A Week in the Yucatan Peninsula

Merida, Mexico (Flickr: Kirsty Gilbert-Browning)

It’s all so deliciously blissful – the warm, blue waters, the warm sand, the mysterious relics of the past, and quaint colonial cities. Even the long stretches of road dotted only by rural houses and communities feel wonderful.

Separated from the rest of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula remains untouched for the most part yet still very accessible (not to mention, affordable), making it an excellent choice for a vacation on the budget. From the wetlands of Celestun and the capital city of Mérida in the West through the colonial town of Valladolid to the popular tourist haunts of Cancun and the Riviera Maya in the East, there’s enough to fill your days for a month! Here are some awesome attractions to see when you’ve only got a week.

Mérida. Built on the Mayan center of T’ho and considered by historians as the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas, this capital city is a good starting point for your Yucatan adventure. Explore its historic past by going on a self-guided tour of the assortment of architectural styles, sample its unique regional gastronomy heavily influenced by the Mayan culture as well as Caribbean and European cuisines, and learn a little bit of the Mayan language to take something back with you.

Chichen Itza (Photo: Michelle Rae Uy)
Chichen Itza (Photo: Michelle Rae Uy)

Chichén Itzá. Continue on east towards the heart of Northern Maya and get lost in the beautiful “mythical” Mayan city and archeological site of Chichén Itzá, home to the famous El Castillo Mesoamerican step-pyramid and Cenote Sagrado that served as a pilgrimage and sacrificial site for the Mayan people. Learn about the fateful games that were played in the Great Ball Court, observe the appearance of the serpent snaking its way down El Castillo during the spring and autumn equinoxes, and linger at the Temple of the Warriors. Later, walk along the vendor-lined dirt roads and maybe purchase a cheap knick-knack or two (be sure to haggle!).

Valladolid (Flickr: Christopher William Adach)
Valladolid (Flickr: Christopher William Adach)

Valladolid. Less than an hour east is the colonial town of Valladolid, charming in its aesthetics with bright colors and Spanish architecture abound. Start your day by walking around downtown Valladolid and visiting the small shops. Later, head to one of the cenote in the area and take a nice cool dip. Come back into town and have your fill of some of the region’s delicious meat dishes like Lomitos de Valladolid, relleno negro and lechon al horno. For desert, hit the streets and find a vendor selling “Mayan crepes.”

Playa del Carmen (Flickr: Giorgio Galeotti)
Playa del Carmen (Flickr: Giorgio Galeotti)

Playa del Carmen. Situated a little more than hour south of Cancun, this part of the Riviera Maya is flanked by big resorts and major aqua parks that attract thousands upon thousands every year. Despite those, the city remains unassuming. Spend an hour on tourist strip Quinta Avenida then venture out of it to explore the nearby local neighborhood, but not too far. Later, laze around on the beach with a cool drink in your hand and frolic in the warm water.

A ruin in Tulum (Photo: Michelle Rae Uy)
A ruin in Tulum (Photo: Michelle Rae Uy)

Tulum. End your week in the Yucatan Peninsula with a relaxing exploration of the Mayan ruins of Tulum, nestled atop a stunning cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The walled city once served as a major port for the large city of Coba, also a terrific stop where you can actually climb a pyramid, 27 miles away. Today, its beautiful ruins are set in stark contrast to the green grass they sit on and the bluest sky overhead, making it a major draw for travelers in the Riviera Maya. Below, accessed by well-built steps made of wood, is a lovely beach safe enough for kids to swim in but with waves strong enough for adults to enjoy.

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