There’s much more to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula than the long beaches, all-inclusive resorts and Spring break parties it’s famous for, and the majority of travellers who flock to Cancun or Playa del Carmen for a week in the sun miss out on the best the area has to show. Rich with Mayan heritage and rewarding landscape, although physically isolated somewhat from the rest of the country, Mexico’s most visited region offers a holiday of cultural insights and natural beauty.
Chichen Itza, Yucatán’s famous Mayan archaeological site, counted among the New 7 Wonders of the World, is easily accessible from the resorts, with ADO running daily air-conditioned buses from Playa del Carmen and Cancun early in the morning, and returning in the late afternoon. The trip takes three hours each way. Rather than book a tour, the site is easy to see yourself round in two to three hours.
Highlights include El Castillo, the pyramid that is the most commonly seen image of the site, as well as the many other ruins and ornate stone carvings. The ruins here are more carefully protected than those in Guatemala – fences prevent visitors from climbing them.
Less than ten minutes’ drive from the site is Cenote Ik Kil, a freshwater sinkhole that allows for beautiful photos and a refreshing swim. Many day tours to Chichen Itza will stop at the cenote, but if travelling independently it’s easy to catch a taxi there from outside the site. I paid my taxi driver to wait for me in Ik Kil’s car park while I took photos down into it from above, before hiring a locker at the changing rooms and walking down the shaded steps that spiral around it to the bottom and slipping into the cool water. A relaxing swim here under the fabulous hanging vines is the perfect end to a day of walking around Chichen Itza’s ruins in the hot sun. Afterward, I dried off and changed before rejoining my waiting taxi driver and heading back to Chichen Itza in time for the ADO bus back to Playa del Carmen.
The Yucatán Peninsula is peppered with these cenotes, or sinkholes. One of the most impressive is Chichen Itza’s Cenote Sagrado, or Sacred Cenote, where human sacrifices were performed at the time when the site was populated by ancient Mayans. Swimming is not allowed here due to the site’s religious significance.
Near the laid back coastal town of Tulum, an hour’s drive South of Playa del Carmen, Cenote Dos Ojos offers an opportunity to visit and swim in a cenote less visited by tourists. Its name meaning “Two Eyes Cenote”, Cenote Dos Ojos has two surface openings. The first is in the forest, a beautiful place of green shrubbery and turquoise water scattered with lily pads, almost as if came straight from a Disney film.
Swimming here is the perfect antidote to Tulum’s hot weather. The water leads underground into a cave, and reemerges in another cavern 50 metres away, accessible via an opening in the ground. These double surface points give the cenote its name. Swimming in the cave is colder, but offers brilliant sights for snorkelers and divers, including underwater stalactites and stalagmites.
Also near the town of Tulum, the Tulum Mayan archaeological site boasts ancient ruins on the clifftop, immediately above the best beach I’ve seen in Central America or the Caribbean, and one of the best I’ve seen anywhere. It takes no more than half an hour to explore the small site, before descending the wooden staircase down the cliff side to relax on the beautiful beach or swim in the sea.
Tulum itself offers excellent restaurants, small bars where local bands play, and shops for buying Mexican crafts without being busy enough to feel like a tourist trap.
This is a part of Mexico heavily visited by the package holiday crowd, but where so much is often missed out on by those who stay in their resort for their whole holiday. The beaches are certainly beautiful, but there’s so much else to see and do. For those who want to relax in a place that’s tourist-friendly and easy to access but also enjoy culture and natural beauty, this is one of my favourite destinations worldwide.