A tale of Mexico’s two coastlines: Yucatán Peninsula & Baja California Sur
Fancy a Mexican beach adventure? You’ll first have to choose between the Yucatán Peninsula’s intoxicating Mayan ruins and powder-white Caribbean beaches, and Baja California Sur, a rugged desert wilderness featuring mesmerizing whale sharks, watersports, and accommodations (the private island glamping experience is one for the bucket list).
Mexico’s gorgeous 5,800-mile coastline takes in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Gulfs of Mexico and California (aka the Sea of Cortez), and the Caribbean Sea. But for most travelers it comes down to a choice between the vibrant Yucatán Peninsula and the enthralling Baja California Sur region. Allow us to make the decision a little easier for you.
The Yucatán Peninsula: Mayan Ruins, Caribbean beaches, and Middle Eastern flavors
This anvil-shaped peninsula which takes in three different states in southeast Mexico separates the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. The Yucatan is home to some of the world’s most important Maya ruins, an almost embarrassing abundance of world-class beaches, and a fascinating regional cuisine which includes papadzules, aka “the Breakfast of the Kings,” a tortilla filled with eggs and a rich pumpkin seed sauce. This dish, like so much of Yucatán cooking, is heavily influenced by the influx of Middle Eastern immigrants who moved here during the henequen boom (a natural fiber obtained from agave plants and similar to sisal in its uses) of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The regional capital of Mérida is a charming colonial city, with a gorgeous plaza (the topiary is something else) and some seriously atmospheric cantinas. And the entire region harbors multitudes of hidden cenotes, crystal-clear freshwater sinkholes that are sometimes entirely underground and often breathtakingly beautiful. But for many, the biggest highlight is the Maya ruins.
Chichén Itzá – which was established 1,700 years ago and features awe-inspiring pyramids, temples, statues, and even a massive ball-court – is one of the most important Maya sites in the world; its proximity to Cancun and Playa del Carmen means that it’s also far and away the most visited Maya site. For this reason, we highly recommend staying at the (very comfortable) Lodge at Chichén – which is so close to the ruins that it features its own private entrance – and enjoying a sunrise tour of the site, which is at once stupefyingly colossal and mind-bogglingly intricate. By the time the busloads arrive from Cancun, you’ll be enjoying a well-earned breakfast back at the lodge’s elegant grounds, with only toucans for company! (On this note we can arrange private, off-hours tours of all the other sites in the region, and we can also easily arrange a day of swimming, eating, and generally being merry at your very own cenote or freshwater swimming hole.)
Another must-visit Maya ruin is Tulum, an 800-year-old walled city which sets itself apart with its to-die-for location overlooking the azure waters of the Caribbean. What better way to top off your exploration of the enigmatic site which was the Maya’s principal observatory (they used to chart the path of the stars by watching their reflections in a pond of water) than with a refreshing dip on the pristine palm-fringed beach that sits in its shadow?
It almost goes without saying that the area around Tulum is home to some top-notch boutique accommodations. Tulum is also the jumping off point for the remote Cobá Archaeological Site which boasts the largest network of stone causeways in the Maya world. Additionally, it’s a great base from which to explore the world’s second-largest coral reef on a private yacht tour. The snorkeling is incredible year-round – but in the Caribbean summer (June thru September) you’re practically guaranteed to get up close and personal with whale sharks, the gentle giants of the ocean.
Baja California Sur: Whale sharks, watersports, five-star glamping, and cacti on the beaches
At the opposite end of the country, just south of San Diego, you find the slender, finger-shaped peninsula which is home to the states of Baja California (check out this New York Times article on its little-known, world-class wineries, and let us know if you’d like to work a visit into your itinerary) and Baja California Sur. Surfers flocks to the peninsula’s western and southern coasts, where uninterrupted Pacific swells culminate in some of the world’s finest waves. The peninsula’s eastern shores, meanwhile, are lapped by the always-placid waters of the Sea of Cortez, an otherworldly paradise that the renowned French explorer Jacques Cousteau once called “the world’s aquarium.”
The regional capital of La Paz (which boasts a great waterfront malecón or promenade, and some delightful chichi restaurants) is a fantastic base from which to put Cousteau’s description to the test. Here you, too, can swim with whale sharks (which sometimes congregate in the hundreds), provided you visit between December and April. If your trip falls outside of these dates, there’s also an important sea lion colony and – September through November– the opportunity to see baby sea turtles hatching.
For many, the real highlight of their Baja California Sur adventure is the five-star glamping experience on the private island of Isla Espiritu Santo. The camp, located on an unspoiled beach in the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, features walk-in tents with real beds, fine-linen, and Persian rugs on the “porch” (i.e. beach). The waters in this remote area positively teem with whales, dolphins, whale sharks, sea turtles, manta rays, and plenty of beautiful tropical fish, so it’s a great place to snorkel, kayak, swim, or stand-up paddle board. It’s also totally OK to read a good book, to take a nap, or sip on a margarita. Come nightfall, however, gorging on ocean-fresh meals and marveling at the magnificent night skies is absolutely mandatory.
After “roughing it” on the exclusive island, you’ll probably be ready for some real luxury – and where better to find it than Los Cabos, the playground of the stars? Encompassing the towns of Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, and linked by a 20-mile stretch of upscale beachfront properties and championship golf courses, Los Cabos is the most sought-after address in Mexico. The hotels and cuisine are without parallel, the setting is incredible (you’ve surely seen postcards of the barely-believable rock formations), the big-game fishing is top-notch, and the golf courses are among the best in the world. If total relaxation is your schtick, there’s really nowhere better.
Still can’t decide?
The good news is that both our 7-Day Baja California Nature Tour and our 7-day Chichén Itzá to Tulum tour will totally blow you away. Alternatively, speak to a Destination Expert about crafting a bespoke itinerary that ticks all your family’s boxes, or combine the coastal adventure of your choice with some or all of our 10-day Mexico City to Puebla and Oaxaca tour.