All photos in this article of places to visit on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula are courtesy of Ryan Tingle Photography.
1. Punta Allen
A lot of the Caribbean, especially Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, can be overcrowded at times and peace may be hard to find. However, there is one very special place, a tiny point at the end of a long road on a small peninsula within a nature reserve. It’s a spot where one can truly get away from it all, relaxing on untouched, pristine beaches that open up to sunrises and sunsets during the day whilst being blanketed with billions of stars at night. Imagine the perfect spot to watch dolphins play in the water, swim with sea turtles, or even fish some of the best flats known to man. A place where you can enjoy your privacy and not have to spend a fortune to do so. Do I have your attention yet? Punta Allen, a town unheard of by most, is the hidden gem of Mexico.
Punta Allen, often known as Javier Rojo Gomez, is a very tiny fishing village that sits a two hour drive south of the famous town of Tulum. The town of only 470 people is so hidden that it only generates power from 10 am – 2pm and 7 pm – midnight. There is no cell service here, so don’t expect to post a bunch of selfies online during your stay.
Directions to get there are easy, accessibility and weather are the challenges. To get there, drive south through the beach resorts along the coast of Tulum until you reach the entrance of the Sian Ka’an Reserve. From there on, it is straight dirt roads. Alternatively, you can rent a boat.
2. Chichen Itza
Upon access to Chichen Itza, you are immediately overwhelmed. The sight of Kukulkan Pyramid, or El Castillo, is breathtaking and will have your head spinning. This architectural masterpiece was built for astronomical and calendar purposes. It has four staircases for the four seasons and 91 steps for 91 days of each season, equaling a total of 365 steps for the 365 days in a year cycle. Not only are the numbers impressive, during the spring and fall equinox each year around 3pm, the sun shines down on a staircase creating the illusion of a serpent, or Kukulkan, the feathered serpent God.
The best time to visit Chichen Itza is right when the site opens up at 8 am. This will keep you away from the larger crowds and the heat later in the day. Anywhere from 3-5 hours will be a good amount of time to spend in the site. Price upon entry is $570 pesos for foreigners (about $28 USD) and another $45 pesos for the use of a camera (about $2 USD).
The largest city and capital of the state of Yucatán, Merida is the perfect place to start or end any trip in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Often seen as the safest place in Mexico, this town is teeming with culture. The Centro Historico is surrounded with beautiful, Spanish influenced churches and is one of the biggest in all of Mexico. The Catedral de San Ildefonso towers high above the Centro and is the oldest church in Mexico. It was built with stones from the ruins of the ancient Mayan city, “T’hó”, from which Merida stands on. The rest of the city is surrounded with clean and colorful buildings that were constructed during the 1500s.
With the Mayan influence still looming, Merida is the perfect place to test out some Yucateca style cuisine. Many different fruits as well as Mayan spices are added to Yucateca cooking and Cochinita Pibil may be its crown and jewel. This dish is made in a similar style to pulled pork. The meat is bathed in a spicy and citrusy marinade before being slow roasted in a banana leaf. It is served with tortillas and fried plantains. Do not visit Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula without trying it!
This Pueblo Magico (Magic Town) is most famous for its picturesque yellow architecture and streets, but it is also full of some very interesting history. Originally founded around 2,000 years ago by the Mayan civilization, it was converted to a Spanish colonial city in the 1550s. Like the Spanish did in other destinations, they built a Catholic church, the Monastery of St. Anthony of Padua, atop an ancient pyramid. As it was an important pilgrimage town for the Maya, and the Spanish saw it as a good opportunity to convert the remaining Maya people to Catholicism.
The Monastery is still active today and is one of the oldest in the Americas. To add to its history, the open air atrium is second in size only to that of the Vatican in Rome. Talk about some impressive accolades!
The combination of Mayan, Spanish colonial and modern culture is worth exploring. The small town is not nearly as busy as other destinations across Mexico, allowing any traveler the opportunity to fully embrace the surrounding way of life. Head to Restaurante Kinich for some of the best, authentic Yucateca dishes.
The lesser-known Mayan site in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Uxmal, may even be more impressive than Chichen Itza. Located about an hour South of Merida, its the perfect archaeological day trip. As most tourists in the Yucatán tend to only visit Chichen Itza or Tulum, Uxmal is left silent as you can easily explore the site alone. Walking through the ball court and climbing up ancient steps whilst surrounded by the sounds of the jungle adds to an enchanting experience.
Uxmal is not the only ruins site in the area, as it was the capital of a region along an ancient trade route. The area is known as “Ruuta Puuc” and its architectural designs are one of a kind as they represent late Mayan art. While Uxmal’s buildings are much larger in size, other sites around the area such as Labna and Kabah are famous for the interesting faces carved into the buildings.
Bacalar sits at the southern tip of the state of Quintana Roo, about 30 minutes from the border of Belize. While most visit Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for its beaches and resorts, this place is often overlooked or unknown. The beaches in this area are pristine, but the waters of Bacalar are some of the most stunning you will find.
La Laguna de Los Siete Colores, or Lagoon of the Seven Colors, is the focal point of Bacalar’s tourism industry. The gorgeous water changes shades of blue throughout the lagoon from dark to neon. The glowing shades of color shift in the sunlight as the day grows. Not only is the water bursting with color, it is often so crystal clear that it is easy to see the botanical life dancing in the currents underneath the surface.
Bacalar is not only unique for its amazing water landscape but for its history. This tiny town is said to have been inhabited at one point by pirates. The infestation of pirates was so bad that the Spanish who took over the land in the 1500s built a fort to keep them out.
When planning a trip to Mexico, you are guaranteed to encounter beautiful scenery, beaches and incredible food, but don’t be fooled by only visiting the tourist hot spots. If you truly want to explore Mexico at its best, follow the less traveled route.