6 Unforgettable Experiences of the Yucatan Peninsula (and Riviera Maya).
Source: Viator TravelBLog
With Cancun pulling in the bulk of its tourism, it’s unsurprising that the Yucatan Peninsula has become practically synonymous with mega hotels and all-inclusive beach resorts. Indeed, its Caribbean coastline has tropical allure: miles of pristine white sand, an aquamarine sea, coconut palms gently swaying in the warm tropical breeze. Most visitors seem perfectly content lounging around beach bars drinking margaritas and worshiping the sun.
And yet, beyond the infinity pools and manicured lawns of Cancun, the Yucatan Peninsula is rich in culture, ecology and spectacular landscapes. So if you’ve had enough of your all-inclusive hotel and yearning for a more authentic experience. Here are 6 suggestions.
1. Escape the crowds in Soliman Bay (Punta Bahia Soliman)
Escape the Crowds in Soliman Bay
Perhaps you want to experience the beach without all the people. Well, Soliman Bay is one of those places the locals try to keep secret. Though it’s barely 76 miles (123 kilometers) south of Cancun, this peaceful nook, secluded by coastal vegetation, has by and large escaped the wave of mass tourism rippling down the coast. Apart from a few boutique hotels and vacation rentals, not much else caters for tourists. Instead, the community of Soliman Bay are trying to preserve coastal and marine biodiversity, particularly the nearby Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which stretches from northern Yucatan down towards Honduras. The bay is great for snorkeling, and among the many tropical fish, you may even spot a turtle feeding on seagrass.
To get to Soliman Bay from Cancun, head south on highway 307 and exit left just after the town of Akumal. The bay is around a mile from the highway. Snorkel gear can be rented from dive shops in Akumal, plus it’s an idea to take water socks to protect your feet while treading in the seagrass. Public access and parking are on the southern end of the bay. For a place to eat, try Sahara, the beachfront restaurant of Jashita (the first hotel as you turn right into the bay).
2. Dancing salsa on Tulum Beach
Salsa on Tulum Beach
Forget being politely serenaded by mariachis as you dine by candlelight. Slip out of your comfort zone and dive into the frenzied spirit of salsa – a popular dance routine across Mexico and an exhilarating experience of its hot-blooded culture. But you’ll only feel it if you jam with the locals.
Head south 75 miles (120 kilometers) to the coastal town of Tulum, where you’ll find an eclectic music scene on the beach, born from an increasingly diverse ‘local’ community. Once a small Mayan village on the fringes of Mexican society, Tulum has evolved into a rustic-chic, touristy town offering a low-rise alternative to the dominant all-inclusive culture. Along its beachfront, wooden cabana hotels and beach clubs sit surreptitiously in the palm trees and exotic plants.
‘Sundays at La Zebra,’ hosted by La Zebra hotel is the biggest salsa party in town, with live music and a DJ. It starts from 8pm until 12am. However, if you arrive at 6pm, you can take advantage of the free salsa lesson offered on the club’s open-air deck.
Tulum is directly south from Cancun on highway 307.
Visit Tulum from Cancun
3. Birdwatching in the Boca Paila Lagoon
Birdwatching in Boca Paila Lagoon
If there’s one aspect of the region you must experience, it’s the rich ecology. The Yucatan Peninsula is not just another tropical environment, it’s a part of the world’s second most important zone for biological diversity, the Mesoamerican Biodiversity Hotspot, and a critical corridor for birds migrating between the north and south.
For birdwatching, the place to visit is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, just 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Cancun, just after Tulum. Sian Ka’an is a 1.3 million acre reserve inhabited by over 300 species of birds, and if you’re staying near Cancun, it’s truly your best bet to see some of the more elusive species, including Toucans, Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibis and even King Vultures.
The reserve maintains a strict policy of low density tourism, though several eco-conscious tour operators offer excellent boat tours around the large Boca Paila lagoon. These tours guide you around the marshes and through the mysterious mangrove canals that were once used as trading routes by ancient Mayan merchants.
4. The underworld of Valladolid
The Underworld of Valladolid
Some, especially those that have seen The Descent, by director Neil Marshall, are not overly enthusiastic about the peninsula’s subterranean world. Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘Why on earth would I go all the way to tropical paradise, just to waste my time going under it?’
And yet, beneath the surface is an extensive labyrinth of caves channeling the world’s longest underground river as it meanders 95 miles (153 kilometers) towards the sea. Don’t worry, only the most experienced explorers get the chance to truly lose themselves in the system. You can, and indeed should, however, explore one of the several underground sinkholes, known locally as cenotes, to marvel at the fragile formations of stalactites and stalagmites. Perhaps you’ll even be lucky enough to discover an ancient Mayan relic. Believing that cenotes were sacred entrances into the spiritual underworld, the Maya once used them as burial grounds.
All cenotes are impressive, though those closer to Cancun are often crowded and overpriced. Go to Valladolid. There, you’ll find spectacular cenotes, which you’ll most likely have to yourself, plus you can visit the charming colonial city of Valladolid when you’re finished. Dzitnub, some 4 miles (7 kilometers) southeast of Valladolid, is particularly embellished with stalactites and stalagmites, while just around the corner, Samula is intriguing mostly for the small hole in the rock’s roof, which casts daylight onto the walls and transparent water. Within the city itself, Zaci is a beautiful, partially exposed cavern.
Valladolid is around 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Cancun on highway 180. The average price for all three cenotes is around 30 pesos.
Go diving in a cenote
5. Exploring the ancient jungle city of Calakmul
Exploring the ancient jungle city of Calakmul
Calakmul’s obscurity in modern times belies its importance in ancient Mayan history. Many visitors are unaware of this forgotten city-state, buried deep in the jungle of Campeche, which dominated the Mayan world from around A.D. 542 – 695. Its size and strength matched only by Tikal inGuatemala. Perhaps this is because of its remoteness. Unlike more renowned ruins like Chichen Itza or Tulum, Calakmul’s (517km) distance from Cancun places it well beyond the tourist circuit. But, if you’re keen to experience a Mayan ruin which is still possible to climb, unspoiled by crowds, steeped in mystery and surrounded by luscious vegetation that roams jaguar and monkey, then set aside a couple of days to visit Calakmul. It may just be you and a few others creeping around its colossal structures and weathering sculptures.
The easiest way to get to Calakmul is to hire a car, head south on highway 307 towards Chetumal, then go west on highway 186 to Uxpujil. It’s a long journey, around 7 hours, so pack lunch and consider staying overnight. Hotel Puerta Calakmul is an elegant lodge near the entrance to Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. The site itself is 37 miles (60 kilometers) south of the highway. Opening hours are between 8am and 5pm. Admission into the site costs 45 pesos, plus you’ll also need to pay 40 pesos to access the biosphere.
Read more: 6 More Mayan Sites to See on the Yucatan Peninsula
6. Sunsets in Campeche
Sunsets in Campeche
Wherever you catch the sunset, the scene before you is sure to be arresting. But only in Campeche does the fading daylight melt into the pastel-hued colonial buildings, transforming the city into a historic urban rainbow. Campeche is fortunate to face the direction in which the sun sets, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout the rest of the day, you can explore the immaculately preserved colonial center and walk along the remnants of its fortress, built in the early 18th century to protect Campeche from pirates.
The city itself dates back to 1540 when it flourished as the region’s main port, although now its economy lags behind those of the other major cities, Cancun and Merida. This, however, doesn’t seem to bother Campechanos, who are rightly proud of their heritage, and have invested great energy into restoring the colonial center and building museums to honor their Mayan heritage.
To experience the city in sunset, begin in the historic center and follow the sun heading west towards the Gulf of Mexico. 59th Street is a place to start because of its particularly impressive architecture. Then walk past the central plaza, arriving at the waterfront, known as the Malecon. From there, you can watch the sun sink behind the horizon, but not before painting the sky with a fiery shade of amber.
Campeche is approximately 248 miles (400 kilometers) west of Cancun. To get there by car take highway 180 westward via Merida, then head south. Otherwise, you catch an ADO bus from the central bus terminal in Cancun. Return tickets cost around 450 pesos and the journey lasts approximately 7 hours.
Photos courtesy of Candice Ofulue.