It is no great secret why Cancún, and to a larger extent the Yucatán Peninsula, has become Mexico's top tourist destination. Some people are lured by the simple pleasures of a white sand beach, turquoise waters and perhaps a little partying here and there. Others find themselves drawn to the pre-Hispanic Maya ruins, the ample ecotourism activities and the abundance of natural wonders. Here are 10 picks to keep you on the go while touring the peninsula:
A spring break rite-of-passage
carries on year round in Cancún's high-gloss hotels and throbbing discos. If
that is not your thing, an alternate version of the city beckons in downtown
Cancún, where a local arts scene has taken root. Most of the action centres
around Parque las Palapas, downtown's main stage for free open-air
The Maya, who ruled these
lands long before the Spanish conquest, knew a thing or two about beachfront
real estate. Not only do the ruins at Tulum afford a spectacular view of the region's
signature green and turquoise waters, but it is also a fascinating 13th-century
walled city that stood as one of the last Maya strongholds.
What is not to like about
an island where golf carts are the main mode of transportation? A half-hour
boat ride from Cancún, low-key Isla Mujeres offers a refreshing break from the
notably more hectic pace of the mainland. A sight well worth the visit is the Isla Mujeres Turtle Farm, a sanctuary that releases more than 60,000
hatchlings a year.
The Maya believed that some
underground rivers and cave systems were gateways to the underworld. And as
amazing as it may sound, some of the limestone formations that make up Rio Secreto's sinkholes started taking shape about 50 million years ago. A
three-hour tour leads through stunning caverns while you wade through water.
Playa del Carmen
With a notably more
European air than gringo-friendly Cancún, Playa del Carmen is the hot ticket if
you are looking for a hipper, more scaled-down beach resort town. Ferries leave
Playa del Carmen for Isla Cozumel, Mexico's largest island, where you can go
diving and explore the coral reefs made famous by Jacques Cousteau.
These recently inaugurated
underwater “museums” offer a one-of-a-kind opportunity to check out more than
400 sculptures submerged in the shallow waters off the coasts of Isla Mujeres
and Cancún. The MUSA collection includes hundreds of life-sized
concrete figures sculpted by British artist Jason de Caires Taylor, and it is
all part of a conservation effort to draw people away from damaged coral reef
areas. Aqua World in Cancún provides snorkelling and scuba
tours of the sculptures.
A low-key island that sits on
a nature reserve, Isla Holbox seems to go over well with unassuming types.
Bird-watchers also get a kick out of Holbox, which is home to more than 150
species. For an experience like no other, from mid-May to mid-September, you
have the rare opportunity to swim with whale sharks.
Lying inland about 20 miles
from the coast, Mérida may not get the hype of Cancún or some of the
peninsula's coveted beach destinations, but it is a city steeped in colonial
history and therein lies its appeal. Famous for its colonial architecture,
museums and Yucatecan cuisine, Mérida has long been considered the region's
cultural capital. About an hour away are the well-preserved Maya ruins of
It would certainly be a
glaring omission to exclude one of the “new seven wonders of the world” from
any top 10 list, even though skeptics say Chichén Itzá's new and improved
wonder-like status is nothing more than the result of an internet popularity
contest. Say what they will, these Maya ruins are nonetheless remarkable and
The no-frills Costa Maya
beach town of Xcalak has managed to dodge the development bullet, but there is
no telling how long that will last. North of Xcalak, the laid-back town of
Mahahual recently saw a cruise-ship dock go up, making Xcalak all the more
attractive if you are seeking a remote beach getaway.
The article 'Top 10 sights in Cancún and Yucatán' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.