This is a complete guide to the best of the Yucatan Peninsula
One of the most common characteristics in the types of people who come and live down here in the Riviera Maya: they all have a bold adventurer’s spirit. It’s often the reason they found this way of life in the first place: by being brave enough to stand up and explore the world beyond the neighborhood which they were comfortable in.
Moving to the Riviera Maya is the culmination of this dream, where you actually get to live the traveler’s life day in, day out. No one expects you to retire your adventurer’s spirit when you make the leap and move down here. There are so many beautiful and interesting places to visit around the Yucatan Peninsula that a home here at TAO can act as the perfect base to explore an undiscovered world.
With so much variety nearby, residents of TAO have the ability to travel to many impressive islands, towns, cities, and archaeological sites. It depends on which TAO project you live in of course, but almost all of the Yucatan Peninsula can easily be explored in day trips or weekends away if you know where to go.
Here is TAO’s guide to the Yucatan Peninsula and the places we feel those adventurers who live down here with us should consider taking a look at to rejuvenate and maintain their wanderer’s spirit.
Cozumel is Mexico’s largest Caribbean island, located just off of the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is only a 45-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen, providing easy access to some of the best sea life in the entire world.
Sunny Cozumel is known internationally for its first-rate water sports, most notably the quality of scuba diving and snorkeling. The island has a huge coral reef with deep walls, crystal-clear water with perfect visibility, and more than 500 species of tropical fish.
Cozumel has great beaches around the island which can easily be explored by car or scooter. We recommend El Cielo in the south. Overall, the island has a laid-back, fun and friendly vibe, and is welcoming to all.
For those who prefer to stay away from the water, Cozumel has a good selection of restaurants and shops, and a nightlife which is filled with music and salsa dancing. Buccanos offers an upscale dining experience in a great location, right on the beach in the north end of the island. In town, La Mission is renowned for its excellent seafood and Kondesa offers a modern approach to Mexican flavors. Those who prefer to keep it simple can find reasonably priced tacos, burritos, and even familiar names such as Lobster Shack and Hard Rock Cafe.
Isla Mujeres is one of Mexico’s best-known Caribbean islands, famous the world over for its unbeatable natural beauty. The beaches have powder-like white sand and border the impossibly vibrant-blue Caribbean Sea. Playa Norte in Isla Mujeres is considered one of the best beaches in all of Mexico and there are many more which you can discover by touring the island on a golf cart, bicycle or scooter.
Isla Mujeres may typify that dream-like island serenity with an almost stand-still pace of life, yet is also exciting and lively for those who like a little more entertainment. Isla Mujeres balances the beach life with the comfort of modern amenities, with a proud foodie scene which boasts the freshest seafood in the Mexican Caribbean.
Lola Valentina in the center of town has a great terrace and serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For local dishes, the Municipal Market has a large, covered food hall with a variety of independent stalls and there is a great culture of street food vendors. Qubano in the center of town serves good-quality American food.
Isla Mujeres is located off of the Yucatan Peninsula near Cancun, and is only a 15-minute ferry ride from Puerto Juarez which is just outside of downtown Cancun.
Isla Holbox was the secret of the Yucatan Peninsula for a long time. Well, the secret got out, and today it is regarded among the top ten vacation destinations in the world by a number of trendy magazines. It doesn’t matter. With only a small number of hotel rooms and hostels, this precious island will always remain undisturbed by mass tourism.
Isla Holbox is a genuine island paradise. It has sandy streets with very little traffic, where people go around barefoot, on bicycles or by golf cart. All the beaches of Holbox are dog-friendly and all the dogs of Holbox are beach-friendly.
Isla Holbox is located off of the north of the Yucatan Peninsula, meaning it captures views of the sun as it sets over the sea. In fact, sunset is the most important part of the day in Holbox. The beaches of Holbox are all bare-naked and beautiful, in fact, one of the best things you can do in Holbox is simply walk the sandbar to Punta Mosquito.
From May to September, Isla Holbox offers the rare opportunity to swim with the whale shark and with no moon, the sea is lit by their food: the magical bioluminescent plankton. A consistent north wind makes the beach lovely and cool during the winter months, and makes Isla Holbox a popular kitesurfing location. For kite lessons, we recommend Kukulkite.
Isla Holbox has a quiet nightlife with a small number of friendly bars, however, the Sunday jam sessions in Tribu hostel have developed a worthy legendary status. Holbox has great fresh fish - we recommend El Cangrejo Cascarudo and Pura Vida - and upscale dining experiences such as Luuma and Milpa. It’s around an hour-and-a-half from Playa Del Carmen to Chiquila by taxi or bus, where a 30-minute ferry ride takes you over to Holbox.
Bacalar is a small town close to the border of Belize. It’s around a two-and-a-half hour drive south of Tulum but is well worth the visit. Bacalar is one of the most unique and spectacular places in the entire Yucatan Peninsula.
While the town of Bacalar is nothing special, the real draw is Lake Bacalar - the lagoon of seven colors. Not strictly a lake or a lagoon, the huge expanse of water is actually a series of interconnected cenotes, or natural springs. This means the water is fresh, not salty, and is impossibly clear. The differing depths in the lagoon create a change in the spectrum of blue and turquoise hues - hence the seven colors. It’s amazing.
With such an impressive body of water, Bacalar is a great place for paddleboarding, kayaking, sailing, and snorkeling. While the town has a relaxed, almost hippy vibe, there are some great boho-chic beach clubs and restaurants. We recommend La Playita on the lakefront.
Like most of the Riviera Maya’s towns, Mahahual developed from a fishing village. Today, Mahahual can either be very busy or very quiet, depending on the time you go. With the Costa Maya port a couple of miles away, Mahahual is a popular stop for cruise passengers. When no cruise ships come in, it is a perfect peaceful paradise.
Mahahual has lovely beaches with soft sand and the turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea. A huge barrier reef runs up the coast, making the town a popular destination for scuba divers and gives visitors the opportunity to snorkel directly off of the beach.
Everything is pretty much on the beachfront in Mahahual, including a range of bars, restaurants, and boutique beach clubs. Local seafood favorites include Nohoch Kay and the local fishermen's cooperative, Sulumar. The Panaderia La Tartaleta is the place for breakfast, while Italian-owned Luna de Plata prepares fresh pasta.
Mahahual is located at the southern end of the Yucatan Peninsula, around a two-and-a-half hour drive from Tulum.
Actually a peninsula rather than an island, Isla Blanca is stunningly beautiful, barely developed, and marvelously isolated. It’s one of the genuine secrets of the Yucatan Peninsula yet is surprisingly easily accessible.
Isla Blanca offers a huge stretch of white sand with hardly anything around. It’s a natural paradise which is bordered by water on two sides: the Caribbean Sea and the Chacmuchuch Lagoon. There is literally nothing there but nature, so better pack your lunch before you go. Although it sounds like it is a million miles away from any major urban areas, it’s actually just a one-hour drive from Cancun.
Merida is the largest city in the Yucatan Peninsula and is the capital of the Yucatan state. It’s a truly international city which blends together ancient Mayan culture with modern European influences.
Merida boasts one of the largest historic centers in the entire Americas, with Spanish colonial-style buildings which date back to the 18th Century. It includes an impressive cathedral from the late-1500’s which was built using the carved stones taken from the ancient Mayan constructions.
Merida is a wealthy city as the financial center for the Yucatan and has fantastic restaurants which serve international, national, and regional dishes. Apoala is regarded as one of the best restaurants in Merida and has a great dining experience with a lovely terrace. La Chaya Maya is revered by locals and tourists alike for serving outstanding Yucateco classics. Las Vigas serves reasonably priced, delicious dishes, while Wayan’e has (arguably) some of the best tacos in Merida. The Mercado Gastronómico San Juan has individual stalls where you can find pretty much anything you could dream of, and there are also a number of high-end restaurants in Merida; we recommend Kuuk.
Merida is in the northwest of the Yucatan Peninsula, around three hours from Tulum.
Valladolid is a charming colonial town which embodies the history and culture of the region. It has a huge central park, and a cathedral and convent which were built by Spanish missionaries. Many buildings have a typical Spanish style, with plain walls on the outside and lovely gardens and patios inside which, today, make for charming restaurants, such as La De Enmedio in the main square.
Shops are more geared towards local artisan products rather than well-known brands. It takes some searching, but you can find things in Valladolid that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
Valladolid is around an hour-and-a-half from either Playa del Carmen or Tulum. It has a great central location in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula, which makes it a good base for visiting Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, or Rio Lagartos. It means you can get out early and arrive before the tourists.
Chichen Itza is the world-famous Mayan archaeological site and one of the greatest cities built during their pre-hispanic rule. Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which was constructed between the 6th and 10th Century. It is a collection of impressive stone pyramids and fine ancient buildings along with four freshwater cenotes (natural springs).
Chichen Itza is located in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula but is easily accessible, with just a 45-minute drive from Valladolid or a two-hour drive from Tulum. The site can receive up to 8,000 tourists per day in high season. We recommend you plan your trip for when it is likely to be a little quieter or go early in the morning.
Ek Balam is a Mayan city which isn’t as famous as Chichen Itza but is equally impressive. It was once the principal seat of the Mayan kingdom and is incredibly well preserved, with multiple buildings and pyramids, an oval palace, a ball court, and a towering defensive wall and entrance arch.
Ek Balam also has a gorgeous cenote (freshwater spring) which is great for swimming and bathing. As it isn’t as commonly known, this Mayan city is much quieter than others, giving you the chance to immerse yourself in the peace of the ancient stillness. Ek Balam is only a thirty-minute drive from Valladolid or less than 2 hours from Tulum.
Rio Lagartos is one of the more remote destinations in the area, located on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, around 200 km from Tulum. The drive is easy and it’s worth it. Rio Lagartos is home to an amazing collection of birds including egrets, herons, ibis, and one of the densest concentration of flamingos in Mexico.
Rio Lagartos was recognized as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO and although it doesn’t have a beach, it is an impressive nature area which includes Las Coloradas - a running pink river where the flamingos meet which is unlike anything you’ve seen before.
While the modern-day Coba is just a simple, quiet town, it was historically the fulcrum which connected the entire Mayan world. The Coba archaeological site is expansive, centered around two lagoons, and includes some of the tallest temple pyramids in the region.
Coba is a small town located just 45-minutes from Tulum. It acts as a great gateway to some of the many freshwater cenotes in the area, including Punta Laguna, which is outstanding in its natural beauty and barely receives any visitors.