I backpacked around Mexico for 6 months without incident and I can tell you, you've chosen an amazing place to spend your vacation! 🙂 If you’re looking for adrenaline-pumping adventure, authentic cultural immersion and drop-dead-gorgeous beaches, then you've got to head to the Yucatan Peninsula; it has the perfect mix of tropical beaches with unique can’t-be-found-anywhere-else-in-the-world; sights, such as the incredible underwater caves (cenotes) and impressive Mayan ruins dotted all around the Peninsula.
You’re also going at the perfect time for some breath-taking encounters with whale-sharks in the wild, if you’re into that kind of adventure? I can recommend an amazing, off-the-beaten path place to see the whale sharks and more; getting away from the commercialized concrete jungle of places like Cancun. It's not that easy to find authentically Mexican places in the Yucatan, but it is if you know where to look and go! The beaches in the Yucatan are the best, the food is, as always, amazing and the people are very friendly. It’s also a really really safe area of Mexico, so you don’t need to worry about any safety issues while there. Pick me to write your itinerary and I’ll give you lots of more great tips!
Arrive To Chaos, Escape To Paradise!
Cancun is one of the cheapest places to fly to in Mexico and it also happens to be a great starting point for exploring the Yucatan Peninsula.
Cancun is quite an urban jungle, set against some of the most beautiful beaches you’ll possibly ever see. However, it’s overly developed and ‘gringo-ized’, so since you’re looking to discover the real Mexico, I would try to leave as quick as possible to save time. Luckily for you, the very laid back and cool Playa del Carmen is just down the road, and the even smaller Tulum is just a little further.
However, my personal recommendation to make your first day epic is to head to the beyond-gorgeous island of Isla Mujeres (Island of Women!) for the day.
To get there, make your way down to the newer port in Cancun, Gran Puerto, where you can get the fast ferry, Ultramar (~ 25 minutes and $19 USD roundtrip) to Isla Mujeres. Sit on the ferry’s top deck to enjoy the views and feel the wind in your face, which should come as a welcome relief from the heat.
Once you arrive to the island, you can go straight to the beach, or rent a golf cart for the day to easily get around the long and narrow island. Renting a golf cart will set you back about $50 USD for the day, so I would skip it and instead spend the day at the beach, surfing, snorkelling and swimming.
The beaches in Isla Mujeres are easily reached on foot when you arrive. Just keep walking left once you depart from the ferry.
Rounding around the tip of the island to the north (beside the long wooden bridge that leads to Hotel Avalon), is a large lagoon-like pool bordered by rocks. It’s perfect for snorkeling and you don’t even need snorkel gear, the water is that clear!
My accommodation recommendations (Na Balam Hotel or Ixchel Beach Hotel) are right in front of the beach, so you can enjoy an early morning swim and have the beach to yourself the next day.
Get settled on the Island of Women!
After getting a good nights rest, you’ll be ready for exploring the island today!
At the opposite end of Isla Mujeres is the rocky cliff-face which looks out towards the distant Cancun skyline. These cliffs are populated by dozens of large iguanas, all sunbathing in the warm Mexican heat and you can get close enough to them (albeit at a safe distance) to take photos and be generally amused at their lazy manner.
There is also a large natural park just a few minutes away from the south tip of the island, called Garrafon, but it’s very expensive so I would avoid it since you can experience similar ‘wild’ encounters in other parts of Mexico…for free or cheaper.
Also at the southern tip of the island is a lovely path that extends around the island. You need to pay a few pesos to enter the path, but it’s worth it for the gorgeous views of the turquoise ocean. (See cover photo for image of path).
Isla Mujeres is generally quiet and laid-back compared to Cancun, although you’ll still find plenty of places to grab a cold beer in the evening and meet some friendly travelers and locals.
There are around 10 bars on the island where you can grab a cocktail and soak up the atmosphere of tropical island life. Tiny’s Bar is one of the most popular hangout spots on the island, so just ask any local for directions and they’ll know what you’re talking about.
Tulum Ruins And A Dip In The Great Cenote
Once you’re back in Cancun from Isla Mujeres, head towards the bus terminal, and get a one-way ticket to Tulum.
Try and go as early as possible to the Mayan ruins in Tulum. It’s just over an hour and a half from Cancun to Tulum, and you can get off directly at the ruins. There’s nothing much to see in Tulum town itself.
Allow about 2-3 hours for exploring the Tulum Ruins. After wandering around and enjoying a relaxing dip in the ocean below the great ruins, see if you can grab a taxi from the site entrance to Gran Cenote; your first experience of a cenote in Mexico!
Secret Travel Tip: Try to leave the Tulum Ruins before 3pm so you have time to go to Gran Cenote and enjoy it for at least 2 hours before it closes at 5pm.
Gran Cenote is gorgeous and provides a great first impression to cenotes, as it has both caves and a lovely open water area. If you’re feeling really brave (and if you have previous experience) you can book a cave diving session with a guide who will take you deep into the darkness of the underground cave system.
Get back to your hotel in Tulum to enjoy the rest of the evening to yourself, heading into the town for dinner and drinks.
Swim With Sea Turtles…For FREE!
TURTLES! Yes, that’s right. Today will be an awesome day…again.
Akumal is a relatively unknown and small area between Tulum and Cancun and it has one of the best-kept secrets in the Yucatan. In Akumal you can swim with gorgeous sea turtles for free! So, instead of paying the extortionate prices that many parks in the area offer for the same experience, head to this beautiful, relaxed beach and swim side by side with these beautiful creatures yourself.
All you’ll need to do is catch a taxi or bus to Akumal beach from your hotel in Tulum, rent some snorkel gear and a life jacket from one of the nearby stores, and you’re good to go! If you’ve got your own gear, or if you’re able to borrow some from your hotel, you can do it completely free. However, renting the gear won’t set you back a lot.
A life jacket is definitely recommended, especially if you get tired easily in water, since the turtles are usually out a few hundred feet from the shore, so you’ll need to thread water for a substantial amount of time to remain in the same area as them. However, once you see them swimming below you, and coming up for air, you’ll never want to leave the water.
There are also some nice restaurants around the beach to get lunch and the beach itself is really nice for swimming and sunbathing, so if you get tired of watching the turtles (which you probably won’t), you can go back to the shore to relax and grab some delicious Mexican seafood!
Get a taxi back to your hotel in Tulum that evening and spend your time with a nice cold beer before checking out in the morning.
Colonial Cities And Underground Fresh Water Caves!
Valladolid is one of Mexico’s ‘pueblos magicos’, meaning ‘magical towns’. It’s very different from the rest of the coastal towns which you’ll have already visited, as it is known for its huge wide streets, colorful colonial buildings and its laid-back vibe. Valladolid is a great base for anyone looking to explore the surrounding wonders of Chichen Itza and the gorgeous cenotes of Dzitnup and Samula. Check into the Hotel Meson del Marques and get started on your day!
After checking into your hotel, head straight to the cenotes outside of the city. Dzitnup cenote and Samula cenote are right next to each other, although they each have a separate entrance fee of $50 pesos.
Dzitnup cenote is known for the heavenly light that spills into its cavern, and its strange rock formations inside. The water is extremely cold, but its definitely worth a swim among the small black fish and bats flying overhead. Samula cenote is more open and shallow, and is known for the strange hanging tree roots that fall from the surface into the cavern. After experiencing the intense Mexican sun, you’ll be grateful for the very cold waters of these gorgeous cenotes.
The cenotes are open from 8am to 4:30pm and are highly recommended.
After coming back from the cenotes, walk around the beautiful main plaza in Valladolid, as it is often the host for many cultural and art events in the area.
Walking Through the Great Mayan Civilization
Chichen Itza, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, is just 40 minutes from Valladolid so you won’t need to get up too early to be at the park when it opens at 9am.
The park is so massive, with so many cool ruins to see, including the iconic Mayan Pyramid ‘El Castillo‘ that you really need to spend all day there.
If you are into history, architecture and archaeology, you will love Chichen Itza, and even if you’re not, it’s impossibly hard not to be impressed by the sophistication and grandeur of the structures.
The entire site if full of vendors hawking their wares, so a polite ‘No, gracias’ is usually enough to deter them from pestering you more. If you do want to buy souvenirs, you’ll find the pathways between the different sites full of stalls and tables selling a variety of novelty goods. Some of the handmade wooden sculptures are really beautiful, so if you intend on buying anything, bring a backpack.
Expect to spend at least 4 hours exploring the grounds, more if you’re taking your time. Make sure to bring sun screen, water and a hat, as there is not much shade in the area.
Entrance to Chichen Itza is just over $230 Mexican pesos, which does not include a guided tour nor access to the light and sound show in the evening.
The next morning head to the ADO bus terminal in Valladolid to catch an early bus to the tiny port of Chiquilá. Most buses from Valladolid to Chiquilá will stop in Tizimín, where you will probably have to wait a little while to change bus. Ask in advance at your hotel to confirm this if you’re not very confident in your Spanish.
Chill Out On A Quiet Tropical Island
Welcome to the only place in the Yucatan seemingly untouched by massive tourist developments; Isla Holbox! Although Isla Holbox does have everything you need regarding tourist facilities and services, it has managed to keep its charming small-town feel in tact. Your hotel is the Casa Baltha Holbox with some good Caribbean Sea views. Make sure you arrange a whale shark tour at the front desk for tomorrow on check-in.
The ‘streets’ are paved with white sand rather than cement, while seeing cars on the island is rare. It’s remote location means it has many interesting characteristics, such as using golf carts to get around the island and maintaining small and inconspicuous developments.
The beaches on Isla Holbox are certainly not as beautiful looking as those in the Riviera Maya, but they are quiet, relaxing and perfect for re-energizing after a couple of days of hectic adventure.
There are lots of places in Isla Holbox to try some great seafood and things are generally cheaper here than in other parts of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Head to the beach, chat to the friendly locals or walk around the quiet island for the day before embarking on the ultimate Mexican adventure in the morning! 🙂
Secret Travel Tip: Take a midnight dip in the ocean for a surreal experience, as the plankton from the water causes your body to become slightly illuminated when you move. Very cool and very fun, especially if you convince a few other people to go with you!
On To Bigger Things!
Today is whale shark day!
Rise bright and early to depart from the main dock on a speedboat. Depending on the location of the whale sharks, the boat ride could take between 1 – 2 hours. It’s more likely that it will take around 1 hour or less, since the whale sharks will be closer to Holbox Island during the month of July.
Secret Travel Tip: Watch out for dolphins on your way to reach the whale sharks! There’s nothing quite like seeing dolphins in the wild!
Once you reach the whale sharks, it’s time to jump in! Don’t worry though, whale sharks are neither whales nor sharks (they’re fish!) and they’re one of the most gentile and docile creatures I have ever encountered. If you have any fear, it will immediately dissipate once you enter the water. Excitement and adrenaline will most likely take over.
Most tour companies will only allow you to stay in the water with the whale sharks for a few minutes before the next group of two or three people jump in. You usually get two turns in the water with the whale sharks, depending on how busy it is (July is the high season so it will probably be very busy).
After the whale sharks, you will be brought to a random spot in the Caribbean Sea to go line fishing with just a hook and line. Whatever you catch will be prepared into fresh ceviche right in front of you, and you’ll get to eat it later on when you reach the beautiful mangroves.
You should get back to Holbox around 3 or 4 pm, most likely exhausted but elated from the days activities.
Spend your last night in Mexico as you started it; on the beach with a Mexican beer and some fresh fish tacos. Remember all of the amazing experiences you’ve had over the last few days, before you take the bus back to Cancun in the morning.
Return to Cancun
After checking out of your hotel in Isla Holbox, you can get the ferry back to Chiquilá, where there will be several buses going to different parts of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Unfortunately, and for some unknown reason, there is no direct road from Chiquilá port back to Cancun, so the journey back will take about 3 hours. You’ll arrive to the new ADO bus terminal in Cancun, where you can then proceed to either downtown Cancun (cheaper for accommodation), or to the Miami-esque Hotel Zone.
Now is a good time to get some shopping done in one of the many extravagant malls in the Hotel Zone. There are also lots of food chains and restaurants which you’ll be familiar with, so if you’re feeling like indulging yourself in home food comforts, you’re in the right place. Otherwise, enjoy your last authentic Mexican meal, and savor every last spicy bite! 🙂
A taxi to the airport from downtown Cancun will take about 45 minutes, or if you stay in the Hotel Zone, it could take almost an hour, so bear that in mind when going to the airport.
Isla Mujeres Travel Tip: Make sure to get the ferry schedule so you can plan your departure from the island the following morning.
Tulum Travel Tip: Make sure to book a return taxi from Gran Cenote, as it’s located in the middle of nowhere. Get the cell phone number of a taxi driver and tell him what time you would like to be collected at. Even better if you can arrange this in your hotel so they can help you with the Spanish and provide you with a reliable taxi driver. Taxis to Gran Cenote should cost you around $60 pesos each way.
Akumal Travel Tip: The hotel is located close enough to the town of Tulum, so you can go for dinner or grab a few beers in the evening. This part of Mexico is really safe for tourists but never drink too much, especially if you have to walk back to your hotel alone; just a precaution you should always take when traveling.
Valladolid Travel Tip: Always negotiate taxi rates with drivers before you get in, or ask that they use the meter. A taxi to the cenotes should be around $60 – $100 pesos, while you can organize a bus to Chichen Itza with your hotel.
Isla Holbox Travel Tip: If you intend on going swimming with whale sharks (which you absolutely should!), then make sure to book it in advance. The day you arrive is sufficient notice for booking a tour. Get the tour that includes open water line fishing and a stop at the mangroves. Tours can be arranged from your hotel in 99% of cases.
Cancun Travel Tip: The buses in Cancun are a great way to get around, and will save you a lot of money on taxis.