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Hidden Gems of the Yucatán

Angela Wood

Senior Contributor

If you’ve experienced the bright lights and party atmosphere of Cancún and want to delve deeper into the hidden gems of the Yucatán, look no further. This region of Mexico is brimming with soft white sand beaches, jungle-strewn Mayan cities, Colonial-era architecture and mysterious underground cenotes. If you wish to step off the beaten track and away from the all-inclusive resorts for a while, here are a few ideas to whet your appetite.

Discover the Ancient Mayan City of Chichen Itza

The ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza lies 45 minutes west of Valladolid on the Mexican Yucatán Peninsula. Nestled amongst dense jungle, the well-preserved city allows you to travel back in time to when this region was home to around 50,000 people.

The Mayans were known for their precise building techniques, mathematical prowess and interest in astronomy and were more advanced in knowledge than the Romans, Egyptians and Greeks. They created an accurate calendar, displayed in El Castillo – the Great Pyramid on site.

The pyramid, built to appease god Kukulkan, has 91 steps on each side with a final step at the temple summit. Added together these equate to each day of the year – 365 in total. This shows that the Mayan community constructed their buildings with a precise mathematical purpose. Along the side of the pyramid, a sculpture of the feathered serpent winds its way from top to bottom.

If you visit during spring or autumn equinox at sunset, you’ll see an optical illusion of the serpent slithering down the side of the pyramid! As there are 12 well-preserved buildings to discover in Chichen Itza, you can discover what lies inside the great pyramid, see unique statues which have been unearthed and learn more about Mayan culture.

Chichen Itza archaeological site

Credit: Aleksandar Todorovoc

Explore Historic Mérida

The largest city of the Yucatán, historic Mérida is home to around 60% of the Mayan population of Mexico. Begin your exploration in Plaza Grande, the city’s main square. A cultural blend of past and present, it’s home to San Ildefonso Cathedral – a Colonial structure built by the Spanish in the 1500s.

Nearby, the State Capital Building and City Hall are architecturally splendid, allowing for superb photo opportunities. Mérida’s weather is warm year-round, so it’s always wise to find somewhere to cool off. You can head for pretty Parque de las Americas, with its Neomaya fountains, cultural centre and open-air theatre, browse the Folk-Art Museum of Yucatán or take a dip in an underground cenote outside the city.

If you didn’t make it to Chichen Itza, the ancient city of Uxmal is around an hours’ drive from Mérida. Gain breathtaking views of the lush landscape when you climb the 40m-tall Pyramid of the Magician. Alternatively, head to the biosphere reserve of Celestun and take a boat ride through lush mangroves to a pink flamingo sanctuary.

Merida Zocalo

Credit: Douglas Depies

Swim in an Underground Cenote

Cenotes are natural wonders unique to the Yucatán. These unusual subterranean pools, not dissimilar to sinkholes were formed when saltwater and freshwater eroded the limestone rock over thousands of years. The cenotes were a source of water and life for the ancient Maya and believed to be a gateway for communicating with the gods. Today, visitors to the Yucatán can swim in many of the cenotes scattered across the peninsula. Most are located close to ancient pyramids and temple sites and have steps leading down to the clear pools.

As you swim and snorkel, sunlight pokes through limestone shafts and vines dangle creating a mystical, ethereal effect and you begin to imagine what life was like for the Maya thousands of years ago.

Ik-Kil Cenote, Yucatan

Credit: Vadim Petrakov

Enjoy Traditional Yucatán Cuisine in Valladolid

The city of Valladolid is located between Cancún and Mérida in the Yucatán, Mexico. Therefore, the Colonial era city is the perfect place to break from your journey and sample some of the region’s tasty cuisine. Valladolid is incredibly photogenic with colourful narrow streets, a Franciscan convent with evening sound and light show and numerous turquoise cenotes.

In addition, you’ll also discover several cosy restaurants serving delicious Yucatan cuisine. You can sample delicious pozole – a traditional pork and hominy soup, feast on spicy sausage or taste imaginative vegan cuisine alfresco on the patio at Yerbabuena del Sisal. A few must-try dishes include breakfast Chilaquiles – fried tortilla strips with salsa topped with eggs, beans, cheese or meat and Poc Chuc – slices of tender pork marinated in achiote spice and sour orange salsa.

It’s enough to make your mouth water!

Mexican Food

Credit: Larisa Bilinova

Sip Cocktails by the Beach on Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is a diminutive island measuring just 1.6 square miles an hour’s boat ride from Cancún. The ‘Island of Women’ allows you to step back in time to a peaceful paradise away from the hustle and bustle of tourist haven Cancún. You can shop for handicrafts, explore underwater sculpture museums and sun worship on white soft sandy beaches. However, there’s no better way to end the day than with a cocktail by the water’s edge.

Some of the best beach bars are around Playa Norte. Join the hip crowd for drinks at Green Demon Beach Club. They serve tantalizing Mexican fusion cuisine and signature cocktails which can be sipped on sun loungers beneath light-strewn palms. Absolute bliss.

Margarita cocktail

Credit: Lux Blue

Scuba Dive in Cozumel

Jacques Cousteau once declared Cozumel to be one of the best dive sites he had ever visited, and it’s true! Even today it’s one of the best areas in Mexico for snorkelling and scuba diving. Catering to all levels of expertise, you can explore Cozumel Reefs National Marine Park, home to over 500 species of fish and 26 coral species.

If you’re seeking a challenging dive Punta Sur and Paso del Cedral offer opportunities to venture into deep chambers and caverns where you may catch a glimpse of nurse sharks and the endemic splendid toadfish.

If you’re a seasoned diver seeking a different experience, why not dive a cenote? There are many along the Yucatán peninsula presenting a unique underwater adventure for advanced enthusiasts. Beginners and intermediates will adore exploring Palancar Garden, home to finger coral formations, butterflyfish, angelfish and parrotfish. If you plan to travel to Mexico and are looking for potential dive schools, it’s possible to learn to scuba dive in Cozumel with certified PADI instructors all year-round.

Hawksbill Turtle

Credit: Brian Lasenby

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