Updated on October 15th, 2019
Squeeze a slice of lime into your Corona, savor a few long, lingering sips of that ice-cold brew, and then squint at a map of Mexico. You might notice that it looks a bit like a hook.
And that pointy bit sticking out to the east, the business end of the barb that divides the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea? That’s the Yucatan Peninsula, encompassing the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatan, and Campeche and bordering the state of Chiapas, which stretches southwest to the Pacific Ocean. With its seductive mix of silky sands, Mayan ruins, and exotic wildlife, it’s easy to understand why this coast-to-coast slice of southeastern Mexico reels in visitors from around the world.
In this article, we are featuring 6 popular destinations on the Mexico East Coast. From beautiful coastal towns with white sand beaches to cultural capitals, you will find a destination that fits your travel style:
- Playa del Carmen
- Tuxtla Gutiérrez
Read on to get to know these magical places and learn some very useful travel tips for the region: how to get around by bus, what to do and what to see.
Oh, Maya! If you’re visiting Quintana Roo, the walled Mayan ruins of Tulum are a “must do.” Square stone temples offer tantalizing glimpses of faded frescoes featuring ancient gods, and the massive bulk of El Castillo (“the castle”) perches atop a 40-foot limestone bluff that plunges down to the sea, offering an imposing sight for sunbathers on the white crescent beach below.
South of Tulum lies the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a 1.3 million-acre coastal Eden that’s home to hundreds of species, including jaguars, pumas, pink flamingos, toucans, crocodiles, howler monkeys, and ocelots. Visit Sian Ka’an offers a variety of tours around this UNESCO World Heritage Site, including sunset bird watching, a boat tour of a Mayan canal, snorkeling, and fly fishing.
Bus tip: Tulum has two bus stations: the main bus terminal, located in the city center, and the Zona Arqueologica, located right next to the Mayan ruins. Choose your station accordingly!Book your bus tickets to Tulum
Let’s be honest. You’re here for the sun, sand, and breezy beachfront bars and restaurants. If you can peel yourself off your bar stool or beach towel, you might take a stroll along Quinta Avenida–literally, the Fifth Avenue of the Riviera Maya—flanked by stucco storefronts in cheerful, sun-baked shades of canary yellow, electric blue, and Pepto-pink.
Feeling more ambitious? For an unusual, Indiana Jones-meets-Disneyland experience, check out Xplor, a jungle theme park where you can zip-line, raft or swim through underground rivers in the Yucatan’s famous “cenote” caverns. At sister theme park Xcaret, you can visit a Mayan village and opt for wet-and-wild adventures like swimming with dolphins, stingrays and (gulp) sharks. But the biggest attraction for scuba divers is the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which extends more than 600 miles, from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula to the Honduran Bay Islands.
Bus tip: Playa Del Carmen has two bus stations, one located on 5th Avenue corner Juarez Avenue and the other one is on 20th Avenue. Buses coming from Cancun and places along the coast, such as Tulum, arrive at the 5th Avenue Station, at the corner of Juárez Avenue. The other station on 20th Avenue services buses coming from destinations in the interior of the peninsula or out of state in general. Both stations have service going to the Cancun Airport.
Beloved by university students on spring break, Cancun is as renowned for its nightlife as its white-sand beaches.
You’ll find the heart of the action at the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone), a narrow strip flanked by a lagoon on the west and the Caribbean on the east. It’s lined with mostly high-end hotels and hosts a cadre of party-hearty clubs, including the OTT Coco Bongo, with circus acts and a pulsating disco.
For a more relaxed, local experience, check out Downtown Cancun just across the lagoon on the mainland. Mercado 28 and Mercado 23 are perfect places to shop for handicrafts and souvenirs and enjoy a casual lunch.
Cancun features a few Mayan ruins and a museum of Mayan artifacts, but its most unique site is the Museo Subacuatico de Arte (MUSA). Here, you can snorkel or scuba dive among more than 400 life-sized sculptures comprising a man-made reef approximately 30 feet below the surface.
Bus tip: The Cancun bus terminal is located on Avenue Uxmal, in the city center. It services all buses coming in and out of the Yucatan peninsula as well as departures to and from the Cancun airport, running every 30 minutes during the day. The ride is only 30 minutes and extremely convenient.Book your bus tickets to Cancun
Located about 30 miles inland, Merida is the colonial capital of the Yucatan state and the cultural capital of the entire peninsula. It’s also known as “the White City,” possibly because of its white limestone architecture.
Explore art and history museums, such as the Museo Regional de Antropologia. Discover the original sculptures and elegant mansions lining the Paseo de Montejo. Listen to a performance by the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra at Teatro Peon Contreras, or enjoy more casual kicks at the Plaza Grande, which hosts a weekly craft markets and live music or dancing on most evenings.
Bus tip: Merida has three bus stations as well as a stop at the airport. The arrival and departure station depends on the route. However, the main bus station servicing most touristic routes around the Yucatan peninsula is the CAME station, located at Calle 70, 555, in the city center.Book your bus tickets to Merida
Campeche is the imminently Instagrammable capital of the eponymous state of, yep, Campeche. Nestled alongside the Gulf of Mexico, it was frequently attacked by pirates in centuries past.
Thanks to the discovery of offshore oil in the 70s, this well-funded UNESCO World Heritage Site has been beautifully restored, with picturesque 18th and 19th century mansions flanking cobblestone streets, a waterfront promenade called the Malecon, still-standing sections of the city walls offering outstanding views of the port, and two nearby forts—including the Fuerte de San Miguel, which features a drawbridge, a dry moat, twenty canons, and the Museo Arqueologico de Campeche.
Bus tip: Campeche is notably easy to get to, with a main bus terminal located in the heart of town with daily services across the peninsula. The terminal is located at Av Patricio Trueba de Regil 215.Book your bus tickets to Campeche
Tuxtla Gutierrez is a prime transportation hub for tourists to the state of Chiapas, but it has worthwhile sites in its own right. There’s the Museo Regional de Antropologia e Historia, the largest museum in the city; the Dr. Faustino Miranda Botanical Garden and nearby botanical museum; and the Catedral de San Marcos, where statues of the Apostles parade along the bell tower every hour.
But the city’s top attraction is ZooMAT—also known as the Zoologico Miguel Alvarez del Toro Zoo, although no one calls it that except its mother, when she’s really mad. The 247-acre zoo contains 220 species, 60 of which are endangered, including the jaguar, the macaw and the quetzal. (Yes, the quetzal—an actual bird, not an imaginary critter sprung from the fevered brain of Dr. Seuss. It’s also a very handy word for Scrabble).
Bus tip: The Tuxtla Gutierrez bus terminal is located at 5a. Nte. Pte. 2650 with easy access to all touristic hubs of the Yucatan peninsula.Book your bus tickets to Tuxtla Gutierrez
There you have it, folks. Laid-back beaches. Mysterious jungles. Ancient ruins, and sophisticated cities. So why not hit the road? Just don’t forget your out-of-office message. “Gone fishin’.”