Few Mexican destinations can dazzle you with ancient Maya ruins, azure Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico waters and colonial cities all in one fell swoop. Actually, there's only one – the Yucatán Peninsula. The peninsula comprises parts of Belize and Guatemala, as well as three separate Mexican states: Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Campeche. Quintana Roo is probably the best known thanks to the tourism mega-destinations of Cancún, Tulum and Playa del Carmen, where millions flock annually to get their share of vitamin D on brochure-perfect beaches or resort infinity pools. But head just a couple of hours west and you hit Mérida, the capital of Yucatán state, whose colonial architecture and contemporary restaurants are a satisfying change of pace, not to mention the many cenotes (freshwater springs) nearby. Neighboring Campeche state is home to mind-blowing Maya ruins galore. This entire compact peninsula holds wonderful, varied and accessible travel surprises.
Life's a Beach
Without a doubt, this corner of Mexico boasts some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline you'll ever see – which explains why beaches get top billing on the peninsula. On the east coast you have the famous coral-crushed white sands and turquoise waters of the Mexican Caribbean, while up north are sleepy fishing villages with sandy streets and wildlife-rich surroundings rimming the southern edge of the Gulf of Mexico. For the ultimate beach-bumming experience you can hit one of several low-key islands off the Caribbean coast, where life moves at a refreshingly slow pace.
Maya Ruins Galore
You can't help but feel awestruck when standing before the pyramids, temples and ball courts of one of the most brilliant pre-Hispanic civilizations of all time. Yes, those Maya certainly knew a thing or two about architecture and they were no slouchers when it came to astronomy, science and mathematics either. Witnessing their remarkable achievements firsthand leaves a lasting impression on even the most jaded traveler. The peninsula is chock-full of these Maya archaeological sites, a few of which were built right on the coast.
The Yucatán always keeps nature enthusiasts thoroughly entertained. With colorful underwater scenery like no other, it offers some of the best diving and snorkeling sites in the world. Then you have the many biosphere reserves and national parks that are home to a wide array of animal and plant life. Just to give you an idea of what's in store: you can swim with whale sharks, observe crocodiles and monkeys, help liberate newborn sea turtles, and spy hundreds upon hundreds of bird species in mangroves and jungles.
Culture & Fun
For those who need more than just pretty beaches and ancient ruins, you'll be glad to know that cultural and recreational activities are plentiful in the Yucatán. On any given day you may come across soulful dance performances, free concerts, interesting museums and art shows – especially in Mérida, the peninsula's cultural capital. For some fun in the sun, the Yucatán is one big splash fest after another, with thousands of underground natural pools (cenotes), parks with subterranean rivers and all kinds of thrilling boat tours.
Why We Love Cancún, Cozumel & Yucatán
By Ray Bartlett and John Hecht, Writers
So you think you know what to expect in the Yucatán? Sure, there are oceans that are many shades of blue, long stretches of pearly white sand and chlorophyll green jungles. Plus outdoor fun: swimming in a limestone sinkhole, diving in coral reefs, exploring ancient ruins. But the one thing hard to imagine is the hospitality. Yucatecans are among the friendliest and warmest people around. They welcome visitors and proudly show off their regional cuisine and culture. While you might come for history and a beach, you'll leave with a lot more.