The Yucatan: Where to Visit
Reposted from Sac-Be.com written in the Spring of 2015
Weeding through all the hype, advertising and questions to pick which location is right for you …
The Riviera Maya starts in Cancun and goes all the way to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere. South of that is the Costa Maya which is another wonderful place that many overlook. North and west of the Riviera Maya is the entire Yucatan Peninsula which holds so many treasures you may not know exist when you are planning your Caribbean vacation in Mexico. Here is a short overview of what there is, why you may want to add to your vacation plans, and why one visit isn't enough. And locals living here—don't forget you live in paradise; take some time to enjoy these places for a short getaway or day trip.
Assuming you land in Cancun, the first thing is where to go. You can head to a number of islands: Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Holbox. All quaint, and some more pristine than others. Cozumel is the largest and busiest, thanks to the cruise ships that visit here, but it is also home to some incredible diving.
Isla Mujeres is an easy day trip from Cancun and a world all to itself. Boasting one of the best sunsets on its North Beach, it is a quieter place to come and relax and, with its sunken sculptures, is another great spot to dive.
Holbox is a favorite for those who want to snorkel with the Whale Sharks or seriously get away from the hustle and bustle of tourist towns. Choose Holbox or head to the southern-most tip of the Costa Maya to find what life on the Caribbean Coast used to be like—they are places where time stands pretty still.
Island life isn't your choice? Then let's head south from Cancun. First stop would be Puerto Morelos. Once known as a quiet little fishing village, it is now a thriving seaside community but what sets it apart is the diversity of the community and their success in protecting its natural resources! It is a Protected Marine Park and we congratulate those who had the vision and passion to make this happen—local Mexican/Maya and expatriates living and working together to make this a very unique and sustainable place.
If you choose Puerto Morelos, we recommend you rent a car and take some time away from the gorgeous beaches with their white sand and turquoise waters, and venture down the Ruta de los Cenotes. There are a number of great places to explore caves and cenotes that are not as touristy as the places the all-inclusive resorts will recommend. We had a wonderful time exploring Cenote 7 Bocas and met the most wonderful family. It is rustic but well worth the visit. Farther on you will come to Boca del Puma which is a fabulous eco-park that was carved out of the jungle by the most amazing man, Jesús, who grew up here and had the vision to promote and protect his piece of paradise through fun-filled educational experiences. Zipline and see the jungle from up above, ATV or walk through the jungle paths, or swim in a cenote or snorkel in an underground river! It is all here and we guarantee you will walk away with a greater appreciation of this place.
If you are a foodie, we highly recommend your checking out The Little Mexican Cooking School. It's right in the heart of Puerto Morelos and only a short walk to the beach. They also have a quaint boutique hotel, Casa Caribe.
Maybe Puerto Morelos is a little too quiet for your taste. Well, it is nestled between two thriving cities: to the north, Cancun, or farther south and you will hit Playa del Carmen. Our feeling is that Playa is worth at least a day or two! It is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world! It is a city where you can feel the energy like you have your hand on the heart of the Riviera Maya and you can feel it pulsating. The beach clubs here are alive almost 24/7 with day trippers and night-time dancing and partying. 5th Avenue is a pedestrian street full of shoppers during the day and at night it takes on a totally different feel. It is one of our favorite places to people-watch! Please do us all a favor and don't stop to have your photos taken with the exotic animals. Other than that, eat, drink, dance and shop 'til you drop!
Playa is THE place for foodies! You will find everything from Thai noodles, 5-star dining, street food, toes-in-the-sand places to eat, and you can even eat in an underground cave … where many believe the Alux live. And you will find hotels in all kinds of price ranges. We recently stayed at Acanto Hotel and Club Yebo Hotel.
Heading farther south, many love the feel of Puerto Aventuras. It is a lovely, gated community with villas, condos and resorts such as the Hard Rock Hotel. Some people are put off by the dolphinarium, which is located in the center of the marina district, but to many expatriates it is home and you will feel the warmth and closeness of this community. Wander the marina and eat and shop; we also recommend you take a sail from here. It is perfect to see this amazing coast from the water.
South of Puerto Aventuras is Akumal, Mayan for "place of the turtle." It is a very popular spot for snorkeling, with three unique places to choose from, and great restaurants and shops. We recommend that you wander on both sides of the highway and be sure to visit the two bays and Yal-Ku Lagoon. If you choose to stay here, you will have choices of condos, villas, boutique hotels and all-inclusive. This community has become so popular for day trippers that it is on the verge of threatening its natural resources, so we please ask that you choose a reputable and sustainable way to visit. Our first choice would be to visit as a guest and not for just a few hours. We have stayed and visited a number of Akumal Villas properties and often make Hotel Akumal Caribe a home base. We have eaten at every restaurant—and never have had a bad meal!
Not looking to be right on the beach? You may want to consider renting a more reasonable place or house in Chan Chemuyil, which is located between Akumal and Tulum and is within walking distance to a lovely, quiet beach.
Two quieter bays to visit are Soliman Bay and Tankah Bay. The roads to these places are still not paved and you won't find speed boats cluttering up the space. These bays have a few small hotels but are mostly private villas. Great location and quiet, peaceful nights!
Tulum is the last spot on the Riviera Maya; it ends at the Sian Ka'an Biosphere and the only thing south right on the coast is Punta Allen. Tulum's town is a great place to get a reasonable meal, shop, and get whatever supplies you might need. The beach is considered one of the most beautiful in the world by many well-known travel magazines; it is a must-see. And, on top of all that, there are the Maya ruins! This place has it all. Once known as a hippie/backpacker community, it has turned into a more exclusive spa destination. Most of the hotels are boutique size and you can find something for every wallet. When we go high-end, we love The Beach Tulum; on a budget, Cabañas Tulum is a great choice. Whether you are there for a week or just the day, there are a number of beach clubs to choose from. And, if you are more of a jungle person, we would recommend a wonderful Bed and Breakfast halfway between Tulum and Coba: La Selva Mariposa. We will mention this again in the upcoming Yucatan article.
A visit here isn't complete without a tour of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere. If you rent a car, you can travel south of Tulum—the beach road conditions vary depending on the weather; you can also explore south on Hwy. 307. You can enjoy a number of great tours. One of our favorite tours is the Sunset Tour that allows you to float down a pristine ancient canal and take a boat ride to Bird Island, as all the birds flock home to retire for the evening. Then you travel back, watching the sun set with nothing but nature all around!
On this peaceful note we will end this article. Coming up, we will explore the Costa Maya and travel inland to the extremely diverse Yucatan Peninsula.
With so many popular places for people to visit in the Riviera Maya and the close proximity to Cancun Airport, most people never travel south of Tulum. But for those who are looking for a more laid-back location—or as many say—the way the Riviera Maya used to be, we recommend adding a few hours to your travel time, head south and discover the Costa Maya.
Oftentimes when we do the Costa Maya, we will spend our first night in Tulum to break up the drive. It is about a four-hour drive from Cancun so if you have an early flight, it is fine to do in one day. The Costa Maya is where the capital of Quintana Roo, Chetumal, is located and encompasses the coast all the way to the Belize border. It is also where one of the few lakes, Laguna Bacalar, is. Laguna Bacalar is best known for its seven colors of blue.
As you head south of Tulum we recommend you stop for supplies and lunch in Felipe Carrillo Puerto. A great restaurant that offers up traditional Maya cuisine is El Faisán y El Venado. We chose the Maya Platter which was more than enough food for four and gave us a wonderful sampling. Felipe Carrillo Puerto is due west of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere and has a very interesting history, being founded in 1850 by the Maya after the famous Caste War of the Yucatan.
Heading south you either continue on 307 to Bacalar and Chetumal, or turn left at Limones and head to the Caribbean Sea to Mahahual and Xcalak. The Costa Maya is a little more than 60 miles long, starting at the southern tip of Sian Ka'an and going to the tip that ends at the opening to Chetumal Bay, a stone's throw to Ambergris Caye. To reach Xcalak you want to turn right before the Pemex station off the road to Mahahual. Xcalak was once a thriving city. The history, of course, dates back to early Maya but Xcalak in the 1950s was a thriving fishing community with stone and wood homes, electricity, billiard hall, movie theater and more. It was the most important supply destination in the region until Hurricane Janet decimated it in 1955, killing one-third of its inhabitants.
In the 1980s Xcalak was rediscovered as a dive destination. Banco Chinchorro, an atoll reef, is considered a pristine dive spot and easy to reach from the Costa Maya. We first visited Xcalak in the late '90s and returned twice 10 years later; not much had changed. That is, we feel, what makes it so worth visiting. It is a place where time stands still and the roads still are not paved. Everyone knows one another and businesses don't so much compete as network with one another. It is also a perfect spot to take some nature tours if diving isn't your cup of tea.
If you didn't turn right and continued on the road from Limones, you would end up in Mahahual. We also visited Mahahual in the late '90s on our trip to Xcalak. We stopped and had lunch at a fisherman's home/restaurant on the beach. Returning 10 years later, it was certainly NOT the same. During that time a cruise ship terminal was built and Mahahual came alive. With a popular waterfront malecon full of shops, restaurants and boutique hotels, it is a great spot to visit whether arriving by land or sea. Despite the growth Mahahual has maintained its small-town charm and warmth.
More must-sees while visiting the Costa Maya are the freshwater cenote and Laguna Bacalar. Bacalar is the next town you would hit if you stayed on 307 heading south. There are a few wonderful hotels there as well as camping. One of our favorites, Hotel Laguna Bacalar is situated on the banks of the lake and has a crazy feel of the 1950s' Catskills. It was a favorite spot for some of the rich and famous of that era; they would fly in and land on the lake in front of the hotel. Just beyond the hotel is Cenote Azul.
The city of Bacalar has a wonderful small fort worth a visit. Built in the 1700s, it was used right up until the Caste War. There are also a number of Maya ruins in the area, Chacchoben, Dzibanche, Kohunlich, Becán and Chicanná.
The last stop would be the capital of Quintana Roo, Chetumal. It is a thriving city and the gateway to Belize. It also is where you could head west to visit the state of Campeche and one of our favorite spots, Calakmul. We also understand that Chetumal is great for shopping and a good museum. It is still on our bucket list of places to visit.
We have suggested the Riviera Maya, which let's call that Elementary for vacationers. Lots to do, close to the airport, don't have to learn another language and the beach is always close by. We also looked at the Costa Maya, a little farther south, more of a hike from the airport and as many refer to it—the way the Riviera Maya used to be; we'll call that Secundaria. Some of you may be looking for Universidad or for a little more adventure in your travels. Well, you can certainly find that by following the Yucatán Peninsula around all the way to the Gulf Coast or heading west to either the state of Yucatán or Campeche; both are gorgeous states.
The state of Yucatán has some marvelous colonial cities like Valladolid, Izamal and Mérida. And all the smaller towns are similar in that they have the cancha, the ceiba tree and, of course, the church. Many of the churches in these towns were built with the stones from Maya temples. The towns are also vibrant and colorful. The Yucatecan cuisine is wonderful; it is an delicious blend of Maya and Spanish.
In all our travels I feel we barely have seen the tip of the iceberg but with that limited knowledge, let's look at some of the options for those ready to explore.
Valladolid is probably one of the more frequently visited places in the Yucatán. For many traveling from the Riviera Maya to Chichén Itzá, this is a stop along the way. We recommend you make it more than a brief stop. There are some lovely hotels and small resorts here; one of our favorites is El Mesón del Marqués, which was a hacienda now converted to a boutique hotel with a lovely restaurant.
Valladolid is also home to cenotes, museums and great shops. In the center of Valladolid is a square and, especially on weekends, you can see many local women selling local products. Surrounding the square are a number of shops and restaurants and a beautiful church. There are several small museums which can provide much history of the area.
About six blocks or so from the square is the old Convent San Bernardino de Siena. It is open to the public and well worth the walk. Built from stones from the Maya ruins, it is beautiful and the artwork and grounds are lovely. The walk to the convent has some real treasures too, including a tequila museum and chocolate factory where they offer free samples and still make their chocolates by hand!
Other cities worth visiting are Izamal, the "Yellow City," and Mérida, the "White City." Izamal is much smaller but is known for its local artists. Take a tour and visit some who make jewelry, pottery and hammocks. There is also some very good tequila and Xtabentún made in Izamal. You won't miss the city—literally much of it is painted yellow. The monastery in the heart of this city was also built from ruins and there are the remains of several Maya structures, including a pyramid. Pope John Paul visited Izamal in 1993. It also has a night show which is quite enjoyable. There is a lovely Bed and Breakfast there, Hotel Macan ché.
You can wander the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in either direction and find some amazingly pristine spots full of birds and miles of sand. But from Progresso you can only drive east. It is a gorgeous road with the Gulf on one side and natural wetlands on the other all the way to Dzilam de Bravo. You won't find much except for private homes and fishing villages but it is picturesque.
To get to the west Gulf coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, you need to go back toward Mérida, and then west to Celestún or southwest to the city of Campeche. All throughout this vast area you will find many haciendas and even more great Maya ruins. Near Uxmal you may consider staying at The Flycatcher Inn known for its charm and birding.
Once in the state of Campeche, you could also make a complete circle and head south to Calakmul. Hotel Puerta Calakmul is one of my favorite places! There are two large ruins to visit, a few small restaurants, a bat cave, and monkeys and birds galore! On our visit to the Calakmul ruins, we even spotted a jaguar!
From Calakmul you can head east and end up back in Quintana Roo near Chetumal and Laguna Bacalar. A great thing about traveling inland in the Yucatán is the costs are cheaper, so don't be afraid to get off the main highways and travel. We found many small Maya ruins amid the quaintest towns that were fascinating to explore. Don't be surprised if you see pigs crossing the road where you least expect them.
We encourage you to take a trek and then, please, share your stories with us! There isn't enough time for us to find all the hidden gems!