There are lots of incredible things to do in the Yucatan peninsula that will keep you occupied for days on end. From gorgeous Caribbean beaches that boast soft, powdery white sands and translucent turquoise waters, to ancient Mayan cities, quaint colonial towns, and unique gastronomy, this region has something for everyone.
The Yucatan peninsula is a tri-state area in south-eastern Mexico made up of the states of the Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. The Riviera Maya region is incredibly popular with tourists, but for the most part, the wider Yucatan remains largely untapped.
This article has been written by a British Travel Writer that has been living in the Yucatan capital of Merida for the last two years. In that time, I have made it my priority to see as much of my new home as is physically possible and travel to different places in the area every weekend.
Only now am I starting to feel that I have seen a lot of what the area has to offer, so rest assured, you won’t be struggling for things to do during your one or two-week vacation. You are in good hands here 😉
This article has not been written by someone who simply passed through once, and a lot of the recommendations you will find here are not mentioned in any other travel guides.
45 Best Things to Do in the Yucatan Peninsula in 2023
The Yucatan is one of the safest places to travel in Mexico, as well as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. People often comment that culturally, the Yucatan feels very different from other parts of Mexico – almost to the extent that it feels like traveling to a different country entirely.
This makes sense as the Yucatan was an independent country for a period of time. Culturally, the Yucatan feels different because most of the people that occupy this region are of Mayan descent.
Many Yucatan residents speak Mayan and the culture, cuisine, and customs are very different to those in other states. The suggestions of the best things to do in the Yucatan detailed below range from must-see sights, to off-the-beaten-path Yucatan highlights that few people are aware exist.
Drive along the Ruta Esmerelda
The beaches around Cancun, Tulum, and the wider Riviera Maya region may be some of the most popular among tourists, but they pale in comparison to some of the coastal areas along the Northern Yucatan. The Ruta Esmerelda is a scenic route that starts in Chuburna Puerto and runs all the way to the beach towns of San Crisanto and Dzilam de Bravo.
Yucatan beaches are characterized by their soft, powdery white sand and translucent emerald waters that would rival those in the Caribbean. This area, at least for now, is largely undeveloped so you can easily find entire stretches of coastline and hidden coves to yourself – especially in the low season.
San Crisanto, a pristine tropical beach surrounded by coconut groves, is worth adding to your radar. So too is San Bruno, which is home to the upscale Kokomo beach club and Tulum-inspired Casa Ku resort.
Visit the ancient city of Dzibilchaltun
Dzibilchaltun, meaning ¨writing on flat stones¨ is an ancient Mayan city that sits just 16km north of the Yucatan capital of Merida. The settlement dates back to 500 BC and was once home to more than 25,000 people.
If you are not a massive fan of archeological sites, it can feel like all of the various Mayan cities sort of blend together after a while. Dzibilchaltun is interesting because of a temple structure known as ¨the Temple of the Seven Dolls¨.
The structure is believed to have been built in honor of Yum Kax, the Mayan god of corn. When archeologists excavated the site, they found seven crudely-made clay dolls with exaggerated genitalia that were believed to have been used in spiritual rituals.
Today, the dolls are stored inside the on-site Dzibilchaltun museum. Twice a year, you can catch the spring/autumn equinox at Dzibilchaltun.
At sunrise on these specific dates, hundreds of locals and tourists head from Merida to the site. The sun shines through the doorway of the Temple of the Dolls and this would indicate to the Mayans that it was time to start planting or harvesting their produce.
Stay in a converted luxury hacienda
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Yucatan was one of the richest regions in the world! This was largely due to the local henequen industry.
The natural fiber was harvested and shipped across the globe to make hammocks, baskets, and other course textiles. As the industry thrived, the Spanish built haciendas to maximize production and profits.
These grand homesteads doubled as spacious homes and agricultural premises used for growing henequen, tending livestock, and mining other nearby resources. Sadly, with the introduction of synthetic fibers, the demand for henequen gradually declined in the 20th century and many haciendas were eventually abandoned.
Fortunately, a number of properties have been purchased and converted into upscale restaurants and hotels in recent years. These make great places to stay if you want to treat yourself for a day or two during your Yucatan itinerary.
If your budget doesn’t allow you to stay in a hacienda, you can consider stopping by for breakfast or dinner. The hacienda Santa Cruz is a gorgeous property close to the town of Dzununcán where live musicians and mariachi perform to delighted visitors over breakfast.
Hacienda Sacnicte close to Izamal is perhaps one of the most upscale of the renovated Yucatan hacienda hotels. The property was purchased and restored by Italian designers and seamlessly blends local tradition with modern design.
The property retains its original features and charm, while the rooms have been decorated with contemporary European artwork, eccentric sculptures and statues, and plush modern furnishings.
Search for abandoned haciendas
While a number of haciendas have been purchased and restored to their former glory, many more have not been so fortunate. As you drive around the Yucatan, you will pass by numerous abandoned haciendas.
Some have been reclaimed by the jungle and have fallen into disrepair. Others are somewhat frozen in time, derelict, with old furniture still scattered throughout the ruined rooms.
In the Merida area, there are a couple of interesting properties worth noting in case you happen to pass by them. The Hacienda Cancabchen Casares in Cholul is a spooky spot that is said to be haunted.
According to local legend, the hacienda owner was abusive towards his employees until one day they eventually got tired of it and killed him. In Maxcanú, you can see what remains of the 16th-century hacienda San José Chactún and in nearby Chan Chocholá, you can find the impressive ex-hacienda Santa Eduviges whose turrets resemble a medieval castle.
Travel back in time to the ancient city of Aké
Aké meaning ¨place of the reeds¨ is a seldom-visited Mayan archeological site east of Merida and close to the town of Tixkokob. Settlers first arrived in the city around 2,300 years ago, and Aké thrived between 600 and 1200 AD.
Like many Mayan cities, it was eventually abandoned around 1450 AD. The structures here are built in a style known as ¨Megalithic¨ and use huge blocks of stone. However, there are some buildings that exhibit the Puuc style of architecture.
Among the various pyramids and shrines, one of the most notable structures here is the ¨pyramid of the columns¨ which once held up the biggest roof in the Mayan world. The sacbes (white stone Mayan roads) that veer off from the site once connected it to Izamal, which Aké is believed to have had a dependency on.
One fascinating thing about visiting Aké is that the village’s hacienda is still operational. It is one of the only places in the Yucatan that is still involved in henequen production and if you poke your head through one of the windows near the hacienda, you will see all of the old machinery still in use.
Many of Ake’s 300-strong population depend on this hacienda for work.
Explore an eerie abandoned ghost town
Misnebalam is an eerie pueblo fantasma (ghost town) that awaits just off the road between Merida and Progreso. There were once 170 people living here and working in the henequen industry.
However, over the past century, numerous paranormal occurrences and sightings were reported and Misnebalam residents gradually moved away. The final inhabitants left in 2005 and the area has been abandoned ever since.
Visiting Misnebalam today means having the chance to explore a grand old hacienda with a large pool and gardens that lie in ruins, an overgrown graveyard, roads to nowhere, and a roofless church.
There have been reported sightings of the former hacienda owner seen wandering the grounds of his property, a ghostly monk, and the ghost of a young boy known as Juliancito. Producers of various supernatural shows like ¨Most Haunted¨ have filmed documentaries in Misnebalam and if you dare, you can camp out overnight to see if you spot anything strange.
By day, kids from local villages come here to play a game of ¨gotcha¨ (paintballing) among the ruined structures. If you prefer not to come alone, you can do an ATV tour of Misnebalam from Progreso.
Sample famous Yucatan honey at the pueblo magico of Mani
There are four pueblo magicos in the Yucatan state. One of the least visited is a city called Mani (meaning peanut in Mayan) which sits in the central part of the state, some 69km from Merida.
Pueblo magicos are cities, towns, and villages that have been recognized by the Mexican tourism board for offering a particularly special culture, history, or gastronomy. Generally speaking, when somewhere has been recognized as a ¨pueblo magico¨ it is a good indicator that it is a worthwhile place to visit.
While the other pueblo magicos in the area get a trickle of tourists, Mani is largely overlooked. The city is famous for its meliponarios (beekeepers).
In the Yucatan, beekeepers tend to a stingless melipona bee that is native to this part of Mexico and is known locally as Xunan kab. The honey has a different taste and runnier consistency than European/American honey and the ancient Maya believed that it had magical healing properties!
At Mani meliponarios like U Naajil Yuum K’iin, you can see how the bees are tended to and buy some local honey, which makes a great souvenir of your trip to Mexico. In the city center, you can also admire the 1549 Franciscan convent of San Miguel Archangel and the Mani cenote.
The local cenote has a dark place in local history. It was here where the Franciscan Friar Diego de Landa ordered the burning and destruction of Mayan books and manuscripts during the Spanish colonization.
Try the locally famous huevos motulenos at Motul
Huevos motuleños is one of the most famous breakfast dishes that you will find in the Yucatan. You can try it in various cafes and restaurants across the peninsula, but it hails from the city of Motul and if you are a true foodie traveler, this is where you will want to try it.
Different establishments place their own unique spin on the dish. But the traditional way to make it is by serving fried eggs on a fried tortilla slathered in frijoles (beans) and then lathering them in tomato sauce, peas, ham, a dash of hot sauce, and plantains.
For the best of the best huevos motuleños, you should head to Doña Evelia restaurant in the Mercado Municipal 20 de Noviembre in Motul. At weekends, people are often queuing out the door to sample these famous eggs but they are worth waiting for.
Wash it all down with a steaming hot cafe de olla – Mexican coffee prepared with cinnamon and piloncillo. The marketplace is a fun environment to dine in too – there are rarely any Western tourists here and local entertainers perform Yucatecan jarana dances and sing for tips as you dine.
If you happen to be traveling to the Yucatan in July, you can catch the annual huevos motuleños festival. This unique event sees live performers take to the stage, as local chefs and restauranteurs compete to see who can make the very best huevos motuleños.
See Chichen Itza with your own eyes
The ruins of Chichen Itza need no introduction. The ancient Mayan city is not only one of the most famous tourist attractions in the Yucatan, it is one of the most famous places in all of Mexico.
The ruins were designated as a UNESCO-protected world heritage site back in 1988 and in 2007, Chichen Itza was voted one of the ¨new¨ seven wonders of the world. The main temple that you see in Chichen Itza is the Temple of Kukulkan but the site is actually far larger than many people realize and spans an area of over 4 square miles.
Archeologists still debate about precisely when the city was founded but it is believed to be around 1,500 years old and date back to around 400AD. In its heyday, more than 35,000 people called the city their home.
There are more than 26 notable structures in Chichen Itza. Some of the most interesting ones to look out for are the Tzompantli – a stone platform decorated with carved skulls that the Mayans would place the severed heads of their enemies on to scare potential traitors and other tribes.
The sacred cenote where people would be sacrificed, and jewels and valuables were thrown into the water as gifts to Xibalba (the Mayan underworld). Meanwhile, La Iglesia (¨the church¨) is also interesting because its doors and windows are decorated with masks depicting the rain god Chaac.
Relax at Playa Las Dunas, Chuburna
Playa Las Dunas is a paradisical, lesser-known beach that awaits about an hour away from Merida, close to the coastal village of Chuburna. Very few people are even aware of the beach’s existence or take the time to venture here.
The beach offers miles upon miles of soft, white powdery sands that border translucent aquamarine waters and rolling dunes. The beach is never crowded; Even at weekends, you can easily find a peaceful stretch to yourself.
Wild sea turtles call the warm waters here their home, and you will often see pelicans, flamingos and other wildlife flying overhead or diving for fish. En route to the beach, you will pass a lot of street vendors selling desserts prepared with fresh coconut. Pay de coco (coconut pie) and coco helado (coconut ice cream) are personal favorites.
Chill out by the beach in El Cuyo
El Cuyo is a charming beach town that awaits at the far northeastern tip of the Yucatan state. It is not the easiest place to get to – El Cuyo is about 3.5 hours drive from Merida and 2.5 hours from Cancun respectively.
But for now, at least, El Cuyo has managed to avoid a lot of the over-tourism and development that has affected the nearby Riviera Maya.
You can think of the little beach town as what Tulum was like some 15-20 years ago. For the time being, it is little more than a handful of hotels and restaurants scattered along a pristine stretch of coastline.
The natural bay that El Cuyo sits in means that the beach is often pretty windy and the area has quickly become a favorite destination for kitesurfers – many of whom can be credited for helping develop El Cuyo. The main draw of coming to El Cuyo is having the opportunity to relax and detach from the stresses of modern life.
Waking up to see every sunrise and sunset is a must, and the sunrises here are some of the most beautiful over the Gulf of Mexico. If you are interested in kite surfing, it is possible to rent equipment or take lessons – whatever your age or experience level.
A visit to El Cuyo can also be tied in with a trip to nearby Rio Lagartos and the lakes of Las Coloradas.
Fall in love with the colonial capital of Merida
The colorful colonial city of Merida is the capital of the Yucatan state and a highlight of visiting the Yucatan peninsula. Merida dates back to 1542 when it was founded by the Spanish Colonizer Francisco de Montejo y Leon.
During the henequen boom of the 18th and 19th centuries, Merida was one of the richest cities in the world, and many grand, neoclassical mansions from this era still stand.
(Many have now been converted into ultra-luxurious hotels, restaurants, boutique stores, and guesthouses that retain the original designs). The cobbled streets and promenades of Merida are lined with pastel-colored houses that are a photographer’s dream.
(In particular, stop by Calle 58 and Avenida Del Deportista.) Even just one day in Merida is enough to get a feel for the city but the Yucatan capital makes a great place to base yourself during your trip and you can take day trips out from here.
Be sure to stroll down the Paseo de Montejo and check out the Monumento a la Patria – a giant carved indigenous sculpture by the Colombian artist Rómulo Rozo that depicts the history of Mexico through the centuries.
The Mayan World Museum (C. 60 299 E, Unidad Revolución) contains interesting Mayan sculptures and artifacts collected from various places across the Yucatan peninsula, while the Merida paranormal museum is a unique exhibition containing items that are said to be ¨cursed¨ or ¨possessed¨.
Go off the beaten path to the forgotten ruins of Oxkintok
Oxkintok is about as off the beaten path as you can get in the Yucatan peninsula. The sunbleached remains of this Ancient Mayan city await 70km south of Merida near the town of Maxcanu and close to the border with Campeche state.
The name ¨Oxkintok¨ is believed to mean ¨three flint suns¨ in Ancient Mayan, and this city had important commercial and political relationships with the cities along the Ruta Puuc (Uxmal, Labna, etc). Oxkintok is believed to have been occupied from 500–300 B.C. to around A.D. 1200–1450.
The vast site deserves at least 2-3 hours of your time and if you can speak Spanish, you can hire a local guide at the entrance for around 200-300 pesos.
One of the most mysterious and unusual buildings here is a labyrinth known as ¨Satunsat¨. It is not common to see labyrinths in Mayan cities and only two others have been documented in Mexico.
The labyrinth is unfortunately closed to the public (perhaps to stop tourists from getting lost inside?). However, interestingly it is spread over three floors which are believed to represent the earth, the underworld, and the celestial level.
There are a couple of well-preserved temples that you can climb to enjoy views over the Yucatan jungle canopy and take great photos from high above the ancient city. The Palacio del Diablo is an interesting structure because its purpose is unknown but its entrance is guarded by a peculiar skeleton sculpture.
Learn about Mayan trading culture at Xcambo ruins
The Mayan city of Xcambo can be found close to the pink lake of Laguna Rosada and the coastal village of Telchac Puerto. The name ¨Xcambo¨ means ¨the place where bartering is done¨ which is a fitting title since this was once an extremely important commercial trading post.
The Mayan people that lived here would mine salt from the nearby salt lakes and then trade it with other cities within the peninsula. Most of the structures here have been built in the Peten archeological style, similar to Mayan cities in neighboring Guatemala.
Unfortunately, little is known about Xcambo or its rulers as the city was only excavated over the past couple of decades and didn’t open to the general public until 2021.
At the center of the site, you will find a ramshackle catholic church with a little cross and a sculpture of Jesus on its roof. This was built by the local people back in the 1950s before INAH declared Xcambo an important archeological site.
They quarried stones from the Mayan structures to build the church. According to a local legend, an apparition of the Virgin Mary once appeared here.
Sample authentic Yucatecan cuisine
When you talk about dishes that you must try in Mexico, tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and fajitas are the first things to spring into most people’s minds. However, Mexican cuisine is far more diverse than most people realize, with different regions and states offering their own distinctive gastronomy.
Yucatecan food is special because many of the regional dishes follow recipes invented by the Ancient Mayan, and often, the same traditional cooking methods are still used all these centuries later. You won’t be short of opportunities to try the local cuisine in the Yucatan as ¨comida Yucateca¨ is the default offering at most restaurants and cucina economicas.
Be sure to try cochinita pibil – slow-cooked pork that is marinated with achiote and orange rind and cooked in an underground oven known as a pib. Papadzules are a popular Yucatan street food dish that is made by rolling steamed eggs in fresh tortillas and slathering them in a delicious pumpkin seed sauce and tomato salsa.
There are some spectacular restaurants in Merida where you can try the best regional food. In particular, you should stop by Wayan´E for tortas and tacos, Habaneros for cooked Yucatecan delicacies, and Kuuk for elevated Yucatan cuisine.
Visit Mayapan, the last great Mayan city
The city of Mayapan, like so many other Mayan cities in Mexico on this list, is frequently overlooked by most people that travel to the Yucatan. This is a shame because this is one of the most important Mayan archeological sites in the country.
Mayapan dates back to around 1000 AD and it is particularly interesting because King Kukulkan II and his people relocated here after the downfall of Chichen Itza. Many of the buildings that you see at Mayapan are replicas of structures at Chichen Itza, and indeed the main pyramid at Mayapan is considered an inferior replica of the temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza.
After King Kukulkan II died, feuds broke out between the different groups that occupied Mayapan, and the city was eventually abandoned.
Swim in the freshwater Homun cenotes
The Yucatan peninsula is famous for its cenotes. These are freshwater sinkholes that were formed when the Chicxulub meteor smashed into the earth 65 million years ago and weakened the surface of the ground in Southeastern Mexico.
There are more than 7,5000 cenotes in the Yucatan and this is the only part of the country where they are found (aside from one or two in Veracruz and Chiapas state). Sure, there are cenotes that are famous on social media, but some of the most gorgeous ones in the Yucatan can be found in and around the little village of Homun.
Homun has what is called a ring of cenotes (¨anillo de los cenotes¨). There are more than 20 cenotes in and around the village.
For 200 pesos, you can hire a local tuk-tuk driver and guide to take you to some of the best cenotes in the area. Some are ¨closed¨ and set inside caves with dramatic stalagmite and stalactite formations.
Others are open, surrounded by jungle. The Santa Barbara cenotes, Cenote Cholul, and Cenote Bal Mil are particularly gorgeous.
Stop for homemade ice cream along the Merida – Izamal Carretera
There are few better ways to cool down on a hot, sticky, humid day in the Yucatan peninsula than with a freezing cold pot of homemade nieve (ice cream). You will find plenty of La Michoacana ice cream shops in all of the cities, towns, and villages here, but for something particularly special, look out for an old Mayan man and his daughter selling homemade ice cream along the Merida – Izamel carretera.
He makes huge tanks of fresh ice cream each morning. This is often vanilla and strawberry ice cream with real fruit pieces, but sometimes he makes uniquely Yucatecan flavors like elote (sweet corn) ice cream which sounds obscure but is absolutely delicious.
The vendor advertises his treats with a hand-painted sign on a giant boulder at the side of the road that reads ¨helado¨ and he stands beneath a thatched palapa hut. There are usually lots of Yucatecans lining up to order ice cream, with their cars parked up at the side of the road.
Check out an out-of-place European castle
34km north of Izamal, you will find a little hamlet called Chenche de las Torres. Like Izamal, all of the houses and structures here have been painted in the same uniform shade of bright yellow, yet there are absolutely no tourists here whatsoever.
While the dirt roads and narrow streets of this tiny settlement are great places to take photos of local life in the Yucatan peninsula, the highlight of this area is an imposing, out-of-place European castle.
Hacienda Chenche de las Torres was built in the 18th century by Don Alvaro Peón de Regil and Doña Joaquina Peón Castellanos, Counts of Miraflores. The grandiose home, with its turrets, emblems, and sprawling gardens is more reminiscent of a castle in Europe than something you would expect to find in the rural Yucatan – although perhaps the Counts of Miraflores felt nostalgic for their homeland.
The house is often rented out for celebrations, birthdays, and quinceaneras. If you happen to pass through the area, you can usually take a tour of the grounds for around 100 pesos. (Circa $5 USD).
Drive along the Ruta Puuc
The Ruta Puuc is a 30km long driving route in the southern part of the Yucatan state that leads you past a collection of ancient Mayan ruins that are known for their distinctive Puuc style of architecture. The route starts at the UNESCO-protected site of Uxmal and then takes you onwards to Labna, Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak, and the Loltun Caves.
If you are short on time, you can explore the ruins in this area in a day. However, if you have a particular interest in Mayan history, you can spend a couple of days exploring the various towns, villages, and ruins along the route.
Kabah, Labna, and Sayil boast several interesting structures and palaces whose facades are decorated with hundreds upon hundreds of masks of the long-nosed rain god Chaac. Labna is famous for its intricately-designed ceremonial archway, while Sayil is home to an interesting, well-endowed statue of a Mayan god of fertility.
If you want to stay overnight in the area, you can opt to stay at one of the haciendas or hotels near Uxmal, or in the villages of Santa Elena or Sacalum.
See the obscure mummy museum in Santa Elena
While you are exploring the fascinating Puuc route, it is worth making a brief stop in the charming little village of Santa Elena. Local legends state that the entire settlement was built in just one night and there are a couple of interesting Yucatan attractions that are well worth checking out while you are here.
The burgundy church of Santa Elena awaits up a flight of stairs a short distance from the central square (Zocalo), surrounded by papel picado flags that flutter in the wind. The benches of the zocalo act as a rendevous-point for local old-timers to catch up with their friends and neighbors and there are a couple of cute statues here of cowboy-wearing Mexican men and women in traditional dress.
A small street food market offers the opportunity to fill up on yummy light bites like tacos and marquesitas, while the colorful La Michoacana ice cream store sells some of the best strawberries and cream ice cream you will ever taste. Still, the most fascinating attraction of Santa Elena is the somewhat macabre Santa Elena mummies.
When renovation work took place on the church, 12 tiny coffins were found which turned out to be the bodies of 12 infants that for whatever reason, had not decomposed. Today, they are on display in the small, obscure Santa Elena museum.
Visit the yellow city of Izamal
The ¨yellow city¨ of Izamal is one of four pueblo magicos in the Yucatan state and somewhere that is quickly establishing itself as a popular day trip destination from Merida and Cancun. You might have seen photos and reels of the city on Instagram.
All of the buildings here have been painted in the same shade of bright yellow, likely in honor of the Mayan Sun God Kinich Kakmó. A pyramid dedicated to this deity can be found in the center of the town and it is free to visit and climb.
This is one of the only surviving pyramids in the Yucatan peninsula as the majority were torn down and destroyed by the Spanish colonizers. Nearby, you will find a restaurant that also goes by the name ¨Kinich¨ which is widely regarded as one of the best places to eat in southeastern Mexico.
Here, you can try local classics like relleno negro and cochinita pibil, and wash it all down with a refreshing mezcal cocktail. Yum!
The Convento de San Antonio de Padua (1561) sits on a hilltop in the center of town and is one of the oldest convents in North America.
It still functions today, and depending on the time you stop by, you might see the resident nuns pottering around the garden or eating their lunch outside.
Explore the jungle ruins of Chacchoben
One of the best Mayan cities that you can visit in the Yucatan peninsula is the city of Chacchoben (Cha – cho – ben) in the southernmost part of Quintana Roo. Even if you have traveled to a bunch of Mayan ruins already, Chacchoben is unique because the pyramids and structures are nestled deep in the jungle.
Many temples have become overgrown and are covered with moss, while 100-foot palm trees tower overhead, covering the jungle canopy so that you can barely see the sky. If you get here early in the morning before the tour buses arrive, you may find that you have the ruins largely to yourself and you might even be able to spot some of the howler monkeys, spider monkeys, foxes, and pecarries that call Chacchoben their home.
Chacchoben means “the place of red corn” in Mayan and is believed to date back to 200 BC. It was not discovered until the 1940s when a local man saw the top of a pyramid poking out above the ground, loved the space, and decided to build his home amongst them.
An American Archeologist eventually reported the site to INAH in 1972, but Chacchoben wasn’t opened to the public until 2002.
Visit Progreso, the most popular beach town near Merida
Progreso is the closest beach town to the city of Merida and is a popular place for locals, expats, and travelers to head to for the day when they are seeking some much-needed R&R by the sea. Progreso is your quintessential Mexican beach town and at weekends, the shores of the beach here are filled with families having picnics and dining at local restaurants.
Most of the beachfront bars and taverns here let you rent a sunbed and an umbrella for the entire day provided you spend a few dollars in their establishments. Marymar Beach Club and Silcer beach club are also great choices if you are looking for something a little more upscale.
It is pleasant to stroll along the waterfront Malecon, stopping here and there for drinks, a fresh coconut, or meringue, especially in the evenings as the sun sets.
Spend a few days in the Mexican Caribbean at Mahahual
If you want all the beauty of the Mexican Caribbean without the crowds of the Riviera Maya, you should consider traveling south through Quintana Roo to the Costa Maya and the little beach town of Mahahual.
This little fishing village is home to just over 2,600 people and although a steady stream of tourists have started visiting the area, it is still relatively quiet and low-key compared to other coastal areas in Quintana Roo.
A trip here is more about relaxing and unwinding rather than sightseeing and checking things off a to-do list. Reserve a stay in one of the waterfront hotels so that you can wake up and head street to the beach each morning.
The Mahahual promenade is lined with shops, bars, and restaurants serving fresh seafood dishes sourced from the nearby waters, and delicious cuisines from all over the world. From the central Mahahual beach, you can also walk or rent a bike and cycle to the beaches of La Bamba and Maya Chan.
Kayak across the multicolored lagoon of Lake Bacalar
Lake Bacalar is a long, narrow lake in the southern part of Quintana Roo, close to the border with Belize. It is affectionately referred to as the ¨ seven-color lagoon¨ because the waters here shimmer in different shades of green, blue, and turquoise.
Bacalar is the second-largest freshwater lake in Mexico and a great place to treat yourself to a relaxing weekend break. As is to be expected with a lake town, there are a ton of water-based activities that you can enjoy here – from kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding to taking a guided boat trip across the lagoon.
There are a couple of notable sites to look out for as you make your way around town. The Fort of San Felipe is what remains of an old defensive structure that was used to defend the town’s residents from English pirates centuries ago, while an abandoned hotel complex at the northern point of the lake was an ultra-luxurious property designed to accommodate the mega-rich, but was never allowed to open as its founder was arrested for having links to organized crime groups.
Browse the markets of Muna
Muna, meaning ¨place of soft water¨ in Mayan, is a small city in central Yucatan that is home to just over 11,000 residents. There aren’t a heap of things to do here, but you may have to change buses here en route to/from Uxmal from Merida, or you may have time to stop for a traditional dinner while exploring the Ruta Puuc.
The Muna Zocalo is flanked by the impressive burgundy 16th-century Virgin of the Assumption church and the nearby Mercado Municipal de Muna is a charming marketplace whose walls and ceilings are decorated with colorful murals depicting scenes of life in the Yucatan peninsula.
If you are renting a car in Mexico, you can drive to the Muna lookout point on the outskirts of town. Here, locals have built a higgledy-piggledy wooden viewing platform which you can climb for a few pesos and glance across the jungle canopy to see the pyramids of Uxmal in the distance.
Treat yourself to an indulgent stay at the Telchac Puerto Marina
Telchac Puerto is a beach town along the Yucatan’s Ruta Esmerelda, just an hour away from Merida. It doesn’t quite have the beauty of San Bruno or San Crisanto, but if you have plenty of time to spend in the Yucatan peninsula, it’s a nice alternative place to visit.
The town itself is home to a long sandy beach bordered by a waterfront Malecon where couples come to take scenic strolls at night and street vendors sell micheladas in every flavor imaginable, served in obscure cups.
Arguably the best place to stay or stop for lunch is the Hotel Marina Kinuh, whose excellent in-house restaurant serves sumptuous dishes from across Mexico, and where guests can take a golf caddy to a private section of a pristine secluded beach. A lot of yacht owners moor their boats at the marina here while exploring the Yucatan peninsula, and the property is effortlessly elegant without any air of pretension.
Nearby, you will also find the Sayachaltun Eco Reserve. The reserve is a new project by a collective of 26 fishermen from Telchac Puerto, who want to show visitors the natural beauty of the region.
Here, you can organize kayaking and boat tours through the mangroves and your local guide will point out all of the wildlife that calls the reserve home.
Go scuba diving off the coast of Cozumel
Cozumel is a gorgeous island in the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Playa Del Carmen, Akumal, and the state of Quintana Roo. The ferry to get here takes just 45 minutes each way, and Cozumel is well worth the effort to get to.
There are dozens of breathtaking beaches on the island and if you venture a little ways away from the main towns and resort areas, you can find some secluded spots that feel like your very own desert island getaway. Head to the eastern part of the island if you are looking for something peaceful away from the crowds.
Punta Morena, El Mirador, Playa de San Martin, and Playa Chen Rio are gorgeous spots. Cozumel also offers the opportunity to dive or snorkel in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
This is the second-largest reef in the world. (Second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia) and you can organize dive lessons and tours to see coral reefs, colorful fish, rays, and turtles.
See flamingoes in their natural habitat at Celestun
The coastal town of Celestun, in the western part of the Yucatan, is home to the protected Ría Celestún biosphere where thousands of pink flamingos, crocodiles, and birds live within the rivers and mangroves. The reserve was inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004 and is a beautiful place to visit during your time in the Yucatan – even if you don’t consider yourself someone who is massively interested in birdwatching.
When you arrive at the reserve, you can rent a boat for 1800 pesos (circa $107 US dollars). The boat accommodates 8-9 people so if there are just a few of you, you can wait until other travelers arrive and the boat is full.
(There are always plenty of tourists here so it isn’t difficult to find other people to share your trip with). The American flamingoes are here between November and April each year before migrating east toward El Cuyo.
Experience an authentic Yucatecan neighborhood in Itzimna
Most tourists that travel to Merida will base themselves in the central touristic districts close to the Paseo Montejo, Parque San Juan, the Zocalo, and Parque Santa Lucia. But if you want to experience an authentic Yucatecan neighborhood that still offers plenty by way of cafes, restaurants, and cultural experiences, take a look at Itzimna.
This quaint district takes its name from the Mayan God Itzamná and was once an independent town until urban expansion saw it become a part of Merida. Parque Itzimna marks the center of the neighborhood and is home to the 1710 ¨Parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Help¨ Catholic church.
Casa Gemela (Calle 16 No.107 Esq. 31, Cto. Colonias, Itzimná) is an elegant mansion that has been transformed into an art gallery and cultural space. It plays host to live musicians every Saturday night, who perform to a small, intimate audience.
Caffe Latte Itzimina is widely regarded as being the very best coffee place in the city, while the various independent stores that encircle the square sell local agro products that make great souvenirs from your trip to Mexico.
Experience Hanal Paxan – the Mayan Day of the Dead
If you happen to be traveling to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula in November, you can participate in the region’s magical Hanal Paxan celebrations. This is essentially the Mayan answer to the infamous Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) and the two holidays take place on the same dates, although they share several differences and similarities.
Hanal Paxan means ¨food for the souls” in Mayan and the holiday celebrates the lives of loved ones lost. November 1st and the 2nd are the key dates but in the capital of Merida, the festivities go on for a couple of weeks.
Bakeries and patisseries around the city sell pan de los muertos (bread of the dead) – a delicious, sugary orange-flavored doughnut-like pastry and every store, train station and hotel decorate their interiors with calavera skulls and calaca skeletons.
Paseo de las Animas is a particularly interesting tradition. Locals paint their faces with catrina makeup and participate in a candlelit procession from Merida’s Cementerio Genera to the city center, to welcome the souls of the deceased back into the world of the living.
Relax at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is a large protected area just south of Tulum. Sian Ka’an means “gate of heaven” or “origin of the sky” in Mayan.
This area is a paradise for hikers, nature lovers, and beach-goers alike. Here, you can swim in the crystal clear waters of alluring white-sand beaches backed by dense jungles and coconut groves, sail through the mangroves, or set out on a hiking and trekking adventure.
Assuming that you want to relax by the coast, some of the best beaches in the area can be found at Punta Allen and Boca Paila. If you are lucky, you might spot dolphins playing in the nearby waters.
Go birdwatching in Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos is a small fishing village on the banks of Lagartos Lagoon, on the northern tip of the Yucatan state. Less than 4,000 people call this little pueblo their home and most of the local residents work in fishing and agriculture, although a small handful of tourists have started venturing here in recent years.
For 900 pesos, you can hire one of the local fishermen to take you on a 3-hour boat tour across the lake. Along the way, you will stop to see mud baths that the Mayans would use as a natural spa, a grove occupied by crocodiles, and the spectacular beaches of Playa de San Felipe and Playa Publica.
For an extra special experience, take a boat out at night to see the sunset over the lagoon and the Gulf of Mexico. There are only a handful of hotel/accommodation options in the area, most of which are quite rustic.
Hotel Rio Lagartos is a nice choice, and they have an excellent rooftop bar where you can enjoy pina coladas and frozen margaritas as you gaze across the lagoon.
See the famous pink lakes of Las Coloradas and Laguna Rosada
The infamous pink lakes of Las Coloradas and Laguna Rosada were on everyone’s social media feeds a couple of years ago. The water in the lakes is naturally a shade of ultra-bright pink – creating a setting that looks absolutely out of this world.
This is because of a specific type of red brine shrimp that lives in these waters. Las Coloradas is the more popular of the two, but it is often crowded with tourists, even if you go early in the morning.
Laguna Rosada, close to the Xcambo ruins and Telchac Puerto is a great, alternative option. Interestingly, locals also mine salt from these waters, and you can see them working and sieving it out as you walk around.
The city of Valladolid is a charming pueblo magico in the center of the Yucatan state, some 44km away from the ruins of Chichen Itza. Valladolid Mexico is named after the city of the same name in Spain, which was the country’s capital at that time.
The city dates back to 1543 and was developed by the descendants of Spanish Conquistadors over the site of an existing Mayan city. The Spanish destroyed Mayan temples and shrines, pillaging them for building materials.
This led to several violent clashes and fights between the Spanish and the Maya that would last for centuries.
Modern-day Valladolid is sleepy and tranquil – a stark contrast to its violent origins.
Despite its size, the city has more of a small-town feel about it. The impressive 1545 San Servacio church can be found in the city center, along with some interesting local markets selling traditional food and clothing.
While you are here, you should also make time to visit the colorful Convent San Bernardino – one of the oldest convents in the Yucatan.
Spend a weekend in Campeche
The state of Campeche is the least visited of the three states in the Yucatan tri-state area. The state capital, Campeche City is a colorful colonial port city that thrived during the 17th century and was an extremely important trading post for the Spanish.
Its old town is UNESCO-protected and is widely regarded as being one of the best-preserved colonial settlements in Mexico today. The crumbling remnants of old fortifications, bastions, defensive walls, fortresses, and rusting cannons that once guarded the inhabitants against pirate attacks still stand.
Part of the joy of visiting Campeche is simply found in taking the time to get lost among the cobbled streets and narrow passageways. For 100 pesos, you can take an old-fashioned trolley tour of the city, stopping here and there to photograph important churches and neighborhoods.
The Campeche Malecon is a 7km promenade that leads you along the waterfront, past interesting sculptures, street art murals, bars, and restaurants.
See a city developed around ancient ruins in Acanceh
Acanceh is a small town southeast of Merida that is worth stopping at briefly if you are driving through the area en route to the Homun cenotes or Izamal. Acanceh means ¨lament of the deer” in Yucatecan Mayan, and the interesting thing about this town is that it is also an ancient Mayan city and archeological site.
Here, grand Mayan pyramids and observatories, with well-preserved stucco masks of the sun god K’inich Ahau sit beside colorful churches and tumbledown wooden shacks selling drinks and snacks. The modern-day town has been built between and around the ruins, and Acanceh is unlike anywhere else in the world.
Have brunch or dinner in Cholul
Cholul is an upscale village just north of Merida whose bars, restaurants, and boutique stores attract a crowd of well-heeled Yucatecans. It is worth coming here for an afternoon from Merida to have lunch or dinner and to meander around the Parque K’íiwik Cholul.
Every Sunday morning, there is a small flea market beside Cholul church, where locals come to sell their second-hand clothing, toys, and games, while street vendors pop up selling local fruits, sweets, and carne asada.
Al Modar (C. 20 106, Cholul) is a great place to head to for breakfast or brunch, and the eatery offers giant cups of frothy cappuccinos as big as your head, as well as excellent breakfast dishes from across Mexico and the world – from Spanish omelets and eggs benedict to spicy chilaquiles.
Nearby Sabor a Mango offers elevated Mexican cuisine in a stunning setting. The interior of the premises is designed like a traditional Yucatecan homestead, while you can also choose to sit in the outdoor courtyard where live musicians perform jazz, blues, and Mexican pop music on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
Spend a day by the beach in Sisal
Sisal is the final of the four Yucatan state pueblo magicos. It was awarded ¨pueblo magico¨ status in December 2020 and awaits at the northwestern tip of the state.
In the 19th century, this was an important trading port for the Spanish as they shipped henequen (¨sisal¨) to various countries across the globe. As time went by, Progreso became the best strategic port in the Yucatan and today, Sisal is best known for its pretty beach.
You could easily while away a lazy day or two hanging out on the beach here. Since Sisal is a bit of a trek from Merida, Cancun, and the other popular tourist sites in Yucatan Mexico, few people make the effort to venture here and the beach is generally pretty quiet.
If you are traveling from Merida, you can also stop in the lovely town of Hunucmá on your way to Sisal, to indulge in traditional cuisine and homemade ice cream.
The Edzna ruins, some 52km south of Campeche city are both some of the most impressive and yet, largely unknown Mayan ruins in the Yucatan peninsula. This, in part, is likely because public transport in Campeche state leaves a lot to be desired, and a lot of travelers are not aware of the existence of the site unless they have a major interest in history.
Edzna was also known as ¨House of the Itzas¨. It dates back to 700 BC and formed strong political and commercial relationships with Uxmal and Chichen Itza until it was eventually abandoned in 1500 AD.
The ruins were not discovered until 1907 and excavation works were still ongoing in the 1980s. There are a couple of interesting buildings to look out for here.
The ¨Temple of the Masks¨ contains two incredibly well-preserved giant masks of the god Kinich Ahau. One portrays him as an old man, the other portrays him in his youth.
The Great Pyramid and the Grand Acropolis that occupy the main plaza are towering structures that can be seen from a distance along the jungle road well before you arrive at the Edzna complex.
Swim with whale sharks at Isla Holbox
Isla Holbox (pronounced ¨Hol Bosh¨) is a gorgeous island off the northern coast of Quintana Roo in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. It is part of the Yum Balam Biosphere Reserve and a protected area.
A diverse range of wildlife can be found in Holbox; American flamingos live here from April to October, and pelicans, turtles, crocodiles, and dolphins also call the island home.
No cars are permitted on the island, so most people get around by ATVs and golf caddies.
One of the best things that you can do on Holbox Island is to take a whale shark tour or go swimming with whale sharks. These majestic endangered creatures migrate to the warm waters of the Mexican Caribbean between April and September every year.
These gentle giants can grow up to 12 feet long and live off a diet of plankton. They pose no threat to humans. (The suggestion of swimming with sharks can sound terrifying but this isn’t like you are swimming with great white sharks!)
From Holbox, you can also take day trips and excursions out to the nearby Isla Pasión (Passion Island), Isla Pájaros (Bird Island), and Cabo Catoche (Cape Catoche).
Admire the coastal Tulum ruins
The Tulum ruins are among some of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico. They are perched on top of a rocky bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea and the site is the only known Mayan city that was built along the coast. The name “Tulum” means “wall” in Mayan – a nod to the sunbleached defensive walls that still stand here.
It is thought that the original city that once stood here was actually named “Zama” and the site is believed to date back to at least 564AD. One of the best things about visiting the Tulum ruins is having the opportunity to swim in the turquoise waters of the beach beneath them.
Rent a bicycle and cycle through the ruins of Coba
The Coba archeological site is what remains one of the largest and most important Mayan cities in the Yucatan peninsula. At one point, more than 50,000 people called Coba home, meaning that the city was of equal size and scale to Chichen Itza.
It is estimated that there are more than 6,500 structures at the Coba site, although only a portion of them have been excavated currently. (Who knows what other treasures and artifacts await beneath the surface?).
The site is so vast that its various buildings and plazas are connected by a series of white stone Mayan roads known as sacbes that you can rent a bicycle and cycle between. One of the most notable structures here is the 137-foot pyramid of Nohoch Mul – one of the largest in the Yucatan.
Take photos at Cenote Suytan
Cenote Suytan is the famous Instagram cenote that you have probably seen plastered all over people’s social media feeds in Mexico. It’s the popular cenote that has a little circular platform in the center of it, providing the perfect photo opp.
A small hole in the roof of the cenote allows a single spotlight of sunlight to shine through, creating a magical effect. Cenote Suytan was once used by the Ancient Maya for ceremonies and rituals and they believed that it was a portal to the underworld that would allow them to communicate with their gods.
Cenote Suytan is not really a place to go if you want to spend a peaceful afternoon swimming as it is always crowded and you have to queue up to get a photo on the famous platform. But it isn’t far from the main attractions in Tulum, so if you want to get a shot of yourself here, it is worth stopping by.
(Come as early as you can to avoid the crowds and tour buses!)
Final thoughts on the best things to do in the Yucatán Peninsula
Do you have any further questions or concerns about the best things to do in the Yucatan? I have been living in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula for the last two years and have explored every destination in this Yucatan peninsula travel guide, and a great deal more!
This guide is already pretty mammoth but I will update it periodically as I find more and more interesting things to do in the Yucatan. If you are planning a trip to this region for the first time, you might also enjoy reading these Mexico travel tips.
Have a wonderful time in Mexico! Buen Viaje! Melissa xo