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How to plan a cultural road trip around the Yucatán, Mexico's Maya heartland

A drive through the Yucatán reveals natural wonders both above and below ground. Freshwater sinkholes, spectacular Maya ruins and colourful nature spots are scattered across the peninsula, tucked into the lush, jungly interior.

Published 12 Jan 2021, 08:00 GMT
A couple hold hands while exploring a cenote in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.

A couple hold hands while exploring a cenote in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.

Photograph by Getty Images

Separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatán Peninsula is something of a natural playground, both above and below ground. Sitting on the vast limestone platform, a chunk of land that’s partially submerged, the karst landscape and bedrock here gives way to a multitude of caves and cenotes (freshwater sinkholes and open water pools), with an abundance of tropical rainforests above spilling their vines down to picturesquely dangle above.

Its geological wonders aside, the area is a cradle of ancient Mayan culture, with people of Mayan descent still living and working here, preserving the peninsula’s heritage. There are plenty of ancient Mayan ruins to be discovered, too, many of them woven deeply into the surroundings. While the peninsula is compact, the best way to travel around the natural and historical marvels is by car, with many dotted across the region, hidden within the lush, jungly interior.

El Castillo pyramid at Chichén Itzá is one of the Yucatán's most impressive archaeological sites.

Photograph by Getty Images

Laguna Rosada

Start on the north coast, a little over an hour’s drive from Mérida, at this shocking-pink natural lagoon. The cause of the salt lake’s bright colour is a type of algae that creates a rosy tint — both to the water and those who eat it, namely the large, resident flock of wild flamingos here. Don’t forget your camera; as well as the lake itself, the banks are scattered with spectacular archaeological ruins.

El Castillo

Stop off at a vendor in the city of Mérida for eggs and deep-fried tostadas before driving on to the ruins of El Castillo, in the centre of the Chichén Itzá archaeological site. A Mesoamerican step-pyramid, rising to a height of almost 80ft, it’s the best-known structure at the site. Time your visit to coincide with the equinox, when shadows cast down the pyramid’s sides form a golden serpent sliding down the steps.

Balankanché Caves

Four miles away, the Balankanché Caves are often referred to as the gateway to the Mayan underworld, the meeting grounds between humans and the divine. The network of caves was once used as a sanctuary to praise Chaas, the Mayan god of rain. Hidden within a lush jungle, the subterranean system is a dramatic sight to behold, with enormous stalagmites and stalactites meeting in the cave’s main chamber.

Yokdzonot Cenote

Make your way to the Yokdzonot Cenote, a subterranean pocket of water framed by hanging vines. The peninsula is pocked with cenotes (cavernous underground reservoirs) and this freshwater sinkhole is in an ecological park run by 18 local Mayan women. There’s a small fee to enter the park (£6) but once you’re in, you can take a dip and bask in the leafy beauty of the Maya jungle. Fuel up after a swim at the small on-site restaurant.

Reserva Ecológica El Corchito

Continue back up to the coast to this wetland nature reserve, which is home to incredible natural features such as pools, cenotes and mangrove swamps, plus wildlife including coatis, turtles and crocodiles. The Mayans believed the waters here had healing properties and there are three cenotes you can swim in, with a shallower one (Cenote Helechos) that’s ideal for families with young children.

Scorpion Reef

Head out on a boat to Scorpion Reef, a cluster of coral islands in the Gulf of Mexico. The reef, which is a designated marine park, is a great diving spot — various species of coral have grown here over thousands of years to create one vast, extensive reef. There are cabins to sleep in on Isla Perez, the largest of the islands, with a handful of operators (including Wanderlum) offering multi-day tours out to explore the area.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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