A two week trip around the Yucatán, including a world wonder, UNESCO world heritage sites, accommodation fit for royalty and plenty of stunning beaches!
Here’s an overview of our Mexico itinerary.
Cancun – more than just a beach resort
As the main transport hub, we arrived in Cancun for a quick stop-over before hitting the road. We only stayed one night but found that, away from the tourist strips, Cancun has a charming little centre around Gladiolas square, where you can ease yourselves into Mexican life. We enjoyed a few beers at La Terazza del Vino bar to celebrate the start of our trip, followed by breakfast at Cheesters – our first and by far best breakfast in Mexico!
The next day, we headed towards our first destination, Valladolid. Driving across the Yucatan is easy, thanks to the relatively new, and only, 180D motorway stretching from Cancun to Merida. As it’s a toll road you’re pretty much on your own. While the scenic route through towns and villages arguably offers more insight, it’s very slow progress (beware of the tope – the unforgiving Mexican speed bump), so if you want to cover some miles quickly the dull toll road serves its purpose.
Valladolid is the perfect base for exploring surrounding Cenotes and Chichen Itza
Valladolid is a sleepy but colourful little town and a great base for visiting the surrounding sights, such as Chichen Itza or Cenote D’zitnup.
Colonial La Aurora hotel is just 5 minutes’ walk from the town’s main square and offers simple but spacious rooms situated around a colonial style courtyard and a much appreciated pool (although parking can be a bit tricky). The region’s specialties of Queso Relleno (stuffed, baked cheese) and Pollo Cochinita (marinated chicken wrapped in banana leafs and barbecued in an underground pit) at El Mason del Marques restaurant are wonderful. As was the restaurant’s setting on the inner terrace surrounded by plants and fountains. El Tequila Del Mexico on the South Eastern corner of the square was our favourite place to enjoy a cold beer or cocktail while watching locals go about their daily business. They do a decent breakfast, too.
Wonderful Chichen Itza
When in the Yucatán, visiting Chichen Itza, one of the wonders of the world, is a must. The pyramid-shaped Mayan temples are as stunning in real life as promised by picture post cards. The site is vast and little information is provided, so it’s recommended to hire a guide to show you around. There are plenty to choose from, offering their services at the entrance. As always with ancient ruins, it’s the insight and stories of the expert guides that really help bring the site to life.
Not far from Chichen Itza is Cenote D’zitnup. Thanks to the geological make-up of the Yucatán there are underground caves and waterholes (cenotes) all over the peninsula, but D’zitnup is one of the more famous ones – partly due to its proximity to the nation’s most famous sight, but also because you can actually take a swim in the underground lake.
It’s a strange experience. The air in the cave is very warm and humid so taking a dip in the cool water is tempting, but due to the lack of space and ‘facilities’ not very practical – it’s a cave after all, not a swimming pool. And if you’re easily freaked out by underwater life I’d think twice about it. If none of this is an issue for you, you’ll enjoy the eerie experience of exploring the cave in your swimming costume.
Merida – the capital of the Yucatán
From Valladolid we headed further west towards Merida. Before hitting the city however, we took a short detour to Progreso Beach to cool off in the turquoise sea.
After sleepy Valladolid, Merida is a bit of a shock to the system. The capital of the Yucatán is big, busy, hot and dusty. But, once you’ve acclimatised you will be able to enjoy the numerous sights and wonderful architecture on offer. We enjoyed strolling along Paseo de Montejo, admiring the beautiful buildings leading up to the impressive Homeland Monument located on one of the busiest roundabouts of Merida. Plaza de la Indepenzia is overlooked by the cathedral and a perfect place for people watching in the shade. The new Merida Museum is slightly out of town but well worth a visit – a modern introduction to the history and culture of the Yucatan.
From Merida we headed south towards Campeche.
Frequent police encounters can be intimidating but are mostly pleasant and helpful
Police is an ever visible presence in Mexico and we did get stopped by officials several times throughout our trip, especially when crossing regional borders, but also seemingly at random. Most officers we came across seemed intimidating at first but turned out to be friendly and helpful. English is not as widely understood as one might think, and carrying an International Driving Permit is highly recommended.
Only on one occasion did we encounter dodgy police officers, who tried to fine us for a non-existing reason. As we were confident that all our papers were in order we held our ground and asked them to phone the rental company about any issues with the car. Struggling with the language barrier they soon realised that there was nothing to be gained from us and let us go. This was the Merida city police and like I said, the only time we experienced issues.
Reaching the north coast in Campeche
Campeche is a UNESCO world heritage site and a beautiful stop. Colourful colonial style buildings interspersed with lovely churches and sculptures, and a wide selection of restaurants and cafes. Tranvia de la ciudad bilingual city tours are a great way to explore the main sights and neighbourhoods of Campeche. The main square with the cathedral towering over it is beautifully lit at night time, offering a lovely setting for dinner at the Casa Vieja de los Arcos.
Uxmal, with its dramatic sound and light show, is well worth an overnight stop
From Campeche we made our way back inland to Uxmal. The Uxmal Archaeological site is huge and, while similar to Chichen Itza, offers a whole new perspective on the lives of the Maya. Each evening, visitors have the opportunity to experience key moments in Uxmal history in a dramatic sound and light show at the ancient arena. A bit tacky, but we really enjoyed it nonetheless.
The Hacienda Uxmal is only a stone’s throw from the Uxmal Archaeological site. A former vineyard and the world’s oldest hotel hacienda, it prides itself on its long list of famous and Royal guests. Nowadays it offers not only traditional charm, but also large and beautifully decorated rooms with a historic feel, a central pool area and a BBQ restaurant. Although slightly pricier than elsewhere, given its proximity to the site, it’s perfect for a short stop.
Enjoying the magnificent sandy beaches of Tulum and Playa del Carmen
On route to Tulum we took a short detour to visit Hacienda Yaxcopoil, a typical example of a historic hacienda dating back to the 17th century. Now a museum, the vast site provides a great insight into traditional life at these grand houses.
Tulum is well known for its laid back – dare I say hippie – atmosphere. The beach is stunning, quiet and wonderfully relaxing. To top it off, there are plenty of bars and restaurant along the beach.
Azucar Hotel is not so much a hotel as a handful of huts situated directly on the beach. While the accommodation is simple (and electricity and water supply a bit hit and miss), the location is stunning.
Of the various temple sites that we visited, Tulum has by far the best setting, overlooking the beach, although the site itself might not be as impressive as some of the others. Admittedly, we were a bit temple tired by this point.
On our way back towards Cancun, we briefly stopped in Playa del Carmen, which, certainly compared to Tulum, is loud, busy and very touristy. The beach is packed with sun loungers and water sports providers. Nonetheless, we enjoyed a few hours on the fantastic beach and a tequila filled night out.
Isla de Mujeres, feeding grounds for dozens of whalesharks
Having returned the car to Cancun, we jumped on the ferry to Isla de Mujeres, a small island just off the coast, offering endless sandy beaches and loads of bars and restaurants. The perfect place for a few days rest after touring the Yucatán.
One of the island’s main attraction is out on the water: each year, hundreds of whale sharks gather in the waters north of the island to feast on plankton. Several tour operators offer snorkelling trips to swim with whale sharks. The site is an hour’s boat journey into the open sea (where we encountered sea turtles, dolphins and stingrays on the way), and most operators provide a simple breakfast and a traditional Ceviche lunch on board. The trips aren’t cheap (around £120 for two), but so worth it! Floating next to these enormous but gracious mammals is unforgettable. Incredibly, whale sharks are completely harmless (although one accidentally wacked me on the head with its tail fin!) – it’s a unique experience. The main season for whale shark encounters is June to September, but we went in May and were still lucky enough to swim with at least 20 whale sharks. If you get a chance, do it!
There you go, 14 incredible days touring the peninsula. I’d do it again in a heartbeat!
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