Ever since I saw a photo of a cenote for the first time, I’ve been desperate to travel to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. They just look so beautiful, and I’m a massive water-sports and diving enthusiast, so was eager to experience them in real life. Last year I got that wish. Enrico and I travelled coast to coast in Mexico, over 2 months. It was a dream trip and I would highly recommend it to anyone. We ended the trip in the Yucatan Peninsula and went on a mission to explore as many cenotes, diving spots and underwater experiences as we possibly could, along with Mayan ruins, beaches and of course, plenty of tacos, in the ultimate Yucatan road trip.
The Ultimate 3 Week Yucatan Road Trip Itinerary
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The Yucatan Peninsula is made up of three states; Quintana Roo, Yucatan and Campeche, and this road trip covers all three to some extent.
If you haven’t seen or heard of them before, a cenote is a natural sinkhole or pit that exposes groundwater. Essentially a natural swimming pool. They are part of a large network of underground rivers in the Yucatan, and many of the cenotes are connected together via underwater tunnels and caves.
Driving in the Yucatan Peninsula
You may have concerns about driving in Mexico, and we didn’t originally plan to do a road trip at all, having bussed our way all the way from the east coast to Merida. However, driving in the Yucatan Peninsula in quite different from driving in other parts of Mexico and is generally considered safe. Roads are in good condition and most people drive safely and courteously (I’ve experienced much worse in Italy – sorry Enrico!).
Seeing as there are so many beautiful cenotes to explore, having a car gives you so much more freedom than relying on buses and tours, so after some research, we decided to hire the car to travel in Yucatan and I’m so glad we did.
If you’re not keen on driving, it’s easy to get around the Yucatan by bus. We travelled with most of the Mexican bus operators during our Mexico trip including ADO and Primera Plus, which operate in the Yucatan. You can buy tickets at the bus station or online. I found this article very useful for bus info (and also hilarious). We booked the majority of our tickets through clickbus.
A few things to know about driving in Mexico:
- It is a legal requirement to have liability insurance. This is not the same as travel insurance and can be purchased from the hire car company. You could end up with a lot of problems if you do not have this.
- If you were to be involved in a crash, you must not move the car. Wait for the police to arrive and you will be provided with an attorney via your insurance who will deal with the legal stuff for you.
- There is a free break down service called Ángeles Verdes (Green Angels), they patrol the highways but you can also call them on 078.
- Watch out for topes. These speed bumps are everywhere in the Yucatan Peninsula and they are worse than they look. Make sure you slow down for each one so you don’t end up bashing the front of your hire car!
- I really recommend downloading offline maps on Google Maps – there are lots of one-way roads in the towns and cities and this will help you avoid getting lost or caught in the wrong street!
- We read a few things about scams at petrol stations, particularly around Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. We didn’t experience this, but it’s worth reading this guide to avoiding scams before you go.
Now onto the fun part! The Yucatan road trip!
3 Week Yucatan Itinerary
Cancun – Collect Hire Car
Unless you’re coming from the West of Mexico as we were, it’s likely that you will start your trip in Cancun – which has the largest international airport. From here you can travel in a loop (technically a triangle), ending back in Cancun for your return flight. Depending on where you’re flying from I suggest collecting the hire car and heading straight off on your journey. However, if you’ve had a long haul flight you may wish to spend a night here to acclimatise.
Cancun to Valladolid – 161km / 1 hour 45 minutes
Valladolid – 1 Night
Head straight to Valladolid! I loved this little town. It has a beautiful Zocalo (main square) and colourful narrow streets. It’s a really good base for cenote exploration as they are plenty on the outskirts of the town. Most cenotes have a fee to enter, which is usually around $100 pesos. Although we did encounter some as much as $350.
Sleep – We stayed at Ka’an which has dorms, twins and doubles. Our double was approximately £29 per night.
This was probably my favourite of all the cenotes we visited – the main reason being that it has an awesome rope swing. It’s a beautiful cenote and if you’re not keen on the swing there are steps to climb down and have a swim. But I highly recommend you try it!
You’re likely to have seen pictures of this cenote on Instagram, as it has an incredible photogenic platform, with a beam of light shooting down from above. It is beautiful, but as with many things that have been shared on social media – it’s popular. You’ll find queues of people waiting to post on the platform which sort of spoilt the whole thing for me. (I obviously still had a photo though!) The water is actually pretty shallow here, so it’s not really the best for swimming, so of all the cenotes we visited I would say this was my least favourite, but if you have time, it’s still worth a visit.
Valladolid to Chichen Itza – 53km / 50 minutes
Chichen Itza – 1 Night
Although there isn’t much in the actual town of Chichen Itza, I still recommend staying the night. We were advised to do this and I’m glad we did. It means you can get up super early and get to the temples before they open – and be the first in. Chichen Itza is one of, if not the most popular tourist attraction in Mexico and it gets busy. Arriving early you can explore some of the temples without other people and really feel the spirituality of the place (and of course get photos without hundreds of people in them!).
Sleep – La Casa de las Lunas. Simple place with a pool and parking. We paid approximately £27 for a double.
Chichen Itza to Izamal – 70km / 1 hour 6 minutes
Izamal – 1 Night
If you’re short on time you don’t necessarily need to stay a night in Izamal, however, I do recommend it. It was one of the most relaxed places we stayed and I also had the best Margarita of our entire Mexico trip at our hotel here (reason enough!). Izamal is famous for a beautiful yellow Franciscan monastery, as well as being an important place of worship for the Mayans. It has beautiful cobblestoned streets and quaint little shops.
Sleep – we stayed at Macan ché Bed and Breakfast, which has small bungalows set in gardens with a rock pool styled swimming pool. Double rooms start from £37 including breakfast. Make sure you order a Margarita!
Izamal to Merida – 67km / 1 hour
Merida – 2 Nights
I’d read a lot about Merida and was excited to visit. I was expecting a cool bohemian town, and I was a little disappointed when I arrived, to be honest. It’s actually a very busy and large city, and after travelling through some of the lovely towns beforehand, we found it a bit hectic.
Having said that, there is a lot to do and see in and around this city, This is another great base for exploring cenotes. If you do have a car – great – you can explore these on your own. If you don’t, then you can join an organised tour bus that will take you out of the city – from here you will meet with a driver and a tuk-tuk who will take you to two or three cenotes for the day.
This was another favourite of ours, and it also had a rope swing. It was more of a cave type cenote than the others, making it dark and a bit ethereal. It wasn’t too deep and you could dive down and see the tunnels leading to other cenotes.
Note: Never try and swim through the tunnels – some go on for miles and divers and swimmers have died exploring these. If you want to dive a cenote go with an experienced guide.
Cenote Tres Oches
This one is a deep and narrow open cenote, accessed by a wooden ladder. It was pretty busy when we visited but a lovely spot.
A cave cenote filled with beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. You can’t swim in this one as there isn’t much water but it’s definitely worth a visit.
Cenote Santa Rosa
This cenote has two platforms to jump off, which we loved. It’s another cave-like cenote and pretty dark inside, but great for a swim.
Merida Bars and Restaurants
Merida has great nightlife and is a good place for enjoying a few tequilas. There are lots of great bars and restaurants. Our favourites were:
- La Chaya Maya – A Merida institution – there are now two restaurants as this place is so popular. We visited the newer one, situated in a lovely colonial building
- Oliva Kitchen – Italian (we had been in Mexico for 6 weeks at this point, and were craving some Italian food!)
- La Negrita Cantina – Great bar with live music
- Pipiripau – Another great bar with a big courtyard
- Mahalat – Cool speakeasy bar with great cocktails
Mexican Cooking Course
While in Merida, Enrico booked us a cooking course for my birthday, and it was great! We visited a local market to buy ingredients and then learnt how to make Yucatan specialities. It’s a good way to learn about the region’s cuisine.
Sleep – Nomadas EcoHostel. This is a great hostel that has both dorms and private rooms. There is a large pool and they put on lots of activities including cooking classes and yoga. If you’re a solo traveller this is a great place to meet people. We paid £33 per night for a double room. If you are road tripping through Yucatan, make sure your Merida hotel has parking, as many don’t.
Merida to Campeche – 176km / 2 hours 15 minutes
At this point, you have two options, depending on how much time you have. You can continue south to Bacalar or head west to Campeche.
Campeche (optional) – 2 Nights
Campeche is a walled city on the coast, with a fascinating history. It has some of the gorgeous colourful houses and cobbled streets that you’ve probably seen photos of. While here, be sure to walk the walls and visit the Maya Architecture Museum, Baluarte de la Soledad, which tells you the history. There’s also a nightly light and sound show on the walls of El Palacio Centro Cultural.
Sleep – we stayed in such a lovely hotel here – Casa Mazejuwi. It was my birthday so we went a little over our usual budget, but it was still really cheap! Our room had its own roof terrace with a gazebo and we paid £54 per night.
Campeche to Bacalar – 419km / 5 hours 40 minutes
Bacalar – 2 or 3 Nights
We hadn’t originally planned to visit Bacalar as it is quite far south towards Belize. However, I’m so glad we did. It is gorgeous! The town is situated on Lake Bacalar, known as the lagoon of seven colours, due to the incredible colours of the water.
To the south of the town is Cenote Azul. This large open cenote is worth visiting for a quick swim, but for me, it wasn’t as beautiful as the cenotes we saw further north and looks more like a lake. However, it is over 90m deep!
Bacalar Boat Trip
There are lots of boat trips heading out on the lake and we opted for a sailboat. It was one of my favourite days in Mexico. We had a small pink sailboat, and it was just us and our skipper, who took us to different areas of the lake to swim and explore. I highly recommend you do this while in Bacalar.
Sleep – We slept at Szapot and honestly I wouldn’t recommend it. The hotel is fine and it’s not their fault, but they are located next to a butcher. We woke up in the night to the sound of pigs being slaughtered, which was incredibly distressing. Whilst I do eat meat, so it probably sounds a bit hypocritical, it’s not something that I want to hear at 4am. So I recommend choosing a different hotel in Bacalar.
Bacalar to Tulum – 215km / 2 hours 30 minutes
Tulum – 2 or 3 Nights
I had seen many, many pictures on Instagram of Tulum and was really looking forward to visiting it. Unfortunately, I ended up feeling a bit disappointed. It has a gorgeous beach (although there is a bit of a seaweed problem) and we stayed at a lovely hotel. However, it is so expensive compared to other parts of Mexico, and even to other parts of the Yucatan peninsular and it is quite pretentious; lots of people in designer clothes posing with overpriced cocktails. Having said that, the beach clubs are pretty cool, and at the end of Tulum beach is a 1.3 million acre Biosphere Reserve, which is absolutely worth exploring.
What really made our stay in Tulum, was our accommodation and I would totally go back, just to stay there again.
Sleep – We stayed at Casa de las Olas, right at the very end of the beach and next to the Biosphere Reserve. This was an oasis in Tulum. The beach is much quieter up this end and away from the building works of the town and beach clubs. I feel like this is the Tulum you would have experienced 10 or 20 years ago. It’s an eco-resort, and is completely self-sufficient – run on solar and using rain and groundwater. The breakfast is excellent, made with locally sourced produce and set under palm trees on the sand. If you let them know in advance they also offer dinner. We spent a lot of time relaxing at the beach here. A double room costs from £191.
If you’re looking for something a little cheaper, we also spent a night in the main town of Tulum at Casa Abanico. I loved this accommodation and it had its own kitchen which is great when you’re on a budget. However, it’s a bit of a trek to the beach and the main town of Tulum feels a bit like a construction site. Something to bear in mind! (However, this is pretty much where all the budget accommodation is!).
Aside from the beach, a good reason to stay in Tulum is to dive. Unfortunately, we were both unwell and were not fit to dive, however, I’ve heard great things about cenote diving in Yucatan and we were gutted to miss it.
Tulum to Playa Del Carmen/Isla Cozumel – 65km / 54 minutes
Here you have two options, as Cozumel is an island, you need to take a ferry to get there. So you can either take your rental car on the ferry, or you can return your rental car in Playa and take the passenger ferry (and then bus back to Cancun). We did the latter, although in hindsight the first option is probably easier.
On the drive up from Tulum, make sure you stop at Chamicos. We were recommended it by our hosts at Casa de las Olas and it was so worth the stop. It’s a very casual restaurant located right on the beach, and there were lots of local families eating and spending the day there. The kitchen is open, and the chef cooked a fish right in front of us and it was delicious!
Cozumel – 2 Nights
We visited Cozumel to go diving as it’s considered one of the best diving spots in Yucatan. It’s quite a big island, and the main town feels quite touristy, however, I’ve heard it’s quite different on the other side of the island.
We did two dives with Scuba Life Cozumel, which were fantastic! There were great swim-throughs, colourful corals, an abundance of fish, and turtles! It’s totally worth making the trip over.
Sleep – We stayed at Hotel Mary Carmen, which was a short walk from the ferry and lots of restaurants. We paid £25 for a double room.
Playa Del Carmen/Isla Cozumel to Cancun – 68km / 56 minutes
Cancun – 3 Nights
At the end of your Yucatan road trip, if you can afford it, it’s worth spending a few nights in an all-inclusive on the beach in Cancun to really unwind. We stayed at Haven Riviera. You can read my review here.
I’m not usually an all-inclusive hotel person, but it was really nice to switch off for a few days, not think about where to go and just chill on the beach and by the pool, and eat and drink as much as we wanted! Rooms at Haven Riviera start from £300 for a double all-inclusive.
Other destinations to add to your Yucatan itinerary
If you have more time on your Yucatan road trip, drive (or take the bus) from Cancun up to Chiquila and take the ferry over to Isla Holbox. We didn’t do this, but I’ve heard it’s a lovely relaxed island and well worth the visit.
Another beautiful island and also a great diving spot. To get there, you can take the Ultramar Ferry from Puerto Juarez which takes about 20 minutes.
Hope you enjoyed our Yucatan road trip itinerary – please comment below if you found it useful or if you think we missed anywhere!