Last Updated on July 17, 2023
The Yucatan Peninsula is one of Mexico’s most visited places and not for nothing. There are tons of unique things to do there, from relaxing at unspoiled beaches to exploring underground cenotes to climbing Maya pyramids and visiting colonial towns. Read on to discover the recommended itineraries and the best things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula.
You can visit all the places listed below via public transportation or rent a car and do a road trip.
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Getting to Cancun
Cancun has the biggest international airport in the region, which makes it the easiest starting and ending point. Cancun is famous for its beautiful beaches and party vibes. I personally don’t like Cancun, and I wouldn’t advise going there unless what you want is to party or go on an all-inclusive vacation.
Arriving at Cancun Airport you can head directly to Playa del Carmen or Tulum with an ADO bus. If you want to visit Cancun, stay in the Zona Hostelera, where the beaches and the parties are. To get there from the airport either a cab (there’s no Uber) or an ADO bus to the bus station in Cancun. Don’t take the taxis right in front of the bus station, walk to the main road to your right, where you can either catch a cheaper taxi (agree on the price first) or take the bus for only 10 pesos (it stops practically in front of every hotel).
What to do in Cancun
To visit the beaches just use public transportation. Towards the north, the sea is rougher and deeper faster (Playa Delfines is one of my favorites). Towards the south, the water is quieter and shallower, better for swimming. At night, head to the party center, where all the bars, restaurants, and nightclubs are located. The most famous nightclub is Coco Bongo, half a club half a cabaret with live performances every night.
Is Cancun safe?
More or less, it’s clearly not the safest destination in the Yucatan Peninsula, if you stay at your resort, you should be fine. Just keep your eyes open at night, especially in the party area, and do not buy drugs.
Is Cancun family-friendly?
While many people go there to party, many go only to enjoy the beaches. There are many family-friendly resorts you can stay at, even during Spring Break you can find kid-friendly activities.
Is Cancun budget-friendly?
No, but it can be if you don’t stay in the Zona Hostelera. You can book an Airbnb (or Couchsurf) in Cancun Old Town. Try to find one that’s close to the bus line heading to the beaches. In the old town, you’ll also find cheap restaurants and supermarkets.
How long to stay?
Some people spend their entire vacation in Cancun and only take day trips to nearby attractions. For this itinerary, spend 2 nights and one full day (more if your flight is early), and then next head to Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen
From Cancun, you can either take a Colectivo (van) or an ADO bus. The vans are faster and cheaper, but the buses are more comfortable. They both leave from the bus terminal.
Where to stay in Playa del Carmen
Stay near the beach and 5th Avenue. Towards the north, big all-inclusive resorts and southwards, villas, and bungalows on the beach. There are also a couple of budget accommodations in this area, but without the beachfront.
What to do in Playa del Carmen
Like in Cancun, beaches and parties are the main things to do in Playa del Carmen. In Playa del Carmen, you can spend some time at the beach and stroll around 5th avenue in the evening. 5th avenue is where you’ll find all the shops, restaurants, and bars. It gets really lively at night. If you want to buy souvenirs don’t hesitate to haggle. Speaking some Spanish might help.
You should also check out Punta Esmeralda. You won’t find many tourists there, only locals know about this place. It’s a beach with a small open-air cenote. You can also plan to spend a day in Xcaret, a famous attraction park, where you can do all sorts of activities.
There are many beaches and open-air cenotes you can visit along the Playa del Carmen – Tulum road. For each of them, you can take a collectivo to reach your destination. If you’re feeling adventurous, you’ll find some of the best cenotes for scuba diving near Playa Del Carmen, such as Dos Ojos, El Pit, or Tajma Ha.
Among the most beautiful beaches are Akumal, Xcacel, Xpu-Ha, Saasil Kantenah, and Chemuyil. Bring a mask and snorkel, as you can easily snorkel off most beaches. The prettiest cenotes are Cenote Escondido, Taak Bi Ha, Media Luna, and Dos Ojos. Some of them are closer to Tulum than Playa del Carmen, so you can wait to be in Tulum to visit them.
Playa Del Carmen is also one of the best spots in the Riviera Maya to go diving from.
Is Playa del Carmen safe?
Again, more or less, during the day, it’s fine, just be careful late at night in the bars and nightclubs. If you go to a beach with not many people around, keep an eye on your stuff.
Is Playa del Carmen family-friendly?
Playa del Carmen is definitely more family-friendly than Cancun. You can easily stroll around the 5th Avenue with children at night, and you can easily find a stretch of sand (away from the big concrete resort area) without anyone being drunk. There are plenty of fun things to do with kids in Playa Del Carmen.
Is Playa del Carmen budget-friendly?
Like in Cancun, if you go farther away from the “tourist” area, you’ll find cheaper accommodations and food options.
How long to stay in Playa del Carmen
You can spend a day in the city, then the next exploring maybe a beach and two cenotes. If you have more time, you can visit more of the beaches and cenotes or spend a day in Xcaret.
Same as for Cancun-Playa del Carmen, you can take a collectivo or a bus to reach Tulum.
What to do in Tulum
Tulum has quickly become a hotspot for travelers, it grew tremendously in the last few years, to accommodate more and more tourists. You will find many things to do in Tulum.
There you can visit the Maya ruins, the only ones in Mexico built on the seaside. If it’s the first Maya site you visit, I advise taking a guide so you can learn everything about the Maya culture and the ruins. You can also visit some of the cenotes nearby, such as Labnaha, Gran Cenote, and Zacil-Ha.
You cannot miss the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve either. The reserve is full of birds (and crocodiles so be careful), it’s mostly mangrove. You can either book a tour from Tulum, and you’ll go around the reserve on a boat, or you can drive to Punta Allen, where you’ll see beautiful beaches on one side and the mangrove on the other.
Is Tulum safe?
Tulum partly became a tourist destination because it’s deemed safer than Cancun or Playa del Carmen. Common sense applies, but apart from having to watch your belongings, you should be fine.
Is Tulum family-friendly?
Yes! Kids will love the cenotes and the ruins. It’s also a more low-key/hippie atmosphere. There’s still a lot of parting going on but not to the same extent as other destinations.
Is Tulum budget-friendly?
Contrary to Playa del Carmen and Cancun, Tulum hasn’t been invaded by huge concrete resorts and has kept a more local vibe. So yes, it’s possible to visit Tulum on a budget.
It’s a backpacker’s heaven, with many budget travelers skipping Playa del Carmen and Cancun and heading straight to Cancun. It’s actually what I recommend if you’re looking for a more authentic vacation.
How long to stay in Tulum?
You can spend a day exploring the ruins and maybe a cenote or two, then the next day head to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Tulum is a nice destination to spend a few more days if you have time for it.
From Tulum, there’s an ADO bus once a day heading to Mahahual in the evening.
What to do in Mahahual
In Mahahual you’ll feel like you have just arrived at the end of the world. This peaceful and slow-paced village is the best place to spend a couple of days, relaxing at the beach. Oriented towards tourism, you’ll find everything you need there without the crowds of tourists you’ll see in other beach-destinations in Mexico. Apart from the beach and going snorkeling there’s not much more to do in Mahahual. Check before going if there’s seaweed at the moment or not. It’s not worth the trip if the water and the beach are full of stinky seaweed.
Is Mahahual safe?
Yes, it’s a small village, quiet and miles away from the cartels and other problems Mexico is facing.
Is Mahahual family-friendly? budget-friendly?
Mahahual is more of a backpacker destination where you’ll find cheap hostels, cheap food, and cheap beer. There are a couple of hotels more adapted to families and the vibe is relaxed, so even if not per-say, a family destination, you still can go with children, but apart from the beach, there’s not more to do for children so they might get bored easily.
How long to stay in Mahahual
If you’re on a tight schedule, you can just spend a night there. If you have more time and like to relax at the beach, you can stay a few days longer.
From Tulum you can catch a bus to Bacalar, ADO buses are the most comfortable but also the most expensive. There are other companies doing the trip, but check how long they take to reach Bacalar as sometimes they stop in every village. There are not that many buses making the trip so check the schedule and maybe book it the day before.
From Mahahual, there are two daily ADO buses heading to Bacalar.
What to do in Bacalar
Bacalar is my favorite place in Mexico. The lagoon is stunning, there are not many places like this in the world. try to find a hotel with access to the lagoon so you can enjoy it fully.
There are plenty of things to do in Bacalar, and most activities revolve around the lagoon. Most entrances are private and you’ll need to pay a small fee. Some are better than others. For a public and free one, type “Acceso Publico a La Laguna” in Google Maps, it’s near the main plaza. If you want a place with a bit of “beach”, go to “Parque Ecologico Laguna Bacalar“, you’ll have to pay an entrance fee but the place is nice and quiet.
You can also go on a boat tour to visit more of the lagoon. There are a couple of nice spots as well as a cenote. You should also rent a bike and head to Cenote Azul, stopping along the way.
Is Bacalar safe?
During the day yes, after 9 PM avoid going out, especially alone.
Is Bacalar family-friendly?
All the activities there are kid-friendly, but it’s more of a backpacker town. You can find a couple of higher-end hotels and a few guesthouses that are great for families though.
Is Bacalar budget-friendly?
Yes, you can easily rent a tent for less than 10 US a night. The tours on the lagoon are also usually cheap, and you can find plenty of cheap food options.
How long to stay in Bacalar?
I would recommend staying at least 3 days to fully enjoy the place, but you also just spend a day, doing the boat tour or just hanging out at the lagoon.
Bacalar-Merida is the longest distance in this itinerary, it takes around 5 hours. Take an ADO bus, the others take way more time. Book your ticket at least a day before.
What to do in Merida
A stunning colonial city full of beautiful sights, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Merida. There, you can visit the historic center, don’t miss the cathedral and the city’s main plaza. There, you can visit the Fernando García Ponce Museum showcasing contemporary art in a colonial building, and the Casa Montejo Museum, a cultural museum set in a historical house.
From there, head to the Parque Santa Lucia then the Parque de Santa Ana. Both are great places at night, with some of the best restaurants in Merida and traditional Maya dance performances. Then stroll around the Paseo de Montejo, said to resemble the Champs Elysées in Paris. There are two House-Museums you can visit on the avenue.
If you’re interested in the Maya culture, you can visit the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in the northern part of the city (you can take an Uber to it).
There are also a lot of things to do around Merida. A couple of Mayan sites you can visit include Mayapan, Uxmal (UNESCO) and the Ruta Puuc. You can reach Mayapan and Uxmal via public transportation, and every Sunday, ADO has a bus doing a tour of Uxmal and the four sites along the Ruta Puuc.
You shouldn’t miss Izamal, also known as the yellow city. There, you can stroll around the golden streets, visit the convent and climb Yucatan’s widest Maya pyramid.
You can also spend a day in Homun, a municipality home to no more than 30 visitable cenotes. You can take a collectivo to Homun then hire a type of tuktuk to take you to the cenotes.
Progresso and Sisal are two nearby beaches you can visit as a day trip from Merida. It’s the Gulf of Mexico so it’s not as nice as the Caribbeans. If you have to choose one, I would advise going to Sisal. It’s more of a village vibe as Progresso is more touristy, and the beach in Sisal is wilder.
If you have more time, you can make a detour to Celestun. You’ll have to spend at least a night there. There you should take a boat tour to the Celestun Biosphere Reserve to see birds and the mangrove.
Is Merida safe?
Yes, Merida is the safest city in Mexico, you can walk around drunk at 2 am and nothing will happen to you.
Is Merida family-friendly?
Yes, Merida is probably the most family-friendly destination in this itinerary. Apart from being super safe, there are tons of family-friendly hotels. Kids will love visiting the old colonial houses and the Maya sites.
Is Merida budget-friendly?
Merida can definitely be a good place for budget-traveler. There are many hostels within the Historic Center as well as a couple of cheap guesthouses. Eating in the “nice” restaurants can be a bit pricey, but you’ll find a lot of street food and cheap eateries, even in the center.
How long to stay in Merida
You can spend a day visiting the city, then another one in Uxmal (and the Ruta Puuk if you have a car or are there on a Sunday). On the third day, don’t miss Izamal, Yucatan’s cutest town. If you’re not tired yet of cenotes, you can spend a fourth day visiting Homun. If you have more than 2 weeks to visit the Yucatan Peninsula, do take two days to visit Celestun.
Getting to Valladolid from Merida is simple and fast. You can take an ADO bus from Merida bus station (CAME) in the city center that will leave you in Valladoli’s city center. Be careful when booking your ticket to and from Merida as there are at least 10 ADO bus stations within the city. The one you want is either CAME or TAME, both are right next to each other and close to the historic center.
If you’re traveling light, on your way to Valladolid, you can stop to visit Chichen Itza, so you don’t have to come back later.
What to do in Valladolid
The historic center is pretty small, and you can visit everything on foot. From the main plaza head to the San Bernardino de Siena Convent, and you will have seen everything. At night, during weekends and holidays, they organize a light show at the convent, it’s in Spanish but it’s worth seeing even if you don’t understand.
Valladolid is also famous for its many cenotes. You can rent a bike (or a cab) to visit them. Among the nicest ones are Cenote Zaci (right in the city center), Cenote Suytun, and Oxman Cenote.
Chichen Itza is the main attraction in the area. It was the first Maya site I visited, so I loved it, but I’ve talked to many people you were disappointed. Because it’s so touristy, you cannot climb the pyramid anymore (you can in most other sites), and it’s full of souvenir vendors harassing you. I think it’s still a must-see as it’s so famous.
Another nearby Maya site, less frequented is Ek Balam. You can easily reach it from Valladolid taking a shared cab. Apart from the ruins, there’s also a cenote you can go to (Xcanch). The ruins are well preserved with several pyramids. On the main one, spectacular carvings and breathtaking views of the surrounding jungle.
If you have a car, after visiting Ek Balam, you can drive all the way to Las Coloradas to see the pink lakes (the lakes are not always pink, depending on the weather and season, so make sure to ask before heading there to avoid being disappointed).
Is Valladolid safe?
Yucatan State is usually way safer than its neighbor, Quintana Roo. Valladolid is a small city, quiet and safe. You can walk around at night and don’t have to be over-cautious all the time.
Is Valladolid family-friendly?
Yes, you can find plenty of nice hotels, and again the kids will love the cenotes, the ruins, and the light show at the convent.
Is Valladolid budget-friendly?
Yes, there are plenty of hostels and cheap hotels, as well as cheap restaurants. You can easily get everywhere via public transportation. The only “expensive” things would be the entrance to Chichen Itza and to Ek Balam (around 20 US each).
How long to stay in Valladolid?
Staying three days would be perfect but if you are short on time you can squeeze most of it in 2 days. You can visit Chichen Itza on the first day and stroll around the city when you get back. On the second day, you can visit Ek Balam in the morning and one or two cenotes in the afternoon.
From Valladolid, you can take a bus to Chiquila then a ferry. If you have rented a car, you can leave it in one of the many parking in Chiquila.
What to do in Holbox
Holbox will be the highlight of your trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. There are tons of things to do there. The island is big but only a small part is inhabited, the rest is mostly mangrove and is part of the Yum Balam Protected Area. Holbox is a small village with no concrete roads and hence no cars. The vibe is laid back and authentic.
There you can rent a bike or a gulf cart to go to Punta Coco, the island’s most beautiful beach. In the other direction, you can trek to Punta Mosquito. At night, you can go on a tour to swim with bioluminescent plankton (don’t trust the photos you’ll see, it’s photoshopped, the sea won’t look like a sky full of stars, the plankton is only luminescent upon contact).
You can also take a boat or kayak tour to the reserve, which is stunning. If the boat tour, you’ll go snorkeling to see rays and turtles, and you might also see dolphins (and crocodiles).
Is Holbox safe?
Yes, it is. The only thing you have to be careful about is cash, there’s only one ATM on the island, and it’s often empty. Most places don’t accept credit cards.
Is Holbox family-friendly?
Yes, you’ll find all sorts of hotel options. The kids will love the boat ride through the reserve, swimming with plankton, and the sea is quiet, so they can swim safely.
Is Holbox budget-friendly?
Yes, you can find a bed in a dorm with air-con for less than 10 US and a hotel around for around 15 US. Because it’s an island food is a bit more expensive but shop at the grocery and cook. In the evening, in the main square, you’ll find plenty of cheap street food.
How long to stay in Holbox
To be worth it, I’ll advise staying at least three full days. You can go to Coco Beach and Punta Mosquito the first day, take a tour of the reserve the second and on the third go island hopping, or spend a day relaxing at the beach.
When you’re done in Holbox, head back to Cancun, where you’ll take your flight home.
Recommended Yucatan Peninsula itineraries
2-week sample itinerary – See the main highlights
Playa del Carmen – 2D/3N
Tulum – 3D/2N
Bacalar – 2D/3N
Merida – 4D/4N
Valladolid – 2D/2N
From Cancun, head directly to Playa del Carmen, where you’ll have two full days. On the third, in the morning head to Tulum, where you’ll spend three days. On the evening on the third day, head to Bacalar. After Bacalar, go to Merida, you’ll lose a day in transportation, so you’ll have 3 full days to explore the city and its surroundings. Spend your last 2 days in Valladolid.
You can also skip Playa del Carmen, head directly to Tulum and finish your trip in Holbox.
4-week sample itinerary – See everything
Cancun – 1D/2N
Playa del Carmen – 2D/2N
Tulum – 4D/3N
Mahahual – 2D/3N
Bacalar – 3D/3N
Merida – 4D/4N
Celestun – 2D/2N
Valladolid – 4D/4N
Holbox – 4D/4N
Cancun – 1N
Travel tips for traveling in the Yucatan Peninsula
What to pack
- Reef safe sunscreen (most cenotes and beaches don’t allow sunscreen unless it’s biodegradable and reef-safe).
- Mosquito repellent: a natural one for the cenotes and a stronger one for other occasions (FYI the OFF!, the orange one, is forbidden in the European Union because it’s cancerogenic). You can also soak your clothes with a special repellent before leaving home.
- Beach attire (if you have space, snorkeling gear).
- A classy outfit to go out at night.
- Covering but light clothing.
- At night, it can be chilly, so bring a light jacket. (the ADO buses are also crazy-cold)
- You don’t have to overpack with clothes, you’ll find plenty of places that can wash your clothes within the day.
- An action camera or a waterproof case for your phone.
- Good walking shoes and a pair of sandals.
- Something for the rain.
Weather and best time to go
Theoretically, there’s a rainy season and a dry season, but climate change is completely messing this up. You could be there during the rainy season and not get a drop of rain or be there during the dry season and have rain every day. The most popular times to go are in December or July., but you can really visit the Yucatan Peninsula year-round.
The only thing worth checking is the seaweed situation, there’s some type of seasonality but it’s hard to predict. You can check if you plan your vacation last minute, but if you book it in advance its a gamble. You can usually still find beaches without seaweed and you might have to focus your vacation less on beaches and more on Maya sites and cenotes.
You’ll always find cheap accommodations and food. You can further save on these using Couchsurfing and cooking (read how I traveled for 2 months in Mexico with only 650 US).
What is going to cost you are transportation and tours. For transportation, avoid the ADO buses, and take the slowest, cheapest buses. Another option is to hitchhike, which is fine if you’re a group. Alternatively, you can check out BlablaCar, a carpooling app, where prices are usually half the price of the bus.
As for the tours, most of the places, you can visit on your own, but others you won’t have a choice but to take a tour. Don’t hesitate to ask the price to different tour operators, and try to find people to go with you, the more you are, the cheaper it gets per person.
Renting a car and driving tips
- If you’re going to rent a car, pick an international franchise. Check the vehicle well and take photos before leaving with it.
- Make sure your accommodation has fenced parking spots.
- Roads are good just beware of speed bumps. There are tons of them, sometimes even in the middle of the highway.
- The toll route from Merida to Cancun is crazy-expensive.
- Beware of the municipal police trying to get a bribe out of you. If they ever stop you and ask for money call the state police (911) or the Tourist Police.
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