A guide to the best cities in Southern Mexico

A trip around the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan in Southern Mexico is an experience like nothing else. Dusted with magical beaches, charming cities and bold flavours, we never wanted to leave. After two months in the area we got a pretty vivid impression each of the major cities, and here's what you should know about them - their quirks and their must-do's, their upsides and downsides - oh, and their cenotes!...

I'll walk through them in the order we're suggesting as an itinerary. Also, we created an overview of the (in our opinion) most ideal itineraries on a 1, 2 or 3 week time-budget. See the itineraries and route-maps in our post "The Ultimate itinerary for Southern Mexico".

CANCÚN:

What to say about this city... Well, first of all, Cancún has the longest, whitest, most beautiful beach we've ever seen. This endless strip of white, of course lined with beautiful hotels, is isolated from all of the actual city - which is a dump. Most tourists going to Cancún are there for the beach, the discos and the beautiful mall, and they never leave the hotel zone to see the city. And if that's what you're looking for then look no further! But hey, if you would like to actually leave the polished surfaces of your expensive hotel behind and go see some actual Mexican culture - Cancún is not the best place to do so. The city itself is really dirty and pretty boring. We lived in the city and had to take a 40 min bus any time we wanted to go to the beach.

There is something to say for the Cancún nightlife: the party district certainly is active, it's just all... pretty awful. With green-masked people lining the streets in front of the "CoCo Bongo" and $20+ entrance fees, everyone is pretty much treated like a price tag. Which of course isn't too bad if you are drunk... BUT! This is where you should take your flight to! Because Cancun is know as a prime location for spring break and for beach-goers, this is your portal into Southern Mexico as the flight tickets are ridiculously cheap.

BULLET POINTS:

  • Take advantage of the cheap flight tickets - fly in and out of Cancún!
  • Go Beachin' and Partyin'
  • Make sure to book accommodation in the Hotel Zone
  • Watch yourself - the prices here are higher than any other place you're going in Mexico
  • Please don't spend money on Senōr Frog's or CoCo Bongo merchandise......

PLAYA DEL CARMEN:

Playa ended up being our home away from home in Mexico. It is a city, which is well accustomed to turists with a nice beach and an active main strip right by the water. You can find malls and coffee shops and lots of amazing and interesting food. At the same time you need only move a few blocks into the city before you'll find local hangout spots, lots of street stands and a real Mexican feel. 

The reef in Playa del Carmen is world famous for scuba diving and snorkling and you can discover the most amazing Cenote (sinkhole) 10 minutes drive from the city (Read about our crazy experience in Chaak Tun Cenote and its endless underground caves). At the same time Playa has a vibrant nightlife with a bit more integrity than the one found in Cancún, yet still as crazy. Also it offers a large amount of great budget/mid-budget hostels and features lots of friendly expats that fell in love with this city too. 

From Playa del Carmen you can take a 30 min ferry across the water to the Island of Cozumel, or you can grab a cheap local bus to Akumal to dive with giant sea turtles in the wild. 

BULLET POINTS:

  • Book a bed in one of the vibrant and active hostels - but be selective if you want a good nights sleep
  • Go to Calle 28 Norte (28th street) if you want to party
  • Ask a taxi driver to take you to Chaak Tun for an incredible cenote experience
  • Walk along Avenida 10 Norte for an interesting take on gourmet international cuisine
  • Don't buy Mexican food in center. If you walk a few streets away it both gets cheaper and a bizillion times better
  • Get your souvenirs at Wallmart - no honestly, they sell exactly the same items as those pushy souvenir shops - at half the price.

AKUMAL:

We were told by locals in Playa that we simply could not miss out on Akumal. Akumal is not so much a city - there is an OXXO for buying cold drinks and a few eating places but that's about it. No, Akumal is actually a stretch of beach where giant sea turtles are living in the wild, right by the coast. People go here to hop in the water and paddle around among these fantastic creatures - for free.

It's pretty crowded, and although you can grab a cab to get there from Playa it is possible to take a local bus for pennies. Once you get there - stay away from the polluted area of the bay near the boats - the turtles like clean water. When we were there we each saw 4-6 sea turtles and heard of people going further out that had seen barracudas and sting rays.

BULLET POINTS:

  • Only go to Akumal to take a swim with wild sea turtles
  • You can rent snorkel, goggles and flippers on the beach but it is much cheaper to bring your own - even if you have to buy new ones in Wallmart
  • You can take a bus towards Tulum and get off by Akumal. A cab is expensive.
  • Remember your sunscreen.

SAN MIGUEL DE COZUMEL:

San Miguel de Cozumel is the main city on the little island called Isla de Cozumel just off the coast by Playa del Carmen. Ferries leave to/from the island every 30 minutes. 3-4 different ferry companies sell tickets and the pink stall is the cheapest! 

The main city of Cozumel is cute and this is where you'll most likely live if you go here. Many people decide to go on a day trip from Playa instead though. We liked it, as it was quieter, smaller and more authentic while still featuring the blue waters. Actually the water is more blue in Cozumel than any other place we saw in Mexico - however there's one very important thing to consider. There is NO BEACH on the west side of the island where the city of San Miguel is. There's plenty of pretty water, it's just all bordered by viciously sharp rocks. It is absolutely essential to rent a car/motorbike to go to the other side of the island if you want to be able to lay by the water or go swimming in it. From the city the blue just makes for a pretty backdrop.

BULLET POINTS:

  • The pink ticket stall is cheapest when sailing to/from Playa del Carmen
  • Rent a car/bike to see the island and to get to the beaches

TULUM:

When exchanging experiences from "Tulum", most travelers are referring to the Tulum ruins - not the actual city of Tulum. Well, let's start out with the ruins, as they are the most famous. Basically this large area has several Mayan buildings by the water (the "by-the-water" part is actually why so many people like it - good photo opt) making up what used to be a Mayan city. We went there and liked the ancient feel, but honestly it's not too overwhelming if you're also seeing the Chichén Itza, which is quite impressive. You're not allowed on any of the ruins and there are no crazily impressive structures/remains. 

Now, the city of Tulum is a bit away from the coast and is a tiny little gem. It was literally so small our buss took a full turn around the whole city when driving into the bus station. There's one main street, lots of stray dogs and, unless you're on the main (tourist-friendly) strip, there's a lot of menus written on cardboard and lots of bumps in the roads. Really quite charming. We liked the slightly grimy and hippy feel of the city, which is very authentic for the most part. It is also where we had the best tacos of all of our stay in Mexico (as seen below - sorry about the quality, we didn't know that was going to be an important squid taco until after we bit into it!). One important point though: a stay in this city is for travelers seeking authenticity. There are no great museums or monuments and it's all quite humble. If you like shopping, sightseeing and tanning you should spend more time in one of the other cities on your trip around Southern Mexico.

Also, don't be fooled: the beach of Tulum was voted one of the best in the world some years ago, and a line of hotels are lining the coast. Booking a room in one of these will not get you the above experience as you will not actually be near the city. We'd recommend getting accommodation in town from where you can bike to the gorgeous beaches or the ruins. You can also bike to the "Gran Cenote" A classic style, open-air cenote that also offers great diving and is definitely worth a visit.

BULLET POINTS:

  • Stay in town and bike to the beach/ruins
  • Go for the authenticity
  • Explore the side streets and get something from a cardboard menu!

VALLADOLID:

Valladolid is the major city that's closest to the Chichén Itzá ruins, and it was truly the most memorable stop on our trip. Forget about tourists and Americanised cuisine; Valladolid is the place to go for a real Mexican feel. Most people travelling Southern Mexico stop by the Chichén Itzá ruins and some tour busses stop for a second in the center of Valladolid, but it is so worth it to stay in the city for a few days. Besides, it's a lot cheaper taking the public bus from here to the world-famous ruins than it is to get a tour bus from some other city. 

Here's the deal: Valladolid has endless streets that are perfectly chess-board square lined with perfectly torn down, colorful houses in real Mexican style. The restaurants feel authentic and the people are active in their social community. Valladolid also has the best sunsets and the best museum for Mayan chocolate we found in Mexico.

If you do go to Valladolid, don't miss the Zaci cenote! This unique place is a giant single sink-hole with no roof and it is located in the middle of the city. You can enter for free through a restaurant (you have to pay if you enter through the actual entrance, but it's really cheap. Anyway we went here twice and just walked through the outdoors cafe..). It serves much as a public pool for the locals, and the deep, clear water is amazing. There are also some awesome protrusions of the cliff above, letting you jump from as high up as you dare. We felt pretty daring and went over the highest edge - what a rush. 

BULLET POINTS:

  • Stay in Valladolid and take a cheap bus to Chichén Itzá
  • Don't miss the chocolate museum!
  • Jump from high ledges in Zaci cenote!
  • Explore the beautiful streets around sunset.

CHICHÉN ITZÁ:

I guess you can say Chichén Itzá is not really a city - although this great Mayan city really should have its own postal code. However, ever since it made it onto the list of the "New 7 Wonders of The World" it has become a must-see for anyone finding themselves in Southern Mexico. 

 If you think it looks small compared to my tall man - look at the size of the people standing just to the right of it... 

If you think it looks small compared to my tall man - look at the size of the people standing just to the right of it... 

You can get tours to here from basically any bigger city in the state, but I recommend staying in Valladolid and taking a local bus as the price is pennies compared to the significantly overpriced tours. We only paid the 220 MXN entrance fee (price as of April 2015), which corresponds to 13 USD compared to the average price of 70 USD for tours leaving from Cancun. 

Here's my advice: enjoy the ancient atmosphere of this unique spot on earth, and get your selfies out of the way as quickly as possible so you can really bask in the feel of this epic place. Don't get scared of the sound of roaring panthers all around - the "panther's cry flutes" have unfortunately become the seller's favourite item to force onto tourists. Actually the traders selling souvenirs around the Chichén Itzá are probably some of the most skilled tourist-trapping penny-pushing souvenir-scammers I've ever encountered. They set up signs saying "just 1 MXN" and only show you the scrawly little plastic thingy this actually refers to after you already have your hands on one of the other items by the sign - and the price of these "authentic, handmade, antique" items (so authentic, handmade and antique they sell the exact same wooden masks and porcelain sugarskulls all over Mexico) are through the roof compared to the quality. But ey, that's what you get. Just be smart if you want a souvenir or you'll get properly scammed. 

BULLET POINTS:

  • It's cheaper to take a local bus from Valladolid
  • Watch our for souvenir scams
  • Stand right in front of one of the stairways and clap - listen for the magic!
  • Go early in the morning to get pictures that aren't crowded with sun hats and sunglasses!

MÉRIDA:

Merida is the biggest city on the list - and boy did our feet feel that. Being budget travelers we usually walk everywhere, which was not a problem in any of the above cities. But Merida is not only huge - a walk in this chessboard shaped landscape is like an endless and most likely extremely hot walk through hell. Oh - and when you finally reach your destination, it is often not very exciting. We managed to find a few good restaurants and a very cheap cinema (we watched"Mall Cop 2" and "Fast and Furious 7" in Spanish because it only cost pennies anyway.. No, we don't speak Spanish) but in general, this city was not for us. Everything was very spread out and we didn't manage to find an area we really liked. The city center is tourist-city with cheesy and overpriced restaurants and the few other areas with a reasonable density of shops and eating places were the poor neighbourhoods where you step through piles of rotten fruit and reject beggars with every step. 

When that is said, we have friends that very much liked this city and it seems the secret is to know or stay with a local. So if you're into Couch Surfing, this is the place to do it! The little hidden gems are hard to find in this maze of never ending streets. Also - Mérida is extremely hot due to its geographical location, which only made the long walks even more excruciating. If you are all right with getting cabs everywhere, or if you manage to figure out the bus system, you might be better off. There are also a few amazing and unique places to go on a day trip from here, as explained below.

Mérida did however give us a good impression of the "real" Mexico - specifically when trotting through grime in the porer areas as mentioned earlier - which we liked. We spoke to a local who told us about the suffering and suppression of the poor in Mérida and he had some very interesting and sad stories to tell. 

Bullet Points:

  • Go here for a more authentic feel of Mexico
  • Expect to walk a lot/pay for taxis
  • Try and stay with/get advice from the locals
  • Bring a fan...

PROGRESO:

Progreso is by the coast, just North of Mérida. It is the perfect place to escape the heat and take a trip to the beach. What is interesting though is that there are no foreigners. It's a place for the locals to get their beach-time and tanning in, not the tourists. We went here on a random Saturday and it was buzzing with local life and happy people drinking in the street. We later realized we had arrived on the night of the "Corona sunset" festival. We only had to buy 2 beers each to get a bracelet, meaning it cost us around 6 USD each to enter this famous festival. In comparison, the tickets to the same festival when it moved to Playa del Carmen cost people around 100 USD. 

You can take a very cheap local bus from Merida with the company AutoProgreso - I think we paid around 7 MXN. In all, Progreso is the perfect place to go for a day of blue water and cheap drinks in the sand.

Bullet Points:

  • Take a local bus
  • Buy drinks in the OXXO - good place to try a Michelada

IZAMAL:

Izamal was our other day trip out of Mérida, and we instantly fell in love with its unique vibe. First of all - the city is famous because it is completely yellow! Every single house is painted in the same color, giving the place a dreamy feel. We really enjoyed walking around the streets of this little town. It is also popular among church goers, as the castle/church has a little museum honouring the pope's visit to the city in August 1993. However, these are not the only reasons to visit "Yellow City".

When we visited the ruins in Tulum and Chicén Itzá, we were disappointed to find that you're no longer allowed to climb these impressive structures. But Izamal has several ruins dotted all over the city, just lying in between the houses, and you can climb them as much as you want! The largest one in the center of the city rises above everything else and makes for one of the most impressive views I've ever seen - a view of nothing but endless horizon. Izamal is a small city and it's located in the middle of endless jungle, far from the ocean. From the top of the Mayan ruin I saw, for the first time in my life, an undisturbed horizon in all directions - no mountains, cities, oceans, or towers. It was amazing.

Bullet points:

  • Go here for the impressive endless yellow
  • Climb the Mayan ruin and take in one of the world's most unique views!
  • You can take a rather cheap bus from one of the bus stations in Mérida

So there you go! I hope you enjoyed our little breakdown of Southern Mexico. Now go to our post "The ultimate itineraries for Southern Mexico" to figure out in what order to visit these cities on different time budgets!