The world renowned destination of Cancun is a firm favourite with travellers drawn to the glorious beaches, Caribbean seas and non-stop action. But head further into the Yucatan peninsula and you’ll uncover a wealth of Mayan archaeological sites, colonial-era towns and traditional colourful villages.
Swim with dolphins and snorkel with whale sharks in Cancun
Top of most wishlists, adults and kids included, is to swim with dolphins. The most intelligent marine animal in the world is an incredibly majestic sight up close. Opt for an experience where the dolphins are in their natural habitat, where you can snorkel or enjoy a belly ride with these stunning creatures. There are several swim sites located along the Mexican Caribbean coast, such as on Isla Mujeres which is a short boat trip away from Cancun, Cozumel and Costa Maya.
Alternatively try a snorkelling adventure with whale sharks – which isn’t actually as scary as its sounds! These gentle giants are absolutely fascinating and harmless), just go with the flow in the Gulf of Mexico.
Explore the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza
The largest and best known Mayan ruins lie within the Yucatan Peninsula at the site of Chichen Itza, which has been designated one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Either base yourself in the Spanish Colonial city of Valladolid with its impressive architecture, or make the journey as a (long) day trip from Cancun, Tulum or Cozumel. Dating back nearly 1000 years, making it pre-Colombian, this is one of the greatest Mayan settlements in Central America. The most famous element of Chichen Itza is the mighty Pyramid of Kukulcan which features sculptures of feathered serpents winding their way down the many stairs. I visited pre-2006 when travellers where still able to climb the staircase of El Castillo, but this has since been stopped. Instead visitors can satisfy themselves with roaming the Interior Temple, traditional Sweatbaths and the Old Chichen site. The Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen Itza was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
Try Scuba diving in Cozumel
The neighbouring state of Quintana Roo is home to the luxury island paradise of Cozumel, which is surrounded by turquoise Caribbean Sea and lined with powder white beaches. By far the most popular activities are water based: whether you want to laze your days away on a catamaran, explore the coast in a kayak or surf the challenging waves. I can thoroughly recommend gawping at therich marine life up close on a scuba dive (or two!) There are many companies in both Cozumel and Cancun who will tailor-make a dive package to suit your ability, experience and budget. The opportunity to glimpse seahorses, turtles and eagle rays should not be missed!
Discover the colonial city of Merida
The Spanish arrived in the 1500s and promptly made Merida their capital city. Fast forward a few hundred years and production of henequen (much like sisal rope, but produced from the agave plant) saw Merida establish itself as the most prosperous city in the world. Evidence of both colonial era architecture and its former wealth can be seen throughout the city. In the year 2000 Merida was the American Capital of Culture City. Don’t miss the impressive tree lines El Paseo Montejo, named after the former Conquistador leader and which was dubbed the ‘Champs-Élysées of the Americas’. Explore the local history at the Museum of the City of Mérida, check out the cultural events programme at the City Hall and admire the massive pink Palacio Canton.
Wander the ancient Maya ruins of Tulum
Located within the Yucatan Peninsula is the ancient site of Tulum. This was one of the first areas to embrace tourism, although the Mayan Kings sought serenity here long before travellers. The lush tropical backdrop is stunning and the small archaeology sites are incredibly popular. Don’t miss the archaeology sites of Tulum, which are attributed to the ancient Mayans. Try to avoid the crowds and get here either at sunset or sunrise and enjoy the view over the Caribbean Sea.
Head to Coba in the heart of the Yucatan Jungle
The large ruined city of Coba is nestled within jungle in Quintana Roo district. Again this is an ancient Maya civilization site, although it’s more off the beaten track (read quieter) then both Chichen Itza (90 km away) and Tulum (44 km away). This was a vast settlement with research indicating some 50,000 inhabitants at its peak of prosperity. Admire the hieroglyphic inscriptions within the complex, which is dominated by the Nohuch Mul pyramid, which rises to 42 meters (138 feet) high. The jungle is still being cleared with further discoveries being made all the time.
Try caving in Cuzamá
Head to Yucatán's Ruta de los Cenotes, which, as the name suggests, is home to three stunning cenotes, aka sinkholes. When underwater caverns collapse, cenotes are formed, which the ancient Mayans believed were ways into the underworld. Use a local specialist of you plan on a spot of cave diving.
Learn a little at the Museo Maya de Cancun
You can’t come to Mexico and not learn a little of the local culture and heritage. Learn about the ancient Mayan settlements, colonial rule under the Spanish and the rise of the region as a tourist destination. One of the must-experience things to do in Cancun!
Swim and chill out in Chetumal
Close to the border with Belize is the city of Chetumal, which lies on the Bay of Chetumal and serves as the capital of Quintana Roo state. Its enviable location on the Caribbean coast makes it popular with beachbums and sun worshippers, but there are some decent cultural sights here too. Don’t miss the interesting Museum of Mayan Culture, walk the 3km long Boulevard Bahía which is lined with shops, monuments and restaurants and explore the multitude of Archaeological Sites within easy reach of Chetumal – if you haven’t got Mayan ruin fatigue that is!
Get to known the UNESCO listed Campeche
The city of Campeche is the largest within the state of the same name (to the south of Yucatan and Quintana Roo). This old and charming Colonial town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Like many other cities and towns in this region, Campeche was founded by Spanish conquistadors in 1540 and many of the buildings retain their faded colonial air. Must-see sights include the three kilometer Malecon promenade which runs alongside the Gulf of Mexico. Walk the Old City Wall trail and take in the houses that are built as part of the walls.