7 Must Visit Off The Beaten Path in Mexico’s Yucatán region

Mexico’s Yucatán region is far more than the postcard stretch of Caribbean white sands known as the Riviera Maya. This peninsula boasts unspoiled natural beauty, rich colonial history, and ancient indigenous culture that you can experience in all its glory once you leave the hotel zones of Cancún and Tulum behind.

Below are some off-the-beaten-path highlights you’ll surely want to add to your next Yucatán holiday itinerary.

1. Cobá Ruins

A mere 45-minute drive inland from Tulum you’ll find the ancient Maya ruins at Cobá. This is a must-visit stop on any road trip around the Yucatán, if only to hike up the famous Nohoch Mule Pyramid. Forget Chichén Itzá—at 137 feet (41 m), this is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán region.

After hiking Nohoch Mule, continue exploring this former Maya metropolis (which thrived from 600-900 CE). The best way to do this is on a bike ride along ancient pathways amid the ruins of its major structures. Also at the site is a Maya village far off the tourist trail that is famous for its underground caves.

2. Holbox Island

To truly get away from it all, head to the the northernmost point of the Yucatán and Holbox Island. You can only arrive there via ferry, and there are no paved roads or cars allowed at this far-flung locale (just golf carts). However, once you’re there, you’ll be treated to wide open beaches free of tourist crowds. Plan on a daily itinerary centered around lazing in one of the hammocks popping out of Hotbox’s shallow, crystalline waters. Also, try the lobster pizza—a local speciality.

3. Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve

This 2,000-sq-mile (5,180-sq-km) area in southern Mexico protects ecosystems that include tropical forests, lagoons, wetlands, palm savannas, and a vast length of Caribbean coast. It’s been a scared place for hundreds of years (Sian Ka’an is a Mayan word that translates to “origin of the sky”), and you can ply its waterways in canoes just like the ancient Maya did. Spend a full day here and you’ll do it all, including jungle hikes, swimming in lagoons, and floating down waterways as howler monkeys and toucans look on from the trees.

4. Mérida

Many visitors aren’t aware that this city in the northern Yucatán is actually the capital of the region. And what a city it is. Filled with history and well-preserved colonial architecture, it was once the ancient Maya city of T’ho, but the Spanish had other plans. In 1542 they razed T’ho’s five pyramids to the ground and in its place founded Mérida. Visitors should head right to the Plaza Grande (main city square) and visit the iconic 16th century Cathedral, the Municipal Palace, old Spanish gates, and other landmarks.

Be sure to linger around the plaza and sample famous street food and Yucatec staple dishes. These include cochinita pibil (marinated pork cooked in banana leaves) and salutes (fried tortillas topped the shredded turkey, cabbage, pickled red onions, and more). For something sweet, try a marquesita (a kind of rolled crepe filled with cheese or chocolate and grilled until crisp).

5. Lagoon of Bacalar

Bacalar is an exciting off the beaten track destination on Mexico’s Yucatan. The small town sits in the Southeast corner on the border of Northern Belize. An easy 2.5 hour drive from Tulum. When you arrive you will be stunned by the beauty of the Bacalar Lagoon, which is famously known as Lago de Siete Colores (Lake of Seven Colors).

The region is a nature lover’s paradise and an ecologically fragile environment that is home to many species of plants, animals, and aquatic life. There are also many activities to suit any traveler.

Explore some nearby cenotes such as Cenote Cocalitos or Cenote Azul or Cenote Esmeralda. Go kayaking or SUP on the lagoon, visit a historical location such as Fort San Felipe, Boating on the lake is popular with the chance to snorkel, indulge in high-quality Mexican cuisine or visit Dzibanche & Kohunlich Ruins or the lesser known Coba ruins.

6. Río Lagartos

Rio Lagartos is a small fishing town located on the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula about 2.5 hours from Tulum by car.

The pink lakes of Río Lagartos visually make for a unique experience. The region is designated as a UNESCO-protected biosphere reserve, and spans over 230 square miles. The reserve is home to a plethora of different ecosystems and species of rare birds, fish, crocodiles and the famous pink flamingos.

7. Valladolid

Valladolid is a city where past and present come together to delight us with the sights of colored colonial architecture and tastes of an incredibly rich gastronomy. Great photo opportunities, craft shopping and a taste of slow-paced Mexican life. This is a true hidden gem city that you can send a few days exploring, and enjoying. If you have a rental car you can easily reach all of the nearby Cenotes such as the walkable Cenote Zaci, the only cenote that’s basically in the town of Valladolid or the famous Cenote Suytun. Valladolid is an amazing base to cenote hop, as it is the gateway to some of the best cenotes in the region. Over 300+ have been descovered, each one unique in its own way.

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