The Yucatán Peninsula...it’s the land of white sand beaches, sparkling turquoise seas, craggy Mayan temples, bright and vibrant Mexican culture, and deep, mystical cenotes. While the high-gloss hotels of Cancun and Cozumel are the region’s biggest tourist magnets, much of the Yucatán’s beauty lies off the standard tourist path. If you’re planning a trip to this gorgeous peninsula you won’t want to miss out on these highlights.
Revel in Mexican culture in Mérida.
Since the Spanish conquest, this beautiful city has served as the cultural capitol of the peninsula. Drop into the Museo de Arte Popular de Yucatán for a fascinating look at traditional art forms, including ceremonial masks and woven hammocks. You will also find a great cultural center at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, which puts on plays, concerts, and dances. Of course, you will to take full advantage of this city’s delicious authentic Mexican cuisine. You can’t beat the homemade tortillas at La Tradicion or the pollo pibil Restaurante Pórtico del Peregrino.
Check out the ancient Mayan ruins.
Remnants of the great Mayan Civilization dot the coasts and jungles of the peninsula. Chichén Itzá is the most remarkable of these Mayan ruins. Chichén Itzá, which translates to “at the mouth of the well of the Itza" was an enormous pre-Columbian city constructed nearly 1,000 years ago. It was one of the largest Mayan cities, boasting an incredibly diverse population and a number of unique architectural styles.
El Castillo (featured as the title photo as well as photo above) dominates the center of the archeological site. The ruins of the walled, 13th century coastal city Tulum are also noteworthy, as is Uxmal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once home to some 20,000 people. For a ruin that is not as swamped with tourists try Ek Balam. Meaning “glorious jaguar,” this site was inhabited between 700 and 1000 and is nearly perfectly maintained today.
Relax on a stretch of virgin beach.
The Yucatán Peninsula boasts some of the world’s most beautiful stretches of coastline. However, if you’re looking for a place to relax that isn’t a beer-laden, spring break resort there are plenty of options. Xcalak is a solid choice if you are in search of chill, no frills beach town. Remote and quaint, Xcalak boasts empty beaches, amazing diving, and a good mix of local fisherman and laid back tourists.
Take a dip in a sacred subterranean cenote.
A cenote can best be described as a natural well, occurring when limestone bedrock collapses and exposes groundwater. Often incredibly deep and surrounded by lush vegetation, these mystical swimming holes are the perfect place to cool off on a hot and humid day. The Sacred Cenote is one of the most famous in the region. Situated just outside of the Chichén Itzá archeological site, the Mayas scarified objects and even human beings to the rain god Chaac in the cenote’s murky waters.
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