Head off the beaten track on a road trip through Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, and discover the true home of the Maya.
When most people think of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, it is the hedonistic clubs, all-inclusive resorts and high-rise hotels of Cancún that most likely spring to mind. However, venture beyond the tourist resorts and the "real" Mexico is still waiting to be discovered.
Meet the Mayans
The whole region is awash with archaeological wonders, and a visit to one of the ruins is a fantastic way of learning more about the history of the Yucatán and the ancient civilisation of the Maya. The most famous site in the area is Chichén Itzá, with its sprawling complexes of temples, nightly light display and air-conditioned restaurant. Despite the hoards of tourists, it is still worth a visit – just get there early to avoid the onslaught of coach tours and midday sun.
If you are looking for a more authentic experience, head down to Coba, where you can wind your way through the wild jungle to explore the various ruins. Tourists are still able to climb the main temple, but have your wits about you as it can get rather hair-raising towards the top.
If you want to experience even less crowded sites, head out on a day trip along the Puuc Route where you can take in the Mayan sites of Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labna. The route also takes you through Mayan villages and towns. For a taste of luxury, book a private, tailor-made tour through Blue Parallel.
Explore vibrant Mérida
The 470-year-old city is the capital of the Yucatán and a great base for exploring the surrounding ruins, haciendas, villages and beaches. In 2000, Mérida was named the American Capital of Culture, and with a plethora of museums, galleries and stunning architecture it is easy to see why. Add to that tree-lined avenues, pretty parks and squares, fantastic restaurants and friendly residents, and the result is a welcoming cosmopolitan hub. If you need to unwind after all of your sightseeing, head to the spa at the Rosas and Xocolate Boutique Hotel (Paseo De Montejo 480 y Calle 41) which specialises in chocolate treatments. You will leave smelling good enough to eat.
The historic centre of Mérida is fairly small and easy to navigate on foot, or via the super-cheap taxis. Though if you are planning on driving around or leaving the city for day trips, it is best to pick up a local street map upon arrival to navigate your way around the one-way street system. Also, parking within the historic centre is limited, so if you are planning on hiring a car, check with your accommodation that they offer parking.
See incredible nature
The Yucatán has a lot to offer nature lovers, from the biosphere reserves of Sian Ka’an and Rio Lagartos, to incredibly beautiful caves and cenotes (underground waterways and sink holes where you can swim in crystal-clear waters amidst stalactite).
The Yucatán is also one of the best places in the world to flamingo-watch. Situated 96km (59 miles) from Mérida, the coastal resort of Celestún is the place to head to see the beautiful flamingo colonies. You can head off on boat excursions from the entrance to Celestún, or head onto the beach where more boat tours wait. The two-hour boat trip will take you along the coast and into the ria where you can watch the stunning swathe of pink flamingos as they bob around feeding. The boat trip also includes a journey through a mangrove forest and a stop-off at a freshwater spring where you can take a refreshing dip.
To get to Celestún by car, follow the main road to Uman, then follow the signs to Kinchil and then Celestún. The route will take you through some small villages on the way but is pretty straightforward so just keep an eye out for the signs. Alternatively, catch the bus from Terminal Noreste in Mérida (between Calles 50 and 57). The trip takes around two and half hours.
Hit the beach
The best beaches in the area are found along the eastern shoreline, in particular further down towards Tulum. The beach at Tulum itself is breathtaking, with the ruins serving as a stunning backdrop to the crystal-clear waters.
The beach along the famous ‘hotel zone’ stretch of Cancún is also great, though with the not-so-quite-attractive backdrop of high-rise hotels. Take care not to go swimming when there are red flags up as the waters are likely to be masking a strong undercurrent.
Along the northern shoreline, the beach resorts are a lot less developed and you can still find a remote spot for sunbathing. The best option is hiring a car and heading to Sisal. The small beach town has a few shops for buying amenities and one great seafood restaurant on the beach. Other than that, the beach remains pretty quiet, especially during the week. You may even see flocks of flamingos flying overhead from the nearby salt flats.
Stay in majestic haciendas
Travel back in time and visit the majestic haciendas, previously home to the once-thriving landowners of the region. Although most were left to decay and become overgrown by jungle after the Caste War of Yucatán (1847-1901), many have since been restored into fabulous boutique hotels and museums. A hacienda tour provides a glimpse into the colonial era and is a great way to learn about the history of the region. Haciendas also offer a stunning setting to stay for dinner and a night or two’s relaxation. One of the most stunningly restored is the Hacienda Temozon (Km 182 Carretera Mérida-Uxmal, Temozon Sur), where you can relax among a natural rock pool in a candlelit cenote, chill out in the spa or recline in the grandeur of one of the beautifully restored suites.
Getting there: British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and First Choice all fly to Cancún. Expect to pay around £500 return including taxes, though there are last-minute offers available through the tour operators if you are flexible on dates. Search flights.
Getting around: To explore the Yucatán, a combination of public transport and car hire is recommended. If you are heading from Cancún to Mérida, taking a bus is the best bet – you’ll avoid paying the toll charges and the buses are air-conditioned and pretty luxurious. ADO have a ticket office at the main coach station. An open-return ticket on a first-class bus costs around £30. If you want a little more luxury, take the ADO premium service for around £40 return, with fully reclining seats, personal TVs, and a drinks and snack station. Search car hire.
Best time to visit: The Yucatán Peninsula experiences a good climate year-round. The dry season runs from November to April, when the temperature is also cooler for sightseeing. July and August are best avoided if you are intending on walking around a lot as it can be very hot and humid. If you are travelling independently, avoid Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter), when Mexicans all get time off work, as prices for accommodation skyrocket and the roads become busier.