For some, 18 hours on the road sounds like a nightmare, and for some, the ultimate roadtrip. That’s just about how long it will take you get from Mexico‘s capital to its most famous oceanside paradise – Cancun. If you have to time and stamina for an extended drive, there are dozens of wonderful towns, sights and adventures along the way. Here’s what we suggest for getting a good taste of what southern coastal Mexico has to offer.
1st stop: Cordoba, Veracruz
Only three and half hours from Mexico City, Cordoba makes a perfect midday pit stop for some colonial ambiance and mountain vistas. While simply strolling around the plaza and looking at some of the town’s stunning architecture might be enough for some visitors, it’s also worth a trip to visit the Museo de la Ciudad for their archeological artifacts, as well as the Museo del Cafe where you can learn all about the cultivation and processing of coffee in this area. If you have time, take the short drive out to see the ex-Hacienda of Toxpan, a crumbling and beautiful old sugar plantation – formerly one of the area’s most important.
2nd stop: Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz
If you want to take a detour from your route you can head out to the port of Veracruz for a few days (with great food, music and a heavily tropical vibe), but if you want to stick to the plan, try out Coatzacoalcos as your next stop. This will be your first glance of the ocean and what a sight! Make sure to eat some local fare at one of the many seaside restaurants like La Flor del Istmo. There are a couple of notable hotels in town if you decide to stay for the night: Hotel Terranova and Hotel Enríquez being two of them. Accommodation aside, be sure to explore by taking the Paseo de las Escolleras, a 1 km (0.6 mile) walk out onto a large cement jetty that separates the Coatzacoalas river and the ocean, or stroll along the several kilometers-long malecón with its sea vistas and lots of shops, bars and restaurants.
3rd stop: La Venta archeological site
Don’t miss the munomental Olmec heads at the La Venta archeological site on the road between Coatzacoalas and Villahermosa. This site was one of the most important Olmec indian cities during the height of their era 900 to 400AD. Here you can visit the their ‘great pyramid’ and see many of their famous rock sculptures up close. The Olmec Indians were one of the most influential tribes of pre-Colombian Mexico, and are key to understanding much of the country’s history.
4th stop: Villahermosa, Tabasco
Tabasco’s capital city is a bustling metropolitan of over 800,000 people. A center of industry and business, it’s considered one of the south’s most important cities. As a big city there is plenty of good nightlife, as well as lots to explore – not to mention a walk along the riverfront that will loosen up those stiff traveling legs of yours. The city is surrounded by nature and if you want to hike, swim, and explore, Villahermosa makes a great base. Also novel is the Ruta de Cacao, a local trip that takes you out to see various chocolate plantations and local villages to learn more about the ‘food of the gods.’
5th stop: la Isla del Carmen
Spend a day relaxing on the Gulf of Mexico on the Isla del Carmen which sits between the Laguna de Terminos and the gold coast. Tours are available to tool around the Laguna, which is a government-protected natural reserve – as the country’s largest estuary, it’s home to many marine animals. Some of the Isla’s nicer beaches include Bahamitas, Tortugueros, Puerto Real, and Punta San Julián, while taking an hour or so to roam around Ciudad de Carmen’s downtown also reaps dividends – if you’re in search of splendid isolation, consider a trip out to Isla Aguada, with even more isolated beaches on this strip of islands.
Intermission: the coastal highway
After Isla del Carmen and Isla Aguada, you will have about 237 km (147 miles) of coastal highway to enjoy until you reach the town of Haltunchén and start to go inland towards Campeche. Just ripe for a picnic, the highway provides lots of photo opportunities, so make sure you stop along the way and enjoy the view.
6th stop: Campeche
Campeche, Mexico’s walled city (to protect it from pirates), is one of those beautiful colonial gems, but is suprisingly not overly touristy. Its isolated location and low-key style doesn’t put in on many tourist radars, but it’s a great place to spend the day or stay overnight and eat at some of the great local restaurants including la Casa Vieja or the Portales de San Martin where you will find lots of small, local places to eat. Take time to stroll along the malecón, visit the nearby Ednzá ruins and walk through some of the bastions, part of the city’s original walls.
7th stop: Parque Natural Petenes
On your way out of town you might want to stop at the Parque Natural Petenes, 300,000 hectares of wetlands lauded for their incredible range of aquatic bird species and other wildlife: pelicans, flamingos, jaguars and monkeys among them. There are lots of local companies that offer boat tours, kayaking trips, birdwatching adventures and sport fishing for visitors.
8th stop: Merida
Merida has a rich and fascinating history as a pre-Hispanic cultural center and the home of various waves of immigrants coming into Mexico. The town is a sultry place, with lots of beautiful architecture and good food. Home of the hammock, it’s a great place to put one up and enjoy an afternoon nap. Take time to walk through the brightly painted houses that decorate the city center, visit the Musuem of Modern Art for a selection from Yucatecan artists and most definitely eat some local, Yucatecan cuisine. Head to the Lucas de Galvéz market for a taste of everything and an incredible local experience.
9th stop: Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is an obligatory stop on any tour through the Yucatan. This archeological site is one of the most important Mayan pre-colombian sites in the country and is set amid the jungles and wildlife of the Yucatan peninsula which gives it that extra exotic flavor. The vendors are incessantly everywhere and the weather is likely to be HOT, but the Mayan ball court and the El Castillo pyramid are two thing you don’t want to miss. From here Cancun is a short three and a half hour drive, so come for the morning and you’ll be beachside by sundown!