Yucatan: A winter getaway that's affordable, magical

Yucatan: A winter getaway that's affordable, magical

By Yulia Bezriadina

It can be hard to find a relatively cheap international destination to travel to in the wintertime. This becomes even harder if you're also looking for a place that is warm, exotic and not swarming with tourists.

Despite this, that's just what my boyfriend, Jason Cook, and I did as the world was supposedly coming to an end in December 2012. The Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico was our destination — home to gorgeous tropical vegetation, a rich culture and of course the spectacular Mayan ruins.

After flying into the Cancun airport, we traveled farther into the Yucatan to continue our journey. Our stay started off in the small town of Xcalacoop, a few miles from the Mayan pyramids that are in the better-known city of Chichen Itza. We elected to stay at a campsite in Xcalacoop to truly experience the surrounding landscape and culture.

For those feeling not quite as adventurous, hotels were readily available in the neighboring town of Piste for prices ranging from $60 to $100 a night. Our personal experience at the campsite was breathtaking: Waking up every morning to the sunrise in the Mexican jungle as the local roosters began to crow was an experience hard to put into proper words.

We quickly realized that if you are looking for adventure, the Yucatan is the place for it. We found the area to have an endless supply of what one could call attractions. The area is filled with cenotes, or natural sinkholes, filled with crystal clear blue waters that are formed when the ceilings of caves fall in. These natural treasures can be found all over the region, and we had multiple cenotes within walking distance of the towns we visited.

Being at one of these wonders is special — water cascades from the sides of the cenotes as you swim in the clear blue waters, enjoying the beautiful sight of vines and bright blooming flowers all around you. The best part about going to one of these is the lack of a crowd: It feels like you have a slice of heaven all to yourself.

The small villages scattered throughout the Yucatan are equally exciting to explore, and the towns and various landmarks are all within walking distance of each other.

We spent one of our days in Mexico wandering one of the nearby towns. One can easily get lost waking through streets filled with delicious local torterillas and fruiterias, stray dogs and large families socializing outside. The locals are friendly and never hesitate to engage with you. A few words and phrases of Spanish can often help here, such as buenos dias (good day), el bano (the bathroom) and cerveza (beer).

After exploring the local towns, it never hurts to check out some of the nightlife in these areas as many bars have music and dancing going on all through the night.

Undeniably, one of the most spectacular places to visit in the Yucatan is the site of the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. We found ourselves mesmerized by the structures there and the planning and organization it clearly took to build them.

Most temples and other structures that the Mayans built were made to be aligned with the sun and the stars, and each inch was carefully plotted out in accordance. We came across jaw-dropping temples, courts and pyramids all lined with local vendors selling handcrafted souvenirs such as blankets, chess sets and sombreros (don't forget to haggle with these guys!).

The Yucatan is like no place you have been to before. It has all the ingredients necessary for a perfect destination: tropical vegetation, ancient ruins, natural wonders, friendly locals and of course great tequila. Yet somehow, this place avoids all the pitfalls of a typical "perfect" getaway.

It's affordable, it's not cramped with tourists and it's relatively close by for an international destination. For us, the Yucatan was nothing short of magical.

Yulia Bezriadina of Champaign is a recent University of Illinois graduate who is working as an aide at Centennial High School. She was born in Russia but has lived in Champaign most of her life.