Mexico was on my bucket list since at least 2008, when I worked as a server in restaurants of California, USA. Naturally, many of my colleagues were Mexicans and I simply fell I love with their attitude to life and sincere sunny smiles.
When the chance finally arose, I flew all the way from Europe to discover the beautiful Yucatan Peninsula for 2 weeks!
The peninsula is located in southeastern Mexico, this is how it looks like on the map:
I have spent 2 weeks touring Yucatan with a rented car, mostly the Riviera Maya, the eastern side of the peninsula.
If you want to visit beaches, freshen up in crystal clear cenotes, swim with sea turtles, see the new wonder of the world and just have the time of your life, keep reading, you will find tons of useful tips for your Mexican dream vacation!
1. Chichen Itza, the new wonder of the world
You did not see this one coming, did you?
Chichen Itza is by far the most well-known attraction in Yucatan and maybe in the whole country!
Chichen Itza is a huge complex of Mayan ruins in a shape of pyramids built by Maya people approximately 1200 years ago.
The famous Mayan ruins are UNESCO world heritage and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Even if you are in your all-inclusive relaxing vacation, a day trip is totally worth it, it is such an impressive place!
By the way, a fact that I have learnt in Chichen Itza – Mayan calendar consists of periods, the period changes every 2 880 000 days, and December 21 in 2012, at 11:11 UTC is supposed to be the year when those periods change, not the end of the world like many people thought.
Keep in mind that the area is big, it is not only one pyramid that you see on all the pictures, it is an ensemble of many greatly preserved ruins. You need at least 1,5 hour to discover everything with no rush.
Chichen Itza entrance price
The entrance fee to Chichen Itza is 242 MXN (~14,5 USD),or 453 pesos (~25 USD) if you want to see the night show.
What is this night show? Well, basically it is a light show projected on the main pyramid. You can come at 6 p.m., see Chichen Itza by the day light, the show starts at 8 p.m. when it is darker and lasts 30 minutes.
LIFEHACK: Get cash! It is 10% more expensive if you pay with the card.
If you want to take a guided tour of the place, it is about 500 (28$) pesos for a guided tour of 1 hour, or 900 pesos (50$) for 2 hours.
I visited on Saturday in the morning (morning or evening is better as it can get really hot in the midday) and it was surprisingly not so many people, nothing compared with another Wonder of the World – Petra in Jordan.
How to get to Chichen Itza
Getting there with a rented car is the best way in my opinion.
Chichen Itza is located 2 hours 20 mins away from Cancun, 2 hours from both Playa Del Carmen and Tulum.
If you don’t feel like renting a car, there are tons of Chichen Itza tours. Here is the one from Cancun, from Playa del Carmen and from Tulum. They are anywhere between 50 USD per person to 150 USD, depending on whether you would like a Chichen Itza private tour and if you want to stop by some cenote, visit the city of Valladolid on the way, if the lunch is included etc.
Chichen Itza Hotels
If you are going to continue your Yucatan road trip, I recommend to stay in Valladolid overnight. It is a small colonial town near Chichen Itza, and there are tons of reasonably priced hotels over there.
By the way, Ik Kil, a very famous cenote is very close to Chichen Itza, you can stop by there to refresh if you have more time.
Cancun is a bustling touristic city, you will probably land here if your Mexican trips starts in Yucatan. I recommend stopping by in Cancun only if you stay in a nice all-inclusive hotel (like mine, more about it below). Otherwise, you can get that beautiful turquoise water anywhere else on the coast, more cultural heritage and definitely less tourists! My 2 cents 🙂
Here are some Cancun money saver tips:
Tips about Cancun
- There is UBER in Cancun! It is a great transportation option if you want to take a taxi and not get ripped off. Use my promo code (YULIAS777UE) to get your first ride for free! A normal price for a taxi ride to/from airport to the hotel zone is 400 pesos by taxi and 250 – 300 by Uber.
- The public bus is just 12 pesos. Just ask the driver the name where you are going
- Souvenirs are waaaay too over priced. You can try Mercado 28 in downtown Cancun for more local prices. Almost everything is negotiable, compare the prices with another sellers or 2-3 before
- Avoid the Spring Break as this is the busiest (and the most expensive) time of the year to stay
Things to do in Cancun
The most famous things to do in Cancun include shopping, clubbing in Coco Bongo and other hot nightclubs.
While I did not do any of those (I will explain why below), but there are some other cool activities in Cancun that I am going to tell you about:
How about snorkeling/diving around underwater statues?
No more boring museums, Musa Underwater Museum can be one of the Cancun attractions, why not? Check out the tour here.
This half fay tour will take you to the museum with a fast boat. If you have a diving certificate, I highly recommend getting the diving tour. It is just 10 USD more expensive, but you will get to see the statues closer. I had a snorkeling equipment, so I was only able to dive for a couple of seconds. Still a lot of fun!
After the museum, you will have 2 more picturesque spots where you will see rich underwater life including sea turtles in the wild!
And the best part? It is just for you and your boat mates, nobody else is around!
Where to stay in Cancun
I honestly did not understand it why people like all-inclusive hotels before.
I have been to one in Egypt, and I did not like it at all – I ate way too much, the quality of drinks was horrible, I ended up traveling by myself leaving my hotel room empty.
I guess I haven’t stayed in a right all-inclusive hotel. Yet.
Grand Fiesta Americana is a 5* resort that has a FANTASTIC service, the view from my room was to die-for and the food is a-la-cart. So no buffets and eating way too much of bad quality food!
Things I loved the most about the Grand Fiesta Americana –
- The glass of champagne on the check–in, how is that for a start of a great vacation?
- The double shower, so that you can have a shower together and not fight over it
- The live piano music in the lobby that I heard every day from my room.
The room design and the outstanding quality of service goes without saying, after all, it is a 5* hotel!
And I mean, who would be gloomy if your day starts with this view?
Call me old and boring, but when we walked outside the hotel to check all those noisy bars that are just 2 minutes away from the hotel, I had a wish to come back to my personal paradise.
Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancun is an EP (European Package) hotel, so you do not need to commit for the all-inclusive food. They have 5 resort restaurants to choose from and you can order from them a-la-cart.
I loved ordering my food right by the pool! Aaand it was delicious too!
Even if the hotel is big, it is constantly sold out, so book it in advance, if you want to stay there!
Oh, and by the way, the hotel is located right in front the pier for Isla Mujeres, so need to walk for long or take a taxi!
What is Isla Mujeres? That leads me to the next point
3. Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres is an island located just 13 kilometers off the coast from Cancún.
The island can be visited in a day trip, highly recommended!
To go to Isla Mujeres, buy ferry tickets online at least one day in advance (choose Playa Carasol if you will stay in Grand Fiesta Americana). For some reason we couldn’t buy the tickets to Isla Mujeres online on the day even if there were plenty of spaces, we did it in the cash register.
The price is 24 USD on the spot or 17 online (14 online + 3 USD a ferry tax that you will still need to pay in cash when boarding the boat). It is about 30 min ride to the island.
If you are only staying in Isla Mujeres for 1 day like us, you can rent a motobike to discover the island –
it is 140 pesos per hour (7 USD), 380 pesos (21 USD) per day (the day is until 5 p.m.) or 480 pesos (28 USD) per 24 hours. We forgot our driver’s license in the hotel, so we couldn’t do it.
Taxi was 100 MXN (5,5 USD) to Punta Sur, I guess we could have bargained, but as usual we forgot to do it. 🙂
In Isla Mujeres for sure visit the Punto Sur, one of the most fantastic and powerful places I have been to!
The entrance is 3 USD, and those were one of the most well spent 3$ I have ever spent! So worth it!
What are cenotes anyway? That is a good question!
A cenote is a giant sinkhole that is formed as a result of a bedrock collapse that brings the fresh ground water under it.
As the underwater life is really beautiful in many of the cenotes, I recommend getting a snorkeling mask in advance. Otherwise, you will need to rent it numerous times, and thinking about how many people used it before me makes me shiver.
Remember that it is quite cold because there is fresh water and no sun. But once you get inside and move, you will be fine!
NOTE: PLEASE do not use a sunblock before swimming in cenotes! The water there is crystal clear and all the rich underwater life will be affected because the cream stays in the water and poisons the fish there.
There are many cenotes that are spread all over Yucatan. Below you will see the list of the most well-known ones with the updated prices:
- Cenote Cristalino – 150 MXT (~8 USD)
- Cenote Azul – probably, my favorite! The water is crystal clear and the colors are out of this world, you can do cliff jumping, and there’s amazing rich underwater life. 100 MXT (5,5$)
- Cenote Jardin del Eden – closed on Saturdays. Located just 2 minute walking from Azul. 100 MXT (5,5$)
- Cenote Yal-ku – 280 MXT (15$)
- Casa Cenote – 100 MXT (5,5$)
- Cenote Zacil-Ha – 80 MXT (4,5$)
- Gran Cenote – – 120 MXT (6,5$)
- Cenote Dos Ojos – 350 MXN (~19 USD) Note: you will have to walk for 3 km. if you don’t have a car.
There are many more, visit some of them for an unforgettable diving or snorkeling experience!
Usually all the cenotes close at 5 30 – 6 p.m. The sun goes down that time in any way, so you will not want to stay for longer. Usually kids (4 – 8 years old) enter half price.
5. Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is another coastal city South from Cancun. It is also less hectic and less touristic than Cancun, but it still has lots of restaurants and clubs to offer. I definitely recommend checking it out!
In fact, many independent travelers just skip Cancun (if you do not stay in a nice resort there, it is not much to do in Cancun IMHO) and go down to Playa right away.
I felt like the city was safe and very alive, it has its own vibe. It is, in fact, one of the fastest growing cities in North America!
If you are not staying in the center, which is basically Playa del Carmen’s version of a 5th avenue called La Quinta, you can take taxis. Taxis to anywhere inside the city should cost 35 pesos, but it might be 50 as you are a tourist. Bargain and try to practice your Spanish! 🙂
Things to do in Playa del Carmen and around
- cenote Jardin del Eden,
- cenote Cristalino
- cenote Azul – this one was my favorite!,
- Visit eco-archeological amuzement parks Xcaret, Xel-Ha and Xplor
- Swim with dolphins
Please see the description of each cenote (and what are they) above. I mentioned the working hours and the price.
Where to stay in Playa del Carmen
I stayed in El Taj Oceanfront and Beachside Condo Hotel, and it was one of those rare hotels that has incredible attention to details. Easily, one of the best hotels I have ever stayed, and here is why:
The hotel is located in the center but in the same time it is very secluded, you won’t see crowds of tourists there.
It is not a typical hotel building – you will stay in a condo with a living room, fully equipped kitchen and a bedroom.
The managers of the property thought about every single little detail:
There is a router for each condo, so your internet works fast, a washing machine and a dryer (and even detergent!) are there waiting to be used – a blessing for a traveler like me!
Big scenic windows, comfy mattress, a water cooler, a dishwashing machine that you probably won’t touch as the room service is fantastic and…
Wait for it… A private Jacuzzi!
My personal private Jacuzzi! Say what?
The Jacuzzi is outside your condo, and it is placed this way that people can’t really see you. So yes, you can relax in bubbly water enjoying the view to the ocean drinking your beer and not being bothered by anybody. Hell yes, you deserved it!
Oh, and there is a little extra fridge that is near the Jacuzzi in case you want some beers and don’t want to go all the way back to the living room. Attention to details, told ya!
Breakfast will be included in your stay. El Taj has two restaurants for you to choose from – El Taj restaurant and Indigo restaurant that located is 2 blocks away. I personally liked El Taj more because it is right in the beach and they have a buffet too!
Some other free perks that come with staying in the hotel – free usage of a gym nearby (I visited once, it is a great fully equipped gym), discounts at many restaurants etc. A transfer to another beautiful beach 15 minutes’ drive is provided free of charge.
In Tulum the sky is under the sea
Seriously, the water is so turquoise blue in Tulum, I have never seen anything like that!
Tulum used to be a little fishing village just about 15 years ago, now it is a new popular hype destination for tourists with nice (not all-inclusive giants like in Cancun) bungalow-lined beaches.
Things to do in Tulum and around
Here are the must-does when in Tulum (except relaxing on those paradise beaches of course):
- Tulum ruins – 70 pesos the entrance, free parking, you can come with your own bicycle.
- Grand cenote – It is a cenotes inside the cave, don’t forget your snorkeling equipment. Entrance fee is 180, the locker is 30.
- Carwash cenote – if you are searching for something less known, it is the carwash cenote. The entrance is just 50 and it is just around the corner from the grand cenote.
- Practice yoga
As I mentioned, the main activity to do in Tulum is enjoying crystal blue water, white sand beaches. These are some of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, I can compare them with some parts or Langkawi in Malaysia.
Where to stay in Tulum
You can stay in the actual city of Tulum, it will be much cheaper, but keep in mind it is about 15 mins by car to the beach.
The second option is to stay on the beach and wake up with the sound of waves. It is a bit more expensive, but I’d say, if you are not traveling on tight budget, it is really worth it!
I had to wash my legs each time before entering my bungalow because we were staying literally on the beach and my legs were all sandy!
The hotel where I stayed is called Shambala Petit Hotel. It is funny, but at first I couldn’t even find the door of the hotel as there was no sign. You see, the hotel specializes in yoga retreats and they care about the privacy and comfort of their clients that much that only the person who knows will enter, no passersby.
“You were not ready to enter yet” – the owner of the hotel said when we finally found the bell to ring.
When you enter, you get in a different world, it is calm and spiritual. The beach is marvelous, and the bungalows you will be staying in are simple and clean.
I recommend staying in this place if you feel like immersing with the nature, relaxing after a stressful period at work, and if staying in the bungalow is ok for you.
You will have a private shower and an AC, but they care about the environment a lot in Shambala and the AC only works in specific hours (because they use solar energy). Shambala is not a 5* all-inclusive hotel, but it is something more simple and natural. Just what I needed to relax my mind and spend all those countless hours in the hummock reading a book!
Oh, and I have seen a hatching turtle, for real!!
Well, it was dark, so I saw a shadow, but it was still a magical experience, trust me!
You might also see them if you come from May to November, which is the season when turtles lay eggs.
Please do not disturb turtles when they go out from the ocean in search of a good place to lay their eggs, you might scare them and they can release the eggs in the ocean instead of the beach, losing their opportunity to hatch! You can get a bit closer once it chooses the place and it starts to dig the sand. Once they decide where to hatch they won’t care much about if you are around or not, but that doesn’t mean you should get really close.
That is what I have been told by the hotel owner Roberto, he is so passionate about turtles!
Ok, that was a big parenthesis. I also wanted to add that Shambala Petit Hotel provides bicycle free of charge, they are in great condition.
As the place serves mainly as a yoga retreat, it gets sold out sometimes, book it in advance!
7. Coba ruins
These are the Mayan Pyramids that you can actually climb! (for now)
Coba ruins are other Mayan ruins, not so well known as Chichen Itza (yet). They are still very impressive and let you appreciate the achievements of Mayan culture.
You can also visit it as part of your Yucatan road trip on the way to Chichen Itza.
The most fun part? Climbing the highest temple pyramid on the Riviera Maya for panoramic views. Remember that the stairs look much steeper than they actually are, but the view on top is very nice!
Coba ruins price
It is 50 pesos for parking, the entrance is 70 pesos, add 45 extra if you have a video camera (or just put it in the bag, they will never check).
If you want to take a guided tour (which is always better, especially considering the fact that they is almost no info written there). Our guide was 600 pesos the guide for 45 minutes, but we didn’t negotiate though (we forgot).
To get to the bigger pyramid you need to either walk for 2 km, or you can rent a bicycle for 50 pesos per person (unlimited time). If you are not sure in your riding skills but don’t want to walk, you can take a tricycle, it is… Pesos and the time is 1 25 mins
There is a third complex on the east side which is also great and very serene. Not many visitors make it there despite the fact that the main pyramid site is very crowded. I definitely recommend going!
Overall, the place was quite crowded, so I recommend arriving earlier, around 8 a.m., it is not hot and there are no tourists.
There are no days off, Coba ruins are open every day.
Akumal is a liiiiittle town in between Playa Del Carmen and Tulum that many people visit to see the sea turtles in their natural habitat!
Large and peaceful turtles can be spotted there pretty much in any season of the year in Akumal beach.
Beware – everyone from a parking man to a shop vendor in Akumal will try to sell you tours to swim with turtles and they will try to convince you that this is obligatory.
Now, listen to me, I spoke with the locals who were not interested in selling me a tour (a guy working in a hotel), and he said there are indeed recent regulations that require you to have a life jacket (so that you don’t dive and disturb the poor turtles), but you can absolutely see these majestic creatures by yourself free of charge!
Plus, what is this tour – the “guide” will just take you to the water and swim near you sometimes pointing in the water if he sees a turtle.
You can totally do it by yourself, it is not a required to have a guide! Just walk a minute or two away from the most crowded spot and swim from there in order not to piss them off.
It is quite a big save considering the price of the “tour” is 30 to 50 USD per person depending on how you bargain.
I saw 2 turtles and I followed on of them for almost 10 minutes, it was SO much fun!
My boyfriend saw 4, but that is because he did not chase them around like I did.
Renting the life jacket is 100 MXT (~5,5 USD) per 2 hours, but the price may vary depending on your negotiation. Do not forget to take an ID with you, you will leave it as a deposit!
As a pleasant bonus, Akumal beach is one of the top ones I have seen!
I recommend staying for a little bit more after you swim with turtles, just to relax and enjoy the view.
9. Holbox Island
Isla Holbox (read as Hole-bosh) is another paradise narrow island north of the Yucatan peninsula.
It is still not too crowded, I would call it Mexico’s best kept secret (for now).
You should definitely visit Holbox, at least for a picture like this:
How to get to Holbox
Holbox Island is 2 hours ride from Valladolid if you go by car. You should leave your car in the parking in the city called Chiquila and take a ferry.
The parking is 50 pesos per day (they count the dates, not 24h). There are ways to leave it somewhere for free, but I would highly recommend leaving it under surveillance.
The ferry is 140 pesos (~8 USD) per person, it takes just 25 minutes and it departs every hour. You do not need to reserve the ferry in advance,
If you are going from Cancun, I would not recommend to visit it as a day trip, you will spend a lot of time on the road and will not be able to enjoy this paradise island.
Stay for at least one night!
Things to do in Holbox
The island is pretty small, you should get a bike and ride around, there are plenty of rentals for 3-5$ a day.
Do not miss the Coco beach and the south west of the island (that’s like 15 mins).
Afterwards, go in the completely opposite direction, pass all the hotels, and if you go even further and cross a shallow river, there won’t be anybody, you will have the whole beach by yourself!
You can also swim with whale sharks, it is one of the most popular activities in Holbox! I did it in the Philippines and they are truly majestic and gentle creatures. I was in awe, and if you have never done it before, go for it!
10. Optional things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula (if you have more time)
If you do all of the 9 must visit in Yucatan Peninsula above and still have more time to discover, here are more awesome places to visit in Yucatan that I can recommend:
- Cozumel Island
- Sian Ka’an
- Ek Balam
Just Google all these optional places to have an idea which one you would like to visit!
Other things to know about Yucutan Peninsula
Packing list for Mexico
Here are the things that I found to be very useful in my Mexican trip:
- A hat– I cannot stress enough how important the hat is! Buy it beforehand as everything in Mexico was heavily overpriced, especially hats, people tend to forget to take them.
- Sun block – the sun is strong, be sure to protect yourself at all times.
- An adapter – this universal adapter saves my life! I can go to any country and be sure my phone will actually charge! If you are from the US, you do not need an adapter, but you might need a 120/127V converter
- Snorkeling equipment – snorkeling is very beautiful in Mexico, you will get to see colorful fish and sea turtles. If you rent it more than once (which you probably will), it makes sense to get your own, plus it is not really hygienic. Imagine how many people used it before you? Again, they are super overpriced and bad quality in all shops for tourists, get your own good one from before to avoid the hustle.
- Your Kindle – what will you read relaxing in that dreamy hammock? I LOVE my Kindle and I take it everywhere I go with me
- Water proof phone case – who will take all those pictures while swimming in a cenote?
- A GoProor any other underwater camera, I take my action cam everywhere!
- Comfortable sandals and/or flip-flops
- Bikinis! The more the better 🙂
- A beach bag
- Beach cover up
- A power bank – essential item for any tips
- Packing cubes – it is a game changer, I love how organized I am with my packing cubes!
How to get from Cancun to Playa del Carmen
In many cases, the hotel provides transportation from Cancun airport, but if it does not, you can take a bus
ADO bus is the cheapest option to get from Cancun Airport to Playa del Carmen or Cancun city. The buses leave very 30 min and you can pay by card. The price is 72 pesos (4 USD) to Cancun and 178 pesos (10 USD) to Playa del Carmen.
Once you are in the bus terminal of Playa del Carmen, walk a block away from the entrance and get a taxi from there. We just crossed the street and saved 70 pesos. We paid 50 pesos instead of 120 that the taxi driver required at the entrance to the bus terminal, not bad, huh?
The way is actually cheaper – from Playa del Carmen to Cancun airport with the Ado bus is just 70 pesos (4 USD) per person.
Sim cards in Mexico
If you are like me – you need Google maps to find your way and upload pictures on Instagram to share your experiences, you will probably need to buy a local sim card. Which one to choose?
There is no Wi-Fi, nor a place to buy a simcard in the airport.
I think it is done on purpose by the way, so that people take taxies, not Uber.
Anyway, you will need to buy your simcard in one of the cell shops in the city.
Which one to buy?
AT&T and other operators are cheaper, but Telcel has the best reception. I paid 420 pesos (23 USD) for a 2gb sim card and it worked great.
During your Mexican vacation you will see the ruins, enjoy the beach and see some amazing wildlife without rushing too much. I gave you a list of amazing places to visit in 2 weeks, you can take something out of the itinerary if you have little time, or add more things.
Just don’t rush too much, ok? Relax and enjoy the amazing views of Mexico, which is the only way to feel the peninsula in the right way.
I hope this post will help you plan your stay in Yucatan too!
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments!
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