This article has been updated on August 15, 2021.
This post is a part of Quaint Planet‘s series about the spectacular Yucatán peninsula. While the other texts look closer at the peninsula’s natural attractions, Mayan ruins, as well as the general tourism tips and itinerary suggestions regarding the region, in this particular article, we’re going to explore the interesting towns and villages to visit in Yucatán.
While we’ll cover a broad and diverse spectrum of locations, ranging from popular resort destinations up to tranquil seaside settlements, please note that this article is mainly suitable for a person that’s keen on getting to know the local culture, nature and/or history. So in case you just want to chill on the beach in an all-inclusive resort somewhere in Cancún, this might not be the right post for you to read.
If you’re wondering why, please read the next section where we’ll elaborate on the “Cancún or Not” dilemma, otherwise please feel free to skip this semi-philosophical part and jump straight to the subject of towns and villages to visit in Yucatán bellow.
Cancún or Not
I’m not saying that Cancún is like a Marmite so you either love it or hate it, because when it comes to Marmite, even if you love it, you most probably don’t eat it all the time. And that is the difference between Cancún and Marmite because you can’t exactly choose “not having” Cancún whilst being there. In other words, there isn’t much of a chance to escape its dominant vibe unless you leave the city.
Well, to be fair, to a certain extent, you could partially succeed in doing so, because you could pick a quieter resort in a less busy part of the city but at the end of the day, you’ll still be in a quite large and young metropolis (there wasn’t much around here prior to 1970) filled with international crowds who are eating and shopping in multinational chains or franchises in a place that’s pretty much stripped of most of the local culture and originality.
Regardless of what you think about places like that, Cancún is a well-oiled tourism machine, which produces over 20 billion US dollars annually (2019), at least according to the LookoutPro portal. So except for the carefree beach time, shopping and partying, such massive tourism machinery also offers a lot of various extra adventure options and things experience in and around Cancún.
After all, we’re talking about the most popular destination to visit in Mexico and that is quite some achievement because Mexico is a large country that is home to numerous spectacular locations offering extraordinary natural beauty, tremendous biodiversity, rich history, amazing culture and so on, all of which compete with Cancún in the popularity rankings.
At the end of the day, when picking a vacation, it all comes down to personal preferences what each individual seeks during their holidays. You might just take a break from your everyday problems and have nearly everything done for you by exceptional customer services in a luxury resort and you don’t really care that they look like one another, regardless if they’re in Mexico, Spain or the USA.
However, as mentioned above, another group of travellers might seek a different kind of adventure, which involves things like getting to know the local culture, history and natural beauty, which is hard to get in Cancún, unless we take their commercial or “instant forms” into consideration. To be fair, during your Cancún hols, except drinking Corona and margaritas you could just as well visit some Mayan ruins on a day trip and you will certainly see a Mariachi band on more than one occasion 🙂
But I guess that the major difference between those two groups is that the people from the first group go on a relaxing beach vacation and the second group go to visit Mexico. I mean, what would you say if someone came back from their two weeks-long Cancún vacation? Would you think that they had a great time on the beach or that they visited the “real Mexico”? What is a “real Mexico” anyway?
I’m sure that it would be an interesting debate but let’s leave it for another occasion. I’m certain that you get my point. So let’s move on to the subject of towns and villages to visit in Yucatán.
Towns and villages to visit in Yucatán
Tip: the links highlighted in red are Google Maps locations to give you an idea about WHERE we're talking about. If you save the locations you're interested in into: "want to go", once you arrive at the destination, it could make your live easier, especially if you download the maps, not to mention the (sometimes) helpful and informative reviews ;)
Tulum is arguably the first resort in Mayan Riviera or even in the whole of Mexico. Instead of rich Mexicans and Americans, this resort, or more precisely a former important trading centre, was built for Mayan kings about 820 years ago, it was therefore a long time before the Spanish showed up in the region.
Nowadays, there are however as many as “3 Tulums“, separated only by a few miles from each other. Reachable by numerous collectivos (shared taxis) that continuously run between them the whole day, the “3 Tulums” are: the famous and the oldest Tulum ruins, the residential Tulum Pueblo and the touristic Tulum Playa area that’s predominantly filled with fancy boutique and spa hotels.
The whole area is also conveniently located in a short distance to few other attractions in the region. So in case you were planning to visit Tulum or even Coba Ruins, consider staying here at least for a couple of nights because you can reach those sites in the early hours to beat the crowds. Trust me, it’s well worth it to wake up early because you’ll get those sites almost just for yourself for the first half an hour or so…
The downtown Tulum also has a few nice restaurants and joints, where you can grab few cold ones. Tulum Playa is definitely steeper in prices but it’s rather a spectacular beach location with few affordable-ish (considering the surroundings) beachfront cabanas, not to mention its decent selection of restaurants and nightlife spots.
Playa del Carmen
To be honest, Playa del Carmen is basically a smaller Cancún. In other words, we’re talking about a classic modern resort-holidays destination. However, being smaller, it’s also arguably less busy than Cancún. The city’s main “gringo strip” is Quinta Avenida AKA the 5th Avenue. It is an 8km (5 miles) long pedestrian cobblestone street, filled with million restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping centres, drug dealers, “massage therapists” and other various overpriced services.
On the positive side, the city offers decent nightlife options, which includes live music of rather good quality of various genres, not to mention the beaches. Therefore if you felt like inserting a little party into your explorations, you could earn yourself an adequate hangover in Playa del Carmen, have you decided to stay there for a night or two. To find out more about Playa del Carmen and Tulum, please click here for Amy Mulcair article for the BBC.
If you are into small charming towns, you’ll love Bacalar within minutes. According to the locals, we are apparently talking about a classic Mexican colonial town of a small size. It’s a very friendly and rather affordable place. Bacalar is located in the very south of Mexico, about an hour drive from the town of Chetumal on the Belizean border. The town therefore often serves as the first stop for many travellers arriving from Belize or from south-eastern Guatemala.
The major attraction in Bacalar is its lagoon. The stunning 43km long and 2km wide shallow turquoise waters is a bit reminiscent of Maldives, from the beauty’s perspective. Just pick one of the many tour operators and they will take you to all basic attractions the lagoon comes with, covering various lake sinkholes and the Pirates Channel, all just in few hours.
FYI, the lagoon’s shore is filled with luxury mansions and hotels. The further away from the lagoon one goes, the more authentic as well as economic things get. I’ve stayed in the city barely a block and a half from the main square, the shore, however, appeared as a very romantic place so don’t be shy to spend few extra bucks if you were around with your loved one 😉
In case you were interested, here‘s a piece with more info about the place from The New Yorker by a semi insider Allison Keeley. Please note that like all the other (outbound) links with additional information, you could also find a link to this article near the bottom of this post.
Valladolid is a laidback colonial town of nearly 50 000 people. Compared to the coastal places, it’s less touristy, cheaper and the overall vibe makes it feel more like the “real Mexico”, at least that’s what the locals told me. The whole city had a pleasant and friendly vibe. Not too much, not too touristy – just nice, friendly, slow and welcoming.
The city is quite old, as it was set up in 1543 by conquistadors. Its history is projected in a form of an animated mapping movie every evening on an iconic building of the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena every evening for the spectators. This is also where the city walking tour ends so the tourists can enjoy their coffee, Margaritas or Coronas in a beautiful park surrounding the convent.
Apart from the fact that Valladolid is worth checking out for its looks and general atmosphere, I think that you shouldn’t miss out on its famous local Mayan-Mexican fusion cuisine. The town is also rather conveniently located to visit several attractions in the region, such as the iconic Mayan site Chichén Itzá and numerous spectacular cenotes, such as the popular cenote Ik Kil, the neighbouring ones Xkeken and Dzitnup or many more in the nearby area, incl Cenote Zaci that’s right in the city itself.
I’d therefore recommend you to consider staying here at least for a couple of nights and explore the area from here. In case you were interested, here‘s an article about the town “with the most delicious food in all of Mexico” from The Yucatan Times.
The capital of Mexico’s federal state Yucatán is a fairly large city of over a million people. Established in 1542 on the Mayan site T’hó, Mérida is one of the oldest cities in the modern history of the region. In fact, it’s Cathedral of San Ildefonso is the second oldest Christian church in the whole of Americas. When it comes to the looks, Mérida, AKA The White City, is a pretty colonial town with cobbled streets lined up preserved colourful colonial houses.
Architecture-wise, there are plenty of landmarks to admire, especially in the city’s walkable historical centre. Culturally we’re talking about a diverse city where Mexican cultural traditions blended with those of the local Mayans. One of the things Mérida is also known for is its vibrant cultural life, as the city holds free daily cultural events and music concerts, which is definitely something worth checking out.
To be honest, I wouldn’t personally stay in the city during my whole time on the peninsula, but I would certainly pay it a visit at least for a weekend to soak up the city’s vibrant atmosphere and to explore the nearby attractions, such as Uxmal ruins, Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve, numerous stunning underground caves filled with freshwater, AKA cenotes. In case you wanted to learn more details about Mérida, please click here for Nora Walsh Guide to the city in Forbes Magazine.
Another pretty colonial city to consider visiting in Yucatán is San Francisco de Campeche, which is one of the thirteen UNESCO World Heritage Cities to be found in Mexico, well, its historical centre is, to be precise. If you like the colourful colonial architecture, making the 5,5 hrs trip across the peninsula from Cancún to check out this historical harbour town is definitely worth it.
There are numerous spectacular attractions to check out along the way, such as the above-mentioned city of Mérida with its nearby attractions or the impressive Edzna’ Mayan ruins, not to mention yet another UNESCO World Heritage site Calakmul, which is the largest biosphere reserve in Mexico with tremendous wildlife and the eponymous Mayan ruins. Read more about Campeche here on the Visit Mexico website.
Another town on our list is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, the popular inland town of Izamal, known as the yellow city because most of its historical buildings are painted in guess what colour. Except being a very Instagram-friendly city, Izamal is also home to an ancient Mayan site of the same name.
In case you were passing by, then it’s 100% worth taking a little detour to stop for a 1/2 day at least for a lunch and to take a walk in this picturesque Yellow town and its also yellow Convento de San Antonio de Padua, the in-town Kinich Kakmó Pyramid or other archaeological sites nearby. For more details, check out this article by Dayvee Sutton on CNN.
Laidback towns to consider
In case you were looking for a tranquil, quiet, paradise-like place on the Caribbean shore that’s away from the tourism buzz, I might be able to point you in the right direction. Only about 2,5 hrs drive from the mega busy Cancún, there’s a little settlement called El Cuyo, which could be one of your best bets. This “secret” laidback beach town has the properties of crystal clear waters, deserted beaches, a busy city person might be seeking to catch up with during his or her vacation.
There’s not much to do except for the chilling, beach strolls, sipping a cocktail in one of the local establishments and watersports though. Well, that’s not exactly true because you could also spot dolphins and stingrays, plus you’d be only steps away from the amazing Isla Holbox, and pink lagoons of Las Coloradas. I’m glad that such places could still be found even in such a popular Caribbean region. If you need a break – do not hesitate 😉 More info about El Cuyo could be found here.
If you were looking for a seaside town with a bit more buzz that’s still authentic, you could perhaps check out Puerto Morelos, a little fishing town with a population of around 20 thousand people that comes with a certain bohemian vibe but is still at the calm end of the tourism buzz.
Due to the presence of the Great Mesoamerican Reef, the second-largest reef system in the world, there’s a lot of diving and snorkelling opportunities in the area. If you weren’t the stay-on-the-beach-all-day kind of person but still wanted to be on the seaside, this is your best bet to stay in a laidback and authentic non-Cancún shore destination in the area. Click here to get more info about Puerto Morelos on Wikitravel.
Mahahual and Akumal
Down, at the other, south end of Mexican part of the peninsula is another alternative you could consider Mahahual. Because it’s located only about 5 km from the port where the large cruise ships dock, the small village Mahahual is considerably more touristy than El Cuyo but still bears the signs of the lazy beach town – just expect more of the tourism buzz…
Another small coastal town you could perhaps look into is Akumal. The name of the town is derived from the Mayan language and it means “the land of turtles”, which is part of the reason why Akumal appeared on the tourist map only several decades ago. Apart from turtles, Akumal also boasts of a rather spectacular bay. Although tourism has picked up here a lot, Akumal could be still called a rather sublime and peaceful town compared to the big tourism players in the region.
- Cancún: beach resort vacation busy and a rather unauthentic destination with great services. (official tourism website)
- Tulum: a diverse-ish destination that consists of Tulum ruins, the city, AKA pueblo and Tulum Playa, all conviniently located within several popular attractions
- Playa del Carmen: tourism buzz, shopping and nightlife, plus a good location to reach several popular attractions. Amy Mulcair writes about the PdC and Tulum for the BBC
- Bacalar: the spectacular lagoon and laidback atmosphere. Allison Keeley writes about Bacalar for The New Yorker Magazine
- Valladolid: colourful colonial architecture, great cuisine and very convenient location to reach a number of spectacular cenotes, Chichén Itzá and a number of other popular attractions in the area. More info about the town could be found here in The Yucatan Times‘
- Mérida: daily live cultural events, vibrant nightlife and colourful colonial architecture. A Forbes Magazine guide to Mérida by Nora Walsh could be found here,
- Campeche: an UNESCO World Heritage site with pretty colourful colonial architecture, Mayan ruins and Ria Celestun UNESCO biosphere. UNESCO page on this World Heritage site is here, plus Wikivoyage‘s guide could be found here, while here you can find more tourism-related info on the Visit Mexico website,
- Izamal: the picturesque yellow town with the innec-city Mayan ruins. Izamal‘s UNESCO page is here, plus a travel piece by Dayvee Sutton for CNN is here
- El Cuyo: super tranquil beach location to chill + it’s close to Isla Holbox and Las Colorados pink lagoon. Here‘s an official up to date website with plenty of information about the town, possible activities and so on
- Puerto Morelos: a more authentic fishing town with a bohemian atmosphere, the second-largest reef barrier in the world. Here‘s Wikitravel‘s informative page about the town
- Mahahual: more touristy beach location but still quiet at night. Here‘s a local website with plenty of information
- Akumal: sea turtles, spectacular bay, close to popular attractions. Here‘s Wikitravel‘s informative page.
Featured photo by Ivan Cervantes on Unsplash