One Peninsula, Two Very Different sides. Exploring the Yucatan Peninsula

Yucatan Peninsula

The Two Sides of the Yucatan Peninsula

The Yucatan Peninsula is a natural gem of Mexico. It juts out into the Caribbean and the Golf of Mexico being flanked with turquoise and emerald seas on either side. It is geographically close to hundreds of millions of people with a short flight and offers a huge range of attractions. There are thousands of years of Mayan history on the peninsula, including many temples and ancient cities. Then there are the natural formations of the cenotes, reefs and exotic flora a fauna that inhabit the peninsula. It is also home to super trendy places like Tulum and huge all inclusive hotels that cater to thousands of people each month. The Yucatan Peninsula is certainly a land of contrast. 

If you are someone who has visited the Riviera Maya and perhaps not explored beyond the beaches and the larger tourist attractions, you might wonder what you might be missing on the other side of the peninsula. If you have thought about moving to the Yucatan Peninsula, you might wonder what is the difference between the two sides. If you have never been to this part of Mexico, you might wonder what areas might fit more your expectations for a vacation.  In this article we will breakdown the difference and what each side has to offer. 

Who are the  tourists that visit the Quintana Roo side of the peninsula?

The bulk of tourism does visit this side of the Yucatan Peninsula. Since the inception of the idea of making Cancun a city by the Caribbean, the idea of all inclusive hotels has expanded from Cancun to Tulum. Now reaching about 20 million tourists arriving yearly at the Cancun Airport, the Riviera Maya and the rest of the state account for a huge percentage of tourism income for Mexico. But, who are the tourists that decide to visit this side of the peninsula?

Tourists coming to the Caribbean side of the Yucatan Peninsula are all about blue water, turquoise water to be exact. Tourists to this part of the peninsula want beach, sun, fun, and an easier type of trip. The tourism infrastructure is in place to accommodate hundreds of thousands of visitors weekly, including tours, restaurants, hotels, hotels, and a diverse staff at each one that tries to accommodate as many languages as possible.  

Because the Cancun Airport has many international arrivals and easy transportation to all parts of the Riviera Maya, people like visiting this area for a week or two. There is a lot of package tourism arriving from Europe, Canada and the United States as well as people from these areas traveling independently. Since many people from these areas work full time and only have a short time for vacations, people traveling to the Quintana Roo side like to stay at one hotel and enjoy some downtime with perhaps a tour or two. 

Barcelo Maya Riviera
One of the large all inclusive hotels on the Quintana Roo side of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Who are the tourists that visit the Yucatan state side of the peninsula?

There is a markable difference between tourists that go to the Yucatan state side of the peninsula. People visiting the Yucatan side go for the culture, nature, restaurants, Mayan ruins, cenotes and a little for the beaches. Because traveling around the Yucatan side often requires more time and Europeans often have more vacation time, you will find more visiting this side. On average tourists spend double the amount of time on vacation on the Yucatan side, taking a more relaxed approach to travel. Tourists often plan a route through the area to hit up the highlights of the area. 

How the different types of tourism affects crime

As mentioned above, there is a markable difference between the tourism that arrives on both sides of the peninsula. There is also a markable difference in the crime that happens in each side of the peninsula. These two things are directly related. The Yucatan State side is known as an extremely safe area. In fact the capital of Yucatan State is Merida and is one of the safest large cities in Mexico. Unlike places in the Quintana Roo side of Tulum and Playa Del Carmen where there has been an increase in crime, especially drug related activity. 

In general, people coming to the Riviera Maya want beach, sun, fun and partying. This means that drugs are often in the mix. It is no secret that drugs are offered to tourists while walking 5th Avenue in Playa Del Carmen or in Tulum. Often, many of the rental agents that greet guests for Airbnb type properties are asked where to get drugs.  Tulum perhaps has the highest drug consumption per capita of any place on the peninsula. This is in part due to the large electronic music festivals and general age of tourists that are drawn to Tulum.

This is in contrast to the tourists that visit the Yucatan state side. People visiting are there for the culture, Mayan ruins, boutique or unique hotels and places to stay, restaurants, and overall experience. This highlights how tourism impacts locations. It is often said locally that drugs are not the problem, it is the tourists that take them. We each have a responsibility to have a positive impact on the areas we visit. It is also important how areas develop and what their reputation is. Part of the reason the Quintana Roo side is more prone to partying is how it is promoted and also what is available. This is what we will talk about next, the difference in what is available culturally to visitors between the two sides of the Yucatan Peninsula. 

The cultural divide

You can say the Quintana Roo side is more ” beach culture” and the Yucatan is more traditional in what we call culture. Quintana Roo is more like the Monaco  of Mexico when it comes to being a separate country almost. This side is more modern and has many international influences, almost to the extend it does not feel like the rest of Mexico.  There is a saying, the Yucatan state side is “real Mexico”.

Considering there are no museums in Tulum or Playa Del Carmen (and no, the 3D Museum is not really a museum), and a just a few museums in Cancun, there are limited things culturally for visitors. Quintana Roo does have a few smaller Mayan ruins, a few theaters, and a few cultural events. One of the best options for tourists to get a feel for Mexican culture is by visiting Xcaret Park. This park is dedicated to the history and culture of Mexico. However, most will say this is a sanitized version that is suited for tourists. 

Compare this with the Yucatan side, where you can find a living culture and practically it is a living museum. You can still find haciendas, Mayan ruins, colonial buildings, museums, workshops, light shows on historical buildings, churches dating from the 1500’s, and much more. If you have not explored more than the beaches of the Caribbean, you miss out on this culturally rich area. 

Valladolid Yucatan Uayma Church
One of the historical churches in Uayma, Yucatan.

The restaurant scene

There are some big difference between areas of the Yucatan Peninsula and restaurants. In general, here are some of the difference in food culture.

Tulum Restaurants

Tulum has some of the most well known and avant-garde restaurants on the peninsula. Chefs jump at the chance to open a chic restaurant that is worthy of Instagram and celebrity visits. Restaurateurs look to make an international name for themselves here. You can find some of the top restaurants in the world in Tulum, albeit if you can get on the waiting list. In general, you will also pay more for meals in Tulum. 

Playa Del Carmen Restaurants

In Playa Del Carmen many of the restaurants on 5th Avenue look to get people in and out as fast as possible to turn a profit. There is not much concern for return visitors since there is a constant flow of people arriving and looking for places to eat. Of course the further away from the tourist areas you will find other restaurants, but not the level of quality you find in Tulum or Merida. There are enough decent restaurants if you live in Playa Del Carmen, it is just harder to find those higher end restaurants that also want to stick around for a while. 

Restaurants in the Yucatan side

On the Yucatan state side you can find many traditional restaurants right down to tacos with handmade tortillas. You can also find some pretty cutting edge gourmet options in Merida. Merida is more a city of residents and restaurants know that to survive, they need to be good and have consistency. So, besides some of the touristy areas, you can find great value and great food at some of the restaurants in Merida and some of the other communities of Yucatan state. 

Architectural differences

Most everything in the Riviera Maya has been built in the past 40 years. So this means modern style hotels and condos that get even trendier and more modern each year. Many of the towers of Cancun could easily be mistaken for Miami for example. Playa Del Carmen has gone from more Mexican style three story condos to 5 story more modern condos with glass balconies. Tulum has its own style, one that is very eco chic and a blend of concrete and wood. The Quintana Roo side of the peninsula is much more modern than than the other side. 

The Yucatan side saw more cities of the Mayans and still has more descendants living in the area. While traveling rural roads you can easily see Mayan style houses  which have changed little over the past 1000 years. You can also see the influences of the Spanish when they arrived in the 1500’s. You can find colonial architecture and colonial cities that highlight the colonial style, high ceilings and stone construction. The architectural styles are noticeable  in the flavor of hotels on the Yucatan side are often in older colonial buildings that have been restored. 

For those looking to move to either side, you have a wide range of options of housing. Mostly in the Quintana Roo side people choose condos or houses in a planned development. In the Yucatan side you can modern homes in planned communities and also older colonial houses restored or unrestored for purchase. There are nearly no colonial buildings in Quintana Roo. 

Espita Yucatan
A view from the market at some of the colonial buildings in Espita.

Who are the foreigners that decide to live on either side of the Yucatan Peninsula?

The difference between the two sides of the peninsula appeal to different expats looking to make a new home. Most people choose the correct option for them the first time, but we do see more people switching sides, mainly from Quintana Roo side to Yucatan side. People from Quintana Roo look to move to the Yucatan side for more culture, quieter life and less impact from tourists. People from the Yucatan side sometimes move to the Quintana Roo side for more economic opportunities, more action in life and beaches with turquoise water. 

Below are the different factors that appeal to people moving to the area. 

Those that choose to live on the Quintana Roo side

In general this is who chooses to live in Quintana Roo:

  • Expats tend to be younger (about 10 years younger on average). Many look for an investment property to rent out and then move in a few years to Mexico. Expats also tend to be younger because they look to open a business or sustain themselves since they are not ready to retire. This includes digital nomads. There are digital nomads living on both sides, but more tend to be living in Quintana Roo because of the younger vibe and trendiness of the area. 
  • New residents tend to stay for shorter stays and possible move later. 
  • Most people love the beach and look for modern conveniences like a Costco. 

Those that choose to live on the Yucatan side 

In general, this is more the type of expats that move to the Yucatan state side: 

  • More are of retirement age. 
  • People looking for more culture and\or a quieter life. 
  • People have the option of city life in Merida or smaller towns or costal areas in the Yucatan state side. 
  • Those that want to be closer to better medical care options.
  • The Yucatan side also offers lower cost of living by about 18%. So some that are priced out of the Riviera Maya look to the other side for more affordable living. 


The Yucatan Peninsula offers a lot contrast for those visiting and looking for a place to live. We hope that this overview of the two very different sides of the peninsula has helped you get a sense of what it is like. If you are visiting or looking to move to the area, we hope you find what you are looking for. We are constantly out looking for new things for our readers so you can discover the best of the area. You can use the search box to look for articles about many things in the area. 

Yucatan Peninsula
The beach at Akumal in the Riviera Maya, Mexico

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