On my days off from volunteering, when I wanted a break from partying and lazing on the beach, I would often explore my surroundings and discover what the Yucatan peninsula had to offer.
The peninsula is divided up into provinces; Quintana Roo, Yucatan and Campeche. It is surprisingly easy to navigate by bus and the ADO (ah-day-oh) service is convenient, cheap, reliable and above all, comfortable!
Quintana Roo is on the east of the peninsula. It is home to a variety of glorious beaches – the Spring Breakers party paradise Cancun, sleepy little Puerto Morales, upbeat and bouncy Playa Del Carmen, the turtle filled snorkeller’s heaven that is Akumal and the new celebrity hot spot, Tulum. One main highway runs through Quintana Roo, along the coast, from Cancun to Chetumal. All of these beaches are easily accessible.
If staying in Playa del Carmen, the collectivos (minicabs) for the highway all leave from Calle 2. It is a ridiculously cheap fare. Just cram on, listen for the call when you’re at your stop and walk for a couple of minutes to your destination. You can hail a collectivo for your return from the side of the road if not at the destination itself. There are tons of fun things to do around Playa Del Carmen/ the Riviera Maya including the Xcaret & Xel Ha natural water parks, Xplor adventure & zip lining park, numerous cenotes (sink hole pools of fresh clear water) and some great caving experiences like Kantu Chi eco-park. For a little bit of history and culture there are day tours available to Tulum archaeological zone and to Coba’s Mayan ruins, pyramid and jungle. If you are looking for a challenge, you can hire a bicycle and cycle through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to the fishing village of Punta Allen. The trek through this beautiful world heritage site is 42km, and best started very early on to avoid the daytime sun.
The Yucatan is drenched with a proud and varied culture, and is quite different to the rest of Mexico. The colonial history is evident here, yet the Mayan culture shines through. The music, food, dress, dance, arts & crafts are all specific to that region and worth exploring.
Merida is the capital city of the Yucatan, it is a great place to base yourself as it is close to many attractions, haciendas and towns. It is often referred to as the little Paris of Mexico. This is due to the exquisite and ornate architecture left over from French colonials. In contrast, the plainer, Spanish influenced saloons often times lead you to feel as though you are an extra in a Western film. The combination creates an eclectic and artistic feel, especially through the multicoloured buildings and abundance of street art. The walking tours are worth waking up early for. Merida is extremely popular with art students, and there are tiny galleries on every corner. The city has become very trendy, cool pubs and cafés line the streets, yet it retains a cosy “small town” feel. Oozing with culture, there are free outdoors concerts every night, as well as museums, historical centres, art installations, government buildings, cultural centres, cathedrals etc. A family orientated city, it is shut down every Sunday for the “Domingo en Merida” food & craft markets in the plaza. Merida comes alive with music and colour at night, the locals are extremely inviting and friendly, and it is one of the safest cities in Mexico.
From Merida, there are day tours you can take to visit the dazzling and awe inspiring Chichen Itza, and see why it has been classed as one of the new wonders of the world. Another tour I recommend is a speedboat ride through the Celestún Biosphere reserve to see hundreds of birds, crowds of pink flamingos and amazing mangroves. The ruins of Uxmal are worth seeing, as is the historic town of Vallidolid and the enchanting, golden city of Izamal. The Yucatan is formed on thousands of cenotes and underground rivers so you are never too far from a refreshing dip. If you feel brave take a trip to cenote Ik Kil for some cliff diving!
Campeche is on the south west of the peninsula. The 17th century city is famous for being fortified with a wall to avoid pirate attacks long ago. As well as historical pirate museums, castles, Mayan museums and the preserved house of the Royal family, Campeche also has a beautiful cathedral overlooking the plaza and park. The park is charming, with sweet music played over speakers. It is a lovely place to read, draw or people watch. At night there are projections on the museum wall. A toy train tour of the city runs from outside the plaza every night. It is a little bit like being on Main Street, Disneyland. From Campeche you can access Calakmul, which is one of the largest Mayan archaeological zones and jungles in all of Mexico. Unfortunately, Campeche is a little too quiet and the beach/ night life is a taxi ride away. However, it is worth seeing for a couple of days.
Finally, the perfect place to relax after all your exploring is the lagoon of Bacalar. With its crystal water, white sands and azure hues it is known as the Lake of Seven Colours. It’s a must see! If you decide to emerge from your hammock, there’s plenty of fun to be had – snorkelling, stand up paddle boarding, canoeing, bike tours… A true slice of paradise.
Enjoy your stay!