The Yucatán Peninsula – the small, south-eastern tip of Mexico – is a wonderful, manageable taste of this otherwise vast and overwhelming country. Although a lot of Mexico has a bad rep in terms of safety, especially in its innermost regions, the Yucatán Peninsula is known to be one of its safer areas, making it the perfect destination for both travel newbies and travel veterans. It is welcoming, colourful, and offers a diverse range of sights across a relatively small area. Here are the best places to visit in the region.
Isla Mujeres, which translates as ‘Island of Women’ after Spanish buccaneers supposedly kept their lovers in seclusion there, is a twenty minute ferry ride from Cancun, and a mini Caribbean paradise. From one end to the other it’s about an hour walk, and most people get around on golf carts. With bright, multi-coloured buildings lining the quiet streets within, and white, palm-tree lined beaches, it’s an uncrowded and relaxed place. With little to see and do other than lie in the sand and perhaps visit the turtle sanctuary, it’s easy to forget that there was ever anything else beyond the turquoise horizon. And when I visited last September, the humidity left us wanting to be nowhere other than the sea. A good escape from the expensive and crowded Cancun hotel resorts!
Tulum is a small town, pretty much built up around a single main road. Unfortunately the town isn’t within walking distance of the beach, but with daily bicycle hire at a mere 30 pesos (about £1.50), a breezy cycle to the sea is definitely the thing to do. Right on the beach is the impressive Tulum Maya ruins, which now seem to be inhabited by a community of friendly iguanas. Also a short cycle away are various cenotes – beautiful limestone sinkholes where you can swim and snorkel, perfect for the middle of the day when at your stickiest in the humidity.
Chichén Itzá and Valladolid
Chichén Itzá is one of Mexico’s most famous Maya sites. The image of El Castillo, the main pyramid at the centre of the ancient site, is well-known and does not disappoint in person. It was built, along with the rest of the site, between 800 and 1100 AD, and is 24 metres high. Until 2006 it was possible to climb the steps, but health and safety has since dictated otherwise. Chichén Itzá makes for a great morning of exploration and exercising your imagination to try and picture what the site was like when it was a bustling town 1000 years ago. Make sure to get there early and be the first through the gates before the bus-loads of tour groups arrive, and use the town of Valladolid as a base for seeing it. Valladolid is a pleasant, albeit small, town to walk around, and there are a few impressive cenotes nearby which are great for a swim in the hot afternoon.
Merida harbours a fascinating clash of ancient, old, new and upcoming. From the stones of Maya ruins visible in the walls of colonial churches, to the omnipresent Mexican flag depicting the eagle overcoming the serpent to represent independence; with flashy department stores on the same narrow streets as elderly women in traditional dress selling diced fruit from wooden carts; Merida is like a time capsule, whilst also providing a look into the future as the modern world weaves it’s way in next door to Mexico’s rich cultural heritage. Merida’s Palacio de Gobierno (government palace) showcases huge murals painted by Fernando Castro Pacheco, depicting the various stages of the brutal overthrow of the Maya during colonisation. Also on the town’s Central Plaza, Casa de Montejo, the house of the founding conquistadors of the town, is beautifully renovated and maintained by the National Bank of Mexico, which now holds its offices within. An afternoon is enough to see most of what Merida has on offer, but if you’re interested in Mexico’s history from its ancient beginnings to the present, it’s definitely worth a visit.
Campeche is a little like an upmarket Disneyland. Minus the rides. With little to do, it’s just a nice place to see; cobbled streets and brightly coloured, well kept buildings. We only spent an afternoon there. So here are some photos!
This post features on Monday Escapes.