The Most Beautiful Destinations to Visit in Mexico's Yucatán
Tulum is home to some of Mexico's finest beaches, not to mention a hip social scene | © iStock / Getty Images Plus
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.
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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.
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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.
Playa del Carmen
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
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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.
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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.
Ruins, Historical Landmark, Archaeological site
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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.
These recommendations were updated on July 16, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.