With its natural beauty, easy availability of rental cars, and well-maintained highways, Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is the perfect road trip territory. It has an endless list of hidden treasures to be discovered, reaching far beyond the well-known resort towns of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. From ancient Mayan cities, to refreshing underwater sinkholes, to magic towns set beside stunning turquoise lakes, a road trip around Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula won’t disappoint. Here are seven must-see stops for a road trip around the area.
The 2017 Cultural Capital of The Americas, Merida is a perfect central place to start a road trip. It is conveniently located less than 3 hours inland from Cancun. Despite being a fairly large city, Merida’s center has a small-town feel. You’ll find a rainbow patchwork quilt of brightly painted buildings and a wide variety of handmade artisanal gifts for sale. It is also pleasantly easy to navigate, working off a grid system. During the day check out the busy main plaza, the sides of which are lined with inviting restaurants and small shops. At night, rather than the craziness of Cancun’s strip, Merida offers plenty of dimly lit, atmospheric yet lively cantinas where you can sip on tequila until the early hour of the morning.
2) CUZAMA CENOTES
Cenotes are naturally formed sinkholes of beautiful blue and refreshing water – perfect for cooling off from the hot Mexico sun. The Yucatan is littered with them, some better known than others. Some of my favorites are located a kilometer outside of Acanceh, just 30 minutes southeast of Merida. Acanceh is a small town with a seemingly higher population of tuk-tuks than residents. From there, you can hire guides and horses to take you on a magical 3-hour-long trip deep into the jungle to swim in three stunning cenotes. Here you can speed along a miniature train track with yellow butterflies fluttering into your face (a real-life Disney woodland) before venturing underground to enjoy the clear, cooling water.
3) UXMAL MAYAN RUINS
Although Chichen Itza, the famous and undeniably impressive World Wonder, is a must see, the Yucatan is also home to a number of other less-visited ancient Mayan cities. One of these is the ruins of Uxmal, just over an hour south of Merida. Whilst not as large as Chichen Itza, these ruins are significantly less crowded and equally remarkable. The enormous central Palacio de Gobernador is particularly impressive. Entry costs 182 pesos for foreigners and across the road, you can visit the ‘Choco-Story‘ eco-park and museum. At Choco-Story you can learn about the history of cocoa and try some samples. The park also serves as a sanctuary for rescued wildlife.
4) BACALAR PUEBLO MAGICO
Bacalar Pueblo Mágico (“magic town”) is at the bottom of the state of Quintana Roo, close to the Belizean border. This chilled, glittering little pueblo sits beside an impossibly beautiful lagoon called Laguna de Los 7 Colores. In the town center you can find the Fort of San Felipe, from which you can look out at the lagoon and admire its beauty. Boats are available to travel into the lagoon past some cenote sinkholes and along El Canal de Los Piratas, to bathe in the unbelievably clear and turquoise waters.
This edgy coastal town has expanded quickly in recent years, yet retains a hippie vibe in comparison to its big party-town brothers, Playa and Cancun. Tulum, rather, is being marketed as the hipster’s choice. This is reflected in the chilled, hip accommodation options. Glamping is available, as well as a number of boutique and luxury hotels including Casa Malca, a previous Pablo Escobar hideout now used to house a collection of modern art.
The seaside ruins are well worth a visit. Be sure to get there early to avoid queues and shuffling round behind the hordes of other tourists in the blaze of the midday sun. Keep an eye out for the families of wild coatis (a raccoon-like creature) who also call the site home. Whilst Cancun might be the ultimate spring break destination, night owls will still enjoy Tulum’s relaxed bars and restaurants lining the coast and city center and open into the early morning hours.
This gem of an island was once the Yucatan’s best-kept secrets, but it seems the secret is getting out. Holbox is home to stunning, endless stretches of white beach and warm sparkling emerald water. It is just a ferry ride away from the town of Chiquila, north of Cancun. Despite its rapid growth, Holbox maintains its small island feel. You’ll find a charming, colorful town center, unpredictable ATM machines, and golf buggy taxis for transportation because cars are not allowed on the island.
The main pull of the island for the more adventurous traveler is the possibility of swimming with whale sharks. The best season to see them is in the months from June to September. Tour boats leave daily from the beach. You can enter the water and swim alongside these magnificent, sometimes 15-meter giants. The day trip to the sharks, with the additional possibility of snorkeling among turtles, stingrays and other sea life is not cheap. But it is truly a once in a lifetime experience and will leave you glowing about the island long after the sunburn has faded.
7) RIO LAGARTOS
Next, head to Rio Lagartos, a quiet seaside town filled with wildlife, including flocks of pelicans searching for cuts of the fishermen’s catches. Rio Lagartos is located a little less than three hours from Cancun. The drive is scenic, taking you past farms full of lazily grazing cattle and their equally chilled ranch hands. The town is located inside a biosphere reserve. Boat tours enter the reserve where you can spot wildlife, including alligators and a wide variety of birds. The most notable find for visitors is a flock of hundreds of flamingos that congregates there. A few minutes away by boat is the now insta-famous pink lake of Las Colorados, made pink by the presence of sulfur from the local salt production. Nearby you can also take an exfoliating Mayan mud bath and cleanse your skin of toxins.
Although perhaps most famous for its spring break beach towns, Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula has so many hidden gems to satisfy those looking for a more authentic Mexico adventure. Be sure not to miss all of the hip seaside towns, quiet white sand beaches, vibrant wildlife, and ancient ruins this area has to offer. So grab your girlfriends and head out on an unforgettable Yucatan road trip.
We hope that this article has inspired you to visit the Yucatan. If you have any questions about the destination please leave these in the comments below.
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