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Top 10 things to do in Yucatan and Quintana Roo in Mexico

January 7, 2014

So, you’ve finally made up your mind on that tropical destination and are all set to fly to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico soon. But what do you do once you get there? Laze on the beach? Go snorkeling? Book a trip to see the great Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza? Wondering whether to choose Isla Mujeres or Isla Cozumel for a side trip? And you definitely want to experience swimming in Mexico’s unique cenotes! Wow, so many options. Here’s a handy roundup of the top 10 things you will not want to miss when visiting Mexico.

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Assuming you flew in to the airport at Cancun, you probably already know that Cancun has a reputation for being THE party city (it’s a top destination for Spring Break) but there are many other things to see and do nearby. With this list as your guide, you will have your cake and eat it too. One can stay in Cancun and still experience Mexico’s marvelous history and culture. With an endless number of options along the Yucatan peninsula like swimming in inland cenotes and snorkeling along coral reefs in the Caribbean, visiting Mayan ruins, exploring a 1 million acre Biosphere Reserve, world-class diving, relaxing on sugary white sand beaches with views of an impossibly turquoise ocean, you will be spoilt for choice on what to do!

MuseoMayaSculpture

Ideally your base should be somewhere like Playa Del Carmen or nearby, since most of Yucatan’s top destinations are easy to get to from Playa Del Carmen, Tulum, Akumal, Puerto Morelos, Tankah Tres etc. But if your heart is set on staying in Cancun, be prepared for a fairly long trek (1-3 hours one-way) up and down the coast (in a car, van or bus) when doing day trips to these places. Now without further ado, here are the top 10!

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1) Relaxing at the fabulous beaches flanking Zona Hotelera

This is easy. You don’t even need to step outside of Cancun. Heck, no need to even step outside of your hotel. If you are staying at an oceanfront hotel in the Zona Hotelera, then it’s likely your hotel is flanked by one of the most pristine white-sand beaches there ever was. Just step outside, find a palapa on the beach and settle down for a lazy, relaxing day which involves doing nothing. Absolutely nothing. Other than sipping on pina colada’s and nibbling on chips & salsa which will keep coming endlessly if you smartly chose the resort’s all-inclusive option.

ChichenItza

2) Day trip to Chichen Itza: one of the new Seven Wonders of the World

One of the most popular day trip destinations, Chichen Itza is literally mobbed by tour groups from late morning to evening. But because the grounds are vast, the hundreds of people who visit each day are spread out and if you are patient, there will be times when you will have the Mayan ruins to yourself. Then you can savor a moment of peace when admiring the Mayan hieroglyphs carved onto imposing pyramid structures. Easily one of the most recognizable icons of Mexico, El Castillo also known as Temple of Kukulkan is a marvelous structure. The stairs used to be open to tourists to climb up, but have since been made off limits due to accidental falls and deterioration of the structure due to the crowds. Nevertheless, the pyramid and surrounding ruins make a spectacular sight. Don’t miss the Ball Court – an impossibly vast stretch of land flanked by two high stone walls, and a sideways hoop set high up on each wall, through which a rubber ball had to be dunked by competing teams. Apparently, the losers were summarily executed, such was the sporting nature of the Mayans.

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TulumRuins

3) Visiting the scenic Mayan ruins at Tulum

The ruins at Tulum are no doubt one of the most scenic and picturesque among the many Mayan ruins in the area. The juxtaposition of sugary white-sand beaches and a turquoise Caribbean next to the Mayan ruins of Tulum perched on high cliffs makes it all the more magnificent. There is a beach access route so once you get hot and tired from all the walking around, you can head to the beach and cool off in the Caribbean.

SnorkelingPuertoMorelos

4) Snorkeling at Puerto Morelos National Park

Puerto Morelos is home to the world’s second largest coral reef system and has undoubtedly some of the best snorkeling opportunities near Cancun. An easy day trip from the Yucatan Peninsula, there are many snorkeling outfits on the beach that will take you out to the coral reef which is just a couple thousand feet from shore. Don’t forget your underwater camera, biodegradable sunscreen and snorkeling gear! The waves are usually quite strong since this is open ocean and not a protected cove, but wearing a lifejacket helps and staying close to the guide and your group will ensure you don’t get swept out further than intended.

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5) Swimming and snorkeling in Mexico’s unique Cenotes

Cenotes are one of Yucatan’s most unique and spectacular features. These naturally formed limestone caverns are entire worlds onto themselves. Filled with magnificent stalactites and stalagmites and almost always filled with crystal-clear turquoise-blue freshwater, cenotes are perfect for a refreshing swim. Many are home to fishes and tortoises and are connected to other cenotes through a large network of underground channels. They are perfect for snorkeling and even more exciting for diving, especially if you want to explore the caves deeper.

SnorkelingSianKaan

6) Day trip to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

Sian Ka’an means where the sky was born. An apt name for a wonderful reserve which is filled with mangrove-lined clear-water lagoons that reflect the blue skies and cotton-puff clouds. Sian Ka’an is a 1.3 million acre Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, home to two spectacular lagoons – Muyil and Chunyaxche. There is also the Muyil rainforest where “chicle“-men collect sticky sap from trees and process it to produce one of the most ubiquitous items found everywhere in the world today – Chewing Gum. In fact, “Chiclet” means chewing mouth in Mayan!

FloatingSianKaanLagoon

7) Swimming and snorkeling in the mangrove-lined Chunyaxche lagoon

The Muyil and Chunyaxche lagoons in Sian Ka’an are interconnected by mangrove-lined channels where water flows continuously thanks to a speedy current. One of the most unique and magical experiences is to float along one of these channels, from lagoon to lagoon! It’s a wonderful feeling when swimming and snorkeling in the water. There are many fishes to be found if you look closely under the mangrove roots. Boat rides on the lagoons are a fun way to get around and explore more of the Biosphere Reserve. On a day trip to Sian Ka’an, one can hike in the Muyil rainforest, learn how chewing gum is really made, swim in the pristine lagoons while floating along with the natural current, snorkel in nearby cenotes and indulge in a sumptuous meal of freshly grilled fish and typical Mexican delicacies. Need I say more?

8) Rio Secreto underground cave spelunking

One of the more famous caverns in the Riviera Maya, Rio Secreto (meaning secret river) is home to spectacular caves, lined with exquisitely formed stalactites and stalagmites. Spend an afternoon spelunking, hiking and swimming in this crystal museum while marveling at the dramatic formations and discovering that there are some places in this world, where time really does stands still.

9) Day trip to Isla Mujeres

Imagine an unassuming island just a 20min ferry ride away from party-crazy Cancun. Welcome to Isla Mujeres! The name translates to “Island of Women” because of female figurines found by the Spanish conquistadors when they ransacked Mexico. Isla Mujeres has successfully evaded commercialization and rampant urban development, much to the delight of travelers who seek its deserted beaches, laid back atmosphere and peace loving vibe. Once you get to Isla Mujeres, there are no hectic must-do and must-see itineraries. Just lay out your beach mat, or find a shady palapa and sunbathe, swim, snorkel to your heart’s delight.

IslaCozumel

10) Day trip to Cozumel: one of the world’s top destinations for scuba diving

Cozumel is one of the world’s top destinations for superb scuba diving. It is a long way away from Cancun (2 buses and a ferry) but if you are staying in Playa Del Carmen, it’s just a 40min ferry ride away. We stayed in Cancun and wanted to visit Cozumel for the day, so we took it upon ourselves to make an adventure out of it by taking public transport and doing the trip ourselves. Bus R1 from Cancun Hotel Zone to ADO bus station in Downtown took around 20-30mins. Then it was onto ADO bus headed to Playa Del Carmen from Cancun. This ride took 2 hours. At Playa Del Carmen we took the ferry that takes 40mins to get to the port in Cozumel. It was approx 3 hours one-way, but totally worth the experience since we got to ride down the coast, interact with locals and practice our Spanish.

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Many tour operators offer world-class diving trips in Cozumel. Whether it’s a regular dive, beginner dive, advanced dive, drift dive, night dive – Cozumel has all this and more! One road runs all around the island, but there are no buses thanks to the taxi union who have prevented any form of public transport from being setup. Your options to get around are to take a very expensive taxi or rent one of those cute scooters or a car if you want to drive to the other side of the island. But many dive shops have their storefront right off of the ferry landing, so it’s easy to hook up with one of these places and plan your itinerary for the day.

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11) Side trip to Merida: A gorgeous colonial city

This is a bonus option for those lucky enough to be spending enough time in Mexico that you’re considering a side-trip to the wonderful colonial city of Merida. I fell in love with Merida when watching Rick Bayless’s cooking show Mexico: One Plate at a Time on Live Well Network, where he dishes up one feast after another. Merida is the capital of Yucatan and easily reachable from Cancun as long as you’re planning on staying a night or two in this wonderful city. Apart from beautiful buildings and colonial structures, the city is a foodie’s paradise where you can indulge in Yucatan specialties like Papadzules (egg tacos topped with pumpkin seed sauce and tomatoes) and Cochinita Pibil (Yucatan’s famous marinated pork dish) 

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Did I miss any of your must-see favorite spots in the Yucatan peninsula? Let me know in the comments!

Feliz Viaje!

~ Trupti

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8 Comments
  1. whywasteannualleave permalink

    I went to Mexico years ago and stayed at Playacar. I did some snorkelling at Xel Ha and visited Chichen Itza but I would love to go back and do some snorkelling in Cozumel or Puerto Morelos and to see the ruins at Tulum. Great post!

    • Thank you! There’s truly so much to do in Mexico. We had to choose between Xel Ha and Puerto Morelos on our last day in Mexico and we went with Puerto Morelos but we definitely will be returning in future to visit Mexico’s fantastic natural parks like Xel Ha, Xcaret and Xplor. Cozumel is one of the world’s top diving spots which is why scuba-diving lessons are on our agenda for this year 🙂

      • whywasteannualleave permalink

        Maybe one day I’ll pluck up the courage to dive too! Happy travels!

      • Thanks for stopping by 🙂 Yes, I am in favor of snorkeling too, but diving just looks like it’s so much more fun, not to mention the unbeatable closeup views of the corals and fish and the ocean floor … umm, getting scuba certified is definitely on my list 🙂 Psst … the trick is to decide on a diving destination (like Belize or Australia) and book tickets far into the future – then you have no choice but to learn scuba and get certified 😉

  2. It looks like a great place. I am definitely going to have to find room on my TravelWishList for the Yucatan. Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and Cenotes had already piqued my interest but you hit a couple that weren’t on my radar. Thanks

    • Glad you enjoyed the article Jerome! Will you be at TBEX Cancun this year? I’m looking forward to exploring more of the Yucatan and nearby areas when I’m in Cancun for TBEX.

  3. Coleen permalink

    On my last visit in March we visited Tulum and snorkeled at Dos Ojos cenotes as well as at Xel Ha. We had a wonderful lunch in Akumal. Next month I will be returning and hope to do some of these activities you have listed!

    • That sounds wonderful! I hope you enjoy exploring Sian Ka’an and visiting Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. I should add Isla Holbox to that list too, since I just got back after spending two perfect days on the island!

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