The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico Offers Rich Cultural Landscape
The best things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula? Not surprisingly, immersing yourself in Mayan heritage is the highlight of a visit to this stretch of the Yucatan Peninsula. With this guide, we recommend the best cultural experiences in and near the Riviera Maya. These include Mayan temples, dare-devil performances, spectacular cenotes, and a stunning colonial city.
Here’s the Lay of the Land of the Yucatan Peninsula
The Riviera Maya is the nickname for 100 miles of coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula. It extends from Playa del Carmen to the Mayan site of Tulum. The Riviera Maya is the eastern part of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, and we cover some of its inland attractions that are easy day trips. Those excursions include the ancient Maya temple of Coba, and the small colonial city of Valladolid.
We also give you a glimpse of UNESCO World Heritage Site Chichen Itza in the neighboring state of Yucatan, which is about two hours from Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is a small city on the Caribbean coast in the northeast of the Mexican state Quintana Roo. Originally a fishing town, “Playa” in the center of Riviera Maya runs from south Cancún to the Mayan ruin, Tulum. The village was named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who is the patron saint of Cancún. Playa is growing rapidly and is now the third-largest city in Quintana Roo, after Cancun and Chetumal.
I stayed in an all-inclusive resort in the Playacar area, private development on the southeast of Playa del Carmen. Playacar is safe, new, tidy, and what I would call a Disneyfied version of a typical Mexican neighborhood. While the beaches are beautiful and amenities plentiful, the environment is not quaint and full of historic charm. That will come later in your trip!
Explore Playa del Carmen 5th Avenue
A stroll down Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue is an invigorating way to acclimate to the Yucatan Peninsula lifestyle. The street is highly commercial, with salespeople hawking wares or beseeching you to visit their shop.
Still, the vibe is friendly and there's a lot of eye candy to enjoy: ceramics, hammocks, Mexican hats, religious folk art, fruit vendors, to name but a few of the myriad goods for sale. A vibrant, splashy mural of colorful characters and many moods unfolded before me and my own mood lifted in response.
Parque Los Fundadores and Dance of Flyers
At the southeastern end of Playa del Carmen, near the ferry to Cozumel, at the intersection of 5th Avenue and Avenue Juarez is Parque Los Fundadores. The beachside plaza's lined with steps for people to relax and experience an exhilarating cultural performance: Danza de los Voladores.
Known in English as "Dance of the Flyers", this ancient Mesoamerican tradition is still performed today. According to one myth, the ritual was created to ask the gods to end a severe drought. Danza de Los Voladores was named an item of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2009. Papantla in the state of Veracruz is considered the epicenter of this ancient art form; given that is a 20-hour drive away from Playa del Carmen, I hadn't actually harbored any hopes of actually seeing this high-flying acrobatic performance.
In fact, the troupe performing the ritual were indeed from Veracruz and members of the Totonac indigenous community there. The six men who shared this tradition ranged in age from early twenties to mid-forties, performing hourly at Parque Los Fundadores. The performers serve as both cultural ambassadors and fundraisers for their community.
Flight of the Voladores
In distinctive costumes of white shirts and red pants adorned with vibrantly-hued aprons, they begin circling a 98-foot tall pole. One played a rhythmic melody on a reed pipe and the others bang out a steady beat on hand-held drums. Then, while one member continued to drum, one after another the other five nimbly climbed the pole in shiny boots!
I later learned that the four voladores, or flyers, symbolize the cardinal directions and elements. The climbers each took their place on a square frame at its top. The group's caporal perched above them at the tip of the pole, while he continued the mesmerizing flute score. The performers tied heavy ropes around their waists and then, propelled with the caporal's boots, the wooden platform began to turn and, as it rotated, the four men sitting of each side of the square rigging simply fell backwards. Hanging upside down, the men spun around the pole in wide circles, descending ever earthward as the rope line unwound. As someone terrified of heights and not able to easily "let go" this sight was both electrifying and giddy.
Where To Stay in Yucatan
Playa del Carmen
Hotel 52 is located right beside to the famous 5th Avenue bang in the centre of Playa del Carmen. It has a rooftop pool where you can enjoy sea views. All rooms have air conditioning and fan.
Itour México Túlum Hotel offers free parking & free Wi-Fi and right next to Tulum National Park. It's just 500 meters to the town's centre. It features a café, garden and individually decorated rooms. The décor is inspired by Mexican culture and each room features bright colours. All air-conditioned rooms have satellite TV and a private bathroom.
Hotel Maya has a restaurant, outdoor swimming pool, a bar and a shared lounge. It's only a short walk from the hotel to the Coba Ruins. The accommodation features a shared kitchen, room service and currency exchange for guests.
Hotel Sac Be is another very good option to consider when booking your stay in Coba. It also gets very good reviews.
Hotel Fundadores offers air-conditioned rooms in Valladolid. Among the various facilities are a garden and a terrace. There is an outdoor pool and guests can make use of free private parking. At the hotel, all rooms are equipped with a patio with a pool view.
Playa is a fun entry point to the Yucatan but one day of honky-tonk is enough for me. The next day, I headed south to the ancient Mayan city of Tulum. How ancient, you ask? A stelae found on the site is dated 564 A.D., although it's speculated that the area was a fishing village as early as 300 B.C.
Playa del Carmen to Tulum is a very manageable day trip. The distance is about 40 miles and will take roughly an hour, depending on the mode of transportation you use. Options include taxi (about 650 pesos); the ADO bus (70 pesos each way) or via a colectivo (a shared van that costs about 40 pesos each way). I took the bus down and a colectivo back. The bus is big, comfortable, air-conditioned and the trip is direct; the colectivo was cramped, had no AC and made numerous stops. Note that the little town of Tulum is actually about 2.5 miles inland from the archaeological park. You might enjoy poking around a bit here, although there are restaurants at the mini-mall outside the archaeological park.
History of Tulum in the Yucatan Peninsula
The settlement's location is unique in the Mayan civilization; Tulum was the only Mayan city built on the coast. The site is built atop 39-foot ocean cliffs and is surrounded on three sides by limestone walls seven yards thick. The name Tulúm translates as the Mayan word for "fence". The extent of the defensive measures befitted the only port for the extensive Mayan trading empire, believed to have stretched as far away as Costa Rica. It's said that the goods traded included turquoise, jade and obsidian, as well as honey, animal skins, salt and wax.
From the site’s entrance, a hodgepodge of vendors sold trinkets while tired tourists sipped soft drinks at casual cafes. I walked along a dusty path to a small triangular archway within a stone wall. Once through it, I felt as though I had wandered into another, timeless world. Although a popular destination for visitors, the site was largely empty during my visit. Silhouettes of gray stone temples were back-lit by a lavender sky, and palm trees rustled in the breeze. The other-worldly atmosphere made it easy to imagine being among its earliest settlers; another civilization.
Crossing the compact grounds, which are much smaller than many of the other sprawling Mayan metropolis, I saw what looked like bloody handprints emblazoned on the façade of one of the ancient structures. It was customary to paint over the exteriors of buildings with bright colors that the Maya associated with cardinal directions.
Other themes reflected in the murals that adorned the buildings were everyday rituals and natural surroundings. Some believe that the murals were repainted to mark the beginning of each new Katun, which is a Mayan measurement unit of time, equal to 7,200 days, and part of the civilization’s intricate Long Count calendar.
I reached the complex’s outer edges, perched on the sea above brilliant turquoise waters. Looking down, I realized where all the tourists were playing on the sandy beach and in the foaming waves. The sight actually enhanced the effect of being amidst an inhabited community, creating a sense of enjoyment and liveliness.
Connect With Cultural Landscape of Yucatan Peninsula
A fascinating aspect of travel is exploring how the landscape of a destination has influenced its beliefs and way of life. One of the best things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula is connect with its singular cultural landscape.
In addition to white-sand beaches and various historical sites, Quintana Roo and Yucatan offer visitors distinctive cultural landscapes to explore. The Yucatan Peninsula is a flat plain of limestone with thousands of miles of below-ground water-filled caves interconnected by subterranean rivers. When the roof of these underground caverns collapses, the result is a deep, water-filled sinkhole known as a cenote.
Cenote is a Spanish word derived from the Mayan word dzonot, meaning "well." With more than 3,000 Mayan cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula, they're a fascinating and fun feature of landscape to explore! From the outskirts of Tulum, I headed inland and after a short drive north on Route 180, I soon saw the sign for Grand Cenote.
Exploring Grand Cenote
After purchasing my ticket, I followed a boardwalk down a precipice, eager for my first glimpse of this curious phenomenon. About twenty feet below was a ring of rippling teal water encircling a small island, which sprouted prehistoric-looking plant life. Chalky limestone walls rose from and encircled this vivid scene, resembling white waves of soft stone. The curling lip of the cliff face extended out several yards. The long roots of above-ground trees dangled all the way down to the water far below. I later learned that cenotes closer to the sea tend to be at land level, like a lake or pond. Conversely, the pools of the craters further inland are generally at the bottom of deep open-air shafts in the ground.
Descending stairs to the floor of the abyss, I walked to the right side of the little islet, where a handful of middle-aged friends were donning snorkeling gear. Goggles and flippers in place, they swam off down a low-ceilinged passage that extended from the lagoon. I watched them paddle toward a luminous glow created by sunlight filtering through another opening in the earth. Their exclamations echoed back to me after they were out of sight, squeals that sounded alternately anxious and delighted.
All Business at Grand Cenote, Yucatan Peninsula
On the other side, it was all business as a television crew readied to tape an advertisement for Mexican beer. Pony-tailed technicians tinkered with a giant camera lens; an aggravated-looking man with a clipboard paced around and snarled into his cell phone, apparently waiting for the “talent.”
Two stories below ground, I peered through man-size ferns at a pool of translucent cobalt water. I wondered what the Mayan high priests would think of a Corona commercial filming in their portal to the afterlife. Their jaded nonchalance about the extraordinary surroundings gave me pause. It prompted me to consider how often I can take for granted the beauty that is in my own backyard. Yet I am certainly not alone in finding the cenote experience, celluloid and otherwise, awe-inspiring.
Like “The Set of Star Wars”
“I remember watching films of people cenote diving and wondering why on earth people submerged themselves into these dark holes through choice not knowing what gruesome monster was going to be waiting for them around the corner!” exclaimed Corrie Watkins, a dive instructor with Abyss Dive Center in Tulum. “I have since executed a number of cenote dives within the Yucatan Peninsula. The only way to describe it to someone who has never been is that it is like you are diving on the set of a Star Wars film. They are decorated with stalagmites and stalactites with the most amazingly perfect visibility.”
“There are a few cenotes where you can comfortably surface halfway through the dive, such as Dos Ojos,” she explained. “There, you are surrounded by an overhead cavern, where bats hug the ceiling and spiders balance within their crystal webs. If you look carefully you may see ancient fossils on the floor, walls and ceiling. Also, look out for the haloclines in some of the deeper areas this is where the freshwater meets the salt-water and there is a mirror-like effect.”
Coba of the Yucatan Peninsula
From Grand Cenote, my next stop was the ancient Mayan city of Coba. My guide explained during Coba’s heyday from 200 - 600 A.D., it housed more than 50,000 people. I had never heard of it so, once more, I recognized that local knowledge always trumped my research. This is why I always prefer to use the services of local guides. As we parked and headed toward a group of temples known as Nohoch Mul, my companion explained that the name Coba means "waters stirred by wind"; the site is situated around two lakes, Coba and Macanxoc.
After a brief trek accompanied by the songs of various darting and swooping birds and the chatter of unseen monkeys, the path opened up into a clearing dominated by a towering gray stone structure, surrounded by a halo of verdant trees. Now I immediately understood why all those fellow tourists required an ambulatory exit from Coba.
The Nohoch Mul temple is Coba's tallest and immense monument, standing at a majestic 138 feet in height. That's ten stories high! Carved into its facade are steep shallow steps and climbing up the vertical incline were scores of visitors who from a distance resembled swarming ants, their bodies tiny compared to the scale of the temple.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone on the Yucatan Peninsula
A confession: I am afraid of heights. Watching much younger, more able-bodied people make the climb in such a tentative crawl told me it wouldn't be easy. Giving myself a silent pep talk, I approached the monolith and as I got closer, felt a sense of relief. I realized that at least half of the people mounting Nohoch Mul were doing so in a way that was not terribly dignified. It certainly made scaling its heights less scary for me. They were ascending one step at a time on their butts, scooching ever upward on the temple's 120 steps.
Even more inspiring was the look outward, where across a green expanse of treetops, I saw the tip of another temple peeking above the canopy. This view reminded me of the power of time; no matter how much effort, energy and intention, the significance of our human plans and toil is always eclipsed by the grander design of the Universe. Rather than be bummed out by that notion, it was a comfort. It was another kind of reminder about humility: I can seek to achieve my aspirations but I don't need to regard my goals as life or death; my accomplishments or failures, for that matter are far from eternal.
I visited Coba in 2010. In the ensuing decade, my perspective has evolved considerably. Today, while it’s still permissible, I would probably not climb Nohoch Mul. I also have had my consciousness raised about the appropriateness of summiting a historic site of spiritual significance to a culture not my own.
- Opening hours: 9:00am to 3:00pm, everyday
- Admission fees: 80 pesos
- Website: inah.gob.mx/zonas/515-zona-arqueologica-de-coba
Rio Lagartos is a small village perched on the shores of the mangrove-lined lagoon that holds special appeal for bird-watchers and wildlife photographers. There is a laid-back atmosphere and plenty of nature in this peaceful community at the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. The opportunity to see a glimpse of a sleepy, rural fishing community's way of life is provided by Rio Lagartos.
If you take a boat tour in Rio Lagartos, you'll also spot crocodiles, happily from a safe distance! Rio Lagartos means "estuary of the lizard." The area was given this name in 1517 by a soldier accompanying Spanish explorer Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba. European exploration of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula began with the voyage of Cordoba. A humorous tale claims that when the Spanish asked the local indigenous population what the name of the region was, the answer they received was Yucatán, which translates to "I don't understand you." The rest is history.
There are roughly 2,000 people living in Rio Lagartos, and the town is made up of multiple blocks of buildings that are all brightly colored. Along the waterfront is where the main street runs. There are a few eateries on one side, and a fleet of tiny fishing and excursion boats are moored on the other. My first glimpse of the indigenous wildlife was the big-billed, comical-looking brown pelicans perched on the bows of the boats. Although they appeared to be as numerous as seagulls, in North America they were actually categorized as endangered in 1970.
Merida has a rich culture that reveals its colorful and multi-faceted history. There are many places in Merida, the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan, where you can learn about the history and culture of the area. The city's squares and boulevards are like an open-air museum of Colonial architecture and feature frequent concerts. There are many organizations that focus on showcasing Yucatan's past and way of life, including folk art, music, and Mayan history.
The city of Merida is situated on the western edge of the Yucatan Peninsula's northernmost point. You can fly or drive from Cancun to Merida in less than an hour if you first spend some time on the Riviera Maya. Beaches may be found approximately 90 minutes to the west of the city in Celestun and 40 minutes to the north in the coastal town of Progreso. Small "Pueblos Magicos" like Izamal and Valladolid, as well as historic Mayan sites, are all accessible day outings.