The Ultimate Road Trip Through the Yucatán, Mexico

Take a cooling dip in Cenote Cristalino, Tulum
Take a cooling dip in Cenote Cristalino, Tulum | © WireStock / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Lauren Cocking
Northern England Writer2 September 2021

Road trips are the perfect intermediary between full-blown package holidays and run-of-the-mill backpacking. From the beaches of Cancun across to Chichen Itza and Merida, with yoga in Tulum and partying in Playa del Carmen – choose a road trip to suit you with our guide to the Yucatan Peninsula and the region’s must-visit spots.

Let us do the planning for you and book Culture Trip’s nine-day Yucatán Peninsula tour, with all the best highlights of the region showcased by our Local Insider.

Where to start

Flying into Cancún, which often has cheap fares, is the best way to kick off your Yucatán road trip. You can hire your vehicle there.

Explore Cancún

While there’s a tendency to write off Cancún as an over-commercialized resort destination, there are plenty of beautiful beaches in the area. Soak up the sun on Playa Delfines and explore the under-rated center of town. If your schedule can stretch to it, take the ferry across to nearby Isla Mujeres and check out Playa Norte as early as you can in the morning to appreciate the serenity before most tourists arrive, and then pay a visit to the intriguing floating bottle island of Joysxee.

Playa Norte is a popular beach in the north of Isla Mujeres | © mauritius images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

After you’ve spent time in Cancún, you’ll want to head north up the coast, with possible stop-offs at the Yum Balam Nature Reserve, home to jungle cats and whale sharks, before popping over to Isla Holbox. After this, you’ll be ready to cross from Quintana Roo into Yucatán, sticking to the coast and heading for Río Lagartos, a small fishing village 30 minutes from the pink lakes of Las Coloradas. It’s worth making sure you have plenty of cash, as there are no ATMs in the village and cards are rarely accepted.

Go further into Yucatán

Once you’ve got your Instagram-friendly fill of this northernmost part of the Yucatán Peninsula, head slightly further inland, down to the small pueblo mágico of Valladolid. Here you can take a cooling dip in cenotes, try out the Mayan treat marquesitas in the central square and relax. It’s also the ideal base for an exploration of the Chichen Itzá ruins, or a day trip to the yellow town Izamal.

There are thousands of cenotes in the Yucatán region | © Jorge Fernandez / Alamy Stock Photo

After you’ve explored in and around the state of Yucatán, head towards the state capital, Mérida. This quaint, but often oppressively hot, city is well worth a few days of your time, as there are plenty of fascinating museums to explore and a wealth of architecturally interesting spots, plus a day trip to the Uxmal ruins. We recommend enjoying a calming cup of tea at the out-of-the-way El Hoyo: Casa de Té, before taking in the historic center on foot or reading a book in the quirky lovers’ chairs. Every Friday night on Calle 60 you can catch a re-enactment of the Mesoamerican ball game. You should also explore each and every market you see, and try some of the Yucatán Peninsula’s wonderful cuisine – especially panuchos and cochinita pibil.

Campeche

Once you tire of Mérida (which might take a while), it’s time to head down into Campeche. However, it’s worth mentioning that if you want to see some more Yucatán coastline before you leave, the sleepy town of Progreso is a few hours’ drive from Mérida and could be slotted in before Campeche. The first port of call should be Celestún, where you can see breath-taking numbers of flamingos and take a mangrove boat ride. From there, head to the walled city of Campeche, check out the fortifications and stroll along the seafront. It’s a beautiful, relaxing spot full of tranquil, pastel-painted streets that will take your breath away.

Campeche is a Unesco World Heritage-listed fortified city | © Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

Back to Quintana Roo

After Campeche city, you’ll have around a six-hour drive to Chetumal, back in Quintana Roo. It’s right on the border with Belize, so you could ditch the car for a few days and explore the only country in Latin America that has English as its first language. If you’d prefer to stick to Mexico, explore the cafes, bars and museums of this small city for a few days before moving on to Bacalar. Famed for its seven-toned lake, Bacalar has much more to offer, from pirate museums to sun-bleached houses and zip line adventure options. However you spend your time, the lake is unmissable.

Bacalar is famed for its seven-toned lake | © Benedicte Desrus / Alamy Stock Photo

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