Explore the History and Culture of the Yucatan on a Mexico Vacation

People & Culture

God of Winds Temple at Tulum Ruins, Tulum, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

The Yucatan Peninsula is one of the most popular resort getaways in the world, attracting millions of visitors each year who want to take advantage of the sunny beaches and all-inclusive resorts of a Mexico vacation. But there’s also more to the peninsula than the images of Americans heading on spring break. Beyond the gorgeous beaches, you’ll find an ancient world of Mayan ruins and colonial streets bursting with culture.

On a Mexican vacation to the Yucatan, you’ll find good food, lively music, and friendly people. You’ll also have the opportunity to explore the jungle and venture through well-preserved temples and pyramids. The resorts are wonderful, but there’s so much more to the Yucatan Peninsula than all-inclusive comforts. Be sure to see all that the peninsula has to offer.

Beach Getaways

Let’s start with the obvious. Mexico has some of the most gorgeous beaches in the world, many of them located on the Yucatan Peninsula, which straddles the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. The name Cancun is synonymous with the word “resort” in most of Canada and the United States, and if you’re looking for a sunny getaway, you’ll get it in Cancun. The city dates back to the 1970s and sits on a stretch of powdery golden-sand beaches and turquoise waters that makes it an obvious spot for a beach resort. You’ll have your choice of premium, all-inclusive resorts all along the coast. You can spend your time going kayaking or paddle-boarding in the waters or scuba diving or snorkelling through some of the coral groves off the shore. There are also two great golf courses in the city. As well, it’s near enough the Mayan ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza to accommodate day trips.

Aerial view of Cancun, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
Aerial view of Cancun

Around 70km south of Cancun you’ll find Playa del Carmen, which was founded as a fishing village but has transformed into a resort town with a unique European atmosphere. Shoppers spend most of their time strolling down Quinta Avenida or Fifth Avenue and browsing items in the shops and boutiques that line it. In the evening, the street fills with musicians who fill the air with romantic tunes. Of course, the beaches along the coast are huge highlights on a trip to Mexico and should be the focus of your time in Playa del Carmen. However, you can also easily head to Cozumel and Tulum to explore their ruins. For a day excursion option closer to the city, head to the Xcaret Theme Park, which offers a replica of a Mayan village and gives you the option to swim with dolphins.

White sand beach and turquoise waters of Playa del Carmen, Mexico
White sand beach and turquoise waters of Playa del Carmen

Ancient Ruins

The beaches of the Yucatan are the undeniable highlights to most travellers, but the Mayan ruins are the real treasures of a Mexico vacation here. Chichen Itza, Coba, Tulum, and Uxmal have the best ruins in Central America and are some of the best archaeological finds in the whole world. If you explore these centres, you’ll find pyramids, temples, and ball courts dating from pre-Columbian times that demonstrate advanced engineering techniques and intricate astrological beliefs.

Chichen Itza is the most famous and largest of the ancient Mayan sites on the Yucatan and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Located in the centre-north of the peninsula, around 160km west of Cancun and 120km east of Merida, Chichen Itza attracts over two million visitors each year. The ruins date back over 1,500 years and are defined by the massive Pyramid of Kukulcan, known popularly as El Castillo. When you enter the site, you’ll notice the pyramid towering above you; it will leave you stunned. Climbing the pyramid has been banned since 2006, but it’s still one of the most impressive sites you’ll see on a vacation anywhere in the world. Each evening, a sound and light show brings it to life with a display of music and colours.

Chichen Itza archaeological site, Mexico
Chichen Itza archaeological site

Although Chichen Itza is the greatest of the ruins on the peninsula, the others are still spectacular. Coba, located a bit to the southwest of Playa del Carmen, has the tallest pyramid in the region, Nohoch Mul Pyramid, which you can still climb, as of the date of writing, unlike other pyramids in the Yucatan. Just be careful, the steps are very steep. Uxmal, located around 62km south of Merida, has some of the best-preserved ruins on the peninsula. The Pyramid of the Magician is the main highlight, but there are plenty of other buildings of varying sizes and decorative patterns, meaning that you get a good sense of the breadth of Mayan architecture here. As well, the remarkable condition of the ruins gives you the best sense of what the place might’ve looked like in Mayan times.

Tulum, located on the coastline to the south of Playa del Carmen, is a popular resort town but it also used to be a pre-Columbian walled city and one of the most picturesque spots on the Yucatan. Acting as a Mayan fortress city between the 13th and 15th centuries, Tulum is most remarkable for sitting on the series of 12m-high cliffs overlooking the sea. It’s the perfect spot to combine a ruin adventure with a beach vacation. You can explore the ruins in the cool of the morning before heading to the beach in the afternoon to suntan and swim in the refreshing waters.

Tulum Mayan ruins, Tulum, Mexico
Tulum Mayan ruins

Cultural and Natural Deep Dives

The beaches and ruins will always be the most famous elements of the Yucatan Peninsula, but that doesn’t mean the cities don’t deserve recommendation. In particular, the peninsula’s cultural capital, Merida, deserves a visit on a Mexico vacation. The city is known for its mixture of colonial buildings and restaurants offering the best in modern food. It’s located around an hour and a half away from Chichen Itza, so it’s a good base to stay at when exploring the Mayan ruins. The city’s boutique hotels make for comfortable stays while the big central market is a great place to shop for souvenirs. To best appreciate the city’s gorgeous architecture, head to the Plaza de la Independencia, where you’ll find the massive Merida Cathedral as well as the limestone Iglesia de la Tercera Orden. These two churches reconstituted materials from Mayan temples, so they represent the bridge between Mexico’s Mayan and European heritages.

Aerial view of Plaza de la Independencia and Merida Cathedral, Merida, Mexico
Aerial view of Plaza de la Independencia and Merida Cathedral, Merida

Along the peninsula’s west coast, you’ll find the city of Campeche, the capital of the Mexican state of the same name. Campeche might be the best-kept secret along the Yucatan. Defined by its baroque colonial old walled city, Campeche is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with pastel homes and a charming, old-world atmosphere. The city is most famous for the hundreds of restored haciendas that were built by wealthy merchants and traders during the colonial era. You won’t find as lovely colonial architecture anywhere else in Central America.

Beyond the cities, you’ll also find many national parks and biosphere reserves where you can experience the jungles of Mexico or explore the coastline. In parks like Garrafon National Park and Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, you’ll find stretches of jungle and coastal reefs that you can explore to spot monkeys, sea turtles, and untold numbers of birds in the jungle canopy.

Mariachi on the colonial streets of Campeche city, Mexico
Mariachi on the colonial streets of Campeche city

The Yucatan Peninsula offers a lot on a Mexico vacation. It’s a place where you can stay at gorgeous resorts and spend your time savouring the pleasures of a beach getaway. It’s also a destination where you can explore some of the world’s greatest ruins and experience vibrant cultural treasures. It is a place of history and culture in addition to being one of the world’s great vacation getaways.