Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas itinerary

20/07/2018

 

In this corner of Mexico you will find paradise on the beaches of the Riviera Maya; emotion visiting the jungles and waterfalls of Chiapas; freedom swimming in the cenotes of Yucatan and Quintana Roo; history in the Magical Towns of the region and in some of the most beautiful cities in the country; Mayan culture in amazing archaeological sites such as Calakmul, Palenque or Chichén Itzá; Amazing flavors in the cuisine of Yucatan or Campeche... And even crazy spirit and fun in Cancun and Playa del Carmen! Discover this sensational corner of Mexico, touring the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Campeche and Chiapas, stopping at least in the following places:

 

  • Cancún

  • Puerto Morelos

  • Playa del Carmen

  • Akumal

  • Tulum

  • Mahahual

  • Bacalar

  • Reserva de la Biosfera Calakmul

  • Palenque

  • Around Palenque: Misol Ha, Aguas Claras and Agua Azul Waterfalls

  • San Cristóbal de las Casas

  • Cañón del Sumidero National Park

  • Campeche and around

  • Mérida and around: cenotes, Progreso, Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestún

  • Valladolid, Chichén Itzá and around

  • Holbox

 

Cancún

 

The most popular destination for foreign tourism. However, it is not the dreamed place by most backpackers. Cancun stands out for its monstrous hotels, western restaurants, noise, preponderance of blondies and red bodies... And, yes, its magnificent Caribbean beaches. If Cancun is worth anything that's for its beaches with a relaxed atmosphere that you won't want to leave ever. Nor letting go of your coconut! If you are one of those who likes the hustle and bustle this is your place. If you are a beach lover, this is maybe your place too. Best beaches await in the outskirts or outside of the city, though. By the way, there is a dog-friendly beach at kilometer 32, although it is not the most beautiful. You can also visit Isla Mujeres, a short boat ride away. However, if you are looking for beach and peace, it is better for you to go up or down on the map traveling through the Riviera Maya. Keep reading…

 

 

Puerto Morelos

 

Picturesque fishing village that you will fall in love with from the very first second. Unlike Cancun, here there is hardly tourism and you can have a more real contact with the people and the Mexican culture (here I ate my first tacos!). The beach on which it rests is wonderful, with fine sand and a turquoise sea that encourages you to bathe and stay forever in those warm waters. You can go on foot to the mangrove that is near the town, but be careful with the crocodiles!

 

 

Playa del Carmen and around

 

Congratulations to party lovers... And good life lovers! If there is a crazier place than Cancun that is Playa del Carmen. However, despite all the fuss and madness in the streets and the main beach, it has more charm than Cancun (at least for me). No so many mega hotels on the beach, and the mix of local and foreign culture is more interesting. The city is organized in parallel and perpendicular streets to the beach. It is pretty striking how, as you move away from the beach, Mexican culture becomes more and more accentuated. From the 1st to 5th street almost everybody is a foreigner. After the 10th, you only come across locals. And the expensive restaurants and nightclubs give way to taquerias and family businesses.

 

The surrounding beaches are simply stunning. A few kilometers to the north and after a pleasant walk in which you cross a river that flows into the sea awaits Xcalacoco Beach, an infinite expanse of golden sand facing the more beautiful and succulent sea. The negative note is that there are scattered a few all-inclusive hotels here. But no worries, the beach extends to infinity and beyond so you can find yourself alone in your particular paradise and enjoy as you have never done before.

 

 

Playa del Carmen is also an unbeatable place to snorkel or dive. And why not, get an official title like the Open Water Diver (I did it). Two reasons: 1) it is cheap (more if you say you live in Mexico); 2) we are talking about the second largest coral reef in the world (just after the Great Barrier Reef of Australia), where thousands of species of fish and other marine fauna have their house. It is an incomparable experience. The island of Cozumel, in front of Playa del Carmen, is very popular for divers.

 

Last but not least, take the opportunity to enjoy one of the many cenotes in the area. These lagoons of karstic origin are a hallmark of Mexico, and more specifically of this area once inhabited by the Mayans. For example, a beautiful and well-priced cenote you can visit is Jardín del Edén (halfway between Playa del Carmen and Akumal), a spectacular open cenote with crystal clear waters in which you can swim (even dive if you have equipment) immersed in an semi jungle environment semi.

 

 

Akumal

 

Good beach destination with relaxed atmosphere. Apart from resting and meeting great people, the star activity is to snorkel or dive through those transparent waters full of marine life, in which green turtles stand out. You can also visit a couple of nearby cenotes.

 

 

Tulum 

 

The combination of beach and archaeology makes Tulum one of the essentials in the Riviera Maya route. A bit of cultural tourism visiting the fantastic Mayan ruins of Tulum, which rise in front of the sea (if you have to complain about something, it's kind of busy), then relax in those amazing endless beaches lying for hours on the white sand and feeling the luckiest human being on Earth. Once again, don't miss the cenotes in the area. The Gran Cenote stands out, on the route to Cobá.

 

The town of Tulum does not have much to offer. It is formed by a few dirt roads that host a handful of craft shops, family businesses, restaurants and lodges. From here you can go inland to Valladolid and Chichén Itzá, or continue along the coast towards Bacalar.

 

 

Mahahual 

 

Come and enjoy this beautiful village facing the Caribbean Sea, right on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. It is ideal for snorkeling and diving. You just have to throw yourself in the sand and swim through its clean and full of life waters. Well, you can do an extra activity: eating seafood tacos and drinking coconut water!

 

Photo by Lucía Aranguren

 

Bacalar

 

Mandatory stop on this route to enjoy one of the most beautiful shows of Mexico: the Laguna de los Siete Colores (Lake of Seven Colors). This gigantic pond of fresh water "made of" unlikely colors, a few kilometers from the sea, will make you experience a curious mix of sensations while you are swimming. The freshness and softness of its fresh waters mixes with the sea breeze and its smells. It is a paradise for birds... And for everyone! Unfortunately, many areas of the Laguna have a private access. But take a walk and you will discover your little Eden sooner rather than later.


From here you have two options: follow the coast to Belize, or go to the interior and the jungle of Campeche. This is what I did.

 

 

Reserva de la Biosfera Calakmul 

 

An exciting place in the interior of Campeche that combines nature and history. This Reserve is located in the impenetrable deep jungle and is one of the most diverse areas of the country: different species of primates such as the spider monkey and the howler, tapirs, ocelots, jaguars and hundreds of birds live here. And amidst this explosion of life raise the majestic Mayan ruins of Calakmul. The most spectacular Mayan site I have ever visited. The (inexplicable) low popularity and its remote location make tourists hardly come to this wonder of Mexico. There lies the magic of Calakmul, being one able to walk through a citadel literally devoured by nature in complete peace and harmony, trying to imagine how the life of the 50000 souls that historians have estimated that one day inhabited that site was. Also, unlike other Mayan ruins, here (probably due to low tourism) you can climb the hundreds of steps that lead to the top of the temples. From there you will really notice how incredible this place is: you are flying over the green of a lush vegetation that extends in all directions to the dividing line that separates the blue from the green. You can get to see Guatemala, even if you don't know where it starts. Somewhere a few kilometers away is hidden "who" was the rival town of Calakmul: Tikal. We will have to go to Guatemala to discover its mysteries.

 

 

To get to Calakmul you have to take a dirt road from route 186 (Chetumal - Villahermosa), about 60 km west of Xpujil. The archaeological site is located about 60 km jungle inside. To sleep you have a campsite on the dirt road itself, 7 km from the detour. You can also stay at a hostel in the small village that is a couple of km past the detour (or camp on the football field). Another Mayan site is located near that town: the Archaeological Zone of Balamku.

 

Palenque 

 

Another treat for those who enjoy ancient cultures. The archaeological zone of Palenque is less than 10 kilometers from the homonymous town, in the state of Chiapas (you can take a combi/mini bus, or going on foot if you get to tolerate that heat well). It is one of the most impressive and best preserved Mayan cities, with a good handful of temples and palaces immersed in a beautiful jungle setting. You can also visit the interesting Museum of the Site (included in the ticket entrance), where you will discover anecdotes of the Mayan culture, delight with their art and see some other odd grave... Finally, take advantage of this visit to take a walk through the Motiepá trail, a pleasant circular path just outside the site that leads you into the jungle.

 

 

Around Palenque: Misol Ha, Aguas Claras & Agua Azul Waterfalls

 

Another reason to come to Palenque are the spectacular surroundings of forested mountains and waterfalls with very authentic villages scattered here and there. Highlights:

 

Misol Ha Waterfall. 20 km from Palenque (on the route to Ocosingo), after climbing a sensational path through the mountains lies this beautiful waterfall. If you follow the course of the river you will find a magical place to take a dip surrounded by nature. Camping is not allowed, but you don't have to return to Palenque to spend the night: in the nearby Ruiz Cortínez community (a couple of kilometers on the road from Misol Ha) you will be welcomed with open arms.

 

 

Aguas Claras River. Nice river to swim and on whose shore you can have a peaceful rest enjoying its surroundings. It is reached by following the mountain route towards Ocosingo.

 

Agua Azul Waterfalls. Later on the same route, about 70 km from Palenque, awaits this spectacular place full of water everywhere. The color of the water is a wonderful turquoise blue (if it has rained recently the water turns brown). Walk the catwalks enjoying all the views and take a swim in the enabled areas (some parts are dangerous for bathing). The only drawback, too many people. You can camp or stay in a cabin.

 

 

San Cristóbal de las Casas

 

Picturesque village of colorful houses that offers a lot to the traveler who travels through this lands of Chiapas. The streets, squares, churches and colonial buildings make San Cristóbal one of the most beautiful villages in Mexico. In spite of the high tourism, you will find tradition in the markets, handicrafts, gastronomy and clothing of the locals. There are some interesting museums to visit, such as the Museo de los Altos (Highlands) de Chiapas or the Textile Center of the Mayan World.

 

Photo by Lucía Aranguren

 

Cañón del Sumidero National Park

 

On the outskirts of the capital of Chiapas (Tuxtla Gutierrez) is one of the coolest natural attractions in the country: the Cañón del Sumidero National Park, an impressive gorge formed by walls of up to 1000 meters along which flows the Grijalva River. You can hire a boat tour (from Chiapa de Corzo or from Cahuaré) or make on your own (rental car, hitchhiking) the different viewpoints that exist along the canyon.

 

Campeche City or San Francisco de Campeche

 

The state capital is not the most beautiful and yet, has a special charm. Perhaps for not being so visited so the traveler gets to feel in real Mexican; perhaps because of its seafront promenade full of palapas that serve delicious seafood (try the shrimp cocktail if you don't believe me!); perhaps because of its decadent walled colonial center that breathes history... Here is where the invaders arrived at the beginning of the 16th century and made this place a defensive walled bastion against the pirates attacks. You can visit the fortification from inside with a funny tour (during the day or at night) that mixes history and humor in an performance by local actors. What you will not like is the extreme heat that ravages this region...

 

In addition to visiting the city, you could head to the nearby mangroves of the north coast (Petenes Natural Park - Ría Celestún) or to some towns in the area to enjoy the culture and cuisine of Campeche. Champotón, to the south, or Becal, to the north, are two pleasant destinations.

 

Photo by Lucía Aranguren

 

Mérida and around: cenotes, Progreso, Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestún

 

The capital of Yucatan is the most beautiful city on the Peninsula. Large, colonial layout, full of churches (some made of gold), parks and spacious squares that welcome all visitors with all its art... And all its heat! Damn how hot it is here! Food is another of its strengths, with typical dishes such as cochinita pibil, poc chuc, chilmole or lime soup. Your mouth will water wey!

 

Photo by Gerardo Ortegón Correa. @gerardoortegonc

 

Mérida also enjoys some awesome surroundings. Impressive cenotes everywhere, both open and cave type; exuberant nature in the mangroves of the Ría Celestún Biosphere Reserve, where you can spot flamingos; wonderful towns like Progreso with the best sunsets falling on the sea, or Motul with the extraordinary Motuleño-style eggs.

 

 

Valladolid, Chichén Itzá and around

 

Valladolid is a "Pueblo Magico" of Yucatan that, in addition to all its architecture and colonial art has the privilege of being a few kilometers from one of the 7 New Wonders of the Modern World (sharing group with the Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China and others): Chichén Itzá, presided by the Pyramid of Kukulcán. Once the main center of Mayan power in the Yucatan peninsula, to be exact since the beginning of the post-Classic period (from 900 to 1500), it is now visited by hordes of tourists from all over the world to admire its beauties, mysteries and history.

 

 

Other Mayan ruins nearby that are very worthwhile to pay a visit are Cobá (in Quintana Roo), halfway between Valladolid and Tulum. In addition, in the area there are several spectacular cenotes, including one of the most visited in the country: Ik Kil cenote. To bathe in that perfect celestial hole, under the open sky, from whose walls fall lianas is something magical.

 

Holbox

 

Natural island (no roads) in the Caribbean. Here people come to enjoy the peace that emanates from its white sand, palm trees and sea, try amazing coastal cuisine and explore its wonderful marine ecosystems. In addition to snorkeling on your own, there is the option of diving with a guide. Also you can hire a boat tour in search of the largest fish on the planet: the whale shark (season: from June to August). It is expensive, but it has to be incredible to swim with these nice and harmless creatures. On the island you can visit some points of interest: Yalahau, Isla Pájaros (island with mangroves and protected birds), Isla Pasión (idyllic beaches, 10 minutes by boat), Cabo Catoche (continental division between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean sea).

 

To get to Holbox you need to take a boat in Chiquilá.

 

Photo by Marisol Rueda

 

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