’t have to worry about your car breaking down, as the dirt road that leads to the cenotes can be really bad.
Also, the local guides know where to take you and can advise on the best cenotes to check out. You will surely have a blast!
8. Tour ruins along the Ruta Puuc
By Chris of Amateur Traveler
When you visit the Yucatan, and more specifically, Merida, there is a great road trip that the adventurous traveler can take while driving: The Ruta Puuc, a 25-mile drive to some of the Yucatan’s best, lesser-known Mayan ruins and significant sites.
The best known of these sites is Uxmal, which is thought to have been a Mayan regional capital more than 1000 years ago until it was abandoned in the 1500s. The best preserved of the pyramids at Uxmal is the unusual elliptically shaped Pyramid of the Magician. Come back in the evening to see the light show and learn more about the rain god Chaac to which much of Uxmal was dedicated.
Smaller ruins on the route include Sayil (a 90-room palace), X-Lapak, and Kabah. One particularly interesting site is the Loltun Caves which were used not just by the Mayans but in pre-historic times. Loltun Caves include handprints dating back 10,000 years.
Avoid the crowds at Chichen Itza by driving the Ruta Puuc.
🚗 Discover Cars is a handy tool for finding the best rates on rental cars in the area. Search for car rentals with pickup and drop-off in Cancun or Merida.
9. Visit the Mayan Ruins of Uxmal
By Brodi of Our Offbeat Life
Located approximately 75 minutes from Merida by car, the Uxmal ruins in the Yucatan peninsula are a great day trip from Merida. While it is a slightly lesser-known Mayan ruin site than others in the Yucatan, Uxmal should not be missed! Between its lack of tourist crowds and the way tours go through the various buildings, it’s a wonder more people don’t come here!
The best parts of Uxmal are the large and ornate carvings that still cover the sides of several structures. They demonstrate the Mayan civilization’s advanced nature and are truly stunning to behold.
Uxmal is also well-known for the iguanas; you’ll see them sunning themselves all over the stone ruins.
The entry price for Uxmal is 494 pesos for adults, and Mexican residents and nationals pay 225 pesos and get free entry on Sundays. Kids under 13 are free. All entry fees must be paid in cash, so visitors should stop at an ATM in advance. There are several small shops on-site selling souvenirs and one food stand selling cold drinks and packaged snacks.
Top tours of Uxmal:
- Take a private tour of Uxmal and the Chocolate Museum, where you’ll learn about the history of cocoa and its role in Mayan culture.
- Tour Yaxcopoil, Uxmal & a Cenote: Visit Hacienda Yaxcopoil and learn about the role of farming in the Yucatan. Then, tour the archaeological site of Uxmal, and stop for a dip in a nearby cenote before heading back to Merida on this day trip!
10. Visit the Yellow City of Izamal
Located about an hour (42 miles) from Merida, Izamal is a beautiful pueblo mágico known for its yellow architecture.
Izamal was once a sizeable Pre-Colombian city and later an important pilgrimage site for Mayans, with temples dedicated to Kinich Kak Moo, the Mayan Sun god. These days it’s an under-the-radar destination known for its stunning architecture and interesting ruins.
The entire city is painted the same shade of yellow (with white accents), giving it a distinct aesthetic. One of the best things to do in Izamal is simply to wander the streets and soak up the lovely atmosphere. You can pop into small shops and museums to browse for souvenirs or learn about the city’s history.
There are a few different archaeological sites in the area, including the Kinich Kakmó pyramid, which is definitely worth a visit. It’s just a short walk from the main square!
Izamal makes a fun and easy day trip from Merida, but if you wish to spend more time in the area, there are several places to stay nearby, including some really dreamy haciendas.
🏨 Looking for hotels near Izamal?
- Hacienda Sacnicte: Located 4 km outside of Izamal and one hour from Chichen Itza, this ex-hacienda is a dreamy place to base yourself. The property has spacious rooms, a beautiful pool, and a garden area with bougainvillea and tropical plants. Click here to check prices!
- Hotel Quinta Izamal: This budget-friendly hotel is located on the fringes of Izamal and offers spacious, tastefully decorated rooms and a large garden and pool area for relaxing. The decor is simple, but reviewers praise this hotel for being exceptionally clean, comfortable, and quiet and for having super helpful staff. Click here to check rates!
11. Tour the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza was once one of the most significant cities in the Mayan empire, and it was built sometime before the 5th Century and once had as many as 50,000 inhabitants. These days, this archaeological site is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
This ruin is known for its impressive El Castillo pyramid, one of Mexico’s most famous Mayan temples. The pyramid features one step for each day of the year! The pelota ball court is another impressive structure within the site, but my favorite is El Caracol because it’s a little different from each of the others.
Located 2.5 hours from Playa del Carmen and 1.5 hours from Merida, Chichen Itza is easily accessible from the most popular areas of the Yucatan peninsula.
Like many other ruins in Mexico, there are very few interpretive signs on the site. If you’re hoping to learn more about the history of Chichen Itza and its role in Mayan culture, you’ll need to hire a guide. The structures are beautiful and intriguing to look at on their own, but a guide will offer more depth and context to what you’re seeing.
Private guides are available for hire at the entrance to Chichen Itza, or you can visit the site as part of a guided tour. If you’re a solo traveler, a guided tour with transportation is the easiest way to see Chichen.
Chichen Itza is open daily from 9 AM to 5 PM. It’s best to visit as early in the day as possible to escape the crowds and the heat. Plan to spend about 3 hours at the site.
🚗 Top Chichen Itza tours:
- From Cancun and the Riviera Maya: This Chichen Itza tour includes transportation from the Riviera Maya with stops in Valladolid and the cenote Ik Kil for a well-rounded experience! Click here to book tickets!
- From Merida: This tour will take you to Chichen Itza and the pink lakes of Las Coloradas, where you can spot flamingos! Click here to check rates!
- From Merida to Chichen Itza & Izamal: This full-day tour will take you to Chichen Itza, Izamal, and a nearby cenote. Along the way, your guide will educate you on Mayan history and culture! Click here to check ticket prices!
12. Swim in lots of cenotes
By Katie of Two Wandering Soles
While traveling in the Yucatan, you can’t miss the opportunity to experience a cenote. These sinkholes are common all around the peninsula and come in various types. When it comes to choosing which cenotes in Mexico to visit, it depends on what you’re looking for.
For a relaxing day in the sun, pick an open-air cenote, like Cenote Azul, which is surrounded by jungle and has shallow waters, making it a fun place to hang out in the sunshine. For a more unique and adventurous experience, head to a cave cenote, most of which are entirely enclosed and lit by artificial lights.
If you’re interested in cenote diving, opt for a cenote like Dos Ojos, which is connected to an extensive underwater cave system!
Most cenotes make fun opportunities for snorkeling, and you can often rent gear onsite. In some cenotes, you’ll see lots of fish, while others are known for stalagmites and other cool rock formations. Some cenotes are even renowned as world-class dive sites. There truly is a cenote for every type of traveler.
13. Slow down in Valladolid
Located partway between Cancun and Merida, Valladolid is a charming colonial city in Yucatan State. Valladolid is known for its gorgeous, colorful architecture, connection to Mayan history and culture, and proximity to Chichen Itza.
The atmosphere in Valladolid is very slow-paced, making it a relaxing escape from the busy Riviera Maya. It’s still relatively off the beaten path, likely because travelers with tight schedules skip it in favor of more buzzy attractions, but I think it’s well worth a stop.
Here you can stroll the picturesque streets, admire the colonial architecture, and eat awesome Yucatecan food. There are some cute little shops to check out near the main square, and the prices here are much lower than in more touristy areas like Playa del Carmen or Tulum.
Several cenotes are located around Valladolid, and you can reach them by car or bicycle. Plus, Chichen Itza is located just a few kilometers outside the city, making it the perfect place to stay after visiting the ruins.
👉 Related Reading: 10 Awesome Things to do in Valladolid, Mexico
Quintana Roo State
Quintana Roo is known for some of Mexico’s top travel destinations, including Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen. But there’s a lot more to see here than just resort towns. While it’s no secret that the Riviera Maya is home to some truly incredible all-inclusive properties (and heaps of Americanization), this region is still rich with culture and is home to incredible biodiversity.
While it’s hard to ignore the ongoing deforestation (in aid of more resorts and tourist-oriented amenities), it’s easy to appreciate the nature that remains. Quintana Roo is packed with natural wonders, from cenotes and coral reefs to lush jungles and beautiful beaches.
The islands of Cozumel, Holbox, and Isla Mujeres are fantastic places to take snorkeling and diving tours to experience the area’s reef systems and marine wildlife. In contrast, places like Tulum, Akumal, Sian Ka’an, and Bacalar are great entry points for exploring the jungles and cenotes of the region.
14. Swim with whale sharks on Isla Holbox
By Victoria of Guide Your Travel
One of the best things to do in the Yucatan peninsula is to swim with whale sharks on Isla Holbox. This is one of Mexico’s best and safest places to experience whale sharks in the wild. Tours are pricey but absolutely worth it. Click here to check tour prices!
You’ll be taken to the open ocean on a comfortable speed boat to find large groups of whale sharks that gather in specific locations. While there are usually several boats in one place, the whale sharks are allowed to come and go as they please and are not fed by the tour companies, making this an animal-friendly encounter.
You’ll get to swim with the giant sharks and might even be able to spot manta rays if you’re lucky. There are plenty of things to do in Holbox, but swimming with whale sharks should be at the top of your list. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
🏨 Top places to stay on Isla Holbox:
- AURORA: If you’re looking for a beautiful, budget-friendly hotel, AURORA is the perfect option. The beautiful, spacious rooms are decorated in a chic minimalist style and offer air conditioning, complimentary toiletries, and flatscreen televisions. Past guests rave about the excellent location, comfortable rooms, and friendly staff! Click here to check rates!
- Hotel Para Ti: This adults-only hotel offers an outdoor pool, bar, and garden for guests to relax. The rooms are super spacious and air-conditioned. The offer minimalist decor, but they have everything you need, including a sitting area or hammock for lounging. The hotel is located near downtown Holbox, so you can walk anywhere you need to go. Past guests praised the friendly staff and the fantastic amenities at this property. Click here to check availability.
15. Bioluminescent bay on Isla Holbox
By Taryn from Chasing Trail
It’s no secret that Yucatan is home to countless spectacular natural attractions. There’s one in particular, though, that’s little-known: the Isla Holbox bioluminescent beaches.
A tiny fishing island off the Yucatan Peninsula’s northern coast, Isla Holbox is still a bit under the tourist radar. That’s precisely why it’s worth a visit — no crowds give it an authentic island vibe, while the lack of light pollution (and regular pollution, for that matter) provides ideal conditions for experiencing bioluminescence.
For anyone unfamiliar, bioluminescence is a phenomenon in which living organisms light up when disturbed. Fireflies are a common example, but marine bioluminescence is incredibly rare, occurring in just a handful of places in the world.
The best place to see bioluminescence is Punta Cocos Beach. The warm, shallow lagoon water provides perfect conditions for bioluminescent plankton, and as the waves gently crash ashore, it looks like the entire beach is glowing and sparkling! Simply watch this natural show or get in the water and splash around.
Another great way to experience the bioluminescence is on a guided nighttime kayak tour! Taking a peaceful paddle will help you escape any potential light pollution and make the most of this phenomenon. You’ll probably be able to do some stargazing as well!
This Holbox travel guide has tons of other suggestions for great things to do during your stay on the island!
🚣♂️ More fun activities and excursions on Holbox:
- Take a boat tour to a freshwater cenote and two islands near Holbox to spot birds and other wildlife.
- Tour the mangroves by kayak from Holbox and spot creatures like manta rays, flamingos, crocodiles, and more!
16. Relax in Cancun
by Sharyn of Live Work Play Travel
If you’re traveling in Mexico and need a place to chill, consider Cancun. Situated on the Yucatan Peninsula facing the Caribbean Sea, this once alligator-infested swamp was transformed in the 1970s into a holiday destination with great beaches, resorts, and nightlife.
Cancun is comprised of a downtown area with a long island attached to it by bridges. On one side of the island is the Nichupte Lagoon with its bustling marinas. The other side is Zona Hotelera, the beach strip with high-rise hotels, nightclubs, shops, and restaurants. Spend your days by your hotel pool or in the Caribbean Sea swimming, snorkeling, or scuba diving.
At night, enjoy Mexican cuisine in local cantinas or hit the bars to dance until dawn. Consider adding a day trip or two to discover Mayan temples in Tulum or at Chitzen Itza. Or, head over to Isla Mujeres to enjoy more spectacular beaches. With so much to see, do, and enjoy, there’s no question that Cancun is worth a visit while you’re traveling along the Yucatan peninsula.
If you’re spending several days in Cancun, renting a car is a great way to facilitate day trips and help you see more of the area. This guide to driving in Cancun will give you the confidence you need to make it happen!
💃 Fun Cancun excursions:
- Party at CocoBongo – Cancun is famous for its nightlife, and this nightclub incorporates acrobatic performances, dancers, live music, and more!
- Sail to Isla Mujeres on a catamaran – This full-day sailing tour will have you snorkeling on tropical reefs, sipping on free-flowing drinks from the open bar, and feasting on a Mexican buffet at Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres.
- Tour Chichen Itza, Piste, and swim in a cenote – Explore the UNESCO World Heritage site of Chichen Itza before visiting the village of Piste and taking a dip in cenote Ik Kil on this day trip from Cancun!
17. Visit the Mayan Museum in Cancun
By Kenny of Knycx Journeying
Cancun is a famous travel destination for its pristine beaches, luxurious resorts, entertainment, and nightlife – most importantly, the Mayan Heritage that is fascinating and also mysterious. Most travelers, especially first-timers, come here without having a pilgrimage to Chichen Itza, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
To be prepared and learn more about the history and culture of the Mayans, visit the Mayan Museum, located right on Kukulcan Boulevard in Cancun city center. The site was opened in 2012, and it was designed by Mexican architect Alberto Garcia Lascurain. Behind the modern and sleek architecture, it covers an area of 8 hectares of exhibition areas and an archaeological site of San Miguelito.
The exhibition hall showcases an impressive collection of Mayan archaeological artifacts. Highlights include the state of Quintana Roo, La Mujer de las Palmas (a 12,000-year-old skeleton discovered in a cenote near Tulum), valuable potteries, beaded jewelry, funerary masks, and monuments from the Mayan sites.
18. Go beach hopping on Isla Mujeres
By Catherine of Nomadicated
Discover the tiny island of Isla Mujeres, a popular day trip from Cancun to lounge on white-sand beaches surrounded by the crystal blue waters of the Mexican Caribean. Only a 20-minute ferry ride away from mainland Cancun, it costs 300 pesos for a round-trip ticket.
You don’t need to rent a car here. The most popular method of travel is by golf cart, zooming down Isla Mujeres’s narrow streets to drive to the best places the island has to offer.
If you plan on beach-hopping the day away, Playa Norte is the most famous on the island, known for its pure white sand. For nature lovers, visit Punta Sur Park for epic cliffside views of iguanas sunbathing on Mayan ruins. For adventurers, dive or snorkel the Underwater Sculpture Museum before boating or kayaking the sparkling Caribbean waters.
Insider Tip: The cheapest, most efficient way to see the whole island is to rent a golf cart in town. Ensure the cart operates well and acknowledge any damages before you sign the contract.
👉 More things to do on Isa Mujeres:
19. Enjoy the beaches of Playa del Carmen
Located equidistant from Cancun and Tulum, Playa del Carmen is a fantastic base for touring the entire Riviera Maya. The city is highly touristic, but it has a lot to offer every type of traveler.
Playa has everything you could possibly hope to find in a beach destination: gorgeous white-sand beaches, incredible hotels and resorts, endless shopping and dining options, and lively nightlife. Plus, it’s easy to take day trips to cenotes, ruins like Chichen Itza or Cobá, snorkeling tours, or Cozumel Island! Needless to say, there’s lots to do in Playa del Carmen.
In the evening, do some shopping along La Quinta Avenida. Fill up on aguachile at Patio 8, then grab a cocktail in the sand at Zensi, or head to Kitxen for some live music!
One of the major appeals of Playa del Carmen is that it’s highly walkable. Find a place to stay near the center of Playa del Carmen, and you’ll be able to go almost anywhere within the city without dealing with taxis (and the typical gringo tax).
20. Go Snorkeling in Rivera Maya to see the Great Mesoamerican Barrier reef
By Paulina from ukeveryday
If you love underwater photography and exploring marine life, look no further than Riviera Maya in Mexico. There you will find the incredible Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which is home to many corals, various fishes, and turtles. It is one of the best snorkeling locations in the world that will make you want to stay underwater all day.
Instead of booking tours to see the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, why not book a hotel in Rivera Maya? The Grand Sirenis Riviera Maya Resort & Spa opposite Cozumel Island offers a fantastic snorkeling experience just a few steps from the hotel’s room.
The hotel’s private beach is home not only to incredible shapes of corals but also attracts turtles and rays. You will not even need to leave your hotel to enjoy some of the best parts of the Yucatan. Snorkeling in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is once in a lifetime experience.
🤿 Snorkeling tours from Riviera Maya:
21. Tour around Cozumel Island
Cozumel is a popular diving and snorkeling destination renowned for its world-famous Palancar Reef (one of the largest in the world). The island is also a popular cruise ship port, which means it receives lots of visitors each year (and has the infrastructure to accommodate them).
The island is home to the town of San Miguel de Cozumel, which has approximately 75,000 residents. Here you’ll find many awesome restaurants, lots of shops (including duty-free shopping aimed at cruise ship passengers), and many resorts and hotels. Beyond the town, you can visit the island’s many stunning beaches, Punta Sur Eco-Park, Mayan ruins, and more!
You can reach Cozumel by taking a 40-minute passenger ferry from Playa del Carmen. Once there, the best way to get around is by renting a car. While the town itself is walkable, Cozumel’s top attractions are spread along its coastline.
Cozumel makes a fantastic day trip from Playa del Carmen, but consider basing yourself there for two or three days so you can make the most of what this island has to offer.
👉 For more on how to spend your time on Cozumel, check out these activity recommendations!
22. Swim with turtles in Akumal
Akumal is a Mayan word meaning “place of turtles,” and that’s exactly what you’ll find in Akumal Bay. In addition to being one of the most serene and idyllic beaches in the Riviera Maya (at least in my opinion), Akumal is also a breeding ground for multiple species of sea turtles and you can swim with them right from the beach.
You can reach Akumal by colectivo from either Playa del Carmen or Tulum– it’s located about halfway between the two.
Once there, you can rent snorkeling gear or book a snorkeling tour to spot the turtles. I recommend going through the Akumal Dive Shop, as they have clean bathrooms, showers, and lockers to stash your belongings while you’re in the water.
The last time I visited Akumal, I was told that you are not permitted to snorkel with sea turtles unless you join a guided tour. However, I worked around this by venturing further down the beach toward the hotel area and snorkeling there.
The only hang-up with this plan is that the water isn’t as deep, and there aren’t as many coral formations at this part of the beach, so the turtles aren’t as plentiful. But if you’re on a budget, it’s a good compromise!
That said, you’ll see many more turtles (and other sea life) if you purchase a snorkeling tour.
👉 Ready to plan your adventure to Akumal? Check out my guide on how to snorkel with turtles in Akumal!
23. Soak up the “scene” in Tulum
Just an hour south of Playa del Carmen sits the trendy beach town of Tulum. Tulum has grown dramatically over the past several years, but it maintains a stronghold as one of Mexico’s most desirable beach towns. It has a lively party scene, stunning scenery, and no shortage of chic and dreamy hotels and Airbnbs.
The hotel zone stretches along the beachfront and is host to a series of boutique hotels, restaurants, shops, and beach clubs. Meanwhile, in the village of Tulum, you’ll find everything from taco stands and souvenir shops to bohemian bars and nightclubs and so much more.
Aside from the boho scene in Tulum, one of the biggest attractions is the Tulum ruins, which sit on a bluff overlooking the ocean. This small archaeological site won’t take long to visit, but it is interesting and beautiful. Go early to beat the crowds and the sun.
After visiting the ruins, spend the afternoon in Tulum exploring the pueblo or lounging in the sand at one of the beach clubs in the hotel zone! La Zebra is a hotel with a private beach club that has very reasonable prices (by Tulum standards). But if you want something a little fancier, there are tons of other options. Just take a cruise through the hotel zone and check out whatever speaks to you!
Tulum makes an easy day trip from Playa del Carmen because you can easily reach the town directly by colectivo or an ADO bus. The journey takes about an hour.
👉 Related Reading: 6 Awesome Things to do in Tulum
24. Climb the Cobá Ruins
By Jessica of The Uprooted Traveler
The Cobá ruins are an excellent alternative to more famous ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula, like Chichen Itza.
Located about an hour northwest of Tulum, there’s so much to explore in this ancient city, which held dominance in this region from about 100-600 AD. And for just 80 pesos, it’s kind of a steal to visit this incredible landmark. The estimated 50,000 people who once lived at Cobá left behind dozens of stone buildings, many of which remain well-preserved.
One of the most unique things about these ruins is that, because fewer visitors make their way to its remote location, you’re allowed to actually climb on some of the structures, like Ixmoja, which once served as the center of the city. You can scramble up the 138-foot pyramid’s steep (and super slick due to centuries of erosion) steps with the help of a well-used rope.
Once you do your best Indiana Jones impression and climb to the top, you’ll have 360-degree views of the remains of Coba and the surrounding thick jungle.
You can reach Cobá independently, but one of the easiest ways to visit this site is with a tour group. This will save you the trouble of navigating public transportation (it’s not difficult, but it can be time-consuming and stressful if you don’t speak Spanish). With a tour group, all you have to do is show up and let the guide lead the way!
👉 This tour includes pickup from your hotel in Playa del Carmen and will take you through both the Tulum ruins and Cobá. You’ll stop to swim in a cenote along the way, and breakfast and lunch are included! Click here to check prices!
25. Immerse yourself in nature in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
By Daria of The Discovery Nut
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is a perfect place to escape the busy areas and spend a day in nature in Mexico’s Rivera Maya.
Sian Ka’an is one of the largest biosphere reserves in Mexico that covers 528,000 hectares, including a portion of the Great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef -the second largest reef in the world.
Sian Kaan is home to an incredible array of biodiversity, such as monkeys, manatees, dolphins, dozens of species of birds, and even crocodiles.
A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the biggest protected habitats in Mexico’s Rivera Maya, Sian Ka’an means “Entrance to the Sky” in the Mayan language.
Because of its protected status, visiting Sian Kaan is possible only with a tour, as you need a licensed guide to show you around.
The best option is to book a tour of Sian Ka’an from Tulum, the closest town to Sian Ka’an. Your tour will pick you up in Tulum and take most of the day before bringing you back in the late afternoon.
26. Chill out in Bacalar Lagoon
By Daria of The Discovery Nut
Home to the incredible lagoon of 7 colors, Bacalar is one of the best places to visit in Yucatan if you want to get off the beaten tourist track.
The lagoon of seven colors boasts incredible shades of blue thanks to various levels of depth in different areas and is one of the most stunning natural sites in Yucatan.
Bacalar offers a wonderfully tranquil environment (compared to other places in Mexico’s Rivera Maya that are known for partying) and some of the most incredible landscapes in Mexico.
Some of the most popular things to do in Bacalar are taking a sailboat tour of the lagoon, kayaking, and jumping in the water from one of the balnearios (or wooden decks).
There are also several cenotes in Bacalar and Mayan ruins, which can be visited independently if you have a car rental or on a guided tour from Bacalar.
Hot Tip: Bacalar is one of the region’s best places for budget travel because it has lower prices on food, tours, and accommodation than other popular destinations.
How to Get to the Yucatan Peninsula: Transportation
One of the reasons the Yucatan peninsula is such a fantastic travel destination is that it’s so easy to get around. Whether you opt to use public transportation or rent a car, it will be easy to get anywhere you want to go.
The Cancun Airport is the Yucatan’s biggest airport and the primary point of entry for this region of Mexico. It welcomes flights from most major carriers and offers direct flights to and from many major cities in the US & Canada, including New York, LA, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Toronto, Vancouver, and many more.
Merida and Cozumel each have international airports as well, but they are smaller than Cancun’s. During high season, you can find direct flights to Cozumel from major cities, while there are direct flights to Merida from Houston and Miami all year.
Use Skyscanner to find the best prices on flights to the Yucatan peninsula. The search filters make it really easy to determine the cheapest dates to travel.
The ADO bus company serves destinations throughout southern Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula. Whether you’re looking to go to Campeche, Tulum, Bacalar, or all the way to Chiapas, ADO is a great option. These Greyhound-style buses have comfortable seating, no luggage limits, air conditioning, and onboard restrooms all for affordable prices.
Use Busbud to book bus tickets in Mexico– the website is in English and it will accept your foreign credit card. Note: If you try to book more than a month or two ahead, you may not see any trips available yet. There’s no need to book buses more than a few days in advance.
Rental cars are a convenient way to get around the Yucatan peninsula. If you’re on a budget, rest assured that a rental car is unnecessary, though it will make things more straightforward. With a vehicle, you’ll be able to visit some of the region’s harder-to-reach (and subsequently less crowded) locations and attractions. Plus, you’ll have the convenience of being able to store your extra gear in the vehicle instead of having to lug around a daypack.
I recommend using Discover Cars to find the best rates on rental cars in Mexico.
Colectivos are small passenger vans that travel between neighboring towns. They are fast, affordable, and typically easy to use. Each Colectivo destination is written on the vehicle’s windshield, making it easy to identify the right van. Colectivos are an excellent transportation method for day trips or any journey where you don’t have much luggage. If you have anything more than a daypack it may be too cramped.
Taxis, Uber & Rideshares
Taxis and rideshares are the best way to get around locally throughout the Yucatan peninsula.
Uber and Didi are the two most popular rideshares throughout the Yucatan, but they are not available in every city, so you will probably be forced to rely on taxis for part of your trip. Uber is available in Merida but not in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum. So don’t count on using this service. Didi has been expanding its service throughout Mexico, but I’m not 100% certain if it operates anywhere in the Yucatan outside of Merida.
Taxis are generally safe, but you should always confirm the price before getting in the vehicle so you don’t experience any surprises.
The safest way to use taxis is to request a radio taxi through Whatsapp. This service will connect you to a taxi dispatcher, and they’ll give you the price of the ride and the number of the unit that will pick you up, so you know you’re getting into an official taxi. You can find radio taxis by searching “taxi + [city]” on Facebook to find their business pages. Taxis don’t accept credit cards, so always carry some cash to cover your fare.
What to pack for the Yucatan Peninsula
Your precise Yucatan packing list will vary depending on your chosen activities. Generally, I recommend selecting versatile, lightweight clothing items because the weather will likely be hot and humid. It’s worth including a long dress or a pair of pants and a long sleeve shirt to use as a sun coverup (especially if you get sunburnt at any point) and to protect you from bugs.
If you’ll be laundering clothes while in Mexico, know that most lavanderías will wash and dry all items on hot. If you have items that require specific washing procedures, plan to wash them yourself or leave them at home, so they don’t get damaged.
- A water bottle – Since you can’t drink tap water in Mexico, you’ll be forced to rely on bottles. Instead of buying single-use bottles over and over, pack a refillable water bottle and top it up from the large bottle at your hotel or Airbnb each day. Better yet, pack a LifeStraw bottle that can filter the toxins out of tap water– you can refill it right from the sink in your hotel room!
- Waterproof cell phone pouch – This waterproof phone pouch is the perfect solution for protecting your valuables while swimming. The lanyard enables you to wear it around your neck while in the water. This way, instead of “risking it” and leaving them in your backpack on the beach, you can carry your cash and phone with you during your swim. No, it’s not the most stylish accessory, but it sure beats having your stuff swiped while you’re swimming!
- Reef Safe sunscreen – Due to the high volume of tourists in the Yucatan and the sensitive underwater ecosystems, it is advised (and sometimes required) that visitors wear reef-safe sunscreen to swim in the ocean or cenotes. Not only is this Raw Elements lotion safe for the environment, but it’s non-greasy and has an inoffensive smell, making it a welcome alternative to most commercial sunscreen brands.
- Anti-theft purse or fanny pack – Unfortunately, there is a risk of pick-pocketing in Mexico, especially in touristy locations like Playa del Carmen or Tulum. I’ve never had issues with pick-pockets myself, but I still carry an anti-theft purse because it’s just one less thing to worry about while I’m out and about. There are tons of great anti-theft bags on the market these days, so it’s just a matter of choosing one that fits your style! If you’re not sure where to begin, check out this post for my recommendations.
- Comfortable sandals – If your trips are anything like mine, you’ll be doing a lot of walking throughout the Yucatan. A pair of comfortable sandals (or sneakers) is essential. I am a big fan of Teva sandals because they don’t flop around when walking, and you can wear them in the water. They have decent traction, and they’re comfortable for extended wear. Plus, they come in all kinds of colors and patterns, so you’ll have no problem finding a pair that suits your style.
👉 For more tips on what to pack for the Yucatan, check out my packing guide for Mexico!
Continue Planning Your Trip!
Mexico Guide Books
This Mexico phrasebook will help you communicate, even if your Spanish skills are lacking.
This Mexico travel guide is packed with all the info you could ever need.
I use a combination of Booking, Airbnb, and VRBO to find accommodation throughout Mexico.
Some cities in Mexico have more listings on VRBO than Airbnb (or vice versa), so it’s best to check both to find the perfect place!
Rental cars add tons of flexibility to your travel plans. If you opt to rent one, I recommend using Discover Cars to find the best rates!
Skyscanner is my favorite tool for finding the best deals on airfare.
Never leave home without travel insurance.
SafetyWing offers super-affordable policies that cover things like medical expenses, trip interruption, and lost luggage. They even offer coverage for some expenses related to COVID-19. Their policies are particularly great for long-term travelers, making them a great option for Mexico.
There’s no question that knowing basic Spanish is wildly beneficial in Mexico. It helps you stay aware of your surroundings, solve problems, and make friends!
RocketSpanish has a well-structured program that will take you from bumbling to conversational in just a few modules. Start your free trial today!
Still have questions?
Join my Female Travelers in Mexico Facebook group, a supportive community of fellow Mexico travel enthusiasts, where you can find answers to all your travel questions!