Highlights of the Yucatán Peninsula

  • Photo of Highlights of the Yucatán Peninsula
  • Photo of Highlights of the Yucatán Peninsula
  • Photo of Highlights of the Yucatán Peninsula
  • Photo of Highlights of the Yucatán Peninsula
  • Photo of Highlights of the Yucatán Peninsula
  • Photo of Highlights of the Yucatán Peninsula
  • Photo of Highlights of the Yucatán Peninsula
  • Photo of Highlights of the Yucatán Peninsula
Photo of Highlights of the Yucatán Peninsula
Photo by flickr user peyri

Lots of destinations promise they have 'something for everyone', but there's varied attractions and then there's the Yucatán Peninsula. At one extreme are the Caribbean Sea resorts of Cancún and Puerto Costa Maya, built up for cruise ship travellers on shore leave, and at the other are the ancient Mayan ruins this jungle hides and old colonial towns where you're just as likely to hear Mayan dialects as you are Spanish. Between these extremes are some world class diving opportunities and gorgeous beaches flanked by easy-to-access ruins.

This Holiday Idea suggests a route, but then allows you to make your own decisions along the way about whether you're more Indiana Jones, Bridget Jones or the Jones Family. You'll need to hire a car and drive, but the toll roads are fast and well connected, and there's not much traffic. It starts and finishes with a bit of time on the beach, as well as taking in the peninsula's best and most famous sights.

Great Mayan Reef (Meso American Reef)Days 1 - 3

Cancún is one of the easiest places to arrive at because it's close to the airport, but its other main assets are the white and aquamarine Caribbean style beaches, the nightlife and lifestyle and the watersports. But there are a few other options for your first base: Playa del Carmen, which has one of the nicest beaches in Mexico - and an 18 hole golf course, new resort Puerto Costa Maya, which lays on activities thick and fast, including dune buggy-ing and sea kayaking, or the island of Cozumel on the Great Mayan Reef which divers and snorkellers the world over rave about.

Cenote Diving on the Mayan RivieraThese centres are close enough so that if you want to take advantage of the attractions of another you can. You could also try a spot of cenote diving in the eerily still underground caverns and tunnels worn under the landscape by the ocean. The water temp is consistent and visibility is really good – and the view is surprisingly un-repetitive. Learn to kite surf, or meet some of the area's exotic indigenous wildlife – spider monkeys, howler monkeys, pumas and maybe even a jaguar – at the Ma'ax Yetel Kooh Nature Reserve.

The one thing all kinds of Jones should do in these first three days is visit the divinely situated ruins of Tulum. It's not as architecturally impressive as some of the sites you'll see later in your trip, but its cliff top location and the fact that it's well laid out and preserved makes it a good choice for your first Mayan ruin. The Temple of Kukulkan dominates the ruins, which the conquering Spanish mistook for a castle and called El Castillo.

Chichen Itza and the Temple of KukulkanDay 4 - 8

Tulum is good preparation for Chichén Itzá, which you should head inland to on the morning of the fourth day. It's just off the highway and well signposted and presented – it can also be busy. One of the most impressive things about these ruins, one of Mexico's most famous complexes, is the way it lines up so perfectly astronomically, and with other complexes in the region. It was both a spiritual, cultural and commercial centre for the Mayans, and you can see the changing influences of various cultural groups in the architecture. The Temple of Kukulkan is both the largest and most important of Chichén Itzá's structures, you can't miss it, and this is a good place to begin to understand the Maya and Toltec vision of the universe.

If you can arrange it the very best time to visit is around the Spring Equinox. Then the knowledge of the Mayan astronomers and architects is fully displayed when they way the building is aligned and built causes a great snake of shadow to run down the side of the temple.

Río LagartosIf you stay in nearby Valladolid you'll be able to make the most of your time at the temple complex, then the next morning you can get on your way to Rio Lagartos, which is a tiny fishing village beside a lake that's one of the best places in Mexico to see flamingos – and other birds. The best way to see as much bird life as possible is to take a boat trip out onto the lake. There's not much else here – not even a bank or an ATM - so you'll probably want to be back in Valladolid for dinner.

Mérida, MexicoNext morning it's time to pack the car again and head for Mérida. Mérida is the Yucatán's cultural capital, as well as being the actual capital. It's one of those Mexican destinations that's now proud of both it's colonial and pre colonial heritage and the culture is visually richer for it. The broad squares and plazas host all sorts of interesting markets, and are lined with good restaurants, and the winding narrow streets that branch off it house cafes, hostels and small museums.

Mercado Lucas de GálvezMérida's main market is the Mercado Municipal Lucas de Gálvez , an excellent place to shop for hand decorated grandpa shirts, known locally as guayaberas, baskets in all shapes and sizes, pottery of all kinds and colours, hammocks and panama hats. It has other goods besides, but this region is specially known for these items. The rest of the commercial part of town surrounds the market, so if you can't find it here you'll find it nearby. The food section of the market is where you can find the local HOT sauce, El Yucateco, which is made of habanero peppers and is also a good place to try another local delicacy: cochinita pibil (pit-baked pork).

As well as taking in the sights round town, you're in Mérida as a base to take day trips to Izmal and Uxmal. Izamal (town) is a colonial town referred to both as '"The Yellow City”, for its yellow painted buildings, and “The City of Hills” for its hills – which are really Mayan pyramids that have thoroughly grown over. It's taken archaeologists decades of work to uncover the 160 sites that they have so far, but there are thousands still covered.

When the Spanish colonised Izamal they decided it would be too difficult to raise the main temple pyramid – which was over ten levels high, with a base that covered two acres of land – so they just knocked the top off and built a Christian structure in its place and did the same with the Mayan palace, on the top of which they built a monastery. But this didn't wholly halt Mayan traditions, and walking round Izamal you're going to hear just as many people speaking Mayan dialects as you are speaking Spanish.

Uxmal and the Pyramid of the MagicianUxmal is the ruins of the Yucatán's greatest metropolitan and religious Mayan centre of the Classical period – which means between the 7th and 10th centuries AD. The name translates to 'thrice built' and, whatever the actual number, the numerous building phases are reflected in a variety of architectural styles. Again it's interesting to note that the entire city is aligned with reference to the position of the planets the Mayans knew about.

If you're near the Indiana Jones end of the Jones scale there are other ruins nearby: Kabah, Labna, Sayil and Dzibilchaltun. If you're more at the bridget Jones end you might prefer to take a stroll, or carriage ride, down the Paseo de Montejo, which is where all the nicest shops and restaurants are, as well as some beautiful old colonial mansions. There's also more opportunity for a spot of cenote diving.

Palenque Mayan Ruins and the Temple of the InscriptionsDay 9 – 11

It's a long drive between Mérida and Palenque, but this ruin, and its famous Temple of the Inscriptions, are one of the most studied and written about Mayan sites. Vast and mysterious, Palenque is considered to be the most beautifully conceived of all the Mayan cities. During its period of cultural florescence, the 7th through 10th centuries, Palenque was even more beautiful - then its limestone buildings were coated with white plaster and painted in a rainbow of pastel hues.

The ruins have received some of the most extensive reconstruction efforts of any Mayan site, but still only 34 structures have been excavated, from an estimated 500 scattered around the area.

Ancient Maya City of CalakmulYou'll need to stay overnight in Santo Domingo del Palenque and hit the ruins the next day. If you still have an appetite for ruins, the following day could be spent travelling to Calakmul, which is a huge ruin that's mostly been left in the grip of the jungle. If you fancy yourself as an Indiana Jones you have to see this site, even though tourists do visit and there is infrastructure for visitors, you're likely to only see a couple of other people, so it's an opportunity to feel like you're really discovering it for the first time.

If you've visited enough ruins then you might prefer to pop out to the Agua Azul waterfalls, which are both beautiful and a popular swimming hole.

XcalakDay 12-13

Drive back across to the Caribbean coast to the tiny town of Xcalak. Only about 400 people live in Xcalak, though that's changing at quite a rapid rate as word spreads about this pocket of coastal peace and quiet. That it's being written about as being one of the last bastions of unspoiled Yucatán Peninsula means that it won't be for long, but for the time being this little town, nicely positioned right beside snorkellers and divers dream: the Great Mayan Reef, offers something that a lot of other towns can't and is the perfect place to spend a few days at the end of your trip before heading back to the airport.

Get help planning your Mexican Adventure from WR's Mexican Travel Specialists

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