Yucatán State & the Maya Heartland
Sitting regally on the northern tip of the peninsula, Yucatán state sees less mass tourism than its flashy neighbor, Quintana Roo. It is sophisticated and savvy, and the perfect spot for travelers more interested in cultural exploration than beach life.
Eastern Yucatán State
Scrub jungle, intact colonial cities, cenotes aplenty and Yucatán's largest coastal estuary are just a few of the attractions in the eastern portion of the state. And then there's Chichén Itzá, one of the 'new wonders of the world', as well as a smattering of less-visited (but nonetheless impressive) Maya ruins.
Cancún is a tale of two cities. There's a glitzy hotel zone with its famous white-sand beaches, unabashed party scene and sophisticated seafood restaurants. Then there's the actual city itself, with neighborhood taco joints and undeveloped beaches. Had your fill of raucous discos in the hotel zone? Escape to a downtown salsa club.
The Riviera Maya, a tourist corridor of white-sand beaches, scenic ruins and fun-filled cenotes, was made for road-tripping. Yes, it's growing fast, too fast some will say, but despite all the development, you can still find that small fishing town or head inland to catch a glimpse of the Mexico that tourism forgot.
Tucked into the southwestern corner of the Yucatán Peninsula, Campeche state is home to low-key villages, vast stretches of tangled jungle, bird-dotted mangroves and lagoons, and some of the region’s most imposing Maya ruins – many of which you might have all to yourself. On deserted beaches endangered turtles lay their eggs, while offshore playful dolphins frolic in the surf.
Since the Spanish conquest, Mérida has been the cultural capital of the entire Yucatán Peninsula. A delightful blend of provincial and ‘muy cosmopolitano,’ it is a town steeped in colonial history. It's a great place to explore, with narrow streets, broad central plazas and the region’s best museums.
Tulum’s spectacular coastline – with all its confectioner-sugar sands, jade-green water and balmy breezes – makes it one of the top beaches in Mexico. Where else can you get all that and a dramatically situated Maya ruin? There’s also excellent cave and cavern diving, fun cenotes and a variety of lodgings and restaurants to fit every budget.
Campeche is a colonial fairyland, its walled city center a tight enclave of restored pastel buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, fortified ramparts and well-preserved mansions. Added to Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites in 1999, the state capital lacks a little of a 'daily life' ambience as few people actually live in the historic center.
Some people plan their vacation around Cancún and pencil in Isla Mujeres as a side trip. But Isla Mujeres is a destination in its own right, and it's generally quieter and more affordable than the options you get across the bay. Sure, there are quite a few ticky-tacky tourist shops, but folks still get around by golf cart and the crushed-coral beaches are undeniably lovely.
The capital of Quintana Roo, Chetumal is a relatively quiet city going about its daily paces. The bayside esplanade hosts carnivals and events, and the modern Maya museum is impressive (though a bit short on artifacts). Excellent Maya ruins, amazing jungle and the border to neighboring Belize are all close by.
Halfway between Cancún and Playa del Carmen, Puerto Morelos retains its quiet, small-town feel despite the building boom north and south of town. While it offers enough restaurants and bars to keep you entertained by night, it’s really the shallow Caribbean waters that draw visitors here.