The Yucatan Peninsula is the ultimate sunshine destination, and a favourite spot amongst every spring breaker in the United States. Yes, this lovely slice of the world is home to where the party is at, Cancun!
But don’t be fooled! Very few people travel outside of these resort complexes to experience the hidden treasures the Yucatan has to offer.
Just a few steps away you can walk amongst the ancient Mayans, swim in magical cave pools from the UNDERWORLD (or so they thought) and revel in the delights of Mexican culture. Mexico is a massive country and there are tons of destinations we would love to visit on a return trip! But I must say… for a quick dose of culture, history, and tequila the Yucatan is the perfect trip if you have only 10 days. We set-off for this adventure on the flip of a coin, and you can too!
For such a short trip you don’t have to worry about breaking the bank. Flights to Cancun can be quite reasonable at about $400 CAD roundtrip (even cheaper from the USA). The whole trip came together to cost about $1000 CAD for the 10 days. Most western currencies will have a favorable exchange rate in Mexico, so when a street taco costs about a dollar, that means you can have at least three!
There are tons of budget accommodations available, and the number of Airbnb listings in each destination made finding the right spot incredibly easy! We had no trouble living on $50.00CAD/day when all the drinks, food, accommodations, and transport was so cheap. Of course, the number of Mayan sites and cenote swimming holes you want to visit (especially the touristy ones) will eat away at your budget. Make sure you enjoy your time there instead of trying to rush from one to the other!
Day 1: Cancun
So yes… Cancun is an inevitable stop in your Yucatan adventure since you will most likely fly into its airport. We only spent one day here before getting right into the thick of our trip. I must say we did have some goofy fun running around the hotel zone just to see all of its glamour!
Every restaurant and bar in this area is way too expensive for you budget backpackers, but we did have fun sneaking onto some beach resorts for free! It was interesting to see the sharp contrast between the tourist areas and the concrete jungle downtown Cancun! There are some great seafood restaurants and along Avenida Yaxchilan if you want to eat with the locals. Otherwise, there are bigger adventures to come. Onwards!
Day 2-5: Merída
Ahhh…..Merída. There is a little bit of everything for you in the Yucatan capital and endless amounts of fun! The beautiful colonial centre of Plaza Grande will keep you busy for days, and maybe you’ll be lucky to see a Mexican wedding in the grand Catedral de San Ildefonso like we did.
We had so much fun hoping from park to park and taking in the daily life of Merída. I would highly recommend coming to Merída on a Sunday if you can! Every Sunday the markets of Merída are in full swing, and free performances of cultural music and dance from around the country are staged along the commercial street of Paseo De Montejo.
Check out the Mercado Lucas de Galvez if you want to overwhelm your senses with the buzz of Merída, and finish off with some great street food. Grilled chicken tortas were to die for, or you can opt for some classic corn tortilla tacos. For even more fun rent a bike on Sunday and ride around town as the streets turn into a parade of bikes for the morning.
Where We Stayed: Las Arecas (Calle 59 np.541, between C66 and C68. 999-928-3626, lasarecas.com)
Our host Mauro was incredibly helpful for tips around town, and how to reach all of the destinations outside of town.
His home is right in the heart of the city with a peaceful courtyard layout that makes for a very comfortable stay.
Day Trips from Merída:
On our first day in Merida we hopped over to the little beach town of Progreso which is just a short bus ride North of the city. It was our first sight of bright sunshine so we wanted to take advantage of it!
The ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE pier is a site to see, and the town still had a quaint feel to it, making it an easy-going and cheap beach day.
Our first experience of the Yucatan cenotes was in the rural village of Cuzama for the Tres Cenote circuit. These mystic, crystal-blue cave pools are found everywhere in the Yucatan! To get to these cenotes, locals treated us to a crazy rail-car ride into the thick brush! By far my favourite mode of transportation!
This excursion also got us out into a much more rural area of the Yucatan which was quite interesting. Make sure to take a bicycle-taxi to the town of Chunkanan to explore these cenotes with a community-run operation that directly benefits the locals rather than booking through a tour!
By far our favourite trip outside of Merída was our voyage to the historic site of Uxmal. In my opinion, the ruins of Uxmal are far more fascinating than the famous site of Chichen Itza, and you can actually climb up the structures of Uxmal!
The details of the stonework and artistry are in great condition, and being able to get up close to see it makes the experience that much more powerful.
This day trip requires an early start and a little bit of finger-crossing as there are a handful of local buses that take you the hour and a half journey to Uxmal.Get a round-trip ticket, and hope that a bus picks you up on the roadside to return to Merída (I am only somewhat kidding!).
Merída is a must-see if you are looking for a true cultural experience in the heart of the Yucatan.
Day 6-7: Valladolid
Just a quick stopover from Merída is the town of Valladolid. We chose to stay here because it is a great starting point to get to Chichen Itza! The marvelous pyramid did not disappoint, and the unexpected fun came from hard bargaining with all of the vendors throughout the site.
Make sure to get there early by taking the first shared taxis around 8 am which can be found near the Valladolid bus station. This will ensure you have Chichen Itza to yourself, and you beat out the tourist buses…not to mention many vendors will have yet to set up yet.
ALTERNATIVE: Ever seen photos of flowery pink lagoons from Mexico all over Instagram? It was probably Rio Lagartos, and this natural wonder lies on the northern shores of the Yucatan a few hours bus ride from Valladolid. Follow the pink flamingos as you explore this uniqye paradise!
The town of Valladolid is pleasant and feels a lot like a downsized version of Merida. Right in the middle of Valladolid you can find Cenote Zaci, the perfect place to cool off from the hot Mexican heat. If you eat a quick lunch at the restaurant above the cenote, entrance to the pool is free!
The magic of Cenote Zaci was the first to get us hooked on finding more of these hidden paradises. Our hostel owner (sadly no longer in business) gave us a great tip for a little-visited cenote outside of town called San Lorenzo de Oxman.
Jordan and I rented some bikes that morning, and took a 20-minute ride South-West of town to reach this beautifully restored hacienda. Skip the pool and the bar to head straight to the cenote. It is absolutely stunning….Take a look for yourself!
If I could use only one word to describe it, I would say enchanting. We were the only ones there for nearly an hour. I would highly recommend visiting as many of these awe-inspiring places as you can for the adventure and the relaxation.
Our next destination was actually the perfect spot for doing just that.
Day 7-9: Tulum
If you want to bring out your inner hippie and live the beach bum lifestyle, there is no better place then Tulum. Long stretches of beach make for the perfect lazy day, and the bustle of the bars along the main avenue will ensure that all your nights are a blur. Our favourite bar was Batey, who are known for their delicious mojitos, live-music, and bizarre VW Beetle sugarcane press.
And of course, there are the spectacular Tulum ruins. Splash a little bit of cash to get onto one of the beach clubs lining the public section of Tulum beach. We have no specific recommendation, only check the menus and scout the comfy beach chairs.
As the sun starts to set, we were told by our amazing hostel owner in Valladolid to head the lighthouse on the northern end of the beach near the Tulum ruins. This spot is a great lookout to enjoy a panoramic view of the Yucatan jungle and the setting sun behind it.The lighthouse is technically out of bounds to the public, but if you are feeling adventurous the views do not disappoint!
There are too many cenotes to count in the surrounding area of Tulum. All of them can be reached by taking various taxi vans either North, South, or West of the city.Our top three recommendations would be Gran Cenote, Jardin del Eden, and Cenote Escondido if you are looking for a local hangout.
Another fun excursion you can do is a trip to the Sian Ka’an reserve! This trip wasn’t on our radar at first, but a story from someone we met at the airport changed our minds! Here is an amazing DIY excursion that we did for around 675 MXN pesos ($35 CAD). This got us entrance to the Muyil ruins (a highly underrated site), a tour through the Sian Ka’an jungle, and trip out into the lagoons of the reserve where you can float through mangrove channels amongst the birds and alligators! !
Twenty minutes North of Tulum is another small beach town called Akumal. The main attraction that brought us there was the opportunity to snorkel with green turtles! We rented our gear in the town of Tulum, packed a lunch, and lounged on the beach for our last full day in Mexico.
We were lucky enough to spot five adorable turtles gracefully swimming through the waves. Easily one of the most memorable moments of the trip! I do have to warn you though that there is some predatory tour practice in the town of Akumal which can make for an unpleasant experience. Our time there was great, but we have heard many stories of travelers being hassled by operators both on the beach and in the water. It is an unfortunate reality for such a special place, so make sure to ask the locals around Tulum for more information and be sure not to fall victim to the tour operators.
Day 10: Playa Del Carmen
We only got a small taste of this resort town, but it’s safe to say that there are a lot of opportunities to party here. The town itself is a little bit too touristy for our liking. However, if it is cenotes that you are looking for Playa del Carmen is another great launching pad for exploring more of these swimming holes.No need to buy a package tour because you can catch local taxis to any of the sites, and pay the small entrance fee for a full day.
From Playa you can easily catch a bus straight to the Cancun airport to conclude your journey. By this point, you will have had more than enough white sand and crystal blue waters. And if you offered a sacrifice at one of the cenotes (like Jordan did with his watch…oops!), the Mayan gods will smile upon you during your future travels.
There really is no better way to spend 10 days! Let us know in the comments below or by sending an e-mail if you would like to learn more about our adventures in Mexico. We can help you with budgeting, suggestions, and more.
For now, I’ll catch you on flip side.