Whether you want to be swept up in a whirl of colour, music and cultural life or be swept away to an idyllic beach overlooked by ancient ruins, visiting Mexico is a truly unique experience. It's a diverse country that stretches between two oceans – the Pacific and the Caribbean – so it can be difficult to get to grips with it in one trip. But basing your holiday on the beautiful Yucatan Peninsula, in the south-east of the country, gives you a snapshot of Mexico at its best. You can explore cactus-clad deserts and canyons or delve deep into mysterious jungles inhabited by howler monkeys and jaguars. Join in the fiesta in the country's vibrant towns and cities packed full of tourist attractions and feast on fajitas while listening to a traditional Mariachi band.
The peninsula encompasses the Riviera Maya, a stretch of coastline scattered with the mysterious ruins of ancient Mayan pyramids and settlements, many of which are still half-cloaked by thick jungle. It's the ideal location if you want to combine cultural and historic exploration with sunbathing and relaxation. There's the chance to marvel at the ancient Mayan temples scattered across the region, go horseback riding through the tropical jungles and emerge onto a pristine paradise beach bathed in tropical sunshine. Here you can lie back on fine white sand, don your diving gear to discover rainbow-hued reefs and sip a tequila sunrise as the sun sets over the ocean.
Like many nations, Mexico's true spirit can be found away from the tourist resorts, in its bustling metropolises, sleepy fishing villages and bevy of breathtaking ancient sites. This is a country with 31 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the jungle-entwined ruins of the ancient Mayan civilisation. Its deserts, jungles, and coasts are home to around 12% of the earth's biodiversity, including everything from pumas and spider monkeys to iguanas and hawksbill turtles. All this natural wealth and heritage means the best bits of Mexico can be experienced at virtually no expense. On the Yucatan Peninsula alone, there are 125 species of mammals with skunks, squirrels and raccoons among the smallest. On rare occasions, jaguars have even been spotted on hotel grounds.
Yucatan also has more than its fair share of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the pre-Hispanic ruins at Uxmal and Chichen Itza, which are a key part of the country's history. The Riviera Maya, named after its ancient forbears, is scattered with the remnants of centuries-old cities and temples half-concealed by the encroaching jungle. It stretches south of Cancun including Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Xcaret and Tulum down to Punta Allen on the farthest point of the peninsula. So if you are staying in the popular tourist resorts of Cancun or Playa del Carmen, it's a simple business to time-travel through Mexico's history with a visit to one of numerous Mayan temple complexes, like the mystical Coba, before visiting a vibrant colonial-era city, such as Merida.
Cancun is an upscale resort with correspondingly high prices but there are still a few places you can go to eat cheaply and taste some real Mexican culture. The downtown area around the Parque las Palapas has a lively arts scene and holds free cultural events. A short journey north from Cancun is a once-hidden city of El Meco that is a definite must-see during a holiday in the region. The Mayan pyramid and archaeological site gets fewer visitors than some of the bigger temples but this makes it a tranquil spot to roam the ruins and have a picnic lunch. The El Rey ruins are situated right next to Cancun's hotel district. These ancient plazas and geometric structures have the added draw of being inhabited by hundreds of iguanas.
To experience the sleepier side of Mexico, there are some fishing villages along the Caribbean coast where daily life is virtually unchanged by the tourist industry. Puerto Morelos offers a glimpse of traditional life away from the tourist hubs further north. Spicy chicken or fish is the order of the day in its beach-front eateries and friendly locals welcome visitors to the town's main square. Sip a margarita and soak up the atmosphere at one of the restaurants with live entertainment often including a Mariachi band. Nature lovers can revel in the pristine mangroves that fringe the town and are home to hundreds of species of birds and animals, while divers can discover a spectacular display of tropical fish at the offshore coral reef. For an invigorating swim, visit the nearby fresh water springs, known locally as cenotes.
City of Dawn
Further south, Tulum is a lesser-known place to stay on the Riviera Maya. Its dazzling white sand and turquoise blue sea is overlooked by an ancient Mayan temple, which is just the tip of an extensive archaeological site. The city's pre-Hispanic name was Zama, which means ‘city of dawn', and the ruins of this 1,000-year-old metropolis are spread out over four miles along the coastline facing towards sunrise over the Caribbean Sea. If you get here very early in the morning, the Temple of the Wind on a rocky headland is a magical location to watch the day break over the horizon. Experts believe that Tulum was once an intellectual hub, and guided tours of the city reveal some remarkably well-preserved structures – temples engraved with the images of deities and the once-grand houses of dignitaries. The beautiful bay between the Inner Precinct and the Temple of the Wind is an irresistible spot for a dip in the ocean after a few hours sightseeing in the topical humidity.
The Mango Hotel is one great option if you are looking for a small friendly place to stay in the area, and it offers guided snorkelling excursions to techni-coloured coral reefs. In Tulum, you can also spend the evening soaking up the relaxed atmosphere in an open air bar, eat your fill of the local chicken and fresh fish, and swim in local fresh water cenotes like Gran Cenote. The beaches at Tulum are a nesting site for sea turtles in the summer months, and the nearby nature reserve of Sian Ka'an is an ecological wonder and designated World Heritage Site.
Inland from Tulum, the Mayan city of Coba dates back even further in time and has added mystery. Here, you can hire a bike to explore the tranquil grounds and surrounding fresh water lakes, climb the crumbling steps of the Yucatan Peninsula's highest pyramid and gaze out over a jungle canopy pierced by ancient stone structures and concealing yet more mysterious buildings. Archaeologists believe this was once a major city and more than forty ancient stone roads and pathways have been discovered snaking through the undergrowth and linking the ruins with other Mayan settlements across the peninsula.
To experience the real Mexico, a trip to Yucatan's largest city of Merida is an absolute must. In this pretty cultural hub, music, art and dance are woven into the fabric of daily life. The city's wide avenues bubble with life and are lined with colonial-era buildings housing a variety of shops and restaurants. Stopping at one of the street stalls and sampling the spicy stuffed corn tortillas that are a regional speciality is highly recommended. You can also take a horse-drawn carriage down the Paseo de Montejo to tour the town's sculpture and architecture in style. Look out for the House of Montejo that dates back to 1549 and is decorated with reliefs of the Spanish Conquistadors.
For art and history lovers, there are numerous galleries, museums and historic sites in the city, including the Catedral de San Ildefonso: the oldest cathedral in North America. At the Museo del Pueblo Maya, visitors can view artefacts more than a thousand years' old before walking through a typical Mayan house to visit the Dzibilchaltan ruins crowned by the ancient Temple of the Sun. It's also worth popping into the Museum of the City of Merida to learn more about Yucatecan art and artefacts. The downtown market offers a selection of colourful handcrafts and local wares for those who like to take home authentic souvenirs.
Near Merida, the Uxmal Archaeological Zone is one of the most mesmerizing of the Mayan complexes. Its graceful pyramids tower over the jungle canopy while smaller palaces, colonnades and buildings beg to be explored by curious visitors. Uxmal is less visited than its more famous Mayan counterpart Chichen Itza, so it makes a great alternative if you want to avoid the crowds.
Relax and explore
For the kind of traveller who enjoys a spot of Indiana Jones-style exploration and revels in the natural world but also enjoys relaxing in idyllic surroundings and getting immersed in local culture, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula will definitely hit the spot.