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EXPLORING MEXICO: ULTIMATE GUIDE TO THE YUCATAN & QUINTANA ROO

December 13, 2018

Here it is, my guide to the Yucatan and Quintana Roo. I recently spent two weeks exploring these neighboring Mexico states, and without a doubt they make up the most vibrant region of the country. In just 14 days, I experienced a wonderful mix of culture, history, nature and cuisine - I felt like I checked all of my travel boxes in a very short period of time. For this trip, I filled my itinerary with off-the-beaten-path gems; places I didn't see popping up in my social feed every week. Yes, I still made time for touristed Chichen Itza and Cenote Ik Kil, but for the most part I tried to focus on places that were off the tourist radar. Before this trip, I'd never heard of the Yellow City of Izamal, the Uxmal Mayan Ruins and the pink church of Uayma. And they turned out to be three of my favorites spots in this part of Mexico. I based myself in Tulum for most of my visit, the perfect middle ground for daytrips around the Yucatan Peninsula. Colibri Boutique Hotels has four properties along the iconic Tulum Beach Road, and they were kind enough to host my stay at La Zebra and Mezzanine Hotel. ♡

 

Ventured deep into the Yucatan state to visit the Yellow City of Izamal.

 

 Waiting for the sun to set over Azulik, in Tulum.

 

Playing twinsies in Merida, the capital city of the Yucatan.

 

 Tulum vibes.
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 Floating with fish in the clearest waters of Cenote Zaci.

 

I discovered the cutest palm swing outside my suite at La Zebra.

 

Tulum, I love you so matcha!

 

Right at home in my Master Suite at Mezzanine Hotel.

 

Yellow scenes from the Yellow City.

 

 Tulum sunsets are magic.

 

SEE

Cenote Ik Kil

Ah, the Yucatan - land of cenotes! 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 surrounding limestone of a sunken cavern. On a quiet morning, Cenote Ik Kil is an incredibly tranquil swimming hole. 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. It's the best time to float, with views of the sky through the cavern's limestone opening, along with dozens of tropical jungle vines that hang down into the cavern.

 

Cenote Nicte Ha

This cenote located off the 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 (they nibble at your ankles!) and limestone stalactites formations in the surrounding 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, the iconic Mayan ruins get very busy, very quickly. Chichen Itza is more than two hours driving from Tulum, but with the one hour time change between the two regions, it's possible to leave at 6:30 AM and be in line at Chichen Itza before 8 AM. I made it it in time for opening, and was able to see the iconic pyramid El Castillo in under an hour. It sounds rushed, but the UNESCO World Heritage Site actually starts filling up with tour groups and selfie sticks within 30 minutes of opening. And for travelers who have already visited Machu Picchu in Peru, Caracol in Belize or the Great Pyramids in Egypt, Chichen Itza is a bit underwhelming. An hour is plenty. 

 

Izamal - The Yellow City

It's a bit of a drive, but worth the journey to see the Yucatan's brilliant Yellow City. The colonial darling can be seen in a half day. I visited without much of a plan in the late morning after quick stops to see Chichen Itza and Cenote Ik Kil. It was 40-minutes onward to get to Izamal with hardly any other tourists heading that same direction. The little city was absolutely charming with its cobbled streets and yellow everything - yellow hotels, yellow shops, yellow restaurants, yellow churches, etc. Some of my favorite gems were the Colonial Franciscan Monastery of San Antonio de Padua, the town square and lunch at Kinich El Sabor de Izamal. Best discovery of the trip!

 

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. I stayed at the luxurious Hacienda Xcantun for my overnight trip - a little pricey, but worth the splurge. Merida's bustling historic center is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon wandering the colorful colonial streets surrounding the Plaza de la Independencia.

 

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 located 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

It's a two-hour drive to reach Valladolid from Tulum, but there's plenty to see to make up a full day's adventure. The colonial gem is a mecca of color where bright reds, yellows, greens, pinks and blues adorn the shopfronts that line the pleasant streets. I parked a few blocks from the Catedral de San Gervasio, and spent the morning exploring the city center on foot. 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. 

 

 Shopping the cutest boutiques along the Calzada de los Frailes, in Valladolid. 

 

 My Indiana Jones moment at the Pyramid of the Magician.

 

The perfect beach day at La Zebra.

 

So many cute cafes and restaurants in Tulum.

 

Living the hacienda life in Merida.  

 

Absolutely loved bicycling up and down Tulum Beach Road.

 

 Morning feast at La Zebra - homemade chilaquiles are my favorite!

 

Cenote Ik Kil.

 

Obsessed with the all the pinks I could find in Valladolid.

 

Jungle views for days at the Uxmal Mayan Ruins.

 

 Cancun beach bum.

 

The suite life at La Zebra

 

There are several colorful signs like this scattered around Mexico, but this one was the cutest.

 

STAY

La Zebra (TULUM)

A Tulum staple. Everyone knows La Zebra. Most come for the food and beach club, and the lucky ones stay for the gorgeous boutique hotel. The property sits in the heart of Tulum, perfectly located along Tulum Beach Road. I had a rental car, but never had to use it because everything was accessible by bicycle from the hotel. I stayed in one of the beachfront suites, a luxurious haven that oozed with chic Tulum vibes. The suite was completely spacious with high ceilings, a king bed, sitting area, daybed, massive bathroom and a private plunge pool overlooking the beach. The perfect retreat every evening!

 

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 tan decks and white hammocks that overlook the water - an amazing place to catch the sunrise! At check-in, Mezzanine completely spoiled me with one of their exclusive Master Suites, a gorgeous set of digs that looked like an Anthropologie catalog photo shoot. I loved the chic white / tan design, and the amazing private terrace that overlooked the ocean. 

 

Hammock goals at Mezzanine Hotel, in Tulum. 

 

Lunch time at Estancia Jujeña.

 

My suite's private pool at La Zebra

 

Welcome margaritas from Mezzanine Hotel.

 

Colonial Franciscan Monastery of San Antonio de Padua.

 

Sunset from my bird's nest.

 

EAT/DRINK

Arca (TULUM)

Passion fruit cocktails were my drink of choice in Tulum, and nowhere made them better than the artful mixologists of Arca. The bar / restaurant was just a few weeks old when I visited, located between Casa Jaguar and Casa Banana on Tulum Beach Road. I only had drinks, but I do want to go back for dinner to try their micro-seasonal menu.

 

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 I showed up when they opened at 5:30 PM and got seated right away. The open air restaurant is tiny, so I can see why there is always a line for dinner. Their 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 had their fresh white fish the evening I was there - perfectly grilled with seasonal veggies. Delicious!

 

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.

 

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. And compared to some of the other restaurants in Tulum, La Zebra is pretty affordable. 

 

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 coloring. Definitely worth parking your bicycle for a quick smoothie and snap.

 

Mi Amor (TULUM)

A great spot for dinner and drinks in a gorgeous airy space overlooking the ocean. Mi Amor was the best service I had in Tulum (thank you to Grass, the most AMAZING server!), and one of my favorite meals. I feasted on a fresh bed of greens; grilled fish with almonds, brown butter and soubise; handcut truffle fries and one of their mixologist's signature sparkling wine cocktails.

 

Tseen-Ja, Azulik (TULUM)

Azulik is the most iconic place to watch the sunset in Tulum, but it comes at a price. To access the hotel's first set of bird nests, I had to purchase a cocktail. And then to get to an even better viewpoint at Azulik, I needed a dinner reservation at Tseen-Ja. Now, I already had dinner plans for Mi Amor, so on the fly I put my name down for dinner (but I  only ordered appetizers), so that I could climb up over the restaurant for sunset. Hard to say if my $50 in appetizers was worth the Golden Hour experience, but it was pretty darn epic.

 

Breakfast feast at Mezzanine Hotel.

 

Lovin' the slow hacienda life of Merida.

 

The funkiest spot on Tulum Beach Road? I Scream Bar!

 

La Zebra is the best place to be a beach bum.

 

Tile goals everywhere in Valladolid.

 

 Pyramid of the Magician rising up out of the jungle. 

 

Uayma Church.

 

 Azulik.

 

An afternoon of shopping and feasting at Plaza Bonita, in Cancun.

 

 Chichen Itza.

 

 La Zebra chow time.

 

 Love Matcha Mama, it's adorable!

 

Woke up early for the prettiest sunset over Tulum Beach at Mezzanine Hotel.

 

 Happiness in Tulum, so much good energy here.

 

The Uxmal ruins were a nice change from Chichen Itza - hardly any people, and much more epic!

 

SHOPPING

Plaza Bonita (CANCUN)

A dreamland for tourists, colorful Plaza Bonita is home to dozens of little stalls selling all types of tourists trinkets including sombreros, pottery, ceramics, jewelry, dresses, tequila and more. It's a 20-minute drive to reach the plaza, but a refreshing afternoon escape from the Cancun resort zone. I spent more time eating than shopping, as the plaza was home to several local outdoor restaurants. Loved my cheap (and delicious!) feast of chips, guacamole, beans and tortillas!

 

Tulum Beach Road

Ok, it's more window shopping I do on Tulum Beach Road than actual shopping. Prices are ridiculously high for Mexico (I think I saw a dress for $2,000 USD in one of the boutiques), but the shops are fun, funky and cute for browsing.

 

Obsessed.

 

I'll be right here.  

 

Too many cute boutiques to shop along Tulum Beach Road.

 

 Finally made it to Chichen Itza, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

 

Amazing dinner at Hartwood, on my last night in Tulum.

 

 Thanks for an amazing stay Mezzanine. Until next time!

 

Thank you to La Zebra and Mezzanine for hosting my stay and sponsoring this post! xx

 

All honest opinions are my own.

 

Photos by myself and Anh-Thi Nguyen (@leftietraveler on Instagram).

 

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