Looking for the perfect destination with a wide range of underwater adventures? Look no further than the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. With its crystal-clear cenotes, stunning coral reefs budding with marine life and extraordinary cultural heritage, spending 2 weeks in Yucatan reserves unforgettable experiences for scuba diving addicts.
For my second trip to Mexico, I wanted to dive deeper into its easternmost region and explore more off-the-beaten-path locations. I had only scratched the surface the first time. Indeed, towards the end of my 5-week road trip across the south of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, I was quite happy to chill in Playa del Carmen. This time I was determined to dedicate the time the Yucatan Peninsula deserves, including as much time as possible to go diving in Cozumel and the cenotes.
I had 6 weeks from May to June, so I selected the best of the best for my fellow scuba divers who only have 2 weeks of vacation. Besides, this itinerary is a road trip you can take by renting a car or hopping on a bus, thanks to the extensive network of buses in Mexico. For information, the three states of the Yucatan Peninsula (Quintana-Roo, Yucatan and Campeche) are some of the most touristic and safest to visit.
Note Mexico is a huge country, so you won’t grasp the full extent of its diverse beauty and culture by only visiting Yucatan. However, it can be a great introduction and make you want to come back for more. Ready? Let’s dive into one of my favourite diving destinations in the world!
Map of my Yucatan itinerary
Plan your ultimate scuba diving adventure with the interactive map below. It showcases the main stops in Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Bacalar, and Valladolid and the airports, ferry terminals, and bus terminals to organise your trip. You will also find some of my favourite cenotes and major Mayan archaeological sites.
1 – Cozumel: 4 days
Let’s kick off this Yucatan itinerary for scuba divers with one of the top diving destinations in the world: the island of Cozumel. Cozumel is renowned for its pristine reefs, strong currents, and abundant marine life. Located just off the coast of Playa del Carmen, you can fly direct to the island from many international airports and then continue your trip to the continent by taking the ferry.
What to do in Cozumel?
- Punta Sur Nature Reserve: Explore the ecological reserve of the south of the island, home to sea crocodiles and tortoises. Climb up the Celarain Lighthouse for breathtaking views of the laguna and the ocean. There are even a few interesting Mayan ruins.
- Ocean-themed street art: Take a stroll through the streets of San Miguel de Cozumel and admire the vibrant murals depicting marine life. My favourite, “Perdida de Coral es Perdida de cultura” (lost coral is lost culture), is on Calle 7 Sur, near the seafront.
- Sunset drinks at Cozumel Museum: Enjoy a refreshing beverage while watching the sunset over the Caribbean Sea from the rooftop terrace. Take the opportunity to discover exhibits that showcase the island’s history and natural heritage just before. I recommend heading to La Choza (Traditional Mexican,10a Avenida Norte #216) or Bebamus (Fusion Mexican-Italian, 5a Avenida Sur #260) for dinner.
Scuba diving in Cozumel
Undoubtedly, the highlight of your time in Cozumel will be scuba diving. The island is famous for its world-class dive sites, including Palancar Reef, Santa Rosa Wall, and Columbia Reef. Cozumel is mostly about drift diving, where the currents guide you effortlessly through its underwater landscapes.
Learn more about diving in Cozumel.
Where to stay in Cozumel?
Regarding accommodation, Cozumel offers a wide range of options to suit all budgets and preferences. Whether you prefer a luxury resort or a cosy guesthouse, here are a few options:
- Presidente Intercontinental Cozumel Resort & Spa: This is where to go for those who want to splurge with 5-star luxury, direct access to the sea and no view on the cruise ships. Their private beach is also a great snorkelling spot to extend your underwater fun.
- El Cid La Ceiba Hotel: This is one of the closest resorts to the centre of San Miguel de Cozumel. The advantage of staying at a seafront like this one is the direct access to their pier for being picked up by scuba diving centres in the morning. The hotel is about 30 minutes away by boat from the dive sites.
- Hotel Mary Carmen: A cosy vintage hotel with private ensuite double rooms directly in the centre of San Miguel.
- You can also find budget hostels with a chill vibe and even a pool in San Miguel.
2 – Playa del Carmen: 4 days
Next on the itinerary is Playa del Carmen, a vibrant coastal town known for its lively atmosphere and sandy beaches (at least, outside of the sargassum weed season from April to August). While scuba diving might not be as prominent here as in Cozumel, Playa del Carmen offers excellent diving opportunities. You can go diving in the ocean and explore the underground world of the cenotes deep down in the jungle.
What to do in Playa del Carmen?
- Punta Esmeralda beach: Relax on the white sand of this quiet beach located on the far north end of the town. Take a dip in the turquoise waters, soak up the sun or enjoy bird watching as this is a nature reserve. Due to its position, maybe the best sunset spot as most of Playa del Carmen is facing the South-East. During the sargassum seaweed season, it’s also one of the cleanest beaches.
- Mayan-inspired street art: Wander through the streets of Playa del Carmen and admire the colourful murals often showcasing Mayan culture. The best spots are on 20th Avenue near the bus station or La Quinta (5th Avenue) from Calle 80 to Calle 106. If you are really into it, also check below the highway bridge on 50th Avenue near the Chedraui supermarket.
- Calle 38 & La Quinta : Exploring the bustling 5th Avenue, lined with shops, restaurants, and bars, is something you can’t avoid in Playa del Carmen. While it makes the city very walkable (the Quinta is pedestrian only), it has become a giant open-air mall by day and a nightclub by night. I liked Parque los Fondadores near the ferry terminal, a park with the sea in the background, but my favourite spot away from the madness was Calle 38. This charming and trendy street has eateries for foodies lined up among trees, a stream and even a cenote with tortoises. My favourite addresses are La Cueva del Chango, Amate 38 and La Perla Pixan, all with delicious Mexican food but not really the local prices.
Scuba diving from Playa del Carmen
When it comes to diving, you can venture out to nearby dive sites such as Playa del Carmen Reef, Mama Viña or Pared Verde. These sites offer abundant marine life, including colourful coral formations and turtles, while not as spectacular as Cozumel. The best of the diving scene once on the continent is exploring the cenotes. These freshwater caverns are stunning, with crystal clear water, light beams, and delicate stalactites. I would book 1 day with two dives in the sea and then 2 days with 4 dives in the cenotes at least to make the most of your time as a scuba diver in Playa del Carmen.
Learn more about diving in the cenotes.
Important to know: while most cenotes are closer to Tulum, it is cheaper to book your dives in Playa del Carmen than in Tulum due to the boho craze going there at the moment.
Where to stay in Playa del Carmen?
Playa del Carmen offers many accommodation options, from beachfront resorts to boutique hotels and cosy guesthouses. Choose a place that suits your style and budget:
- We Playa Hostel: If you are on a budget, this hostel has a strategic location close to the ADO bus terminal and the supermarkets while still being close to La Quinta on the 20th Avenue.
- The Fives hotel: For those who want a comfortable stay in style, I recommend this stylish hotel on the 10th Avenue near the ferry terminal, with its stunning infinity pool rooftop.
3 – Bacalar: 2 days
279 km south of Playa del Carmen lies a little gem still far less explored than the area from Cancun to Tulum. Bacalar is famous for its laguna, known as the Lake of Seven Colors. Note the laguna is a freshwater lake; The seashore is a bit further East. Although scuba diving is not the primary activity here, you can still enjoy other water-based activities such as snorkelling, kayaking, or paddleboarding. However, if you must, by driving for 1h15 to Mahahual, you can go scuba diving with sea crocodiles (yes!) in Banco Chinchorro. From Mahahual, there is another 1h30 to 2h boat ride.
What to do in Bacalar?
- Cenotes Cocalitos: Cocalitos offer a fascinating experience of swimming in warm turquoise milky freshwater while discovering the world’s largest sanctuary of stromatolites. These seemingly rock-like structures are living organisms, specifically cyanobacteria, which played a vital role in transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen, enabling the development of life on Earth. Although visibility is limited below the surface due to the silt of the lagoon, the entrance to the cenote can be located by free diving at a depth of 8 meters near the water lilies on the right side.
- San Felipe Fort: If you don’t have the time to go on a boat tour or you visit Bacalar on one of the no-activity days to give rest to the laguna (my case!), visiting the 18th-century fort is a great opportunity to learn about the modern history of Yucatan. Not so many historical sites are not from the Pre-columbian era in Yucatan! Besides, the view of the laguna from its high walls is well worth the entrance.
- Other activities to consider in Bacalar: swimming at Cenote Azul, Cenote Negro or Cenote Esmeralda, or kayaking at Los Rapidos, a part of the laguna with a stromatolite sanctuary and mangroves.
Where to stay in Bacalar?
- Sun-Ha Hotel: for a cosy stay with a delicious Mexican breakfast included. Their rooftop views the laguna and is the perfect place to relax.
4 – Tulum: 1 day
Given how much Tulum has changed in the last 12 years, and not for the best, I don’t recommend staying there, but stop on your way from Bacalar to Valladolid. Known for its breathtaking Mayan ruins overlooking the Caribbean Sea, unfortunately, things got a bit crazy because it became “trendy”. Still, here are two Mayan archeological sites that would be a bit too bad to miss:
- Tulum Mayan Ruins: Explore the well-preserved ruins of Tulum, one of the last cities built by the Mayans. While learning about the Mayan history and culture, admire the stunning coastal views among the numerous iguanas.
- Coba Mayan Ruins: Halfway between Tulum and Valladolid, the ruins of Coba are far less visited than Chichen Itza but offer impressive pyramids and other interesting structures. The most fun part of Coba is that due to the distances between the different structures, you can rent a bicycle and ride through the jungle between each.
5 – Valladolid: 3 days
Our final destination is Valladolid, a colourful town rich in history and culture. While not directly on the coast, Valladolid is an excellent base to explore nearby attractions, including some of the most famous Mayan ruins in the region. Here’s what you can do during your stay in Valladolid:
What to do in Valladolid?
- Chichen Itza: If this is not the top sight in Yucatan, I don’t know what is. The problem now is enjoying this marvel of the Mayan civilisation with overwhelming crowds and noise. I tried being there at the opening at 8 am to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site, and I must say it did work for about an hour and a half. This is a great reason to stay in Valladolid and not make the day trip from further away like most people (this is what I did the first time in bus, from Playa del Carmen via Tulum, so we arrived around 10 o’clock).
- Ek Balam: The best alternative to Chichen Itza. This hidden gem is well-preserved and allows you to climb up its pyramids for a panoramic view of the surrounding jungle (which is not possible anymore in Chichen Itza). Alongside this historical wonder, you’ll find a deep cenote where you can witness motmot birds flying above and catfish swimming below the surface. The cenote entrance fee includes a convenient bicycle rental to easily explore the two sites located 2 km apart.
- Cenote Suytun: It might be Instagram famous, but I couldn’t help finding it amazing. If you want to appreciate it before the photo line forms, better to come early. Ssssh, you can enter a little before the official opening at 8 am. From then, you have about an hour to swim in the super chilly waters of Suytun (without my wetsuit, it took me a while to get in).
- Valladolid historic centre: Stroll through Valladolid’s streets with its colourful buildings, picturesque church and charming central garden. This is where I had the best dining experiences of my six weeks in Yucatan. My favourite addresses are Conato (Fusion, Calles 40 and 47), Las Campanas (Traditional Mexican, Calles 42 and 41), Le Kaat (Vegan, Calzada de los Frailes), Mezcaleria Don Trejo (Best cocktails, Calzada de los Frailes), La Selva (Local taqueria, Calles 42 and 31).
Where to stay in Valladolid?
Regarding accommodations, Valladolid offers a range of options, from stylish hotels to budget-friendly guesthouses:
- If you are riding the bus, I recommend staying in the centre in one of its stylish guesthouses.
- If you rent a car, you can stay like me in this wonderful eco guesthouse in the rural surroundings of Valladolid, in the middle of an orchard with many tropical birds.
Places I visited but didn’t include and why
During my six weeks in the Yucatan Peninsula, I also had the time to venture further. I didn’t include Calakmul, Rio Lagartos and Isla Mujeres in the itinerary for scuba divers due to different reasons.
- Calakmul is a remote and sprawling archaeological site known for its towering Mayan pyramids (tallest is 45 m high) and lush jungle surroundings, all the way South near Guatemala. 4 hours driving West from Bacalar, exploring Calakmul requires dedicated days and is better suited for history and nature enthusiasts with more vacation time. But if I tell you I got to see a jaguar in the wild (for real!), wouldn’t you try to get more holidays?
- Rio Lagartos is a coastal town, north of the Yucatan Peninsula, near Las Coloradas, famous for its flamingos, pink lakes and natural reserve. While it offers wildlife sightings on a boat tour, and I loved practising my bird photography skills, I found the place didn’t live up to my expectation, especially the pink salinas, which were brown orange at the time of my visit. I don’t feel it was worth the 3 hours of driving back and forth from Valladolid.
- Isla Mujeres is an island north of Cancun, known for its white sand beaches and vibrant nightlife. First, I must recognise that Playa Norte was the most stunning white sand beach I’ve seen during my entire trip to Yucatan. However, the island is trashed with plastic and the golf cart used all around the island are not electrical like I thought but fuel powered, which leaves a terrible smell everywhere you walk. If you add to this the circus of the tours to swim with whale sharks in the summer, this isn’t a place I will return to.
How to get around Yucatan?
Getting around the Yucatan Peninsula is relatively easy, thanks to a well-connected transportation system. A great way to save time on this itinerary is to book a multi-destination flight ticket allowing you to land directly at Cozumel Airport and depart from Cancun Airport at the end of your trip. It couldn’t be easier between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen; there is a 40-minute ferry every hour.
Renting a car allows you to explore at your own pace and visit off-the-beaten-path destinations. However, be mindful of local traffic regulations and road conditions (especially the not always indicated speed bumps). I want to let you know it’s safe to drive around Yucatan. I would avoid going at night, considering the number of wild animals crossing the road (more than any fear you might have of a potential ambush).
An important tip budget-wise: if you want to get the best deal on car rentals, do it from Playa del Carmen! I rented twice cars while in Yucatan: once in Tulum and once in Playa del Carmen. The price difference was 50%! (Roughly 25$ instead of 50$ per day). Book your car rental in advance to get the best deals.
If you are really on a tight budget or don’t feel like driving at all, the ADO bus network in Yucatan is excellent. And by excellent, I mean punctual and comfortable. The ADO buses are all modern, clean and air-conditioned vehicles, and the small price tag makes it worth it. I took the bus many times and I never had a single complaint. This website allows you to book your bus tickets in advance.
You have direct bus connections between:
- Cancun Airport & Playa del Carmen
- Playa del Carmen & Tulum
- Tulum & Bacalar
- Tulum & Valladolid
- Valladolid & Chitchen Itza
When is the best season to visit Yucatan?
The Yucatan Peninsula has a tropical climate, with warm temperatures and high humidity throughout the year. However, the best time to visit for scuba diving is during the dry season, which typically runs from November to April. During this period, the weather is more stable, with less rainfall and excellent visibility underwater. The hurricane season usually starts in July and lasts until the beginning of October. However, I had an early start at the end of May last year with some small hurricanes.
It’s important to note that the Yucatan Peninsula can get crowded during peak tourist seasons, such as December (Christmas holidays) and March (Spring break). If you prefer a quieter experience, consider visiting during the shoulder seasons, such as November or April, when the weather is still nice and popular locations are less crowded.
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