Mexico Photography Guide : The Yucatan
Mexico Photography ?! Not many people associate this country with picturesque landcapes. However, the country is vast and encompasses countless landscapes. From the deserts to the mountains and from the jungles to the ocean there are endless opportunities to photograph Mexico’s beauty. One area in particular that captivated me was the Yucatan Peninsula. Yucatan Photography is a real treat because of the rich history of the Mayan civilization that can be captured photographically throughout the region.
In this post I am going to highlight some of the spots I visited on my recent trip. I will also share some of my photographic processes and how they allowed me to capture elements that were seemingly impossible prior to my visit.
Mexico Photography : Stepping Into the Yucatan
The title of this blog post is a bit of misnomer. Well not entirely… When I think of photography in Mexico the first thing that comes to my mind is the Yucatan peninsula. There will hopefully be follow up posts where I dig into the other locations that make Mexico so amazing. But for now lets discuss the Yucatan.
How the Yucatan Peninsula Was Formed
If you’re a fan of science and don’t believe the world is flat (or that it was formed 7000 years ago in an epic flood) then you probably have heard about the giant asteroid that crashed into earth in what is now the Gulf of Mexico.
This impact is believed to have ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The Crater that was formed (Chicxulub Creater) is over 200km wide.
The impact was so powerful that it threw trillions of tons of dust into earth’s atmosphere which caused a significant cooling of our climate — a precursor to mass extinction.
For life to evolve, mass extinctions and change are required catalysts. This massive impact also shaped the region tremendously.
The giant crater that was formed led to the formation of countless cenotes (underground water caves) throughout the region. The impact also caused a massive cooling which created many of the species we now see in the region to flourish. This unique mix of circumstances helped to shape this region into the beautiful landscapes we see now.
Mexico Photography: Where to Go !
In this post I will highlight a few regions I visited that captivated my eye and provided stunning vistas and photographic elements that I wont soon forget.
Here’s a brief itinerary of sorts that I hope you’ll use on your journey through this beautiful place. Photographing Mexico is a beautiful experience — and when you have a guide it makes things easier.
I’ll run through these spots quickly. There will be many more details below ( so dont worry ) !
- The Coba Ruins: Located NorthWest Of Tulum this houses the second tallest Mayan Pyramid in Central America. The best part: You can climb to the top!
- Chichen Itza: One of the world’s wonders this beautifully preserved Pyramid is one of a kind and was used as an ancient calendar. It’s the most recognizable of all the structures in Central America.
- Cenotes Of Mexico: There are a ton of cenotes to explore in the Yucatan. I’ll highlight my journey through one of the most stunning ones I discovered. If you read the details below I’ll even tell you where to find it.
- Tulum: A relaxing paradise that was once used to fortify and protect the region from oceanside invaders. If you want to get your Zen on! This is the place to go. Details below 🙂
Photographing the Coba Ruins
The Coba Ruins are a must see when visiting the Yucatan Peninsula because there is no telling how long they will be open to the public. As it stands they are one of the few pyramids in the world that you can climb — ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP.
The Coba Ruins are south of Cancun and not too far from the ruins of Tulum — a popular tourist destination.
When visiting the ruins be mindful of the time of day you are visiting. My buddy and I made the horrible mistake of visiting in the late afternoon. It’s literally when EVERYONE goes to visit
Here are some Basic tips to follow when visiting:
- Rent a bike — The route to the ruins is about 1.5 miles one way. It’s a beautiful walk but so much more magical if you’re riding a bike.
- Get the Sunset Pass: It’s the best time to visit and the crowds are non-existent. There will be you the ruins and if you’re lucky a setting sun as you stand atop the pyramid
- Practice shooting Hand-Held: They don’t allow tripods at the ruins so make sure you practice your hand-held photography skills:
- Learn the basics of shooting in manual by visiting my digital photography guide !
- Shoot at a lower shutter and high-ISO to minimize camera shake
- Shoot at the lowest F stop possible when light turns to night
Coba, in my opinion was the highlight of my trip. It’s not THAT popular and allows you to immerse yourself in the ancient Mayan Culture like no other experience. Imagine standing atop the pyramid pyre where they sacrificed humans centuries ago… a spooky experience that won’t be available to the public for long.
Photographing Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is one of the World’s Wonders and should be on everyone’s itinerary.
Imagine a civilization so advanced that they created a pyramid to mark the changing of seasons, time of day and even what year it was. The Mayans were advanced beyond measure and created detailed maps of the Cosmos — one of the first civilizations to do so.
Visiting Chichen Itza can be an overwhelming experience if it’s your first time.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what you should do to save time, money and get the best photographs:
- Visit in the early to late afternoon and try to stick around as long as possible before they kick you out before sunset.
- Try to find the best angles to shoot the main pyramid (I found there were certain vantage points with very few people).
- If possible watch the light show at night. It’s a mesmerizing experience and allows you to see Chichen Itza under a starry sky.
There are two compositions that I feel were “money shots” for my trip.
Because it’s almost impossible to get a sunset shot of the pyramid I got a little creative and focused on getting a shot of a sunburst kissing the pyramid.
There a few important things to be mindful of when shooting starbursts:
- Make sure you have the right lens: Certain lenses like the Canon 16-35 f2.8 are amazing at capturing sunbursts — its mainly because of how the aperture blades are positioned
- Shoot at a higher F stop: letting less light into the lens is the way to go when shooting sunbursts
- Reduce your shutter speed & ISO : Basically let as little light in as possible without diminishing the natural colors of the foreground.
Hand-Held Astro Photography
I was always under the impression that you had to shoot with a tripod to capture starry night scenes. However, after visiting Chichen Itza at night I know better. Bottom line is: they don’t let you bring tripods into any of the historical sites.
This forced me to get crafty and put my photography knowledge to use.
Luckily, I had purchased a Sony a7iii right before my trip — and it’s the LOW LIGHT KING.
Basically if you have a bit of moonlight, a steady hand and crank up your ISO you can capture some amazing night shots without the use of a tripod.
Cenotes of Mexico
I’ll admit the only reason I visited Mexico was because I saw an amazing photograph by my buddy Tim Sykes — it looks like something out of Star Wars!
Imagine this — you’re walking through a jungly terrain in the middle of Mexico and all of a sudden you see a well with a ladder poking it’s head out.
You’re told to take the ladder down and watch your step.
It’s dark and cold and you can hear the squeaking of bats — Sounds like something out of Gotham Right?
As you’re eyes adjust to the dark you witness THIS (Below)
There are countless cenotes dotting the Yucatan landscape and all were caused by the the aforementioned asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.
Most cenotes allow you to bring your tripod in — so make sure you carry it along on your trip. I had countless opportunities to visit dozens of cenotes but stuck to one — Cenote Suytun.
Here’s what to bring on your Cenote Adventure:
- Swimming gear — you’ll likely want to swim in these pristine waters
- A Tripod: It’s pretty dark in these caves so having a tripod can allow you to steady your shot and expose for greatness!
- A flashlight: Watch your step when spelunking down these cenotes. A flashlight can save you from a mean fall.
Photography of Tulum
I’ll be honest — I didn’t get to spend much time in Tulum. I’ll definitely explore Tulum further on my next trip.
I’ll keep it short and sweet here: Visit the Tulum Ruins. The rocky coastline and amazing fortifications are a thing of beauty.
You may also want to put the camera away and take in the Zen when visiting Tulum — It’s a meditative traveling oasis that boasts some of the most luxurious hotels in the world.
The most important advice I can give you when visiting the Yucatan on your Mexico photography adventure is take it easy and be safe. No photograph is worth your life so stay away from unmarked trails, the inner city of Playa del Carmen and any other situation that makes you uncomfortable.
Respect the landscape and it will respect you.