Beyond Cancun: Discovering Five Gems of the Yucatan

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Beyond Cancun

Sian Ka’an a UNESCO World Heritage site in Tulum, Cozumel, Akumal, Laguna Bacalar, and Chetumal are five amazing gems of the Yucatan that can be found beyond Cancun. Just south of the popular resorts of Cancun, you will find some of the most pleasant surprises on the Yucatan Peninsula. As a family, we have enjoyed uncovering the treasures of nature and history; we have found so many “gems” to enjoy in this area popularly known as “The Riviera Maya”. We have trekked all over Mexico over the course of a few years and the Rivera Maya continues to be our family favorite.

Beyound Cancun

The white sands of Tulum.

We will consider these starting at the city southernmost from Cancun and then head back north.

Chetumal

Chetumal Market Shopping

The Chetumal market, especially busy of Saturdays tempts the senses with a wide array of tropical delight.

Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo and border town for entry into Belize, may stretch the bounds of what one may call a “gem”. Coming from the U.S. or the rest of the Yucatan, visitors may find it to be lackluster. Coming from Belize, however, it will culturally shock travelers with a McDonald´s, a Liverpool mall, and other convenient shops. This is a great town to visit if you want to pull away from the entire resort scene and experience urban Mexican culture beyond Cancun and it’s heavily touristed beaches.

Chetumal boasts the Museum of Mayan History, the best collection of Mayan artifacts we know of. It also has a planetarium and zoo, both surprisingly large and beautifully laid out. If you are traveling with children, the zoo is definitely worth a visit. The Chetumal zoo has been recently renovated. It’s handicap accessible, and the animals are in large, natural habitats. Chetumal is proof that there’s much to see and do beyond Cancun!

For travelers staying on their way into or from Belize, we found the Hotel Los Cocos to be convenient to downtown, simply decorated, immaculately clean, and serves a great breakfast. For the more frugal, an in-room fridge is a nice touch. While there are U.S. chain hotels nearby, Los Cocos is known by locals as the best spot to stay.

Just north of Chetumal is Yax Ha, a well-maintained waterfront campground. RVers will find spacious pull thrus with full hook-ups. If you want to tuck away from the city, but don’t own an RV, the cabanas situated around landscaped green areas and pools are a great option. Our children love the pool. This is always a favorite stop for us before entering Belize.

Laguna Bacalar

Lake Bacalar

Lake Bacalar also known as the Lake of Seven Blues.

This might be one of the best kept secrets in all of the Yucatan. The town square is dominated on its east side by the Fort of San Felipe, a massive relic built in 1564. The Fort of San Felipe has wartime relics, thick walls, and a pirate channel overlooking the Cheumal Bay. You will want to spend an hour visiting it. Our children caught a fascinating and highly educational glimpse into the days when Mexico fended off British marauding hordes. They played pirate themed games for months after our visit.

The lake is popularly nicknamed the “lake of seven blues” for its constantly shifting hues throughout the day. We absolutely love Lake Bacalar. On several visits, we have seen all seven blues at once. The aqua marine shades make it hard to believe this is a fresh water lake and not the Caribbean sea.

Hotel Laguna Bacalar

Hotel Laguna Bacalar

Hotel Laguna Bacalar, a historic landmark on the bay, is one of our favorites for its excellent service and expansive views from the balconies. This hotel transports the visitor back in time; I always feel I am on the set of a Hollywood vacation in the fifties. For the homesick American, the breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and bacon is cooked to southern perfection. The local Mexican dishes are also wonderful. Our children have fond memories of dangling their feet in the pool while sipping chocolate malts from old-fashioned fountain glasses.

On other visits we also enjoyed staying at Casita Carolina, a collection of creatively decorated bungalows and suites. Their Palapa Room is a great value with private bath, fans, and a great view of the laguna. The prices are very budget friendly. Let them know you are coming and request banana bread, it’s the best we have ever eaten.

Akumal: The Place of the Turtle

Snorkel Akumal

Snorkeling in Akumal.

I hesitated sharing this one because it’s our all time favorite spot. When we first visited about five years ago, we saw few tourists; on our last visit, a local resort dropped off a bus-load of people. We hope that trend does not take off with other resorts. Akumal is dreamy. We once arrived for a three-day visit and stayed an entire month. It’s that kind of wonderful.

The Akumal Dive Shop is the hub of activity on this beach. Divers and snorkelers of all levels congregate for lessons, equipment, and the best dive shirts in the area. During the highest season, even a novice snorkeler will see the peaceful creatures within a short swim from shore. The water is strikingly clear, the sand powdery and eggshell-colored. Our youngest children were able to go out on floats and admire the spectacular sea turtles. We have gone many times over the course of several years. We always see at least three to five turtles, sometimes more.

Neighboring Half-Moon Bay was not as clear, but was filled with naturally occurring seaweed. This natural habitat attracts the female turtles during laying season. Anytime from April to September, the bay is marked by signs of turtles´ nests vigilantly guarded and maintained by volunteers of the Ecological Center.

Akumal Condo

Inside our condo in Akumal.

We have always enjoyed our stays at Vista Del Mar Hotel. Several units feature a full kitchen, two or three bedrooms and as many bathrooms. First floor residents literally walk right from the back sliding glass doors onto the sand bordering the bay. Excellent maid service is included with the room, too. The rooms are three star, but the location is unbeatable. This is the spot where we saw our first huge sea turtle lumber up from the sea and lay her eggs.

Also, the small town of Akumal has a number of mid to upscale restaurants. If you’re looking for an even more frugal option, we found the two mini-supers to be well-stocked, further reducing our desire to leave the area.

When we get old and have family reunions, we plan to meet here. Go. Thank me later.

Tulum: Sian Kaan Biosphere

Mexico Sian Ka'an

Sian Ka’an biosphere

Tulum has everything to love. Just past the busier beaches, long stretches of powdery white sand and crystal clear aqua-blue water beckons to swimmers and snorkelers. We parked our RV on the beach at two different and delightful locations on the north side of the beach.

Sian Ka'an Biosphere

Sian Ka’an Biosphere and UNESCO World Heritage site.

Sian Ka'an Glamping

An inside view of our glamping experience.

Tucked away on the southern end of Tulum´s jungle side is a UNESCO World Heritage site: the Sian Ka´an Biosphere. From solar lighting to composting toilets to rainwater showers, the entire complex is rigorous in its eco-friendliness. It’s a great spot for birders as there are over three hundred species of birds in this area. The marshes and mangroves offer the jungle feel while the wild beach is home to a large barrier reef.

We enjoyed the Sian Ka’an tent cabins, perched on platforms raised to protect the ecosystem. The lovely handmade furniture and relaxing porch hammocks turn this natural environment into a glamping experience. Persistent ocean breezes and unspoiled wild beachfront were a refreshing respite. This spot earns the Inion family’s highest stamp of approval.

The restaurant offers reasonably priced fare in an immaculately clean venue overlooking the beach. The atmosphere was very pleasant, abuzz with a mix of European backpackers, dive instructors and local vacationers who, with us, enjoyed an exotic location with a conscience. The breakfast begins with fresh pressed juices and home-baked breads along with hot dishes. The lunch dishes are memorable. If you like seafood, be sure to try the grilled garlic fish.

Egrets, ibises, and herons delighted us as we looked on from the boardwalks. Stay on the wooden walkways as there are plenty of crocodiles on the lagoon side.

Tulum Breakfast

Breakfast by the sea.

Tulum Pier

The pier overlooking the lagoon.

Beyond Cancun Cozumel´s Punta Sur

Gems of the Caribbean

The Caribbean sea.

Cozumel is famous for its stunning dive sites and was made famous by French marine biologist Jacques Cousteau. We spent six months in Cozumel twice, so it feels like home to us. We have a lot of friends there. On its south side is the Punta Sur National Park, a well-managed and beautifully preserved wildlife preserve. On the lagoon side of the park, an observation tower is linked to roadside via boardwalk. Roseate spoonbills and crocodiles are easy to spot.

The Celarain lighthouse is a heart-testing climb to the top but well worth the view. The rocky surf around the lighthouse is treacherous but makes for some dramatic memories and photographs. The pounding surf and persistent breeze will encourage a nap in the hammocks below the lighthouse.
Swimming is available at the south end of the park. We hired an experienced guide to take us on a kayaking and snorkeling adventure. We were not disappointed. The calmer, clear water rewarded us with unforgettable up-close views of reef formations. We saw conchs and lobsters, living reefs and an array of brightly colored fish. It’s very much like swimming in an aquarium.

Snorkeling with Babies

Snorkeling easy enough for babies.

There are no accommodations in this beautifully unspoiled area. Our all time favorite, on the northern end of the Cozumel hotel zone, is Playa Azul Hotel. This 50-room hotel courtyard opens out on to a dreamy stretch of white sand. Walk right out for clear, shallow water snorkeling. Save us an umbrella. Definitely enjoy some homemade guacamole while sitting around the pool or beach.

Beyond Cancun For a more a more budget friendly option, we have also stayed in town at the Hotel Plaza Cozumel. This hotel is walking distance from the ferry. The full buffet breakfast included in the rate and is served beside the rooftop pool.

Watch this short video and enjoy a quick glimpse of our Caribbean snorkeling experience.

Yucatan Gems

Get Beyond Cancun and discover the gems of the Yucatan.

Where would you like to venture out in the Yucatan? Check out this post to read about a mother-daughter Cozumel getaway.

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Brent and Stacey-jean Inion
Brent and Stacey-jean Inion
Brent and Stacey-jean Inion, parents of nine (including four children adopted with special needs), 2014 National Geographic Travelers of the Year and the National Geographic Travelers People's Choice Travelers of the Year. They love to laugh, to read and to explore as a family. The secret to their marital bliss is an early morning cup of freshly brewed coffee before the children awake.

25 Comments

  1. You made me jealous with this! I cannot wait to have a sun and beach moment this summer.

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Nothing is quite as healing as the sun in your face and the sound of the sea. Happy travels.

  2. Laura says:

    I’ve been to the Riviera Maya area 6 or 7 times and still feel like I’m just scratching the surface with things to do there! Thanks for some new ideas. I really enjoyed Akumal and the sea turtles… what a place! And I can’t wait to go back to Cozumel for some diving… I usually try to visit once or twice a year!

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      We REALLY love Cozumel and are looking forward to a soon return. We’re not divers but may have to take some lessons soon!

  3. Olga says:

    That water colour is just fantastic!

  4. Jennifer says:

    You have found some of the same spots we love in the area. So beautiful!

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      We’re on the Pacific side at the moment but are looking forward (very much so) to a brief return visit.

  5. Meg Jerrard says:

    We’re so close to Central America at the moment!! Thanks for kicking my butt into gear – this is a trip I need to plan before we move to AUs and find ourselves missing out on the other side of the world!

  6. It’s so true that the Yucatan is much more than Cancun! Great post, I just sent it to a friend who is planning a trip to Mexico.

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Thanks for your encouragement and for sending it on. We’d love to know that someone else is enjoying a place we have come to consider a second home.

  7. April says:

    Your travel tips really help guide us away from travelling down the beaten path. Much appreciated! Thank you for sharing the best kept secrets of this beautiful location! The video you posted really makes me want to go snorkelling. What kind of equipment are you filming with?

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      We took this with one of those “point and shoot” cameras with a dive bag. It was surprisingly easy and picked up more sound than we expected.

  8. Yvonne says:

    Cute pictures! I love living like a local and going off the beaten path. It seems like you had a lot of fun!

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      The Yucatan has always had a special place in our hearts and rewards us with so many surprises.

  9. Wonderful tips for travelling in a somewhat underrated area of Mexico.

  10. I loved Tulum! Would love to get back there!

  11. Alli says:

    Oh wow. These photos are amazing and they depict such an incredible time had! Would love to do this itinerary!

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      We absolutely love the Yucatan. We have been many times and find something new each time we go.

  12. All of these places are so beautiful! I love seeing how happy your kids look 🙂

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      Awwwh, our kids are very happy and really enjoying a magical childhood. Grateful for that.

  13. Fantastic post! This is exactly the area we are currently considering. We have a dear friend in Tulum and another in Merida. We’ll be going by RV as well (we think). Can I ask how long you stayed in each spot on the beach in Tulum? A night? Two? Longer? Any other tips for RVs in that area? Thanks so much. Once again you are a font of knowledge!!

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      You will have a great time Jen. We are slow travels. If we like a spot, we stay three weeks to a couple of months. We have spent extensive time in the areas listed here. The Yucatan feels like home. If you want to drive into Belize, stay at the RV resort in Chetumal. Message me as you get closer. Laguana Bacalar, is a great spot for long-term travelers.

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