The Yucatan region of Mexico is one of the hottest travel and vacation destinations in the world. While there are so many things to do in Cancun and the surrounding area, there is no shortage of incredible experiences and sights to be seen off the typical tourist path. Plus, the Yucatan is easily accessible for travelers – especially those coming from North America.
Beyond the gorgeous beaches & mega resorts of the hotel zone in Cancun, there is rich Mexican and ancient Mayan cultures here. So not only will you find some amazing art and food, but some beautiful ruins and historical parks to be explored. Plus, the Yucatan is still a safe destination for tourists in Mexico. We absolutely recommend that people who are looking for a great vacation in Mexico to consider a visit to the Yucatan region.
So here are some useful tips for you as you plan your trip to the Yucatan. Feel free to reach out to us if you have any other questions. We are happy to provide you with any advice that we can.
Get In / Get Out
Flying into the Yucatan is the most popular way to arrive for travelers. There are a couple airports to choose from. And yes, you do need a passport to go to Mexico. US citizens can no longer cross the border by land, sea, or air without an official passport or passport card.
Cancun International Airport (CUN) is quite popular with tourists due to the proximity to major resort and vacation areas, plus many airlines will advertise flight deals. The Cancun airport is located just a bit outside the city center. Many hotels will provide shuttle services to and from the airport, especially to the hotel zone in Cancun, but you can also arrange for rental cars and taxis.
Merida International Airport (MID) is another option for visitors. Merida is the capital city of the Yucatan; however, it is not on the beach or near major resorts on the coast. So it’s typically not very convenient for tourists.
Cozumel International Airport (CZM) is a popular option for people who want to spend most of their time on this island, across from Playa del Carmen and south of Cancun. There are many direct flights from major North America airports; however, better options may be found going to Cancun, traveling to Playa del Carmen and taking a ferry across to Cozumel.
The Yucatan is a popular spot for cruise ships to visit. The majority of cruise ships will stop in Cozumel and Cancun (on the eastern Caribbean side of the Yucatan peninsula). Typically, the ships will only stop for one day – and visitors will have the choice of purchasing day tours or going it on their own. However, one day is not really much time to see and experience the area. But if you just want a taste of the Yucatan, a cruise is a great option.
Some (but few) cruise ships will stop in Progreso, Mexico (on the northern tip, closer to Merida than Cancun). The tourist infrastructure here is just being built up, but it’s nowhere near what you will find in Cancun, Cozumel, or down along the Caribbean coast.
I have actually been to Progreso on a cruise before, and had a wonderful experience! It’s different than other ports because you feel like you are in the heart of the real Mexico – a very different experience than mega resorts. A cruise that includes this port of call is definitely worth considering.
Getting Around the Yucatan
If you plan to explore more than just a resort or single town, then renting a car in is the best way to go! It is by far the most convenient, and it is quite affordable and safe. We recently went on a road trip around the Yucatan, and rented a car at the Cancun airport — it was a fabulous experience!
Our friends and family were nervous when we told them that we planned to rent a car in Mexico, but the Cancun and Yucatan region is quite safe. Renting a car will allow you the freedom to visit many of the most popular destinations at your own pace, and it will definitely save you money over booking a bunch of tours.
While driving in the Yucatan is safe, it is advisable to bring a good map or a GPS just to be sure that you don’t get lost (especially if you like to take side roads). You should also be prepared, because there are not many roadside services, like gas stations and food vendors – especially if you venture on long stretches of roadways between major cities or out into the countryside.
While the main roads & highways in the Yucatan are well-maintained, the side roads can be very rough! We also recommend that you watch out for “topes” (large speed bumps) before and after towns, and that you don’t drive at night (due to poor lighting).
For more information, check out our detailed post about tips for driving in Mexico as well as our tips for renting a car in Mexico and purchasing Mexican Liability Insurance for your rental (a confusing, but critical part of your trip!) and tips for international driving.
There are bus routes between major towns; however, not all of them are air-conditioned nor do they run at the most convenient of times. You could waste a lot of time waiting around if you choose to take a public bus. ** You must buy your ticket at the bus station – no advanced sales, which can be a bit of a pain. For detailed information about different bus stations / routes around the Yucatan, check out this website: http://travelyucatan.com/trans-4.htm
Day Tours in the Yucatan
Another way to get around the area is to book a day tour. Most tourist offices in town can help you to book tours, as well as many hotels. If you want to book in advance, we also have numerous day-tours for the Yucatan available for purchase here. The convenient aspect of booking a day tour is that you don’t have to worry about anything. Transportation is provided, as well as a tour guide, and you can sit back and relax while they deal with all the hassles. Just enjoy the scenery and the sights!
Safety for Tourists in Mexico
While Mexico receives a lot of bad press in the news, the Yucatan as a whole is a safe place for tourists. In fact, it is statistically safer for travelers than many cities in the USA. However as with anything, you should be aware of your surroundings and take basic precautions.
Be sure to lock your vehicle and keep valuables out of site. Have your passport or some type of ID with you at all times, and be careful if you are driving – hazards on the roads are probably the most common danger that you will encounter. Other than that, be respectful and don’t venture into sketchy areas…especially at night.
Cancun Weather & the Surrounding Areas
The climate in the Yucatan is tropical and warm year-round, with a distinct rainy and dry season…and quite hot! Even with the ocean sea breeze, Cancun weather can still be extremely hot. The rainy season can bring rains every day, and the region is vulnerable to hurricanes from May through late Fall.
Still, Fall can be a pleasant time to visit if there is no hurricane because it is not quite as hot and the crowds are lower with the kids being in school. Further, it can be quite humid in the Yucatan, especially in the rainy season or when you are in the jungle-areas with a lot of vegetation.
Festivals / Events in the Yucatan
Carnavale is celebrated in February during the 3 days preceding Ash Wednesday and before Lent. Similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, many cities (including Cancun) will hold street parties and parades.
The Spring Equinox is a big event at Chichen Itza, when the sun aligns with the main pyramid and the combination of sunlight and shadows put on a show that was important to the Maya culture and symbolized the Earth being “fertilized” and ready for the planting season. This is a hugely popular event to be seen, and advanced tickets are a must.
Holy Week – since Mexico is a strongly religious country, this week leading up to Good Friday is full of events. Religious events, food and craft fairs can be found all over most towns. However, a visit during this time requires advanced planning because many hotels, buses, etc. will be filled up in advance, and many business could also be closed on some of the holidays.
Cinco de Mayo takes place in May and is a popular festival to celebrate Mexico’s defeat of the French – although it is technically a bigger celebration in the States, many tourist areas will have celebrations as well.
The Cancun Jazz Festival takes place in May in the Parque de las Palapas and around the convention center. The event includes live jazz musicians from around the world.
Independence Day is celebrated on September 15th & 16th throughout Mexico. Government buildings will be closed, and towns will be painted red, white and green along with parades and other festivities.
Dia de Los Muertos – or the “day of the dead” is held the first couple days of November. This is an important holiday all over Mexico as families pay their respects to their ancestors. This is a beautiful time to visit as decorative altars will be on display throughout towns, and people will be dressed up. Many parties will also take place, as well as families gathering at cemeteries and children walking around town in costumes.
The Yucatan Bird Festival is a huge event for bird-watchers from around the world. The Yucatan is a popular bird watching venue, and this event is held in Merida in mid-November.
December is a month loaded with religious festivals all over Mexico. From The Feast of the Virgin Guadalupe early in the month, to the festival of San Cristobal de las Casas. There is also Christmas Posadas – on each of the 9 nights before Christmas, and of course Christmas itself. Many Mexicans extend their holidays from work to 2 weeks, meaning that hotels will be filled up and some businesses could be closed. However, significant celebration are held throughout towns on December 24th.
Major Tourist Districts / Towns
The Riviera Maya – the region along the east coast of the Yucatan (along the Caribbean) from Cancun down to Tulum. This area is dotted with many popular towns and resorts all the way down the coast.
Cancun is no doubt the most popular destination for tourists in the Yucatan. Primarily, travelers don’t spend much time in downtown Cancun but mostly hang out in the “hotel zone Cancun” – which is a stretch of land out in to the ocean to the east of the city. The tourist zone is quite isolated from most of town, so you will need to take the public bus, have a rental car, or walk (but walking between hotels is a long journey in this area).
Honestly, most people stay put at their all-inclusives in this area. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t fun to be had in town. Popular sites include Mercado 28, as well as bars / clubs, restaurants and water activities are the most popular way for visitors to spend their time. In fact, while out exploring the Mercado, we ran into a tiny shack near the parking lot…which turned out to be the best lunch we ever had in Cancun — and by far the cheapest!
Another popular activity is to take a trip out to visit Chichen Itza and El Castillo, one of the most famous pyramids in Mexico. You can take a day trip, or plan your own adventure. It’s also easy to rent a car in Cancun and drive out there for a couple days (highly recommended!).
Do you need a passport to go to Cancun?
We do actually get this question a lot. But just like the rest of Mexico, you must have an official passport to go to Cancun. Even if you are on a cruise ship, passports are required for everyone – including US citizens. For more details, visit the US State Department website.
This small island located only 8 miles from the Yucatan mainland (near Cancun). The island is popular for its proximity to a nearby reef for fantastic Scuba diving and snorkeling, and the MUSA underwater museum is located near here too. A very popular activity for visitors in the hot summer months is to swim with the enormous, but gentle whale sharks; which can gather in groups of hundreds!
Isla Mujeres is popular for day trippers from Cancun, and there are numerous boat departures from Cancun – including in the heart of the “Hotel Zone.” Most tourists visit the northern part of the island, and it’s quite walkable. The southern part of the island is full of guest house rentals — a great option if you are looking for a relaxing visit and want to stay on the island for a few days.
Sights on this small island include a turtle farm and an old hacienda built by a pirate, but the main activities include swimming and snorkeling.
Playa del Carmen
Originally a fishing village with a ferry over to Cozumel island, this is now a popular resort town in the Yucatan. Playa del Carmen is located just south of Cancun, along the Caribbean coast, and tends to be a trendy destination, unlike the “party” reputation of Cancun. It can be quite high-end too, with expensive resorts, shopping, and dining.
There are many things to do in Playa del Carmen for tourists. The downtown area is quite walkable, with lots of shops and restaurants along the Quinta Avendida (fifth avenue); however, it can be a bit spendy. There are plenty of hotels in the main part of town, but many of the nicer resorts along the water are a bit away from the downtown action, yet easily accessible by car.
Cruise ships also dock here just outside of town (usually in Cozumel across the water). There are also some popular tourist theme parks nearby, such as XelHa and Xcaret, which are great for visitors who want to experience beautiful cultural shows – full of music, dance, costumes from the areas Mayan heritage, as well as enjoying water activities.
This large island is actually off the coast of Playa del Carmen. This is a popular port of call for cruise ships, which basically dock right in downtown! Visitors can access the island from the mainland via a passenger ferry from Playa del Carmen as well as a car-ferry just outside of Playa (but you CANNOT take rental cars on the ferry).
The island is compact and great for day trippers or people spending just a couple days. The main activities involve going to the beach, and snorkeling or scuba diving, which is considered some of the best in the world with the nearby reef. Popular archeological sites include San Gervasio as well as El Cedral. El Caracol temple is also believed to have been used as a lighthouse by the Mayans.
It’s easy to get around the island using taxis, or you can rent a car or scooter – a great way to get around, but only if you are an experienced driver…as there are many accidents with tourists on the mopeds. If you do have your own transportation, the east side of the island is less developed and makes for a nice drive with more peaceful scenery, including beaches big waves, and possibly some blowholes. Be careful of pushy tour offers and car rental agencies, especially near the cruise docks. Also, be leery of those “time share” people offering free activities for wasting your time listening to a super pushy sales pitch.
This funky town is a popular destination due to the famous ancient Mayan ruins that are perched on the cliff overlooking the beautifully blue Caribbean Sea. There are many awesome things to do in Tulum besides just visiting the famous ruins. This area is home to many great beaches and laid back resorts. There are outdoor activities close by, such as Hidden Worlds adventure park and cenotes that are great for swimming. This town tends to have a “hippy” type of vibe – it’s much more chill and relaxed than places like Playa del Carmen…and more affordable to visit with many places to stay.
Located west of Cancun, away from the beaches, is Merida – the capital and largest city in the Yucatan. This historic city is loaded with Spanish colonial architecture, and gives visitors a more cultural and “real” experience in Mexico. Whereas most of the “Riviera Maya” has lost a lot of it’s local heritage and full of resorts, expats, and timeshares, Merida has remained much the same.
Merida is easily accessible by air via their international airport, but visitors can get there quickly from Cancun via the main highway in just a couple hours. There are numerous day trips and historical sights close to Merida, including Chichen Itza (it’s closer to Merida than Cancun).
Popular sights around town include: Plaza Grande, El Paseo Montejo, and numerous museums. Sunday evenings are particularly wonderful at the Zocalo, where the streets are closed to vehicles and locals dress up. Brass bands and orchestras hold free concerts and couples dance.
Popular Sights & Things to do in Cancun and Surrounding Areas
There are so many other popular tourist sights to check out around the Yucatan, below is a quick list of some other major sights that you might want to check out!
- Chichen Itza – one of the most famous sites in the Yucatan, with it’s beautiful pyramid, “El Castillo Chichen Itza“
- Dzibilchaltun – ruins and national park less than 1 hour from Merida, actually older than Chichen Itza
- Mayapan – a pre-columbian Maya sight and was once the political capital of the Maya in the Yucatan
- Uxmal – a large pre-columbian ruined city of the ancient Maya civiliation.
- Hacienda Sotuta de Peon – a formal plantation / hacienda which has been restored and opened ot the public.
- Cuzama – many prominent cenotes (sinkholes filled with water – perfect for swimming).
- Oxkintok & the Calcehtok Caves – a large cave system with three levels on top of each other! A maze of long, narrow rooms which sheltered the Maya people during wars. You must have a guide to explore.
- Coba – a beautiful set of Mayan ruins that are much less crowded than other popular sites, and one of the few places where you can still climb the great pyramid!
- Valladolid – this beautiful and quite Spanish colonial town has a wonderful charm, and is great for tourists. Easily accessible to travelers between Cancun and Chichen Itza, there is also a tequilla distillery nearby!
- Ik Kil Cenote – while there are many cenotes all around the Yucatan which are incredible for swimming, this massive one is a wonderful way to cool off!
For more information, check out our complete Mexico Travel Guide!