Ultimate Guide to Yucatan Peninsula

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It wasn’t traveling to Chichen Itza that stole our hearts. It wasn’t climbing ancient Mayan ruins or taking photographs of structures we’d dreamed about seeing in history books and travel magazines. It wasn’t simply traveling the Riviera Maya that captivated us. It was all of it. It was traveling to the Yucatan Peninsula, in its entirety.

Travel is addictive for a lot of reasons, and one of which is the endless onslaught of surprises. The good, the bad, and the utterly undefinable, travel takes your comfort zone and rips it to shreds, leaving you to ask the question, “what do I do now?”

The Yucatan always gives you a reason to look up, and climb higher.

In wanting to travel to the Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, our visions were filled with climbing Mayan ruins and stories of the ancient civilization, from the mythos surrounding 2012 and the various “end of the world” scenarios that passed us harmlessly, to the tales of rituals, magic, secrets, and a society that seemingly vanished into thin air. We thought of our trip to Machu Picchu and Peru, and imagined this would be similar to our time spent in South America. We’ve both been besotted with history since far before meeting each other, and the older the civilization and more mysterious the tale, the more our obsession intensified. The story of the Maya always existed nearly the top of that list of must-see historical sites, which made our visit to the Yucatan Peninsula and the Mayan ruins all-the-more gratifying.

Fulfill life-long dreams in the Yucatan, like visiting Chichen Itza!

With that said, this can be a confusing place for first time travelers, especially those willing to spread themselves a bit thin in order to see the best things in the Yucatan Peninsula. You need a plan, and we found there to be a lot of bad information on getting around, navigating the vastness of the peninsula, and seeing all the essential Mayan attractions. If you’re planning a trip to the Yucatan to see the Mayan ruins, this is your guide.

Perhaps this is your first time considering traveling to the Yucatan. Perhaps you, like so many, view the area lumped in with the horrible tales of crime we so often here in regard to the drug trade out of Mexico, and the violence along the U.S./Mexico border. If you wonder, “is Mexico safe”, it depends largely on where you are, and the Yucatan is not the Mexico you read about with the rampant crime. The Yucatan is incredibly safe, and not to be feared any more than traveling to Machu Picchu or even Stonehenge.

If you’re a travel buff, you likely already want to see what the Yucatan Peninsula has to offer. This is an area rich in Maya history, including numerous sites where the former civilization thrived that include pyramids, living quarters, centers of worship, and cenotes – beautiful underground fresh water deposits that were essential to the Mayan culture for survival as well as spiritual purposes. These cenotes came as a result of sinkholes deep under the surface of the Yucatan, which collapsed and filled over time creating the Mayan’s main source of drinking water. They are numerous in the area, ranging from the small and shallow to the massive, deep, and mysterious.

An example of one of the larger cenotes, Cenote Zaci, from the main jumping perch.

Aside from the history, the Yucatan offers something for everyone. From the idyllic beaches (some of the most beautiful in North America) to the food, the people and the thriving modern culture, traveling the Yucatan provides a different experience for each traveler, depending on what he or she is really seeking. The food is among the best anywhere in the world. This isn’t your “Tuesday Special” Mexican food at an American/Mexican restaurant with bottomless margaritas – this is the real deal, and it’s far different and more delicious than what most imagine of Mexican cuisine. If you travel for great beer, great people, or simply just to get away, you should go to the Yucatan.

Lastly, it’s cheap. Very cheap. Currently with the U.S. Dollar at about 20 times the value of the MXD (Mexican Peso), the $30MXD beer you might buy in a restaurant runs you about $1.50 American. That plate of the best food you’ve ever had? About $3-5 American. That expensive date night in Valladolid? 30 bucks.

There are two conventional schools of thought when flying to the Yucatan – either fly into Cancun or fly into Merida. We strongly suggest that you fly into Merida for a few reasons, although this may be in opposition to what most will tell you.

Waiting to take off from Miami, going to Merida, Mexico.

First, the layout of the Yucatan demands flexibility of transportation. If you want to see a lot, you want to be independent in your way of getting around the Yucatan Peninsula. Cabs are cheap, but the distances between some of the landmarks can be up to three hours. More popular methods of travel are more expensive, such as the ADO Bus Mexico or the 2nd class buses, which are also highly inflexible in terms of operating hours.

Therefore, you want to rent a car, and you want to stay somewhere centrally located on the peninsula. The most logically central destination that allows for budget travel is Valladolid, a city just east-central within the Yucatan of about 300,000 people. While Villadolid is closer to Cancun than Merida, Cancun is a much more hectic airport, and the areas outside of the resorts are commonly high areas of crime (the only really sketchy areas in the Yucatan). Additionally, getting a rental car in Cancun is going to be a bigger hassle than Merida, and is much more expensive.

While Cancun is closer, you can still see these beautiful beaches in Tulum easily by flying into Merida and driving – and it’s cheaper!

Speaking of rental cars, there is one and only one person to call to rent a car in Merida – Joaquin with La Curva Car Rental. We must add that this is in no way a sponsored suggestion, we simply had that good of an experience. “How good?” you ask?

We ran across reviews of Joaquin’s company, La Curva, on TripAdvisor where he had dozens of positive reviews. A little unnerved by it being a local company instead of a global provider such as Hertz or Enterprise, we sent Joaquin an e-mail. Within twenty minutes there was a response detailing our options and pricing. Joaquin’s employees met us at the Merida Airport immediately after we landed, handed us the keys to a clean, new sedan, and asked for only $150 USD cash. No credit card. No further information needed.

Transportation is key in getting around the Yucatan and seeing sites like this – El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulkan).

The car came with insurance, a full tank of gas, and a small car phone with Joaquin’s number programmed in case we had any issues. While the cash-only methodology had us a bit confused, keep in mind that this is a single-owner who has a handful of cars. It’s his risk, and he prefers to make life easy, as he did for us. We met his associates back at the airport, turned over the keys, shook hands, and went on our way. It was possibly the best service we’ve ever used traveling in any regard, and was absolutely paramount in making our trip affordable and flexible in getting around the Yucatan. If you need to reach Joaquin to reserve a car for your trip to Merida, you can reach him via e-mail at info@yucatanseasonalcarrental.com.

Once you have your rental car picked up in Merida, you’ll drive a bit over two hours to Valladolid, which is an incredibly charming town that provides a great anchoring point for the trip. Easily within reach from here are Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba, Ek Balam, several dozen cenotes, as well as further destinations up the coast including Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Additionally, with Merida as a large city and accessible to the main roads, it’s very easy to get from Merida to Chichen Itza or Merida to Tulum via 180, which runs across the Yucatan.

Prepare for a peaceful drive with no traffic, and thick lush forests all around.

An important thing to remember while driving from Merida to Valladolid is that there is a toll about 45 minutes outside of Valladolid that you will have to pay both ways (about $170 MXD). This is a cash-only booth that does not accept cash in other currencies, including USD. Having not exchanged for $MXD yet (it’s always cheaper at an ATM in town), we had only American dollars. Luckily, there was a policeman onsite at the time that exchanged me MXD for USD, and gave us correct change back (nothing shady).

With this in mind, you may be better off to exchange cash prior to leaving your home country, as the Merida Airport is very small, and we didn’t observe any desks to exchange cash.

Once you drive from Merida to Valladolid, you want to have a centrally-located hotel near the city square. Our choice was the Hotel Maria de La Luz, directly in front of the Plaza e Parque Francisco Canton, which constitutes the primary plaza in Valladolid, Yucatan. From here, you are door to door with some of the most authentic and delicious food you’ll have anywhere, as well as myriad shops, markets, and tourist attractions including the Cathedral of San Gervasio (Iglesia San Servacio), one of the most notable Valladolid tourist attractions and a breath-taking opportunity for photographers.

The beautiful Iglesia San Gervasio in Valladolid

While there is much to do in Valladolid, you won’t spend the majority of your time here if you’re looking to see the Mayan ruins, including the numerous cenotes throughout the peninsula. You do, however, want to give yourself at least one full day to explore Valladolid (preferably two). In addition to these two days, you likely will want a full day to explore Tulum and the coast of the Mexico‘s Riviera Maya, including Playa del Carmen. We found Tulum to be one of the most absolutely stunning places we’ve ever seen, and a simply storybook location for the ruins that adorn its shoreline.

Additionally, any trip to the Yucatan Peninsula is incomplete without traveling to Chichen Itza, which is about 45 minutes drive southwest of Valladolid, Mexico. You can spend several hours here, and even more time in the nearby cenotes simply swimming, relaxing and taking videos of one of the most beautiful places to snorkel in the Yucatan. Other locations that are must-see attractions are Ek Balam, a stunning ancient Mayan location about 30 minutes north of Valladolid, as well as Coba, one of the most raw and newest discovered Mayan temples, located about an hour and a half from Valladolid. Coba can be seen in an hour or two and is conveniently near the return trip from Tulum, although packing in the Riviera Maya and Coba in the same day is a tall order.

View from near the top of Coba – feels like falling off the edge of the world!

In short, you really want two full days to see Valladolid, relax, shop, eat, swim in cenotes and mingle with the culture, and an additionally three days (minimum) for traveling to Chichen Itza, Tulum/Riviera Maya, Ek Balam and Coba. After extensive research on the best way to plan, the best way we found to book a trip to the Yucatan was through Expedia, where we combined five nights hotel and two round-trip flights from Miami for only $680!

Cenotes, the incredible, fresh-water, underground diving holes used as both a survival necessity and ritualistic altar for the Mayans, are among the most essential things to see and do in the Yucatan Peninsula. Formed by slowly-evolving sinkholes that later flooded with drinkable, clean freshwater, the cenotes have long thought to be the primary reason for the Mayans building of their pyramids and civilizations where they did – near potable water. Once discovered, the cities built around these cenotes drove outwards and upwards, as the expanses sprawled across the Yucatan to support some of the most incredible construction in early western history.

Given the location of the cenotes as near anything habitable, everywhere you visit will have at least one cenote you must visit. The first, in fact, is only a few hundred yards from the square in downtown Valladolid – Cenote Zaci.

The incomparable Cenote Zaci.

Cenote Zaci is the largest cenote in Valladolid, and is stunning upon entry. Walking down from street-level, a modest walkway wraps around the perimeter of the underground sinkhole, descending down from a height of more than sixty feet to a floor-level entry near the opposite side. Light peeks in between the trees above, as well as small cascading waterfalls from between the rock-ceiling, creating a glimmering effect on the water that is truly breath-taking. For thrill-seekers, Cenote Zaci is one of the most popular for cliff-diving at heights of six, 15, 35 and nearly 60 feet near the entry to the walkway (which isn’t formally a diving platform, but is used by some of the more rogue visitors). Additionally, Cenote Zaci is incredibly inexpensive at only $30MXD per person (about $1.50 USD). There’s also a small bar, where beers are about the same price of entry into the cenote!

Coming back from Tulum, we also spent time at Grand Cenote, on Tulum’s west side. One of the more expensive cenotes, Grand Cenote is still only about $160 MXD per person (about $8 USD) to enter. You can also rent a small locker for about $40 MXD ($2 USD) in which to keep your belongings.

Surface level view of the beautiful Grand Cenote – notice the cave entry to the right!

An entirely different experience from Zaci, Grand Cenote is shallow in nature, and in actuality a small cave channel between separate landing points that are exposed to the sun. Stalactites reach down from the cave roof, creating one of the most magical snorkeling experiences in the Yucatan. Another thing of note, and important to the indigenous wildlife, is that you can see myriad forms of fish and other animals within the water, including large, freshwater turtles that are not to be touched by swimmers due to conservation efforts of the habitat despite being a tourist attraction. As you swim under the stalactite canopy to reach the other shallow, sunlit opening, you’ll see beautiful swallows that fly overhead, burrowing themselves into crevices in the cave ceiling, and sometimes swooping down to skim a snack off the water’s surface!

Amazing scenes at Cenote Samula.

Additionally, within only five minutes drive from downtown Valladolid, are twin cenotes X’Keken and Samula, both available for a very marginal entry fee. These cenotes are within a few hundred yards of each other, and both offer a truly unique, cave-like experience of the cenote types within the Yucatan. X’Keken features a small, high hole where light only faintly streams in, illuminating the center of the water. This feature, also found at Cenote Samula, moves around the water as the day grows long, depending on the origin of light.

Perhaps the most popular cenote in the Yucatan is Sacred Cenote, located at Chichen Itza. Sacred Cenote is thought to be the most important cenote to the largest Mayan encampment, and provides an experience more similar to Cenote Zaci. According to post-Conquest sources, pre-Columbian Maya made sacrifices into the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac, especially during times of decreased rainfall, which could severely dry out the cenotes.

Cooling off at the cenotes!

We favored Cenote Samula slightly to X’Keken, as it was a bit less crowded, further underground, and far larger to allow ample room for the numerous tourists who frequent the location. However, you can’t go wrong with either one while traveling to the Yucatan!

If the wonders of the world are on your bucket list, the Yucatan Peninsula is the place for you to be. The lore in this area is palpable, and can be felt at every Mayan ruin location.

What sits alone at the top of the best Mayan ruins to visit is Chichen Itza, just a short drive from Valladolid. Chichen Itza is a vast landscape, featuring far more than El Castillo, the main pyramid formally referred to as the Pyramid of Kukulkan. Here you can see cenotes, smaller Mayan temples used in religious ceremonies, rites and dances on specific holidays (such as the Platform of Venus), and the Mayan ball court – where opposing teams would play an unspecified game with the losing team (and sometimes the winning team) being offered for sacrifice to the gods.

Among the temples onsite is the Temple of the Warriors, one of the most impressive and important structures at Chichen Itza. Possibly the only late classic Mayan buildings sufficiently built for large gatherings, the temple consists of four large platforms, flanked on the south and west by 200 round and square columns. These columns represent Toltec warriors, carved in low relief depicting bravery.

Temple of the Warriors.

There are several tips to help you enjoy your time at Chichen Itza, as well. First, make sure you stay at a hotel in Valladolid. You can get to Chichen Itza from Merida, but it isn’t as convenient to other locations and the difference in the drive is considerably less. You want to make sure to really load up on water, as Chichen Itza is extremely hot and only shaded in certain areas. Bottles of water, while offered onsite, are disproportionately expensive due to the fame of the site and high tourist volume. Get there early, as crowds can get quite extensive past noon as tourism buses from Cancun, Tulum, Valladolid and Merida make their way in for the day.

We were completely stunned by the beauty at Ek Balam, as well. Ek Balam is the closest Mayan ruin to Valladolid, only a short drive north along a nearby highway. Ek Balam possesses the only pyramids you can climb, other than the only-recently excavated pyramid at Coba. Ek Balam has a few different summits, however the largest is on the far side from entry and faces back toward the secondary pyramid peak, creating a breath-taking panorama of Ek Balam as it rises from the dense Mayan forest.

Ek Balam afforded us plenty of opportunities to stop and take it all in.

Situated on the east side of the Yucatan, along the Riviera Maya, is Tulum. These Mayans clearly knew where to build a temple, as the backing of the Caribbean was lined with crystal-clear waters and stark-white sands. While you can’t walk on Tulum, the entrance is very cheap and provides for excellent photographic opportunities. As you pass the main Mayan temple at Tulum and begin winding your way back down the path, you’ll peak on top of the cliffs for another incredible vista.

A beautiful look at the ruins of Tulum.

On your return trip from Tulum, you’ll pass by a small exit that takes you to Coba – one of the newest and most recently excavated Mayan pyramids. Coba is steep and high, but can be climbed with the aid of a rope laid down in the middle of the steps. The view from the top gives one the feeling of total isolation, but total freedom. From here, you can see small mounds throughout the Yucatan for miles upon miles. These mounds, covered in vegetation and forestry, are thought to be unexcavated pyramids waiting to be discovered! The difficulty of getting to these is two-fold, as the uncovering efforts are quite expensive, but also quite difficult given the impossibility of navigating through the thick, wild landscape.

Tracy getting a great shot at the entry to Ek Balam.

As is the case with all of these pyramids, take plenty of water. In fact, it’s a good rule of thumb to have more water than you think you need anywhere in the Yucatan as you can often be caught where little or no water is available. We took our small carry-ons, emptied out to make room for snacks, water and juice to help keep us standing upright in the intense Mexican heat!

When you return to Valladolid from the ruins as the end of a long day, you’ll be greeted with plenty to do, see, eat, and drink. Valladolid is, in fact, one of the most charming and fun small cities we’ve visited. It’s a city that sleeps early, with beautiful birds singing in the square and hardly a single car passing by, until it gives way to music, shop-owners swinging open their doors and delicious smells of fresh food billowing from local cafes and restaurants.

Early morning Valladolid, just as the sun comes up.

The best meal we had, and the best restaurant for a date night in Valladolid, is El Atrio. Located next to the Cathedral of San Servacio, only fifty yards from Hotel Maria de La Luz, El Atrio has a wonderful back seating area in an enclosed garden. The service is excellent, and only bested by the masterpiece dishes on display. Casual but romantic, El Atrio has a great selection of authentic Yucatan cuisine including a strip steak made in a local rendition of a chimichurri and the Yucatan’s favored dish – rich chorizo simmered in local herbs and sauces with sides of locally grown vegetables and guacamole.

The steak at El Atrio was as good as we’ve had anywhere, in any city.

There are numerous other restaurants in the square, ranging from the casual to more upscale aimed at tourists. Another favorite of ours was a great lunch spot called Los Portales. Ironically located two steps down from El Atrio, Los Portales is more of a standard spot for the best tacos, quesadillas, empanadas and featured Mexican fare that you’ll ever have! With outdoor, street-side sitting, Los Portales is a great location to watch the day pass by while having a couple of cold cervezas.

You really can’t go wrong in Valladolid, as restaurants within the square were exclusively delicious. Off the main streets, however, Valladolid also features excellent street food including freshly made skewers of chicken and steak with vegetables, as well as meat-filled pastry that’s great for eating on the go.

El Atrio is a great date night spot in Valladolid!

Aside from food, you’ll want to enjoy the weekend markets in the square. Handmade bags, jewelry, shoes, books and purses can be bought for pennies on the dollar, as we had quite a shopping spree and realized that we had still spent less than $100 USD!

Be alert for events in the square, especially in the late afternoon and evenings. We were present for several celebrations of dancing, singing, and even the 474th celebration of the founding of the City of Valladolid!

Celebrating the 474th anniversary of the founding of Valladolid!

The Yucatan Peninsula should be on your bucket list, if it isn’t already. Lovers of history, food, great people and rich, passionate culture will find it mesmerizing it its beauty.

No matter how you decide to travel this beautiful place, make sure to leave time to just rest. Watch the day go by. Sometimes with the fast pace of travel, and the pressure to see it all, it’s difficult to appreciate a truly passionate place no matter the depth and expanse of experience it gives. So, see what needs to be seen. Travel, move around, and explore the Yucatan, but most of all – stop. Let it draw you in like it drew us in, and let it make you one with the vibe, the culture, and the awesomeness of the history the land possesses.

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