A backpackers guide to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula
Updated: Feb 15
If settling for a vacation in the glitzy-glam tourist district of Cancun isn’t your thing, here is the Yucatan Peninsula for the more adventurous soul. Snorkel with whale sharks, scuba dive in cenotes, ancient pyramids without the crowds and Mayan handicraft.
There’s more to the Yucatan Peninsula than the sight of overcrowded beaches, sunburnt bodies and tourists who have had one too many margaritas.
1. Isla Mujeres
The streets of Isla Mujeres are similar to a packet of life-saver lollies: each building is a different colour and you never know what to expect next! Patterned sarongs dangle from the walls, painted skull souvenirs cover the tables out the front of shops and friendly shop keepers won't let you walk past without telling you about their discount rates. The ladies gather out the front of their little shacks and the men linger around the jetties with big bottles of cerveza in hand. The Isla Mujeres way of life is slow, incredibly hot, yet very active at dusk & dawn.
Dotted across the town are sea art murals painted on the side of run-down buildings by Pangea Seed. These amazing creations bring attention to local environmental issues through creativity by passionate local & International artists.
The island being quite small, most of the tourist restaurants and shops are located on the North side and are all within a short walk of most hotels. If you want to see the hidden gems of the island like reggae bars, secluded beaches & iguanas, hire a golf buggy to explore. We attempted to see the island by bicycle and came close to heat exhaustion as the sun is just that intense! Thank god for icey poles & coconut ice-cream carts!
For more things to do on Isla Mujeres check out 11 things to do on Isla Mujeres that will make you smile . This is from a very happy time in our lives where volunteered on the island for 2 months.
2. Swim with Whale Sharks in the best location in the world
Just off Isla Mujeres is the largest Whale Shark aggregation site in the world. Sometimes there can be over 200 sharks in an area less than 1 mile wide!
Even though we have spent much of our lives in the ocean, we have never experienced a moment in the sea so awe-inspiring that left us not only breathless from swimming, but through total amazement. To be graced in the presence of these huge gentle giants, is a peaceful experience and one we will never forget. Especially when there was dozens of sharks surrounding us coming towards us from every angle!!! Trying to avoid a whale shark collision is a pretty special "problem" to have.
We suggest staying in Isla Mujeres and finding a tour from there. Check-in with an eco-friendly local company to ensure your experience is a great one for you and the sharks!
Their annual migration is between June and September. For more info on the Whale Sharks on Isla Mujeres have a read on Simon Pierce's website. He is a world-renown shark biologist and takes incredible pictures, as you can see below!!!! These little speckles are an abundance of whale sharks!! Crazy!
3. Swim in the underwater world of Cenotes
Among one of the most beautiful swimming locations in the world, Cenotes are naturally flooded sinkholes and underground river systems filled with fresh crystal clear water. This complex system is hidden deep in the tropical jungle and are sacred places where the ancient Mayan civilizations would communicate with their gods
Check out Odysea's guide to the Tulum cenotes for more details on the favies, costs & highlights. I do suggest renting a car in Playa del Carmen or Cancun and driving to all the cenotes around Tulum. And don't forget to bring a mask & snorkel - the views underwater are even more spectacular than from above the surface!
- Cenote Nicte-Ha and Monolito : 100 pesos, both of these cenotes are located in the jungle up a dirt road near Tulum and behind the more popular (and crowded) Dos Ojos cenote.
Located just a short distance from Tulum, you could catch a taxi from town and visit all 3 if you find a nice driver that will wait and drive you for the day.
Grand Cenote gets insanely busy, so be sure to arrive as soon as it opens at 8am!
4. Climb the pyramids in Coba and swim in more cenotes
Coba is an ancient Mayan city set deep in the jungle. Many of the surrounding ruins are yet to be excavated making us feel like an explorer from an Indiana Jones flick.
Rent a bicycle to ride through the ruins, its way to far to walk! If you aren't absolutely terrified of heights or can forget you're fear for only one day like Lyssa did (just don't look down right?), brave the steep climb up the tallest pyramids and the only one you can climb in Mexico.
Coba is a 40 minute drive from Tulum. To get there, you can catch a local collectivo bus, hire a taxi for the full day or rent a car.. It's much cheaper & better experience than the overpriced tours where you are dumped at each tourist site in large numbers and are herded around like sheep!
While in Coba cool off in the deep underground Cenotes Tamcach-Ha & Choo-Ha just nearby the ruins.
5. Beat the crowds at Chichen Itza
This ancient city once centered the Mayan empire in Central America. Its structures are highly sophisticated showing their vision of the universe, which was tied in with astronomy. They were also the creators of the 365-day calendar, the main pyramid even has 365 steps.
Joining a big tour bus from Cancun may sound like the most convenient way to see one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, but is it worth all the hustle and bustle? Hire a car or stay in Merida or Valladolid, both only 45 minutes from the ruins and offering early bus services.
6. Groovy Mayan handicraft made by local families
If you have the chance, stop over in the tiny Mayan towns on the back-roads of Tulum, Valladolid and Merida. Family run mud-huts sell beautiful handicraft for very decent prices, some of which are made right in front of you. But if not, Merida is choca-block full of cute handicraft stores run by Mayan ladies. They sell all types of varieties from traditional blankets, hand-embroidered clothes, leather bags and straw hats.
Selling on high demand across Mexico are these stunning dream-catchers. They are made with very fragile wood and the local Mayan people have to work with the position of the moon, which only gives them 3 days per month to quickly create these masterpieces.
7. Visit the remote and untouched oasis of Isla Contoy
Isla Contoy has been a protected area since 1961 and lies on the transition zone of the warm waters of the Caribbean and the cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Escape the crowds and enjoy the tranquility of empty beaches, nesting migratory birds, jungle walks and birds soaring high in the sky. Choose an eco-friendly tour company to enjoy it at it’s best.
8. Explore Tulum by bicycle
Ride to the ancient Mayan ruins, get lost down backstreets or cruise along the foreshore for afternoon drinks at happy hour. Tulum is a sleepy little town where time disappears and your worries don’t matter.
9. Cool cafes and hangout spots in Playa del Carmen & Tulum
The main street of Playa Del Carmen is full of tourist restaurants and fancy bars, but if you meander down a few back streets, you will find an unexpected scene of trendy shops and cafes stocking lots of organic products.
Our favorite was an iced coffee horchata frappe or almond milk iced chai from Que Huevos.
10. Scuba dive the dark depths of mystery
This isn’t for the faint-hearted. Be prepared to be taken down into an underwater world where the caves are dark and the squeezes can be tight to pass. But scuba diving will give you a true appreciation of the cenotes out-of-space like beauty the moment you pass a beam of glistening green light seeking refuge in a huge cathedral cave.
This post was written with Alyssa Gunn from the ODYSEA. Alyssa's amazing photography gets me every time! Alyssa & I spent almost 5 months traveling together in Mexico, both living on Isla Mujeres for 2 months volunteering with Manta Mexico Caribe. We have both returned to Mexico many times since arriving in May 2016. Its our second home!