The Yucatan peninsula has incredibly a lot to offer: mysterious Maya ruins, colorful colonial cities, turquoise blue cenotes and amazing paradise beaches. After driving around the peninsula with our rental car for two weeks and a half, let me share the must do’s, most memorable stops and tips to prepare the ultimate itinerary for your Yucatan roadtrip.
Day #1: arrival in Cancun (23/09)
We arrived in the early evening in Cancun and drove our rental car from Cancún airport to Tulum. Tulum is two hours driving from the airport and turned out to be the perfect first stop on our road trip! As it was my birthday that day, I couldn’t be happier arriving at our Tulum hotel and have dinner with our toes in the sand.
Day #2-4: Tulum (24-26/09)
Tulum’s history dates back to Mayan centuries but lately it is a very hyped up beachfront town. For us, Tulum beach has proven to be a perfect spot to get used to the new time zone and r-e-l-a-x. It is home to numerous boutique hotels, beach clubs and yoga retreats to try out. However, it still maintains a small town feel with a vibe of its own. You have to feel it! I would recommend doing it now, since chances are high that Tulum will only get crowdier in the future. It is also likely to get even more expensive while it was definitely the most expensive stop during our trip.
What to do:
#1: Tulum cenotes
In Tulum you’re really close to one of the peninsula’s most well-known cenotes. These cenotes are underground caves / natural sinkholes with crystal clear (cold!) water and were definitely one of my favorite things to do around Mexico. In the Tulum region, my favorite definitely was Gran Cenote.
#2: Tulum ruins
Close to the hotel zone, Tulum is also home to the only Maya ruins right by the ocean. Tulum was one of the few enclosed cities built by the Mayas. Although it is a rather small site, the cliffside views of Zona Arqueológica de Tulum are really amazing. Consider it as a great warmup for other Maya ruins in the Yucatan area.
#3: Hotel zone walk
In Tulum you should definitely take a walk / do a bike ride (it is quite a walk) along the hotel zone. Most hotels are boho-chic boutique to eco hotels. You are not likely to find any all inclusive resorts and that’s also what makes it feel really authentic. Furthermore, the hotel zone is full of pretty boutiques, cute little bars and signs such as the famous ‘Follow that dream’ sign that is all over Instagram. Other famous insta spots are the little Matcha Mama swings and Casa Malca (Pablo Escobar’s old house).
#4: Beach walk
Furthermore, you can walk along the shore and stumble upon great seaside bars, hammocks and swinging chairs alike. The ones of Coco Tulum are definitely worth a try! Please note that you can’t just visit all resorts since most of them charge a resort fee. However, if you are having a drink or food they will gladly let you in 😉
#5: Bike ride to Tulum pueblo
In Tulum town you’ll find a great number of shops, eating places as well as other amenities like banks, grocery stores, etc. The most fun way to get around is by bike, as there is a really nice path from Tulum beach to Tulum Pueblo. Along the path there are numerous inspirational road signs. They are keeping you motivated and inspired along the way (e.g. ‘you are exactly where you need to be’). Most hotels are offering free bikes, so it might be something you want to check while booking your accommodation.
- Where to stay: If you are looking for the perfect glamping experience in a jungle oasis at Tulum beach, Habitas Tulum is your dream stay. We stayed here for four nights and were amazed by its incredible hospitality, bohemian design and amazing food. Read more about it in this article.
- Where to eat: MORO restaurant
- Recommended stay: 3-5 nights if you want a relaxed holiday
Day #5-7: Valladolid (27-29/09)
From Tulum beach it is less than 2 hours drive to Valladolid. On our way from Tulum, we made a stop at the Coba ruins and the next day we decided to get up early to visit Chichén Itzá. After all, Valladolid is a great base to visit Chichén Itzá and that is probably one of your main reasons to visit Yucatan! However, there is a lot more to the pretty town of Valladolid than you would think at first sight.
What to do:
#1: Visit Chichén Itzá
The world famous Chichén Itzá ruins are located about 50km outside Valladolid. As arriving early at Chichén Itzá is recommended, you will have some time to explore the site without too many tourists. We arrived at 9 AM and had the site mostly to ourselves. There is a walk to the Kukulcan pyramid but once you get there it is impossible to be disappointed. This place really has a special energy and it is more than worth the (substantial) entrance fee of 489 pesos per person.
#2: Visit Coba
Just 60km outside Tulum you will cross the Coba ruins, one of the only structures in the area you can still climb. It is definitely worth a stop, paying only around 180 pesos per person! The site is bigger than only the pyramid, but still the 120-step climb (almost 45m high) will give you a rewarding view on the Mayan jungle. If you are afraid of heights this is probably not for you, as the climb is quite steep with only a rope in the middle to hold on to. However, we all love a little challenge, right?
#3: Cenote Suytun
This Cenote is great stop on your way back from Chichén Itzá, and it is typically very quiet. The cenote is underground and if you’re lucky you will find it with a ray of light on the platform. We arrived late afternoon around 4 PM and found it like that. It made us really speechless. We were alone in the quiet and it was a great moment of calm in the middle of a busy day.
#4: Cenote Samula + Xe ken
On your way from Tulum to Mérida this is a nice cenote stop, especially since you get two for the price of one (125 pesos per person for both cenotes). Samula is great for swimming, with a wonderful light falling in. You could easily spend two hours there and as a little bonus you will be getting some free fish pedicure as well. 🙂
#5: Visit los Frailos and La Candelaria
Walking around Valladolid we stumbled upon the Parque de Barrio de la Candelaria, a little square that used to be the temple’s great atrium square. The Iglesia de la Candelaria is located across the street from the square. It is all very quiet, peaceful and charming at the same time.
From the center, Calzada de los Frailes is a nice walk as well. It is a lovely restored and picturesque street with shops and restaurants.
- Where to stay: If you are looking for a nice boutique hotel, I would recommend Le Muuch hotel. We stayed here for two nights.
- Where to eat:
- For lunch: Pythagoras
- For dinner: Marques, Conato 1910
- Recommended stay: 1-2 nights
Day #8-10: Mérida (30/09-02/10)
The next day, after visiting Chichén Itzá and the lovely town of Valladolid we continued our roadtrip to Mérida. Mérida, a two hour drive from Valladolid, is the capital and largest city in the Yucatan state. It is big and spread out and definitely has more of a big city feel than other cities in the area. It does not seem to be over-touristy either.
What do do:
#1: Walk around Mérida
Mérida is quite a big city to get lost in! For a nice walk throughout, stay around the area of Calle 60 in the heart of Mérida and Paseo de Montejo. Merida also has plenty of churches, parks and a great offer of bars and restaurants to recharge after such long walks.
#2: Ek Balam ruins
Ek Balam is an impressive old Mayan city with a massive acropolis as the main attraction. The ruins are well preserved, better than Coba, and climbing it is still allowed. It takes about 150 steps to reach the top viewpoint over the jungle (about 32m high). The view is really breathtaking, I personally even prefer this view over Coba’s. Please note that we visited Ek Balam on our way to Mérida but you should be willing to do a little detour for that as it is actually closer to Valladolid than to Mérida.
#3: “The Yellow City” Izamal
For a nice daytrip from Mérida you can go to Izamal, Mexico’s yellow painted town. It’s a charming and colorful colonial town as always, but maybe even more since it truly is all yellow. The main site is definitely the San Antonio de Padua convent with a nice courtyard (atrium) said to be the largest in the Americas. In the centre town you even have a few Maya ruins, however, some of them were closed for visitors at the time we were visiting.
#4: Flamingo spotting in Celestun
If you are rather looking for a city escape Celestun is your pick. Celestun is a sleepy fishing village at the beachside where you will only see a handful of people. There is not particularly a lot to do, except for a visit to the white-sand beach and the Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Celestun. The latter is a great spot for birdwatching, especially flamingo colonies, pelicans and cranes. We booked a boat tour on the spot for 350 pesos per person which seemed to be a fair price (high season you will pay a multiple of this). However, we were visiting outside flamingo season and only spotted a few flamingos during our tour. Best time to see flamingos in Celestun would be December-February. If traveling somewhere in April-October chances could be higher to spot flamingos in Rio Lagartos in the north.
- Where to eat:
- For lunch: la Chaya Maya
- For dinner: Rosa sur 32 grados (!)
- Recommended stay: 2-3 nights
Day #11-12: Campeche (03-04/10)
Having spent 3 days in Mérida we were ready to see yet another city, at the coast side this time. Out of all cities and towns we visited during our trip, Campeche was my absolute favourite. It is again a much smaller city, largely untouched by tourism and it is the most picturesque I have seen during our trip. It’s a fairytale town with beautiful pastel buildings on every block.
What do do:
#1: Explore Campeche downtown
Campeche is small and laidback but so lovely to explore, Calle 10 and the grand plaza being the top picks. There is also a great pedestrian area around Calle 59 where you will find most of Campeche’s bars and restaurants. Take your camera and go wild!
#2 Visit Uxmal ruins
On our way from Mérida to Campeche we decided to drive via Uxmal. It was a quite expensive visit where we paid 400+ pesos per person but I must admit it is quite an impressive archaeological site with its structures being in real good condition. There are still a lot of details and ornaments visible, a lot more than in Chichén Itzá. You’ll also find quite some sculptures and masks of rain god Chaac. The most memorable structures are definitely the Pyramid of the Magician you’ll see when entering the site, as well as the Governor’s Palace and the Grand Pyramid that you can climb.
#3 Walk the Malecon
Campeche’s beaches do not seem really appealing, at least not those close to downtown. If you are looking to wind down and to enjoy the sea breeze, don’t hesitate to walk the Malecon or the old walls of the city. It’s a well-deserved break from your roadlife.
#4 Visit the outlying forts
One of Campeche’s main attractions is its forts. Once an important port and trade center, forts were built around the 18th century to protect the city against pirate attacks from two nearby hills. We wanted to visit the fort of San Miguel and to see the sunset from its walls but unfortunately it was already closed way before the sun would set.
- Where to eat:
- For breakfast: both Luan and Café Sotavento are really nice picks, Luan being my absolute favourite
- For cocktails and town views: La casa vieja de rio
- For dinner: Bavit – one of the best steak we ate in Mexico
- Recommended stay: 2 nights, so that you have at least 2 mornings to wake in this beautiful little gem
Day #13-14: Bacalar (05-06/10)
Bacalar is a beautiful renowned spot in the riviera Maya known for its crystal clear water showing different shades of blue. It is a quiet and secluded place worth the drive, but will take you approximately 6-7 hours if you’re driving from Campeche to Bacalar like we were. Although roads in Mexico are good quality overall, in this area the Campeche Centenario – Lubna road to the 186 highway is covered with holes. Along the way you do not have any opportunity to stop or to fuel so make sure to stop on time. Not recommended!
What do do:
#1: Edzna ruins
On our way to Bacalar, we stopped at Edzna, probably the least crowded ruins we’ve visited. Edzna is cheap (60 pesos per person) but has a lot to offer and it definitely blew our mind since we didn’t really know what to expect. The main plaza surrounded by different temples is beautifully restored. The central Pyramid of the Five Floors, which you cannot climb, is quite impressive and unique. At the top for instance there is a row of columns instead of a platform. Furthermore, we learned that Edzna held a sophisticated system of channels to collect and distribute water from the rains to use in dry season.
#2: Kayak on the lake
The lake has a beautiful color palette that is constantly subject to change as the shades of blue depend on the light and the overall weather conditions. The best way to enjoy the lake is by renting a kayak and taking the time to go around and swim. I’d recommend staying at a lakefront hotel where you can normally rent the kayaks for free. 🙂
#3: Explore Bacalar town
Although Bacalar town is nothing compared to a hub like Tulum you’ll get close to that same vibe. Along the Avenida Costera you’ll find a few nice bars to enjoy the lake view. It surely is a nice place to enjoy the calm and enjoy some sunsets.
- Where to eat: Nixtamal and la Playita are nice places for a lakeside evening dinner
- Recommended stay: 2 nights, if you need a relaxing break
Day #15-18: Holbox (07-10/10)
After another long drive from Bacalar to Chiquila, almost 6 hours, and a ferry hopping experience we arrived at Isla Holbox. The ferry costs 150 pesos per person and parking your car costs 50 pesos a day.
Holbox is the ultimate sleepy island, perfect for the ultimate beach holiday in Mexico. There is not much to do at Holbox, but that is definitely part of the charm. Long beachwalks, tanning, renting a golf cart or bike are all optional. Holbox town is also good to spend a few hours, especially if you seek shelter in rainy season like we did! However, if you find a good hotel like we did, you might just want to stay there and never leave!
What to do:
#1: Bioluminiscentes bij HolboXtreme
Holbox Island is one of the few places on earth where the natural phenomenon of bioluminescence occurs. In a fully dark night sky bioluminescent plankton is visible in the seawater. It means that while you move through the water these organisms can produce light and glow in the dark! It really is a unique experience, as you will leave in the middle of the night (we left at 2AM) to see both a star-lit sky and the shimmering lights of the plankton. There are plenty of bioluminescence tours to be booked at Holbox, but they are only available in the days where there is almost no moonlight. We booked it via HolboXtreme but there are many other operators around the island.
#2: Holbox beach walk including hammocks and sunset
Holbox is known for its many hammocks and along the hotel strip you will find the famous over-the-water hammocks. Nothing spectaculair, but the connecting poles are spelling out Holbox and it is a fun way to relax in the water for a little while. Please note that there are two sets of hammocks close to one another, one of them belonging to a hotel.
#3: Holbox town
Holbox mostly is a quiet and spooky town, but it is nice to hang around the main square where there are a few bars and restaurants. Right next to the square there even is a well-equipped gym – El gym de Ali – where you can go training almost for free ;-). At night it is a little bit more lively to hang around and in surrounding streets there are some dinner options as well.
- Where to stay: HM Villa’s Palapas – especially for its incredible sky bar and villas
- Where to eat: Roots was a nice place for dinner, try the lobster pizza (!)
- Recommended stay: 2-3 nights, if you need a relaxing break
So far for our amazing roadtrip throughout Yucatan! I hope it can be inspiring to plan your next travel to Mexico. If you want to check our route here’s a detailed view: