My Yucatan Peninsula Bucket List
Walking along 5th Avenue a few months back, I noticed a television screen showing images of thatched-roof huts on stilt beams, sitting above the type of clear blue water post cards are made of.
My first thought was why would they be advertising Fiji here in Playa del Carmen? I realized that surely this mesmerizing image must be of a place nearby, as it was showing on a screen of a local tour company. Intrigued, I had to find out about this mysterious paradise.
It turned out to be Bacalar, also known as The Lagoon of Seven Colors. I was immediately enamored with the idea of a road trip to see the mind-blowing beauty of this multi-colored lagoon for myself.
Although I have traveled to different parts of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, each place leaving me with warm, fuzzy memories, I still have yet to make it to Bacalar! Living in the area, one always hears of this fantastic island or that magical town. My bucket list continues to grow with all of the regional gems that wait in the Yucatan Peninsula!
Here are ten points of interest I have my eyes and heart set on exploring in Yucatan Peninsula. Stay tuned, as I will be checking these fantastical sights off of my bucket lists and writing informative articles filled with travel tips!
The Colonial City of Merida
The largest city in the peninsula, culture and history merge at its nucleus to form the soul of Merida. The main town square (Plaza Grande) boasts remarkable colonial architecture dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
The residents possess a deep passion for the arts and the city works seamlessly with its inhabitants to preserve its colorful cultural heritage. Merida en Domingo is a program that has been around for more than 20 years. Participants gather around the Municipal buildings and historical center every Sunday, to view photo and painting exhibits, listen to music and concerts, watch folkloric dances and taste traditional Yucatecan food.
Another locale I’d like to check out in Merida is the General Cemetery just south of La Ermita. Free walking tours take visitors past brightly marked tombs and mausoleums, while introducing them to traditional burial methods.
One cannot call itself a true Mexican city without a Mercado. These marketplaces bustle with vendors selling typical foods, handicrafts, spices, and clothing to name a few. Merida’s grand Mercado is located in the city center (el Centro.)
The Yucatan Peninsula is veiled in a thick blanket of jungle. Amidst the thick brush, archaeologists have uncovered remnants of ancient Mayan pyramids, stadiums and monuments. I have been fortunate to visit many of the sacred sites including Tulum, Chichen Itza and Ek Balam, but Coba is definitely next on my travel agenda!
Located about an hour from Playa del Carmen, Coba is a series of temple structures and sacbeob or roadways. This is one of the last places in which tourists are allowed to climb the tallest pyramid on the peninsula, Nohuch Mul.
The grounds are extensive, so bicycle rentals are available. Another option visitors have is to hire a tricycle Pedi cab to taxi them around from one remarkable stone structure to another. I have heard the enrapturing views and sense of serenity one experiences atop Nohuch Mul is too incredible to describe in words.
This secluded beach is located on the island of Cozumel, just under an hour ferry ride from Playa del Carmen. Only accessible by boat, this undeveloped paradise offers the perfect snorkeling conditions due to its stunningly clear, blue waters.
Apparently, starfish still thrive in the shallow waters off the shoreline of El Cielo, meaning ‘Heaven.’ Tour boats hired from the harbor in Cozumel, take nature-lovers on a 4-5 hour ride and offer water, pop, light snacks and some of the best snorkeling adventures to be had this side of the Caribbean.
Nestled in an isolated corner off the main hub in Puerto Aventuras, (20 minutes south of Playa del Carmen) Xpa Maya is the epitome of a rustic spa experience. The location is so discreet it’s a secret even to some of the locals.
Massage tables are set up within breathtaking cenote settings. Local products such as honey, seasonal fruit and aromatic Mexican seeds are used in their body and skin treatments.
Outdoor showers made of bamboo and palapa huts cover the outdoor therapy rooms. Exclusive spa treatments like the Sacred Mayan Bath take place in the mineral-rich cenotes and make the pampering and rejuvenation experiences seem out of this world.
In between Playa del Carmen and the Cancun International Airport, is the small town of Puerto Morelos. It is in this delightful town that you’ll find El Jardin Botanico Dr. Alfredo Barrera Marin (the entrance is marked along the #307 Federal Highway.)
This botanical garden and conservation project offers guided educational tours Monday to Friday at 10:30a.m, but is open daily from 8 – 2pm daily. Explore 65 hectares of flora and fauna native to the region and prepare to receive a unique look at the monkeys who live, feed and nap in the trees above the walking paths!
Haciendas of the Yucatan are sprawling ranches established under a Spanish system in the 16th century. Many of these palaces were deserted as the lands were confiscated in the revolution of 1910. Yet, some still stand in restored grandeur, speckling the land in the Yucatan Peninsula.
These historic plantations were used mainly for agriculture, but also had an important role as the heart of a community. The husband and wife had responsibilities as leaders, which included acting as judges and nursing the sick.
The opulent architecture and expansive gardens on these magnificent haciendas made a perfect, formal setting for hosting important festivities like weddings, baptisms and harvest festivals.
Some noteworthy haciendas that I’d like to have a sneak peak behind the colorful facades include Hacienda Temozon and Santa Rosa in the Yucatan, as well as Uayamon and Puerta Campeche in Campeche.
There is a long and bumpy road that leads to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere following the ocean south of Tulum. We’ve ventured to the rustic beaches in the biosphere reserve for some memorable beach days with friends and family.
However, we haven’t yet made the slow, (but I hear worthwhile) journey to the farthest tip of this road, which ends at Punta Allen. Due to its remote location, the charming fishing village has only a few modern amenities. The last I heard, there are no credit card machines, only cash is accepted and a cell signal comes and goes.
This is the alluring aspect of Punta Allen, you are forced to unplug and savor the breathtaking nature. There are tours offered that put visitors in touch with nature like few places can.
Take a boat out on the turquoise Caribbean to watch pods of dolphins swimming in their natural habitat. Wade through canals created and used by Mayans centuries ago. Indulge in fresh seafood caught the same day and put your feet up in a hammock as you gaze across the blue-green horizon.
Although I have visited Valladolid on three other occasions, there are still treasures waiting for me to discover in one of the safest, little colonial cities in Mexico.
The buildings and cathedrals are impressive with their rainbow color palettes and centuries old architecture. The center square bustles with action as street vendors sell trinkets and typical Yucatecan treats.
There is a beautiful fountain at the square’s mid point and 2 highly recommended visitor attractions looking over this main park – The Cathedral of San Gervasio (built in the 16th century which unfortunately was closed for lunch on one of our day trips) and La Meson del Marques (a stunning mansion converted into a hotel and one of the best places to have a meal at in Valladolid!)
The city is divided into 8 sections, with cenotes, tienditas (small artisan shops), parks, a convent and other historical monuments. It is small enough to walk through and visit many of the sights. One famous museum that I have yet to peruse is the Casa de los Venados with one of the largest exhibits of Mexican folk art in the country.
Just outside of Valladolid is Cenote Ik’kil, the most spectacular sunken, limestone swimming holes I have ever laid eyes on. A descending stairwell leads to a mostly enclosed cavern with crystal clear waters, trickling waterfalls, hanging vines and a cliff for jumping. It is a must when visiting the area.
Ek Balam, a sacred Mayan archaeological site, is also a short drive from Valladolid. Its name in Maya means ‘City of the Jaguar.’ The 40 or so buildings and amazing temples date back the height of the Mayan civilization (700- 1600AD) and boast marvelous carvings. The entrance fee is under $10USD and tour guides are available.
Beneath the turquoise waters just off the coast near Cancun, lies the MUSA underwater museum. 500 sculptures are submerged in depths of 3-8 meters. The museum was established in an effort to restore the health of local reef systems and increase the richness of marine life.
One such exhibit, The Dream Collector features a collection of bottles containing positive messages from people around the world. Another showcases men with briefcases hiding their heads in the sea floor as if to pretend to not understand the consequences of destroying the ocean for profit.
Each thought-provoking statue intends to evoke environmental awareness. As we venture out to explore the underwater world, it’s important to be conscious of the delicate ecosystems that exist within the reefs. We can be observers of their diverse beauty rather than be contributors to their destruction.
Important note: Remember to wear biodegradable sunscreen and to not touch the coral or any other marine organism when snorkeling or diving.
And last, but not least – Bacalar! This charming town was named a “Pueblo Magico’ in 2015 for its natural wonders. The lagoon itself is fed by three surrounding cenotes and changes various hues of greens and blues in the sunlight.
The waters are crystal clear and usually calm, which is invites swimmers and kayakers to get on the water and enjoy the surreal setting. There are a few rustic and boutique hotels in the city and along the lagoon’s edge, but the town remains small and not overly developed.
Within Bacalar stands a fortress built in 1725. The Fort of San Felipe has undergone many attacks over the centuries including those from real pirates of the Caribbean, to rebel forces attempting to siege the city during the Caste War in the late 1800s.
Today the fort still stands, cannons and all, as a museum containing historical artifacts, drawings, old weaponry, maps and a skeleton of an actual pirate!
There you have it – the top 10 choices on my Yucatan Peninsula bucket list! If you’ve had the pleasure of visiting any of the above mentioned places, please let me know what you loved about them or any others sights you’d recommend that I don’t know about. As I check them off my list in the upcoming months, I’ll be sure to write about the highlights and try to offer some valuable tips!
“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharial Nehru