By Shelley Marmor. This post on cultural things to do in Mexico contains affiliate links to trusted partners!
Though it’s the 14th largest country on Earth, not everyone realizes just how big Mexico actually is. As with most large countries, Mexico has a few distinct regions that are more different to one another than they are similar.
These regions vary greatly in terms of their landscape, food, indigenous languages, customs, and the cultural activities in Mexico you can do in each one. Visiting the Yucatan Peninsula, for example, is very different from what you’ll experience in Central Mexico and Northern Mexico.
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula encompases three states: Yucatan state, Campeche state, and Quintana Roo state. When traveling to this part of the country, here are a few tips for navigating Yucatecan Mexican culture traditions.
Understanding Mexican Culture In Yucatan
One of the main differences in Yucatan compared to other parts of Mexico is that this area is populated by the Maya and those of Mayan descent. Unlike much of Central Mexico with an Aztec cultural influence, Yucatan culture is closer to that of Guatemala than Mexico City.
Throughout Yucatan, you’ll overhear Mayan languages spoken, and see women in a traditional huipil (pronounced wee-peel), an embroidered garment that looks like a tunic or long dress. These are both things you likely won’t experience outside the Yucatan Peninsula.
For these reasons and others, the cultural activities in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula will vary greatly from the rest of Mexico.
The cuisine of the Yucatan is also different from the rest of Mexico — among the traditional Yucatan foods, you’ll want to try cochinita pibil and papadzules.
In short, the Yucatan can sometimes feel like it’s own country.
At two times in history, once in 1823 and then again in 1841, the Republic of Yucatan did exist as an independent state from Mexico. Today, you may still see proud Yucatecans who display a Yucatan flag on their cars, t-shirts, and in local shops.
Ready to discover six of the authentic cultural experiences and amazing things to do in Mexico you’ll only experience in Yucatan? Let’s get to it!
Meaningful Travel Personality Quiz
But first, before we dive into popular activities in Mexico for culture carnivores, I invite you to take Epicure & Culture’s Meaningful Travel Personality Quiz.
If you’re looking for travel experiences that support the local economy, abide by responsible travel principles, immerse you in the local culture, and have meaning beyond simply sightseeing, this quiz is for you.
You’ll answer 10 short and fun questions to determine your ideal trip type. From there, you’ll be offered suggestions for incredible sustainable experiences based on your result.
Ready to learn what experience you should book next?
Authentic Cultural Activities In Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula
1. Hanal Pixan: Mayan Day Of The Dead Celebration
Seen in the popular animated movie, Coco, many are familiar with Mexico’s Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead; however, few know the Maya have a similar celebration called Hanal Pixan (pronounced ha-nal pick-shawn).
Both Día de Muertos and Hanal Pixan are among the best Mexico culture traditions. The two celebrations are meant to honor our departed loved ones, and in fact, hanal pixan is Maya for “food for the souls.”
The largest celebration of the holiday takes place in Merida, Mexico. In fact, this colorful celebration is one of the best things to do in Merida — known as the Cultural Capital of Yucatan.
The Paseo de Animas (Parade of Souls), the largest event, happens each year in Downtown Merida on October 31. During the procession, thousands of locals and visitors walk silently through the city to the main cemetery, each holding a candle with their face painted as a skull.
It is only during Hanal Pixan that you’ll get the chance to eat a few traditional foods, like pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and pib. They are both only made during the holiday.
Pan de muerto can be found throughout Mexico during Día de Muertos, but pib is only in Yucatan.
Pib is a type of crispy tamale that’s cooked underground in an oven, also called a pib, and is available only for about one month around Hanal Pixan.
For Mayans, the pixan (soul) returned to Earth guided by the fragrant scent of cempasuchil (pronounced sem-pah-sue-chill), or marigold flower. The sacred hairless and bark-less dogs called xoloitzcuintli (show-low-squink-lay) also helped to guide the pixanes (pick-shawn-es).
The pixanes (souls) were led to an ofrenda (elaborate altar) created in their honor.
In fact, these multi-level altars have a lot of symbolism. Each level has its own significance and will also have food and drink on them. This is put out to refresh the departed after their journey back.
Both Hanal Pixan and Day of the Dead both come from ancient prehispanic traditions; however, the two were eventually intermixed with the Catholic All Saints’ Day holiday after the Spanish conquest, creating the celebrations of today.
2. Visit Mayan Ruins in Mexico
There are hundreds of Mayan ruin sites open to the public in Yucatan.
Some are more accessible since they’re closer to major cities, and some are deep in the jungle; however, wherever you’re staying in Yucatan, there will be Mayan ruins not far from you.
Chichen Itza Ruins
High atop many peoples’ bucket list is Chichen Itza — one of the Seven Wonders of the New World.
As Merida is the closest big city, Chichen Itza is one of the best Merida day trips, though you can always do a group tour or take public transport from anywhere in Yucatan to Chichen Itza.
However you choose to go, visiting is a great way to learn about the Mayan culture of Mexico.
The site has about 10 large structures to see in addition to the Sacred Cenote. With so much symbolism and history to discover, you’ll want to hire a tour guide since much of what makes Chichen Itza noteworthy isn’t obvious to the naked eye.
While touring Chichen Itza, don’t miss these sites:
- Tomb of the High Priest
- Platform of the Skulls
- Temple of the Warriors
- Group of the Thousand Columns
- Temple of Kukulkan (also known as El Castillo, meaning “The Castle” in Spanish).
In the small pueblo of Uxmal, Mexico, you’ll find the Uxmal Mayan Ruins (pronounced yoush-mall). Though these ruins are overshadowed in name recognition by Chichen Itza, Uxmal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also quite fascinating.
It is one of five Mayan Ruin sites on the Puuc Route. If you have a rental car, you can drive the 36-mile (58-kilometer) Puuc Route to see Labna, Xlapak, Sayil, Kabah, and Uxmal. As these are lesser-visited ruins, you may have many all to yourself!
Of all three states making up the Yucatan Peninsula, Campeche is the most off the beaten path for Mexico travelers. The same is true of the Calakmul Mayan Ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the jungles of Campeche.
Calakmul (pronounced kah-lack-mool) is very remote, located about five hours from the nearest major city. It is in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, and has two of the tallest pyramids in the Yucatan — one of which you can climb.
The tallest pyramid in Yucatan is called Ixmoja — aka Nohoch Mul Pyramid. It is located at Coba Mayan Ruins, about 45-minutes from Tulum.
Though it can be daunting at 120-feet-high (30m), daring visitors can climb the pyramid for some amazing views of the surrounding jungle.
As Coba is more of a complete Mayan city than a pyramid site, much like Chichen Itza, many rent bikes for the day to explore it all. For an experience similar to Chichen Itza, but without the crowds, head to Coba instead.
3. Swimming in a Cenote
Found throughout Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, there are about 6,000 cenotes. This is the largest concentration of cenoted found anywhere on Earth.
But, you may be wondering: What is a cenote?
Basically, cenotes are swimmable sinkholes containing freshwater that are located in the Yucatan jungles.
Beneath the entire Yucatan Peninsula, there is a large freshwater river. Over time, some of the limestone rock once encasing the river has eroded away or collapsed. As a result, we can now access the water beneath and swim in the cenotes.
As the cenotes are quite photogenic, you can see many pictures of them on Instagram and YouTube.
This being said, many don’t consider how sacred they are to the Mayan people. This underground river is essentially what sustained the civilization, and the water is revered.
While you can’t swim in this one, Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza has been dredged, with many artifacts discovered in it. Of the items recovered, there was gold, jade, Mayan pottery, and even human remains, all made as offerings to Chaac, the Mayan rain god.
4. Eat Traditional Yucatan Food
Though most agree tacos are a culinary gift to mankind and an important part of the Mexico travel experience, not everyone knows Mexican food has been officially declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This high honor is only shared with one other country, France.
Another little known fact about traditional Mexican cuisine is that it’s completely regional. This means it’s not all tacos and burritos, and in fact, neither of these are traditional in Yucatecan cuisine.
In Yucatan, visitors get to try foods they can’t in any other parts of Mexico. As there’s different culinary preparations, and different produce and spices grown in Yucatan, the food tastes unlike anywhere else in the country.
Two of the unique culinary flavors in the Yucatan include naranja agria (na-ran-ha ag-re-uh, meaning sour orange) and axiote (pronounced uh-she-oh-tay). Axiote is a red seed from the perennial Bixa orellana shrub, so it’s available year-round for cooking.
In the Yucatan, axiote is used to make recado rojo (red paste), used as a base in many dishes. To sample recado rojo, you can try some cochinita pibil. This is the most famous Yucatan dish, and it’s made with suckling pig that’s wrapped in banana leaves and slow-roasted underground.
There are also other recados (paste mixtures), as well. These include recado negro (black paste), used for relleno negro (turkey stew), and recado blanco (white paste), used in puchero (pork stew).
Though food in Mexico and the Yucatan are undeniably meat-heavy, there are a few vegetarian dishes in Yucatan cuisine, like tamales and papadzules.
Papadzules (pronounced pa-pawed-zuul-es) are boiled egg enchiladas covered in a creamy pepita (pumpkin seed) sauce and tomato salsa. These have been eaten since prehispanic times, and are a locals’ favorite. While tamales are eaten outside of Mexico, papadzules are a true Yucatan local favorite.
In short, if you’re looking for delicious dishes — including vegetarian and vegan food in Mexico — you’ll love Yucatan.
5. Attend a Temazcal Ceremony
Before we discuss this Mexico cultural activity, let me just say that temazcal ceremonies are physically demanding and are not recommended for all travelers.
Temazcal is an ancient purification ceremony, similar to a Mesoamerican or Native American sweat lodge. You can find temezcals throughout the Yucatan Peninsula; everywhere from posh resort spas to right in someone’s backyard.
Temazcales traditionally take place in a small, enclosed, circular dome-shaped structure, said to represent a woman’s womb. The ceremony itself has a deep connection to Ixchel, the Mayan jaguar goddess of childbirth, midwifery, the moon, and medicine.
As a temazcal is packed tightly with participants, it can be uncomfortable — and that’s even before the hot stones are placed inside and the sweating begins. While this ceremony purifies the body via sweating it is also a ritual for perseverance and mental strength.
After all participants enter and sit in the temazcal, a ceremony leader will bring in heated rocks from a fire pit that’s located right outside. The hot stones are then placed in a pit in the center of the temazcal and then the door is closed.
After a blessing and invocation, a mixture of water, herbs, flowers, plants, and more is poured over the hot stones to create steam. With no windows and the door closed, you’ll begin to sweat and purify immediately.
This process is repeated four times, as temazcal ceremonies have cuatro puertas, or four doors. These four doors represent the elements of fire, water, air, and earth.
In between each “door,” temazcal ceremony leaders go back outside to bring in freshly heated rocks from the fire.
6. See the Voladores de Papantla Flyers
The Voladores de Papantla (Flyers of Papantla) perform an ancient ritual from the state of Veracruz, Mexico.
While Veracruz isn’t part of the Yucatan Peninsula — though it is right next to it — the Voladores de Papantla ceremony is performed throughout Yucatan.
In the ritual, five “flyers” climb up a 100-foot-tall (32m) pole.
One man, known as the Caporal, will remain on top to play songs on his flute and drum. The other four men hang upside down from ropes, spinning (or “flying”) around the pole for about 10-minutes on their journey back to the ground.
The Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) ritual ceremony is done in tribute to the sun and the four elements. In 2009, it was designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as a unique display of ancient Mexican cultures.
To see the Voladores de Papantla near Cancun, visit Xcaret Park.
In Playa del Carmen, you can see the ritual every few hours at Parque los Fundadores (Founders Park) on 5th Avenue.
In Tulum, head to the Tulum Ruins Marketplace, located near the Tulum Mayan Ruins.
Yucatan Peninsula Tours
Along with experiencing the above Mexican cultural experiences, book the following tours for an unforgettable trip:
- Cancun Extreme Zipline Canopy Tour
- 3-in-1 Discovery Combo Tour: Tulum Ruins, Reef Snorkeling Plus Cenote and Caves
- Chichen-itza & Cenote Wonder of the Mayan World Private Tour
- Temazcal Ancestral Healing Ceremony
- Rio Secreto Underground River Tour with Crystal Caves
- Mexican Cooking from Scratch and Mezcal Tasting in a Local Home in Tulum
Yucatan Peninsula Hotels
Wondering where to stay in the Yucatan Peninsula?
Prefer self-contained stays?
Click here for a list of local rentals, or browse the map below:
Yucatan Peninsula Car Rentals
Many people rent a car when exploring Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, which allows travelers to see all that this vast coastal region has to offer.
We suggest using Discover Cars, which allows you to quickly compare your car rental options on one screen and save up to 70% on your booking!
Mexico Travel Insurance
When visiting Mexico, it’s important to have travel insurance to help protect yourself and your trip.
One recommendation is SafetyWing, a travel insurance company known for its large network, robust plans, and options for both short-term and long-term coverage — including limited coverage in your home country.
Moreover, SafetyWing is budget-friendly and offers $250,000 worth of coverage with just one low overall deductible of $250.
What are your favorite authentic cultural activities in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula?
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