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The Best of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula
When you need a dose of sunshine, there are few destinations easier to reach than the Yucatan Peninsula and the Riviera Maya. With direct flights from 13 gateway cities in the United States, it’s easy to wake up at home in the morning and be on a beach with a margarita in hand by the afternoon. And while we would never criticize anyone for simply enjoying the sun, surf, and some guacamole, this region of Mexico has much more to offer. Here you’ll also find fantastic snorkeling and beautiful beaches, underground rivers, ancient Mayan cities deep in the jungle or perched on clifftops overlooking the Caribbean, and captivating colonial cities. 

Kristen Korey Pike, the founder of KK Travels Worldwide and a member of the AFAR Travel Advisory Council, has created an itinerary that starts with exploring colonial Merida and sites nearby, while staying in a restored hacienda. You’ll visit Tulum, a laidback beach town with design hotels and top restaurants—as well as one of the most photogenic Mayan sites anywhere. After a day in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, home to pristine rain forests and wetlands best explored by kayak, you’ll have a two-day island getaway, on Isla Holbox, off the beaten path. The trip ends with a night near Cancun, where you can sample the city’s restaurants and nightlife or simply enjoy the spa and other facilities at one of two top resorts that are among Kristen’s favorites.

Anyone can come back from the Yucatan with a golden glow, but you’ll return having also had opportunities to dive deeper into the area’s natural wonders, culinary specialties, and historic sites.
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    Day 1
    Celestún Biosphere Reserve
    Upon arrival at the Cancun International Airport, you’ll pick up a rental car and head west towards the state of Yucatan and your hotel for the next two nights, the 15-room Hacienda San Jose. This 17th-century hacienda has been meticulously restored, and the rooms exude a captivating historical ambience. While you may be tempted to spend the afternoon relaxing in one of the traditional Mayan hammocks or wandering the landscaped grounds, after lunch you will continue on to Celestún.

    The vast Celestún Biosphere Reserve sits on the Gulf of Mexico and extends over some 146,000 acres. The area is famous for its population of flamingos, numbering in the thousands, as well as herons and dozens of other bird species. Your boat tour will include opportunities to see the magnificent flocks of pink birds and the reserve’s pristine mangroves. You’ll also be able to swim in a natural spring.

    After your tour of the reserve, explore the sleepy fishing town of Celestún before returning to the Hacienda San Jose for dinner. Before sitting down to your meal, you’ll have the opportunity to go into the kitchen for a cooking class and introduction to Mayan and Yucatecan cuisine. You’ll learn about ingredients unique to the region, like the spinach-like epazote and achiote seeds, and prepare some typical Mayan dishes like sopa de lima or marinated pork.
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    Day 2
    Chichén Itzá
    After breakfast, you’ll depart from your hotel with a guide to visit one of the Yucatan Peninsula’s most famous sites, the ancient city of Chichén Itzá, about 90 minutes away.

    This UNESCO World Heritage Site was once one of the most important Mayan city-states, with an estimated population of 50,000 at its peak (between 600 C.E. and 900 C.E.) The ceremonial center measures nearly two square miles and includes the 75-foot-high Pyramid of Kukulcan. As with many pre-Columbian settlements in Mexico, there was a ball court where a game of life and death was played—the losers in a match were often sacrificed. The Palace of the Columns, El Caracol Observatory, and the Temple of the Warriors are further evidence of a once flourishing civilization. You will also visit the mysterious Cenote Sagrado, better known as the “Well of the Sacrifices,” where humans were once offered to Chaac, the Mayan rain god.

    After your tour, you will take a 40-minute drive to the colonial-era city of Valladolid. You’ll have lunch at Taberna de los Frailes, a restaurant that specializes in contemporary versions of classic Mayan dishes, before returning to Merida.

    Nicknamed the “White City” for its colonial-era buildings in white stucco, Merida is the Yucatan’s largest city, with a sizable historic district. Its colonial grid remains in tact, with countless churches and stately houses. Sitting on the city’s Plaza Grande, the 16th-century Cathedral de San Ildefonso is the largest in North America. After you’ve explored Merida, you’ll return to the hacienda for dinner.
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    Day 3
    This morning you’ll depart from your hotel in the morning and head to Tulum, approximately a three-hour drive.

    Tulum is one of the most awe-inspiring archeological sites in the Mayan Riviera. It’s the only fortified Mayan city built on the coast and boasts stunning cliff-top views of the Caribbean. This Post-Classic city, occupied up to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, may look familiar—its setting makes it a favorite of travel photographers. You’ll have time to explore the major structures of the complex, which include the Castle, the Temple of the Descending God, the House of Columns (The Great Palace), and the Temple of the Frescoes.

    After your visit to Tulum, you will continue on to Rio Secreto, a subterranean river that passes through a spectacular world of stalactites and stalagmites. Upon arrival, your guide will provide security instruction and suitable equipment. Prior to entry into the Mayan underworld, you will tour the natural reserve trails, after which you will hike and swim through this beautiful, unique series of caverns. Today’s tour includes transportation, essential equipment, lunch, and beverages.

    Tonight you’ll dine at one of Tulum’s hottest restaurants, Hartwood. All of the ingredients, from the grilled fish to the fresh fruit juices, are typical of this part of Mexico, and all the produce served is grown on local farms. Dishes are cooked in a wood-burning oven, while the restaurant’s electricity all comes from its own solar panels. With its open-air setting, the atmosphere is casual though the food reaches culinary heights.

    You’ll stay tonight at one of the coolest hotels in this part of Mexico, the Papaya Playa Project. The 85 rooms overlooking the Caribbean have a rustic chic style, while activity here revolves around the beach by day and the low-key club at night.
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    Day 4
    Sian Ka'an Biosphere
    After breakfast, you’ll be picked up from your hotel by a guide who will take you on a full-day excursion to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. This UNESCO Biosphere Reserve measures roughly 2,031 square miles—that’s almost twice the size of the state of Rhode Island. You’ll have opportunities to kayak amid the mangroves, spot local fauna (more than 300 bird species live in the biosphere), and paddle past the ruins of Mayan buildings. Bring your swimsuit for an opportunity to swim, or float in an inner tube, along an ancient Mayan canal.

    After your excursion, you’ll head to Playa del Carmen, on the Caribbean roughly 90 minutes north of the biosphere. This lively beach town has a decidedly European sensibility with sidewalk cafés and boutiques lining its pedestrians-only Quinta Avenida (or Fifth Avenue). Almirante Pech is one of the most elegant options in Playa, especially noted for its handcrafted cocktails—perfect for a before or after dinner drink.

    You’ll dine tonight at the open-air Mayan Culinary Casita, where you can see tortillas prepared in front of you while other dishes cook in traditional large clay pots. At the end of your meal you’ll be provided with recipes for all the dishes you just enjoyed. After dinner, you’ll return to your hotel for the night, the Mahekal Beach Resort. This 196-room property manages to combine the pools, amenities, and restaurants of a resort set amid landscaped grounds with the shopping and dining options of Playa del Carmen right outside the entrance.
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    Day 5
    Isla Holbox
    After a morning exploring Playa del Carmen and an early lunch at one of the restaurants in town, you’ll drive approximately 90 minutes towards the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. At Puerto de Chiquila, you’ll board a ferry for the quick 6-mile ride across a sheltered lagoon to Isla Holbox.

    You’ll spend your two nights on the island at Las Nubes, a 28-room beachfront hotel that is a favorite of travelers looking for a blissfully quiet hideaway.
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    Day 6
    Swimming with Whale Sharks
    Isla Holbox sits at the point where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean, creating a unique environment renowned for its biodiversity. Manta rays, dolphins, and sea turtles can be found swimming in the waters off of the island while if you visit between June and September, Kristen will arrange for an excursion swimming with the whale sharks that spend their summers here. These gentle giants are the world’s largest fish and while they are sharks, these plankton feeders present no threat to humans. It’s an unforgettable day swimming with some of the most majestic animals in the sea.

    At the end of your excursion, you’ll return for an afternoon where you can enjoy the spa at Las Nubes or wander along Isla Holbox’s white-sand beaches—there are more than 20 miles of them, so it’s easy to find a quiet stretch of your own. For dinner tonight, you’ll eat at CasaSandra, a 20-minute walk along the sea from Las Nubes. The menu focuses on typical Mexican and Yucatecan dishes, and the kitchen serves some of the freshest fish you’ll eat anywhere.
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    Day 7
    This morning you’ll return to the mainland and head back to Cancun. Located at the gateway of the Riviera Maya, the NIZUC Resort & Spa occupies one of the most beautiful beaches facing the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. The resort has 274 luxurious suites and private villas throughout its 29-acre property. Guests can enjoy the resort's many pools, six restaurants, private jetty, and 30,000-square-foot spa.

    Another recommended option is the 363-room Ritz-Carlton Cancun—open for over 20 years, it still sets the standard for newer properties. The guest rooms were refurbished in 2014, giving them a lighter, contemporary look, while the resort’s restaurants and bars are destinations even for those not staying at the hotel.

    After getting settled in your room, put on your swimsuit and meet your guide for an excursion to one of the area’s unique attractions. At MUSA, the Museo Subaquatico de Arte (or Underwater Museum of Art), snorkelers and divers can explore 500 underwater sculptures, all made from materials that encourage the growth of coral. The surprising attraction is more than an interesting art installation, it’s also helping promote the health of the reef.

    End your vacation on the right note with a Mayan-inspired treatment at your resort’s spa. Both hotels look to local healing practices for inspiration. At NIZUC, cacao oil is used in the 2-hour Mayan Cacao massage while the NIZUC Renewal treatment incorporates herbs and spices found in the Yucatan, sea salts, and heated gemstones. The Mayan Collection of four different treatments at the Ritz-Carlton incorporates local products like copal incense as well as cleansing rituals derived from Mayan practices.

    Follow your treatment with dinner at your resort, enjoying a meal of Yucatecan dishes like salbutes (a deep-fried tortilla with toppings) and pibil (meat or fish wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked with a variety of chiles and spices).
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    Day 8
    A Final Morning by the Sea
    Both NIZUC and the Ritz-Carlton are about a 20-minute drive from the Cancun Airport, letting you enjoy every last minute possible before you begin your journey back home.