Beyond Cancun: The Other Top 5 Destinations on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico
I get it. Sometimes you just need that break. Beautiful blue waters, an ocean breeze blowing in your face, and bottomless margaritas…These are some of the things that a trip to Cancun will bring you. Everyone should experience it at least once. Get off the plane, catch a taxi to your all inclusive resort, thrown on some speedos, and let the stress just melt away.
But sadly, too many people stop there. While Cancun is a beautiful getaway, there is so much amazingness just a stone’s throw away. With a sense of adventure, a rental car, and some planning, you can explore some of Mexico’s most amazing treasures. Sure, you might need a little pampering in Cancun to wash off the work week. But get off the reservation just a little bit, and your eyes and heart will open to some incredible cultural experiences.
During 2020, Mexico was one of the only countries open to Americans who didn’t want to shove a PCR test swab halfway up their brain. Thus, I was lucky enough to visit twice, and had some awesome adventures. Below are the top 5 destinations, outside of Cancun, to hit on your trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. So pack your bags, throw on a bathing suit, eat a taco, and get off of the beaten path. Vamos!
- Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres is the easiest place to get to from Cancun. Although it’s just a short ferry ride across the bay, it feels much more distant. Only a small percentage of Cancun tourists make it this far away. So if you come here, you will be in the adventurous minority.
On Isla Mujeres you will find beautiful beaches and sunsets, great restaurants with fresh fish and drinks, and some neat souvenirs that you won’t find in Cancun. But by far, my favorite highlight of Isla Mujeres was Punta Sur, or Southern Point.
After you rent a golf cart, stock up on a couple of cervezas and snacks, then it’s time to hit the streets. The island is fairly small, so you will make it from the Northern Zone to South Point in about 30 minutes. The views along the way are incredible, but once you reach the end of the island, you will be blown away.
Get a ticket to visit the ancient Mayan temple to the goddess Ixchel, and explore around. The wind and waves coming in off the sea are beautiful and powerful. The perspective on the ocean and the land is unmatched, and the reptilian symbology of the whole place gives it an air of mystique. I’ve been to many places around the world, and Punta Sur on Isla Mujeres has lasting power in the spiritual memory bank!
2. Holbox Island
Isla Mujeres is easy to get to. Holbox Island, on the other hand, is not. Because it takes some planning and action just to make it there, it brings in a whole other type of crowd. The island is pretty primitive, and you can find yourself walking for hours without seeing anyone.
There is a downtown area where you can find just about anything you want. Delicious food, drinks, music, parties, cash, flip-flops provide the necessities. This is where the party-goers conglomerate, and where the action takes place.
Although you don’t have to go without the amenities, the real beauty and allure of Holbox Island is the ruggedness of it. After about an hour long fairy ride, we tracked down a four wheeler taxi. This was necessary to get to our hotel because much of the island is flooded in the rain. After checking in, and relaxing a bit, I really started to feel the magic. The night sky was beautiful, the wind was peaceful, and the tasty drinks that went down with the sun were more than worth the trip there.
3. Chichen Itza
The ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza may just be the coolest destination on the entire peninsula. They do run buses from Cancun and other places, but the way to go, in my opinion, is with a rental car.
Upon arriving you are greeted with some amazing artifacts of our distant past. Mayan pyramids and temples dot the landscape. There is an ancient ball field where they played the famous sport, in which case the winner was killed in front of the priest. There is a deep lagoon where it is said that virgins were cast to the Gods.
Of course, almost all of the temples were sacrificial in nature. The Mayan culture was extremely bloody and violent. Walking around these areas gave me all sorts of supernatural vibes. I could see history taking place before my very eyes.
It is recommended to get a tour guide if possible. The stories and explanations of the different ruins add a beautiful dimension to the tour. All in all, it’s very hard to explain the awesomeness of Chichen Itza. It’s really just one of those places you have to experience for yourself.
Tulum feels like Burning Man in the middle of the jungle. It’s pretty tough to get to, which makes the sights and sounds you experience there all the more astonishing. It has a certain magic and playfulness to it that sticks in your system, and you will most certainly find yourself wondering when you will be coming back.
Roughly a two hour drive from Cancun, Tulum is definitely off the beaten path. Yet, it’s a tourist dream spot. You will see Ferraris and silk dresses walking beside hippies with backpacks. Bikes and motorcycles are the preferred method of getting around, as the streets are tight and full of mudholes.
The nightlife of Tulum is legendary. Be ready to rock out late into the night with some house music and fancy seaside bar drinks. But don’t be afraid to explore out of the city. Along the beach in both directions are all kinds of cool ruins, cenotes, and experiences waiting to be discovered.
Volladolid is sort of the historic middle ground that holds all of this together. Located right in the middle of the peninsula, this city serves not only as a jumping off point to other destinations, but a worthy exploration itself.
It has some beautiful churches and architecture that will transport you back in time. The city center is vibrant with street food and shopping, and the downtown parks beg for a walk through.
Also close to downtown is the largest collection of Mexican folk art on the planet. A wealthy businessman from the west coast of the United States and his wife retired here, renovating and opening up a traditional mansion, all the while displaying their incredible collection of folk art. After a tour through the Casa de los Venados, you will most certainly gain a newfound respect and admiration for Mexican culture.
As you can see, there are some incredible adventures waiting for you just beyond Cancun. So, once you’ve had your fill of all-inclusive Pina coladas and seafood buffets, it’s time to get exploring. You probably won’t be able to hit all of these hot spots in one trip, but pick one or two and make some life-lasting memories. You will be glad you did.
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