If we were to define the Yucatan Peninsula in a rather simplistic and crass way, we could say that it is that part of Mexico where Cancun and the Maya pyramids are. Of course, saying something like this would be an insult to the complexity of the peninsula’s culture, heritage and people, but there is a grain of truth in it. Yucatan is straddling the border between the modern and luxurious (Cancun being the perfect example) and the heritage of the Maya ancestors, with a pinch of old colonial vestiges thrown in. These components make Yucatan a fascinating place, and much more than the sum of its parts. So here’s what you can expect to find in Yucatan, resorts and ruins notwithstanding.
The best examples of this are Merida (the capital of Yucatan state) and Campeche. Merida has been the cultural and economic hub of the peninsula since the times of the Spanish Conquest. Merida is teeming with beautiful colonial buildings, narrow cobbled streets, and lots and lots of great traditional restaurants. Moreover, it is close to both the ruins of Mayapan (40 km) and Chichen Itza. El Paseo Montejo is the most popular street in the city, lined with trees, street-side cafes and restaurants and food vendors (the tamales bough on the street are sometimes better than the ones in restaurants). Campeche is similar in style to Merida, with countless amazing colonial buildings and a healthy dose of well-preserved Maya ruins. Other cities of interest: Izamal, Valladolid, Chetumal.
While Mayapan and Chichen Itza are the best known of all the Yucatan ruins, there are hordes of other ruins scattered all over the peninsula. The island of Cozumel is chiefly knows for the beach resorts, but there is a wide array of Maya ruins inland, for example at San Gervasio or El Cedral. Tulum and Mahahual cannot quite qualify as resort town, despite the beautiful beach setting, so if you want to avoid the bustle of fellow tourists and want to visit some Maya ruins at the same time, they are the place to go.
Xharet, Xel-Ha, Isla Contoy, Bahia de Cetuma and Calakmul are only a few of the nature reserves in Yucatan. The natural wonders of Yucatan are countless and much appreciated by the locals, who keep them well protected. You can hike through these parks on your own or as part of a group. Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular all along the costs, as well as other water sports. Chinchorro Reef and Cenote Azul are great for diving, and there are several places in the neighbourhood where you can go bird or animal-watching. Most of these parks and protected beaches are located in the state of Quintana Roo, where the major resorts of the Mayan Riviera are also located, but natural beauty and tourist-y commercialims are merely the two sides of a coin in Yucatan.