A few months ago, my boyfriend’s friend, a chef in NYC, spent a few months backpacking across Mexico learning how to cook real Mexican food from the best chefs in all the land: the grandmothers and owners of local taquerias. We both looked forward to posts on his Instagram feed; they were so colorful, so freaking delicious-looking and just all around inspiring.
We were so inspired, in fact, that we decided we needed a Mexico trip of our own. Our plan was to fly to Cancun and leave its all-inclusive clad beaches immediately. Instead, we road-tripped through the Yucatan Peninsula exploring its amazing cenotes, lagoons, jungles and Mayan ruins.
It was a marvelous trip, to say the least.
So please indulge my post-vacation high for a moment and let me tell you all the reasons the Yucatan Peninsula absolutely has to be your next vacation destination:
It’s safe; it really is
Without fail, this is everyone’s first question- unfortunately too many of us imagine a violent world run by drug cartels when we think of Mexico. And while I can’t speak for the entire country, I can assure you that renting a car and leaving the gated beach resorts is incredibly safe in the Yucatan. The roads are great, police is ever present and not a single time did we feel the slightest bit unsafe- and mind you, our trip even involved a minor car accident and a trip to a local police station, so we definitely left no stones unturned in our test of safety.
Much of Maya history is a mystery because the Spanish conquistadors destroyed most everything (ah, colonialism). But what we do know is that they were master astronomers, intense warriors, and skilled architects very much into building sky-scrapping pyramids in the middle of dense jungles. All this approximately 2,000 years ago. The Yucatan Peninsula was the Maya civilization’s home base, and you can still marvel at most of their massive cities. I’ve traveled a lot and seen a lot of historical sites— but these are unbelievably impressive; in fact, I believe they top them all. There’s no better way to feel small and humbled than standing on top of a gargantuan, intricate, ancient pyramid in the middle of a wild jungle filled with howler monkeys roaming freely.
Not just the beach
Yes, the white sandy beaches of the Caribbean Sea are what this region is known for and yes, those beaches really are fantastic and special (minus a current Sargassum algae debaco thanks to climate change). But there is actually a huge variety of other aquatics in this area as well. First of all, there’s Lake Bacalar, also called the Lake of Seven Colors, for its bright colored water that is so beautiful it’s shocking. And then are hundreds of Cenotes, which are essentially natural sinkholes with or without an opening to natural light. Swimming in them is terrifying in many ways, but also incredibly exhilarating and empowering.
It’s all from the heart in the Yucatan- the people are incredibly friendly, in the most genuine of ways. There wasn’t a single time when we felt we were being taken advantage of for being outsiders. Instead, locals are genuinely happy you are there, and they are quite passionate about the greatness of their hometowns.
We were able to do the whole trip for under 1,000 dollars. That’s two people, 8 days, and all expenses like comfortable lodging, food, gas and even that replica of a Maya mask we decided we can’t live without.
It’s a secret, for now
Interestingly enough, although Americans most definitely dominate traffic to the resorts of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, our fellow travelers off the beaten path were anything but American. To be honest, there weren’t many fellow travelers at all, but in the event that we did run into anyone but locals, they were French, German, Spanish or British. I don’t think this will last for long, as the region is ripe for a tourist boom, so go immediately to experience it still relatively raw and untouched.
Oh, and lest we forget the food
I would be lying if the local food is totally vegan friendly- it’s not. Yucatan dishes feature tons of pork and turkey, as well as eggs and a fair amount of dairy (which was a surprise to me, I thought it was more of a Tex-Mex thing). But the good news is, the food is incredibly versatile and there are plenty of fresh veggies around, so it’s easy enough to communicate “sin queso” and “sin carne” and put together a dish of rice, salsa, fresh avocados and the like. And the local markets and fresh fruits stands make for the best snacks- make sure to try the fresh sliced mangos with chili powder.
Although a part of me wants this magical world to stay a secret for as long as possible, that would be selfish and just plain rude. Do yourself a favor and go explore our neighbors to the south- you won’t regret it.
Also by Irina: 5 Travel Ideas to Cure Your Life Crisis
Related: Vegan Travel in Southeast Asia
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Photo: Irina Vishnevskaya