Road Tripping Mexico’s Yucatan: 7 Must See Stops
With its natural beauty, easy availability of rental cars, and well-maintained highways, Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is perfect road trip territory. From ancient Mayan cities to refreshing underwater sinkholes to magic towns set beside stunning turquoise lakes, it has a seemingly endless list of hidden treasures to be discovered and has so much more than just the well-known resort towns of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. Here are seven must-see stops for a trip around the area.
The 2017 Cultural Capital of The Americas, Merida is a perfect central place to start a road trip from, located less than 3 hours inland from Cancun. Despite being a fairly large city, Merida’s center is like a town with its rainbow patchwork quilt of brightly painted buildings and the wide variety of handmade artisanal gifts for sale. It is also pleasingly 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 and excess of Cancun’s strip, Merida offers plenty of dimly lit, atmospheric, yet still lively cantinas where you can sip on tequila until the early hours.
Cenotes are natural sinkholes of beautiful blue, refreshing water – perfect for cooling off in. The Yucatan is littered with them, some better known about than others. A kilometer outside of Acanceh, a small hard-working community and their equally hard-working horses will take you on a magical 3-hour-long trip deep into the jungle to swim in three stunning cenotes. From the cenote site, speed along a custom-built miniature train track and enjoy the yellow butterflies fluttering around Disney-woodland style before venturing underground to enjoy the clear, cool water.
UXMAL MAYAN RUINS
While Chichen Itza is a must see as one of the most famous and undoubtedly impressive wonders of the world, the Yucatan is also home to many other Mayan cities. The ruins of Uxmal is one of these, just over an hour south of Merida. While these ruins are not as large as Chichen Itza, they are equally remarkable and significantly less crowded. The enormous Central Palacio de Gobernador is particularly impressive. Entry costs 182 pesos for foreigners. Visit the ‘Choco Story’ eco-park and museum across the road, which serves as a sanctuary for rescued wildlife. Also learn about the history of cocoa at Choco Story and try some samples.
BACALAR PUEBLO MAGICO
At the bottom of the state of Quintana Roo, close to the Belize border, this chilled little glittering pueblo mágico (magic town) sits beside an impossibly beautiful lagoon (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 past some cenote sinkholes and along El Canal de Los Piratas, taking bathers to the unbelievably clear and turquoise waters there.
This edgy coastal town has expanded quickly in recent years, yet retains a “hippier” vibe in comparison to its big brothers, the party towns of Playa and Cancun, which are seemingly marketed as the hipster’s choice. This is reflected in the accommodation options: glamping is available as are a number of boutique and luxury hotels, including Casa Malca, once a Pablo Escobar hideout, now used to house a collection of modern art. The seaside ruins are well worth a visit, but be sure to get there early to avoid shuffling round behind hordes of other tourists in the blaze of the midday sun. Keep an eye out for the families of wild coatis who also call the site home.
While Cancun might be the ultimate spring break destination, Tulum provides the perfect atmosphere for night owls, with chilled bars and restaurants open until the early hours and lining both the coast and city center.
This gem of an island boasts stunning, seemingly endless stretches of white beach and warm sparkling emerald water. It’s just a ferry ride away from the town of Chiquila, north of Cancun. Holbox was once the Yucatan’s best-kept secret, but it seems the secret is getting out. In spite of its rapid growth, Holbox maintains a small island feel, with a charming, colorful town center, unpredictable ATMs, and golf buggy taxis transporting visitors around (cars are not allowed on the island). More adventurous travelers should look into swimming with whale sharks here. The season to see them is in June to September; tour boats leave daily from the beach. Enter the water and swim alongside these magnificent, sometimes 15 meter-long giants. If you’re on a budget, the day trip to the sharks plus the additional possibility of snorkeling among turtles, stingrays and other sea life will probably be the most expensive thing you pay for on your trip, but is a once in a lifetime experience and will leave you glowing about the island long after the sunburn has faded.
A little less than 3 hours from Cancun, a scenic and pleasant drive takes you past farms full of grazing cattle and their equally relaxed ranch hands toward the drowsy seaside town of Rio Lagartos, where pelicans flock for cuts of the fishermen’s catch. Rio Lagartos is located inside a biosphere reserve. Boat tours enter the reserve, where you can spot wildlife, including alligators and a wide variety of birds, including a flock of up to hundreds of flamingos who congregate there. Also 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 salt production that happens there. Nearby you can take an exfoliating Mayan mud bath and cleanse your skin of toxins.