The best things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula? Not surprisingly, immersing yourself in Mayan heritage is the highlight of a visit to this stretch of the Yucatan Peninsula. With this guide, we recommend the best cultural experiences in and near the Riviera Maya. These include Mayan temples, dare-devil performances, spectacular cenotes, and a stunning colonial city.
Here's the Lay of the Land of the Yucatan Peninsula
The Riviera Maya is the nickname for 100 miles of coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula. It extends from Playa del Carmen to the Mayan site of Tulum. The Riviera Maya is the eastern part of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, and we cover some of its inland attractions that are easy day trips. Those excursions include the ancient Maya temple of Coba, and the small colonial city of Valladolid.
We also give you a glimpse of UNESCO World Heritage Site Chichen Itza in the neighboring state of Yucatan, which is about two hours from Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is a small city on the Caribbean coast in the northeast of the Mexican state Quintana Roo. Originally a fishing town, “Playa” in the center of Riviera Maya runs from south Cancún to the Mayan ruin, Tulum. The village was named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who is the patron saint of Cancún. Playa is growing rapidly and is now the third-largest city in Quintana Roo, after Cancun and Chetumal.
I stayed in an all-inclusive resort in the Playacar area, private development on the southeast of Playa del Carmen. Playacar is safe, new, tidy, and what I would call a Disneyfied version of a typical Mexican neighborhood. While the beaches are beautiful and amenities plentiful, the environment is not quaint and full of historic charm. That will come later in your trip!
Explore Playa del Carmen 5th Avenue
A stroll down Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue is an invigorating way to acclimate to the Yucatan Peninsula lifestyle. The street is highly commercial, with salespeople hawking wares or beseeching you to visit their shop.
Still, the vibe is friendly and there's a lot of eye candy to enjoy: ceramics, hammocks, Mexican hats, religious folk art, fruit vendors, to name but a few of the myriad goods for sale. A vibrant, splashy mural of colorful characters and many moods unfolded before me and my own mood lifted in response.
Parque Los Fundadores and Dance of Flyers
At the southeastern end of Playa del Carmen, near the ferry to Cozumel, at the intersection of 5th Avenue and Avenue Juarez is Parque Los Fundadores. The beachside plaza's lined with steps for people to relax and experience an exhilarating cultural performance: Danza de los Voladores.
Known in English as "Dance of the Flyers", this ancient Mesoamerican tradition is still performed today. According to one myth, the ritual was created to ask the gods to end a severe drought. Danza de Los Voladores was named an item of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2009. Papantla in the state of Veracruz is considered the epicenter of this ancient art form; given that is a 20-hour drive away from Playa del Carmen, I hadn't actually harbored any hopes of actually seeing this high-flying acrobatic performance.
In fact, the troupe performing the ritual were indeed from Veracruz and members of the Totonac indigenous community there. The six men who shared this tradition ranged in age from early twenties to mid-forties, performing hourly at Parque Los Fundadores. The performers serve as both cultural ambassadors and fundraisers for their community.
Flight of the Voladores
In distinctive costumes of white shirts and red pants adorned with vibrantly-hued aprons, they begin circling a 98-foot tall pole. One played a rhythmic melody on a reed pipe and the others bang out a steady beat on hand-held drums. Then, while one member continued to drum, one after another the other five nimbly climbed the pole in shiny boots!
I later learned that the four voladores, or flyers, symbolize the cardinal directions and elements. The climbers each took their place on a square frame at its top. The group's caporal perched above them at the tip of the pole, while he continued the mesmerizing flute score. The performers tied heavy ropes around their waists and then, propelled with the caporal's boots, the wooden platform began to turn and, as it rotated, the four men sitting of each side of the square rigging simply fell backwards. Hanging upside down, the men spun around the pole in wide circles, descending ever earthward as the rope line unwound. As someone terrified of heights and not able to easily "let go" this sight was both electrifying and giddy.
Where To Stay in Yucatan
Playa del Carmen
Magic Blue Boutique Hotel offers guests a convenient base while in Playa del Carmen. It also offers a sauna, a rooftop terrace and an outdoor pool.
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Itour México Túlum Hotel offers free parking & free Wi-Fi and right next to Tulum National Park. It's just 500 meters to the town's centre. It features a café, garden and individually decorated rooms. The décor is inspired by Mexican culture and each room features bright colours. All air-conditioned rooms have satellite TV and a private bathroom.
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Hotel Maya has a restaurant, outdoor swimming pool, a bar and a shared lounge. It's only a short walk from the hotel to the Coba Ruins. The accommodation features a shared kitchen, room service and currency exchange for guests.
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Hotel Sac Be is another very good option to consider when booking your stay in Coba. It also gets very good reviews.
Hotel Fundadores offers air-conditioned rooms in Valladolid. Among the various facilities are a garden and a terrace. There is an outdoor pool and guests can make use of free private parking. At the hotel, all rooms are equipped with a patio with a pool view.
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Playa is a fun entry point to the Yucatan but one day of honky-tonk is enough for me. The next day, I headed south to the ancient Mayan city of Tulum. How ancient, you ask? A stelae found on the site is dated 564 A.D., although it's speculated that the area was a fishing village as early as 300 B.C.
Playa del Carmen to Tulum is a very manageable day trip. The distance is about 40 miles and will take roughly an hour, depending on the mode of transportation you use. Options include taxi (about 650 pesos); the ADO bus (70 pesos each way) or via a colectivo (a shared van that costs about 40 pesos each way). I took the bus down and a colectivo back. The bus is big, comfortable, air-conditioned and the trip is direct; the colectivo was cramped, had no AC and made numerous stops. Note that the little town of Tulum is actually about 2.5 miles inland from the archaeological park. You might enjoy poking around a bit here, although there are restaurants at the mini-mall outside the archaeological park.
History of Tulum in the Yucatan Peninsula
The settlement's location is unique in the Mayan civilization; Tulum was the only Mayan city built on the coast. The site is built atop 39-foot ocean cliffs and is surrounded on three sides by limestone walls seven yards thick. The name Tulúm translates as the Mayan word for "fence". The extent of the defensive measures befitted the only port for the extensive Mayan trading empire, believed to have stretched as far away as Costa Rica. It's said that the goods traded included turquoise, jade and obsidian, as well as honey, animal skins, salt and wax.
From the site’s entrance, a hodgepodge of vendors sold trinkets while tired tourists sipped soft drinks at casual cafes. I walked along a dusty path to a small triangular archway within a stone wall. Once through it, I felt as though I had wandered into another, timeless world. Although a popular destination for visitors, the site was largely empty during my visit. Silhouettes of gray stone temples were back-lit by a lavender sky, and palm trees rustled in the breeze. The other-worldly atmosphere made it easy to imagine being among its earliest settlers; another civilization.
Crossing the compact grounds, which are much smaller than many of the other sprawling Mayan metropolis, I saw what looked like bloody handprints emblazoned on the façade of one of the ancient structures. It was customary to paint over the exteriors of buildings with bright colors that the Maya associated with cardinal directions.
Other themes reflected in the murals that adorned the buildings were everyday rituals and natural surroundings. Some believe that the murals were repainted to mark the beginning of each new Katun, which is a Mayan measurement unit of time, equal to 7,200 days, and part of the civilization’s intricate Long Count calendar.
I reached the complex’s outer edges, perched on the sea above brilliant turquoise waters. Looking down, I realized where all the tourists were playing on the sandy beach and in the foaming waves. The sight actually enhanced the effect of being amidst an inhabited community, creating a sense of enjoyment and liveliness.
Connect With Cultural Landscape of Yucatan Peninsula
A fascinating aspect of travel is exploring how the landscape of a destination has influenced its beliefs and way of life. One of the best things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula is connect with its singular cultural landscape.
In addition to white-sand beaches and various historical sites, Quintana Roo and Yucatan offer visitors distinctive cultural landscapes to explore. The Yucatan Peninsula is a flat plain of limestone with thousands of miles of below-ground water-filled caves interconnected by subterranean rivers. When the roof of these underground caverns collapses, the result is a deep, water-filled sinkhole known as a cenote.
Cenote is a Spanish word derived from the Mayan word dzonot, meaning "well." With more than 3,000 Mayan cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula, they're a fascinating and fun feature of landscape to explore! From the outskirts of Tulum, I headed inland and after a short drive north on Route 180, I soon saw the sign for Grand Cenote.
Exploring Grand Cenote
After purchasing my ticket, I followed a boardwalk down a precipice, eager for my first glimpse of this curious phenomenon. About twenty feet below was a ring of rippling teal water encircling a small island, which sprouted prehistoric-looking plant life. Chalky limestone walls rose from and encircled this vivid scene, resembling white waves of soft stone. The curling lip of the cliff face extended out several yards. The long roots of above-ground trees dangled all the way down to the water far below. I later learned that cenotes closer to the sea tend to be at land level, like a lake or pond. Conversely, the pools of the craters further inland are generally at the bottom of deep open-air shafts in the ground.
Descending stairs to the floor of the abyss, I walked to the right side of the little islet, where a handful of middle-aged friends were donning snorkeling gear. Goggles and flippers in place, they swam off down a low-ceilinged passage that extended from the lagoon. I watched them paddle toward a luminous glow created by sunlight filtering through another opening in the earth. Their exclamations echoed back to me after they were out of sight, squeals that sounded alternately anxious and delighted.
All Business at Grand Cenote, Yucatan Peninsula
On the other side, it was all business as a television crew readied to tape an advertisement for Mexican beer. Pony-tailed technicians tinkered with a giant camera lens; an aggravated-looking man with a clipboard paced around and snarled into his cell phone, apparently waiting for the “talent.”
Two stories below ground, I peered through man-size ferns at a pool of translucent cobalt water. I wondered what the Mayan high priests would think of a Corona commercial filming in their portal to the afterlife. Their jaded nonchalance about the extraordinary surroundings gave me pause. It prompted me to consider how often I can take for granted the beauty that is in my own backyard. Yet I am certainly not alone in finding the cenote experience, celluloid and otherwise, awe-inspiring.
Like "The Set of Star Wars"
“I remember watching films of people cenote diving and wondering why on earth people submerged themselves into these dark holes through choice not knowing what gruesome monster was going to be waiting for them around the corner!” exclaimed Corrie Watkins, a dive instructor with Abyss Dive Center in Tulum. “I have since executed a number of cenote dives within the Yucatan Peninsula. The only way to describe it to someone who has never been is that it is like you are diving on the set of a Star Wars film. They are decorated with stalagmites and stalactites with the most amazingly perfect visibility.”
“There are a few cenotes where you can comfortably surface halfway through the dive, such as Dos Ojos,” she explained. “There, you are surrounded by an overhead cavern, where bats hug the ceiling and spiders balance within their crystal webs. If you look carefully you may see ancient fossils on the floor, walls and ceiling. Also, look out for the haloclines in some of the deeper areas this is where the freshwater meets the salt-water and there is a mirror-like effect.”
Coba of the Yucatan Peninsula
From Grand Cenote, my next stop was the ancient Mayan city of Coba. My guide explained during Coba’s heyday from 200 - 600 A.D., it housed more than 50,000 people. I had never heard of it so, once more, I recognized that local knowledge always trumped my research. This is why I always prefer to use the services of local guides. As we parked and headed toward a group of temples known as Nohoch Mul, my companion explained that the name Coba means "waters stirred by wind"; the site is situated around two lakes, Coba and Macanxoc.
After a brief trek accompanied by the songs of various darting and swooping birds and the chatter of unseen monkeys, the path opened up into a clearing dominated by a towering gray stone structure, surrounded by a halo of verdant trees. Now I immediately understood why all those fellow tourists required an ambulatory exit from Coba.
The Nohoch Mul temple is Coba's tallest and immense monument, standing at a majestic 138 feet in height. That's ten stories high! Carved into its facade are steep shallow steps and climbing up the vertical incline were scores of visitors who from a distance resembled swarming ants, their bodies tiny compared to the scale of the temple.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone on the Yucatan Peninsula
A confession: I am afraid of heights. Watching much younger, more able-bodied people make the climb in such a tentative crawl told me it wouldn't be easy. Giving myself a silent pep talk, I approached the monolith and as I got closer, felt a sense of relief. I realized that at least half of the people mounting Nohoch Mul were doing so in a way that was not terribly dignified. It certainly made scaling its heights less scary for me. They were ascending one step at a time on their butts, scooching ever upward on the temple's 120 steps.
Even more inspiring was the look outward, where across a green expanse of treetops, I saw the tip of another temple peeking above the canopy. This view reminded me of the power of time; no matter how much effort, energy and intention, the significance of our human plans and toil is always eclipsed by the grander design of the Universe. Rather than be bummed out by that notion, it was a comfort. It was another kind of reminder about humility: I can seek to achieve my aspirations but I don't need to regard my goals as life or death; my accomplishments or failures, for that matter are far from eternal.
I visited Coba in 2010. In the ensuing decade, my perspective has evolved considerably. Today, while it’s still permissible, I would probably not climb Nohoch Mul. I also have had my consciousness raised about the appropriateness of summiting a historic site of spiritual significance to a culture not my own.
- Opening hours: 9:00am to 3:00pm, everyday
- Admission fees: 80 pesos
- Website: inah.gob.mx/zonas/515-zona-arqueologica-de-coba
Rio Lagartos is a small village perched on the shores of the mangrove-lined lagoon that holds special appeal for bird-watchers and wildlife photographers. There is a laid-back atmosphere and plenty of nature in this peaceful community at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. The opportunity to see a glimpse of a sleepy, rural fishing community's way of life is provided by Rio Lagartos.
If you take a boat tour in Rio Lagartos, you'll also spot crocodiles, happily from a safe distance! Rio Lagartos means "estuary of the lizard." The area was given this name in 1517 by a soldier accompanying Spanish explorer Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba. European exploration of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula began with the voyage of Cordoba. A humorous tale claims that when the Spanish asked the local indigenous population what the name of the region was, the answer they received was Yucatán, which translates to "I don't understand you." The rest is history.
There are roughly 2,000 people living in Rio Lagartos, and the town is made up of multiple blocks of buildings that are all brightly colored. Along the waterfront is where the main street runs. There are a few eateries on one side, and a fleet of tiny fishing and excursion boats are moored on the other. My first glimpse of the indigenous wildlife was the big-billed, comical-looking brown pelicans perched on the bows of the boats. Although they appeared to be as numerous as seagulls, in North America they were actually categorized as endangered in 1970.
Merida has a rich culture that reveals its colorful and multi-faceted history. There are many places in Merida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, where you can learn about the history and culture of the area. The city's squares and boulevards are like an open-air museum of Colonial architecture and feature frequent concerts. There are many organizations that focus on showcasing Yucatan's past and way of life, including folk art, music, and Mayan history.
The city of Merida is situated on the western edge of the Yucatan Peninsula's northernmost point. You can fly or drive from Cancun to Merida in less than an hour if you first spend some time on the Riviera Maya. Beaches may be found approximately 90 minutes to the west of the city in Celestun and 40 minutes to the north in the coastal town of Progreso. Small "Pueblos Magicos" like Izamal and Valladolid, as well as historic Mayan sites, are all accessible day outings.
There is little doubt that Merida, Mexico, is a sizable and busy commercial hub. Anyone hoping for a cute Colonial outpost will be let down. There are almost a million people living in the region, which is a hub for manufacturing, construction, and the production of water, gas, and electricity. However, Merida is a historic, secure, and welcoming city that has a lot to offer culture-lovers!
Motoring west, I headed toward the picturesque provincial city of Vallodolid. Getting outside the main tourist areas and into the countryside always fascinates me. I feel like I learn something about the cultural landscape and traditions by simply making the time and space to observe everyday life.
Across the Yucatan, and elsewhere in Mexico, there are four elements of community consistently evident on the main road through small towns that speak to the universal cycle of life as well as a robust faith not necessarily found elsewhere: energetic and smiling kids playing in schoolyards; colorful roadside shrines; beautifully decaying old churches with haunting patinas; and humble cemeteries with headstones hand-painted in the colors of the natural world: sky blue, golden yellow, rosy pink.
In Valladolid, the pastel shades of the colonial buildings seemed to glow in the late afternoon light. Like many Mexican towns, Valladolid is laid out as a grid, and at its nexus is a park. Parque Francisco Canton Rosado is at the heart of the centro historico, flanked by Cathedral of San Gervasio on the south side, and colonnaded buildings lining the other sides, home to restaurants and shops, with neighborhoods radiating outward.
A Window Into Life in Valladolid
The green space not only affords welcome relief from the rather oppressive heat of inland Yucatan, it offers a window into a pace of life very different than my own world. While I know a lack of economic opportunity makes life is hard for many in the Yucatan, there is a timelessness, a relaxed rhythm, a gentle congeniality that certainly isn't part of Boston's vibe.
From my bench, I watched two elderly women who looked like sisters greet each other, put down their shopping bags and settle in for a chat. A father with two young boys and an adolescent daughter sat on the base of the elaborate fence that encloses the park, occasionally looking expectantly down the street; in due course, mom appeared and the family trundled off.
In the midst of a busy city block at the intersection of Calles 39 and 36, I found Cenote Zaci, which means “white hawk” in Mayan. With a diameter of 150 feet, Zaci was hard to miss. Descending a series of steep steps carved in the rock, I reached water level at the bottom of the deep underground chamber, 260 feet down. I looked up just as a gang of teenagers leaped from a two-story ledge above, drenching me with spray from the terrific splash they made as they hit the water. Their exuberance as they surfaced from the crystal clear water was contagious, and I laughed out loud from my perch on the cenote’s perimeter.
Cenote Ik Kil, Yucatan Peninsula
Deeper inland, not far from the town of Piste’ and the Mayan ruin of Chichén Itzá, is Cenote Ik Kil. Lush greenery wreaths its 196-foot wide circular opening and then spills down the interior of its 130-foot sides. From beneath the canopy of plants, waterfalls gush, jungle vines hang and beams of sunlight fall, creating a verdant and vibrant underground world. The eco-park is also known as the “Sacred Blue Cenote”, my visit was indeed mystical in an unexpected way. Watching the excited teenagers lined up on the precipitous stairs, chattering and fidgeting while waiting their turn to take the plunge, I was reminded of my own poolside antics as a youngster and felt anew that ability to experience the utter joy of the moment.
Ik Kil’s facilities include a restaurant and palapas oval Mayan bungalows for overnight stays. I was told that the owner had continually made improvements to the property and judging by the crowds streaming in, he was making good on his investment. A short drive away, eighteen Mayan women have improved the fortunes of their families and village by turning their local watering hole into the Yokdzonot Ecological Cenote Park. The women spent a year clearing the surrounding land, and then designed, and now operate, the community enterprise, which also includes a small restaurant.
Chichen Itza and Cenote Sagrada
Just ten minutes drive from Cenote Ik Kil is the famous Mayan site Chichén Itzá, built around 600 A.D. The Mayan name "Chich'en Itza" translates as "at the mouth of the well of the Itza". Early settlements in the area sprung up around these natural wells because the cenotes are among the only perennial sources of quality potable water in the area. My guide at the site, Julian, told me he was from the neighboring town of Piste, where two of the seven cenotes are used for drinking water but are only safe for locals, who have built up immunization to its impurities.
Julian and I toured the architectural wonders of El Castillo and the Temple of Warriors, and stood on the Great Ball Court, the largest in ancient Mesoamerica. We then headed toward Cenote Sagrado on Sacbe Number One. The term sacbe is Mayan for "white road" these routes were originally coated with limestone stucco, making them visible at night. It was easy to see why the cenote here was sacred to the ancient Maya, inspiring pilgrimages and human offerings. Two hundred feet in diameter, the “Well of Sacrifice,” as it is also known, is a perfectly round circle of jade waters from which flaky cream-colored walls rise, their crest enclosed with a ring of luxuriant plants in emerald hues.
Cenotes, Rituals and Sacrifice of Yucatan Peninsula
Julian told me that virgins both boys and girls were sacrificed here as offerings to the rain gods, or chaacs, during times of drought. These youngsters were chosen for this honor from birth, based on the day of the year they were born. Parents actually tried to bring their children into the world on the five specific days of the year important in this regard in the Mayan calendar August 6 - 10. Julian said the sacrifice needed to occur before the children reached the age of 13, when they became adults in the eyes of the community. When a sacrifice was required, priests would test the children to see which ones were “ready,” with successful memorization of a certain song or lesson indicating their time had come.
While it seems certain cenotes played an important role in Mayan rites; exactly what that role seemed less clear. I was later told by another Mayan guide that only the civilization’s elite could be laid to rest in a cenote, and was bound in a fetal position. He said the belief was that the cenote represented a “womb” to reincarnation.
Then again, I knew the azure waters of the Cenotes in Yucatan, Mexico had been a battleground for the sacred and the profane before. In fact, a controversy over rights to one of these otherworldly holes in the ground had roots reaching to Boston. What is known for sure is that Chichen Itza’s Cenote Sagrado yielded a veritable goldmine of artifacts for Massachusetts native Edward H. Thompson at the turn of the twentieth century.
Edward Thompson and Chichen Itza
In 1879, Thompson wrote an article for Popular Science Monthly on ancient Mayan monuments that attracted the attention of a wealthy patron of the American Antiquarian Society, who persuaded Thompson to move to Yucatán to explore the ruins on his behalf. A Massachusetts senator helped subsidize Thompson's efforts by recommending him for the post of United States consul to Yucatan.
Thompson arrived in the Yucatán in 1885 and nine years later, he purchased a plantation that included the site of Chichen Itza. Over a six-year period beginning in 1904, he dredged Cenote Sagrado, finding the skeletons of men and children as well as gold, copper, carved jade and the first examples of what were believed to be pre-Columbian Mayan cloth and wooden weapons. Thompson shipped the bulk of the artifacts to Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. In 1926, the Mexican government seized Thompson's plantation, charging he had removed the artifacts illegally. The Mexican Supreme Court in 1944 ruled in Thompson's favor.
New wonders and sources of debate continue to bubble to the surface along the Yucatan’s cenote circuit. Adding to an already long list of possible reasons the Mayan cities were abandoned is a fresh theory now making the rounds. This conjecture centers on the cenotes being responsible for the civilization’s 9th century decline with the cumulative effect of eons of human sacrifice having contaminated the water supply.
The Nunnery of Yucatan Peninsula
From the Cenote Sagrado, Julian and I headed to the other side of the site, and a set of structures nicknamed Las Monjas, or “The Nunnery,” by the Spanish. In fact, the structure was actually a Mayan governmental palace. Made up of three separate buildings, the eastern edifice is sure to capture your attention. It's covered with elaborate carvings, including numerous masks of the god Chac. Often depicted with a long curling nose, Chac is a major figure in the Mayan pantheon, responsible for thunder, rain--and bringing the crop essential to their survival, maize, or corn.
- Opening hours: 8:00am to 4:00pm, everyday
- Admission fees: 80 pesos for the federal ticket fee, plus a state of Yucatan ticket fee. For foreigners, this totals 486 pesos.
- Website: inah.gob.mx/zonas/
Soaking up the area's history and culture is undoubtedly one of the best things about the Yucatan Peninsula! If you've visited the area, we invite you to share your takeaways in the comments section below!
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