Alternative Places to Go on the Yucatan Peninsula

If tourist resorts and crowded beaches aren't your thing, ditch Cancun for these off-the-beaten-path destinations in the Yucatan.

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Photo © Getty Images/Matteo Colombo

COVID-19 (coronavirus) update: Though the land border between the US and Mexico is closed to non-essential traffic until November 21, Mexico is open to visitors from around the world. Read the latest travel restrictions and how they may affect you. Keep in mind that this article was written before the pandemic, and take appropriate steps to stay safe.

Cancun is one of Mexico's most popular destinations, but if you're interested in more than flopping on a beach or hanging out at an expensive resort, take some time to see the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula. 

Once you go off the beaten path, there's plenty for adventurous souls to see and do, with thousands of cenotes (natural swimming holes), and the densest concentration of Mayan ruins in all of Mexico.

The best way to explore the Yucatan Peninsula is by car. You can rent one in Cancun for only $200 pesos (US $13) per day.

Tulum

The major draw to Tulum are the Mayan ruins on the beach. There are also some beautiful and accessible cenotes in the area, some of the best on the Peninsula.

Tulum is the antithesis of Cancun. Most of the accommodation at Tulum Playa is eco-friendly – many switch off the power at midnight, and facilities are designed to protect and be in harmony with the environment (you cannot flush toilet paper here). You'll need to go into Tulum Pueblo to stock up on supplies.

It’s a cheaper base than Cancun or Playa del Carmen for exploring the ruins and cenotes of the Yucatan. To get the most out of your visit to the Tulum ruins (north of the playa), go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to miss the day-trippers.

Tulum, Mexico. Photo credit: iStock

Mahahual

On the southern end of the coast is a town that was once a sleepy fishing port. In the northern end of Mahahual, a cruise ship jetty dramatically changed the town, which now caters to tourists with restaurants, bars, quad bikes, and jet skis. Venture further south for a more authentic experience, where the cruise ship crowds haven't influenced the local scene.

Sian Ka´an

South of Tulum, this well-preserved natural reserve is great for camping, with pristine beaches, cenotes, and diverse wildlife. Here, you can see dolphins, manatees, crocodiles, turtles, take a bird-watching excursion, or go scuba diving to see diverse coral beneath the water.

Punta Allen

Travel 31mi (50km) south from Tulum to see the small fishing village of Punta Allen. Located in the Si'an Ka'an Biosphere, there are a number of walking trails and natural swimming holes to be explored. Visit the ancient ruins of Muyil by boat, hop on board a launcha to tour the mangroves, or go snorkelling on the reef.

Bacalar Lagoon

Bacalar Lagoon is a 26mi (42km) long, narrow lake, no more than 1.2mi (2km) at its widest point. You can go diving, kayaking, swimming and snorkeling here, or venture into the dense jungle that surrounds the lagoon to see some fascinating Mayan sites. Don't mistake the Bacalar stromatolites for boring old rocks. These are some of the oldest living fossils in the world – and you can swim past them or kayak to see them at Cenote Cocalitos.

Valladolid

Valladolid is a small, colonial city between Cancun and the state capital Merida. It’s the closest town to Chichen Itza, the most popular Mayan archaeological site (about 28mi/45km away), and a great place to base yourself to explore other historic sites.

On the famous Calzada de los Frailes (Friars’ Road) you’ll find a Cocoa museum, where they’ll teach you the process of making traditional Mayan chocolate. Try a free sample at the end of the tour. On that same street you’ll find the Los Tres Toños tequila house, where you can learn about the tequila-making process, and be invited to a free tequila tasting.

Just a few miles from Valladolid is Ek-Balam. While there are countless archaeological sites in the Yucatan, Ek-Balam is one of the most beautiful, and far less well known than Chichen Itza.

A mile (1.5km) away from Ek-Balam, check out the X'canché cenote. Here, you can swim inside the cenote, or zip or rappel down the walls of the well.

A backpacker looking over Mayan ruins. Photo credit: iStock

Rio Lagartos

The small town of Rio Lagartos is well worth including on your journey through the Yucatan Peninsula. The main attraction here is the Rio Lagartos Biosphere, where keen bird watchers will enjoy the variety of species flying about. Rio Lagartos is also famous for being a primary nesting ground for flamingos in Mexico.

In the early evening, as fishermen begin to bring their boats back to shore, try asking a fisherman if they'll take you around the lake at sunset. Usually, they'll ask how much you're willing to pay, but these guys always know where the best places are to see local wildlife.

If you take a river tour, go as early in the morning as you can, as this is the best time to see crocodiles in the wild (from the safety of a boat, of course).

Don't leave without visiting the Las Coloradas Salt Mines, a 25-minute drive from Rio Lagartos. The pink waters and tall mountains of salt are an incredible sight to see.

Xcalak

Located at the southern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, on the border with Belize, Xcalak is for those who want to really disconnect. Activities at this tiny, off-the-grid fishing village include world-class diving, snorkeling, paddle boarding/kayaking, and sport fishing.

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  • Paul Latta said

    Don't forget to check out Playa del Carmen,the beach is gorgeous and it's not as built-up as Cancun. If you want to attend a Mexican mass there's a beautiful church on the beach. Also, check out a restaurant called Alux which features fine dining in a cave. Just keep your eyes open for Mayan ghosts!

    If you get to Valladolid, you must see the Zaci Cenote -- it's splendid. Visit the cathedrals as well.

    Merida is chockful of museums -- most of which are free. Great examples of colonial architecture too.

    I spent a month in the Yucatan for less than $1,000. So much to see and do. I wrote about my adventures on my blog Eachtinymoment.com.

    If you are wary of renting a car and driving in Mexico, the first class buses are a very cheap alternative. They are clean and comfortable.

    Should you not want to leave the Cancun area,make sure you plan at least a day on Isla Mujueres. A short ferry ride will get you there. You can walk from one side of the island to the other in mere minutes. The beaches are less crowded.

    Well, my two cents. I love Mexico.

  • Doug Oliverius said

    Also check out Puerto Morelos; a very friendly and safe fishing port with several all inclusive resorts just 30 minutes south of Cancun. Off the beaten path but very memorable. Nice beaches and access to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System about 100 meters off shore. Fantastic snorkeling and views. Not a lot of tourists but a local favorite making it a great find.

  • Neil | Joyfuljourneying said

    We are spending 4 months in Playa Del Carmen and have been enjoying the local scene. It's a fairly busy city (not as big or busy as Cancun, however), with lots of good restaurants and culture. It is a short drive (or Collectivo ride) to both Tulum and Puerto Morelos, places we enjoyed a lot. Puerto Morelos has the best off shore reef in the area-so great snorkeling. The beach is also large and quiet. As stated in this article, Sian Ka'an Biosphere is a wonderful and wild place and we enjoyed seeing both the Mayan Ruins and the boat trip in the lagoon there. We write about our worldwide budget travel adventures on our blog joyfuljourneying.com.

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