Whether you’re a travel novice or old hat, the Yucatan Peninsula is a must-visit. As I said in my closing thoughts on my trip:
To sum it all up: the people are warm and fun-loving; the music is joyful and contagious; the food is fresh, cheap and delicious; the towns are somehow both hip and classic; and the landscape is stunning.
The Yucatan was the perfect location for my first solo backpacking trip and I believe it’s accessible to anybody who wants to try traveling on a budget. If you’ve never undertaken planning a trip like this before, I can understand why it might seem daunting. I’m hoping some of my experiences and insights can help you take the leap! So without further ado, I present to you my suggested itinerary and dos and don’ts for traveling in the Yucatan Peninsula.
I backpacked through the Yucatan over the course of nine days. I entered and exited the peninsula by walking over the land border with Belize and catching a bus from nearby Chetumal, Mexico. This was my itinerary:
- Three nights in Tulum, a bohemian shore town featuring cliffside ruins, dozens of cenotes, and perhaps my favorite beach in the world.
- One night in Valladolid, a charming little colonial city with a classy atmosphere and gorgeous architecture.
- One morning at Chichen Itza, one of the most famous Mayan ruins, a new wonder of the world, and a bucketlist item for many travelers.
- Three nights in Merida, a bustling colonial city that balances traditional beauty with chic modern-day city culture.
- A day trip from Merida to Celestun Biosphere Reserve to see flamingos in the wild.
- Two nights in Bacalar, a tiny hippie town perched on the edge of the most beautiful lake I have ever seen.
My stops are highlighted on the interactive map below — click on a point for more information and a link to relevant posts.
Frankly, nine days was not quite enough for this trip. I think the ideal timing would have been a full two weeks. If you have two weeks, I would recommend adding one more night in Tulum, Valladolid, and Merida. Use the extra time to visit Coba, Ek Balam, and Uxmal, three other Mayan ruins in the area that are supposed to be excellent. If you’re scheduling a trip in the region, keep in mind that the Yucatan Peninsula is much more than its sights–you’ll want to add in cushion time to relax and absorb the culture and landscape.
Dos and Don’ts
- Take the bus. They are easy to navigate, cheap, and safe. The biggest Mexican bus company in the region is called ADO, and first class schedules can be found on ADO’s website. You can read more about other bus companies here. Second class bus schedules are more difficult to find and the trips are a bit slower, but they are also perfectly comfortable options for travel. Just keep in mind that you can’t buy bus tickets online unless you have a Mexican credit card. The longer bus rides do sometimes sell out, so if the timing is crucial to you go to a bus station a day or two ahead of time to purchase long distance tickets.
- Try to speak Spanish. Even if you’re terrible at it (I am!), the locals will appreciate the effort and show you much more kindness and interest. It’s absolutely worth trying.
- Eat street food. It’s fresh, delicious, and cheap. My favorites include panuchos, salbutes, marquesitas, and fresh fruit with chili salt.
- Swim in cenotes. Cenotes are officially my favorite places to swim in the world. They’re incredible. Jump in one at every chance you get.
- Wear bugspray. There are mosquitoes everywhere and there is a risk of catching dengue here. I’m an environmentalist and at home I use only natural and sustainable products, but it’s not worth messing around with citronella in the tropics: get good bugspray with DEET in it. Trust me.
- Forget about the time zone change. There are two time zones in the Yucatan peninsula. The state of Quintana Roo (where Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Bacalar are located) is one hour ahead of Yucatan, Campeche, and neighboring Belize. I can tell you from personal experience that this will mess with your bus and plane scheduling. Be careful!
- Call yourself an American if you’re from the United States. Mexicans and Central Americans in general are touchy about this — after all, they are Americans too. It reinforces the image that people from the States are self-centered and nationalistic. It may seem silly to you but I have started off conversations on an awkward footing more than once because of this.
- Assume you know where you’re going to catch your bus. Many cities in Mexico have more than one bus station — double check every time you buy a ticket that you know which station you need.
- Forget to tip. Unlike in Belize, you need to tip in Mexico. The rules work very similarly to the States. It’s customary to leave a 10-20 percent tip for a waiter and a small tip for a bartender. You should tip the people bagging your goods at grocery stores as well — they’re unpaid and only working for tips. I had an interesting experience with this in Tulum.
That sums up my general recommendations for the Yucatan Peninsula. I hope it inspires and emboldens some of you to travel there yourselves! Stay tuned because over the next few weeks I will be posting specific recommendations for hostels, restaurants, sights, and more at each of the major stops on my itinerary. In the meantime, check out my blog posts about my experiences in the Yucatan.
Do you have any additional questions for me? Did I miss an important tip for travelers in the Yucatan? Do you agree or disagree strongly with anything I said? Let me know in the comments!