The 17 Most Beautiful Destinations to Visit in Mexico's Yucatán

Tulum is home to some of Mexicos finest beaches, not to mention a hip social scene
Tulum is home to some of Mexico's finest beaches, not to mention a hip social scene | © iStock / Getty Images Plus
Richard Collett

The steamy, tropical southeast of Mexico is awash with paradise beaches, jungle ruins and charming cities – all of it infused with an unmistakably Yucatán flavor. The Yucatán Peninsula is the ancient heartland of the Maya in Mexico. Lining the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, coastal destinations such as Tulum Beach and Playa del Carmen are well-trodden but indubitably beautiful. Head into the forest-thick interior and you’ll find the archaeological ruins of Chichén Itzá and Ek Balam, while in the cities of Mérida and Izamal you’ll hear indigenous languages spoken amongst cobblestone streets and magnificent architecture.

1. Mérida

Architectural Landmark

Facade of a grand building in the city of Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico
Alvaro Rosado / Unsplash

Yucatán’s largest city is one of the best-preserved examples of colonial Spanish town planning in Mexico, but walk along Mérida’s wide boulevards and past grand mansions and you’ll often hear Mayan dialects spoken, not Spanish. This is Yucatán’s cultural hub, where you can visit the Great Museum of the Mayan World, watch performances of the ancient Mayan ball game Pok Ta Pok in the zocalo and gorge on classic Yucatán cuisine such as cochinita pibil and sopa de lima at the Sunday food fiesta.

2. Chichén Itzá

Archaeological site

The pyramid of Chichen Itza, Mexico
Filip Gielda / Unsplash
Chichén Itzá needs little introduction. Easily sold to tourists as one of the wonders of the world, Chichén Itzá has long dazzled the resort crowds from Cancun with its imposing pre-Hispanic pyramids and expertly renovated temples. For many centuries Chichén Itzá was one of Yucatán’s most important cities, but by the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the pyramids and ball courts had already been swallowed by the forest. Get an early start to beat the crowds, because Chichén Itzá’s glorious architecture and archaeology rightly make it one of Yucatán’s most important tourist attractions.

3. Playa del Carmen

Amusement Park, Park

Aerial view of the sandy beach at Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Jorge Fernández Salas / Unsplash
You’ll find it challenging to ever leave the sun-soaked shores of the Riviera Maya, particularly if you’re staying in Playa del Carmen. It gets busier and more developed here year on year, but Playa del Carmen still has just a fraction of the huge developments and resorts of neighboring Cancun. Spend the day enjoying cold Coronas or margaritas at beautiful beach clubs or head a few streets back from the seafront to find local cantinas and cheap tacos. Nearby you can visit freshwater cenotes, Mayan-inspired eco-parks and a museum dedicated to legendary painter Frida Kahlo.

4. Valladolid

Architectural Landmark

Church at colonial town of Valladolid, Mexico
Filip Gielda / Unsplash

Countless travelers pass through Valladolid on their way to the ruins of Chichén Itzá, but few stay to explore the cenotes, cantinas and old convents of this exciting yet compact city. Valladolid is the city of cenotes and you’ll find Cenote Zaci – one of these deep, flooded sinkholes – right in the center of the city. Nearby, you’ll find the cavernous and Instagram famous Cenote Suytun where you can take a dip below ground in cool waters. Then there are the stalagmites and stalactites of Cenote Xkeken, the rope swings and ziplines of Cenote Xcanche and the beautiful countryside surrounds of Cenote Oxman, which is located on an old hacienda.

5. Tulum Beach

Natural Feature

White sand beach in Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Anna Sullivan / Unsplash

Yucatán’s most Insta-famous destination is Tulum Beach, where white sands meet the clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. Beach clubs and hotels with infinity pools and Bali-style swings and floating breakfasts line the long coastline, while cafes serve up smoothie bowls with a shot of turmeric. But this is also Maya territory, with the northern end of Tulum Beach framed by the crumbling ruins of a pre-Hispanic port city that flourished long before the backpackers and Instagram stars found their tribe in Tulum.

6. Uxmal

Historical Landmark

The main pyramid in the Maya site Uxmal, Mexico
Neven Myst / Unsplash
History enthusiasts won’t want to miss out on a trip to the ruins of Uxmal, an ancient Mayan city located in eastern Yucatán. This once powerful city was still inhabited when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, but most of the buildings date back to around the 9th century CE when Uxmal was at its apogee. The smooth stone walls of the pyramids and temples are very different from the steeped designs found at Chichén Itzá and if you travel to the archeological site in the evening, you’ll see the restored Mayan city lit up in a spectacular nightly light show.

7. Las Coloradas

Natural Feature

The pink lagoons of Coloradas, Yucatán, México
Zyanya BMO / Unsplash

Pink lagoons, white sand beaches and a tropical climate; what’s not to love about Las Coloradas? Located on the northern shores of the Yucatán Peninsula, it can be a trek traveling to this remote fishing community, but it’s worth it for the laid-back beach vibes and the vast flocks of pink flamingos that fill the lagoons. Take a boat ride to explore more of this extensive nature reserve, including the dense mangroves where crocodiles are often found stalking prey through the wetlands. End the day overlooking the Caribbean Sea with a cold beer and freshly grilled seafood.

8. Izamal

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark

Yellow cloister in monastery on a cloudy afternoon in Izamal, Yucatán, Mexico
Tanja Cotoaga / Unsplash

Izamal is better known as the Yellow City. That’s because almost all of the houses, shops, buildings and churches here are painted a bright shade of lemon. But while it’s perfectly picturesque, hidden beneath the colonial architecture is an indigenous culture that’s still prominent today. Spanish isn’t always the first language in Izamal; take a closer look at the Franciscan Monastery and you’ll realize that it was built on top of a Mayan pyramid. In fact, the entire colonial city was built atop a Mayan city and amongst the yellow mansions, you’ll find the ruins of crumbling pre-Hispanic temples.

9. Celestún

Natural Feature

Pink flamingos wading in Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestún, Celestún, Yucatan, Mexico
Jan Dommerholt / Unsplash

Wildlife lovers will want to catch the next bus to Celestún, where 600sqkm (232sqmi) of mangroves, beaches and wetlands are protected as part of an enormous biosphere reserve. This is one of the most beautiful destinations in Yucatán and the ecosystem supports hundreds of species of birds, including vast flocks of vividly pink flamingos. Spend the day enjoying the white sands of the beach or take a boat tour through the biosphere in search of saltwater crocodiles and endangered sea turtles.

10. Ek Balam

Ruins, Historical Landmark, Archaeological site

The Mayan ruins of Ek Balam, Yucatán, Mexique
Florian Delée / Unsplash
Climb to the top of Ek Balam’s steeped, abandoned Acropolis and on a clear, uncloudy day you’ll see Chichén Itzá’s Temple of Kukulcan rising above the forest some 50km (31mi) to the south. Ek Balam was one of the most important and powerful cities in the Mayan world – more powerful perhaps, than better known Chichén Itzá – but you’ll be sharing the overgrown ruins with just a few other adventurous tourists. Climb the temples, explore ball courts and ancient dwellings, then cool off at Cenote Xcanche, where wooden walkways, rope swings and ziplines lead down to a freshwater swimming hole.

11. Akumal

Natural Feature

Aerial view of the beach at, Akumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Polina Kuzovkova / Unsplash

Strap on your mask, and wade out into the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea at Akumal. You’ll soon find yourself swimming with sea turtles, barracuda and manta rays as you snorkel the coral reefs. It’s no surprise that Akumal means the Place of the Turtles in the local Mayan dialect because this beautiful segment of the Riviera Maya is full of wildlife. You’ll find all the luxury hotels and beach bars you need here, too, but developments have still left the local nature protected. Learn more about the famous local turtles by joining a nighttime turtle watching tour at Xpu-Ha Beach, where these endangered creatures are found in abundance.

12. Cenote Azul

Natural Feature

Dos Ojos Cenote in Tulum, Riviera Maya, Mexico
Darren Lawrence / Unsplash

It gets hot along the Riviera Maya, but, luckily, the Yucatán Peninsula is a hotbed for freshwater swimming holes. Better known as cenotes, these flooded sinkholes are peculiar to the region, and they are fantastic for swimming. One of the best and most beautiful in the Riviera Maya is Cenote Azul, an open cenote that’s turquoise in color and perfectly refreshing. Spend the day jumping off the low cliffs, swimming in the freshwater and enjoying a foot massage courtesy of the nibbling fish. Cenote Azul is located around 20 minutes away from Playa del Carmen.

13. Cobá

Archaeological site, Ruins, Historical Landmark, Architectural Landmark

Ancient ruins at Coba, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Laura LaBrie / Unsplash

For centuries, the ruined Mayan city of Cobá was lost to the ravages of the forest. Once home to as many as 50,000 people, Cobá was a powerful city-state that would have ruled over much of Yucatán. Mighty Cobá was already abandoned when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, though, and the temples and pyramids were overgrown when they were rediscovered in the 19th century. The archeological site is best reached from Tulum, and, given the relative remoteness, you’ll see just a fraction of the tourists that Chichén Itzá receives.

14. Isla Mujeres

Natural Feature

Zama Beach Club, Isla Mujeres, Yucatan, Mexico
Jose Vazquez / Unsplash
Escape the mainland with a weekend on Isla Mujeres, a tropical beach-getaway located just a short ferry ride from Cancun. Isla Mujeres is so laid-back that the best way to get around is by golf cart, and you can hire one for the day or flag down a passing taxi cart to take you to your hotel. Aside from the beachside cocktails at the resorts on the north shore, the real highlight on Isla Mujeres is the snorkeling. Step off the beach, and swim out to the reefs, and you’ll soon see sea turtles. Isla Mujeres is home to a successful conservation center that rehabilitates injured turtles and helps the babies to hatch and reach the ocean.

15. Puerto Aventuras

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark

Puerto Aventuras has long tried to be the best-kept secret in the Riviera Maya, but it was always going to be a challenge to keep one of the most beautiful destinations in Quintana Roo under wraps forever. It’s located just 20 minutes south of Playa del Carmen, and there are only a select few resorts to check into at Adventure Port – one of them is the Hard Rock Hotel. If you’re not swept up in the all-inclusive vibe, then head down to the white-sand beach in Puerto Aventuras, where there are no crowds but excellent snorkeling just meters offshore.

16. Puerto Morelos

Natural Feature

Breathless Riviera Cancun Resort & Spa, Puerto Morelos, Mexico
Josh Hammond / Unsplash

Puerto Morelos is the “official” starting point of the Riviera Maya, and, while the seaside town is a major port and harbor for the whole state, the beaches to the north and south are best described as pristine. Many of those white-sand beaches have been taken over by resorts, but it’s far more laid-back and secluded here than in Cancun. The waters off the coast are shallow, which is great news for snorkelers because the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and all of its glorious marine life can be reached from the beach.

17. Sian Ka'an

Natural Feature, Park

Sunset at Sian Kaan, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Gabriel Barranco / Unsplash
Sian Ka’an loosely means the “place where heaven begins”, and, when you reach the most remote nature preserve in the Riviera Maya, you’ll quickly understand why the Mayans gave it this name. This vast Unesco-listed site is one of the largest biosphere reserves in Mexico, protecting forests, beaches, coral reefs and delicate ecosystems. Snorkel the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, visit one of the oldest Mayan ruins in the Americas at the archaeological site Muyil, or trek deep into the biosphere in search of howler monkeys, iguanas, tapirs and even the rare puma.

Looking for somewhere to rest your head after a day of exploring? Stay in one of the coolest places in the Yucátan Peninsula or even at a boutique base in Cancun. For your post-adventure meal, nothing beats dining like a local. And if you can’t get enough of this incredible region, find out the things you never knew about Yucatan, including the hidden cenotes.

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