Two Weeks in the Yucatan Peninsula

There is so much more to the Yucatán Peninsula than the Riviera Maya. If you have two weeks to explore, you’re in for a treat: refreshing cenotes (sinkholes), scuba diving with whale sharks, white-sand beaches either deserted or full of life (take your pick), breathtaking Maya ruins, beautiful colonial towns, nightlife for every taste and whim, delicious cuisine, biospheres and reserves, and majestic haciendas all await you in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Carretera Federal, Cancun - Chetumal Km 230, 307, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
While not as large as other ancient Mayan cities in the region, Tulum draws in visitors for its stunning setting of centuries-old temples perched on a cliff by the Caribbean Sea. You’ll pass a large market with souvenirs, a casual Mexican restaurant, and even a Starbucks before reaching the entrance, where a train can take you to the site if you’re not up for the 10-minute walk. It’s advisable to hire a guide to fully understand each structure’s significance and the history behind the ruins; informative signage is all but nonexistent. Don’t forget to bring your swimsuit, as the site encompasses a white-sand beach with soothing waves and beautiful rock formations that’s reached by a long wooden staircase.
Coba, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Cobá holds what remains of a large pre-Colombian Maya civilization located on the Riviera Maya. Lesser known than Tulum, the name Cobá means turbid (cloudy) waters—probably having to do with the five cenotes (underground rivers) in the region, which played an important role in agriculture during the development of this region. At one time the city is believed to have had 50,000 inhabitants. Much of the area is still unexcavated, although recent excavations unearthed a stele, which is unique to the Maya world, as it is covered in hieroglyphics. A restored ball court confirms that the popular ball game was practiced here. Bloodletting rituals traditionally followed Maya ball games at Cobá and slaves were forced to participate. This differs from what was practiced at the later site of Chichen Itza, where the captain of the winning team was beheaded after the game.
Carretera Federal 180 Km. 120
A brilliant work of architecture and astronomy, the Pyramid of Kukulkán at Chichén Itzá is so precisely engineered that on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the sun casts shadows that slither like snakes and seem to descend the structure’s stairways. Said to represent the plumed-serpent deity Kukulkán, the shadows return to earth twice yearly to drink from sacred sinkholes known as cenotes. Today the phenomenon attracts thousands to the already crowded archaeological site, but almost-identical light-play can be seen the day before, alongside a mere fraction of the visitors.
Ekbalam, Yuc., Mexico
Visitors to the Yucatán and the Riviera Maya never miss Chichen Itza, but there is another hidden and almost unknown archaeological Mayan ruin called Ek’ Balam. Set in jungle, the site is not well known because it was discovered much later than other ancient sites in the Yucatán and restoration only started 20 years ago. As such, this great ruin is not yet on the tourist circuit and currently visited only by those in the know. Located 30 minutes drive north of Valladolid, the ruins cover an area of 10 square miles. With only the center of the site excavated, there are currently more than 40 buildings and pyramids to explore. The “Plaza Norte” is the biggest and oldest of all the plazas and it hosts the Acropolis with six levels, vaulted ceilings and over 72 rooms. On the fourth level you can find one of the most impressive construction feats of the whole mayan culture: “La Casa Blanca de la Lectura”. Ek’ Balam was inhabited by the Mayas between 600 BC and 1600 AC, which makes it a site with one of the longest continued occupations by this ancient culture. There are plenty of tour agencies in Merida that can arrange the trip for you or it’s an easy two hour drive by car from Merida. Visit now before it becomes the latest tourist discovery and you’ll have the whole place to yourself.
Carretera Merida-Campeche Km. 78, 97890 Uxmal, Yuc., Mexico
Overshadowed by its larger and more well-known cousins, Palenque and Chichén-Itzá, Uxmal (“Oosh-mahl”) is the ruins of an ancient Maya city located near present-day Campeche. In its heyday, Uxmal was one of the largest cities of the Yucatan peninsula with a population of about 25,000 Maya. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ancient Maya architecture in this part of Mexico is referred to as Puuc architecture, and Uxmal is a prime example of this style. Though there are some Puuc structures in Chichén-Itzá, Uxmal is unique in all of Mexico. Puuc design is most notable for buildings with a plain lower façade and a richly decorated upper façade. Carvings most commonly found include serpents and latticework. Uxmal is dedicated to the Maya rain god, Chaac, and you can see his image everywhere. On the day we were here, it was blisteringly hot and humid; I could’ve used some rain! When I first laid eyes on the four buildings that make up the complex known as the Nunnery Quadrangle, I thought they were the most elegant Maya ruins I had ever seen. The clean lines of the buildings give them a modernity that is surprising considering Uxmal was built more than 1,000 years ago! The carvings on the upper facades are just spectacular and give the entire structure a very delicate feel. Uxmal is located close to Chichén-Itzá, so if you go to Chichén, consider going a bit further to visit Uxmal. You won’t regret it!
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Take a stroll down one of the cobbled streets of Valladolid and you might come across a cart peddling “volcanos.” The busy vender sells one item: a thick masa bun stuffed with chili marinated pulled pork and topped with red onion. For an extra kick, pour on a spoonful of homemade habenero sauce, but be careful! These small pockets pack heat.
Calle 41, Centro, Valladolid, Yuc., Mexico
We become so small when entering a place of worship, this local woman especially as she made her way to the entrance of the Cathedral of San Gervasio in Valladolid. It wasn’t Sunday. I’m sure of it because Sundays in Mexican city centers are usually much busier with families wandering around the city and going to mass. On this particular day there were just a few folks going about their usual routine.
Mexico 180
Are you kidding me? 150 feet deep AND the opening to miles of underground caverns? And you want me to jump in? If it isn’t the 30 foot drop that gets you, its the inky blackness below or the who-knows-what that’s living down there. You see, the rainbows that shimmer in the water- falls, and the roots and vines that hang like some bridal veil, and the sunlight that flickers about the place are all just trying to pull you in--into the black nothing that lurks beneath. Never-the-less, if you are brave enough to take the plunge, you will be rewarded with velvety sweet water that feels like lotion on your skin and baby catfish that tickle your toes and, best of all, the exhilaration of knowing you swam in the very entrance to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. So descend into the cavern and climb the chiseled staircase to the dive platform and make sure when you jump, you hold your breath, cause its a long way down.
Isla Holbox, Quintana Roo, Mexico
This tiny island is north of Isla Mujeres and Cancun and is only 26 miles long and offers visitors in search of a “Robinson Crusoe” experience the perfect escape. Long, sweeping beaches beckon with water sports, snorkeling, sport fishing, and total R&R. A shallow lagoon gives sanctuary to thousands of flamingos, pelicans and other exotic birds and creatures, allowing visitors the perfect spot in which to commune with nature. Several good restaurants and hotels are available and tours to area attractions can be arranged by ferry and small plane. Getting around the island is via bicycle or golf cart.
Carretera Puerto Juarez ~ Tulum, Yodzonot, 77776 Akumal, Q.R., Mexico
This pair of baby loggerhead turtles was less than 12 hours old when we saw and briefly held them. What was amazing was that no matter which direction we faced them, they instinctively knew to turn towards the ocean! There are seven species of sea turtle in the world, all of which are either threatened or endangered. Mexico is home to six of these species and the local beaches around Akumal are nesting ground for two of these species - the Loggerhead and the Green Sea turtle. Nesting season for these two turtle species is May through October so if you are staying in or anywhere near Akumal or Tulum during this time, you will likely encounter a turtle. If you want learn more about the turtles, here’s a fun way to do it - go on a turtle walk with Centro Ecologico Akumal (CEA). CEA is a non-profit organization, based in Akumal, that actively participates in a sea turtle protection program. CEA conducts nightly turtle walks where you accompany researchers to check on nests and nesting turtles. They only take groups of up to 10 people on each night’s walk and they don’t take reservations. We showed at about 8:00 and waited. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the giant female lumber up to shore and lay her precious bounty of eggs. Tip: Bring along a jacket (or wear long sleeved shirt) to keep warm and a flashlight.
Isla Contoy, Quintana Roo, Mexico
The most remote and least visited of Cancun’s outlying islands is Isla Contoy, a nature preserve where the number of visitors is strictly limited to no more than 200 per day. Typically, though, fewer than 100 people make the excursion to this haven for sea birds, turtles, and other species, some of which are endangered. More than 150 different types of birds have been spotted here and at least 98 plant species grow on the small island. Once on Isla Contoy, you can spend your afternoon enjoying the beach or you can choose to take a guided tour with a biologist to learn more about its flora and fauna. Visits include lunch.
Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Wonderful catamarans that you can rent right off the beach.
Calle 60 476A, Centro, 97000 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico
Mérida’s many historic plazas are jam packed with open air event throughout the year. Popular with tourists and locals alike is Yucatecan “Jarana”, a traditional form of dance accompanied by live music. One of the best places to see the show is at “Serenata Yucateca”, a free event each Thursday in the newly restored Plaza Santa Lucía, a traditional square just four blocks from the main Centro plaza. The musicians, singers and dancing “mestizos”, decked out in their colorful costumes begin the show at 9 PM, as they have for the last 40 years. There are plenty of benches to sit to enjoy the show. Also, with restaurants and bars spilling out on the sidewalk, its a great way to catch a dinner and show. Santa Lucía in not just a park, it is also the name of the neighborhood that has come alive since the recent renovation. With traditional cafes, restaurants and shops such as La Chaya Maya and Coqui Coqui Perfumerie, it is fast becoming the “it” place to be in downtown Mérida. Many colonial houses with a private pools are available to rent in Santa Lucia and in the surroundings so you can close the action. (Images courtesy of and
Each Tuesday around 7:30pm, locals from in around central Mérida descend on the square in Parque Santiago to dance “danzon” under the stars at the weekly event called “Remembranzas Musicales”. A form of dance and music, “danzón” was introduced from Cuba to México in the early Twentieth Century. Cuban inspired rhythms from the 1930’s and 40’s are just what is takes to get this crowd moving. Each week, elegant ladies and immaculately dressed men kick up their heels to live music provided by the City Band. The average age of the dancers is north of 50, but they know their moves and it always draws a festive crowd. Everybody is welcome to join in, even if you are not the worlds best dancer. If not, you can take a seat on the sidelines and simply enjoy the festivities. Also, with a night market of restaurants adjacent to the plaza and tables spilling out under the night sky, its a great spot to enjoy the show while sampling local dishes like panuchos, salbutes, tamales and sopa de lima. Parque Santiago is in Mérida Centro, four blocks from Méridas main plaza. It is located in 59 street between 70 and 72. The neighborhood of Santiago, in which the park is located is a colorful colonial era neighborhood full of life. With all the music, food and color, it is also one of the best neighborhoods to stay in. Great vacation rentals ideas with pools and other great amenites are yours by the night, week or month at (Images courtesy of Mé
Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Just when it seemed like the Riviera Maya Riviera had become nothing but a sea of all-inclusive beach resorts, you stumble upon the quaint little Mexican village of Puerto Morelos. There are almost no huge developments, no shopping outlets, and no chain restaurants. The place is absolutely magical and is like traveling back in time. There is a small town square or plaza lined with palm trees, small cafes, and local boutiques. You can always find a good margarita to sip on at the super hip little bars scattered around the small town. If you find yourself on the Yucatan peninsula don’t miss this opportunity to travel back in time 50 yrs and experience the “old” Mexico.
Decima Avenida Esquina Con Avenida Juárez S/n, Centro, 77600 San Miguel de Cozumel, Q.R., Mexico
A short ferry-ride from Playa del Carmen, Isla Cozumel is a diver’s paradise. And while diving and snorkeling might be the main attraction here, the island and its town San Miguel de Cozumel offer a lot of land- and sand-based activities for the traveler as well. San Miguel de Cozumel’s main plaza is a peaceful spot to people watch, shop, and dine. Even though this town sees thousands of tourists a year and shiploads of cruise-goers dock here daily, it has managed to keep its charm and warmth. For some scrumptious grub, check out Kinta, a block or so off the main plaza on Avenida 5-- it offers up fresh seafood and traditional Mexican cuisine. The western side of the island is built up with beach clubs, where for a small fee you can enjoy their beaches and facilities-- Isla de la Pasión is one of these and boasts a gorgeous beach. The eastern side of the island is wilder and the surf too dangerous for swimming in most places, with the exception of Playa Chen Río. When you get tired of the beach, put on your Indiana Jones hat and travel inland to a minor Maya ruin, San Gervasio, which the ancient Maya dedicated to Ixchel, the goddess of fertility. Of course, this island was built around diving and you’ll see why once you hit the clear, turquoise waters and behold their technicolor reefs. Santa Rosa Wall and Palancar are two of the best dive spots. Dive shops abound for equipment rental, tours, and even certification lessons.
Avenida 1
The Maya name for Laguna Bacalar means the Lake of Seven Colors, and spending a little time here will show you why it’s such an apt moniker: from turquoise to cobalt blue to jade green and everything in between, the colors of this fresh-water lake seem to shift and change against its white-sand bottom. When you’re ready to do something else besides admire the breathtaking view, you can go swimming or kayaking, enjoy spa treatments and yoga, or adventure off to a nearby cenote and fort. And there are plenty of comfortable hotels and good eats in the town of Bacalar. This oasis in the middle of the jungles of Quintana Roo is the perfect off-the-beaten-track destination for travelers ready to escape the touristy Riviera Maya madness. It is also a refreshing rest stop on the way to the ancient Maya ruins of Dzibanché, Kinichná, and Kohunlich.
Quintana Roo, Mexico
A stunning bay with little development, Soliman Bay is great if you want to get away from it all. Head to Chamico’s for a delicious whole fried fish and a strech of sand all to yourself.
Av. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla S/N, centro, 77490 Xcalak, Q.R., Mexico
It’s fun to imagine that Xcalak, a sleepy coastal village south of Mahahual on Mexico’s Costa Maya, is what the entire Caribbean coast of Mexico looked like before the creation of the Cancún megaresort in the 70s. No Spring breakers, no cruise ships, no thumping beachside clubs, no big hotels. Just white sand and palapas, palm trees and pelicans, hammocks and fishing boats. Just you in secluded relaxation away from it all. Several clean and basic hotels are located on the old coast road and fresh, cheap seafood is abundant at local favorite Toby’s. Dive and snorkel trips can be arranged at XTC Dive Center (, located about 300m north of town.
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Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
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