Cenote Mexico

Independent Yucatan Peninsula Trip & Itinerary Ideas

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The Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico is the most popular tourism area in Mexico and for good reason.  With world class beaches, ancient ruins to be discovered, exotic cenotes to swim in and picturesque colonial cities, the Yucatan is a great place to combine relaxation and culture. In this Yucatan travel blog, we will tell you why we think the Yucatan is so great, discuss the best destinations to visit, help plan your itinerary, pass on tips for renting a car in Mexico and share our favourite Yucatan activities with kids.

Why the Yucatan Peninsula?

The Yucatan can refer to two things: the entire southern Mexico Caribbean peninsula or the state of Yucatan.  The Yucatan Peninsula actually includes three states: Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche.  Cancun, Tulum and the Riviera Maya are actually located within Quintana Roo, while popular Isla Holbox, Merida and Chichen Itza are in Yucatan state.

The Yucatan is a wonderful area of Mexico to travel independently.  Why?

  1. It is Easy to Get to – there are lots of cheap flights from Canada and the US to Cancun
  2. The Tourism Infrastructure is Well Developed
  3. It is Considered Very Safe, especially outside of the major tourism resort areas
  4. Great beaches
  5. Interesting ancient Mayan ruins to explore
  6. Pretty towns and cities
  7. Delicious and cheap authentic food
  8. A wide range of major attractions and activities like waterparks and adventure sports

Is Mexico Safe?

When Canadians think of Mexico, they think of large all-inclusive resorts and the media’s suggestion that Mexico is not safe.  We spent 5 weeks in Mexico in February and felt completely safe travelling independently throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.  We took the same travel precautions we would take when travelling in any other foreign country and didn’t have any problems.

I really believe that the media has contributed greatly to making people think Mexico is unsafe.  There are obviously areas that are not recommended for visitors, but I really encourage people to not be scared of independent travel in Mexico.

When booking your trip to Mexico, one of your first purchases should be good travel insurance.  We use and recommend World Nomads for their excellent coverage and focus on independent travel.

Getting Around the Yucatan

You have two main choices for a Yucatan road trip: renting a car or taking the bus.  Renting a car gives you the most freedom, but can be a complicated affair in Mexico – see below.

Mexico has a very well developed and modern bus system and most visitors use the ADO buses to get around.  You can book tickets easily online or at the bus stations in town.  The buses are new, in good condition and very comfortable.  However, they are surprisingly expensive, especially compared to Central America and Asia.  For example the bus from Cancun to Merida costs $20 USD for the 4 hour journey.  This can add up for larger groups, although children are half price.

Renting a Car in Mexico

If you look online, you will likely see dirt cheap rentals out of Cancun using the major booking sites.  The problem is that they don’t include the mandatory insurance required in Mexico, so you will be in for a shock when you actually arrive at the counter and your budget rental has skyrocketed.

Mexico does not allow you to use your credit card for liability insurance coverage and there can be lots of hidden costs.  We used and recommend, Mex Rent-a-Car, with its transparent pricing and locations in Cancun, Tulum, Merida and Playa del Carmen.

Other things to be aware of when renting a car in Mexico:

  • Toll Roads – these are much more comfortable, but are expensive.  For example when going from Cancun to Merida, you will pay over 500 pesos ($35 CAD) in toll fees (cash only).
  • Speed Bumps – called “topes” in Mexico, they are abundant and not always marked.
  • Filling up with Gas – we never encountered this, but people report not having the pump zeroed out before the attendant starts filling, or having the attendant switch bills (you give them a 200 note, they switch it and say you only paid 20 pesos).
  • Police – we didn’t have any issues, but some tourists report being targeted by police and asked for bribes.  Follow the law – don’t use a cell phone when driving, wear your seat belts, and don’t speed.

Places to Visit in the Yucatan Peninsula

The great thing about visiting the Yucatan is that you can have a relaxing beach holiday, combined with a rich cultural experience and visits to fascinating historical Mayan ruins.  All of the places mentioned below are included on this map, which should help you plan your Yucatan road trip.

Isla Holbox

If a quiet beachy island with no cars is more your style than the large beach resorts of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, Isla Holbox is the place for you.  Located three hours from Cancun, this sleepy island is now firmly on traveller’s radar.  The beaches are calm and perfect for lounging in a hammock, it is a great spot for kite surfing and you can even see flamingos in the wild in season. With the seaweed problems along the Mayan coast, Isla Holbox has one of the best Yucatan beaches.

The hotels are small eco-hotels and there is a great mix of delicious and cheap Mexican food, but smoothie bowls and organic ice cream can also be had.  You can spend days relaxing on the beach, touring the island by golf cart or taking birding and other tours.  The central square is a hive of activity in the evenings where locals and visitors mingle.  We loved Isla Holbox – the hype is real!

For lots more information, read our full guide to visiting Isla Holbox.

Valladolid

Valladolid is the Yucatan’s third largest city, but you would never know it from its quiet and colourful streets.  Getting to Valladolid is easy on the 180d toll road, taking 2 hours from Cancun.  There is lots of great things to do in Valladolid, but you won’t feel like you are in a tourist centre.

One of the most interesting things to do in Valladolid is visit Casa de los Venados, a private home and museum dedicated to Mexican folk art.  You can take your pick of cenotes in and around Valladolid.  Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxman was a henequen plantation and its quieter cenote, 3 km outside of town, is a great place to visit in Valladolid.  You can explore the Plaza, the Convent and the many good restaurants in town.  The boutique gelato shop, Wabi, is definitely worth a stop!

Ek Balam

Ek Balam is a small Maya village 30 minutes north of Valladolid with a ruined city from the 8th century.  It may not have the name brand recognition of Chichen Itza, Copa or Tulum, but it is much quieter and its massive main pyramid is impressive.

You can buzz in and visit the archaeological site in a day, but we recommend spending a night or two at Genesis Eco-Oasis.  Lee has created a very special place focused on the environment, with unique rooms and the opportunity for cultural exchange.  You need to book early as they are almost always sold out.  It was a great experience to learn how to make corn tortillas with Gloria and the kids loved the animals.

Izamal

Just an hour outside Merida is the picturesque yellow city of Izamal.  Almost all the buildings in the city have been painted mustard yellow to match the Convento de San Antonio cathedral at the centre of the city.  This Spanish cathedral like many Spanish sights was built over top of important Maya sites.

In addition to seeing the main plaza of Izamal, there are still 3 pyramids in various stages of restoration that you can explore (FREE).  Kids will enjoy touring Izamal by horse and carriage ride.  The lovely Kinich restaurant is a large palapa with lush grounds and a great place to sample many Yucatecan traditional foods.

You can self drive to Izamal, take the local bus, hire a taxi or take a guided tour.

Merida

Merida is the capital of Yucatan state and with a population of 1 million, it is a large and bustling city.  But the city’s old centro is historic and charming and the best place to learn about and appreciate Maya culture.  You can choose to spend a few days exploring the city or a week if you want to use it as a base to explore the nearby attractions including the Mayan site of Uxmal, flamingos at Celestun or Rio Lagartos, the yellow city of Izamal and the numerous cenotes and haciendas in the countryside.

One of the things we loved the most about Merida is the numerous free cultural activities.  There is video mapping on the Cathedral on Friday nights, an ancient Mayan ball game demonstration on Saturday night and on Sunday, the streets around Plaza Grand are closed and there is dancing, street food and live music.

Read our complete guide to Merida for tips and detailed information for your visit.

Celestun

Flamingos are one of those birds that enchant us all and if you want to see them in the wild, the Yucatan is just the place.  We visited Celestun in February, but if you are going at different times of the year, they can be seen at Rio Lagartos or even Isla Holbox between April and October.

Celestun is a small town an hour outside Merida, most famous for its pink celebrities.  However, its beach side location and quiet un-touristy town, make it a great spot to spend a few days.

Most visitors will do a motorized boat trip to see the flamingos in the lagoon, but we really enjoyed our eco-canoe tour.  It was an early morning for us as we met our guides at 6 am in the mosquito infested mangroves.  But, it was a fabulous way to experience the bird life and natural environment of this region.  Our guides poled us through the mangroves, out into the lagoon and we spotted many interesting birds along the way.  Once in the lagoon, we saw flocks of flamingos and it was especially interesting to see them flying overhead.  The guides had binoculars and we learned a lot about how the flamingos and other bird species live.  Cost 1000 pesos/canoe (can hold 2 adults max).  We were able to negotiate to pay 1500 pesos for two canoes for our family of 5.

Uxmal

Uxmal is one of the most impressive ruins in the Yucatan and while it doesn’t receive as many visitors as Chichen Itza, it is still a very popular site.  You can visit on a day trip from Merida, but we chose to stay a night at Uxmal.  Get there early to avoid the large tour groups.  Unfortunately at the beginning of 2019, the Yucatan government doubled the entrance fees for Mayan sites.  It now costs over 400 pesos/adult ($30 CAD), although we weren’t charged for the kids.

We spent over 2 hours wandering the large site where you can climb many of the buildings.  There are English speaking guides available for 800 pesos/group.

Right across the street from the archaeological sight is Choco-Story, an outdoor museum that showcases the history of chocolate, Maya culture and the flora and fauna of the area.  Choco-Story cost 120 pesos/adult, 75 pesos/child, but we thought it was well-worth it and we spent almost two hours there.

Tulum

Tulum is hipster popular and with its eco-hotels, yoga vibe, Mayan ruins and beautiful beach, it isn’t hard to see why.  It is known as one of the best beaches in Mexico and even with the sargassum sea weed that has plagued the area the last few years, it is still a beautiful spot.  Expect to pay a premium for accommodation around Tulum and expect to encounter construction in the rush to turn this once sleepy beach town into a tourist centre.

For us Tulum was “meh”.  Perhaps a lot of that was because it is not a budget destination anymore.  While there are lots of great small hotels along the beach, their premium price, forced us to stay in Tulum town, 5 km away from the beach.  We did enjoy renting bikes to visit the ruins and the beach, although eating in town was much cheaper.

Laguna Bacalar

Many who have moved on from Tulum, are calling Laguna Bacalar the next big thing.  This fresh water lagoon located right near the Belize border is postcard gorgeous: white sand, bright turquoise waters, beach clubs with hammocks to lounge in the water and great boating opportunities.  The town centre is authentic and charming with local taco joints, vegan restaurants and fresh fish and seafood.

Read our full post for tips and info for visiting Laguna Bacalar.

Planning Your Yucatan Itinerary

We spent 3 weeks travelling around the Yucatan, but even in 2 weeks, you can see a lot.  For many visitors, the best way to spend 2 weeks is 1 week at the beach and 1 week in the interior.  For example, 1 week in Tulum and Bacalar or Isla Holbox and 1 week in Merida and Valladolid.

Our 3 week Yucatan Itinerary:

1 night Cancun, 5 nights Isla Holbox, 1 night Izamal, 3 nights Merida, 2 nights Celestun, 1 night Uxmal, 3 nights Valladolid, 1 night Ek Balam, 3 nights Tulum and 3 nights Bacalar.

If you are looking to extend your Mexico trip, we can definitely recommend visiting the quieter state of Chiapas.  The ancient ruins of Palenque and the highlands town of San Cristobal de las Casas are both great places to visit.

The Yucatan with Kids

The Yucatan is a great region to explore with kids.  It is a short flight from Canada and the US, with many direct flights to Cancun.  There are so many fun and adventurous outdoor and cultural activities, in addition to time at the beach.

Yucatan Activities Kids Will Love:

  • Xcaret Waterparks – these incredible natural and cultural parks between Cancun and Tulum are completely unique and offer amazing experiences.  We visited Xplor and Xel-Ha and were wow-ed!
  • Swimming in a Cenote – there are lots to choose from and many have rope swings and diving platforms that kids will love.  Our favourites were the quieter ones near Merida.
  • Visiting Mayan Ruins – kids can channel their inner Tomb Raider when exploring the many Mayan sites of the Yucatan.  Tulum and Chichen Itza are the closest for most visitors, but it is worth exploring the quieter ones further afield.
  • Eating Authentic Tacos – you can have Taco Tuesday every day when in the Yucatan!
  • Swimming in Laguna Bacalar – the fresh water laguna is great for swimming with its hammocks hanging in the water.
  • Seeing Flamingos in the Wild – there is something really special about seeing a group of flamingos flying overhead.  Depending on the season, you can see them in Celestun, Rio Lagartos or Isla Holbox.
  • Watching Pok-ta-Pok, a traditional Mayan sport – kids will be enthralled watching this ancient sport being played in Merida.  Especially when the ball gets lit on fire!
  • Renting bikes in Tulum – bikes are a great way to get around Tulum and get between the town, beach and ruins.
  • Walking the sandbars on Isla Holbox and touring the island by golf cart – the calm sandbars of Isla Holbox are perfect for kids.  Kids will also think it is fun to tour around the island on a golf cart, the main method of transportation on the island.

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