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Captivating Yucatán

The Mexican Yucatán Peninsula is surrounded by beautiful beaches and clad in lush rainforest. No wonder the Maya chose to build their empire here. Many impressive temples remain as testimony. Whether you are a seasoned culture buff or prefer to relax on the beach, this three-day road trip offers something for everyone. 

¡Viva México!
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Day 01

Sand and sea

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Morning

Shopping and tanning

For years, Cancún was nothing more than a remote fishing village on the most eastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula. But in the 1960s, locals realised the potential of the stunning beaches to attract tourists. A cosmopolitan beach resort arose in no time. The city is hardly an authentic Mexican destination, but with its contemporary shops, hotels and restaurants – and those fabulous beaches – Cancún has become the ideal gateway to the peninsula.

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Afternoon

Swimming with whale sharks

Many visitors take the boat from Cancún to explore the popular beach island of Isla Mujeres. Fortunately, not many people know that north of the city an even nicer island awaits. Isla Holbox is the perfect tropical paradise where the cocktails are always chilled, pelicans bask in the sun and cars have been replaced by golf carts. Between June and September, Holbox attracts large numbers of whale sharks, making this one of the best spots in the world to swim among these friendly giants of the sea.

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Evening

Dancing the night away

In the wake of Cancún, nearby Playa del Carmen has also been developed into a major beach resort in the last two decades. Many travellers see ‘Playa’ as the perfect alternative to its popular neighbour to the east: not as busy, but big enough to offer a variety of restaurants, bars and – a local speciality – great parties. Clubs like Playacrawl and Coco Maya keep night owls dancing until the sun comes up.

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Day 02

Time for temples

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Morning

Ultimate relaxation

Even the most stressed out traveller will relax in Tulum. This friendly town is a popular year-round destination for young backpackers and older new age types. They sip their veggie smoothies under the swaying palm trees or stroll to the beach with a guitar or yoga mat in tow. The miles of bright white sandy beaches seem to have stepped straight out of a bikini commercial but are still blissfully quiet – certainly compared to Cancún and Playa del Carmen

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Afternoon

Grand view

Enough relaxing. As beautiful as its beaches may be, the Yucatán Peninsula is even more famous for the many temples that rise above the jungle canopy. In the 6th century, the Maya built a settlement in Tulum, perched high on the rocks outside of the modern city centre. Although this is one of the smaller Maya ruin complexes on the peninsula, its natural setting is unparalleled. From the ancient walls – that partially served as a lighthouse – you can see across the turquoise blue ocean for miles.

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Evening

The shadow of the serpent

The most iconic Maya city of the Yucatán Peninsula is Chichén Itzá. Although a large number of buildings still stand, the site mostly owes its fame to the magnificent Kukulkán Temple. This 30-metre-high landmark testifies to the incredible astronomical and architectural ingenuity of the Maya. On 21 March and 21 September, the sun hits the pyramid in a way that makes it seem as if the shadow of the holy serpent god Kukulkán writhes down the stairs. The nightly light shows recreate this unique effect year-round.

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Day 03

A dive into the past

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Morning

Tucked away in the jungle

Ready for one more Mayan city? Let’s head to Uxmal, tucked away in the lush jungle between Mérida and Campeche. As one of the seven modern wonders of the world, Chichén Itzá attracts huge crowds. But plan an early morning visit to the ruins of Uxmal, where you will find the best preserved stone work and sculptures of the entire peninsula, and you may have the place all to yourself. The 40-metre-high Pyramid of the Magician is the highlight, literally and figuratively.

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Afternoon

Underground swimming

Time for a refreshing swim. Why bother with a dive in the hotel swimming pool when the Yucatán Peninsula is dotted with natural pools, even far from the ocean? Over time, rainwater has carved out a huge underground network of more than 3,000 caves, sinkholes and natural pools in the peninsula’s porous limestone. The Maya saw these wells – known as cenotes – as the gateways to the hereafter. Today, they have become popular swimming spots, offering a mysterious decor filled with bats and dangling tree roots. One of the most beautiful ones is the Ik Kil Cenote near Chichén Itzá.

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Evening

Churches and chapels

The Maya aren’t the only ones who left their mark on the Yucatán Peninsula. Since the 16th century, the Spanish conquerors have also greatly influenced the landscape. The most beautiful example of this can be found in Mérida, the largest city on the peninsula. It’s packed with colourful chapels, grand governors’ palaces and other colonial buildings. After sunset, locals and visitors gather on the zócalo (the central square) to enjoy the fragrant taco stands and dancing Mariachi bands.

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