(door Steffie De Man)
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is a popular travel destination known for its nature, Mayan culture and friendly people.
This southern part of Mexico offers a variety of travel options, and whether you like to travel alone or prefer to participate in organized tours, there is something for everyone.
Here are the 5 top activities you can do on the Yucatan Peninsula:
1) Swimming with turtles in Akumal
Do you like swimming and snorkelling? Then a trip to Akumal is definitely a must. This charming town is located 30 kilometres south of Playa del carmen and is easily accessible by public transport or taxi.
Start your trip early enough, to avoid the large crowds of tourists.
Once you arrive at the entrance to the bay, be sure to hire a local guide to take you into the water. You can also opt for a guided excursion with detailed information about the sea turtles and their habitat.
While snorkelling in the shallow waters of the bay, you can observe the green sea turtle quietly feeding on sea grass. The real highlight comes when the turtle swims to the surface of the water and comes up for air!
Whether you opt for an organized excursion from your hotel or venture out on your own, be sure to respect the turtles and their environment, and you will have an unforgettable experience.
2) Boat safari in Sian Ka’an
Sian Ka’an is the third largest protected area in Mexico, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of the best ways to explore this beautiful area is on an organized boat trip, where you can look out of crocodiles, dolphins, sea turtles and various species of birds. With a bit of luck, you might even spot a manatee.
Weather permitting, you can go snorkelling in the coral reef. Afterwards, you can relax in the shallow waters of the “piscinas naturales”.
After an adventurous morning, you can have lunch in the small village of Punta Allen, where you can try fresh lobster for an extra charge between June and February.
Sian Ka’an is known as the “place where heaven was born,” and after your visit you will quickly realize why.
For the adventurous who want to explore a less touristy route, there is the option of driving to Muyil.
Muyil is situated more to the south of Sian Ka’an. There you can take a boat to the ‘lazy river’. Visitors float between the mangroves, far from civilization, and let the current carry them along. What better way to relax on holiday?
3) Soak up culture at one of the many archaeological sites
The Yucatan Peninsula is made up of three states: Campeche in the west, Yucatan in the middle and the state of Quintana Roo in the east. (The latter is known for the beach resorts of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum).
There are more than 1,000 archaeological sites in these 3 states, the most famous of which is Chichen Itza. This site has been on the list of the Seven New Wonders of the World since 2007 and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Around 2,000 tourists visit Tulum every day. Its location by the sea is perfect for taking beautiful photographs. Architecturally, Tulum is not the most impressive site in my opinion, but it is a good introduction to Mayan history and perfect for visitors who prefer a short trip.
However, there are other sites worth visiting, such as Coba. This site is an hour and a half drive from Playa del carmen and is less crowded than Chichen Itza.
Coba is surrounded by lush jungle and offers plenty of shade which is a plus for families with children. You can explore the site on foot, by bike or by Mayan taxi.
The highlight of Coba is the Nohoch Mul temple. This 42m high temple is the tallest in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, climbing the temple is forbidden. This has the advantage of allowing you to take beautiful pictures without the crowds of other tourists.
Another must-see is Ek Balam, a smaller site in the state of Yucatan, but with a magnificent acropolis where the tomb of the ruler Ukit’ Lan Le’k Tok was found. The tomb is a masterpiece and unique. It is still possible to climb to the top of the acropolis and enjoy the view over the jungle.
For the traveller who has more time and wants to explore more of the peninsula, you can drive to the state of Campeche. There, a visit to the beautiful site of Calakmul is a must.
Not only does Calakmul have a lot of history, but it is also a Biosphere Reserve. During your visit, you have a good chance of seeing monkeys, tapirs and exotic birds. And if you are really lucky, a jaguar might even cross your path!
4) Dive into the Mayan underworld
For the Maya, cenotes were the entrance to the underworld, where the soul had to travel through the 9 levels of the underworld before ascending into the universe. Some cenotes were used for human sacrifice, such as the sacred cenote at Chichen Itza.
In simple terms, a cenote is a limestone sinkhole where fresh water from the rain can be found.
These natural underground rivers should definitely be on your to-do list when you come here on holiday.
Cenotes can be found all over the peninsula; they are all connected and flow into the sea. Some are open because the weight of the jungle has collapsed the roof, others are closed, and you have to go down a staircase to reach a platform.
The water is pleasantly cool and perfect for swimming, snorkelling or just relaxing.
If you want to dive in a cenote, you must meet certain requirements, including a valid diving licence and a minimum of 15 to 20 dives.
On the road between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, you can easily find the cenotes by following the large signs along the road. Cenote Azul, Cenote Cristallino, Dos Ojos and Gran Cenote are popular. Just south of Cancun you can also follow the ‘Cenote ‘Ruta de los cenotes’ and spend a whole day exploring cenote after cenote.
There are more than 5,000 cenotes on the peninsula, so there’s plenty to choose from!
5) Visit Isla Contoy National Park (My favourite!).
In recent years, the beaches of the peninsula have suffered from an abundance of sargassum. An obvious result of global warming. The beautiful Caribbean waters sometimes have to give way to brown algae water. Despite this problem, beautiful beaches can still be found, such as on the island of Contoy.
Isla Contoy has been a national park since 1998 and is famous for the many frigate birds that come here in winter to mate.
Visitors can follow a certified guide on a hike to learn about the frigate birds and other animals that live on the island. There is also time to enjoy the white sandy beach and clear blue waters.
Visitors are sure to remember the delicious BBQ lunch prepared by the captain and his crew!
This island is only accessible on an organized tour, which includes the more touristy Isla Mujeres (Women’s Island). If you prefer to visit only Isla Contoy, this can only be done by booking a private tour.
Keep in mind that only 200 visitors are allowed into the park each day. So book early!
Choosing these top 5 activities was no easy task. From exploring ancient Mayan ruins to swimming in cenotes, Yucatan is a traveller’s paradise.
However, the Mexican peninsula has so much more to offer that it is simply not enough to spend just one holiday here.
Everyone comes back for at least two trips, trust me!
When are you going to travel here? Let me know in the comments.