There are so many incredible experiences waiting for you on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Take a dip in a limestone sinkhole, explore ancient ruins of the Mayan civilisation, swim with incredible sea life and eat all of the delicious food of Mexico’s “Riviera Maya”.
Where is the Yucatán Peninsula located?
The Yucatán Peninsula (pronounced: Yoo-kah-tahn), is in the southeast of Mexico. The Peninsula divides the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea and encompasses three Mexican States–Quintana Roo, Yucatán and Campeche– along with northern portions of Belize and Guatemala. You are most likely to be familiar with the names of popular tourist locations on the Peninsula such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Mérida.
Yucatán Peninsula climate
The climate of the Yucatán Peninsula is tropical with consistently hot weather, which varies seasonally between wet and dry. June to October is wet and humid; November to February is the coolest period (preferred by travellers) and March to May see the highest temperatures. Hurricane season spans May to December. Water temperatures are constantly warm (over 25°C/77°F) which is great news for swimmers.
Things to do on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico
Swim with whale sharks
Whale Sharks are a species of filter-feeding shark that grow to whale proportions. These gentle giants migrate to the warmer waters of the Caribbean each June through September. Peak season is July and August, therefore you will need to time your trip accordingly. There are dozens of tour companies offering whale shark experiences to wade through. We had an excellent experience with Mexico Whale Shark who we chose for a few reasons:
- They are owner/operators rather than an agent, so you are getting the direct price.
- Offer pick up from Isla Mujeres in addition to Cancun.
- Most importantly, they strictly abide by the laws for interacting with whale sharks, which is important to protect these amazing creatures.
Another popular location to swim with whale sharks is off Isla Holbox (pronounced: hole-bosh) which is less-touristed and therefore has a more relaxed, rustic vibe. Holbox also offers fly fishing and swimming in bioluminescent plankton.
Explore Mayan ruins
The Yucatán Peninsula is studded with ancient Mayan ruins, and you’ve no doubt heard of the most famous one – Chichen Itza. Though Chichen Itza is a wonderful site there are also many others deserving of your attention including:
- Tulum ruins with its beautiful seaside setting.
- Ek’Balam known for the preservation of a Mayan king’s tomb.
- Coba, home to the largest pyramid in the region at 42m (138ft) tall – climbing the pyramid is permitted
My best advice is to get to the more popular Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum right on opening time (generally 8am), before the tourist buses turn up around 10am and the heat of the day really sets in.
Cool off in a cenote
One of the unique and wonderful physical features found throughout the Yucatán Peninsula is the cenote (pronounced: seh-note-ay). The Peninsula’s karst landscape has more holes than Swiss cheese and these natural swimming holes are a divine relief in the tropical heat. Cenotes vary from open depressions to semi- and completely enclosed caves. They are fed by cool groundwater which was created by rain filtering down through the earth where it is insulated from the tropical heat.
Many of the popular cenotes have been commercialized and turned into feature pieces of fun parks that offer zip lining and other activities, these are busier and have higher entrance fees. However, there are still cenotes where you can take a dip for a couple of dollars.
We swam in a few including Ik Kil near Chitchen Itza and — and our favourite was Chaak Tun. This enclosed cenote is slightly off the tourist trail and therefore gets fewer visitors. When we visited there was not another person in sight! Chaak Tun is a little more expensive because you’ll need to pay for a two-hour guided tour to navigate the dark caves, but it is worth every penny. They provide lockers, wetsuits, snorkel and torch as part of the admission. Take the wetsuit – it’s chilly in there! Note: I would not recommend Chaak Tun for anyone who is claustrophobic.
Float down a Mayan canal
South of Tulum is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Listed site preserving over 400,000 hectares of land and 120,000 hectares of marine area. The Biosphere is home to a diverse number of plant and animal species including over 300 species of birds. The original human inhabitants, the ancient Maya, called this region Sian Ka’an “Origin of the Sky.” They created channels through the wetlands, possibly for trade or irrigation purposes. Today you can take a boat ride out to the channel and float down its crystal-clear waters, observing the wildlife along the way.
There are package tours for such as visit, but it is also possible to DIY with these thorough instructions by Roaming Around the World. I thoroughly recommend making the time to see Muyil archaeological ruins and following the jungle boardwalk down to the boat dock.
Snorkel with sea turtles
From June to November each year, sea turtles nest on the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula. They are commonly sighted during the day, nibbling on seagrasses just off-shore at Akumal Beach and you can be right there with them!
NOTE: Due to an influx of tourists and people getting too friendly with the animals, the laws around swimming with sea turtles at Akumal Beach have recently been changed. It is not clear if free swimming is still permitted or whether visitors must be in a tour group. See a summary of the new laws here. Please respect these endangered animals by following the rules set to protect them.
Explore cool street art
See these links to get a taste of the cool street art scenes in Isla Mujeres and Tulum. Isla Mujeres was the site of “Sea Walls: Murals for Oceans“ in 2014 which has left a legacy of brilliant murals created to inspire ocean preservation. While Tulum businesspeople sponsored the creation of murals to enhance their town, also inviting world-class street artists to contribute artworks to their public walls.
Take a cooking class
Learn to make authentic and delicious Mexican cuisine in a fun, interactive cooking class. We took a lesson from the talented and enthusiastic Lily, at Rivera Kitchen in Tulum. You will be welcomed into her home and kitchen for an intimate class on Pre-Columbian Mexican cuisine. Learn a little history and culture as you take part in preparing a delicious meal that you will dine on at the end of the class.
More things to do on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico
If you have more time, consider adding these to your itinerary:
Wonder at the pink lakes (Las Coloradas)
Outside the fishing town of Las Coloradas are a series of man-made lakes used for salt production. As a result of beta-carotene (like in carrots) containing microorganisms that live in the waters, the lakes’ waters are shades of orange and pink. I haven’t personally had the chance to visit the lakes, so I recommend checking out Expert Vagabond’s experience and advice for visiting.
Discover colonial architecture in Mérida
Mérida, founded in 1542, is the capital of Yucatán state and the largest city on the Peninsula. The colonial town was established by Spanish conquistador Montejo y León on the site of a Mayan city. Mérida has a reputation for the beautiful 18th and 19th-century architecture of its historic centre and as a hub for culture and art.
Yucatán Peninsula map
Enjoy exploring these unbelievable things to do on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico!
Peace, love & inspiring travel,