Looking for things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula? The Yucatan Peninsula is an expansive swath of land in eastern Mexico, separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico.
From the azure waters of the Caribbean Coast to the remains of great, Mayan Ruins strewn throughout the interior, there are so many things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula.
The Yucatan has something for both the adventurer and the beach-bum. Perhaps it’s this diversity of appeal that makes the Yucatan so enjoyable, so striking, and yet still somewhat mysterious.
Things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula
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In few places in the western world are luxury beach resorts built beside ruins from a previous civilization that thrived not so long ago. Where spring-breaking college students frequent an area just as popular to world-renown archaeologists and academic experts from around the globe.
Where is the Yucatan?
The Yucatan Peninsula is located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Most tourism in the Yucatan happens in the Maya Riviera consisting of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Tulum. Littered with Mayan ruins, white sand beaches, and containing the ring of Cenotes, there are so many things to do in the Yucatan, it will draw you back again and again.
No matter the reason, once you get there, there are many different ways you can explore, enjoy, and enrapture yourself in the Yucatan Peninsula. This area, once a primary stronghold of the Mayan Empire, is now a haven for tourists of all walks.
1. Cliff Dive at Cenote Zaci
Cenote Zaci is one of the most popular cenotes in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Located in Valladolid Cenote Zaci is just a short walk from downtown.
Zaci Cenote is cheap to enter, at only about 30 pesos per person, and offers a simply irreplaceable experience once inside. You’ll find yourself stepping down a steep, narrow, staircase that reveals a grand expanse of vegetation and cliffs which overlook the beautiful Cenote Zaci. Here you can challenge your fear of heights with a jump of more than thirty feet into the waters below!
If cliff jumping isn’t quite your speed, the expansive and cool waters are perfect for a peaceful float in the heat of the day, and easily reachable by the walkway that is built into the perimeter of the cenote.
Cenotes can be found all over this part of Mexico. If you don’t make it to Cenote Zaci, make sure you at least look into other Cenote Tours.
2. Explore Enchanting Ek Balam
Ek Balam is the Mayan ruin nearest to Valladolid and that needs plenty of time to visit. The complex is sprawling, with more than 45 structures of varying purpose, design, and size.
The most notable structure on the grounds is El Trono (‘The Throne’), where the founder of Ek Balam society, Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’, is thought to be buried.
This is a striking structure with a deceivingly steep climb of 106 steps to the top. From here, one can gaze upon the entire canopy of the Yucatan jungle. Closer to ground level, there are ancient chapels, steam baths and the Oval Palace. It was believed to be a place of worship giving thanks to the Gods.
3. Make a Stop at Chichen Itza
The top thing to do in the Yucatan Peninsula is, without question, Chichen Itza. This far-reaching campus of pyramids, ball courts, sanctuaries, and temples is believed to be the primary location for Mayan Governance.
The Pyramid of Kukulcan, or El Castillo as it’s colloquially called, is the centrepiece. The steep, high stairs seem to taunt you as they draw the eye up in admiration of a truly magnificent Mayan structure. It is here where Mayan priests conducted their most private and important ceremonies, to give thanks, ask for blessings, and even bury their leaders.
Besides El Castillo The Great Ball Court – the site of an ancient, ritualistic game played by the Maya in honor of the Gods, whose loser lost not only the game – but, often his life.
- Note: You can no longer climb the pyramid. Book this tour to the ruins if you aren’t renting a car. It takes you to the Cenote and Valladolid.
4. Sacred Cenote
On the grounds of Chichen Itza is the Sacred Cenote, the primary cenote from which the ancient Maya civilization thrived for hundreds of years. Evidence suggests that the Maya used this site for religious ceremonies.
Today it is a primary attraction for visitors to the Yucatan due to the deep, refreshing waters and mesmerizing scenery. This cenote is a key destination for historians, scientists, and professional divers, as pottery, tools, and even remains have been found along riveted shelves in the cenote walls!
One of the best things to do in the Yucatan is to explore its Cenotes. There are several cenotes scattered throughout the Yucatan and the state of Quintana Roo.
5. Take in the Beautiful Scene from Tulum
When walking up to the Mayan ruins of Tulum, one is overtaken with the idea that “these Mayans had the right idea!” With the crystalline aqua of the Caribbean Sea as a beautiful backdrop, Tulum stands proudly on the shores far above the powdery white sands beneath.
Amid vacation resorts, hammocks and sun-kissed tourists, Tulum is one of the most visually captivating locations in all of North America.
The resort town that Tulum rests within does nothing but add to the inspiring nature of the location, as revellers of fun-in-the-sun can take a history break to walk the grounds of the former Mayan fortress.
Where to Stay in Tulum
Tulum is one of the best places to stay in the Yucatan. Browse these hotels and apartment rentals for the one that’s right for you. You can select dates and price ranges right in this window.
After exploring the beautiful ruins, take a walk down the road to any one of the local restaurants for fresh food and drinks – right on the beach.
6. Climb the Steps of Coba
Coba is among the ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula that offers the most interesting, freshest perspective among history-lovers and archaeologists.It is believed that 90% of the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula are still buried at Coba
Only partially complete in its excavation, Coba remains a rugged structure that peaks above the emerald trees to reveal the true remoteness of its setting.
You can see mounds upon mounds of unearthed structures across the forests – where scientists believe that more than 90 percent of the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan remain hidden!
Make sure you wear a good pair of shoes, as Coba presents one of the more challenging climbs among the pyramids in Mexico, with 120 steep and daunting steps to the top!
8. Go for a Drive – With Your Camera!
It took us only one afternoon to learn a very valuable lesson – take your camera everywhere in the Yucatan. Even on seemingly long, empty stretches of road between ruin locations or cenotes, there are opportunities for the casual shutterbug.
Whether a railway leading into the brush, a beautiful country shop, or scenic nature, the Yucatan will continue giving you opportunities to capture more. Simply get lost, stop wherever you’re moved, and try to capture what only the eye can see. This would’ve been how the Mayan would’ve wanted you to experience their home, so do it! Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is full of photo opportunities, like this beach in Tulum
9. Immerse with The Locals
When it comes to the people and culture, the Yucatan Peninsula will leave you truly moved. Any trip to the Yucatan is truly remiss without the areas greatest attribute – the people.
They are so kind, so giving, and so engaging that you’ll find yourself lost in simple conversation while wanting to know more about the customs that make the Yucatan truly unique.
The Yucatan pulls the best from you, and from that, you’ll find yourself truly mixing with a land, and people, who are unmatched in their charm, beauty, and warmth.
When you visit the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, you will create memories to last a lifetime and will want to come back again and again. The Yucatan Attracts all Types of Travellers
More Things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula
By Dave and Deb
Huge Thanks to Justin and Tracy for their take on all of these great things to do in the Yucatan, now we want to add on to this to make your Yucatan vacation even better!
10. Stroll the Streets of Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is a major tourist destination in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and not only is it a good place to visit, it’s a great place to stay too. Day tours and hotels often shuttle people to Playa del Carmen where you can shop on La Quinta Avenida. But staying overnight in Playa del Carmen is a must as well.
The restaurants and nightlife will keep you busy, but it isn’t quite as wild a night out as it is in Cancun. There are many places to choose from including the world famous Coco Bongo but you’ll also find chilled out beach bars, live music and delicious Mexican cuisine.
Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen
Looking for places to stay in Playa del Carmen, browse the map for AirBnB and hotels.
Browse the hotels and apartment rentals above for the one that’s right for you. You can select dates and price ranges right in this window.
11. Isla Mujeres – The Island of Women
Isla Mujeres is a popular day trip from Cancun but you can stay on the island as well. It has white sand beaches, clear waters and great snorkeling at Garrafon Reef Park. Isla Mujeres is translated to the Island of Women in English. It was sacred to the ancient Mayans who worshipped it as the goddess of childbirth. Hence the name the Island of Women.
You can book day tours to Isla Mujeres with tours to Isla Contoy for bird watching.
12. Swimming with Whale Sharks
By far one of the best things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula is to go swimming with Whale Sharks. Taking a boat trip just two hours off the coast of Cancun is the chance to check off the ultimate bucket list item and get in the water to swim with whale sharks.
You can book whale shark tours from Cancun here. The tour takes you out to the islands of Contoy Island and Isla Holbox. Besides whale sharks, keep an eye out for sea turtles and dolphins.
13. Isla Holbox
Isla Holbox is a quiet island off the coast and has become quite popular in recent years. Whale sharks migrate through the region making it a good choice for whale shark tours. No cars are allowed on the island but there are hotels, accommodation and restaurants. You can book whale shark tours from here.
Day tours can be booked to Isla Holbox. The tour takes you to Chiquilá where you catch the ferry to Isla Holbox to explore its colourful houses, do some bird watching and to swim in its pristine waters. But if you want to mellow out, stay overnight for a day or two.
14. Scuba Diving
The waters of Cozumel have pristine coral reefs filled with an abundance of underwater wildlife. Its amazing clarity with visibility reaching over 100 feet makes it one of the great places for scuba diving in the world.
Cozumel is Mexico’s largest island, located a short ferry ride from Playa del Carmen. In 1961 Jacques Cousteau discovered the magnificent scuba diving here and declared the area as one of the most beautiful dive sites in the world. They were declared a national marine park in 1996 This has allowed the reef to thrive and the wildlife to flourish, making for one of the most sensational scuba diving experiences you’re likely to ever have. We particularly enjoyed drift diving in the waters between.
Speaking of Cozumel, we spent a week on the island not only making it our base for scuba diving, but it is also a lot of fun to explore the island. We rented a jeep to get around the island and explore the beaches. If you are staying on Cozumel and can’t make it to the mainland to visit the Mayan Ruins, you can go to Discover Mexico Park to see models of Mexico’s most popular attractions.
Or you can visit the small Mayan Ruin of San Gervasio Ruins to pay tribute to the Goddess of Love. There’s markets, restaurants and bars in Cozumel making for a great Mexican vacation. Cozumel is a 40 minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen making it a popular day trip as well.
16. Party it Up in Cancun
No trip to the Yucatan would be complete without at least stopping in at Cancun. It’s long sand beaches, endless row of hotels and world famous nightlife have made it a stop on every spring breakers bucket list. It’s fun to head into town for the night to party in one of its bars. Go crazy for a night and have some fun on the town in the Hotel Zone.
There are plenty of things to do in Cancun and we have a complete list of Cancun attractions here.
Where to Stay in Cancun
Cancun is for a different type of traveller and better-suited for those looking for an idyllic beach getaway. There are countless hotels in Cancun to suit everyone’s needs. Browse the map for accommodation from AirBnB to luxury hotels.
17. Indulge in Delicious Delicacies
You’ve never had authentically Mexican food quite like that offered in the Yucatan. So stunned will you be by the depth of flavor, the intricacy of preparation, and the satisfaction of the experience that you will yearn for it long after your trip home.
Fresh. Bold. Rich. The profiles of even the simplest dish in the Yucatan will leave the foodie in all of us begging for more! We could honestly say upon leaving that we’ve never had guacamole so good and never had tacos so good!
But more importantly, we enjoyed the unique spin on every-day Mexican classics the people of the Yucatan have perfected. There are a few local favorites in the Yucatan, most of which are comprised of some of the best steak and chorizo dishes this side of Argentina!
Typically these locally-created dishes are served with pickled sweet-onions along with fresh jams, bean dishes, and sauces such as chimichurri.
18. Lagoon of Seven Colors
It was in 2003 that we took a bus from Cancun to Belize. Taking our time exploring the south of Mexico was a once in a lifetime trip. On our way to the border town of Chetumal, we stopped at Balacar Lagoon.
Known as the Maldives of Mexico, The Lagoon of Seven Colors has (you guessed it) seven shades of blue. Located two hours south of Tulum, it is the perfect getaway to avoid the mass of tourists in the Riviera Maya.
This 60km series of inland waterways was once a passage for pirates and early traders. Admittedly we haven’t been back since that trip, but we’ll never forget the beautiful turquoise waters of Balacar Lagoon.
Where to Stay in the Yucatan
While the temptation will be to stay in either Cancun or Playa del Carmen we think you’ll get more out of your time in the Yucatan by staying in Valladolid. Valladolid is the largest city in the heartland of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Located a mere two-hour drive from ruin locations such as Tulum and less than an hour from a handful of other desirable locations, Valladolid is both affordable and beautiful.
You’ll want to stay as close to Plaza e Parque Francisco Canton in downtown Valladolid as possible. Valladolid has a myriad of restaurants and shops. Plus it is easy to access Mexico’s highway 180, which goes west-to-east across the peninsula.
Best Way to Get Around the Yucatan Peninsula
For us, the best way to get around Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is renting a car. We prefer this over tours because we can get to places before the tour buses filled with vacationers from the Riviera Maya converge. Check car rental prices and availability here.
Local Bus – Mexico has quite nice buses that are air conditioned and affordable. ADO bus company connects cities and regions throughout Mexico and the Riviera Maya.
Collectivos are the best way to get around if going a short distance. They are shared taxis and are cheap and affordable.
For Transfers from Cancun Airport to your hotel, check out eTransfers for the best prices. They offer shuttles to the Hotel Zone, Playa Del Carmen, Tulum, and all along the Mayan Riviera.
If you want to really see all the Yucatan offers, staying in Valladolid is a must.