Almost 5 million people a year visit Cancun in the Mexican State of Quintana Roo. Cancun is a lovely beach and party town on the East coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Cancun and its environs (the Riviera Maya- towns like Akumal, Tulum, and Playa Del Carmen) are well worth a few days of lazing around on the sundrenched sand. Cozumel is one of the premier diving spots on earth. The eco parks of Xel-Ha and Xcaret are like a naturalist Disneyworld. But what happens when you get tired of binge drinking frat boys or just need a day or two to let the sunburns heal?
In my opinion, you have two choices. You can either rent a car in Cancun and see some of the nearby sights, or head about 3.5 hours west to Merida and use that city as a base to explore the interior of the Yucatan Peninsula. I would strongly recommend the second option as the highlights of the peninsula are all with 2 hours drive of Merida.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on Cancun, there is a plethora of existing resources and, to be honest, it’s overrated. Don’t get me wrong; Cancun, Tulum, and Playa Del Carmen are home to many incredible beaches and night clubs. But they don’t have character. In my opinion, what will make a difference and really stand out to you over the years is not the beach you were at, it is the amount of time you spent in the authentic non-coastal areas, the cultural heartland if you will.
The state of Yucatan occupies the northern third of the Yucatan Peninsula which is separated into the aforementioned Quintana Roo and Yucatan states as well as the undiscovered jewel that is Campeche. The Yucatan Peninsula proper occupies all the territories north of the New Rivers’ entrance into Chetumal Bay in Belize to the Northern end of the Laguna De Terminos in Campeche State (roughly mirroring highway 186). This area is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Campeche City, Uxmal Ruins, Chichen-Itza Ruins, and Sian-Kaan Biosphere), all well worth exploring.
Most people fly into Cancun or Cozumel international airports in Quintana Roo. The Capital of Yucatan state, Merida, and Campeche both have airports. Ground transportation in the Yucatan is simple. Cheap rates on rental cars and well paved, clearly marked roads make the Yucatan one of the best places for individual touring in North America. Transportation by bus is available by ADO (Mexico’s outstanding first class bus system) to all major tourist sites. If you fly into Cancun, please note it takes just over an hour to drive to Tulum, 2.5 hours to Chichen-Itza/Valladolid, 3.5 hours to Merida. From Merida, Uxmal is an hour south, Progresso is an hour north, and Campeche is two hours southwest.
To me, there are two must see sites on the Yucatan Peninsula. The first of these lovely places is the Mayan ruins of Uxmal (Oosh-Mal, meaning thrice built, entrance $203 Pesos, Open Daily) just off Highway 261 south of Merida. Uxmal was founded around 500 AD by the Xiu dynasty of the Puuc Maya. Uxmal reached its apogee between 800-1100 AD, better known as the Terminal Classic period of Mesoamerican history (800-1100 AD). By 1250 AD the city had fallen into decline and was mostly abandoned. If you have the option, don’t waste your time in Chichen Itza, this site is larger and prettier.
Uxmal is the crown jewel of Mayan architecture. It’s Pyramid of the Magician (templo del adivino) is one of the most unique buildings of the ancient world and the tallest on site. Uxmal is home to the second and third tallest pyramids in the Yucatan (40 and 37 meters respectively, after Coba’s 42 meter Nohoch Mul pyramid). Uxmal is also home to the Nunnery Quadrangle, where you can find the most intricate carvings of the new world. The Governor’s Palace on the south side of the ruins is nearly as intricate as the quadrangle and offers a fantastic view of the entire site.
On top of being the largest and most unique of the Northern Mayan ruins, Uxmal is also home to an evening ritual which is not to be missed. Every night the ruins are lit up (7 pm in the winter, 8 pm in the summer), focusing on the Quadrangle, and the history of Uxmal is told in Spanish over a speaker system ($83 pesos, headphones available in 5 other languages for $39 pesos). This is worth staying the night in Uxmal to see, and I recommend Villa Arquelogicas Uxmal. Its rooms are large, simple and clean, pool is refreshing, and the kitchen is outstanding (starts at $765 a night).
After seeing Uxmal, many people will want to visit the Ruta Puuc, a collections of sights all within a few miles of Uxmal. Don’t get me wrong, Kabah has a magnificent wall of rain god (Chac) masks, Sayil an incredible palace, and Labna a very photographic arch, but overall I didn’t find these sites worth the time or cost of admittance. However, the last surviving Mayan Capital of Mayapan, a smaller copy of Chichen Itza, I found to be well worth the free admission and hour or so I spent scrambling up pyramids.
Campeche is the other must see site in the Yucatan Peninsula. Founded in 1540 by Francisco Montejo, a conquistador, the city is the premier Spanish colonial town in the Yucatan, maybe all of Mexico. Its bright colors, lush central park, and dominating cathedral all add to the charm that make this city, well, so damn pleasant.
As many are unaware, Campeche was a spectacularly rich town during the colonial period, making it a target for pirate attacks. The city suffered attacks from famous pirates like Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Laurens De Graaf, Jean Laffite, and Henry Morgan. It wasn’t until the city was devastated by Edward Mansvelt’s 1663 attack that they decided to build a wall around the city totaling over 2500 meters in length with 8 bastions and four forts outside the city guarding the approaches. To this day, cannonballs can still be seen lodged in to the cities walls at various points.
Many of the bastions and forts are now home to museums. San Miguel el Alto Fort is home to many of the treasures discovered in the Mayan Ruins of the state of Campeche, principally Calakmul, Jaina Island, Balamku, and nearby Edzna (Edzna is nearly as impressive as Chichen Itza, worth 1-2 hours if you have the time). Fort San Jose El Alto houses a naval museum, Bastion San Pedro holds the Pirate museum, and San Carlos holds the City Museum. Most of the bastions are within the colonial center and the town is very walkable, although San Miguel and San Jose are a short, $50 peso taxi ride away.
If you are a seafood junkie, as I do claim to be, Campeche is a cultural hub for you. Gulf shrimp, snapper, and stone crab are available in abundance and fresh from the sea. My favorite was Palapa Tio Fito, although Marganzo was equal in quality but higher in price. I can also highly recommend La Pigua, Los Portales, and La Parroquia. Regarding hotels, if opulence is what you seek, Casa Don Gustavo is for you. I stayed at Hotel Castelmar, in the colonial center, and found it to be….enchanting. It’s a former Mexican Navy barracks dating from the 1840’s built in the colonial style. The rooms were spacious and clean, the staff was friendly.
The most famous site you will see in the Peninsula is the ancient Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza (cost is $210 pesos plus $22 peso parking fee, open daily. You’ll need 2-3 hours to see the ruins adequately. Night show is free but must register in advance). Chichen Itzas’ rise began a little after 600 AD. By 750 it was playing a role in regional politics and by 980 AD it has become the dominant power in the northern Yucatan. Chichens dominance was long lived by Yucatecan standards as the city didn’t collapse until around 1290.
Chichen Itza has two distinct architectural styles evident within its city limits. The first is the Puuc style originating from Uxmal centered around what is called “Chichen viejo” or “old Chichen” this area houses the most ornate buildings, including the Akab Dzib, Caracol (observatory), and Las Monjas (the Nuns). The newer section of Chichen Itza was added after 980 AD (linked by some to an incursion by the Toltecs of Central Mexico). The dominant building of this period is the 32 meter tall Castillo pyramid (or temple of Kukulcan, the supreme Mayan deity), the famous symbol of Mexico. Also built in the same period are the largest ball court in Mesoamerica and the Tzompantli (skull rack), both additions from Central Mexico.
If you intend to take several days inland to visit Campeche, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza, you may well want to consider basing yourself in Merida, the capital of Yucatan State, and doing day trips from there. Merida is the cultural capital of Yucatan, the largest city, and one of the four gastronomical capitals or Mexico (along with Puebla, Oaxaca, and Mexico City). Merida doesn’t have much to offer regarding tourism except an excellent Mayan Museo, but has a plethora of quality hotels and excellent restaurants (my favorite being Chaya Maya).
Worth noting, about an hour from Merida and en route to Chichen Itza is the sleepy little colonial town of Izamal, where all the houses are colored a beautiful shade of yellow. Izamal is home to Mainland Americas first monastery, San Francisco de Padua, built over the ruins of what some claim was once the largest pyramid in Yucatan.
However, many of you will choose to use Cancun as your base and only have a day or two available to visit in land sites. If this is the case, I recommend renting a car and heading south early one morning to Tulum ($84 pesos, open daily). Tulum is one of the most gorgeous Mayan ruins. Set above a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea and perfectly landscaped with all types of tropical flowers, the backdrop is what sets this ruin apart (it was historically unimportant). After an hour or two at Tulum, Head up Highway 109 to Coba.
Coba is a much larger, historically important ruin. Coba ($84 pesos, open daily), founded around 100 AD, was the major player in Northern Yucatan during the Classic Era of Mesoamerican History (200-800) with a population of over 50,000. Around 900 Coba entered in to a major conflict with Chichen Itza (Coba being allied with Uxmal and Chichen with Ek Balam) for dominance of the Northern Yucatan, eventually being defeated around 1000 AD.
Coba is home to the Nohoch Mul Pyramid, the tallest in Yucatan at 42 meters in height and awesomely climbable. The view from the top will allow you to see a few other pyramids poling out over the canopy and offers a decent view of the nearby lagoons. While Chichen may have the largest ball court, Coba may have the prettiest. The site is very spread out, but you can rent bicycles for $40 pesos inside the park to assist in a timely visit. After 2-3 hours in Coba, It is time to move on to Valladolid.
Valladolid, roughly 2 hours from Cancun, is a charming colonial town. A great place to stop for an early dinner, Yerbabuena de Sisal is the top recommendation in this market. After a quick stroll around the city, it is time to head to Chichen Itza to catch the night show.
The following morning, wake up early again and see the Chichen ruins. After 2-3 hours here, Head back to Valladolid. Instead of continuing to Cancun, head north about 20 minutes to the ruins of Ek Balam. Ek Balam (Dark Jaguar, $184 pesos) is a decent sized sight, formerly an ally of Chichen Itza that aided in the defeating of Uxmal and Coba. Ek Balam Ruins will only take about an hour to see.
The highlight of Ek Balam, however, is a lovely cenote. The cenote is a collapsed cave that was created when the asteroid hit the Yucatan roughly 66 million years ago and forced groundwater to come shooting up. Yucatan has roughly 3,000 cenotes (all with cool, refreshing water after a long day of climbing pyramids). After your dip in the Cenote, head back to your beach resort in Cancun.
This culminates my top choices of things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula. I know you will enjoy resting on the beach in any of the Yucatan’s many resorts. I felt it was my duty to help you find the best activities to engage in when you feel like getting out and exploring. If it were up to me, I would spend as much time inland seeing these sights as possible. The beach will always be there waiting for you.