A trip to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is bound to blow you away. Between the vacation-worthy beaches, the dense tropical jungle, the ancient Mayan ruins, and the colonial cities peppered throughout, this particular region is one of Mexico’s most spectacular, and most popular (for good reason!).
Now, just to be clear, there is a state in Mexico called Yucatán, but generally, when you hear someone mention the Yucatán, they’re likely referring to the entire peninsula in the eastern part of Mexico, which consists of three states – Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Campeche. What’s great about this region is that you don’t need to drive very far in order to get from place to place. In the entire month that I spent in the Yucatán, I was never in a car for more than three or four hours at a time, tops. So, even if you plan on posting up at a resort in Cancun or Tulum, you can – and should – get out for at least a day or two and explore!
Before you go, there are a couple things that’ll be helpful for you to know. Some of these tips are pretty general and applicable to Mexico as a whole (and useful if this will be your first time ever visiting the country!), but there’s also a lot to know about the Yucatán specifically that’ll help you to really enjoy, and appreciate, everything this region has to offer.
Read on for my top 11 tips you should know before your first time visiting the Yucatán!
11 Tips to Know Before Visiting The Yucatán
1. Languages Spoken in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico
The official language of Mexico is Spanish, and it is widely spoken in the Yucatán. However, as this part of Mexico is also one of the most popular for tourism, you can generally get by pretty decently with English in the bigger cities and tourist hubs, like Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Merida.
If you’d like to try your hand at Spanish, here are some conversational phrases that may help you navigate visiting Mexico:
Good Morning: Buenos Dias
Good Afternoon: Buenas Tardes
Good Evening: Buenas Noches
How Are You?: Como Estas?
I’m Good! And You?: Estoy Bien, Y Tu / Usted (use the latter for formality)?
How Much?: Cuanto Cuesta?
I Do Not Understand: No Entiendo
Can You Speak English?: Hablas / Habla Usted (use the latter for formality) Ingles?
In addition to Spanish and English, the southeastern region of Mexico – where the Yucatán Peninsula lies – is home to the largest concentration of Maya, descendants of ancient Mayan tribes. In addition to Spanish, the Maya speak at least a little of one of the 30+ Mayan languages in existence today, the most common of which is Yucatec Maya. Maya elders are more likely to speak Mayan languages fluently as a primary tongue, at least based on my observations with Maya guides and visitors when visiting places like Coba and Chichen-Itza.
2. Currency in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
Mexico uses the Mexican Peso. 1 US dollar is the equivalent to 19 – 24 Mexican Pesos (MXN or MXN$), based on the exchange rate.
Depending on where you travel in the Yucatán, withdrawing money and finding ATMs can prove to be a challenge. While I was in Merida, I didn’t have any issues using my card or withdrawing money, I found it a bit more challenging in Tulum near the beach. My recommendation is to always carry at least enough cash on you to get you through the day if you can’t find an ATM or if you go to a restaurant without a working credit card terminal, which can happen anywhere.
When you do withdraw money, be sure to do so in Mexican Pesos rather than your home currency, so you don’t run the risk of having the bank jack up the exchange rate on you without you knowing.
In areas where tourism is more common, like in Riviera Maya, you may be able to use US dollars to pay for things if you’re in a pinch. If you do this, kindly ask for whoever you’re paying to confirm the exchange rate they’re using so you can verify the change you receive.
3. Weather in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico
The weather in the Yucatán is one of its greatest appeals, because it really is warm all day and all night, all year long. But while there isn’t necessarily a bad time to go, there are some less ideal times, when the region gets too hot or too rainy. In general, here’s what you can expect in the Yucatán:
Dry Season (November – May): This part of the year typically sees less rainfall and more bearable temperatures. Because of this, this is usually when the region experiences the most tourism.
Rainy Season (May – October): This part of the year sees more of rainfall, with hurricane season also occurring towards the end of this timeframe. Many of my friends who travel to Mexico often, or who live in the Yucatán currently, have told me that it’s not that bad and that travel during this timeframe is still worthwhile, so, take it for what you will (but always be sure to check the weather forecasts ahead of time!).
4. Geography & Places to Visit in the Yucatán Peninsula
The Yucatán is the easternmost region of Mexico, surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. The 70,000-square-mile peninsula consists of three states, Quintana Roo, Campeche, and Yucatán, all of which are fairly close to one another and easily accessible within a couple hours’ drive.
The most famous and well-known region within the Yucatán stretches from Cancun to the Riviera Maya (essentially, from Puerto Morelos to Tulum, ending at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere). But every region within the Yucatán Peninsula has something special to offer.
Home to Cancun, Quintana Roo is a major hub of tourism in the Yucatán. Cancun has boomed in the last few decades to become one of the top destinations in the Caribbean, and the city is now a hotspot for spring breakers, honeymooners, and those looking for all-inclusive resort experiences.
South of Cancun, the Riviera Maya offers up a handful of smaller, but no less stunning, coastal towns and cities that are increasing in popularity, thanks to the success of Cancun and the undeniable beauty of the beaches here. The cities in Riviera Maya include Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, Puerto Aventuras, Xpu-Ha, Akumal, Soliman’s Bay, Tank Ha Bay, and Tulum, and whereas Cancun’s hotel zone is quite isolated from the main city center hub, each city and town in Riviera Maya offers up a more even distribution of local life and tourism.
You may not need to rent a car if you plan on staying in Cancun to enjoy the all-inclusive experience, but if you visit the Riviera Maya, renting a car is the best way to get around and explore! This part of the peninsula is dotted with beautiful beaches, cenotes, and Mayan ruins that are all easily accessible.
In addition to the cities on the peninsula, Quintana Roo is home to a number of popular islands to explore. Isla Holbox, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel are each popular beach destinations in their own right.
RELATED: A 3-Day Guide to Cozumel, Mexico
One of the most famous draws to the state of Yucatán is the archeological site of Chichen-Itza, one of the Seven New Wonders of the World. However, for those willing to venture further than the ruins and explore the rest of this state, it can be a beautiful adventure, filled with colonial cities, colorful streets, and even more Mayan ruins that are equally impressive.
In the state of Yucatán, you can find heavy influence of Spanish colonialism, dating back to the 16th century. The present-day result of this is a series of cities with unique colonial architecture and colorful streets. Valladolid, Merida, and Izamal are each stunning colonial cities that offer visitors a taste of authentically Yucatec culture, history, and flavors. Do not miss the chance to try cochinita pibil, sopa de lima, and marquesitas while you are here!
The state of Campeche, in the southernmost region of the peninsula, offers up similar colonial history and charms to Merida and Valladolid. The capital city, also called Campeche, is filled with colorful streets, cobblestone, and intricate facades, and generally, sees less crowds than the rest of the peninsula.
Regardless of where you travel in the Yucatán Peninsula, you’ll be able to enjoy the stunning, warm beaches, dense jungle, Mayan ruins, and cenotes (natural freshwater pools linked by subterranean rivers and believed to be magical in ancient Maya culture).
5. Culture and Etiquette to Know Ahead of Time
The Yucatán Peninsula is a special region within Mexico not just for its picturesque landscapes and tropical geographic location, but also because of its people, culture, and customs. Because of its more remote location, there is a palpable uniqueness to the culture and customs of the Yucatecan population that sets it apart from the rest of Mexico.
This peninsula is home to one of the largest concentrations of Maya descendants in the world. As I mentioned earlier, more than 30 Mayan dialects still exist and are spoken here, though the most prevalent in this region is Yucatec Maya. While lots of foreign development is taking place in the Yucatán, there is also an increasing number of Maya-owned tour operators, artisans, and co-ops establishing a new wave of local and community-based tourism for visitors. My personal experience with this was at Chichen-Itza, where a cooperative of Mayan guides was given first preference for visitors over government-employed guides. I decided to tour the archeological site with a Mayan guide from the cooperative (in English), and loved it!
In addition to Maya and Mexican populations, the Yucatán is slowly but increasingly establishing a small expat community of international remote workers, digital nomads, and retirees.
I’ve heard about and experienced firsthand just how kind and open local Yucatecans are to visitors (especially if you can speak a little Spanish). The people here are as kind as they are proud, especially when it comes to the preservation of their unique culture, traditions, and food (each of which uniquely combines Mayan and Mexican with the influences of the Spanish, Colombian, and Cuban). The cultural, arts, and culinary scenes in the Yucatán are incredibly special. Just wander around the museums, restaurants, or festivals in Merida (the cultural capital of the peninsula) to see why.
6. What to Wear in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico
Because the Yucatán is quite warm and humid all year long, you’ll want to pack a good selection of lightweight, loose, breathable clothing so you can be comfortable. If you plan on spending time on the beach, bring lots of swimwear and cover-ups.
For trips to any of the Yucatán’s hundreds of cenotes, bring waterproof footwear (like these waterproof slip-on sneakers) or these sandals / flip flops). It’s also a good idea to pack goggles or snorkel gear, if you have it, to best explore these incredible natural phenomenons.
You don’t need any special attire to visit Mayan ruins, but I would recommend packing comfortable walking shoes. Especially if you have walking shoes you don’t mind getting dirty, these will come in handy both when visiting ruins and in general, as this region can often experience lots of rain. Encountering mud when walking around isn’t uncommon here.
7. Transportation and Getting Around
There are several different ways to get around in the Yucatán:
- Renting a Car: I highly recommend renting a car in the Yucatán if you can (and feel comfortable!). This will allow you the most freedom and flexibility. And, renting a car is generally pretty cheap in Mexico (I got my sedan for around $10/day). However, if you do plan on renting a car in Mexico, you must purchase Mexican auto insurance, which can get a bit more pricey, so just keep that in mind.
- Renting a Bicycle: Bikes are a popular method of getting around, especially while in the larger towns and cities. The terrain is relatively flat and easy to navigate, so definitely consider renting a bike once you get to your destination!
- Ride-Hailing Apps: You can find ride-hailing apps like Uber and Cabify in Cancun and Merida only. Outside of these two cities, taxis will be your best bet.
- Hiring a Taxi: Taxis are generally safe, reliable, and common ways to get around throughout the Yucatán. Always confirm the price upfront (or, confirm that their meter is working, if they are using one) before getting in the car. And, know that taxis may charge more premium rates in tourist destinations, like Cancun and Tulum. You may be able to haggle a little, depending on where you are, so I always recommend comparing notes with other travelers or locals to see what rates you should expect to pay!
- Booking a Private Driver / Transportation: There are countless private transportation services for those looking to get from point A to point B comfortably, without having to drive. Most commonly, you can book private transportation to and from the Cancun Airport, to major tourist destinations like Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Merida. Happy Shuttle Cancun is one service I’ve used before when I wanted a private ride to Playa del Carmen, and they were great!
- Taking a Colectivo: Colectivos are shared vans that serve as cheap, fast public transportation and a good alternative to taking the bus.
- Taking a Bus: ADO busses are widely used to get around, but I’ve heard the schedules can be infrequent, depending on where you go. That said, they are a cheap means of public transport!
- Taking a Ferry: You will need to take a ferry to visit the Yucatán’s island destinations, including Isla Holbox, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel. Based on my experience, you can purchase a ferry ticket on the spot (versus planning ahead of time).
8. Food and Tipping
The food culture in the Yucatán is rich and distinctive. Flavors of achiote, sour orange, citrus, and habanero chili are staples in Yucatecan cuisine. And, like the architecture, the culinary scene here is a mix of Maya, Mexican, Spanish, Cuban, and even Lebanese influence. My favorite dishes in the Yucatán are cochinita pibil, marquesitas, sopa de lima, and salbutes.
In the Riviera Maya, you’ll find Yucatecan food and international cuisine, with restaurants offering everything from Greek to Japanese fusion. My advice is to make sure you get the best of both worlds. Don’t just eat at chain or international restaurants while in town. Be sure to venture out to Yucatecan restaurants, local taco stands, and colorful marquesitas stands too whenever you get the chance!
Tipping is not uncommon in Mexico. My rule of thumb here is, if you were provided good service, good conversation, or above-and-beyond attentiveness, why wouldn’t you tip? An extra 20 pesos ($1) for a taxi driver who gave you insider tips about where to eat, or 20 – 40 pesos for a porter who carried your suitcase to your room, is totally fine (and welcome). At nice hotels and all-inclusive resorts, again, tip what you think is reasonable.
Beyond transportation, hotels, and dining, there will be lots of other occasions in Mexico where tipping in exchange for good service is acceptable. For instance, gas station attendants, bathroom attendants, grocery carriers, and musicians performing at restaurants may often go above and beyond to take care of you while you’re visiting. Always try to carry a couple pesos on you for situations like these as a gesture of thanks!
The vast majority of Mexico is a “no flush zone,” meaning that any toilet paper you use should be disposed of in the trash can, not the toilet. I’ve seen all sorts of signs throughout Merida, Tulum, Cozumel, and beyond asking and in some cases pleading visitors to follow this rule, which tells me it’s either not well known or not well followed.
So, when you do visit the Yucatán, please be courteous and keep your toilet paper out of the toilet!
11. Travel Insurance
I have always found Mexico to be safe and welcoming, but like with any country, it’s important to use your best judgment and take good care of your belongings. If you’re planning on traveling around a lot, or doing adventurous activities while in town, it might be a good idea to get travel insurance for your trip. Some reputable travel insurance companies that will allow to pick up a policy before you travel include:
I hope these tips help you plan your first trip to the Yucatán! Where are you heading? What are you most excited to do, or see? Tell me below!