Mexico’s proximity to the US, making for reasonable travel times even with kids in tow, and dream weather make it a can’t-go-wrong destination for family vacation planning. Most of us think of heading straight to digging our toes in the sand or wading into the clear-as-bathwater ocean when we dream of heading south of the border. But, there’s so much more to the culturally rich Mexico than beach bumming. A visit to the State of Yucatán will find you at the top of ancient pyramids, swapping the ocean for naturally formed pools deep underground swirling with Mayan mystique, exploring welcoming cities with rich histories and finding a new appreciation for the people of Mexico. Read on to hear about our most favorite places to discover in Yucatán.
ATV Tour of the City Dressed in Yellow: Izamal
How often do you get to see a color-coordinated city? Here’s your chance as it’s forever golden hour in Yucatan’s magical “Yellow City”, Izamal. When Pope John Paul II announced a visit and mass in 1993, the city got to work painting the town yellow, a revered color in Mayan culture. The long-lasting effect of the decision is a city that gives a sense of peace and serenity when walking amongst its buildings—it’s impossible not to smile immersed in the happiest of colors.
Pack along your sense of adventure and take an ATV tour to fully appreciate the monochromatic experience. You’ll learn about the history of what is considered the most culturally important Mayan city, zip past the colonial buildings and admire this living-breathing museum to Mayan culture.
Climb to the Top of Kinich Kak Moo
The city of Izamal is home to the largest structure on the Yucatan Peninsula, Kinich Kak Moo, thought to be one of the most important Mayan pyramids because of its size. Visitors can climb the pyramid’s 10 levels for 360-degree views of Izamal and the jungle below. The city itself tends to not be overrun with tourists, which means the crowds at the ruins are minimal and entrance is free and open to the public.
Be sure to pack sneakers or other shoes with grip because the climb is uneven and steep.
Tour Convent of San Antonio de Padua
Still an active convent, this Franciscan colonial building in Izamal was erected atop the ruins of Pap-Hol-Chac, which was believed to be the largest Mayan pyramid. It was destroyed by the Spaniards and the current structure was built using the same stones from the Mayan site.
Convent of San Antonio de Padua has the distinction of having the largest closed atrium in the Americas and the second-largest in the world, second only to St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. Its size, design and signature Izamal yellow color make it a stunning site to visit.
Take Home a Handmade Hammock
Not all hammocks are created equally, and the best can be found at Cielo Hamacas in Yucatan. Cielo hammocks are handmade by local artisans in their homes, with each hammock taking 5-7 days to complete. Some more intricate designs can take up to a month and over 900 local families work to fulfill orders from all over the world.
In Yucatan, hammocks aren’t just an every-once-in-a-while spot to nap. Homes are built with sturdy clips cemented into the walls and many choose this mode of sleeping over a bed. So, these hammocks are made with that in mind—quality, durability and comfort are top-notch. Stop by one of their storefront locations to pick your favorite and see in person the effort that goes into the art of making a hammock.
Make it a Farm Day at Hacienda Zamna
We can promise you’ll never want to leave Hacienda Zamna, located 25 minutes from the city of Mérida. Regardless of your equestrian skill level, you can escape to their pastures for 1-4 hour horseback rides with an expert guide. The grounds are absolutely gorgeous and pristine, the staff is incredibly friendly and knowledgeable and kids will get a kick out of the sheep, goats and pigs they see along the way—they may even get a peek at some newborns!
This is seriously one of the most gorgeous and kindly farms we’ve come across in our travels. It’s a must-see and a beautiful way to spend a day disconnected from technology, but connected as a family.
Ogle at the Beauty of Chichen Itza
The pages of your kid’s textbook will come alive with a day trip to see what was left behind from Mexico’s mysterious Mayan civilization. The signature Kukulkan Pyramid that dominates Chichen Itza, also known as El Castillo (the castle), was designated as one of the seven wonders of the world in 2007. Built as a physical representation of the Mayan calendar, it has 91 steps on each of the 4 sides totaling 364 steps and its 9 platforms bisected by a staircase on each side represent the 18 months in a Mayan calendar. It’s a shining example of the Mayan’s phenomenally intriguing understanding of math and astronomy.
Swim Like a Mayan at Ik Kil
A must-do if you head in the direction of Chichen Itza is a reprieve from the heat in the cool waters of the 135-feet-deep Ik Kil Cenote. If you’re unfamiliar, cenotes are natural sinkholes from the collapse of limestone that expose groundwater underneath, a natural swimming pool, essentially. And, Ik Kil is arguably one of the most beautiful in all of Mexico. Take the stairs 85 feet below ground level and imagine what it must have been like for the Mayans, who considered this sacred ground. The cold of the water and the natural beauty of the landscape equally pillage your breath.
Let Yourself Feel a Little Hip at Unknown Hotel
New to the scene is Unknown Hotel in Merida’s Santiago neighborhood. It’s a small boutique hotel, but every detail is well thought out, designed and executed. The goal is for guests to connect with the space and neighborhood and to have nature and architecture merge, which leads to a serene, natural feel to the property.
Each room has a seating area and some have a private plunge pool, as well as access to a swimming pool and garden area, restaurant and bar. It’s walkable to shops and restaurants but the inside is so peaceful, you forget you’re in a city.
Experience Local Culture at Mercado Santiago
Or any Mercado, for that matter. If you see one, pull over and spend an hour selecting fresh regional produce or enjoying a meal. We highly recommend seeking out food from where the locals eat when you travel to Yucatán and it doesn’t get any more authentic than visiting these markets.
Taqueria La Lupita can be found in Mercado Santiago in Merida’s Santiago neighborhood. They’ve specialized in local dishes and snacks like Cochinita Pibil and Lechón al Horno, making their tacos and dishes fresh daily, for more than 40 years. The vibe is extremely low-key and it’s a great way to get a feel for the culture as the area’s residents go about their day, shopping for and with their families.
Learn More About Local Cuisine & Dine at Museum of Yucateca Gastronomy
In the heart of Merida’s cultural district, you’ll find Museo de la Gastronomia Yucateca (MUGY) where you can learn more about the history of food in the region, and get a taste of authentic dishes in the restaurant. Behind the museum is a replica of a small Mayan village where visitors can watch fresh tortillas being made, learn about the different spices used in the cuisine and watch (and taste) as the chef digs up pots of local mainstays that are cooked underground daily.
Shop in Awe at Casa T’HO Concept House
Casa T’HO borrows its name from the fallen Mayan city that stood long ago, taken over by the arrival of the conquistadores. The house itself is a former 19th-century mansion with a center courtyard, with nine boutiques and a gourmet restaurant taking up residence in the home’s original rooms. The collective of designers draw inspiration from the local region, work with a focus on sustainability and have an eye for the beauty of simplicity.
Take Over Hacienda Katanchel
Hacienda Katanchel operated as a hotel for many years, but now this family-owned 17th-century Spanish colonial hacienda is only available for rent to small private groups. Set in the jungle, the 740 secluded acres is a perfect hideway for a family reunion, wedding or anniversary celebration. The property includes a pool, dining area, villas that include private plunge pools and incredible architectural elements you won’t find anywhere else. The husband and wife team ensure there is adequate staff to feed and take care of your group and cover every detail to make sure the stay is special and memorable.
Spoil Yourself at Hacienda Xcanatun
If you’ve never experienced a Banyan Tree property, now is your chance. The brand is always on-point in all areas: service, design, and attention to detail. Just 15 minutes from downtown Merida, Hacienda Xcanatun’s 18 spacious suites were recently renovated to their 18th-century splendor. It’s surrounded by 4 acres of private gardens, which include rugged walking trails the kids will enjoy exploring. The Hacienda also has an outdoor pool and spa on site.
Tour the Town of Valladolid
One of the absolutely best-kept secrets in Mexico is the small town of Valladolid. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, Vallalodid’s artful architecture, pastel-colored buildings housing boutique shops and hotels, excellent cuisine, and historic churches make it a quaint home base for a visit to Yucatan. In the city center, you’ll find free walking tours that we highly recommend. They’ll guide you to all the most interesting spots to see in the city and help you get your bearings to explore on your own.
Valladolid is located halfway between Cancun and Merida and is a good place to stay if you want to visit Chichen Itza and the area is rich with cenotes of all sizes.
If you’re looking for an interesting dinner spot, La Palapita de los Tamales is a great option. Various regions of Mexico prepare their tamales in different ways—they’re wrapped in leaves depending on the vegetation of the region and some are even cooked underground. This spot gives you the opportunity to try versions you may not have tried before.
Test Your Inner Daredevil at Cenote Chukum
This 130-foot Cenote Chukum close to the town of Valladolid is one of the more recently opened cenotes in the region, having only been used as a well until that point. Three natural openings in the ceiling above create an ethereal effect when the sun shines in on the turquoise water, which is 65 feet deep. Three diving platforms, ranging 3 to 15 feet above the water give you a chance to show your kids your best swan dive. Or, for the heights-adverse, you can ease into the crisp, cool waters using the stairs. Either way, the experience is absolutely mesmerizing and dreamlike.
Become Enamored by Zazil Tunich Cenote
One of our favorite cenotes near the town of Valladolid is family-owned Zazil Tunich. You’ll not only fall in love with the site, but the family that owns it. This is truly a family operation, with the owner’s daughters oftentimes conducting tours that make clear their passion and respect for the land and its history.
Zazil Tunich is a cave cenote, meaning there is no hole in the ground above illuminating the waters like the other cenotes we’ve highlighted. It’s considered to be one of the more spectacular in the region because of its thousands of stalagmites and stalactites, including the largest in Yucatan.
Spy on the Flamingos on a Tour of Rio Lagartos
Book a boat tour of Rio Lagartos and experience the natural beauty of this 120,000-acre biosphere reserve, which also happens to be a breeding ground for 40,000 flamingos and is home to gators and 395 species of birds. We recommend touring with family-owned Rio Lagartos Adventures because they are highly particular about running their tours in a way that’s respectful to the environment and the animals that call this area home. They dock at the Ria Maya Restaurant and Lodge where you can get a fresh seafood lunch before or after your tour.
— Maria Chambers
This trip was paid for by Yucatán Tourism, but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer