Pull yourself away from Cancún’s many beautiful beaches and Carmen beach – not to mention the beauty of the latter Fifth Street pedestrian zone – and you’ll be rewarded with some of the best sights in Mexico. Among the many wonderful tourist attractions within an easy commute by car or bus from the Riviera Maya, most of them frequented by the area’s tour companies, are a number of fine Mayan ruins, including Chichén Itzá, one of the largest of such locations in Mexico. Also worth visiting are the Yucatán’s many fascinating cenotes – ancient sinkholes filled with water – which can now be enjoyed for swimming and snorkeling.
1 The Mayan Capital: Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá, three hours west of the Riviera Maya, is one of Mexico’s largest and best-restored archaeological sites. Highlights of a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site include numerous fine examples of the region’s famous Chacmools, reclining figures holding sacrificial boats, which were created to guard the site’s many temples. The most important buildings here are the 30 meters high ones the castlealso known as the Pyramid of Kukulkán, and the beautiful Temple of the Warriors with its many colonnades. It is also interesting Tzompantli – The Wall of Skulls – a large square platform that served as the base for the stakes on which the decapitated heads of human sacrifices were staked.
2 The fortified city of Tulum
Another of the Yucatán Peninsula’s most important Mayan sites is Tulum. Beautifully situated along the ocean, complete with its own white sand beach, Tulum is the only major fortified Mayan coastal city. It also has some unique features, the most famous of which are its walls. Stretching 380 meters from north to south and 165 meters from east to west, these ancient fortifications were built to a height of up to five meters in places where many of the original access points were still intact. Another important structure is the Tempel van de Fresco’s, notable for its stucco reliefs depicting seated figures with elaborate headdresses, as well as large bas-relief masks once painted over. The largest building is the Castillolocated on the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea and notable for its wide steps leading to a terrace on which stands the two-chambered temple, along with a stone used for human sacrifices.
3 Mountains in Crystal Clear Cenotes in Yucatan
A highlight of any visit to the Yucatán Peninsula is immersion in one of the state’s famous cenotes, a form of natural swimming hole unique to the region’s porous limestone bedrock. Consisting mostly of fresh water, these beautiful waterholes were revered by the Maya as a source of drinking water in times of drought, as well as religious significance, including burial sites or for human sacrifices. Today, these pristine pools – cave cenotes or the open-air variety – are largely free to explore and, thanks to their high mineral content and purity, make for a thrilling swimming and snorkeling experience (some are even deep enough for scuba diving). Some of the best within driving distance of Cancún and Playa del Carmen include Aktun Chenpart of a larger attraction with zip lining and other activities, and I Kila well-known cenote outside Pisté and part of the Ik Kil Archaeological Park near Chichen Itza.
4 On the water: Cozumel
One of Mexico’s largest islands – it’s 28 miles long and 11 miles wide – Cozumel makes for a great day trip for those staying at a mainland resort. Getting to this beautiful island, about 12 miles off the northeast coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, is half the fun, whether you choose to take the regular hydrofoil services from Playa del Carmen (which is directly across from the island) or Cancún or a more relaxing canal boat way. In addition to its many beautiful beaches, Cozumel has a lot to offer day-trippers from the moment they arrive in the capital city of San Miguel. It is just a short walk from the ferry terminal Island Museum with its exhibits on the island’s geography and history, as well as some great shopping opportunities selling everything from local crafts to luxury goods. For those willing to venture a little further afield, the Small sea is a natural freshwater lake and adventure park with activities such as zip lining and tree climbing. For those looking for a little Mayan culture, Cozumel has some 30 sites, the best being Saint Gervasio with its great temple built in AD 800.
5 Xel-Ha Park
Just a short drive south of Playa del Carmen is Xel-Ha Park (Parque Xel-Há), a fun aquatic center named for the neighboring Xelha Mayan site. More of an ecotourism venture than a theme park, the central feature of this award-winning attraction is a natural cove and lagoon that serves as a huge aquarium that is home to countless species of tropical fish (part of the park is also set aside as a reserve for endangered sea turtles) .A highlight of a visit is the chance to swim and snorkel in the pristine waters while marveling at the fish and underwater caves (there’s also a swim with dolphins experience). Afterwards, visit the Mayan ruins of Dancing just 10 kilometers south of Xel-Ha, the site of a cenote and numerous temples.
6 Colonial Merida
For those seeking a dose of colonial Mexico, Mérida, the state’s capital, is a delightful addition to a Mexico itinerary. The best thing you can appreciate in a two or three day excursion is the old-world charm of Merida, which contrasts sharply with the ultra-modern resort areas of the Riviera Maya, some three hours away. Also known as “ciudad blanca” – the “white city” – due to the locals’ preference to dress in traditional white clothes, Mérida was first settled by the Spaniards in 1542, and thanks to its many beautiful parks and gardens , it remains a wonderful place to explore on foot. Now there are countless emigrants from Europe, USA and Canada, many of the city’s scenic old squares such as Main Square (Plaza de la Independencia), are surrounded by art galleries and fine boutiques, as well as great restaurants and cafes. A number of notable buildings can also be found in the picturesque Cepeda Peraza Park, including the Church of Jesús with its beautiful altarpiece of carved and gilded wood. Another great way to see the old town center is to ride a horse-drawn “calesas”.
7 Climb the ancient pyramid in Cobá
Another great site of the Yucatán, the Cobá Ruins lie deep in dense bushland, midway between the Riviera Maya and the state capital, Mérida. Built between AD 600 and 900, this 70-square-mile site was still occupied when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century (it was abandoned soon after). Highlights include a number of excavated pyramids and temples from the 6,000 buildings and other structures known to occupy the site, as well as the many “sacbeob”—cement-surfaced roads flattened by heavy rolling to form roads—that make up the center connecting the outlying districts. Hot Tip: Unlike many similar Mayan structures, Cobá’s Ancient Pyramid can still be climbed.
8 San Miguel Fort
While far enough from Cancún and Playa del Carmen to warrant an overnight stay, the coastline north of Mérida is well worth a visit. A particularly charming place is the small seaside resort campeche, famous for its old Spanish fortress, Fuerte de San Miguel. In a scenic location overlooking the city, this slice of old Europe is accessed via a drawbridge and still has the original cannons installed by the Spanish. Apart from its great views, there is also a small but very interesting archaeological museum (Museo de Arqueología) with numerous artifacts from a wide range of Mayan cultures, including a series of terracotta figurines from Jaína. Campeche itself is worth exploring and offers a variety of accommodations.
9 Valladolid and the Church of San Bernardino
A little further east of Mérida and Chichén Itzá is the beautiful colonial town of Valladolid. The beautiful old architecture and relaxed pace make it a fun overnight excursion from Cancún and Playa del Carmen. Although it’s the third largest city in Yucatán, it’s not huge – its population is only 50,000 – making it an easy place to explore on foot. In addition to the many brightly colored colonial houses, you will be rewarded with a chance to visit the lovely old Convent of San Bernardino (Convent of San Bernardino de Siena), founded by the Franciscans in 1552. Valladolid is also notable for its many cenotes within an easy walk of the town centre, including the Cis-ha and Zac-hi cenotes, accessed via a walkway that leads to the water’s edge about 45 meters below (bring your swimsuit ). Also worth a visit is the 20 meter deep Cenote Dzitnupa lovely place with warm, cobalt blue waters just a short drive outside the city.
10 The caves of Balankanché
Just a 15-minute drive west of Chichén Itzá, Balankanché is well worth a visit. Known as the Jaguar Priest’s Throne, the site consists of a fascinating burial site in a limestone cave that was only discovered in 1959. Part of an extensive labyrinth of underground caverns and waterways yet to be explored, the currently open section is lit up to display the many clay dishes, jars and other objects lying just where priests left them centuries ago. Many items are decorated with the mask of the Toltec-Aztec rain god Tláloc, suggesting that the cave was an exclusive Toltec burial site. The focal point of the cave is a room with an altar and a formation of stalactites reminiscent of the sacred Maya ceiba tree. A narrow passage leads to an even deeper chamber, at the end of which crystal clear waters embrace another altar also dedicated to the Rain God Tláloc (look out for the small shrimps and blind fish that live in the pool).