Hi! I’m Sophia van den Hoek, also known as Unfolded. I was born and raised in the Netherlands and am currently residing in Rotterdam. I photograph restaurants, chefs, hotels, beautiful places, and get to work for magazines such as Milk decoration, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Suitcase. Besides photography, I also develop concepts based on food and design under the name of Studio Unfolded. So, I’m always on the lookout for new exciting places, concepts, flavors & designs. Today I’m sharing my favorite sunny slow travel stops in Mexico’s Yucatán region.
Mexico was a long-awaited destination for me, particularly the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s been on my wish list since my days as a student after I designed a whole clothing collection based on Mayan cultures. And as a food and travel photographer, the idea of real Mexican tacos was very persuasive! Yes, the Yucatán is home to the renowned warm party destination that is Cancun. But, there is so much more to explore about the region that will give you more of an authentic, refined taste of everything the Yucatán has to offer. These are places you want to stop when you’re not in a hurry. If you wish to simply slow down and breathe in a new, unique experience. Here are my top nine spots to slow down in the Yucatán province.
My Slow Travel Stops in the Yucatán
A lot of people have Mexico (and the Yucatán) on their list these days because of Tulum. But it just wasn’t my cup of tea (or margarita!) to stay in Mexican terms. In the past several years, Tulum has been transformed from a quiet backpacker’s paradise into the most “Instagrammable” yoga/party destination. Dance parties here are called healing rituals, and the DJ is turned into your shaman. That said, there is also very good food to be found that makes Tulum well worth the stop.
In Tulum town, you can still eat authentic tacos from a plastic plate at classic spots such as at Taqueria Honorio. But on the bohemian coast, your food will be served on beautiful, handmade ceramics at Arca. After a Noma pop-up in 2017, a handful of then Noma chefs stayed behind, including Jose Luis Hinostroza, who took over the kitchen of beautiful Arca. With his Mexican roots and culinary background in Copenhagen, he cooks at Arca on an open fire with exclusively local ingredients. This is modern cuisine with big respect for traditions.
During my visit, I tried a divine softshell crab in tempura of amaranth with habanero salsa and the leaves of the Chaya plant as a taco. The “tartare” of grilled beans with salsa verde and gooseberries was my favorite. Although the dessert of grilled mamey, a sweet fruit that looks like an orange avocado, is also highly recommended.
2. Casa Pueblo
I call Casa Pueblo my home in Tulum Town. The hotel offers 16 serene suites, all with large light-filled en-suite bathrooms. The hotel is a pleasant mix between tropical vibrancy and clean urban design. The in-house restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner made from fresh local ingredients. I liked being away from the hustle and bustle of the coastal zone, but if you do want to wake up and jump right into the sea, Casa Pueblo now also offers another great location right on Tulum beach! At the in-town location, you get to enjoy the modern Caribbean Colonial design of the hotel, which is centered around a pool wrapped in tiles handcrafted by local artisans. Insert cocktail here, and all is well.
If you want to experience the Tulum from before the Instagram era, I highly recommend Ka’an restaurant. It’s located 3 km inside the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve with the Caribbean Sea to one side and a giant lagoon to the other. This is where I have my feet in the sand while eating a divine octopus served with deliciously scented, purple tortillas made by local ladies. Besides the chef, these ladies are the heart of the kitchen. Chef Hugo Durán draws his inspiration from his travels combined with traditional methods of preparation on products from Yucatan. Make sure to reserve a beach bed for yourself for an after-lunch nap in the sun with the sound of the sea to fall asleep to. No Headspace app necessary.
You can’t leave Mexico before visiting one of the Mayan temples. I’d recommend an early morning visit to the ones in Coba before the busses with tourists arrive. After your climb to the top of the highest ruin, you deserve a lunch at the magical Coqui Coqui Coba. And if possible, a stayover. Coqui Coqui runs like a thread through my travels in Yucatan. They offer various residences throughout the Yucatan peninsula, and I couldn’t resist visiting them all. Each of the residences has its own unique vibe while still being very Coqui Coqui’ish with their representation of scents, tastes, aromas, and elements of design. The one in Coba is a very peaceful and Mayan inspired residence situated next to the ruins, overlooking a tranquil lagoon.
The colonial town of Valladolid is the first place along my travel road where I experienced the more traditional Mexico. Lots of music, friendly people, cobblestone pathways, vintage Volkswagen beetles, and colorful houses. Good slow travel vibes all over.
Here lies another Coqui Coqui location called Meson de Malleville. A family home with original details from the 1600’s such as an original Moorish tile floor, walls, and high ceilings with wooden beams. You’ll feel like a prince(ss) for a night.
With sous-chef Israel of Ka’an, I explored the market in the city of Valladolid where the purchases for the restaurant are made. The best products get carefully selected at every colorful stall. This ritual lasts a few hours and ends at a stall where everyone stands in line for black bean filled fried tortillas, topped with pulled chicken, called Panuchos, and for Pibihua, which are corn dough balls that in this case are filled with Cochinita Pibil. Insanely tasty. This might have been my favorite food of the whole trip.
The town of Izamal, Yucatan’s oldest city, also known as the “yellow city,” brought me the most magical slow travel experience of this trip. All of Izamal’s buildings were painted yellow for the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1993. The distinctive cobblestone streets and gorgeous colonial buildings all get a special glow during sunset. Golden hour has another dimension in this city.
Even more enchanting is the next Coqui Coqui location here in Izamal. Casa de Los Santos is housed in a restored colonial building and brings an ode to both the historical and religious importance of the town. It features an air of contemporary flair, indigenous folklore, and a lot of religious references.
Merida, the colonial capital of the Yucatan Peninsula. Despite its size, it still feels like a small town. Everything in the historic center is walkable. Merida was once home to the greatest concentration of wealth in Mexico, which is still apparent in some parts of the city, but nowadays, it’s also full of creative energy. Make sure to pay a visit to Casa T’hõ, a concept store selling the most beautiful products from local creatives such as bags, perfumes, ceramics, and art. It’s also an excellent place for breakfast or a coffee. If you’re not done with shopping yet, go to IMOX curated boutique and have lunch at the indoor Te Extraño, Extraño. This beautiful venue serves a menu by Joaquin Cardoso, a successful chef who owns some fantastic restaurants in Mexico City. And for late-night drinks and dances, La Negrita Cantina is the place to be.
Merida offers a lot of affordable places to sleep, but to complete the Coqui Coqui trail, my last slow travel stop in Mexico’s Yucatan had to be at their Epicerie. I mean, who wouldn’t like a suite with two baths or one with a ceiling that’s also the bottom of the pool? The best part about leaving Coqui Coqui is that you can take their scents with you. Bring a little bit of Coqui Coqui into your own home, because the last thing you’ll want to do is leave.
8+9. Holbox and Bacalar
Two places, to my regret, I didn’t get to visit, but if you’re planning a trip to Mexico, don’t miss these: Isla de Holbox and Lake Bacalar. You’re in for sunshine, beaches, cocktails, and tacos without the crowds on Holbox, and the natural beauty of the “Lake of Seven Colors” in Bacalar. Bacalar is also known as the Maldives of Mexico due to the blue water and the relaxed atmosphere.
Whether you want to hit all of these destinations on your slow tour of the Yucatán, or simply hunker down in one spot for an extended time, I hope you make it some of my slow travel stops in Mexico’s Yucatán soon and let the region work its magic on you!
Sophia van den Hoek, also known as Unfolded, is a photographer currently residing in Rotterdam, Netherlands. She photographs restaurants, chefs, hotels, beautiful places, for magazines such as Milk decoration, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Suitcase.
Interested in more travel recommendations to sunny places? Don’t miss Beth’s guide to Anegada & Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands!