Exploring Cancun & the Yucatan



by Richard Harris 

Where to Go

Whether you are seeking high adventure beyond the edge of the civilized world or want to mix some business with your pleasure, you can do it in the Yucatán. Where you go really depends on what you want to do. The Yucatán possesses stunning natural beauty, fantastic villages and ancient Maya sites, remarkable history and enough exotica to last a traveler a lifetime.  It also offers sand, sun and sea—key ingredients for that kick-back-and-relax part of your vacation.

For starters, there’s Cancún, the world-famous beach resort that has become Mexico’s most popular tourist destination and one of the fastest-growing cities in Latin America. If you like Florida’s Gold Coast, you’ll probably love Cancún—a flashy, trend-swept high-rise strip of five-star hotels with beaches as big and beautiful as any in the Caribbean. But even if this doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, you’ll probably find yourself there on the first and last days of your Yucatán adventure. Almost all international airline flights to the Yucatán now land at Cancún’s airport. Once there, it’s easy to head for any other place by rental car, passenger bus or ferry. Before you think too many disparaging thoughts about this crassly commercial mega-resort city, bear in mind that it will look much more inviting when you return from an expedition into the heart of the Yucatán backcountry. The luxury of a big five-star hotel room with air conditioning and a satellite TV that speaks English, a balcony that overlooks the sea and an elaborate swimming pool complex surrounded by beautiful bodies in bathing suits and a poolside bar make for an irresistible conclusion to your Yucatán adventure.

Thirty years ago, the northern half of the Yucatán’s Mexican Caribbean coast—now called the Riviera Maya—was unforgiving bush country where common visitors were outlaws and snakes. Today, much of the coast has been transformed into various resorts, from high-class, all-inclusive vacation complexes to clusters of thatched-roof cabañas on remote beaches. Once you turn off the busy, billboard-lined four-lane superhighway, the boundless, impenetrab le jungle protects the coast from the stresses of modern life. The region fulfills just about every dream of paradise. For you perhaps it’s the cast-all-your-cares-away mood of Isla Mujeres or the haunting beauty of Tulum, the only Maya city right on the Caribbean Sea. Maybe you’re going for snorkeling and scuba diving, unparalleled in these see-through waters.  Divers flock to Cozumel for some of the best underwater scenery on earth.  Or maybe your idea of heaven is swimming, tennis and golf in the middle of winter.

There is much more to the Quintana Roo Backcountry than just Cancún and the Riviera Maya. The southern half of Quintana Roo remains mostly wilderness and offers a wealth of little-known natural wonders to explore. Foremost among them is the Sian Ka‚an Biosphere Reserve, a federally protected wildlife habitat that fills a large area of coastline and rainforest and includes sheltered bays, deep freshwater cenotes, sawgrass marshes, mangrove and hardwood jungles, islands where birds gather by the hundreds, a unique fishing village that got its start as a pirate’s hideaway and, of course, many miles of lonely white beaches. Other great destinations in the backcountry include Cobá, where lofty forest conceals the overwhelming ruins of the Yucatán’s largest ancient Maya city, and the obscure, fascinating ceremonial center of Kohunlich, which is only beginning to reveal its strange secrets.

A few hours‚ journey westward into the Yucatán interior will bring you to Valladolid and the world-famous ruins of the Maya-Toltec city Chichén Itzá, centerpiece of a region that wears its history like comfortable old clothes. The flat, scrub-choked landscape is liberally scattered with the ruins of ancient Indian temples, colonial churches and plantation haciendas, as well as timeless villages where descendants of the ancient Maya make their homes today. Indians, Spaniards and Mexicans alike have contributed to the deforestation of this countryside over countless centuries, so its fascination lies less in its ecology than in its ruins, reminders of empires that attained awesome heights only to be swept away by time.  Maya and Spanish colonial ruins stand side by side in places like the Maya town of Izamal, the ceremonial center turned henequen plantation at Aké and the archaeological site of Dzibilchaltún.

Mérida, capital city of the Yucatán for the last four and a half centuries, offers more comfortable accommodations in all price ranges than are available in other parts of the interior, so it makes a natural home base for exploring more remote parts of the Yucatán. More than just a place to find modern lodging, restaurants and nightlife in the ancient world of the Yucatán, Mérida is filled with its own charms. Disregard the semi-indust rialized Mexican version of suburbia that sprawls for miles around and focus on the walkable, historic downtown area inside the old city gates.  Ride in a horse-drawn carriage down Paseo de Montejo with its stately mansions and monuments or stroll among the galleries of the small but growing arts district. You’ll find music and dancing in a city park, a celebration in the central plaza or a stage performance in one of the city’s grand old theaters almost every evening. Wander through museums displaying exceptional ancient artifacts and modern folk art from villages around the state.

The Yucatán’s Gulf Coast is as different as can be from the international tourist meccas of the Mexican Caribbean. Nature lovers will delight in touring the fecund estuaries tracing the coast along the north and west sides of the peninsula around Río Lagartos and Celestún, where shallow waters teeming with shrimp attract more pink flamingos than any other place in the Western Hemisphere. The port city of Progreso bursts into exuberant life every weekend as the local beach for residents of nearby Mérida; it’s certainly not Cancún, but it is the Yucatán’s liveliest, funkiest low-budget beach scene. Then there’s Sisal, a faded 19th-century seaport turned fishing village, virtually unknown to tourists, where shell-strewn beaches go on for miles.

In the southern reaches of the state of Yucatán lies Uxmal and the Hill Country, a nearly uninhabited area that was one of the most important kingdoms in the Maya world a thousand years ago. Uxmal, a popular tourist destination as large as Chichén Itzá but purely Maya in its distinctive, ornate decorative facades carved from limestone, is one of the best-known Maya ruins in the Yucatán, though it receives far fewer visitors than Chichén Itzá or Tulum because it is too far to reach on a day trip from Cancún. This and other Puuc sites such as Kabáh and Labná grow more beautiful with each visit, not only because of ongoing restoration efforts but also because the surrounding forest, destroyed by a fire in the 1970s, is growing back to wrap the ruins once more in lush greenery. Try to visit the ceremonial cave of Loltún, which the ancient Maya believed to be a gateway to the underworld that lay beyond death, and the sadly fallen remains of Mayapán, the ruling capital of the Yucatán in Postclassic times.

The route southwest from Yucatán state to Chiapas passes through the Gulf Coast state of Campeche, where the capital city of the same name boasts an almost tourist-free atmosphere and a colorful history. The old city is surrounded by stone fortifications erected to defend against pirate attacks. South of town are miles of pure white beaches. A short drive to the east lies Edzná, a large restored Maya ruin that most travelers miss. In fact, the entire state of Campeche is far enough from the major tourist zones of the Yucatán that its magnificent ruins and the deep forest that covers 60 percent of the state often take even seasoned Yucatán travelers by surprise. The crowning glory of Campeche is the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, which lies in the extreme southern part of the state near the Guatemalan border and is part of a proposed multinational Maya Peace Park.  Here, in the vicinity of the solitary village of Xpujil, a wilderness of rainforest conceals fantastic ruins unlike any others in the Maya world.  Recently restored, easy-to-drive-to sites like Becán and Chicanná are virtually undiscovered by the tourist industry. If these huge ruins aren’t secret enough for you, a guide can take you on a journey that gives “off the beaten path” a whole new meaning: through Mexico’s last great expanse of virgin rainforest to the magnificent ruins of Hormiguero, Río Bec and—if you have plenty time and a boundless lust for adventure—the giant lost city of Calakmul, newly opened to the public after a 15-year archaeological project reclaimed it from the rainforest. You can spend all day here trekking from temple to temple where few people have set foot in living memory.

Adjacent to the Yucatán Peninsula are Tabasco and lowland Chiapas, a land of vanishing rainforest inhabited by the Chol Maya people, distant cousins of the Yucatec Maya. The oil-rich state of Tabasco is worth visiting mainly to see giant stone heads left behind by the mysterious Olmec people who built forest cities thousands of years before the Classic Maya empires began. The situation in Chiapas is still unresolved more than seven years after a January 1994 Maya insurgency, as Mexico’s new president, opposition-party leader Vicente Fox, struggles to keep his campaign promise to bring peace between the rebel forces of Subcomandante Marcos, Mexican Army troops and the paramilitary forces sponsored by large landowners. There are still army checkpoints at highway intersections in Chiapas—in fact, such checkpoints have proliferated all over Mexico in an effort to stem the epidemic of firearms smuggling in this officially gun-free country; but the collapse of Chiapas‚ tourist economy in the 1990s, exacerbating poverty in what was already Mexico’s poorest state, has moved the army to encourage a more friendly, hospitable attitude toward foreign sightseers. Once more, visitors flock to the ancient site of Palenque, with its elegant architecture, exquisite stone and stucco sculpture, and fantastic jungle setting. A bold side-trip possibility is an expedition overland, by minivan, on foot and by riverboat, to the remote Maya ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilán.


Sample Itinerary—ONE WEEK

Day 1  Fly to Cancún. Check into your accommodations in the Hotel Zone or catch the ferry to Isla Mujeres for a more laid-back, lower-cost beach stay. Another inviting possibility is to skip Cancún altogether and head down the Riviera Maya to Playa del Carmen for a friendly, predominantly European ambience and a lively beach scene.

Day 2  Explore Cancún and Isla Mujeres. Try snorkeling, wave-running, parasailing or just sunbathing. Check out Cancún’s disco inferno nightlife.  (Or, if you choose to make Playa del Carmen your home base, ferry over to Isla Cozumel for a day of snorkeling, scuba diving on the magnificent coral reefs or riding a motor scooter across the island to outlying ruins and empty, windswept beaches.

Day 3  Rent a car or buy a bus ticket to visit Tulum ruins. If you have a car, continue down the beach into the Sian Ka‚an Biosphere Reserve.  Spend the night in the vicinity of either Tulum or Cobá.

Day 4  Visit the ruins at Cobá.

Day 5  Visit the ruins at Chichén Itzá. (Motorists can do this without returning to the Riviera Maya or Cancún by following the road north past the Punta Laguna Spider Monkey Reserve to join the main highway midway between Cancún and Chichén Itzá.) If you have a rental car, take a side trip to Balancanché Cave or Cenote Dzitnup. Continue on to Mérida. Stroll the city streets in the evening and take in a concert at the park.

Day 6  Visit the ruins at Uxmal. If you have a rental car, explore neighboring ruins such as Kabáh, Sayil, Labná or Loltún Cave.

Day 7  Return to Cancún and prepare for your flight home the next morning.


Sample Itinerary—TWO WEEKS

Off-the-beaten-path Yucatán (you’ll need a car)

Day 1  Fly to Cancún. Catch the ferry to Isla Mujeres for a mellow night by the sea.

Day 2  Take a nature cruise from Isla Mujeres to the bird sanctuary of Isla Contoy.

Day 3  Rent a car and drive to Valladolid. After checking into accommodations there, explore lesser-known attractions such as Cenote Dzitnup and the ruins at Ek Balam.

Day 4  After further explorations in the Valladolid/Chichén Itzá area, drive to Río Lagartos and check into the hotel there. Arrange your boat tour of the nature preserve for the following morning.

Day 5  Tour the flamingo breeding grounds at Río Lagartos. Drive to Izamal; see the cathedral and climb the pyramid. Return to the north coast to spend the night in Progreso.

Day 6  En route to Mérida, stop for a swim in the cenote at Dzibilchaltún National Park. Check into your Mérida hotel, stroll the city streets in the evening and take in a concert at the park.

Day 7  Explore Mérida’s museums and public market. Stroll along Paseo de Montejo. Linger in the central plaza or Parque Hidalgo.

Day 8  Drive to Uxmal with a short detour to visit the little known Oxkintoc ruins and Xpukil Cave near Maxcanu. Check into accommodations nearby.  Visit the ruins of Uxmal.

Day 9  Explore other hill country ruins including Kabáh, Sayil, Xlapak, Labná and Mayapán. (If possible, schedule this visit for a Sunday to avoid multiple admission charges; admission to all archaeological zones is free on Sundays.)

Day 10  Drive to Campeche, visiting Edzná and perhaps Xtacumbilxunán Cave en route. In the city of Campeche, stroll along the baluartes (bulwarks) and take the scenic drive to Fuerte San Miguel overlooking the city.

Day 11  Getting an early start, drive to Xpujil on the edge of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Check into a small hotel there and explore the ruins of Xpujil, Chicanná Becán or more remote jungle sites such as Hormiguero (half-day trip) or Río Bec.

Day 12  Drive the narrow road into the deepest part of the rainforest to see Calakmul, southern Campeche’s largest and most important ancient Maya site. Allow all day and plan to spend another night in Xpujil.

Day 13  Head east to the junction with Route 307 near Chetumal, then north to Tulum. Along the way you might want to visit the Maya ruins at Kohunlich, picnic on the shore of Laguna Bacalar (nicknamed the “lake of seven colors‰) or explore the coast of the Sian Ka‚an Biosphere Reserve, following the strands of deserted beach all the way to Punta Allen. Spend the night in a cabaña (luxurious or otherwise) south of Tulum.

Day 14  Visit the ruins of Cobá for a hike or bike ride through the forests that conceal the largest Maya ruin in Quintana Roo. Return to Cancún and check into your hotel there. Rest up for tomorrow morning’s plane flight home.

Of course, these itineraries cover mainly “must-sees” among the many fascinating places in the Yucatán that await your discovery. Many visitors will want to modify these suggestions to allow, for example, time to scuba on Cozumel or Chinchorro Reef or to explore the fishing villages of the Gulf Coast. Travelers with additional time may want to spend it exploring deeper into the jungles in the southern part of the peninsula or continuing southeast into Chiapas to visit Palenque and perhaps even Yaxchilán.


Climate & Seasons

Like most of the tropics, the Yucatán has just two seasons: rainy and dry. Generally, rain falls and temperatures rise during summer and autumn months, from June to early October. Daily rains can soak inland jungle roads, creating sludge trails that are impassable without four-wheel-drive.  Late summer and early fall can also mean hurricane season, particularly along the Caribbean coast. It’s not likely that you’ll encounter one—they blow in every five to ten years (the most recent was Hurricane Roxanne in October 1995). But if you should, take it seriously: Hurricanes are monsters that take lives and leave paths of destruction. While prices are much lower during these months, when Americans and Canadians are rarely seen, it’s surprising to find that coastal areas such as Cancún, the Riviera Maya and Progreso are actually more crowded in August than in January.  This is partly because European visitors, who typically come in the summer months, account for about ten percent of visitors to the Yucatán and partly because middle-class Mexicans flock to coastal resorts in the summer to cool off. The rainy season in the Yucatán is rarely marked by gray skies for days on end. Instead, mornings are usually filled with sunshine; later in the day, brief, awesome thunderstorms crash their way across the peninsula.

November to mid-April is the high-and-dry season—literally. Prices can shoot up 40 percent or more in response to the crowds rushing here from the United States and Canada to enjoy the idyllic balmy weather and escape the snow. The peak season is January through March. Be aware that Semana Santa (Holy Week), the week before Easter, is a major vacation time throughout Mexico. Planes and buses are jammed to capacity and rental cars are scarce.  The hotels are packed wall to wall, the beaches towel to towel and the prices sky high. The “shoulder seasons”—April to mid-May and October through November—are pleasantly uncrowded, wonderfully economical and seldom unbearably hot. On the hottest days you’ll have to have two swims a day instead of one.

The Yucatán Peninsula is warm year-round, with average temperatures in the 80s. During the summer, the jungles of the interior can be suffocatingly hot and humid, while the Gulf and Caribbean coasts often stay comfortably cooled by tradewinds. If you visit between May and October, you will likely experience nortes, nature’s quick but tempestuous outbursts of thunder, lightning, wind and rain. They seem to come from nowhere and then disappear into nowhere, leaving a wake of intense blue skies and misty warmth. Winter brings dry weather, but the temperature drops only slightly, staying around a perfect 75º.


Calendar of Events

You may plan your Yucatán visit around a certain holiday or festival to join in the local spirit. As you may already know, Mexicans and Central Americans need no reason to celebrate, though they certainly have many.  Writers from Octavio Paz to Alan Riding have described the fiesta as a vital liberation from solitude, stoicism and the restraints of poverty, whether the occasion celebrates a religious or patriotic event, a birthday or a wedding. Mexican holidays are truly wondrous. But plan ahead: remember that because of the festivities, everything else practically shuts down, including government agencies, banks, businesses and professional offices.  In other words, if there’s a holiday, forget about business and join the party!

Here are the most important events around the Yucatán:



January 1  New Year’s Day (Día del Año Nuevo), celebrated on January 1 as a national holiday, comes complete with parades, prayers and fireworks.  Throughout Mexico, Santa Claus does not give out Christmas presents. Instead, gifts are brought by the Three Kings (Tres Reyes or Santos Reyes) on January 6.

Early January  The Day of Kings (Día de los Reyes), marks the Catholic holy day of Epiphany and the end of the month-long Christmas season. In the Yucatán, the biggest celebration of the Day of Kings is in Tizimín (between Valladolid and Río Lagartos), where the Three Wise Men are the town’s patron saints. Pilgrims walk there from all over the Yucatán, and religious processions alternate with religious processions in a nonstop ten-day observance starting New Year’s Eve.



Early February  Candlemas (Fiesta de Nuestra Señora de Candelaria), observed as a religious holiday throughout Latin America, marks the midpoint of winter. It is observed in many Mexican towns with dancing, processions and bullfights, a sort of warm-up for the Carnival season. In rural towns and villages around the Yucatán, the holy day is marked by ceremonies to bless seeds, candlelight processions and churches filled with thousands of lit candles. One of the most impressive processions takes place at Tekoh, southeast of Mérida on the way to the archaeological site of Mayapán.  Constitution Day (Día de Constitución), a Mexican national holiday, means bank and business closings but no big public celebrations in the Yucatán.


The week before Ash Wednesday  Yucatecans indulge in an exuberant Carnival leading up to the austerity of Lent. Communities large and small burst into music, dance and fireworks. Mérida has a big parade with colorful floats, similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, on Tuesday, the last day of Carnival. The town of Hocabá, a few kilometers off Route 180 midway between Mérida and Chichén Itzá, is known for the elaborate re-enactment of the Spanish Inquisition that it stages during Carnival.



The week before Easter  Throughout Latin America, Holy Week (Semana Santa) rivals the Christmas season as the biggest holiday of the year. Everybody travels then. Expect crowds and high prices. It is a time for all-out street parties featuring Passion plays, music and dancing in the plazas, especially in Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and Campeche. There is a general exodus of city folk for the sea or lakeshore, where they picnic and camp. Ticul, south of Mérida near the Maya ruins of the Puuc hill country, celebrates Holy Week with a tobacco festival.



Early May  Labor Day, May 1, is a Mexican national holiday. A solemn occasion, Holy Cross Day (Día de Santa Cruz, May 3), is observed with ceremonies, feasting and crowded town plazas in Izamal, Tekoh and a number of other Maya towns around the region. Cinco de Mayo (May 5) celebrates the defeat of the French by the Mexican army at Puebla in 1862. Neither is celebrated in a very big way in the Yucatán, but banks and many businesses are closed.

Late May  The city of Mérida livens up as it hosts its annual International Song Festival, featuring performances of nearly 400 original songs, mostly in Spanish, from a dozen countries.

Late May or early June  Corpus Christi Day occasions blessings of children all over Mexico.



June 1  Día de la Armada (Navy Day) is a big event in Progreso, observed with a festive parade, music and dancing in the streets, and a waterfront fair. Everyone who can find space on a boat sets out to sea for the day, and sailors lost at sea are mourned.



Mid-July  Dancing, fireworks and sporting events are all part of the Fiesta de Ticul, a week-long fiesta commemorating the establishment of Ticul, east of Uxmal. Ciudad del Carmen, south along the coast from the city of Campeche, honors its patroness, Nuestra Señora del Carmen, with a big citywide fiesta. Another fiesta on the same dates in Motul, northeast of Mérida, is known for some of the best folk dancing in the Yucatán.



Mid-August  Oxkutzcab, in the center of the peninsula near Loltún Cave, has a lively week-long fiesta beginning August 10 and leading up to Assumption Day (Día de la Asunción), a Catholic holiday commemorating the Virgin Mary’s death and rise into heaven, which is celebrated throughout Mexico on August 15. Izamal has a large religious fiesta in honor of Nuestra Señora de Izamal on Assumption Day.

August 20  The Fiesta de San Miguel Arcángel is celebrated in the town of Mani, in the center of the peninsula near Ticul.



September 16  Here and throughout Mexico, parades and fireworks are the bill of fare on Independence Day.

September 27 to October 13  The Fiesta de Cristo de las Ampollas (Christ of the Blisters) in Mérida honors a religious relic housed in the city’s cathedral and believed by Maya and ladino people alike to have miraculous powers. The annual festival climaxes with a ceremonial procession through the city streets.



October 4  A week of parades and dancing heralds in the Fiesta de San Francisco de Asís.

October 12  Columbus Day (Día de la Raza) is observed throughout Mexico.



October 31 through November 2  Throughout Mexico, the Day of the Dead (actually a three-day holiday—Vispera de Todos Santos, corresponding to Halloween on the night of October 31; Todos Santos on November 1, and Día de los Muertos on November 2), blends remembrance of the departed with cheerfully morbid revelry in a unique Indian-Christian tribute to death. Sugar skulls, altars, papier-mâché skeletons and toy coffins fill the streets of Yucatán cities, where strong Indian traditions survive.

November 8 to November 13  The Fiesta de Tekax is held in the town of Tekax, south of Mérida in the center of the peninsula, near the ruins of Chacmultún.

November 15  There is a fiesta commemorating the Día de Santiago, in Halacho, southwest of Mérida on the YucatánˆCampeche state line.

November 20  The national holiday commemorating the start of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 closes banks and public buildings but otherwise does not cause much of a stir in the Yucatán.



December 8  The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a major religious feast day, draws pilgrims from all over the Yucatán to Izamal.

Mid-December  The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of Mexico, inspires parades, dancing and music nationwide. Christmas is the holiest of holidays throughout Mexico. The Mexican Christmas season officially begins on December 16, the first night of Las Posadas, the Mexican tradition of nightly processions recalling Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem. Nativity scenes are the main form of Christmas decoration, and many towns stage nativity plays. The Christmas Fair is the year’s biggest community celebration in the city of Campeche.

Late December  Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) is a time of holy processions and singing. Christmas Day is a national holiday, and the streets are deserted. All Fools‚ Day, on December 28, is similar to April Fools‚ Day (be careful—in the Mexican version, if someone asks you for something such as your watch or sunglasses and you’re foolish enough to hand it over, they don’t have to give it back!).

In addition, many small Maya towns hold their own unique observances throughout the Christmas season.


Before You Go

To order an information packet about travel in Mexico, call the Mexican Government Tourism Office’s nationwide toll-free number. ~ 800-446-3942.  For additional information, tourist cards and maps, contact one of the following offices in the United States and Canada:

300 North Michigan Avenue, 4th floor, Chicago, IL 60601; 312-606-9015; e-mail mgtochi@compuserve.com

10103 Fomdren Street, #450, Houston, TX 77096; 713-772-6058; e-mail mgtotx@ix.netcomm.com

2401 West 6th Street, 5th floor, Los Angeles, CA 90057; 213-351-2074; e-mail 104045.3647@compuserve.com

21 East 63rd Street, 3rd floor, New York, NY 10021; 212-821-8314, fax 212-821-0367; e-mail milmgto@interport.net

1200 Northwest 78th Avenue, #3203, Miami, FL 33126; 305-718-4091, fax 305-718-4098; e-mail mgtomia@gate.net

999 West Hastings Street, Suite 1610, Vancouver, BC V6C 2W2, Canada; 604-669-2845, fax 604-669-3498; e-mail mgto@bc.sympatico.ca

2 Bloor Street West, Suite 1502, Toronto, ON M4W 3E2, Canada; 416-925-2753, fax 416-925-6061; e-mail mexto3@inforamp.net

1 Place Ville Marie, Suite 1931, Montreal, QB H3B 2B5, Canada; 514-871-1052, fax 514-871-3825; e-mail turimex@cam.org


From Hidden Cancun & Yucatan by Richard Harris. Copyright © 2001 by Richard Harris. Excerpted by arrangement with Ulysses Press. $16.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-377-2542 or click here.