Mini guide to the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

Despite some over-zealous development, the natural beauty of Mexico’s Yucatán abides.

Despite some over-zealous development, the natural beauty of Mexico’s Yucatán abides. The jungle still echoes to the ethereal coo of the motmot, while the towering temples of the Maya, Toltec and Itzá slowly yield up their mysteries. Offshore, the Mesoamerican Reef is the world’s second-largest barrier reef.

Related article: Beyond Cancun, a quieter Mexico

Calakmul’s vast ruins, with Mayan monuments and pyramids, are ringed by rainforest. Much of the jade excavated here is on display in the archaeological museum in Campeche (00 52 555 150 2073; Calakmul; 8am-4.30pm; £3).

Yucatán’s underwater labyrinths are ideal for cave diving. Visit for ideas. Above ground, wooden houses and beached boats make Xcalak an idyllic escape. Its mangrove swamps hide lagoons that invite kayakers to explore. Offshore, you can snorkel and dive the vibrant barrier reef. Hire equipment at XTC Dive Centre (; three-tank dive £130, snorkelling trips £20).

Mérida is the cultural capital of the peninsula. Steeped in colonial history, its narrow streets house the region’s best museums. Plaza Grande is one of Mexico’s most attractive squares; on Sundays, meridanos promenade there.

A popular diving spot since 1961, when Jacques Cousteau showed its spectacular reefs to the world, Isla Cozumel is Mexico’s third largest island. Ten miles south of San Miguel is Playa Palancar beach, where you can rent hydro bikes and snorkelling gear.

The Reserva de la Biósfera Sian Ka’an has 2,000 sq miles of tropical jungle and marsh that is home to howler monkeys, anteaters, ocelots and pumas. Community Tours Sian Ka’an runs tours here out of Tulum (00 52 984 871 2201;; Ave Tulum, Tulum; tours £50-£70).

Eat and drink
Canadian owners Marla and Linda have turned the old Leaky Palapa in Xcalak into a dining sensation. The menu features flavourful dishes such as lobster in caramel ginger sauce. It’s three blocks west of the main plaza (Xcalak; dinner Fri-Mon Oct-Apr; mains from £2.50).

Amaro is a romantic dining spot in the courtyard of the house in which Andrés Quintana Roo – statesman and drafter of Mexico’s Declaration of Independence – was born in 1787. Don’t miss the berenjena (aubergine) curry (00 52 999 928 2451; Calle 59, Mérida; lunch and dinner; mains from £3).

Tucked away between Calle 64 and 66, Restaurante Kantún serves some of the best seafood in Mérida. Main dishes are all prepared to order and delicately seasoned; try the fillet of fish stuffed with smoked oysters (00 52 999 923 4493; Calle 45, Mérida; lunch and dinner Tue-Sun; mains from £3).

The trademarks of Playa del Carmen’s Restaurant 100% Natural are fresh juices, salads and organic food. Try the guacamole and the fish ceviche (00 52 984 873 2242; cnr Quinta Av & Calle 10, Playa del Carmen; lunch and dinner; mains from £5).

Famed more for its setting than its food, Alux is in a cavern full of stalactites. Tables are arranged around pools and the rocks are thrown into stark, backlit relief. It’s three blocks west of Hwy 307 in Playa del Carmen (00 52 984 803 2936; Av Juárez, Playa del Carmen; dinner; mains from £6).

Genesis Retreat boasts ‘eco-cultural values’: its rooms are naturally cooled, insects are controlled by a squadron of ducks and there’s a wall made of plastic bottles. It’s also beautiful, with thatched rooms decorated in Mayan fabrics – and there’s a great restaurant (00 52 985 852 7980;; Ek’Balam; Nov-Aug; from £30).

One of Mérida’s nicest small hotels, MedioMundo is decorated in bold, Mexican colours from its ochre exterior to the red, blue and green rooms, all with equally bright contrasting fabrics. Traditional blue and yellow tilework is also used throughout (00 52 999 924 5472;; Calle 55 No 534, Mérida; from £40).

Casa Mexilio is a historic house with beautifully appointed rooms. The 1930s colonial-style décor incorporates local and Spanish antiques and artwork. There’s also a small bar and a tiny pool with Jacuzzi (00 52 999 928 2505;; Calle 68 No 495 between Calles 57 & 59, Mérida; from £50).

Playa del Carmen’s Kinbé Hotel has a Mediterranean- Mayan aesthetic. Designer furniture and green and red colour schemes give it an understated, stylish feel. There’s also a lovely courtyard garden and a rooftop terrace (00 52 984 873 0441;; Calle 10, Playa del Carmen; from £55).

A bright, cheery yellow, Casa Carolina in Xcalak has four rooms, each equipped with a kitchen and fridge, plus balconies with sea views. All levels of scuba instruction (NAUI) are offered here, as well as recreational dives at the barrier reef (; Calle Costero, nr Xcalak Pueblo, Xcalak 77940; from £70).

Getting around
The bus system is reliable and inexpensive, with routes covering all major cities. For more remote places, you’ll need to hire a car. Car hire outlets operate at Cancún and Mérida airports (£25 per day;

When to go
The Yucatán Peninsula is hot and humid, with the rainy season from June to October. The best time to visit is November to March, when it is comparatively dry and cool. You can also catch Mérida’s carnival and Holy Week celebrations in February and March.

How to go
British Airways flies from Heathrow and Gatwick to Cancún. Thomson flies from Bristol, Gatwick, Birmingham, East Midlands, Newcastle, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow (from £600). Flights to Mérida and Cozumel go via Mexico City or the US. A taxi from Cancún airport to Ciudad Cancún costs £8.

The article ‘Mini guide to the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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