Cancún is a popular sun-and-fun holiday destination thanks to frequent air connections from the UK. Unfortunately, its popularity can be a curse when it’s time to visit the Mayan ruins the region is known for. Chichén Itzá gets around two million visitors each year, which averages out to more than 5,000 people per day. Good luck getting a pyramid photo without a crowd in it.
The smaller seaside ruins of Tulum, which are closer to Cancún and the Riviera Maya resorts, receive even more than that. During high season, the crowd looks like something from a music festival.
Once you get off the well-worn excursion routes from Cancún, however, the crowd sizes take a dive and you can feel like a real explorer instead of a mass tourism number. Here’s how you can see a more authentic side of the Yucatan Peninsula by spending a few nights in Valladolid and Mérida.
Cenotes and Ek’ Balam From Valladolid
You can hire a car in Cancún and follow the dead-straight, well-maintained toll road to arrive in Valladolid in less than two hours. This “magic town” of Mexico is a great contrast to the high-rise concrete bustle of the resort areas, with its central plaza and colonial-era buildings. You can visit several cenotes (spring-fed underground ponds) right within the city limits, including Cenote Zaci with a restaurant right above it.
You can use this town as a base for visiting Chichén Itzá in the morning before the tour coaches arrive to have a more pleasant experience at the famous wonder of the world. Then for a change of pace, go right outside of town to Ek’ Balam. This impressive set of ruins dates back to the 700s and 800s and on some days you’ll practically have the place to yourself.
To Merida via Izamal and Cuzamá
The trip from Valladolid to Mérida is only two hours, so there’s plenty of time to take some interesting detours on the way. The “Yellow City” of Izamal was once an important Mayan centre, but in typical conquistador style, the Spanish dismantled many of the original pyramids and temples to build structures dedicated to the Catholic Church. The colonial city of Izamal surrounds a monastery with a huge open-air atrium that dates back to 1561. Stroll the grounds, ride a horse and carriage through the streets, and grab lunch with some typical Yucatecan food at Kinich, Zamna, or Muul.
For a unique and memorable family experience, head to the other side of the toll road to Cuzamá. On the site of a former sisal hacienda, you can hop into a horse-drawn cart that rumbles down the narrow-gauge train tracks formerly used for transporting workers and crops. It’s a strange experience, especially when the driver has to move his cart off the tracks because someone is coming the other way. There are three stops on the grounds, at three different cenotes. You can go for a refreshing swim in the underground pools that stay the same temperature all year.
Mérida, Uxmal, and Flamingoes
The Spanish founded the city of Mérida in 1542 and its cathedral on the main square is one of the oldest in the Americas. Many visitors fall in love with this city thanks to daily music performances in the parks, a lively historic centre, and prices that are about half what you’ll find in Cancun at hotels and restaurants.
There are plenty of excursions you can take while using Merida as a base, from the famous ruins of Uxmal to the not-so-famous (and harder to pronounce) ones of Dzibilchaltún. You can make a day trip up to Celestun to see hundreds of pink flamingos wading around in a shallow lagoon, or hit the Gulf beach at Progresso and try to catch some flamingos near there from a lookout tower in Chicxulub. For the kids, there’s an inexpensive water park called Wild River off the highway between Merida and Progreso, plus the city zoo has a small amusement park.
When you’re finished exploring the other side of the Yucatan and it’s time to return home, it’s a straight shot back to on the toll road. There, after returning the rental car, you’ll join the sunburned masses flying back home after their far less varied vacation.