As anyone who has explored Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula can attest, this region of the country is something special. Home to impressive Mayan ruins, powdery white sand beaches, clear turquoise waters, and so much more, it comes as no surprise that the Yucatan Peninsula is one of Mexico’s top tourist destinations. With so much to see, do, and experience, we pared down a guide to the region with some of its most remarkable stops along the way.

Explore the Ancient Ruins of Chichen Itza

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mayan archaeological site Chichen Itza is one of the most popular sights in the Yucatan Peninsula. Considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the ruins span 2.5 square miles. If you’re thinking of heading to this archaeological site during the fall or spring equinox, you can expect to see quite the phenomenon. During these points in the year, a shadow of what appears to be a serpent goes up and down the Pyramid of Kukulkán, due to the sun’s placement. Hordes of people gather during the fall and spring equinoxes to witness the serpent heading up and down the pyramid. If you can’t make it during the day, the illusion is recreated at night with a light show.

Comb Through the Calakmul Mayan Ruins

While other sites get more international attention, these “hidden” ruins are every bit as spectacular and provide the opportunity for a more intimate encounter with the Yucatan’s Mayan history. Located near the border with Guatemala in the state of Campeche, the site lacks the throngs of tourists so common at other destinations. Calakmul takes its name from a Mayan word meaning “City of Two Adjacent Pyramids,” and it dates to the Preclassic Period of Mesoamerican History.

The pyramids and other stone structures are surrounded by virgin jungle, making the site perfect for nature-lovers as well as history buffs. There are ninety-four species of mammals in the area, and if you’re lucky you might even spot an elusive jaguar. Be sure to bring a camera along to record any sudden sightings. Admission and tours are more reasonably priced than at the more popular archaeological sites, making Calakmul a budget-friendly option as well. Ascending the steps of the many ruins and beholding the surrounding jungle is an authentic Yucatan experience that you won’t soon forget.

Tour the Underwater MUSA Collection

Karla Munguia Colmenero / MUSA

Located off the coasts of Cancun and Isla Mujeres, the Yucatan Peninsula offers an otherworldly experience where you can view more than 400 sculptures submerged in the water, known as the MUSA collection. Hundreds of life-sized concrete figures make up the underwater contemporary museum. The sculptures are the work of Mexican artists Karen Salinas Martínez, Rodrigo Quiñones Reyes, Salvador Quiroz Ennis, Roberto Díaz Abraham; British artist Jason deCaires Taylor, and Cuban artist Elier Amado Gil. All of the materials used in the makeup of the sculptures help promote coral life. In order to view this underwater museum, you can either take a glass-bottom boat ride, a scuba dive, or a snorkel tour over the statues.

Bask in the Beauty of Bacalar Lake

If a small town and a lake with seven shades of brilliant, turquoise water is your idea of paradise, then you’ll want to check out Bacalar in the southern part of Quintana Roo state. Fed by underground rivers that are dotted with gorgeous cenotes, the lake is about as typical of the Yucatan as you can get. The surface of the water, with its gradient shimmering shades of blue, seems like something out of an impressionist painting.

With around 11,000 inhabitants, the town of Bacalar is smaller and more relaxing than other tourist destinations. Lacking chain restaurants and other tourist traps, the community has a laid back, authentic vibe. There are fewer visitors than in the crowded resort towns to the north, making Bacalar a perfect place to take it easy. When you’re not gazing at the natural beauty of the lake, you can take a boat tour, rent kayaks, or visit one of the many cenotes in the area. Tucked in near the Guatemalan border, Bacalar is a bit removed from other sites, but it is well worth the trip. The natural beauty and relaxing atmosphere are bound to leave an impression.

Tour Izamal: The Yellow Town


When you arrive at this small town east of Merida, you’ll immediately understand how it got its nickname. The majority of the buildings, especially those around the central square, are painted the same yellow color. The tone is neither garish nor overbearing, and it gives the town a dignified yet eclectic appearance. Enjoying Izamal is all about touring the streets and taking in the unique aesthetics. The Convento de San Antonio de Padua and the Temple of Kabul are among the architectural highlights, but the entire downtown is easy on the eye.

The Centro Cultural y Artesanal is also worth visiting, with a mansion from the sixteenth century converted into a museum featuring different styles of crafts produced by local artisans. There are a number of historical and archaeological sites located outside the town, making Izamal a great base of operations for further exploration. The Kinich Kakmo pyramid is one of the largest pre-hispanic structures in Mexico, while the smaller Habuk and El Conejo sites are also impressive.

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Climb the Pyramids of Uxmal

Located just outside the bustling city of Merida, these Mayan ruins are among the most gorgeous in Mexico. Just like Chichen Itza, Uxmal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but unlike its more famous neighbor to the east, Uxmal lacks the hordes of tourists and vendors that can take away from even the most spectacular sites. Like many Mayan cities, Uxmal features pyramids, a ball court, and a number of other monumental structures.

The buildings in Uxmal surround open courtyards, providing spectacular views that recreate the feel of a planned city. It’s possible to climb the pyramids and other buildings on the site, making a more intimate experience possible. Much of the architecture is also unique, with the rounded back of the Pyramid of the Magician and the remnants of the Governor’s Palace among the most noteworthy points of interest. The site is easily reached from Merida, making it a perfect day trip during your time in the western half of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Beach It Up and Party Down in Cancun

While Cuba is a mega resort town, it’s still an amazing place to explore. The settlement claims some of the best beaches in Mexico, known for its powdery white sands and warm Caribbean waters. With 13 miles of coast to explore, you’re bound to find a beach for you. Playa Delfines is one of the largest beaches, ideal for all sorts of watersports, while Playa Forum remains the city’s most popular public access beach. After a day in the sun, Cancun tends to take the party at night to the Zona Hotelera area. From here, you can find all the bars and nightclubs to dance the night away.

Discover the Old in Mérida

Roughly 200 miles west of Cancun, Mérida offers a taste of a centuries-old Yucatan, one far different than Cancun. While still a contemporary city, Mérida remains saturated in colonial history. Down its narrow streets and throughout its broad plazas, you will find a Mexico of a different time. In fact, the city boasts the second largest historic center in Mexico. Some standout attractions in town include the Cathedral, the oldest on the continent, and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Ateneo de Yucatán, the city’s contemporary art museum with mostly works from Yucatán artists.

Flock to the Flamingos at the Reserva de la Biósfora Ría Celestún

Located near the fishing village of Celestún, the 146,000-acre wildlife reserve should make any Yucatan itinerary. In addition to its extensive mangrove forest and more than 365 species of birds, the wildlife reserve is also home to one of the largest colonies of flamingos in North America. Seeing all that pink right before your eyes is possible at the reserve year-round. To tour the reserve, you can hire a boat or even rent your own kayak to explore the narrow waterways on your own.              

Swim in the Famous Cenotes of the Yucatan

The Yucatan Peninsula might be known for its beaches and Mayan ruins, but it has also made a name for its cenotes. These natural swimming holes are formed by the breakdown of porous limestone bedrock. Luckily for travelers, these formations lend extremely clear and pure groundwater pools to swim in while in the region. The Mayans even regarded the cenotes as sacred, believing they were portals to speak with the gods. There are a number of these natural swimming holes around the region including Cenote Dos Ojos near Tulum and Cenote Samulá near Chichén Itza. Most lend great environments to strap on your snorkel and flutter around in crystal clear waters.

Have you been to the Yucatan Peninsula? What’s your favorite place to visit in the region? Let us know in the comments!

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About The Author

Suzy Guese

Suzy Guese is a travel writer from Denver, Colorado. She caught the travel bug after taking her very first flight at just three months old—she was headed for Disney World—and has been a total travel junkie ever since. From family car trips across North America to stints abroad in Europe, Suzy travels the globe with her redheaded temperament in search of sarcasm, stories, and travel tips to share with anyone willing to listen. She blogs about her travels at http://suzyguese.com.