yucatan beyond cancun mexico

Although the white sand beaches and blue turquoise oceans of Cancun draw thousands of visitors each year, this corner of the world has a few more hidden treasures in the depth of the luscious, tropical jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula.

The mysticism of the Mayan culture is combined with the architectural beauty and cultural history left behind by the Spanish conquistadores, making these colonial cities in the Yucatan Peninsula a jewel worth discovering.

merida mexico yucatan travel

We must visit the enchanting city of Merida, Yucatan. This architectural and cultural gem only 4 hours away from Cancun was built on the remains of a Mayan town called T’ho—“city of the five hills,” which refers to five pyramids. It is now the capitol of the state of Yucatan, Mexico. The stunning richness of its architecture makes it the second largest historic center of any city in the Americas, surpassed only by Mexico City. For a brief period of time, the city of Merida was said to house more millionaires than any city in the world. This wealth left its mark in the city where large, gorgeous colonial homes line the city streets. The elaborate, detailed homes form the Paseos de Montejo, a long avenue that has been transformed in a major tourist attraction with restaurants and bars along its corridors. Merida is also a cultural magnet where art and culture play an important role in the day to day life of citizens and tourists alike. The White City, as it is often referred, combines a rich historical background with a vivid cultural life, which is only made better by the praiseworthy hospitality and warmth of the Yucatecos.

valladolid mexico yucatan

Before we reach Merida, first we need to stop in Valladolid, Yucatan. This small, beautiful colonial town was built with the same stones of a Mayan town called Zaci after it was dismantled to build this 16th Century city. This historical quality bares significant symbolism because approximately 300 years after its foundation, the city was the battle ground for the Caste War of Yucatan. The war was ignited with the revolt of native Mayans of Yucatan against the population of European descent who had political and economical control at the time. Valladolid also houses two large cenotes Zaci and Dzitnup. Chichen Itza, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, is also located 28 miles from Valladolid. About 20 minutes north of the city, is another impressive Mayan archeological site called Ek Balam. Another must-see is the 16th century San Bernadino Convent. The historical ties that bind ancient Mayan civilizations, to modern Mayans, to the Spanish and Mexican history become truly alive in Valladolid with the brightly colored colonial buildings, the Mayan women who sell their crafts in front of the cathedral downtown, and the Mayan ruins sitting in the abundant, tropical jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula.

izamal yucatan mexico travel A brief stop must be made in the small city of Izamal, Yucatan, which was declared a “Pueblo Magico”—or “Magic Town” in 2002. Located in the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula, about 3 hours from Cancun, the city is also called “The Yellow City” for most of its buildings are painted in yellow. It is also known as “The City of Hills” for its landscape. The cobblestone streets and colonial architecture of the city once formed part of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilization where more than 163 important Mayan ruins have been found. One of the most important attractions in the city of Izamal is the large Franciscan Monastery that sits on top of a mayor Mayan pyramid. Completed in 1561, the atrium of the Monastery was second in size only to that at the Vatican. Despite its strong ties to the Mayan civilization, Izamal is now a major pilgrimage within Yucatan for the veneration of Roman Catholic saints. However, the Mayan culture continues to have a strong influence in the town as the majority of people consider Maya their first language and most signs are both in Spanish and Mayan. A third name is given to Izamal—“City of Three Cultures”—as a combination of pre-Hispanic, colonial, and modern architecture, religion, art, and customs make Izamal truly unique and picturesque.

Campeche Our next stop—but certainly not the last—is the state of Campeche, lying just south-east of the Mexican Republic next to the state of Yucatan. Besides the city of Campeche—which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO—the state is also the home to several other small, important cities and many Mayan ruins. Campeche as a whole is distinctly painted with the rich and vivid colors of a constant celebration of tradition, history, and the love of the arts. Several cultural festivals—including the annual Carnival of Campeche—enrich the streets of this important state where art and tradition collide. In a celebration of life, Campechanos and their guests participate in parades, activities, and attractions that breathe happiness and ease into city life. Like many colonial historic centers in Mexico, Campeche’s streets are surrounded by the strong historical influence of the Spanish while at the same time preserving the strong ties to the Mayan civilization. The brightly-colored homes rich in architectural detail make it seem as if the walls of museums and art galleries have spilled unto the streets.

Mexico is a country that is alive with a strong sense of tradition and history drawing from both the indigenous civilizations that first arrived to the territory and the Spanish influence that governs much of the culture today. These colonial cities in the Yucatan Peninsula are a true testament to the strong bonds that make Mexico so colorful, unique, and a pleasure to explore. Discover what is waiting for you in the Mexico Caribbean with Yucatan Holidays.

Stay tuned for the second part of our series as we explore the Yucatan Peninsula.

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Yucatan Holidays


4 Responses to “The Yucatan Peninsula: Beyond Cancun | Part One”

  1. Laura in Cancun

    Thanks for mentioning these places! I live in Cancun, but my husband and I would like to move to Merida soon. It’s such a gorgeous city. I’ve never seen anything quite like it! Beautiful homes 🙂

    The zocalo at Valladolid also happens to be one of my favorite places in the world.

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