15 Best Things To Do in The Yucatan Peninsula
There are endless adventures to have in the Yucatan. Here’s a look at the best things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.
Few destinations offer as much variety as Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. A vast expanse of jungle, bordered by pristine white beaches, grows out of a unique and complex ecosystem.
The entire peninsula is porous limestone with caverns of fresh water. Countless sinkholes (called cenotes) break the surface, providing travelers with opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving.
And that’s just nature. The Yucatan contains a mix of three important cultures: Mayan, Spanish colonial, and modern Mexican.
You can immerse yourself in all three in places like Valladolid, near Chichen Itza, with a visit to the famous ruins in the morning, a stop at a 16th-century convent in the afternoon, and a dinner of Yucatan specialties at a stylish gastropub in the evening.
There are so many things to do in the Yucatan that many travelers return again and again. I’m one of them. During my 10 years living in Mexico, I visited the area about once a year, sometimes more.
With so many places to visit in the Yucatan, you’re sure to have a great experience no matter what you’re looking for!
Here are the top 15 things to do in the Yucatan, plus practical tips on how to make the most of your trip.
1. Visit Playa del Carmen
Although Cancun is the first destination that may come to mind, I recommend Playa del Carmen as a first stop in the Mayan Riviera.
Cancun is fine if you want to confine your trip to a big beachside resort (or if you want to rough it in cheap hotels in Cancun’s somewhat rundown downtown area).
But if you want to walk barefoot from your family-run hotel to the beach for an early morning swim, Playa del Carmen is the place.
Although the beach has suffered erosion and algae invasions in recent years, and there are larger beaches in Tulum, Puerto Morelos, and Akumal, what gives Playa the edge over these other beach towns is Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue).
Conveniently starting at the main bus station and running parallel to the beach, Quinta Avenida is pedestrian-only for nearly 2 kilometers.
It’s lined with small hotels, souvenir shops, and a wide range of Mexican and foreign restaurants. Exploring this bustling street is easily one of the top things to do in the Yucatan.
The most authentic local food, along with the biggest nightclubs, are a block or two away, and you’re probably better off looking for a hotel elsewhere (because of noise). But there’s nothing quite like wandering down Quinta Avenida, day or night, taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells.
Make sure to check out Calle 38 (just off of 5th Ave.) and continue taking 5th avenue north all the way into Colosio.
2. Hit the Beach Below the Ruins of Tulum
There are hundreds of archeological sites in the Yucatan, ranging from tiny (but interesting) iguana-filled San Miguelito in Cancun’s hotel zone to massive, world-famous Chichen Itza.
Tulum may have lost most of its charm over the past few years, but I recommend Tulum for a first-timer’s must-see in the Yucatan. The ruins and beach here are pretty incredible.
About an hour south of Playa del Carmen, it’s easy to visit Tulum on a day trip even from Cancun (about two hours away). It has impressive structures and a good mix of open grassy areas and paths through trees.
The main appeal of Tulum, however, is its location above the turquoise Caribbean.
It’s one of the top places to visit in the Yucatan for photography. Best of all, a wooden staircase leads to a small beach below, where you can swim out in the water for a different view of the Tulum ruins.
A road from the south exit of the park goes to the main beach in Tulum, which is long, wide, and overflowing with powdery white sand. This combination of ruins and beach makes a trip to Tulum another one of the best things to do in the Yucatan.
Find out how to visit the Tulum Ruins in our article, here.
3. Mountain Bike in the Jungle at Punta Venado
Speaking of nice beaches in Mexico, there’s a lovely and secluded one at Punta Venado (Deer Point) about fifteen minutes south of Playa del Carmen.
The Punta Venado Beach Club has good food and reasonable prices, and the quiet beach is one of the best places to visit in the Yucatan for some privacy.
As nice as the beach is, the real draw to Punta Venado is its mountain bike park. A large network of trails has been constructed through the rainforest, and one sandy trail runs right along the coast.
You’ll see many wild animals on the trails, including iguanas, monkeys, and the raccoon-like tree mammal coati.
The trails have three levels of difficulty. The intermediate and expert trails are long, bumpy, and sure to satisfy expert cyclists used to big mountains. The beginner trails are much less daunting, but anyone riding them should be fully comfortable on a mountain bike.
You can rent good quality, well-maintained mountain bikes at the shop or bring your own. And of course, after your ride, you can spend the rest of the day swimming in the sea or sipping margaritas at the beach club’s poolside bar.
4. Explore Isla Mujeres by Bicycle
If you want to experience the Yucatan on two wheels but aren’t up for hot and arduous mountain biking in the jungle, you still have plenty of options.
You can rent bicycles at nearly every tourist destination in the Yucatan, such as Tulum, Merida, and Playa del Carmen’s Quinta Avenida…and Isla Mujeres.
One of the best Yucatan activities is to cruise all around Isla Mujeres by bicycle. The long, narrow island is located just north of Cancun, and you can reach it by ferry from Cancun’s hotel zone or Puerto Juarez.
The ferries drop you off at the north end of the island, where the little village and the largest beaches are. Most visitors never leave this area, and indeed might not even know how much more to the island there is.
And actually, the highest part of the Yucatan is Punta Sur, a rocky lookout on the southern tip of Isla Mujeres. It’s a beautiful spot, and walking out to it is one of the top things to do in the Yucatan, and best places to visit in Isla Mujeres.
Renting a cruiser bike in the village is a great option for getting to Punta Sur, and you can make stops at other Yucatan attractions on Isla Mujeres during your ride, such as Garrafón Natural Reef Park.
Have a look at this fun cycling experience around the island, which takes in many of the sights and is very affordable.
5. Swim or Scuba Dive in a Cenote
The Yucatan has many dive sites, especially the Mayan Riviera, the stretch of the Caribbean coastline from Cancun to Tulum. Besides reefs, there’s also an underwater museum, which is a series of submerged statues in the sea between Isla Mujeres and mainland Cancun.
This might sound strange to scuba divers, but for me, the best diving is reached by van, not by boat, and not in the deep open sea, but in narrow caverns in only a few meters of fresh water.
I’m talking about cenotes, the freshwater sinkholes that lead to extensive networks of caves. Scuba diving in cenotes is one of my favorite adventures in the Yucatan, and each time I go, I visit a few new ones.
Two popular cenotes are Dos Ojos and El Pit. They’re right next to each other, sharing an entrance and visitor center, and they’re conveniently located off the highway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
They make for an excellent introduction to cenote diving both because of their location and also because they’re very different.
Dos Ojos is a cavern dive with two routes that take you through narrow passages full of stalagmites, stalactites, and tree roots dangling in the water.
El Pit, as the name suggests, is a massive, deep chamber, where vivid beams of light slant through the blue-tinted water.
If you want to go cenote diving, visit a dive shop in Playa del Carmen or Tulum. They’ll discuss the options with you, rent gear, and provide transportation.
If you’re not a scuba diver, Dos Ojos is still a good choice for swimming in a cenote.
If you find yourself in a different part of the Yucatan, such as Merida, don’t worry, because cenotes are everywhere, and each one offers something unique and interesting. Swimming in their cool fresh water is one of the essential things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula.
6. Swing in a Hammock over Kaan Luum’s Sapphire Water
About 15 minutes south of Tulum town by car or public transportation is a whole other kind of cenote. Kaan Luum is a large, roughly circular lagoon of fresh water surrounded by dense jungle.
It’s quite shallow, about chest-high, until the center of the lagoon, which contains a deep cenote. Here the sky-blue hues of the clear water suddenly go dark. It’s roped off, so you can’t swim into it, but you can swim alongside and ponder its murky depths.
Kaan Luum is one of the best places to visit in the Yucatan to relax. Bring cold drinks and snacks, and hang out on one of the long piers all day.
You can also climb into one of the hammocks strung up over the water and swing the day away. Find Kaan Luum on the map, here.
7. Take a Boat Trip in Bacalar
For a multi-colored lake on a much grander scale than Kaan Luum, head south to Bacalar, the lake of seven colors, one of the most beautiful places to visit in the Yucatan.
For the full Bacalar experience, take a boat trip around the lake. As soon as you approach the main dock, people will immediately approach offering boat trips. You can bring whatever you want on the boat, such as a cooler full of beer, and come prepared to swim.
The boat trip will take you all around the lake, making stops at submerged cenotes and a shallow sandy area near a canal once used by pirates, where you can jump in and cool off.
The guide will also point out stromatolites, coral-like limestone rocks that are formed by an ancient algae that’s one of the oldest forms of life on Earth.
For a bit more money, but a much more peaceful trip, head out on a sailboat instead!
8. Escape the Crowds at Holbox
The two large islands off of the Yucatan’s Caribbean coast, Isla Mujeres and Cozumel, are within easy reach by relatively short ferry trips from Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
They’re excellent places to visit in the Yucatan, with lots to do, especially cycling on Isla Mujeres, scuba diving off Cozumel, and hitting the beach at both.
Somewhat overshadowed by these two luminaries is the Yucatan Peninsula’s third major island, Holbox, located between the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s significantly farther away, requiring a long (but straightforward) drive or bus trip from Cancun or Merida before you get on the ferry to the island.
It’s worth the trip, and one of the best places to visit in the Yucatan to get away from it all. Holbox has a funky village with friendly, affordable hotels and a range of restaurants.
The beaches are astounding, and one section often lights up with bioluminescence at night. And if you’re there between June and September, you can take part in one of the absolute best Yucatan adventures — swimming with whale sharks.
9. Stroll the Tranquil Streets of Valladolid
Valladolid’s biggest claim to fame may be its proximity to Chichen Itza, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. But the pretty small town is absolutely worth a visit for its own sake, and I suggest staying for several days if possible.
Colorful, well-restored colonial buildings line cobblestone streets in a neatly planned grid, making for pleasant walking and photography.
Scattered among them are Yucatan attractions like leafy parks, museums in colonial mansions, a 500-year-old convent, a cenote, and an authentic market with local specialties for sale.
There are numerous things to see and do in Valladolid to keep you busy. Plus, there are some excellent restaurants here as well.
Staying in Valladolid makes sense before or after a trip to Chichen Itza since you’ll be able to visit the ruins right when they open, before the tour buses arrive.
10. Step Back in Time at Mayan Ruins
With numerous archeological sites on the Yucatan Peninsula, you could spend a lifetime pursuing an adventurous Indiana Jones experience, especially in remote areas overgrown with vegetation like Calakmul, Coba, and Uxmal.
With its iconic pyramid, Chichen Itza draws the crowds, and for good reason. The large site has a fascinating variety of structures, detailed carvings, and distinctive sections.
It’s large enough to spend the whole day in and be continually surprised by something new — platforms full of columns, paths through the jungle, and two cenotes.
It might not feel as remote or mysterious as some other Mayan ruins, but visiting Chichen Itza is still one of the best things to do in the Yucatan, in spite of all the hype and tourists. Then, on your next trip, you can (and should) visit other ancient Mayan cities.
11. Sample Local Delicacies in Merida’s Public Market
Merida is the largest city in the Yucatan and the capital of Yucatan state. The peninsula comprises three states, with Yucatan in the north and center, Quintana Roo on the east side, and Campeche on the west side.
It doesn’t feel like a city, however, but more like a living museum of Spanish colonial architecture. It’s one of the best places to visit in the Yucatan to wander around and soak up some culture.
And there’s no better place to jump right into the culture than Merida’s sprawling market. A visit here is one of the top things to do in Merida.
Located a few blocks from the zocalo (center square) in the middle of town, the market has several sections where you can find produce, flowers, medicine, souvenirs, and all kinds of household goods.
The food section is my favorite part. You can try the many dishes of the Yucatan Peninsula’s distinctive cuisine at a wide variety of small restaurants and food stalls, and you can’t beat the low prices.
Some tried-and-true favorites are cochinita pibil, shredded pork marinated in spicy ashiote sauce, which is often served in tacos or typical Yucatan finger food such as panuchos and salbutes.
Relleno negro, a black turkey soup, tastes nothing like how it looks. Also, head to a juice stand to try authentic chaya, a native leaf ground up and served as a refreshing drink.
12. Take the Horse-Drawn Train to the Cuzuma Cenotes
Spending a day getting to the Cuzuma cenotes is one of the adventures in the Yucatan you’ll never forget.
Three cenotes are located in a former sugarcane plantation, and a small railroad passes through the site. It was formerly used to transport crops, and now it’s used to transport visitors to the cenotes.
Horses pull the train cars surprisingly quickly from cenote to cenote. The cenotes themselves are fantastic, with large chambers and plenty of room for swimming.
The entrance to one is just a shoulder-width hole in the ground with a wooden staircase leading down into the darkness.
From the town of Cuzuma, it’s easy to get information about finding the train. To get to Cuzuma in public transportation, look for colectivos (passenger vans) leaving from near Merida’s public market.
13. Marvel at the Pink Water of Las Coloradas
The pink lagoons of Las Coloradas, near the small town of Rio Largartos, are a photographer’s dream. The area is used for salt production, which turns the water shades of red and pink every six months.
You’re not allowed to get in the water anymore, but you can still walk around their shores, checking out the colors and setting up great photos. Make sure to come in March or in July and August to see the colors at their brightest.
Rio Lagartos is located on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula at the end of a highway coming from Valladolid. Besides Las Coloradas, the area also has stunning beaches and a large protected area full of crocodiles and flamingos.
14. See the Flamingos at the Celestún Biosphere Reserve
If you didn’t get enough flamingos in Rio Lagartos, then head west from Merida to the Celestún Biosphere Reserve, which has an enormous flamingo colony.
This huge nature reserve takes up nearly the entire west coast of the peninsula north of Campeche, and one of the best access points is the sleepy fishing village of Celestún. You can also check out the abandoned and overgrown ruins of an old hacienda nearby.
You can see the flamingos right on the beach near a town, or you can arrange a boat trip through the mangroves, where you’ll see lots of other tropical birds and crocodiles.
You can get to Celestún by car or public transportation from Merida in about an hour and a half, and there’s no question that a day trip to this pristine area is one of the best things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula to appreciate nature.
15. Learn Some History in the Colonial Gem of Campeche
Founded in 1540, Campeche was a crucial Spanish outpost in colonial times, and the city today is a must-see in the Yucatan for history lovers.
The pastel-painted buildings of the historic district are still enclosed by the old city wall, making for a fun day of sightseeing. And no trip to Campeche is complete without a visit to Fort San Miguel, now an archeological museum.
Also, because of its location in the west of the peninsula, Campeche is also a logical stop for people on larger trips to Mexico. By car or bus, you can get to Ciudad del Carmen in three hours and Palenque in five.
FAQ’s About the Yucatan Peninsula
Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about this region of Mexico.
Is the Yucatan Safe?
Yes, the Yucatan is generally safe.
As with anywhere you travel, especially in Mexico, always take basic precautions. Don’t drink too much, don’t accept drinks from strangers, don’t leave your purse or backpack unattended on the beach or on a restaurant chair, and don’t walk down unfamiliar streets at night.
In recent years there have been disturbing incidences of drug-related violence in beach towns in the Mayan Riviera, such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and even normally peaceful Puerto Morelos.
They are still comparatively rare but are occurring more frequently.
If you’re concerned, look into staying in quieter places that don’t have much of a party atmosphere, such as Akumal or Holbox, or focus your trip on inland areas, such as Merida, which is one of the safest places to visit in the Yucatan and all of Mexico.
Make sure to have travel insurance for your trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. SafetyWing is a good option for travellers and digital nomads.
When Is the Best Time to Visit the Yucatan?
Coastal areas in the Yucatan are typically warm and breezy all year, while inland places (Merida, Valladolid, etc.) get much hotter in the summer months.
Rain is possible at any time, although it usually only comes down hard for about half an hour. Then the sun shines down hard again, drying off your clothes.
Hurricane season is from June to October, so during those times, the possibility exists for dangerous multi-day storms.
There’s not much you can do about the weather, but you can make your time in the Yucatan much nicer by avoiding busy travel times. More international tourists visit in December and January, especially between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Domestic travelers also visit in large numbers then, along with late July to early August (when many Mexicans have time off work) and Semana Santa (Holy Week), the week before Easter, when everyone has time off work.
Avoid Semana Santa at all costs. Hotels and flights will be booked up, and beaches and tourist destinations will be packed.
How to Get Around the Yucatan
Car rentals are cheap in the Yucatan. All the usual companies have offices at the Cancun and Merida airports, the two main airports in the region.
If you’ll only be staying in one spot, you don’t need to rent a car. Peninsula-wide, several types of public transportation run regularly all day long. Getting from Cancun to another place on the coast, such as Tulum, is quick and straightforward.
If you plan to go to Isla Mujeres or Cozumel, simply walk onto the ferry. Both are close enough for day trips, but you can see a lot more if you stay a few days.
For longer trips, such as from Cancun to Merida, you’ll take a bus. ADO is a first-class bus company with stations all over the peninsula. Check out their website for options, prices, and travel times.
Second-class buses also leave from ADO stations, but they make lots of stops and take indirect routes, and you can usually only get information about them and purchase tickets at the station, not online.
Now You Know What to Do in The Yucatan
Writing this post really makes me want to go back to enjoy all of the wonderful places to visit in the Yucatan.
I’ve had a great time over the years experiencing all of these best things to do in the Yucatan, and compiling them here has me thinking about my next trip to this incredible region of Mexico.
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