Mexico: Yucatán, between playas and mayas

Superb white sand beaches on the Caribbean side, exceptional seabed, but also leading archaeological sites ...

The Yucatán Peninsula, which faces Cuba and Florida in the Gulf of Mexico, is among the top tourist areas in Mexico, and rightly so. And there are crowds in some places ...

Rather than linger in the enormous hotel complexes and dollar machines of Cancún, the backpacker will quickly take the roads of Yucatán to discover superb nature reserves, towns that have retained their authenticity or places totally off the trails. beaten.

From Isla Mujeres to Holbox, passing through Chichén Itzà and Puerto Morelos, the Yucatán remains a region of great diversity, to be savored between playas and mayas.

Yucatán, between nature and culture

Land of impenetrable jungles and dream beaches, the Yucatan is, along with Chiapas, one of the most authentic and touristic regions of Mexico. Located north of Guatemala and Belize, and going up in the Gulf of Mexico, this peninsula was born from a major geological accident, the impact of a formidable asteroid, about 65 million years ago.

Its geography is therefore characterized by an incalculable number of cavities related to the underground water table: cenotes. This vast network of freshwater reservoirs once allowed the Mayan people to develop their culture. Today, cenotes attract "Indiana Jones" vacation enthusiasts since these crystal clear water holes, hidden in the forest, are a real treat for diving and snorkelling enthusiasts.

But Yucatán remains the land of one of the most mysterious civilizations in the Mesoamerican world: the Mayas. Mathematicians-builders, traders, corn growers, pelota players and great purveyors of human flesh for their gods, the Mayans ruled the peninsula from -500 BC. AD to AD 925. AD They were subsequently assimilated by the Toltecs until the arrival of the first Spanish caravels.

Francisco Hernández de Córdoba discovered a country in its own right when he disembarked in 1517. A wild and sunny country, where gigantic pyramids rose to the sky in the heart of cities drawn with a line.

Isla Mujeres, an island between sky and water

Since the entry into service of a direct line by the company XL Airways, Cancun is now only ten hours by plane from the old continent. No more endless stopovers in Mexico City or Atlanta. Gateway to the Yucatán peninsula, Cancún, which was only a small fishing village thirty years ago, now sees around 6 tourists land in high season! Mass tourism which is unfortunately not without impact on the environment.

Cancún will delight clubbers and other aficionados of warm tropical evenings washed down with tequila. The others will not linger in this city where there is not much to do except laze on the beach while listening to the chatter of the neighbor. That said, if you only have half a day to spend there, it is still better to take a 20-minute boat ride and sail to Isla Mujeres, the mysterious "island of women", located just opposite.

This little pearl with old-fashioned charm, just out of a Hemingway novel, still cultivates a very Caribbean form of indolence, with its small wooden huts, its half-gutted shipwrecks and its little bars with their feet in the sea. 'water.

Its white sand beaches bristling with coconut palms are a real call to idleness. As for the water, it is the Caribbean in all its forms, that is to say a blue worthy of the most beautiful calendars of the Post Office and small fish to make an aquarist pale!

The Riviera Maya: beaches, but not only ...

From Cancún to Punta Allen, the coast of the Caribbean Sea is just an almost uninterrupted succession of beaches, with, just a few strokes from the shore, the largest barrier reef in the world after Australia.

Suffice to say that here lovers of the seabed will be in heaven! Most of the time, private investors have adapted to their clientele - mainly North American - by granting themselves the best access to the sea to build condominiums or seaside theme parks.

Fortunately, there are still quite a few dreamy little coves for sunbathing enthusiasts who do not necessarily have a shared towel. This is the case of the small fishing village of Puerto Morelos, from the former hippie beach of Paamul, the Mecca of kitesurfers that is the Xpu-Há beach.

In these small edens conducive to robinsonnade, you can easily plant your guitar in the sand, so there is downright the big kif. The days go by between kitesurfing or snorkelling sessions and the hammock-margarita version of the hangout. The kind of vacation to flood the smartphones of your friends back home with your indecent selfies!

And for those who would lean for fresh water and the forest, the hinterland is full of cenotes at the edge of which you can also stay camping in the evening.

Yucatan, the spirit of the Mayas

We will not linger on Playa del Carmen, a sort of low-end Ibiza, all to the glory of the greenback, nor in the city of Jumpsuit, whose urban development on the beach side is fraught with threats to the environment. Let us mention, however, around Tulum, two sites that deserve to be seen before continuing on towards Belize, Guatemala or the interior of the peninsula.

The first is the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, which somehow resists the appetite of developers, still offering its day visitors the opportunity to familiarize themselves with ecosystems as they were twenty years ago. A nature of mangrove and lagoon, wedged between the sea and the jungle. A real sanctuary for an infinite number of birds, not to mention the manatees, crocs and all kinds of critters.

Explore Sian Ka'an aboard small boats rented for the day with the services of a captain. From the Muyil archaeological site, Boca Paila (entrance to the park in the continuity of the hotel zone) or Punta Allen, a sort of end of the world, a paradise for big game fishermen.

The second is the Tulum archaeological site well said. Not very spectacular from the point of view of the size of the buildings, but oh so evocative of the Mayan culture, with the grayness of its temples overlooking the blue of the Caribbean sea. A visit to be made at the end of the afternoon, at the time when the setting sun turns the stones pink. Unlike the other site near Tulum, that of Muyil, which it is preferable to walk in the (quite relative) freshness of the morning.

Chichén Itzà, 7th wonder of the modern world

It is clear that this heavyweight of Mayan-Toltec culture remains an essential step! Even though, now, the outskirts of Chichén Itzá look like a huge garage sale with hundreds of sellers offering their 100% made in China pseudo-Mayan junk to tourists.

With its 8 visitors per day in high season, you don't risk being alone… Nevertheless, Chichén, you have a corner. The great pyramid of Kukulkán above all, which seems to soar towards the sky without wanting to leave the ground. Bluffing. What mastery of space!

Archaeologists estimate that it was built between AD 650 and AD 800. Its dimensions reflect the Mayan calendar with mathematical precision, with 91 steps on 4 sides and a platform, the count is: 365 days. Every year, at the time of the solstice, tens of thousands of visitors gather at its feet to see the shadows of the steps drawing Kukulkán, the Mayan version of the "feathered serpent" heralding the change of season.

Chichén Itzá, declared heritage of humanity in 1988, summarizes the entire history of the Mayan people. Abandoned around 1250 for still undetermined reasons, this site continued to serve as a place of pilgrimage to the Mayans for several centuries. It was so important in the peninsula that Francisco Montejoro himself had entertained the idea of ​​making it his capital rather than Mérida in 1540, that is to say ...

At its peak, Chichèn Itzà covered a territory of more than 25 km². It is estimated that the city was able to shelter up to 100 people.

Valladolid, in the heart of Yucatan

The inhabitants of Valladolid peaceful days flow in the colorful surroundings of recently rehabilitated old colonial-style mansions. It must be said that the city center does not lack character. The Sultana of the East, as Mexicans like to call her, remains anchored in their collective memory. First, because it is the oldest city in Yucatán, second, because it is here that the revolution broke out in June 1910.

In the city proper, not much to eat except the Convent of San Bernardino and its typically Franciscan architecture. It is built on the cenote that once supplied it with drinking water. But Valladolid is above all an excellent starting point for exploring the region.

About a hundred kilometers due north, the Río Lagartos Natural Park is a major gathering place for flamingos. We go to observe these feathers by calling on a fisherman, not without having given him a few minutes of negotiation in the process.

On the road to Río Lagartos, two places not to be missed: the Ek Balam archaeological site, another hot spot of Mayan culture. Less visited than Chichén Itzá, it is one of the last pyramids with that of Cobà on which it is still allowed to climb.

Almost opposite the X'Canche cenote, a real little paradise for adventure seekers. Aesthetes will not miss the church of Santo Domingo Convent in Uayma (about fifteen kilometers west of Valladolid), where the syncretism between indigenous religions and Catholicism is more evident than ever.

Holbox, the backpacker's island

Holbox (pronounced Holboch) remains one of those "backpacker" destinations where you can easily combine a "lazy" stay with the discovery of the places. Here, mass tourism has not yet taken hold.

There are several reasons for this: first the island is sorely lacking in infrastructure, then the beaches, even if they have nothing to envy to those of the Caribbean coast, are still bathed by a slightly colder sea, you might as well know.

Holbox will therefore satisfy above all lovers of the authentic, those who favor meeting "the other", his environment, his way of life ... And here, he is a host who looks at everyone on the calendar of appointments. you: the tiburón ballena, in other words the whale shark !

It is the biggest fish in the world. It gathers here every year between mid-May and mid-September. A beast that is still more than 20 m long and can reach 30 tons. In general, there are about ten of us on board a small boat, then your "captain" lets you go in pairs while you approach them to make a piece of film with your GoPro. Magical moment !

Holbox is also home to the Yum Balam nature reserve, with a hundred species of birds, sea turtles and small pieces of deserted beaches bathed by a crystal sea. A world that can be discovered by sea kayaking, far from men and far from the world ...


To prepare for your trip, consult our Mexico online guide

 Official website of the Mexican Ministry of Tourism

When to go

It's very simple, practically anytime you want except between September and mid-November because it's hurricane season. But beware, in high season, it is imperative to book in advance!

The high season is July-August, Christmas holidays and Holy Week (Easter).

How to get there ?

Direct flights Paris CDG-Cancún only with XL Airways. Otherwise, stopovers in Mexico City or the United States. Find your plane ticket

Or sleep ? Where to eat ?

Small budgets will find accommodation easily in the many youth hostels or in campsites (bringing your tent is not a bad idea). The night in an inn is around 10 € / person; when camping, count 5 € / pers.

Even if the Yucatán remains quite expensive compared to the rest of Mexico, and provided you move away from the centers frequented by North Americans on vacation (Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Tulum), you can afford a very decent meal for around 6-7 €.

Isla Mujeres: Poc Na Hostel: a youth hostel right on the beach. Also made restaurant.

Paamul: Paamul Hotel & Cabañas: a series of bungalows with their feet in the sand under the coconut trees. Also camping.

Tulum: Hotel Don Diego de la Selva  et Los Aguachiles: all the flavors of the sea at a reasonable price (av. Tulum, exit from Tulum Pueblo dir Chetumal, tel .: 984-802-54-82)

Chichén Itzá: Villas Arqueológicas: a good value for money hotel ideally placed for visiting the archaeological site.

Valladolid: Hostel La Candelaria a youth hostel as we would like to see more often. El Jardín de Los Frailes: good and cheap to shop around the local cuisine (n ° 222 calle 41-A, tel .: 985-856-25-93)

Holbox: Hostel and Cabañas Ida y Vuelta: young and relaxed atmosphere. Also camping. 

What to do ?

Sea diving in Playa del Carmen (and Cozumel):

Cenote diving in the Tulum region:

Discovery of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve:

Audio Video Mexico: Yucatán, between playas and mayas
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