Yucatán travel guide

Out on a limb in southeast Mexico, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, the Yucatán Peninsula draws in huge numbers of tourists each year, many who come for the beach resort lifestyle of Cancún and the Riviera Maya. But head beyond the all-inclusives, cruise docks and club nights and you’ll find rich Mayan culture, forests brimming with birds and mammals and sublime stretches of beach with incredible marine life just offshore.
The Yucatán Peninsula delivers huge rewards in a petite package: Mayan ruins, gorgeous beaches, wonderful wildlife and excellent food.
The Yucatán's history is ever-present as you explore the region, from the colourful colonial buildings that pepper the streets of Mérida and Campeche, to grand former plantation houses that now serve as hotels, to the region’s big draw: the crumbling ruins of ancient Mayan civilisations, many of which lie scattered in thick tracts of jungle.
Read on in our Yucatán travel guide.
Yucatán is/isn't

Yucatán is…

natural wonderland both above and below the water.

Yucatán isn’t…

just about beaches and boisterous resorts such as Cancún.

Yucatán map & highlights

Jutting out of the tail end of Mexico, with the Caribbean Sea to one side and the Gulf of Mexico to the other, the Yucatán Peninsula is made up of three states – Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatán, which sits right at the peninsula’s tip. Formed by a limestone shelf, this is a low-lying region. It has no hills or mountains of any significance and only reaches 300m above sea level at its highest point . The interior is filled with swathes of jungle and the coastline is lined with fine white sand, including the famous Riviera Maya, on the northeast coast, which is known for its numerous all-inclusive resorts.

International flights touch down in the boisterous resort city of Cancún, on the peninsula’s northeast tip, from where it’s easy to either rent a car or get around via local buses and taxis.

1. Cenotes

The Yucatán is criss-crossed by underground rivers, accessible at limestone sinkholes called cenotes. These unique pools are filled with cool, fresh water year-round and are found throughout the peninsula. Traditionally used as a source of freshwater, they’re now hot spots for swimming and snorkelling; and vary from low-key affairs, to vast, busy pools complete with restaurants and diving platforms.
Chichen Itza

2. Chichen Itza

Once the thriving centre of Mayan civilisation and Yucatán’s biggest city until the Mayan revolt of 1221, today Chichén Itzá is home to Mexico’s largest collection of Mayan ruins and is one of the most visited places in the country. Its main draw is the Temple of Kukulcán – a 25m tall step pyramid that dominates the site. During high season, get there before midday to avoid serious crowds.

3. Merida

The Yucatán capital was put on the map by the colonial Spanish (albeit on top of the Mayan city of T'ho) who created elegant boulevards and masterful mansions. You can learn about the region’s past and culture at excellent local museums; and markets in and around the old town are an excellent place to stock up on local products such as woven hammocks and colourful traditional blouses.
Playa del Carmen

4. Playa del Carmen

One of the fastest growing cities in Mexico, Playa del Carmen lost its budget, bohemian image a long time ago, but if you steer clear of the all-inclusives, it’s still a fun place to spend a day or two. Chill out on the beautiful white sand beach, snorkel or dive offshore and soak up the cosmopolitan vibe – which brings with it top notch restaurants and plenty of facilities for families.
Sian Ka`an

5. Sian Ka`an

Just south of Tulum, this UNESCO-listed biosphere reserve contains tropical forests, mangroves and marshes, leading right down to the ocean and a barrier reef. The tropical forests are home to Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot and Central American Tapir, while marine life includes the West Indian Manatee, turtles and hundreds of fish species. You can dive, snorkel or explore the reserve by boat or on foot.

6. Tulum

A perfect culture and Caribbean combo, this laid-back resort town still retains its sleepy, bohemian feel, despite the ever increasing march of resorts and club nights. Lazy days can be spent swimming, sunbathing and snorkelling, and the local Mayan ruins, set on a bluff overlooking the startlingly blue ocean – are among the most picturesque in the country.

Our top trip

Mexico and Yucatan Peninsula holiday

Mexico and Yucatan Peninsula holiday

The land of the Aztec, Zapotec and Maya civilisations

From £3499 to £4955 21 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2023: 19 Dec
2024: 20 Jan, 9 Mar, 30 Mar, 27 Apr, 18 May, 3 Aug, 28 Oct, 29 Oct, 30 Oct, 9 Nov, 19 Dec, 21 Dec
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Yucatan or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Pascal] [is isn't: Constanza S. Mora] [Cenotes: Mr. Theklan] [Chichen Itza: Christina Warner] [Merida: Niek van Son] [Playa del Carmen: Kyla] [Sian Ka'an: Alex] [Tulum: Jason M Ramos]