Cancun has long been a popular destination spot for Americans looking to get away for a fun-filled vacation without straying too far from home. If you’re looking to head down to Mexico’s popular Yucatan peninsula, don’t limit yourself to this party city. Explore Mexico’s natural beauty and rich Mayan culture by branching out a little further than you might have planned.
An hour and a half south of Cancun lie the remnants of the coastal Mayan city of Tulum. The 700-year-old ruins sit atop a cliff overlooking the bright blue Caribbean waves and offer visitors a glimpse into the past. The ruins are remarkably well preserved and are sure to inspire awe by both their beauty and grandeur. In addition to the impressively constructed pyramids, you will want to take pictures of the coatis, monkeys, and iguanas that still call these ruins home. When the hot Mexican sun gets to be too much, take a short stroll down the cliff side and wade in the waves.
Perhaps the most famous of all the ancient Mayan cities, Chichen Itza is a sight not to be missed. A direct bus from Cancun will take you west, to the largest and most fascinating of the Mayan sites. Immediately upon entering, you will likely recognize the Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo. This pyramid has been identified internationally as one of The New Seven Wonders of the World. Standing 24 meters high, this architectural achievement will keep you circling back as you spend your day surveying the grounds.
Playa del Carmen
Once you feel like you’ve exhausted all the party spots in Cancun, make your way south to Playa del Carmen. This beachside town strikes a perfect balance between a relaxing coastal resort, and nightlife hotspot. The popular Avenida 5- Fifth Avenue, offers luxury shopping during the day and quickly converts into a party destination at nightfall. For the best eats, don’t be lured into one of the popular chain restaurants. Instead, stroll a few blocks away to find Mas Rico, a local taco shop, and get some of the best tacos you’re sure to find.
One of the Yucatan’s greatest marvels is the system of cenotes. These natural swimming holes are formed by the collapse of fragile limestone bedrock, which has revealed an underground world of freshwater pools. Because the water has been so meticulously filtered through the ground, it is crystal clear, making the cenotes an exhilarating destination for snorkelers, open water divers, and especially cave divers. Cenote Dzitnup in Valladolid forces visitors to travel underground to access the pool, which is illuminated solely by a hole formed by collapsed bedrock at the top of the cave.
Established by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500’s, the city of Valladolid still retains a charming colonial feel as well as beautiful Spanish architecture. This is one of those cities you can contentedly spend the day moseying through, stopping only to to admire the many palatial cathedrals, stroll into quaint central parks, and sample the local street food. Make a special trip to the Destileria Artesanal de Agave- the artisanal tequila distillery, as well as Cacao- a Mayan style chocolate shop that will happily hand out free samples. Take a night or two in Valladolid for easy commutes to Chichen Itza and nearby cenotes.
Janna Karel is a tour guide in Las Vegas and a seasoned international solo traveler. Contact her on twitter @jannainprogress.