Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is famous for its beaches, resorts and Mayan ruins. It is also Mexico’s ground zero for tourism and thousands of spring-breakers, families and retirees flocking to towns such as Cancun and Playa del Carmen. It’s the sort of place where many visitors hardly leave their resort except to visit the beach or to take a tour of Chichen Itza. For this reason, many backpackers and cultural tourists consider the peninsula a place to avoid as the crowds, shops stacked with tacky souvenirs, and modern conveniences can make it feel a little sterile and familiar.
What few realise however, is that Yucatan is home to some amazing and beautiful places and that it is actually quite easy to get off the beaten track. I am a firm believer that anyone planning an extended trip in Mexico should visit the undiscovered Yucatan – in fact by not doing so you are missing out on one of the most interesting regions of the country.
I have visited Yucatan twice, once as a spur of the moment trip – I found return flights to Cancun on skyscanner for just £250 (the catch was that the flight out was at 9am the next morning!) – and once at the beginning of a longer trip to Mexico and Guatemala. Both times I was surprised by what I found.
After experiencing the Yucatan of the travel brochures (Cancun and Playa Del Carmen) for a couple of days, on my first trip me and my mate Mattia decided to try and find something different. We knew that the area was full of Mayan ruins and were determined to find some that weren’t swarming with tour groups. For this reason we skipped Chichen Itza and went down to Tulum. Make no mistake, this is still on the tourist trail and you have to get to the site before the buses turn up, but its unique style and location make it a worthwhile trip and the village itself has a much more laid-back feel than the other beach towns. Unlike other Mayan sites, Tulum does not have the famous tall pyramids and is built on a cliff overlooking a white sand beach.
The ruins and the beach
One of Tulum’s structures
Still hungry to find a ruin that we could have a little more to ourselves, the next day we went to Coban. Hidden in the dense jungle that covers much of the peninsula, this sprawling site has the iconic pyramids and allows you to climb them (just be careful – they are incredibly steep). You can also see the ball court where the Mayan’s played the famous sport.
At the top of Coban’s main pyramid
Another Mayan building
Our final destination was one of the most magical. Isla Holbox. It takes a few hours to get to the village of Chiquila where you can catch a ferry across to the island, but those who make the effort are rewarded. Holbox is in a national park and as such there are strict rules limiting development there. A long thin island ringed with beaches, Isla Holbox is the perfect place to get away from it all. At one end of the island sits the only settlement which has a population of about 1000. There are no cars on the island and people get around by walking or by golf cart. The island is popular with kiteboarders and has a small selection of hotels and restaurants. We stayed in the excellent Tribu Hostel – to this day one of the best hostels I have ever visited. The next couple of days were spent relaxing on the beach and exploring the island.
Exploring the beaches of Holbox
Strange prehistoric looking creatures
During my second visit I set out to discover the two colonial cities of Merida and Campeche, both of which were important centres for the Spanish. Merida is that capital of the Yucatan and has a cosmopolitan feel. It is full of museums and outdoor sculptures and its pretty streets have the genuine energy of a real working town that doesn’t rely on tourists.
One of Merida’s many pieces of public art
Campeche is a real gem and the houses of its historic centre make it exceedingly photogenic. The city’s lifeblood is its connection with the sea, during my time there I spent a relaxing afternoon strolling down its malecon (or seafront). Two forts guard its harbour, and after seeing its cobbled streets and magnificent churches its not hard to understand why it has been made a UNESCO world heritage site.
The colourful houses of Campeche
Campeche’s main square
An angel guarding the cathedral
So there you have it. It is possible to experience some of Mexico’s vibrant culture and fascinating history in the Yucatan, as well as avoid the crowds.