The Best of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

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When you need a dose of sunshine, there are few destinations easier to reach than the Yucatan Peninsula and the Riviera Maya. With direct flights from 13 gateway cities in the United States, it’s easy to wake up at home in the morning and be on a beach with a margarita in hand by the afternoon. And while we would never criticize anyone for simply enjoying the sun, surf, and some guacamole, this region of Mexico has much more to offer. Here you’ll also find fantastic snorkeling and beautiful beaches, underground rivers, ancient Mayan cities deep in the jungle or perched on clifftops overlooking the Caribbean, and captivating colonial cities.

Kristen Korey Pike, the founder of KK Travels Worldwide and a member of the AFAR Travel Advisory Council, has created an itinerary that starts with exploring colonial Merida and sites nearby, while staying in a restored hacienda. You’ll visit Tulum, a laidback beach town with design hotels and top restaurants—as well as one of the most photogenic Mayan sites anywhere. After a day in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, home to pristine rain forests and wetlands best explored by kayak, you’ll have a two-day island getaway, on Isla Holbox, off the beaten path. The trip ends with a night near Cancun, where you can sample the city’s restaurants and nightlife or simply enjoy the spa and other facilities at one of two top resorts that are among Kristen’s favorites.

Celestún Biosphere Reserve

Upon arrival at the Cancun International Airport, you’ll pick up a rental car and head west towards the state of Yucatan and your hotel for the next two nights, the 15-room Hacienda San Jose. This 17th-century hacienda has been meticulously restored, and the rooms exude a captivating historical ambience. While you may be tempted to spend the afternoon relaxing in one of the traditional Mayan hammocks or wandering the landscaped grounds, after lunch you will continue on to Celestún.

The vast Celestún Biosphere Reserve sits on the Gulf of Mexico and extends over some 146,000 acres. The area is famous for its population of flamingos, numbering in the thousands, as well as herons and dozens of other bird species. Your boat tour will include opportunities to see the magnificent flocks of pink birds and the reserve’s pristine mangroves. You’ll also be able to swim in a natural spring.

After your tour of the reserve, explore the sleepy fishing town of Celestún before returning to the Hacienda San Jose for dinner. Before sitting down to your meal, you’ll have the opportunity to go into the kitchen for a cooking class and introduction to Mayan and Yucatecan cuisine. You’ll learn about ingredients unique to the region, like the spinach-like epazote and achiote seeds, and prepare some typical Mayan dishes like sopa de lima or marinated pork.

Chichén Itzá
This UNESCO World Heritage Site was once one of the most important Mayan city-states, with an estimated population of 50,000 at its peak (between 600 C.E. and 900 C.E.) The ceremonial center measures nearly two square miles and includes the 75-foot-high Pyramid of Kukulcan. As with many pre-Columbian settlements in Mexico, there was a ball court where a game of life and death was played—the losers in a match were often sacrificed. The Palace of the Columns, El Caracol Observatory, and the Temple of the Warriors are further evidence of a once flourishing civilization. You will also visit the mysterious Cenote Sagrado, better known as the “Well of the Sacrifices,” where humans were once offered to Chaac, the Mayan rain god.
Tulum

Tulum is one of the most awe-inspiring archeological sites in the Mayan Riviera. It’s the only fortified Mayan city built on the coast and boasts stunning cliff-top views of the Caribbean. This Post-Classic city, occupied up to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, may look familiar—its setting makes it a favorite of travel photographers. You’ll have time to explore the major structures of the complex, which include the Castle, the Temple of the Descending God, the House of Columns (The Great Palace), and the Temple of the Frescoes.

After your visit to Tulum, you will continue on to Rio Secreto, a subterranean river that passes through a spectacular world of stalactites and stalagmites. Upon arrival, your guide will provide security instruction and suitable equipment. Prior to entry into the Mayan underworld, you will tour the natural reserve trails, after which you will hike and swim through this beautiful, unique series of caverns. Today’s tour includes transportation, essential equipment, lunch, and beverages.

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