Backpacking Mexico - Things to Do in Yucatan Peninsula

Backpacking Yucatan Peninsula. Do it your way!

Like most people, my first visit to Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula meant a stay in one of the all-inclusive hotels lining the champagne beaches of the popular Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone).  To be honest, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!  I had an unforgettably pampered week at my best friend’s wedding. 

However, a one-off day trip from the hotel to Tulum awakened something inside me.  In a nutshell, Tulum inspired me to discover more about the real Yucatan peninsula beyond the big hotels.  So, Oliver and I returned to explore the Yucatan peninsula our way with a backpack of clothes and this is our experience …

Quick Tour of the Yucatan Peninsula

Puerto Morelos

Peuerto Morelos

First decision – to stay or not to stay in Cancun overnight? We were faced with a 30-minute bus ride north of the airport to downtown Cancun or a parallel journey south.  Deciding on the latter was one of the best decisions we made!

For two nights, we rented a small apartment near the beach in the small fishing village of Puerto Morelos.  From our first chilled Margarita and a slow sunrise on the beach with coffee, we fell in love with this place.  It’s a laid-back port with a wonky lighthouse.  To top it all, destiny led us to our first scuba diving experience.  It’s so easy to be completely captivated by Puerto Morelos’ crystal Caribbean waters.  What’s more, the National Marine park boasts the world’s 2nd largest barrier reef.

Playa del Camen

This much-hyped city is a popular destination on the Yucatan peninsula. It’s about 20 minutes south of Puerto Morelos.  To get there, we opted to travel with the local population in a Colectivo.  Colectivos are air-conditioned mini-vans which only leave when they are full.

We stayed in a boutique hotel in the centre of Playa.  From what we saw, Playa is great if you want to take the ferry to the island of Cozumel.  Also, you can shop in the international stores found along the palm tree lined 5th Avenue.  There are also plenty of trendy restaurants, bars and nightclubs if you want to party!  We also managed to find some interesting artisan shops.  After our one night stay, we moved on.

playa

Xpu Ha Beach

Not much further south on the Mayan Riviera, we got a great deal on an all-inclusive resort close to Xpu Ha Beach.  This resort is pronounced Shpoo Ha and is a hidden oasis off Highway 307 often missed by tourists.  Much to the amusement of the staff, we arrived by our friendly Colectivo (35 pesos each = approximately £1.50).  We booked in for two nights’ R & R in a treetop room with an enormous balcony, hammock and private jacuzzi behind the bed!  Here we had our first experience of kayaking and swimming in the hotel’s private cenotes.  These are deep, water-filled sinkholes in limestone.

Close by was the beautiful Xpu Ha beach.  One of the perks of our hotel was a free shuttle transfer to a dedicated area of the Beach Club.  However, the Beach Club is open to the public.  You pay 50 pesos per person which is refunded when you spend over 200 pesos on food and drink.  The turquoise sea is crystal clear and calm here.  Perfect for an afternoon snorkelling and enjoying the sun.

Yucatan peninsula
Yucatan peninsula

Tulum

It’s so easy to flag down a Colectivo in this part of Mexico.  They literally drop you door to door.  The entrance to the Tulum ruins was a 10 minute walk from our guest house bedroom!  The guest house had free bicycles.  Handy for visiting Tulum’s town centre and the supermarket (for aperitif and our evening meal).

However, the main attraction here is the amazing ruins of this Mayan port.  They are set high above the tantalising turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea.  Admire the many enormous iguanas who reside amongst the ruins too!   It’s easy to spend a couple of hours wandering around and admiring the views.  Visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds.  It is also unforgivably hot and quite exposed here so take a sun hat and plenty of water.

Coba

By mistake, we ended up in the local bus station in Tulum and took an ADO bus to Coba.  Public buses serve the Yucatan peninsula really effectively.  The bus dropped us close to the entrance of the Mayan ruins and the lagoon.  We then had a short walk back to our guest house for the night.  After a light lunch of prawn ceviche and tacos we set off for our visit.  Be aware that there are not many guest houses in this small village.  Book ahead if you want to stay with the locals here.

The Mayan ruins at Coba are very different from Tulum.  Take plenty of mosquito repellent as you are deep in the jungle. We also highly recommend that you hire a bicycle to explore the site. It’s exhilarating to whizz along the ancient Mayan roads known as sacbes and a good way to cool off.  Unforgettably, Coba makes you feel like you are in an ‘Indian Jones’ movie.  Climbing the 42 m high ancient pyramid of Nohoch Mul is a once in a lifetime experience.  Get to the top of the 130 worn steps to see the amazing views across the jungle canopy.  Don’t look back as you climb!  Seize this opportunity as we can’t imagine the public will be able to climb this crumbling pyramid for much longer.

Yucatan peninsula
Yucatan peninsula

Chichen Itza

Yucatan peninsula

It sounds obvious but the locals are the best way to help you find your way around a country.  The owner of our guest house in Coba told us how to flag down the Mayab bus to Valladolid. 

Valladolid was the missing piece in our transport puzzle for the final stages of our journey. From Valladolid, we headed by bus to Chichen Itza, one of the seven Wonders of the New World.  Despite the searing heat, the crowds and the abundance of artisan stalls jostling for your business, we weren’t disappointed.  The site of Chichen Itza has been well preserved.  The impressive El Castillo (The Castle) is 24 m high and represents the Mayan calendar.  You can’t climb it owing to a fatality some years’ ago.  The Great Ball Court is equally impressive.  Marvel at the skill of the Mayan players and wonder at the winning captain’s reward of losing his head.

Isla Holbox

We took an early morning Colectivo from Piste (the nearest town to Chichen Itza).  This returned us to Valladolid for our bus journey to Chequila.  Chequila is the tiny fishing port in the north of the Yucatan where ferries depart half-hourly to Holbox Island.

Holbox Island is just 26 miles (42 km) long and is a haven for many birds including flamingos.  The appeal of Holbox is its tranquility.  It is unspoiled by mass tourism and only golf-carts, taxi buggies and bicycles are permitted on the island.  The streets of Holbox are formed of white sand and the beaches are uncrowded and retain their natural beauty.

We spent an idyllic 5 nights on this peaceful piece of paradise and watched the most amazing sunsets.  Olivier and I stayed at two different beach front hotels nestled in palm trees.  We took advantage of seductive swimming pools and the mesmerising sea where the Caribbean meets the Gulf of Mexico.  Hotel bicycles were perfect to explore the length and breadth of the island.  At your own leisure, discover forgotten beaches filled with birds or laze around in hammocks idling in the sea.  Drink at quiet bars with swing seats instead of stools or walk along deserted sand banks stretching to the horizon.  Later, paddle in quiet estuaries teeming with fish.

The main town has plenty of small restaurants and bars.  It also boasts vivid panels of street art.  At the weekend, the place comes alive when the locals visit from the mainland.  Enjoy the freshly caught seafood on offer in Holbox. Dance on the sand under the stars with the local residents.  We will never forget this place. Full Holbox guide here

Isla Holbox Street Art

Downtown Cancun

Regrettably, we had to stay in Downtown Cancun ready for our morning flight home.  It’s a stark contrast to the chilled Holbox Island.  We stayed near the bus station for obvious reasons.  This meant we could visit both Mercado 28 (an Aladdin’s cave of tourist souvenirs) and Mercado 23.  To be honest, the overall area was not nice. Mercado 28 is very touristic and you get hassled a lot.  We got better prices at Mercado 23 as this is a shopping area for locals.  The saving end to the day was great tacos from a friendly food truck in a side street!

To go Further

This is a selection of books to help you to plan your next trip or to enjoy on the plane

Final thoughts

We had an amazing trip with our backpacks down the Mayan Riviera and around the Yucatan peninsula.  Without doubt, this part of Mexico offers amazing historical experiences and the beaches are first-class.  Just as we hoped, it is possible to travel far and spend relatively little by using local transport and staying in a range of reasonably priced hotels by doing a little research in advance.  If you’ve never travelled this way, we hope you will follow in our footsteps. Share where you go by commenting below. More about us

Carpe diem, Sarah and Olivier x

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Hi Sarah & Olivier,

    I love your trip and the extensive descriptions that you are providing here! The pictures are beautiful! I want to do this trip! It is one of the places that I want to visit with my partner. Thanks for your tips and recommendations. I would like to ask you how did you manage with the local currency? Did you exchange money in your country or did you exchange once you got there? And about the places that you were staying, can you send me the link or advise me where can I check to book hotel/rooms for convenient prices?

    Thank you so much for your advice, see you around!

    Eva

  2. Off The Tourist Treadmill

    Thanks for your kind comments. We are happy that you want to take a trip to this amazing place. You can get Pesos easily in the UK, so we took some with us (but not too much for security!) We then withdrew Pesos from ATMs in the major Mexican towns we visited along the way. If you are visiting smaller places, just be mindful to have enough cash with you in case there’s no bank! US Dollars are also commonly accepted in Mexico, but it’s good practice to pay in local currency as it’s easier to negotiate prices. We certainly intend to write an e-book containing a list of guest houses/hotels which we used, so look out for more details soon …

  3. Very good post. I want to visit the Yucatan. Thanks

  4. Sounds amazing! And very helpful! 🙂 We’re backpacking in Yucatan in September and we took many tips.
    What was the name of the resort you stayed in near Xpu Ha? You make is sound amazinggggg

    1. Off The Tourist Treadmill

      We are so glad you found the post helpful and enjoy your backpacking trip! It’s a fabulous place to explore and so easy to get around on public transport. We stayed at the Bel Air which we guess was a resort built quite early on in this area’s tourism development. It’s a bit tired looking, but we found a great deal and enjoyed our stay here. We wouldn’t recommend staying longer than one or 2 nights. The nearby beach is great. Have you checked out our posts on the Island of Holbox? Don’t miss out on a visit here.

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