Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is an expansive swath of land in the southeastern part of the country, separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico. From the azure waters of the Caribbean Coast to the remains of ancient Mayan ruins strewn throughout the interior, there are so many things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula you’ll need to go back again and again to see it all.
The Yucatán Peninsula is often referred to as simply “The Yucatan” but it actually consists of three states – The Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. Most people are familiar with Quintana Roo as it is here you’ll find famous beaches and the all-inclusive resorts of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Tulum. This travel guide is going to take you beyond the tourist resorts to explore everything the Yucatan Peninsula has to offer.
Things to do in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula
Few places in the western world see luxury beach resorts built beside ruins from a previous civilization that thrived not so long ago. Where spring-breaking college students frequent an area just as popular to world-renown archaeologists and academic experts from around the globe. The Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico appeals to everyone!
What to do in Yucatan Mexico
This Mexico Yucatan guide was originally written by Justin and Tracy and it has been updated and expanded for 2022
Littered with archeological sites, endless white-sand beaches, and containing the ring of Cenotes, there are so many things to do in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, it will draw you back again and again. No matter the reason, once you get there, there are many different ways you can explore, enjoy, and enrapture yourself in the Yucatan Peninsula. This area, once a primary stronghold of the Mayan Empire, is now a haven for tourists of all walks of life.
Our Favourite Hotels in the Yucatan
When we visit the Yucatan Peninsula, we often stay in all-inclusive hotels for at least a week to relax before setting out to explore. And sometimes we simply book a week-long getaway. These are some of the hotels we’ve stayed in and have thoroughly enjoyed.
1. Swim with Whale Sharks
By far one of the best things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula is to go swimming with Whale Sharks. Taking a boat trip just two hours off the coast of Cancun is the chance to check off this ultimate bucket list item and get in the water to swim with whale sharks. Read more: Swimming with Whale Sharks Cancun
We booked our whale shark tour with GetYourGuide. This was an amazing tour that takes you out to the islands of Contoy and Holbox. Besides whale sharks, keep an eye out for sea turtles and dolphins as well.
Book your tour here to swim with the Whale Sharks – It offers free cancelation within 24 hours of excursion and it picked us up at our apartment rental in Playa del Carmen.
2. Make a Stop at Chichen Itza
One of the top things to do in the Yucatán Peninsula is, without question, is Chichen Itza. This sprawling UNESCO World Heritage site of Mayan pyramids, ball courts, sanctuaries, and temples is believed to be the primary location for Mayan Governance. Read more at the Ultimate Guide to the Yucatan.
The Mayan Pyramid of Kukulcan, or El Castillo as it’s colloquially called, is the centerpiece. The steep, high stairs seem to taunt you as they draw the eye up in admiration of a truly magnificent Mayan structure. It is here where Mayan priests conducted their most private and important ceremonies, to give thanks, ask for blessings, and even bury their leaders.
In addition to El Castillo, The Great Ball Court is another thing you do not want to miss. Once the site of an ancient, ritualistic game played by the Maya in honor of the Gods, whose loser lost not only the game but often his life this part of Chichen Itza gives an interesting look into the Mayan culture.
Book this highly rated tour of the ruins. Besides seeing Chichen Itza, it also takes you to the Sacred Cenote and Valladolid.
3. Swim in The Sacred Cenote
On the grounds of Chichen Itza is the Sacred Cenote, the primary cenote from which the ancient Maya civilization thrived for hundreds of years. Evidence suggests that the Maya used this site for religious ceremonies. See what it’s like to tour one of Mexico’s underground rivers at Rio Secreto Cenote – Mexico’s Magical Underground Caves
Today it is a primary attraction for visitors to the Yucatan due to the deep, refreshing waters and mesmerizing scenery. This cenote is a key destination for historians, scientists, and professional divers, as pottery, tools, and even remains have been found along riveted shelves in the cenote walls!
Cenotes of the Yucatan
One of the best things to do in the Yucatan is to explore its Cenotes. (An underground cave). There are several cenotes scattered throughout the Yucatan and the state of Quintana Roo. This Cenote Tour takes you to the four types of cenotes in Quintana Roo that exist in nature: semi-open, open, ancient, and cavern explore its Cenotes. Book this highly rated tour here.
4. Take in the Beautiful Scene from Tulum
When walking up to the Mayan ruins of Tulum, you can’t help but think that “these Mayans had the right idea!” With the crystalline aqua of the Caribbean Sea as a beautiful backdrop, Tulum stands proudly on the shores far above the white sands beneath. Amid beach clubs, vacation resorts, hammocks, and sun-kissed tourists, Tulum is one of the most visually captivating locations in all of North America.
The resort town that Tulum rests within does nothing but add to the inspiring nature of the location, as revelers of fun-in-the-sun can take a history break to walk the grounds of the former Mayan fortress. After exploring the beautiful ruins, take a walk down the road to any one of the local restaurants for fresh food and drinks – right on the beach.
Book this Tulum Tour in Mexico Yucatan, it includes a tour of Tulum where you’ll learn of the Mayan civilization and culture followed by a stop at one of the most beautiful cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula.
5. Sian Ka’an Biosphere
Located farther south down the coast of Quintana Roo, The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is rich with wildlife including many bird species. With activities like boat tours and snorkeling, visiting the Sian Ka’an Biosphere is a great way to get out and experience the natural beauty of the Riviera Maya.
6. Stroll The Streets Of Playa Del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is a major tourist destination in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and not only is it a good place to visit, but it’s also a great place to stay too. Day tours and hotels often shuttle people to Playa del Carmen where you can shop on La Quinta Avenida. But staying overnight is a must as well.
The restaurants and nightlife will keep you busy, but it isn’t quite as wild a night out as it is in Cancun. There are many places to choose from including the world-famous Coco Bongo but you’ll also find chilled-out beach bars, live music, and delicious Mexican cuisine.
7. Isla Mujeres – The Island of Women
Isla Mujeres is a popular day trip from Cancun but you can stay on the island as well. It has white sand beaches, clear waters, and great snorkeling at Garrafon Reef Park. Isla Mujeres is translated to the Island of Women in English. It was sacred to the ancient Mayans who worshipped it as the goddess of childbirth. Hence the name the Island of Women. Read more: The Best Cancun Day Trips. You can book day tours to Isla Mujeres with tours to Isla Contoy for bird watching.
8. Isla Holbox
Isla Holbox is a quiet island off the coast and has become quite popular in recent years. Whale sharks migrate through the region making it a good choice for whale shark tours. No cars are allowed on the island but there are hotels, vacation rentals, and restaurants. You can book whale shark tours from here.
Day tours take you to Chiquilá where you catch the ferry to explore its colorful houses, do some bird watching, and swim in its pristine waters. But if you want to mellow out, stay overnight for a day or two.
9. Scuba Diving
The waters of Cozumel have pristine coral reefs filled with an abundance of marine life and colorful fish. Its amazing clarity, with visibility reaching over 100 feet, makes it one of the great places for scuba diving in the world.
Cozumel is Mexico’s largest island, located a short ferry ride from Playa del Carmen. In 1961 Jacques Cousteau discovered the magnificent scuba diving here and declared the area as one of the most beautiful dive sites in the world. They were declared a national marine park in 1996. This has allowed the reef to thrive and the wildlife to flourish, making for one of the most sensational scuba diving experiences you’re likely to ever have. We particularly enjoyed drift diving in this area.
10. Cozumel Island
Speaking of Cozumel, we spent a week on the island not only making it our base for scuba diving, but it is also a lot of fun to explore Cozumel Island. We rented a jeep to get around the island and explore the beaches. If you are staying on Cozumel and can’t make it to the mainland to visit the Mayan Ruins, you can go to Discover Mexico Park to see models of Mexico’s most popular attractions.
Or you can visit the small Mayan Ruin of San Gervasio Ruins to pay tribute to the Goddess of Love. There are markets, restaurants, and bars in Cozumel making for a great Mexican vacation. Cozumel Island is a 40-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen making it a popular day trip as well.
11. Party it Up in Cancun
No trip to the Yucatan would be complete without at least stopping in the famous coastal city of Cancun. Its long sandy beaches, an endless row of hotels, and world-famous nightlife have made it a stop on every spring breakers bucket list. It’s fun to head into town for the night to party in one of its bars. Go crazy for a night and have some fun in the town in the Hotel Zone.
Cancun isn’t just for partiers though the endless sand beach is attractive to anyone, Gran Museo del Mundo Maya (Mayan World Museum the largest collection of Mayan artifacts. There are plenty of things to do in Cancun and we have a complete list of Cancun attractions here.
12. Sea Turtles of Akumal Beach
Akumal is a popular nesting ground for sea turtles and swimming with sea turtles has become the top draw in the area. The protected bay makes for perfect conditions for snorkeling. Sea turtles are abundant and you can snorkel here independently without needing to take a tour. So grab your snorkel gear, rent a car and make your way to Akumal to see what it’s like to swim with sea turtles. Akumal is located between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, 104 km (65 miles) from Cancun.
If you want to go diving in a Cenote, Cenote Dos Ojos is located between Akumal and Tulum. Dos Ojos Cenotes (meaning Spanish for two eyes) is one of the best places to scuba dive in a Cenote in the Yucatan. Cenotes in Photos – Discover Mexico’s Extraordinary Underground Caves
Known as the White City, Mérida is the capital city of Yucatan State and is known as the cultural capital of the cities in Yucatan. It’s also considered one of the most beautiful cities in the Yucatan. Merida has become a popular spot for ex-pats settling in Mexico thanks to its infrastructure and amenities. Colorful buildings line the streets, where local artisans sell hammocks, traditional clothing, and traditional Yucatan foods. It is also a great place to learn Spanish. It became known as the white city due to the white mansions that line the tree-lined boulevard, Paseo Montejo. Make sure to spend a day or two in Merida for a more authentic Mexican vacation away from the touristy cities of Quintana Roo.
Izamal, aka La Ciudad Amarilla (or The Yellow City), is designated a Pueblo Mágico (Magical Town) by the Mexican government. This designation is to preserve its special culture and it is special indeed. Located between Mérida and Chichén Itzá, Izamal is a popular day trip from Merida. Named after the Mayan God Itzamná, Izamal attracts visitors to marvel at its beautiful yellow buildings. Some people believe the city was painted yellow to honor a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1993 while others say it is to honor the Mayan Sun God Kinich Ahau (Kinich Ajaw). Whatever the reason, it has done an amazing job attracting visitors.
15. Cliff Dive at Cenote Zaci
Cenote Zaci is one of the most popular cenotes in the Yúcatan. Located in Valladolid, Cenote Zaci is just a short walk from downtown. Zaci Cenote is cheap to enter, at only about 30 pesos per person, and offers a simply irreplaceable experience once inside. You’ll find yourself stepping down a steep, narrow, staircase that reveals a grand expanse of vegetation and cliffs which overlook the beautiful Cenote Zaci. Here you can challenge your fear of heights with a jump of more than thirty feet into the waters below!
Watch our video having fun in the Yucatan’s Cenotes
If cliff jumping isn’t quite your speed, the expansive and cool waters are perfect for a peaceful float in the heat of the day, and easily reachable by the walkway that is built into the perimeter of the cenote. Read more: Cenotes in Photos – Discover Mexico’s Extraordinary Underground Caves
Cenotes can be found all over this part of Mexico, especially in Quintana Roo. If you don’t make it to Cenote Zaci, make sure you at least look into other Cenote Tours Like this one that we did.
16. Explore Enchanting Ek Balam
Ek Balam is the ancient Mayan city nearest to Valladolid and that needs plenty of time to visit. The complex is sprawling, with more than 45 structures of varying purpose, design, and size. The most notable structure on the grounds is El Trono (‘The Throne’), where the founder of Ek Balam society, Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’, is thought to be buried.
This is a striking structure with a deceivingly steep climb of 106 steps to the top. From here, one can gaze upon the entire canopy of the Yucatan jungle. Closer to ground level, there are ancient chapels, steam baths, and the Oval Palace. It was believed to be a place of worship giving thanks to the Gods.
17. Climb the Steps of Coba
Coba is among the ruins in the Yucatán Peninsula that offers the most interesting, freshest perspective among history-lovers and archaeologists. It is believed that 90% of the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula are still buried at Coba.
Only partially complete in its excavation, Coba remains a rugged structure that peaks above the emerald trees to reveal the true remoteness of its setting. You can see mounds upon mounds of unearthed structures across the forests – where scientists believe that more than 90 percent of the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan remain hidden! Book this Tulum Coba and Valladolid Tour to experience the best of the Yucatan in one day.
While not as fully excavated as Chichen Itza, that is exactly what makes this special. Here you can climb the highest Mayan Pyramid in the Yucatán Peninsula at more than 130 feet in height. Make sure you wear a good pair of shoes, as Coba presents one of the more challenging climbs among the pyramids in Mexico, with 120 steep and daunting steps to the top!
18. Las Coloradas (Pink Lakes)
Las Coloradas has certainly grown to become one of the top things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula. With Instagram and TikTok gracing our lives, everyone wants to share photos and videos of pink lakes. It is an awe-inspiring sight to see pink lakes, and the ones at Las Coloradas are second to none. The bright pink salt lakes are the result of the critters that thrive in the dense saltwater. Algae, shrimp, and brine. You can no longer go in the water or even get close to it. There are now platforms for viewing but the best way to view the lakes is to book a tour.
This Day Trip from Cancun takes you to the Pink Lakes in comfort where you’ll explore the salt lakes of Las Coloradas, the Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, and a seafood lunch.
19. Laguna de Bacalar (Lagoon of Seven Colors)
It was in 2003 that we took a bus from Cancun to cross the Belize border while exploring Latin America. Taking our time exploring the south of Mexico was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. On our way to the border town of Chetumal (the capital city of Quintana Roo), we stopped at Balacar Lagoon.
Known as the Maldives of Mexico, The Lagoon of Seven Colors has (you guessed it) seven shades of blue. Located two hours south of Tulum, it is the perfect getaway to avoid the mass of tourists in the Riviera Maya.
This 60km series of inland waterways was once a passage for pirates and early traders. Admittedly we haven’t been back since that trip, but we’ll never forget the beautiful turquoise waters of Balacar Lagoon.
While the temptation will be to stay in either Cancun or Playa del Carmen we think you’ll get more out of your time in the Yucatan by staying in Valladolid. Located a mere two-hour drive from ruin locations such as Tulum and less than an hour from a handful of other desirable locations, Valladolid is both affordable and beautiful.
Valladolid has the distinction of being named a Pueblo Mexico (Magic town) meaning it has been recognized by the Mexican government as having magical qualities. Valladolid is the largest city in the heartland of the Yucatán state. You’ll want to stay as close to Plaza e Parque Francisco Canton (Central Plaza) in downtown Valladolid as possible. Valladolid has a myriad of restaurants and shops. Plus it is easy to access Mexico’s highway 180, which goes west-to-east across the peninsula. If you want to really see all the Yucatan offers, staying in Valladolid is a must.
21. Go For A Drive – With Your Camera!
It took us only one afternoon to learn a very valuable lesson – take your camera everywhere in the Yucatan. Even on seemingly long, empty stretches of road between ruin locations or cenotes, there are opportunities for the casual shutterbug.
Whether a railway leading into the brush, a beautiful country shop, or scenic nature, the Yucatan will continue giving you opportunities to capture more. Simply get lost, stop wherever you’re moved, and try to capture what only the eye can see. This would’ve been how the Mayans would’ve wanted you to experience their home, so do it! Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is full of photo opportunities, like this beach in Tulum.
22. Immerse with The Locals
When it comes to the people and culture, the Yucatan Peninsula will leave you truly moved. Any trip to the Yucatan is truly remiss without the area’s greatest attribute – the people.
They are so kind, so giving, and so engaging that you’ll find yourself lost in simple conversation while wanting to know more about the customs that make the Yucatan truly unique.
The Yucatan pulls the best from you, and from that, you’ll find yourself truly mixing with a land, and people, who are unmatched in their charm, beauty, and warmth.
When you visit the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, you will create memories to last a lifetime and will want to come back again and again. The Yucatan attracts all types of travellers.
23. Indulge in Delicious Delicacies
You’ve never had authentically Mexican food quite like that offered in the Yucatan. So stunned will you be by the depth of flavor, the intricacy of preparation, and the satisfaction of the experience that you will yearn for it long after your trip home.
Fresh. Bold. Rich. The profiles of even the simplest dish in the Yucatan will leave the foodie in all of us begging for more! We could honestly say upon leaving that we’ve never had guacamole so good and never had tacos so good!
But more importantly, we enjoyed the unique spin on everyday Mexican classics the people of the Yucatan have perfected. There are a few local favorites in the Yucatan, most of which are comprised of some of the best steak and chorizo dishes this side of Argentina! Typically these locally-created dishes are served with pickled sweet-onions along with fresh jams, bean dishes, and sauces such as chimichurri.
Best Way to Get Around the Yucatan Peninsula
For us, the best way to get around Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is by renting a car. We prefer this over tours because we can get to places before the tour buses filled with vacationers from the Riviera Maya converge. Check car rental prices and availability here.
Local Bus – Mexico has quite nice buses that are air-conditioned and affordable. ADO bus company connects cities and regions throughout Mexico and the Riviera Maya.
Collectivos are the best way to get around if going a short distance. They are shared taxis and are cheap and affordable.
For Transfers from Cancun Airport to your hotel, check out eTransfers for the best prices. They offer shuttles to the Hotel Zone, Playa Del Carmen, Tulum, and all along the Mayan Riviera.
The Yucatán Peninsula has something for both the adventurer and the beach-bum. Perhaps it’s this diversity of appeal that makes the Yucatan so enjoyable, so striking, and yet still somewhat mysterious. Filled with ancient and natural wonders, turquoise waves crashing on endless beaches and plenty of adventure, Mexico’s Yucatan is a place you will love. When you visit Mexico, make sure to add this spectacular destination to your itinerary.