EXPLORING MEXICO: HIGHLIGHTS OF THE YUCATAN PENINSULA



Here it is, my guide to the Yucatan Peninsula. I recently spent two weeks exploring this part of Mexico, and without a doubt it makes up the most vibrant region of the country. In just 14 days, I experienced the perfect mix of culture, history, nature and cuisine, checking all of my travel boxes in such a short period of time. I filled my itinerary with both off-the-beaten-path gems, as well a handful of popular tourist spots. The guide below is a roundup of highlights from my trip including the Yellow City of Izamal, the Uxmal Mayan Ruins and the pink church of Uayma, sinkhole swims in Centoe Zaci and, of course, bicycle rides on Tulum Beach Road.


Cenote Zaci is topical, lush and located in the middle of the Valladolid city center.


One of the most charming gems in the Yucatan is the yellow city of Izamal.


For colonial color, stop in the Valladolid city center.


Living the slow hacienda life at the gorgeous Hacienda Xcantun.


PLACES TO VISIT ON THE YUCATAN PENINSULA


CENOTE IK KIL

Cenote Ik Kil may not be the most beautiful of the thousands of tropical sinkholes tucked away in Mexico, but it's certainly the busiest. Located 85-feet below the surface, the sacred Mayan waters are reached by climbing down a damp staircase carved into the limestone of a sunken cavern. On a quiet morning, Cenote Ik Kil is an incredibly tranquil swimming hole adorned in hundreds of tropical jungle vines. Most visitors that arrive for the 9 AM opening have about an hour to experience the place with a bit of solitude, only sharing the calm, clear waters with the resident black catfish.


CENOTE NICTE HA

This cenote located off a dirt road that leads to Cenote Dos Ojos is a little slice of heaven. A picture perfect Ferngully, in fact. The clear blue waters are ideal for floating, snorkeling and even diving - home to dozens of floating lily pads, fish of all sizes that nibble at your ankles and limestone stalactites in the nearby cave.

CENOTE SUYTUN

Relatively new to the cenote game, Cenote Suytun is a completely unique natural wonder located just 15 minutes from the Valladolid city center. Tucked away in a massive underground cavern, this cenote boasts beautiful stalactites and clear blue waters, as well as an oculus that shines a surreal light beam straight down into the cavern below. This Star Trek phenomenon is completely unique to Cenote Suytun, and only appears when the sun in shining (so best to avoid visiting on an overcast day).


CENOTE ZACI

It's hard to imagine that bustling Valladolid is home to a tropical cenote, but indeed a lush oasis sits just a few blocks from San Gervasio Cathedral in the middle of the city center. Cenote Zaci is a picture perfect sinkhole, often passed up thanks to its close proximity to tourist magnet Cenote Ik Kil. I'd actually never heard of the place until a month ago, so I arrived with very low expectations. In fact, I only visited the swimming hole because I happened to be a few blocks away in Valladolid. Well, expectations blown! Cenote Zaci was even lovelier than Cenote Ik Kil. The sinkhole was its own epic Ferngully where limestone staircases descended straight into the prettiest blue waters. I arrived in the late morning to just a handful of visitors (completely pleasant), so I can only imagine the place being an empty oasis even earlier in the day.

CHICHEN ITZA

As the star attraction of the Yucatan, these iconic Mayan ruins get very busy, very quickly. The UNESCO World Heritage Site starts filling up with tour groups and selfie sticks within 30 minutes of opening, so visitors that are first in line have the best chance of experiencing the iconic pyramid El Castillo with just a handful of tourists around. And for travelers who have already visited Machu Picchu in Peru, Caracol in Belize or the Great Pyramids in Egypt, Chichen Itza might be a bit underwhelming.


COBA MAYAN RUINS

A fun daytrip from Tulum is a drive out to the Coba Mayan Ruins where visitors can rent a bicycle to explore the ancient jungle on two wheels. Unlike Chichen Itza, tourists are permitted to climb the historical site's ancient pyramid.

EK BALAM MAYAN RUINS

This historic Mayan sight is best coupled with a visit to Valladolid thanks to its close proximity to the city - it sits just 16 miles north. Lush, green jungle surround Ek Balam, and there is a 100-ft. pyramid visitors can scale for views of the surrounding treetops.


IZAMAL (THE YELLOW CITY)

It's a bit of a drive if you're staying in the eastern Yucatan, but worth the journey to see the the brilliant Yellow City of Izamal. It can actually be part of a daytrip out to Chichen Itza and Cenote Ik Kil. It's 40-minutes onward to get to Izamal with hardly any other tourists heading that same direction. The little city is absolutely charming with its cobbled streets and yellow everything - yellow hotels, yellow shops, yellow restaurants, yellow churches, etc.

MERIDA

The colorful colonial capital located in the Western Yucatan is a bit of a drive, so worth staying the night in a local hacienda. There are plenty of ruins, cenotes and restaurants to occupy a day or two in Merida, and it's a nice change of scenery from the Caribbean coast. Merida's bustling historic center is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon wandering the colorful colonial streets surrounding the Plaza de la Independencia.


TULUM BEACH ROAD

Absolutely love riding a bicycle to and from the hotels, restaurants, beach bars, beach access points and boutiques along Tulum Beach Road.


TULUM MAYAN RUINS

Not the most epic ruins in the Yucatan, but worth a visit for anyone on an extended stay in Tulum. The location of the Mayan site is particularly stunning with sweeping views of the turquoise Caribbean Sea.

UAYMA CHURCH

One of the prettiest churches in Mexico sits hidden away in the quiet town of Uayma, about a 20-minute drive from Valladolid. While the church may look like it was made for Instagram feeds with its soaring pink walls adorned in white stars and faded roses, I think it's still relatively an unknown. I arrived before 9 AM and had the place to myself for a full hour - I didn't see a single tourist while I was there.

UXMAL MAYAN RUINS

Chichen Itza gets all the glory, but the Uxmal Mayan ruins are far more grand. The ancient site is an hour's drive from Merida in a remote location that few tourists are willing to travel to - a blessing for anyone who wants to experience the place without people around. The expansive sight oozes Indiana Jones vibes with its epic Temple of the Magician, House of the Pigeons, Nunnery Quadrangle and House of the Governor. Uxmal also offers quintessential Tomb Raider views from the top of the Great Pyramid - a sweeping panorama over the jungle with the Pyramid of the Magician peeking out over the treetops.

VALLADOLID HISTORICAL CENTRE

The colonial gem is a mecca of color where bright reds, yellows, greens, pinks and blues adorn the shopfronts that line the pleasant streets. Highlights included the beautiful talavera fountain tucked away inside La Casona de Valladolid; tropical swims at Cenote Zaci; and the colorful pedestrian boulevards of Calzada de los Frailes.


Exploring the colorful city center of Merida.


Overwhelmed by the crowds at Chichen Itza? You'll find only a fraction of the tourists at the Uxmal Mayan ruins (and this place is much more epic).


The converted Hacienda Xcantun is one of my favorite hotels in all of Mexico.


The ruins of the Pyramid of the Magician rise up out of the jungle.


The always adorable Matcha Mama.


PLACES TO STAY ON THE YUCATAN PENINSULA


CASA LECANDA BOUTIQUE HOTEL (MERIDA)

For travelers looking to stay in central Merida, Casa Lecanda Boutique Hotel is the best luxury option. The airy 19th century property is home to seven fully restored rooms that surround a beautifully tiled courtyard, fountains and a small pool.


EL PALACITO SECRETO (MERIDA)

El Palacito Secreto also sits in central Merida, and it's a fine alternative if Casa Lecanda is fully booked. It's not quite as upscale and the prices are a bit cheaper, but still a fine backup option.


ENCANTADA TULUM (TULUM)

A tiny boutique hotel located on Tulum Beach Road, Encantada Tulum is the ultimate luxury boho stay - white & neutral decor, thatched ceilings and hardwood floors. The intimate property houses only eight rooms - the perfect quiet escape in the evenings.


HACIENDA SACNICTE (VALLADOLID)

Hacienda Sacnicte is a beautiful, historic hacienda located just outside of Izamal, the Yellow City of the Yucatan. The property is incredibly affordable, as most travelers don't visit Izamal as an overnight destination.


HACIENDA XCANTUN (MERIDA)

I absolutely loved the character, charm and luxury of Hacienda Xcantun. The four-acre converted hacienda is a sprawling estate filled with lush vegetation, idyllic pools and gorgeous yellow colonial building that house spacious, luxurious rooms. It's a quiet, serene retreat from Merida's bustling center, about a 15-minute drive.


HOTEL MA'XANAB TULUM (TULUM)

Beautiful boho hotel located in the heart of Tulum. Hotel Ma'Xanab Tulum embraces neutral tones, minimalist design cues and airy open spaces.


LA VALISE (TULUM)

Another stunning boho hotel located on a gorgeous stretch of beach in Tulum. La Valise is ideal for travelers looking for a luxurious stay - minimal chic at its finest.


LA ZEBRA (TULUM)

A Tulum staple. Most come for the food and beach club, and the lucky ones get to stay at the gorgeous boutique hotel. La Zebra sits in the heart of Tulum, perfectly located along Tulum Beach Road. The beachfront suites ooze with chic Tulum vibes - neutral tones, high ceilings, minimalist design and some with private plunge pools.

MEZZANINE HOTEL (TULUM)

Another Colibri Boutique Hotel property, this one also located on Tulum Beach Road, but a bit closer to the ruins. Almost all properties in Tulum are beachfront, but few of them occupy a setting as magical as Mezzanine. The hotel sits perched above the loveliest stretch of beach with sundecks and white hammocks that overlook the water. Rooms are completely luxurious, particularly the property's Master Suites, spacious digs that look straight out of an Anthropologie catalog.


Following my dreams through Tulum.


Vibes on Tulum Beach Road.


PLACES TO EAT ON THE YUCATAN PENINSULA

ARCA (TULUM)

Amazing spot for cocktails and micro seasonal eats, located next to Hartwood on Tulum Beach Road.


AZULIK (TULUM)

Azulik is the most iconic place to watch the sunset in Tulum, but it comes at a price - expensive cocktails at the bar, or dinner reservations at one of the property's restaurants.


EL MESON DEL MARQUES (VALLADOLID)

For a memorable ambiance, grab dinner at El Meson del Marques. The restaurant is housed in a 16th century Spanish building where an airy open courtyard is filled with tables and surrounded by colonial archways.

HARTWOOD (TULUM)

Finally had a chance to eat at Hartwood, one of the most popular restaurants in Tulum. Reservations are notoriously difficult at this sustainable hotspot, but show up when they open and you might get lucky. The specialty is seafood with a menu that changes so frequently that it's written on a chalkboard that gets moved around from table to table.

I SCREAM BAR (TULUM)

I'm recommending I Scream Bar more for the funk, than for the food. The open air gem is located on Tulum Beach Road, and the place is hard to miss. A baby blue tuk tuk sits out front with matching tuk tuk parts pieced together to build out the restaurant's bar.


KINICH EL SABOR DE IZAMAL (IZAMAL)

A wonderful little restaurant tucked away in Izam, Kinich El Sabor de Izamal serves up fresh, delicious Mayan cuisine in its airy, spacious restaurant. Popular dishes include the salbutes and panuchos - must order items!

LA ZEBRA (TULUM)

One of my favorite restaurants in Tulum. I've had breakfast (chilaquiles!), lunch (fish tacos!) and dinner (fresh fish!) here - all meals hand-crafted, and delicious.

MATCHA MAMA (TULUM)

An Instagram darling for good reason. There isn't a cuter spot in Tulum than Matcha Mama. Set along Tulum Beach Road, the bright open-air cafe is equipped with swings, surfboards, colorful acai bowls and the perfect white / turquoise color palette. Definitely worth parking your bicycle for a quick smoothie.

MI AMOR (TULUM)

A great spot for dinner and drinks in a gorgeous airy space overlooking the ocean. Menu highlights include their fresh bed of greens; grilled fish with almonds, brown butter and soubise; handcut truffle fries and the signature sparkling wine cocktails.

WAYAYN'E (MERIDA)

Popular spot in central Merida for cheap, delicious Yucatecan tacos and torts


Lunch time at Estancia Jujeña.


Welcome margaritas from Mezzanine Hotel.


Right at home in my Master Suite at the Mezzanine Hotel.


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