Your Ultimate Two Week Road Trip in Mexico's Yucatan
Blame it on its otherworldly cenotes, its turquoise-toned waters that stretch for miles or its melt-in-your-mouth Cochinita Pibil-filled tacos. I could go on, but I’ll let you experience the magic for yourself. Whatever your reasons for visiting Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, make sure you “do” it right and hire or rent a car so you can explore this beautiful region from top to bottom. It’s surprisingly affordable (even on a backpacker’s budget) and makes getting around - and discovering local gems - so much easier. Plus, let’s not forget the countless opportunities you’ll have to put the music on blast and belt out your favourite tunes with your travel besties. All with your hair blowing in the sticky, salty wind. You can hire your car in advance or just pick one up at the Cancun airport when you land. Either way, you’re destined for one hell of a ride. (Like what I did there?)
So, here you have it. My perfect two-week itinerary for an epic road trip through Mexico’s beautiful Yucatan:
Day 1 - Cancun arrival: Fly into Cancun, the Yucatan’s main airport. Then - I’m not going to beat around the bush here - skip it. I know some say there are treasures to be found in Cancun. And I’m sure there are. But why bother when you can head straight to quieter, more beautiful spots in the region? Ones with significantly more charm. So yea. Skip it. Arrive early, pick up your rental car and hit the wide open road. Or arrive late, crash early and head out first thing the next morning.
Day 2-5 - Tulum (via Akumal): There are lots of ways to go about exploring the Yucatan, but I’d recommend starting from the bottom and slowly looping your way back to Cancun for your return flight. I headed direct to Tulum, where I was able to get my bearings and switch into relaxation mode straight away. But to break up the drive, and squeeze in an extra bit of adventure, make a pitstop in Akumal, a small town found along the way. Here, you can bring your snorkel gear (it’s a bit of a rip-off to rent it, honestly) and swim with turtles right off the beach. Just don’t get seduced by the pricey tours. Find a quiet pocket of water instead. I’ve read that there are increasing restrictions on tourists, so unfortunately you may arrive and find you’re out of luck, but if you’re not in a rush it’s worth taking the chance to swim with these beautiful creatures. Just remember to respect their space and never touch them directly. And keep on the lookout for stingrays, which can be found in these waters too.
Once you’ve fully bonded with your turtle friends, head to the Riviera Maya’s uber-trendy coastal town, Tulum, said to have it all: Ancient Mayan temples! Baby-blue waters! Killer cuisine! And yes, all of those things are true. But with these has also come explosive tourism. So what I can only imagine were once sublimely quiet streets are now dusty roads packed with lorries carrying materials to build yet another overpriced beach resort. I’ll admit, this initially put me off Tulum. But, I gave it a chance and ended up really enjoying it. I’d still recommend making it your travel base for a few days to soak in its “posh hippie” vibes, test out the delicious restaurants that have cropped up all over town and explore some of the natural beauty nearby. Especially the cenotes - almost mystic limestone sinkholes that the Mayans believed were designed by the gods. But I also suggest booking an AirBnB, so that when you can no longer take the hustle and bustle of the town centre (two centres in fact, Old and New Tulum are connected via one long road), you can escape to your own little hideaway.
Don’t miss: the Tulum Ruins, the Gran Cenote (it’s touristy but worth it, just go early doors), some of the smaller local cenotes like Car Wash (yes, it’s actually called Car Wash), having dinner at Hartwood (which some even claim is what put Tulum on the map), stuffing yourself with tacos from Taqueria Honorio, getting your coffee fix at Kibok and going for happy hour drinks at Mezzanine.
Day 5-8 - Valladolid, Chichen Itza and some more cenotes: Next, head inland to Valladolid for a different experience of the Yucatan altogether. Here, things go very quiet and that arid air (I love a bit of alliteration) hits hard. But this was probably the part of the Yucatan road trip I enjoyed most. Valladolid, despite being the second largest city in the region, still feels like a sleepy town. The city centre is tiny and doused in colour, thanks to the vibrantly painted homes that surround its main square. Every night, the local government also proudly puts on a light show that showcases the city’s rich history and livens up the streets. Valladolid’s small high street is also surprisingly sophisticated, especially since you’re bound to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. In fact, Valladolid houses Coqui Coqui’s headquarters, the brilliant Mexican perfumery I’ve raved about before.
Make Valladolid your base for a few days. Then take your rental car and hit up all the nearby tourist hotspots. Start with Chichen Itza, the most famous of the Mayan ruins in the region. Head there before the crowds do, and then spend your afternoon cenote-hopping. You’ll be dripping in sweat after your walk around the ruins, so they’ll be the perfect way to cool down. (Though a coconut ice cream or two can help too.) Head to X’kekén and Samula (which are part of one park) and Ik Kil. Or discover some lesser-known cenotes on your own. Every single cenote has its own cool vibe, so no matter which one you choose, you’re in for treat.
Don’t miss: a stay at La Flor Casa Boutique hotel, a traditional Temazcal Mayan spa (this is one of the cheapest places in the region to experience one), breakfast at Yerbabuena del Sisal, strolling Valladolid’s high street and popping into both the Coqui Coqui hotel and perfumery.
Day 9: Rio Largartos and those famous Las Coloradas pink lakes: Once you’ve had your fill of cenotes, head North East to Rio Largartos. You’ll only need one night (the area’s very quiet and the town a bit derelict) but go for the pink lake alone. Here, your rental car will come most helpful, because tracking down a free spot at this famous Mexican pink lagoon ain’t easy. Base yourself in Rio Lagartos town for one night (hotels are cheap) and then head to the pink waters early. (Fun fact: it’s the high salt concentration levels that give the lake its beautiful pink tones. ) As mentioned, just be wary of all the random men purporting to work for the salt plant who will try to charge you an entrance fee just to take a few snaps. We circled round a few times, but eventually managed to find a harassment-free zone to take as many photos as we pleased.
If you’ve got a day to spare, you can also take a boat tour through the Biosphere Reserve, which can be booked in town. You can spot countless bird species, flamingos and even crocodiles. I only skipped this because its very reminiscent of where I grew up in the Florida. But if you’ve never experienced a place like this before, definitely give this a go.
Days 10-14 - Holbox island: I’m harped on about Holbox in two blog posts already - my love letter to this idyllic Mexican isle and my top foodie recommendations on the island - so I’ll keep it brief here. What I will say is Holbox is the perfect final stop to your whirlwind Yucatan tour. Here, you can park or discard your car, grab a 20-minute direct ferry to the island and never get up from your hammock again. Unless you want to order another margarita. Or are ready to grab your next book. This is the place to savour the last moments of holiday bliss.
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