Alternative Yucatán adventures away from the crowds

Magnificent Mayan ruins, dazzling beaches and perfect turquoise waters, vibrant Mexican culture and food… what’s not to love about the Yucatán Peninsula? The crowds. Every year, millions of visitors descend on the Riviera Maya, making the stretch of coast from Cancún to Tulum feel, shall we say, over appreciated.

The view of a sparkling turquoise lake framed by lush tropical plants dotted with pink and red flowers in Laguna Bacalar an alternative Yucatan destination
The Yucatan is filled with sublime spots to explore, why not get away from the crowds a little? © Urosr / Getty Images

Fortunately, it’s a big peninsula, with many equally enticing but lesser traveled places that are begging discovery. So change it up. Bypass the most popular stops and discover what more the Yucatán has to offer at these alternative destinations.

Give Cancún a miss, go west to Mérida

For a city experience, bypass the built-up coastal resort of Cancún and head to the vibrant capital of the Yucatán state. Mérida is a gracious city of grand plazas and colonial architecture, world-class museums and pretty parks. The star attraction is the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, the region’s premier venue for Maya history and culture, showcasing artifacts from nearby archeological sites.

A fountain in the middle of the city center near a main shopping street in Merida, an alternative destination in the Yucatan
Mérida exudes charm, history and culture. A far cry from the thrum of Cancun's over-touristed thoroughfares © Peter Unger / Getty Images

Colonial culture is also on colorful display in Mérida, especially around the central Plaza Grande, where you can ogle impressive architecture like Casa de Montejo and Palacio de Gobierno. All this, and we haven’t even mentioned la cocina, surely one of the city’s main attractions. Sample fantastic Yucatecan cuisine at La Chaya Maya or Ku’uk; sip mezcal at Fundación Mezcalería; and congratulate yourself, because this is not what you would be doing in Cancún.

Take a break from Tulum, opt for artsy Valladolid

If you have your heart set on vacationing in a sophisticated, artsy town, replete with artisanal shops and boutique hotels, you might follow the crowds to Tulum. Or you might opt for Valladolid, a barely discovered, pastel-colored, colonial gem that is 60 miles inland.

A cobbled street lined with potted plants in Valladolid an alternative destination on the Yucatan
Artsy Valladolid is a perfect place to admire the talents of Mexican artists ©  Tetra Images / Getty Images

Here, the magnificent Casa de los Venados houses the country’s largest private collection of Mexican folk art – more than three thousand pieces. Nearby, Calzada de Los Frailes stretches from the central Parque la Mestiza to the ruined Templo de San Bernardino. Along the way, the charming, walkable street is lined with upscale boutiques touting nature-inspired fragrances, handmade chocolates and haute fashions.

No need to forgo adventure in this artistic enclave. Just nine miles out of town, Chukum-Ha is a cenote (newly accessible in 2019) that is fitted out for rappelling, zip-lining and high-diving.  The underground swimming hole is completely enclosed and scantly visited, so you can’t shake that feeling that this really is an entrance to the underworld.

Escape the Chichen Itzá crowds, explore in solitude at Ek’ Balam

Let’s face it: the magic of exploring an ancient archeological site is slightly diminished when you’re doing it with thousands of your closest friends. Chichen Itzá is a sight to see, for sure, but it’s worth seeking out lesser-known Maya ruins to contemplate the majesty and mystery of this legendary culture in more peaceful surroundings.

Stepped pyramids created by the Mayans stand out from the surrounding vegetation in Ek-Balam an alternative Yucatan destination
Discover the magic of Mayan culture tucked deep into the Yucatecan jungle © rentamsousa / Getty Images

The ruin of the 8th-century city at Ek’ Balam is a fantastic option, located in a lush jungle setting 18 miles north of Valladolid. A dozen or so structures include the centerpiece Acrópolis, where you can explore the chambers in the 'gallery’ at the base of the pyramid, and climb to the top for endless views. (Needless to say, you can’t do that at Chichen Itzá!) Afterwards, you can take a pedicab to cool off in X’Canché Cenote, where you might have the crystal clear waters all to yourself.

Avoid overdeveloped Akumal, walk on the wild side in Sian Ka’an

The turtle nesting beach and fish-filled lagoon attract visitors to fashionable Akumal, but the crowds and construction are scaring off the sea creatures. For a truer nature experience, continue 50 miles south to the Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an, a one-thousand-square-mile reserve that is home to hundreds of species of fish and birds.

Aerial view of the Riviera Maya coastline in Sian Ka'an an alternative destination in the Yucatan
The Sian Ka'an Nature Reserve has acres of natural wonders waiting to be appreciated © Banana Pancake / Getty Images

The best way to explore the reserve is by boat tour, where you might see dolphins, sea turtles and even crocodiles and manatees. The local Community Tours Sian Ka’an is a superb, sustainable choice. Most tours include swimming, snorkeling and picnics on deserted beaches. (In case you’re wondering, the beach in Akumal is never deserted).

Like Isla Mujeres? You’ll love Laguna Bacalar

Travelers flock to Isla Mujeres to escape the Cancún heat and to revel in the gorgeous, jewel-toned waters. She’s a beaut alright, but she’s so close to the city that she sometimes feels overrun by day trippers. Not so at Laguna Bacalar, a picturesque lake located 200 miles south.

A couple relaxes in a hammock under a palapa a the end of a dock over a clear turquoise lake in Laguna Bacalar an alternative destination in the Yucatan
Enjoying the beauty of the Yucatán is quiet and calm in Laguna Bacalar @ Manel Vinuesa / Getty Images

You still have your charming town, Bacalar, with remarkably diverse and sophisticated dining. You still have your myriad swimming spots, where the water (fresh!) rolls out in the richest range of aqua tones, from vivid green to sparkling turquoise to deep indigo blue. What you don’t have is crowds of tourists. It’s a long haul to the so-called Lake of Seven Colors, which means not many people make it down here. And those who do, are in no rush to leave.

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