Tulum (Photo: thedragonstales.blogspot.com)

Almost 5 million people a year visit Cancun in the Mexican State of Quintana Roo. Cancun is a lovely beach and party town on the East coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Cancun and its environs (the Riviera Maya, including towns like Akumal, Tulum, and Playa Del Carmen) are well worth a few days of lazing around on the sundrenched sand.

Cozumel is one of the premier diving spots on earth. The eco parks of Xel-Ha and Xcaret are like a naturalist Disneyworld. But what happens when you get tired of binge drinking frat boys or just need a day or two to let the sunburns heal?

In my opinion, you have two choices. You can either rent a car in Cancun and see some of the nearby sights, or head about 3.5 hours west to Merida and use that city as a base to explore the interior of the Yucatan Peninsula. I would strongly recommend the second option as the highlights of the peninsula are all with 2 hours drive of Merida.

Cozumel, Quintana Roo (TYT)
Cozumel, Quintana Roo (TYT)

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on Cancun; there is a plethora of existing resources and, to be honest, it’s overrated. Don’t get me wrong; Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen are home to many incredible beaches and night clubs. But they don’t have character. In my opinion, what will make a difference and really stand out to you over the years is not the beach you were at, it is the amount of time you spent in the authentic noncoastal areas, the cultural heartland if you will.

The state of Yucatan occupies the northern third of the Yucatan Peninsula, which is separated into the aforementioned Quintana Roo and Yucatan states as well as the undiscovered jewel that is Campeche. The Yucatan Peninsula proper occupies all the territories north of the New River’s entrance into Chetumal Bay in Belize to the northern end of the Laguna De Terminos in Campeche State (roughly mirroring highway 186). This area is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Campeche City, Uxmal Ruins, Chichen-Itza Ruins, and Sian-Kaan Biosphere), all well worth exploring.

Maya Pyramid Izamal (Robert Adams)
Maya Pyramid Izamal (Robert Adams)

Most people fly in to Cancun or Cozumel international airports in Quintana Roo. The Capital of Yucatan state, Merida, and Campeche both have airports. Ground transportation in the Yucatan is simple. Cheap rates on rental cars and well paved, clearly marked roads make the Yucatan one of the best places for individual touring in North America. Transportation by bus is available by ADO (Mexico’s outstanding first class bus system) to all major tourist sites. If you fly in to Cancun, please note it takes just over an hour to drive to Tulum, 2.5 hours to Chichen Itza/Valladolid, 3.5 hours to Merida. From Merida, Uxmal is an hour south, Progresso is an hour north, and Campeche is two hours southwest.

Campeche (Google)
Campeche (Google)

To me, there are two must see sites on the Yucatan Peninsula. The first of these lovely places is the Mayan ruins of Uxmal (pronouced Oosh-Mal, meaning “thrice built”). Entrance costs $203 pesos, open daily. Just off Highway 261 south of Merida, Uxmal was founded around 500 AD by the Xiu dynasty of the Puuc Maya. Uxmal reached its apogee between 800-1100 AD, better known as the Terminal Classic period of Mesoamerican history (800-1100 AD). By 1250 AD the city had fallen into decline and was mostly abandoned. If you have the option, don’t waste your time in Chichen Itza; this site is larger and prettier.

Uxmal is the crown jewel of Mayan architecture. It’s Pyramid of the Magician (Templo del Adivino) is one of the most unique buildings of the ancient world and the tallest on site. Uxmal is home to the second and third tallest pyramids in the Yucatan (40 and 37 meters respectively, after Coba’s 42 meter Nohoch Mul pyramid). Uxmal is also home to the Nunnery Quadrangle, where you can find the most intricate carvings of the new world. The Governor’s Palace on the south side of the ruins is nearly as intricate as the quadrangle and offers a fantastic view of the entire site.

Yucatan, Uxmal, Archeological zone, Pigeon's Quadrangle - Photo by Uxmal
Yucatan, Uxmal, Archeological zone, Pigeon’s Quadrangle – (Photo by Uxmal Archeological site)

On top of being the largest and most unique of the Northern Mayan ruins, Uxmal is also home to an evening ritual which is not to be missed. Every night the ruins are lit up (7 pm in the winter, 8 pm in the summer), focusing on the Quadrangle, and the history of Uxmal is told in Spanish over a speaker system ($83 pesos, headphones available in 5 other languages for $39 pesos). This is worth staying the night in Uxmal to see, and I recommend Villa Arqueologicas Uxmal. Its rooms are large, simple and clean, pool is refreshing, and the kitchen is outstanding (starts at $765 pesos a night).

After seeing Uxmal, many people will want to visit the Ruta Puuc, a collections of Maya sites all within a few miles of Uxmal. Don’t get me wrong, Kabah has a magnificent wall of rain god (Chac) masks, Sayil an incredible palace, and Labna a very photographic arch, but overall I didn’t find these sites worth the time or cost of admittance. However, the last surviving Mayan Capital of Mayapan, a smaller copy of Chichen Itza, I found to be well worth the free admission and hour or so I spent scrambling up pyramids.

Campeche is the other must see site in the Yucatan Peninsula. Founded in 1540 by Francisco Montejo, a conquistador, the city is the premier Spanish colonial town in the Yucatan, maybe all of Mexico. Its bright colors, lush central park, and dominating cathedral all add to the charm that make this city, well, so damn pleasant.

As many are unaware, Campeche was a spectacularly rich town during the colonial period, making it a target for pirate attacks. The city suffered attacks from famous pirates like Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Laurens De Graaf, Jean Laffite, and Henry Morgan. It wasn’t until the city was devastated by Edward Mansvelt’s 1663 attack that they decided to build a wall around the city totaling over 2500 meters in length with eight bastions and four forts outside the city guarding the approaches. To this day, cannonballs can still be seen lodged in the city’s walls at various points.

Baluarte San Pedro Campeche (Conaculta)
Baluarte San Pedro Campeche (Conaculta)

Many of the bastions and forts are now home to museums. San Miguel el Alto Fort is home to many of the treasures discovered in the Mayan Ruins of the state of Campeche, principally Calakmul, Jaina Island, Balamku, and nearby Edzna (Edzna is nearly as impressive as Chichen Itza, worth 1-2 hours if you have the time). Fort San Jose El Alto houses a naval museum, Bastion San Pedro holds the Pirate museum, and San Carlos holds the City Museum. Most of the bastions are within the colonial center, and the town is very walkable, although San Miguel and San Jose are a short, $50 peso taxi ride away.

If you are a seafood junkie, as I do claim to be, Campeche is a cultural hub for you. Gulf shrimp, snapper, and stone crab are available in abundance and fresh from the sea. My favorite was Palapa Tio Fito, although Marganzo was equal in quality but higher in price. I can also highly recommend La Pigua, Los Portales, and La Parroquia. Regarding hotels, if opulence is what you seek, Casa Don Gustavo is for you. I stayed at Hotel Castelmar, in the colonial center, and found it to be….enchanting. It’s a former Mexican Navy barracks dating from the 1840’s built in the colonial style. The rooms were spacious and clean, and the staff was friendly.

By Allen Wise