Beyond the Beach in Mayan Mexico

If you've had your fill of the all-inclusive Mexico, Yucatán offers plenty of new adventures that show off the other side of this beautiful country

Experience authentic Mexico in the cultural hotspot of the Yucatán Peninsula

Heading to Mexico for a winter getaway? Make sure you go beyond the beach.

Yes, staying hydrated (margarita or cerveza in hand), lathering up with sunscreen, turning over regularly for an even tan and breaking up your day with trips to the all-inclusive buffet are must-do experiences while at resort central on the Riviera Maya, but after a few days, authentic Mexico beckons inland in the Yucatán.

Go due west from the surface shine of the tourist-mecca coastline of Cancun and Riviera Maya and within minutes you’ll pass roadside food stands and taquerias with signs for tortas (sandwiches), papas fritas (fries) and pollo fresco (fresh chicken, pronounced “poyo,” gringo, not polo!), handicraft stalls (with colourful hammocks, rugs and blankets), barefoot kids and stray dogs, men hacking at the encroaching jungle with machetes, and more.

This is the way into Mexico’s Yucatán region and its rich past and Mayan heritage, from turn-of-the-century haciendas to ancient pyramids.

Atop Ek Balam

Continue inland, where Mayan ruins dot the Yucatán Peninsula. Ek Balam, the abandoned Mayan city set in the middle of the Yucatán jungle, is just three hours from Cancun, yet feels out-of-the-way and blissfully free of crowds.

Named for the Mayans’ revered black jaguar, the city was an influential centre at the turn of the ninth century and showcases the Classic Period of Mayan culture.

The jaw-dropping Acropolis, a pyramid that rises some 106 steep steps above the jungle, has a view made for a king – literally. Only royalty once gazed upon these treetops, but today the 360-degree view awaits anyone willing to make the climb.

While nearby Chichen Itza is overrun as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World (and doesn’t allow clambering upon its ruins), Ek Balam sits quietly awaiting discovery as Yucatán’s lower-key, more intimate Mayan treasure.

Valladolid Sampler

After getting closer to Yucatán’s Mayan past, take in its colonial influence under the Spanish arcades and 16th-century spires of Valladolid.

Just half an hour from Ek Balam, this “Pueblo Magíco” is Yucatán at its most charming, and is a culinary hotspot. Those in the know come here for Valladolid’s cuisine, like the taco de cochinita (a Yucatecan taco wrapped around pork, black beans and pickled onions), papadzules (tortillas stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and pumpkin seed sauce) and pollo pibil (barbecued chicken topped with pickled onions).

Sample these traditional dishes at Cenote Zaci, at a restaurant set atop one of Yucatán’s thousands of cenotes (underground, cavern-like pools of fresh water), where you can watch locals jump into the turquoise water.

Post-lunch, visit the refurbed colonial mansion of Casa de los Venados (House of the Deer), where the traditionally decorated rooms and vast ceramic art collection are open to the public. Here, they mean it when they say “mi casa es su casa.”

Haute Hacienda

Keeping to the colonial vibe, head west and explore Yucatán’s haciendas. Once synonymous with old henequen factories – where agave was processed into the sisal fibre that went into the world’s rope supply – these grand and sprawling 19th-century compounds fell into disrepair when nylon replaced henequen.

Today, you can tour a fully restored and operational henequen hacienda at Sotuta de Peón, where the sisal-making tradition is kept alive, or go luxe and relax in the refurbished original buildings of Hacienda San Jose.

This 15-room boutique hotel with Spanish arcades and archways has 18-foot ceilings, exposed beams and rafters, huge double wooden doors, Portuguese tile floors, and in-room Yucatán-style hammocks (so you can sleep Mayan style if you want to forgo the plush beds).

The White City of Mérida

Farther west and away from the Riviera Maya coast is Mérida, the largest city in Yucatán and once the thriving centre of Mexico, thanks to henequen.

That rich past is evident in the grand colonial homes along Paseo de Montejo, Mérida’s version of the Champs-Élysées (at the start of which sits the imposing Monumento a la Bandera), the Spanish-style architecture (built with limestone, giving Mérida its La Ciudad Blanca or White City moniker), Cathedral of San Ildefonso (the oldest cathedral in North America) and Plaza Grande, a gathering place with iconic “conversation” chairs (and free Wi-Fi!).

Old is juxtaposed with new in this cosmopolitan city, where bold buildings like the year-old, ultra-modern Gran Museo del Mundo Maya (the Great Maya World Museum) house ancient Mayan artifacts. Shaped like the sacred ceiba tree that connects the Mayan world with the underworld and sky, it’s an award-winning architectural statement that evokes roots reaching deep into Mexico’s cultural heritage.

The Yellow City of Izamal

From metropolis to provincial outpost, it’s 70 kilometres from Mérida back towards the Riviera Maya and yet another colourful town and Mayan archaeological site.

Izamal is a Pueblo Magíco known as La Ciudad Armarillo (the Yellow City) and, as you might expect, every building is the same vibrant shade of ochre. Smack in the centre of the town, the Kinich Kak Mo Pyramid dominates an entire block and offers views of golden facades fanning out in every direction.

The most yellow paint goes to the sprawling Convento de San Antonio de Padua, a massive Franciscan monastery that’s also one of the oldest Catholic monasteries in the Americas and still home to a handful of monks.

Only steps away is the must-stop Centro Cultural y Artesanal, where you’ll find fair trade-certified handicrafts made by local artisans from indigenous communities. From there, it’s a three-hour drive back past more roadside taquerias and tricycle pushcarts to the resort-lined coast that’s so close yet a world away, where the yellow is all about sand and sun.

Make it Happen

Inland Yucatán’s lack of beach just ups its cool cultural refuge quotient. But you can easily do both—hassle- and worry-free. Check out Transat Holiday’s unique two-in-one itineraries for those seeking sun, sand and authenticity, Yucatán style.

The Experience Collection Escapade Mayan Treasures takes in the traditional cities of Valladolid and Izamal, along with visits to the Ek Balam archaeological site and the pyramids of Kinich Kak Moo in Izamal, while the Experience Collection Duo Cancun & Mérida blends the beach with Mayan ruins and the resort scene with Yucatán’s cultural capital.

Everything is taken care of for you in these packages, transporting you from beach to jungle, resort to city, all-inclusive to haute hacienda, and morphing your Mexican experience from tourist trap to transformational travel. Think culture and beach. Viva Mexico Maya!