Cancun’s turquoise waters are certainly inviting, but its crowded beaches less so. Thankfully, neighboring Yucatán (one of three Mexican states which make up the more well-known peninsula of the same name) offers visitors a wide array of off-the-beaten-path experiences, from pyramid climbing to flamingo viewing — all far from the well-trodden, resort-lined shores of the Caribbean. Here are four of our favorite Yucatán cities, all within easy driving distance from Cancun.
1. Mérida: 188 miles from Cancun
Yucatán’s capital and largest city, Mérida, is home to the second largest historical center in the country (after Mexico City). From the towering buildings of the Plaza de la Independencia to the elegant mansions of Paseo de Montejo (a tree-lined thoroughfare inspired by the Champs-Élysées), the city is sure to impress with its blend of ancient Mayan and Spanish imperial influences. Mérida is currently undergoing a renaissance as new residents move in and revive neglected colonial buildings.
Thespians should stop by Teatro José Peón Contreras. Completed in 1908, this regal structure is the oldest theater in Yucatán, and is the main performance venue for the Yucatán Symphony Orchestra. Down the street at Parque de Santa Lucía, visitors can catch live music and dance throughout the week. A wide range of restaurants line the square, including the family-run Apoala, which serves up delicious Yucatecan and Oaxacan cuisine. Choose from options like empanadas with black mole and beef tlayudas (crispy tortillas topped with a spread of beans, cheese, and vegetables). Wash it all down with a refreshing glass of sangria.
2. Valladolid: 97 miles from Cancun
Colonial Valladolid is chock-full of history and has been recognized as one of the country’s “Pueblos Mágicos” (magical towns) by the Mexican Ministry of Tourism. Similar to UNESCO World Heritage sites, these enchanting villages are distinguished for their cultural richness and historical significance. Famed for being the location of the first spark of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, Valladolid is equidistant between Cancun and Mérida, which makes it an easy stop along the way to the capital after flying into Cancun International Airport.
Located directly on the city’s main square opposite the towering cathedral of San Servacio, Hotel El Mesón del Marqués is within easy walking distance of Valladolid’s top sights and makes a fantastic home base for visitors. The charming on-site restaurant, Hostería del Marques, serves excellent traditional dishes (be sure to try the chilaquiles — chopped and fried corn tortillas topped with salsa, cheese, and onions — at breakfast). Around the corner, you'll find a poolside bar where you can cool off with a refreshing margarita. Rates from $53 per night.
History buffs will appreciate a visit to the Sisal neighborhood. Here, you can tour the fortified Convent of San Bernardino of Siena, which was completed back in 1560. Stroll through the rose-pink outdoor corridors of this stunning cathedral while listening to church bells. If you happen to visit while mass is taking place, take a moment to enjoy the harmonious chants of the choir singing below.
Valladolid is also home to its own cenote — an underground freshwater sinkhole, which is conveniently located right in town. Cenotes, with their mineral-rich turquoise waters, were considered sacred by the Mayans (it's where they connected with the gods). Nowadays, visitors can swim in Valladolid’s Cenote Zací. Although dozens of cenotes can be found in Yucatán, Cenote Zací’s proximity to the town’s historical center makes it one of the easiest to reach.
3. Izamal: 158 miles from Cancun
Commonly referred to as “the Yellow City” due to the vibrant yellow facades of its city center, Izamal is another one of Mexico’s “Pueblos Mágicos.” You can either explore by foot or hop into a horse-drawn carriage tour, which you can catch at Plaza Izamal (the town's central square).
A hard-to-miss focal point, the Convent of San Antonio is a must-visit. Completed in 1561, this Franciscan monastery is built atop an ancient Mayan pyramid and features the largest open atrium in the world outside of the Vatican. Venture three blocks north to take in more history at Kinich Kak Mó, a 10-level pyramid dedicated to the Mayan sun god. Here, you'll avoid the crowds found at more famous sites like Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. You'll also be permitted to climb these ruins — although the steep ascent can be exhausting under the scorching sun. However, once you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view of Izamal and the surrounding region.
If you’ve worked up an appetite during the climb, visit Zamna, a family-owned eatery housed in an open-air thatched hut. Here, you can try the region’s most famous dish, cochinita pibil (slow roasted pork marinated in orange juice). You can actually see the meat being prepared, along with homemade tortillas and other local specialties like papadzules, an enchilada-like dish filled with eggs.
Consider a stay at Grupo Izamal, a boutique hotel collection with three handsome properties across town, most of which harmoniously match the city’s yellow backdrop.The hotels feature well-maintained lawns and crystal-blue swimming pools. Rates from $52 per night, depending on the property.
4. Celestún: 252 miles from Cancun
Nature lovers should visit the beach town of Celestún, which is located west of Mérida on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, and just north of the state of Campeche. The town is a gateway to the wetland Celestún Biosphere Reserve, a wildlife sanctuary that's home to 560 species of animals like jaguars and crocodiles. Also, 300 species of birds inhabit the mangrove-filled area, including pelicans and flamingos. A boat ride to view the pink wading birds of the reserve costs approximately $90 for up to ten people. For optimal flamingo viewing, visit from December through March.
After exploring the reserve, venture into town and marvel at the modest buildings painted in vivid colors. Hungry? Visit Restaurante Los Pámpanos for fresh seafood, which is served under a huge beachfront palapa. Unpretentious dishes like camarones a la plancha (grilled shrimp) will run you no more than $10. Crowd-pleasers like guacamole, ceviche, and ice-cold beers can also be found on the menu. While you wait for your order to arrive, take a leisurely stroll down the uncrowded white sand beach and dip your feet in the calm, blue-green waters of Yucatán. Since the Gulf of Mexico sits to Celstún’s west, it makes for an ideal place to catch a sunset over the water.