The Yucatán Peninsula divides the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, but it is more like a close-knit island than an extension of the mainland. Composed of three neighbouring states – Quintana Roo, Yucatán and Campeche — its unique identity is an amalgam of indigenous and international influences.
Mysterious and profoundly ancient, the Yucatán is a place with an exceptional sense of destiny. Once a vast coral reef in a prehistoric ocean, it was here, 66 million years ago, that a giant asteroid crashed into the earth and triggered the cataclysm that wiped out the dinosaurs. It was here, 2000 years ago, that Mayan culture took root and flourished, developing art, science, philosophy and trade. And it was here, 500 years ago, that Spanish explorers first made contact with the American mainland and, for better or worse, heralded a new apocalypse and the dawn of the world’s first truly global empire.
Today, it is perhaps best known for its behemoth pleasure resort of Cancún – the first of many enclaves on the so-called ‘Riviera Maya’, a strip of languid Caribbean shoreline heavily developed with tourist infrastructure. Families, honeymooners and party-goers will find a convenient and comfortable base here, but more independent travelers usually want to skip the area to explore the cultural and historical attractions inland.
Spanish-built towns and cities pepper the Yucatán’s interior with bustling plazas and pastel-shaded adobe town houses. Don’t miss the breezy city of Mérida, the Yucatán’s cultural and intellectual capital, and a centre of power since the 16th century. Beset with intricately worked historic mansions, baroque churches, crumbling monasteries and rambling old haciendas, it is a testament to the grandeur of the colonial age.
In the countryside, tradition is on the decline, but many communities continue to be immersed in the myths and archetypes of the ancient Mayan world. The Pre-Colombian language of Yucatec Maya is still spoken widely, life revolves around the shifting whims of Chac, the rain god, and the spirits of an ancestral past are never far away. Where the moon rises over tangled jungle canopies, the great palaces and pyramids of Chichen Itza exalt dynasties of long lost kings. On the peninsula’s eastern shores, the crumbling cliff-top temples of Tulúm greet the dawn from a commanding vantage over the Caribbean.
The Mayas, bound to the land in all its diversity, are inseparable from the natural environment that nurtures and inspires them. Essentially a vast, flat limestone shelf, the Yucatán peninsula is blanketed with brooding lagoons, thorny scrubland, flamingo-filled wetlands and tracts of exuberant tropical forests. There are very few rivers at its surface, but underground, a labyrinth of subterranean caverns connects life-sustaining fresh water wells and giant sinkholes known as cenotes. The ancient Mayas worshipped them as portals to another dimension. Indeed, those who dive or snorkel in them tend to report otherworldly experiences.
October is the best month for beating the crowds and chilling out. December to April is the time for watching flamingos. Diving visibility is generally good from July to January, but September is the best month of all for underwater excursions. Parties are lively in the Easter period, including Spring Break in Cancún. If budget is your first consideration, hotel rates in the beach towns, resorts and islands of Quintana Roo are generally 30-50% higher in high season; more during Christmas and New Year.
The Yucatán is a relatively compact area with modern highways and excellent public transport links between urban centres – it is easy to skip up and down the coast of Quintana Roo, as well as inland to Yucatán state. A week is enough time to sample two or three destinations, but hardly enough for a diverse or leisurely exploration. Two to three weeks allows a more diverse and rewarding itinerary alternating colonial cities, archaeological sites, nature reserves, islands and beaches. A month or longer will get you off the beaten track and into some intriguing enclaves.
High season begins in late December and lasts around six months with rates and visitor numbers peaking during Christmas, New Year, Carnaval, and Semana Santa (the week before Easter). Low season technically begins in April or May after Easter has passed. However, Europeans and Mexicans like to vacation during the months of June, July, and August, meaning the Riviera Maya does not really begin to quieten until those months have passed. The cheapest and quietest months are September to November.
The Yucatán enjoys sweltering year round highs of around 40 C / 104 F and night time lows of around 20 C / 68 F. Dry season runs from November to April and leaves the region arid and dusty. Starting in May, the first months of the wet season are punctuated with relatively short and intense downpours in the afternoon, rarely lasting more than an hour at a time. Humidity increases markedly in the wet season, particularly in the interior, with temperatures climbing a few degrees higher and reaching a peak in July. From August to October, storm events occur with greater frequency and intensity, bringing immense deluges, slightly cooler temperatures, and the outside chance of a hurricane. The islands have their own microclimates and may experience storms from November to January.
The festivities never really stop in Mexico and tourist offices will have a complete schedule of local events. Some of the big ones include:
Carnaval – Signalling one final overheated indulgence before the penitence of lent, Carnaval is the quintessential BIG Latin party. It is celebrated everywhere in the Yucatán but with special exuberance in the city of Mérida.
Day of the Dead – Coinciding with the Catholic celebration of All Saints Day on 1-2 November, Day of the Dead is a very ancient and complex Mexican tradition that draws both families and revellers in alternating displays of solemnity and celebration. As ever, the city of Mérida lays on the best and most easily accessible public events.
Spring and Autumn equinoxes – The builders of the Mayan city of Chichén Itza were master time-keepers and designed one of their pyramids, El Castillo, to cast moving serpent shadows at the moment of the equinoxes. Today, the events see packed crowds.
Cancún Jazz Festival – Usually held in September, Cancún’s jazz festival draws national and international talent.
Eastern Standard Time (EST).
Leave your winter coat at home, the Yucatán’s blazing heat demands light-weight summer clothes, preferably cotton, perhaps supplemented by a single sweater for those times when a cool sea breeze rolls in after dark. Do bring strong sunblock and use it throughout the day, including when it is overcast. A hat will offer added protection to your face. Cheap medicines are widely available but it is worth packing essentials for emergencies, including upset stomachs. Alcohol gel is good for cleaning hands before a meal. Insect repellent is vital for mosquitos and other nasties, but jungle-strength DEET is overkill unless you’re camping out in the jungle — low to moderate DEET repellents are recommended, as are electric insecticide burners.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We donât want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in $US.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $20 per person
$$$ => Tickets $25 per person
$ => Rooms less than $75 for a double
$$ => Rooms $75-150 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $200 for a double
$ => $10 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $50 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $75 per person
$$ => Tickets $75-125 per person
$$$ => Tickets $125 per person
Cancún is a tourist mecca and the point of arrival for most visitors to the Yucatán, thanks to its international airport. Its sprawl of bars, nightclubs, shopping malls and luxury resorts will delight some and offend others. If you’re looking to beat the crowds, catch a ferry to Isla Mujeres, where the laidback island vibe offers a welcome contrast to the frenetic energy of the city.
South of Cancún, the Mayan Riviera offers yet more beach-side revelry at the resort of Playa del Carmen, and further south, Tulúm, which also boasts a clifftop Mayan ruin and a relatively low-key ambience. Off-shore, qualified divers will not want to miss the scuba resort of Isla Cozumel.
You’ll need to backtrack to Cancún before swinging west into the peninsula’s interior. Here, the colonial town of Valladolid offers a gentle introduction to the region, while the grand Mayan city of Chichen Itza is rightly considered a wonder of the ancient world. Finally, the colonial city of Mérida is an essential slice of Yucatec history and culture, worth a few days or more to sample its urbane charms and surrounding rural attractions.