Chilli flakes being sprinkled on juicy pineapples, ice-cold margaritas on a balmy summer evening, local women flaunting brightly coloured huipiles (loose tunics) and flowers in their hair, sleepy towns with pastel coloured houses, vintage Volkswagen Beetles lining cobble stoned alleys, delicately-spiced food under sprawling trees on the roadside, beaches with jewelled waters, and crumbling Mayan ruins- I will NEVER forget my first road trip in Mexico.
It’s historically rich, culturally replete, and boasts of a teeming culinary scene but over and above everything else it’s seductive. From sultry Mexican evenings spent dancing in the neighbourhood cantina (pub) to sampling dozens of salsas at a street-side haunt as a bead of sweat trickles down the nape of your neck, there is something deeply sensual about life in Mexico.
Highlights of a road trip in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
- The glistening beaches of Playa Del Carmen and Cancun
- Bohemian alleyways of Tulum
- Flamingoes and coloured lagoons at Rio Lagartos National Park
- The bustling town of Merida with pastel-coloured houses and vintage cars
- The gorgeous Colonial town of Izamal, lined with chrome-yellow houses. It’s jokingly referred to as ‘Instagram town’ – hard to take a bad photo here.
- Offbeat Mayan Ruins of Uxmal
- The iconic ruins of Chichen Itza (not our favourite part!)
- Countryside haciendas, laden with history
- Hundreds of famous and hidden cenotes, perfect for snorkelling, diving or just cooling off after a long day of sightseeing.
- THE food (deserves a separate article of its own)
Tips for renting a car in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
Renting a car is easy because there are dozens of rental companies at Cancun International Airport. However the best deals are usually online, so make sure you book in advance. Cancun is quite a popular destination, so there are always loads of offers and special seasonal discounts. It’s best to check a price comparison website, that collates rental rates from various providers, before booking a car. We compared prices on EconomyBookings.com and got a great deal on a sedan. Rental rates were £25/day with basic insurance included.
Something to keep in mind while renting a car in Mexico: most companies try to coerce customers into purchasing local insurance, so make sure this is included in the cost of the car when you book your rental car online. Our confirmation from EconomyBookings.com clearly mentioned that the insurances were included so we had no trouble while picking up our car.
Driving in the Yucatan Peninsula is absolutely safe and most roads are in great condition. For this reason, we strongly recommend you to rent a car – you’ll be able to explore many offbeat places 🙂 However it’s best to exercise common sense and take basic precautions: drive carefully well within the speed limit and never leave luggage or valuables in the car. For this reason, it’s best not to make too many pit-stops if you’re driving from one town to the other with your luggage in the car.
Fuel costs of a road trip in Yucatan Peninsula
We spent 1700 Pesos (£70) and drove 1500 kms in 12 days.
Things to eat on your road trip in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
Contrary to popular stereotype, Mexican food in the Yucatan Peninsula isn’t spicy. It’s delicately nuanced and flavourful. However there is always a variety of pickled vegetables and spicy salsas at hand, perfect to amp up spice levels if you like your food hot!
Some of the best meals we had were at roadside eateries set up under large trees. We couldn’t get enough of warm freshly-made tortillas, fried Oaxacan (pronounced wa-ha-can) cheese in seafood salads, and sumptuous tropical fruits in the Yucatan Peninsula. Here’s some things that you need to eat on your road trip in Mexico:
- Stringy Oaxacan cheese – perfect in salads and tacos
- Tacos El Pastor – Tacos with a variety of meats grilled on the spit. The most flavourful ones are at anonymous hole-in-the-wall eateries.
- Sopa de Lima (Yucatan lime soup) – chicken broth flavoured with Mexican limes and topped with thin tortilla strips
- Fiery habanero salsa
- Burritos – because where else, if not in Mexico (duh!)
- Guacamole with tostadas and nachos – Avocados in this part of the world are magic!
- Frijoles Molidos Negros – a classic Mexican dip made from refried black beans
- Cochinita Pibil – traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork that has an earthy sweetness about it. Perfect with freshly-made tortillas.
- Scrumptious flavourful fruits and vegetables including lima, xcatic chile, mamoncillo, dragonfruit, mangoes, fresh coconuts, and pineapples. Nom!
What to do on your road trip in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula
Days 1-4 Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
We kicked off our road trip by driving to a gorgeous romantic retreat just an hour away from Cancun International Airport. Playa Del Carmen is home to dozens of hotels and resorts and is a perfect base for exploring the glistening beaches in the area. The resort town offers idyllic palm-fringed beaches, coral-reefs, azure waters, and water sports by the dozen. It’s the Caribbean dream!
Since it was Vid’s birthday, we decided to treat ourselves to a relaxing stay at an indulgent hotel in town. Our days in Playa Del Carmen were spent unwinding at our villa, kayaking in the jewelled waters of the Caribbean Sea, and walking along palm-fringed beaches while evenings were spent devouring decadent three-course meals, sampling Mexican liquors, and visiting the spa for a massage or two.
Accommodation in Playa Del Carmen
Viceroy Riviera Maya is perfect if you’re planning a honeymoon or luxurious romantic getaway. Private villas are equipped with hammocks, plunge pools, outdoor jungle showers, and uber-spacious rooms. Little touches like Bose speakers and bespoke handmade soaps (watermelon was our favourite 🙂 ) add to the experience.
Days 4-6 Rio Lagartos, Mexico
Thus thoroughly pampered, we left Playa Del Carmen and drove to Rio Lagartos Natural Reserve.The highway out of Playa Del Carmen eventually leads to a toll booth. We paid 90 pesos (£4) here. Once you cross the toll booth take the libre (free) highway to Rio Lagartos via Tizimin. This drive took us 4 hours.
Rio Lagartos is a sleepy fishing village, located by a lagoon. Tourism is gradually picking up in the area but even so, there are just a couple of hotels and restaurants. You will be swamped by boat and tour operators on reaching the area. But we would recommend skipping the guided tour if you have a rental car on you – exploring the area yourself is a lot of fun and it’s free. Besides, the unpredictability and adventure that comes with it is the best part of a road trip in the Yucatan Peninsula 🙂
Once you’re fully settled, it’s time to fall in love with the wonders of mother nature. Rio Lagartos has a lot of tricks up its sleeve – from bright-pink lagoons and salt reserves to green lakes and hundreds of flamingoes, these 2 days are bound to be a definite highlight of your road trip in the Yucatan Peninsula. Rio Lagartos is home to thousands of flamingoes and dozens of glistening reflective lagoons. Frothy salt deposits can be spotted at the edges of these glorious lagoons. The scenery here reminded us a lot of our time in the remote deserts of Bolivia. The lagoons are teeming with algae and shrimps that flamingoes feed on – this lends them their distinctive red and pink colour. The dramatic green and pink colours of the water, coupled with stretches of white powdery sand make for dramatic photographs. But do beware – the lagoons are brightest between the months of November and March when the colours pop.
Before you go read our detailed guide to FINDING THE COLOURED LAGOONS OF MEXICO
Accommodation in Rio Lagartos:
We stayed at a new boutique hotel recommended by a couple of locals in the area. The rooms at Yuum Ha Boutique Hotel are clean, spacious, and equipped to the level of a 3* hotel anywhere else in the world – quite a luxury here in Rio Lagartos Natural Reserve! There is free parking and basic breakfast on site.
Days 6-9 Merida, Mexico
The next stop on this road trip of the Yucatan Peninsula is Merida, a dreamy town that seems to have walked right out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel – think pastel-coloured colonial houses, vintage cars, hole-in-the-wall eateries, vendors selling everything from knives to tacos on bicycles, men wearing wide-brimmed straw hats! The bustling capital of the Yucatan Peninsula doesn’t disappoint – it has all the amenities you could possibly need (Walmarts, Starbucks, you name it!) but still retains its old world charm.
We happened to visit Merida during Mexico’s National Day celebrations, so the streets were alight with a carnivalesque atmosphere. Local cantinas (pubs) were jam-packed with locals, dancing and drinking games were going on at every street corner, and women were dressed in their finest huipiles (loose embroidered tunics) with flowers adorning their hair.
It’s hard to tear oneself away from Merida’s quaint alleyways but do make sure to visit the Uxmal ruins, less than 1.5 hours away from Merida. The ruins are impressive and a lot less crowded than Chichen Itza. In fact, if you get there early you might have a whole complex full of Mayan ruins all to yourself – we got there at 8 and had it our ourselves for the better part of an hour! 🙂 Don’t forget to stop at the museum at Yaxcopoil Hacienda and a cenote or two on your way back to the city.
Accommodation in Merida
We stumbled on one of our favourite boutique hotels in a while in Merida. The Diplomat Boutique Hotel is run by a young Canadian couple and we loved it to bits! It is housed inside a spacious colonial house that has been refurbished to a high standard. Everything from Sara’s home-made Mexican breakfasts to Neil’s welcome drinks were uber-modern, with an undeniably Mexican edge. The Diplomat Boutique Hotel is in close proximity both to the historical centre and Merida’s gorgeous residential streets.
Day 9-12 Tulum, Mexico
It’s time to drive back to the glorious coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula. But not before experiencing a few gems. Drive back to Tulum via the slow, scenic route. Make sure you stop in Izamal, a small colonial town, about 70 kms away from Merida. Izamal has a long and fraught history – it was the centre of worship for Mayan god Itzamná and later used as the site for a towering monastery by Spanish colonialists. But today the provincial town is famous for its chrome yellow houses. Add to it horse-drawn carriages and quaint alleyways and you get one of the most photogenic places in the Yucatan Peninsula. Izamal has a laid-back charm about it that’s hard to replicate.
If you have a couple of extra days at hand, spend them in the bustling town of Valladolid. As for us, we continued onto Tulum after a languorous stop in Izamal. The drive from Izamal to Tulum took us 3 hours. Our days in Tulum were spent eating way too many tortillas and tacos at local eateries and shopping for Mexican salsas to take back home. Here are some of the things we enjoyed in Tulum:
- Driving along the beach road that goes to Sian Ka’an Biosphere – it’s a bumpy road but there are lots of secluded beaches along the way. If you do drive all the way upto Sian Ka’an Biosphere, you can take a boat tour through mangroves and tropical forests.
- Swimming & snorkelling in the Cenotes around Tulum – there are plenty to choose from, but the best ones are Dos Ojos and Grand Cenote. We suggest going only to one of them and spending the rest of the time on the beaches 🙂 Entry fee is usually around 150 Pesos (£6)
- Visiting the Coba ruins – the ruins aren’t very impressive but it’s possible to climb to the top
- Lazing at the beach while gazing at Tulum’s iconic Mayan ruins perched above turquoise waters
- Walking around Tulum pueblo – Tulum’s bylanes are dotted with some great street art – perfect if you enjoy urban art.
- Eating – there are plenty of smoothie bars and taco restaurants in the area – we really enjoyed burritos and vegan salads at Burrito Amor. Another option is El Camello Restaurant – it has large portions of traditional Mexican food and is a big hit with visitors
Accommodation in Tulum
Tulum is the site of a Mayan walled city and it’s divided into 2 distinct parts : you can choose to stay in a beach-facing hotel or a bohemian hideaway in Tulum pueblo (downtown). No prizes for guessing what we chose! Since we’d already spent a lot of time lazing at the beach in Playa Del Carmen, we thought we would opt for a hotel close to the bohemian downtown area in Tulum.
Huitzical Hotel is a little bohemian hideaway with just 5 rooms and a large shared kitchen. Rooms are spacious and they come with hammocks, colourful cushions, and vine-laden terraces. Breakfast is usually home-cooked tortillas with beans. Bikes are available (free of charge) for guests to explore the attractions of Tulum 🙂 We thoroughly enjoyed the few days we spent in this oasis – a perfect way to end our road trip in Mexico!
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