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The Ultimate Yucatan Road Trip Itinerary

In this ultimate Yucatan Road Trip Itinerary we will go over everything you need to know to plan a road trip around the Yucatan Peninsula, including tips for renting a car in Mexico and secrets on how to avoid the crowds!



CONTENTS




 


Road Trip vs ADO Bus


We never intended to road trip Yucatan, in fact, when we landed at Cancún Airport, we went straight to the ADO bus stand to buy tickets to Mérida, our first stop on our itinerary through eastern Mexico.


However, when we realised we would have to change buses in downtown Cancún, we decided to sneak back into the airport (literally!) and see what the car rental stalls had to offer.


With some quick mental maths, we figured our 2 weeks of travel around the Yucatan peninsula worked out to be much more cost-effective with a car than taking ADO buses everywhere, and much more straight-forward than taking Colectivos (shared taxis) - especially when considering we had big heavy backpacks.



I Dream of Mangoes entering a cave in Mexico
Santa Barbara Cenotes

 


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Advice for Renting a Car in Mexico


We found that there was no need to book a rental car ahead of time. The agents working the car rental stalls at Cancún Airport all compete for your business, and they do allow for some negotiation.


Get the fullest insurance possible, or as they call it: bumper-to-bumper. Driving in Mexico is sketchy, even more so than the clown-like motor brigades of the great Indian cities. It's likely your car will be damaged, as ours was when someone overtook us while we were overtaking (yes!) and knocked our bumper off.


We paid 7000 pesos (£320) for 14 days of car rental - bumper-to-bumper insurance, and one full tank of gas. Not bad, and even better when splitting the cost between a group, if you're travelling with mates.


I would avoid driving at night - mainly because of the poorly lit roads, but also just to be cautious in a criminal sense. Even though Yucatan is safer than much of Mexico, there are gangs about, which are (in most cases) kept at bay by the huge military presence in places like Cancún, Tulum, and Mérida.


The police aren't always your friends, especially if you're Mexican. You may get pulled over, you may be asked for a bribe. Don't pay it, and don't give them any reason to 'fine' you. Always wear a seatbelt (duh), and have your passport on you, as well as your driver's licence, and international driving permit if you need one.


We got pulled over once by the military, just coming into Tulum. Our car didn't have plates, just a sticker from the rental company explaining why. They checked our documents and let us move on quickly with no drama.



Yellow archways and wide street in Mérida, Mexico
A market in Mérida

 

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About Yucatan


Yucatan is the most touristic part of Mexico - and many aspects of it have been so Americanised (USA) that you have to remind yourself you're actually in Mexico.


It's obvious why it's so popular, as the beaches along the Maya Riviera are quite breathtaking*, and the ruins, waterfalls and cenotes (pronounced cenote-ees) are all worthy of any influencer insta-reel.


*Not applicable in the months of May-September, where the shallow seas overflow with toxic red seaweed called Sargassum that stinks, and you can't go to the beach at all.


That being said, I found that in some towns spiritual materialism has literally sucked the soul right out of the place (I am looking at you Tulum). Every single aspect has been monetised, the coastline has been chunked up into resorts, and in Tulum you can't even see the sea unless you pay to enter the resort, you pay to park there, and you PAY TO DRIVE DOWN THE ROAD THE RESORT IS ON. It's depressing.


Fear not, as despite all of this, there are parts of Yucatan that have not lost their local feel - and there are ways of visiting the cultural highlights without drowning in the crowds of stag parties and wannabe hippies.



 


The Ultimate Yucatan Road Trip Itinerary


Our Itinerary Through Yucatan


Cancún ~ 1 hour


Valladolid ~ 3 days


Mérida ~ 5 days


Tulum (as a base only, Tulum is horrible) ~ 6 days



 

Not sure what to pack for your trip to Mexico? Check out the I Dream of Mangoes article:



 


CANCUN (1 hour)


The first stop on our Yucatan road trip involved arriving by air in Cancún. We came from Oaxaca de Juárez, another city in Mexico, and definitely our fave. Check out my city guide for Oaxaca here!


After renting a car, we headed off to Valladolid, setting our Google map directions to avoid tolls. Hello and Goodbye Cancún, you hold no interest for us.


Driving time Cancún to Valladolid: 3 Hours



 

VALLADOLID (3 Days)


Valladolid was our first official stop on our Yucatan road trip itinerary, and it is a pueblo màgico, which is a town in Mexico deemed to provide a special experience.


A lot of people tend to come to Valladolid as part of a day trip, but having heard it was still a 'local's city', unlike many other parts of Yucatan, we chose to stay for a few nights to come slightly off the beaten path.


By George it was HOT. Long gone are the altitude-induced breezes of Oaxaca. So making sure we were at our guesthouse or in a cafe with AC in the middle of the day, here are some of the things to do in and around Valladolid.



Things to Do in and Around Valladolid



An absolute must for a first day in a new city, you can check the timings online and just rock up. During the tour, we visited the main church, the town hall, cenote Zaci, and the food market. It sounds quite drab but actually, the guide was full of useful information about the town and didn't try to sell us anything. A great way to get to know Valladolid.


Duration - 90 minutes
Price - 100 Pesos (tip)
More Info - HERE



This was our favourite thing to do in Valladolid. We were offered a private tour of the grounds and learnt so much about bees, followed by a superb honey tasting. A beautiful place with an excellent value experience, and now I want to be a beekeeper, so my life course is eternally altered!


Duration - 2 hours
Price - 120 pesos including a tour, a drink, and a honey tasting.
More Info - HERE


A man in a blue t-shirt against a yellow backdrop with honey products
Joe enjoying the honey tasting

3. Cenote Zaci


This is one of the most affordable cenotes in Yucatan and easily reached on foot as it's right in the middle of the town! if you'd like to go for a dip make sure you get there when it opens (at 8 am) to avoid the crowds. Like all of the cenotes in Yucatan, by midday, they are like public swimming pools, so BE THE FIRST ONES THERE!


Duration - 2 hours
Price - 30 pesos


Cenote Zaci in the centre of Valladolid
Cenote Zaci in the centre of Valladolid


As one of the new 7 wonders of the world, be prepared to share Chichén Itzá with everyone (have you got the impression I don't like crowds?) If you arrive early enough, you may be able to enjoy it before the swarms descend. It's impressive, don't get me wrong, but other ruins are nice to look at and are less busy and much cheaper.


Chichén Itzá is a 45-minute drive from Valladolid, and it opens at 8 am, so I can't stress this enough, get there when it opens. A lot of people visit Chichén Itzá as part of a day trip so by 11 am the place becomes like a theme park and it's really not worth going at all (IMO).


Duration - Half day
Price - 614 pesos
More Info - HERE


5. Ek' Balam


Located only 30 minutes from Valladolid, the often-overlooked sister of Chichén Itzá offers a lot more in terms of experience, and only sees a fraction of the number of visitors.


Unlike Chichén Itzá, you are allowed to climb and explore a lot of the site, including the Acropolis which is 32 metres high. Ek’ Balam still feels like it’s in the heart of the jungle and as part of the experience you can wander the 1.5km through the forest to cenote X'canche.


Duration - Half day
Price - 494 pesos


6. Río Lagartos


A little town at the end of a long road north, Río Lagartos sits on the shores of the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula. Here you will find a little settlement with less than 4,000 inhabitants, and a lot of cute flamingos if you time it right.


Río Lagartos always used to live off the fishing industry, but slowly it is turning into a tourist hotspot. But don’t worry, there are still only a handful of tourists to be found here, as most of them flock to Isla Holbox, which has deliberately been left off of this itinerary.


Once you arrive you can haggle with the boat drivers to do a tour of the reserve, or just sit and enjoy the view.


Duration - All day
Price - Depends


7. Calzada de los Frailes


Some may say this is the prettiest street in all of Mexico. Whilst I think that's jumping the gun a bit, Calzada de los Frailes is still a great spot to have a wander, and maybe pop into one of the many cute cafes. We liked Cafe ConKafecito, they had AC (important) and nice cakes.


Duration - 30 Mins
Price - Free


 


Where to Stay in Valladolid


As usual, I put my faith in booking.com for finding accommodation, and we had a budget in Mexico of £10 per night (for a couple). While this gives you lots of options in Asia, this is pretty tight for Latin America. We ended up staying at Casa Chi, a basic guesthouse run by a lovely guy (Chi), who was there to help us with everything.


Driving time Valladolid to Mérida: 2 Hours



 


MERIDA (5 Days)


I had heard a lot about Mérida before going. Several travel bloggers that I follow use Mérida as their home base, which is saying something, and the one and only Massimo Bottura has also opened a community kitchen there, which sadly we didn't get a chance to visit.


Again, it was HOT, but the city has a lot to offer, and it was our favourite place in Yucatan that we visited, also making a great base for day trips to the less-travelled half of the peninsula. So here are some things to keep you busy in and around Mérida...



Things to Do In and Around Mérida


1. Santa Barbara Cenotes


These cenotes were great! We received a tip from some fellow travellers at our hostel to visit this group of three cenotes, about a 30-minute drive from Mérida. We arrived the second they opened, and yes, we were the only ones there for about two hours.


You have the choice of bike or horse to get around - PLEASE CHOOSE BIKES, the ponies looked skinny and overworked and the distance between the cenotes really isn't that far.


The first two cenotes are enclosed and are far more enjoyable to swim in. Whilst the third one is the most picturesque, as it's an open-top cenote, the birds just love to shit all over you.


For the cenotes, you're going to want to get yourself some of these water shoes! They're ideal for slippery surfaces and stop anything nasty from entering under your toenails.


Duration - Half Day
Open- 9am - 4pm everyday
Price - 250 pesos


I Dream of Mangoes at Santa Barbara Cenotes
Narrowly avoiding being shat on in Santa Barbara Cenotes

2. Celestún


We loved it here! Nestled on the cusp of the neighbouring state of Campeche, it took about 1.5 hours to drive from Mérida, and once you get out of the city the journey is really picturesque.


There are flamingoes here too, and you'll be approached to pay for a boat ride to find them. We opted to spend our time on the beautiful white sand beach, where we found free parking and abandoned cabanas to take shade under.


Being low season when we visited (May) the beach huts were just skeletons, so make sure if you visit at this time to bring your own refreshments and enjoy the warm shallow crystal-clear waters of Celestún for nothing.


Duration - All day
Price - Free


Celestún beach
Celestún beach



We had such a fun night at La Negrita; a bustling local cantina with cheap beers, giant cocktails and live music. We went on a Sunday and the place was packed out... but well worth the 30 minute queue for a table. Such a lively joint! And better still, while we were buying drinks the waiters continually brought us plates of food for free.


Duration - 3 Hours
Price - Local beer = 50 pesos each
More Info - HERE


A busy cantina with live music in Mexico
La Negrita Mérida

4. Sunday Market


Every Sunday the main square in Mérida gets packed out with food and trinket stalls. For several years now, this Sunday market has been established in the streets of the centre turning the whole quadrant into a pedestrian party.


Cultural and musical shows are held in the main square, on Calle 60 from the Plaza to Santa Lucia Park.


Duration - 2 hours in the morning
Price - Free

 


Where to Stay in Mérida


We stayed at a brand new hostel called Casa Encuentro De Joaquin Garcia H which was fantastic! They are a little out of the way but they provide free push bikes for us to use whenever.


We booked this on Hostelworld for £7 per night for a dorm bed.


Driving time Mérida to Tulum: 4 Hours



 


TULUM (6 Days - as a base only)


I spent a long time researching where to stay along the Maya Rivera, and in the end, Tulum seemed to be the best place to USE AS A BASE.


I'll start by saying nice things.


The design of the boutique hotels and restaurants, with their minimalist style and use of wood, plants, and lights is quite stunning. The 'Tulum aesthetic' as it is called is actually beautiful.


There is also a great selection of restaurants - and the beaches would have been dreamy if we had visited outside the smelly seaweed season.


That's where I'll stop.


Tulum is close to a lot of nice stuff - but the town itself is the most commercial, soul-less building site I have ever been to, full of overpriced resorts, life coaches, and entitled hipsters.


We could not wait to leave, so feel free to swap out this last destination with somewhere else on the Maya Riviera. Either way - make sure you're close to all of these fantastic activities:



Things to Do In and Around Tulum


1. Snorkelling in Akumal Cove


It's mandatory to go with a guide, now that Akumal Cove has been designated a 'Turtle's Zone'. We booked with Akumal Dive, but there are plenty of other options.


Distance from Tulum: 30 minutes by car
Duration: 45 minutes
Price: 700 Pesos


2. Chill in hotel IKAL


We were recommended Hotel IKAL by some fellow travellers, as a nice setting to spend a day chilling. To be fair they own a nice chunk of the beach, and they have perhaps the most beautiful yoga shala I have ever seen, right by the water.


However, this is a prime example of monetising every aspect of an experience, to the point where you choke the joy out of it. Don't get me wrong, even though we're budget travellers we are happy to pay for experiences and people's time for sure. But...


You have to pay to drive down the road of the hotel as it's now a one-way system that is connected to the entrance of Tulum ruins, even if you're not visiting the ruins.


You then have a minimum spend to park - and you should show your receipt to the parking attendant (this seemed fair), oh, but then you pay extra to sit on comfier chairs - or extra to move to the be near the pool. To finish, the pushy waiters will hover around for their recommended tip of 25%... being sure to point to the figure, just in case you didn't see.


(For transparency, we tipped 10%, because everything was overpriced, we only had beers and tacos, and the waiter was annoying.)


Duration: 4 Hours
Price: Price: 90 pesos to drive there, plus 400 pesos minimum spend


The beach bar at hotel IKAL
The beach bar at hotel IKAL

3. Coba Ruins


These were our favourite ruins and one of the best things we did on our Yucatan road trip itinerary - and yes, we arrived first, and yes, we were the only ones there for a few hours (are you sick of me saying this yet?)


A lovely place to walk around for a few hours, where there are forest trails and information posts, or you can hire a guide for more details.


Distance from Tulum: 45 minutes
Opening times: 8am - 5pm
Price: 75 pesos per person (+500 pesos for a guide)


Joe at Coba ruins
Joe at Coba ruins


4. Cenote Angelita


A very unique cenote as it's half salt/half fresh, you can dive or snorkel, or just splash about in a very cool underground cave.


Distance from Tulum: 20 mins by car
Opening times: 8am - 5pm
Price: 100 pesos to swim, 300 pesos to dive


5. Laguna de kaan luum


THIS WAS AMAZING.


After a ten-minute walk through the jungle, the trees clear into a beautiful freshwater lake that extends for what feels like forever.


Warm turquoise water, tropical birds, rope swings, and canoes. We arrived there the minute it opened with a handful of other keen beans, and spent the whole morning chilling in a lagoon that only dreams can manifest.


If you ever imagined paradise, Laguna de kann luum would come very close.


Distance from Tulum: 20 mins by car
Opening times: 9am - 4pm
Price: 300 pesos (and SO worth it)





6. Playa Paraiso


Once coined the best beach in the world, we couldn't visit Playa Paraiso because the sand was piled high with manky sargassum seaweed.



7. Playa del Carmen


Playa del Carmen was actually Tulum's biggest competitor when we were choosing a place to call base. It's another resort town with different restaurants and better yoga, so you decide.


Distance from Tulum: 1 hour


8. Cozumel Island


A snorkelling paradise with soft white sand and pretty corals, just get there before the cruise ships arrive.


Distance from Tulum: 3 hours
Price: Ferry for 250 pesos


10. Taqueria Honoria & El Camello Jr.


We loved these two local hole-in-the-wall restaurants and kept going back and back. The prices are low compared to the rest of Tulum, and the ceviche and guac is piled high!


Guacamole, prawn ceviche and tortilla chips
Guacamole, prawn ceviche and tortilla chips

 


Thank you for reading this guide on the ultimate Yucatan road trip itinerary!


Whilst Yucatan is the most touristic part of Mexico, it's not difficult to see why it's so popular, it just takes some inside knowledge to avoid the crowds.


In all honesty, I would not go back to Yucatan, as to me there are many more interesting places to visit in Mexico (and the world).


If you enjoyed the read, please consider subscribing to my blog, where I publish travel posts every 1-2 weeks, based on my current trip around the world.


If you're looking for more inspiration for Mexico, check out my Mexico City Guide here.


Happy Travels

xx



START PLANNING YOUR NEXT TRIP




 


Disclosure:
I Dream of Mangoes is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. That being said, I only link to products I use and love.

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