Mexico is a massive, massive country, with lots of different biospheres. It has deserts, coastlines, forests and more, but perhaps the most fascinating and appealing one is on the eastern coast. The Yucatán refers to the country’s southeastern peninsula that splits the Caribbean ocean from the Gulf of Mexico, and the Riviera Maya is the stretch of land on the peninsula that straddles the Caribbean. Because of the strategic location between these two beautiful bodies of water, the Yucatán is absolutely chock full of incredible jungles, mangroves, forests and picture perfect desktop-wallpaper-worthy beaches. But what to do there?
The easy answer is Cancún. Notoriously overrun with tourism, Cancún has become a kind-of Vegas in Mexico -- with dramatic high rises, all-inclusive resorts, and umbrella-strewn beaches that stretch the entirety of its eastern side. My advice? Skip it. There is so much more to see in this part of the country than Cancún, and frankly, if you’re not staying in a resort, there’s hardly anything to see there at all. Let me show you my simple 2 week Yucatán & Riviera Maya itinerary and why it’s a better option than a far more expensive Cancún vacation.
$1 USD = 19.79 Pesos (as of February 2020)
GMT -5 hours (Central Standard Time)
Dry Season: November - May; Rainy Season: June - October
Food & Drinks to try in Mexico
Tacos - obviously. Street tacos can be as cheap as $0.40 in some places
Chiles Rellenos - trust me on this one. Cheese-stuffed relleno peppers, sometimes fried
Tortas - Mexican sandwiches stuffed with meat of your choosing (very cheap)
Elote - Mexican street corn on the cob. Usually slathered with butter, cheese, lime juice and spices
Mole - a delicious savory sauce made with chocolate. Usually served with chicken or pork. Excellent on tacos.
Sopes - tortillas stuffed with refried beans & topped with meat
Naranja Agria - sour orange, only available in the Yucatán
Pitaya - Dragon Fruit
Safety in Mexico
Tourist safety in Mexico has been a topic of controversy for a long time, and for good reason. We’ve all heard horror stories of tourists getting kidnapped, mugged, or worse while on vacation in Mexico, and more specifically in Cancún. The truth is, things do happen, but not any more than they do in other countries. I’ve been to places of equal tourist safety, like Colombia and Ecuador, and have never personally had any problems whatsoever. I have heard, however, a significant amount of pickpocketing stories, so it’s always important to be on the alert when out and about. The bottom line is this: be street start, don’t stand out, and try to travel in groups when possible. If you do that, I don’t see why you shouldn’t be absolutely fine.
2-Week Mexico Itinerary
Day 1: Cancún
I don’t think I’ve made any secret of my opinion of Cancún. It’s not even close to my favorite city I’ve ever been to, and that’s likely because I stayed at a hostel outside of the resort area. Having said that, Cancún is a necessary and decent spot to start your trip because of its location and because it’s a relatively cheap destination to fly to. If you’re feeling up to it, walk around town and check out some of the local markets - the market food is always delicious and cheap. Other than that, lounge on your hostel rooftop or try and find a cheap beach to sneak onto in the resort area. I didn’t spend much time here, so there’s not a ton that I can recommend.
Days 2-4: Isla Mujeres
Okay, so full disclosure here - I didn’t go to Isla Mujeres. I desperately wanted to, but my timeframe didn’t allow for it so I had to skip it. Do I regret it? Yes. Did I want to swim with whale sharks? You bet. Do I wish I had trimmed off time from Mérida & Tulum for it? Nah.
Isla Mujeres is essentially Cancún’s overlooked older sister- more talented & pretty, but far less attention seeking -- that is, it’s Cancún without all the things that make Cancún terrible. It’s got it all - beautiful white sand beaches, pristine diving, delicately waving palm trees. It’s only a 20 minute ferry ride from Cancún’s Puerto Juarez, making it super easy to get to. The bottom line: add Isla Mujeres to your list if you want the beach resort vibe without the crowds and bustle of the typical resort strip.
What to do on Isla Mujeres
Dive with Underwater Statues
Other than the whale sharks, this is easily the biggest disappointment of missing Isla Mujeres. World famous for its unique diving, MUSA is an underwater art museum, complete with coral and seaweed covered statues. You’ve likely seen pictures of it online, and I beg you to try it out if you go to Isla Mujeres. Do it for me.
Swim with the whale sharks (May-September)
If there’s anything I regret from my trip, it’s that I didn’t do this. Yes, whale sharks are technically sharks, but they only plankton & tiny fish, and therefore are absolutely no threat to you. They’re the largest known fish in the world and exceptionally docile. You have several options here: you can swim with them, snorkel or dive, and I would 100% recommend diving if you can muster up the guts. There’s really nothing quite like being up close and personal with the world’s biggest fish (or so I’m told...)
Explore the Island on a Golf Cart(?)
Apparently the thing to do on Isla Mujeres is to rent out a golf cart and go exploring. Why a golf cart? Beats me. Am I complaining? Hell no. That sounds amazing. Rent one for the day and go exploring the island’s coast and jungles. I can speak from experience when I say that some of the most fun can be had when you rent transportation and go off on your own. Just please be safe. Learn & respect the local rules. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t be a jerk. Have fun.
Check out the Turtles!
Apparently Isla Mujeres is known for being a famous turtle hatching spot between the months of May and July. If you’re lucky and happen to plan your trip around that time, you ought to check it out, because seeing baby turtles make their break for it to the sea is supposed to be spectacular. There’s also a turtle hatchery called Tortugranja where you can get guided tours and learn more about these little fellas.
If all these activities are making you sleepy, Isla Mujeres is the perfect spot to be. Grab a hammock or a spot on the beach and kick your feet up. There’s no shortage of beautiful paradise island spots here. Spend a lazy day eating local food and kicking back with a coconut in hand. You’ve earned it!
Wondering where to stay on Isla Mujeres? Check out Balu Hostel
Day 5: Chichen Itza & Cenote Tour
After your detour in Isla Mujeres, head back to Cancún for the night and get ready for an action packed next day. Chichen Itza is the Yucatán’s most famous Mayan archaeological site, and it’s for good reason. One of the largest ancient Mayan cities, Chichen Itza was a hub for Mayans from all over Mesoamerica, and is complete with dozens of archaeological ruins and stories that go with them. The history of this sacred place is deeply rich and fascinating -- like something out of a fantasy novel or blockbuster movie. Grab a bus and get there early in the morning to beat both the heat and the crowds (and oh...will there be crowds).
Make sure you either book a day tour back in Cancún or hire a guide to explain the significance of this place, because without one, you’ll be completely lost and miss out on the cultural relevance of this beautiful site. You can easily spend hours here just touring the ruins and walking over to the notoriously sacrificial sacred cenote (oof... so many sacrifices). Oh, and for those of you familiar with The Road To El Dorado, you’ll find the Great Ball Court suspiciously reminiscent of the ball game they played in the movie.
Either before or after you go to Chichen Itza, your tour will likely take you to a cenote for some exploration and swimming. Cenotes are underground freshwater sinkholes, and they only exist in the Yucatán. They literally look like someone took a giant holepuncher to the ground and it filled up with water. They are absolutely fascinating to think about, stunning to look at, and refreshing as hell to swim in. Really savor this bit of your tour because the day will be blisteringly hot, and this will be the only cool down you’re likely to get.
Getting to Mérida
After this activity-packed day, you have a few options. You can either complete the tour, head back to Cancún and take a bus to Mérida the following day, or you can split off from the group and grab a direct bus to Mérida from Chichen Itza. I picked the latter option because Chichen Itza is about halfway from Cancún to Mérida, and to me, it didn’t make sense to drive all the way back to Cancún just to pass through here the next day. It’s a big time saver, and if you think you have it in you to finish off the trek in one day, I definitely recommend it.
Days 6-8: Mérida
It seems that few people outside of Mexico have heard of Mérida, but when you get there you’ll wonder why. This gorgeous colonial city, nicknamed Ciudad Blanca (or White City) is a place all its own in Mexico. It’s the largest city in the Yucatán and is absolutely bursting with color. I personally have never seen a Central American city with such unique & different architecture, tightly packed streets, and striking colors.
Because of its location on the northwestern point of the Yucatán Peninsula, Mérida is ideal for travelers who want to get a taste of the Gulf Coast in addition to the more popular Caribbean one. Mérida is also surrounded by a truly mind-boggling amount of cenotes and Mayan ruins, so it’s easy to see how people can end up here for over a week. And hey...feel free to splurge here! Compared to Cancún and Tulum, Merida will easily be the most affordable city on your travel route.
What to do in Mérida
Take a day trip to Celestún
This was our main activity while we were in Mérida, and damn am I glad it was. A short hour and a half from Mérida, Celestún Biosphere Reserve is a nationally protected mangrove filled with all sorts of wildlife: alligators, fish, pelicans and flamingos...yes, flamingos. A full day tour usually includes transport to and from your hostel, an experienced guide to show you around and explain the biodiversity, a boat trip that weaves you through the mangroves and shows you the flamingos, and a meal on the Gulf Coast. If you don’t like crowds, this lesser known destination is a great way to spend your day and see some pretty amazing wildlife.
Check out the Uxmal Ruins
Because of time, and because we were planning on seeing the ruins in Tulum, we skipped the Uxmal Ruins, but from what I hear, they’re pretty incredible. The Uxmal ruins are a world-renowned UNESCO Heritage Site, and they’re unique because they’re thought to really accurately represent the Mesoamerican Mayan architectural style in its most pure form. In addition, they’re much more complete and more fully formed than man other surrounding Mayan ruins, which make them a real treat to visit. Worth checking out!
Explore the food scene
Go Museum Hopping
I know, I know. I hate museums as much as the next guy, but some of the museums in Mérida are actually quite engaging. Oh...and they have AC, which makes them much more appealing to me than usual. Check out the Palacio Canton, Casa Museo Montes Malina or the Gran Museo de Mundo Maya Mérida for some cheap entertainment on a lazy day, and to learn an expansive history of the Mayan significance of Mérida and its surroundings.
Mérida has the most interesting and innovative food scene that I’ve seen on this trip. There are the typical local street markets, but also a fair amount of more progressive and westernized food markets that blend Yucatán or Oaxacan food with other types of cuisine (I tried a grasshopper quesadilla at one of these). You get all that and some really mouthwatering restaurants in Mérida that highlight the best of the Yucatán’s regional food.
Days 9-12: Tulum
Once you’ve had your fill of adventure and culture in Mérida, catch a 4 hour bus to Tulum, the backpacker haven of the Riviera Maya. Tulum is only now catching on as a popular tourist spot, and you’ll want to get in on it before it turns into another iteration of Cancún or Playa del Carmen. All your prayers of beautiful white sand beaches and Gatorade-blue water are about to be answered as you head over to Tulum, because it genuinely has some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. A much smaller and bustling town, Tulum has much to offer for a small price tag. Grab a piña colada and grab a hammock because you’re going to be in chill mode for the next few days.
What to do in Tulum
Beaches on beaches on beaches
After all the adventures of your trip so far, I think you’ve earned a little R&R. Grab a cab to one of Tulum’s many free beaches and make a day of it. Bring a mango smoothie (or something a little harder) and admire Tulum’s stunning white sand beaches.
Bike around town
The hands down best way to get around Tulum is by bike. They’re easy to rent in the middle of ton, and you rent them out for a full day or even overnight in some spots. Ride them to the beach, to the ruins, or anywhere in between.
Explore the cenotes
I don’t know how many cenotes you’ve seen at this point on your trip, but Tulum and its surrounding area is dotted with hundreds. Grab your swimsuit or a snorkel and go splash around in one of these fantastic sinkholes. Diving in the cenotes here is an absolutely otherworldly experience. For beginners, you can do discovery dives with an instructor. And for those more experienced divers, consider cave diving in one of the cenotes. It’s scary for sure, but it’s also renowned as the best spot worldwide for cave diving.
Because Tulum has become such a backpacker hub in recent years, there’s no shortage of nightlife in this otherwise quiet town. Whether its at a hostel, a taqueria, or a bar, you’ll always be able to find some great reggaeton music and cerveza. Pre-game at your hostel with some travel buddies and head out to a beach party, street party, or whatever else is going on that night.
Check out Tulum's ruins
Okay, okay...I know by now you’re thinking that you’re all ruin-ed out, but trust me, these ones are different. Tulum’s famous ruins are located directly on shore, making them a particularly picturesque site to explore. Entry is very cheap, and the archaeological site spans a really large area that includes the beach. That’s right: you can combine your beach and exploring days into one. There also are an impressive amount of iguanas and pelicans here, so it’s a great place to do a little wildlife spotting.
Days 13-14: Back to Cancún; Fly Home
After you’ve had your fill of sun and sand, catch a 2-hour bus ride back to Cancún. With one day left in your trip, you may want to relax in a hammock or chill with some friends, but hopefully you’ve found that your trip was jam packed with a great mix of adventure and relaxation. Then catch your flight back home and try desperately to explain how your “Cancún trip” wasn’t really a Cancún trip.
If you’re interested in seeing other parts of the world, you can always check out my other itineraries right here. Happy travels, my friends!