Playing away from Playa del Carmen
You’ve soaked up the sun from icing sugar sand. Snorkelled in dazzlingly clear waters over kaleidoscopic coral reefs. Sipped zesty margaritas as the sun goes down. There’s no denying that a luxury holiday on the Riviera Maya is pure, beachside bliss. Just don’t forget there’s far more to this corner of Mexico than meets the sunglasses-clad eye. And after a day or two away from the Caribbean charms of Playa del Carmen, you’ll be that much more ready for, well, more.
From Playa del Carmen: authentic Mexico, past and present
As one of the main draws of the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen is also well connected for exploring lesser-known treasures of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Regional capital Mérida pulls in the day trip crowds, but closer to Playa del Carmen you’ll find Valladolid. Quieter and no less captivating, Valladolid boasts bustling plazas and photogenic colonial landmarks.
The Palacio Municipal is the place to go for an introduction to the city. The first-floor corridors are lined with fascinating murals of local history, and also offer sweeping views over the central square.
Top tip: If you can get to Valladolid early, don’t miss the chance to take the 10am tour of La Casa de los Venados – an opulent colonial palace that houses the country’s largest private collection of Mexican folk art.
When travelling from Valladolid to the Ek’ Balam Mayan site, look for signs to Temozón village. At lunchtime, locals and visitors alike gather to feast on the local speciality: longaniza. This spiced pork sausage, smoked for hours over a wood fire, is best enjoyed in a fresh corn tortilla and topped with homemade salsa.
Ek’ Balam ruins and cenote
Thousands of archaeological sites are dotted around the Yucatan Peninsula, with big hitters including the towering pyramid temples of Chichén Itzá. Ek’ Balam is slightly off the tourist trail, giving you the chance to explore in your own time and with plenty of space.
Close to the ruins is the Ek’ Balam cenote. During the height of the Mayan civilisation, this underground lake was revered as an entrance to the underworld.
Today, the waterhole’s cavernous walls opening into the jungle makes a wonderfully atmospheric swimming pool. You can climb down a wooden staircase to reach the clear water or, if you’re feeling brave, abseil from the cave mouth.
From Tulum: near deserted ruins in a natural wonderland
With its stretch of white sand and cliffs crowned with the spectacular ruins of a Mayan port town, it would be easy to spend a whole holiday in Tulum without ever wanting to leave. But the downside to spectacular cliff-top ruins is that they attract quite a few other visitors. For off-the-beaten-track adventuring, tear yourself away from glorious sea views and explore inland.
If you haven’t yet had your fill of history, this Mayan site, wrapped up in the beautiful Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, is well worth a visit. The surrounding trees have started to take root in the ruins. Add to this that you may be among the only ones there and you have a real lost world feel.
Sian Ka’an Canals
The Mayans dug this network of waterways over 1,000 years ago to link Muyyil with the sea. Today, following its pure, aquamarine threads is the perfect way to explore the rainforest, mangroves and wetlands of Sian Ka’an. You can take a trip by boat or just use a life vest to enjoy a 30-minute float down the whole canal – in the company of an expert local guide.
Top tip: The best way to discover the tangled terrain of Sian Ka’an is with one of the local, community-owned tour companies. Proceeds go back to support Mayan villages in the reserve.