There’s no secret here; Cancun is known for being so built up. One simply can’t see the turquoise waters as you drive along the coast due to the amount of resorts sandwiched together. The main strip is an all-inclusive “paradise” any of the traditional, Yucatán culture was replaced by American food chains and souvenir outlets. Ocean views are swapped out for luxury malls. Women with small children were hawking handmade goods on every corner. Workers were everywhere trying to push tours, restaurants, rentals, and don’t EVEN get me started about the club promoters. It was insane. The only solace was clung to was the fact our Airbnb came with a private beach, otherwise I think my mother would have stayed inside versus wrestle for a spot on the crowded public beaches.
It made me wonder, is this the type of vacation most families crave? I didn’t see many hotels or restaurants going out of business, so I’d imagine it to be so. Do other people love the aggressive tactics of the salespeople in the Zona Hotelera? What is it that makes people keep coming back, or come at all? My dad was the one who initially suggested Cancun, though his memory of the place was the main road made of dirt and tons of land undisturbed. While planning our family’s vacation this year, I wanted to see more than just the crowded beaches, drunk party-goers, and strip malls of Cancun.
Guidelines I was given:
Dad: Wanted to experience a traditional, Mexican dish at a local’s restaurant.
Mom: As long as she didn’t have to walk miles on end, exploring Mayan ruins was important.
Brother: Didn’t want to be crammed in a car for more than a few hours with plenty of time at the beach.
Overall, I found a few great places within a few hours of the main hub of Cancun within the Yucatán Peninsula that are worth checking out if you have the time. Here are a few of my favorite places we discovered during our road trip around Mexico. Note: all of these places can be reached via bus or taxi. If you do decide to go the car route as we did, you’re going to be surprised with how much that $10/day car rental will go up dramatically due to the mandatory car insurance. They literally won’t let you leave the car rental place without it, so do some research before you go.
- The proper derivation of the word Yucatán is widely debated. Supposedly, the first Spanish explorers asked what the area was called. The response they received? A Yucatec Maya word meaning, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
- The peninsula is most famous for its 2,600-2,700 Mayan ruins. Seventeen of those sites have been restored and are open to the public, including Chichén Itzá, Coba and Uxmal.
- For clarity’s sake, the Yucatán Peninsula includes the Mexican states of Quintana Roo, Campeche, and Yucatán.
Named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO world heritage site, you’d be missing out by skipping this one. Be warned, it does take about 2 hours to get here from Cancun. I suggest finding a neighboring town to lay your weary head for the night (see Valladolid below) and get up early to skip out on the massive line and screaming vendors. I promise, it’s miserable any time after 12 pm.
Chichen Itza is located in a sleepy town called Piste, which I found to be a complete contrast after spending a few days in Cancun. Small, local, and for the most part, undisturbed by much commercialism. It was nice to cruise through afterwards and I do wish we stopped in one of the many canteens for lunch.
Instead, we headed to the city of Mérida; the capital city of Yucatán state and largest city in the Yucatán Peninsula. Located about 1.5 hours from Chichen Itza and about an hour from the nearby beach, this is great for someone looking to take a break from the sand & surf (though my family quickly advised me that they were in fact, not. Sorry guys.)
Mérida was built as a walled city and several of the old, Spanish city gates remain. I found it to be the perfect balance of city and colorful homes, but this definitely was not a fan favorite with everyone else. I could definitely see myself spending more than a day here. The city is very walkable and though we all have different levels of comfort, I would feel okay strolling around by myself at night here. Mérida gets its nickname, La Ciudad Blanca (The White City), from the large amounts of white limestone that used as a building material. Though, locals will tell you that it also has to do with the cleanliness & safety level of Mérida.
The main center, Plaza Grande, was great for photographing the massive flocks of birds and locals enjoying the last warmth of the sun. Apparently, while we were there, a massive celebration for the city called Mérida Fest raged on. My dad and I drove around after dinner for a while where we saw a TON of women carrying massive boxes of baked goods. What was inside of those boxes though, shall stay a mystery (unless someone wants to comment and let me know!)
Ice cream parlor Sorbetería Colón. The ice cream scoops are cheap ($1.50-1.75) and the flavors are out of this world. Situated right in the Centro Históric, it has ample 50’s style seating inside and out. I tried about 5 different flavors and was not disappointed by one. Though I do recommend the banana or strawberry as they may have been my favorites.
Here, my family seemed to relax and enjoy a lot more of the city than they did in Mérida. It was a little nicer in the town center, though the outskirts were pretty untouched. We stopped here for lunch at Yerbabuena del sisal for some of the best food we’ve had all trip. Stray dogs flocked to the outside of this place, which can be a little heartbreaking at times. But the ones that attempted to wander in the open door were quickly shooed away. The city center was beautiful, and surprisingly quiet. This would also be a great stopping point if you’re looking to check out Chichen Itza. It’s only about a 40 min drive, and a little under 2 hours to Cancun.
The main reason we stopped was for the Mayapan Tequila Distillery. As soon as you pull up, you’re able smell the distillery doing their thang while gazing out at the sea of blue agave plants. Though most people reviewed the experience as underwhelming due to the quick tour and limited samples, we didn’t really mind. I personally found it wild to be on an actual tequila farm that uses methods from 400 years ago to keep that artisanal taste of the tequila alive. Those plants get huge, and the Jimadors have to harvest about 15 lbs of the piña (heart of the plant) to make one liter of tequila. The Mayapan Tequila Distillery ends up re-using the spiky parts for weavings as well as fertilizer for future blue agave babies.
What I loved was being able to taste the agave in the different forms of slowly becoming everyone’s drink of choice in college. Our tour guide was a little hard to hear in the tiny distillery, but she let us go for a second round of the samples, which I wasn’t going to say no to. There were about 5 different bottles to try total. The main variations were the age of the agave plants they harvested and coloring of the liquor, which darkened with the age of the plant. I snagged a bottle of the tequila made with 1 year old agave plants (my personal favorite) for about $10.
After feeling a bit of a buzz, we drove the rest of the 1.5 hours southeast to Tulum. Because we decided on everything about two weeks before our flight, I wasn’t able to secure an Airbnb or hotel by the water and ended up a bit landlocked. The main strip we were near wasn’t half bad; there were a ton of semi-passive vendors and great restaurants that made it hard to choose between. Live music played in the streets, and some of the most beautiful stray doggos wandered the dirt road as we enjoyed our cervezas.
The beach itself is by-far my absolute favorite out of any mentioned in this post. Because I like to walk a bit on the wild side (hah), I collect sand samples (we’re talking about a shot glass worth, don’t get weird on me guys.) Tulum’s beach has that sugary-white sand that Cancun’s supposed to be known for. For the most part, the beach wasn’t too crowded and we ended up on a section with a pretty decent bar/restaurant. If I were to take a road trip around Mexico and come back to the Yucatán Peninsula, I would definitely push to book something by the water for a few days.
Tulum has two sets of great ruins nearby. For someone who loves looking at old rocks and scenic spots, I was definitely into this. These also fulfilled my mom’s wishes for the week of being (semi) easily accessible.
- Coba ruins (above) are about a half hour’s drive from Tulum and great for people who like something a little more undisturbed. Most of the ruins have yet to be fully excavated and are pretty spread out. Though they do provide bike rentals as well as carts for easier travel to some of the further ruins. If you don’t mind heights, go for the experience of climbing the largest of all the ruins in the Yucatán, Nohoch Mul. Imagine scrabbling up deteriorating rocks. With only a thick rope in the middle. But all to get a spectacular view above the tree line in all directions. I promise it’s fun. This became pretty crowded pretty darn quick though, but the experience alone was worth it.
- Tulum ruins are probably the most well-kept out of the three I’ve mentioned. The views were also pretty Instagram-worthy being right on the water. We got here a little late and had to fight off the hordes of selfie-stick crowds, but I’d absolutely walk through these bad boys again. The dramatic backdrop of the cliff against the brilliant blue waters made it all worth it. Iguanas (!!) were aplenty here as well, which is a great time to play I-spy as they often blend into the ruins.
Playa Del Carmen
Alright, small disclaimer here. We were going to spend pretty much the entire day in Playa Del Carmen. But due to a storm that hit the coast while we were inland, most of the beach was gone and the water smelled pretty darn awful. We hightailed it back pretty shortly after a disappointing lunch (never rely solely on guidebooks.) I’d absolutely love to come back here as it has a bit more of a relaxed vibe than Cancun. And with it being only 45 min away, it may just have to happen in a future road trip around Mexico. I’ve heard great things about it, so do a bit of your own research to see if it’s worth the midway stop in-between Cancun and Tulum.
First off, Island of WOMEN? As soon as I found out there was an island named after us LADIES, there was no way I wasn’t going. And oh boy do I wish we booked a few nights on the island. Overwhelmed by the resorts and commercialism of Cancun or Playa Del Carmen? Come here. Intimidated by some of the less built-up towns and want something you can easily get to? Come here.
It’s got a bit of both mixed in right now, making it a great getaway. The vendors were the most non-confrontational I’d experienced the entire trip. The goods made me wish I waited until we came here to do my shopping. I wouldn’t say it’s the best place to get that “local” experience, but it is an escape from the crowded beaches in the Zona Hotelera of Cancun. It was a pretty relaxed atmosphere overall. You can easily zip around the island via golf cart and the beach we stumbled upon was perfect.
The underwater sculpture museum. I’m SO bummed we were pressed for time because this was one of the first things I saw when I was researching areas near Cancun. If you do end up going, let me know in the comments how it was, okay?
ALSO, apparently there’s a pretty decent sea glass beach on the North side of the island. We were unable to find this hidden treasure! If you do come across this bad boy, also let me know if it exists? We must have walked the shores for about 45 minutes looking for its fabled existence to no avail.
Places worth mentioning I didn’t personally get to go to:
- Campeche: I was absolutely obsessing over this walled city’s pastel homes and architecture when I first saw it online. It’s a bit south from Mérida and unfortunately too far out for our short stay. But I would absolutely try to figure out a way to make it on over to this city next time.
- Bacalar: Laguna de Bacalar, or the Lake of Seven Colors is likely more of an Instagram-worthy spot versus a hub for activity. Located in a sleepy town 2 hours south of Tulum, this also did not make the cut as no one else saw the appeal in mid-air swings and traveling 2 hours south of Tulum. Sigh. Next time.
- Cenotes: Another sigh. We did not stop at any of the thousands of cenotes due to time restraints. Also, it was pretty darn chilly when we went in January. AKA, no one was really chomping at the bit to take a swim.
Did I miss any places? Let me know! I plan on making my way back to this area for another road trip around Mexico in the future so I’d love to hear about what you loved (or didn’t love) about any of the place I’ve mentioned, plus some! Let me know in the comment below which you’d see yourself going to.