Mexico is one of those countries that has a million symbols to define it — tacos, sombreros, pyramids, moustaches, guacamole, Frida Kahlo… everyone pictures something when the word Mexico is mentioned. Some of these images are, of course, more representative than others. We wanted to find out which of these icons reflect what Mexico is really like.
To do this, we headed off on a road trip through the Yucatan Peninsula with our friends Ange and Janine. We soon left behind our starting point of Cancún in the state of Quintana Roo, and visited Valladolid, Chichen Itzá, Izamal, Mérida, Uxmal, Palenque, and San Cristobal de las Casas. On the whole, it was a great route that we can recommend if you’re planning a Mexico road trip.
Where is this, exactly?
Imagine Mexico is shaped like a hook, with the point off to the right of the main part of the country. We started at the pointy bit and made our way south and west towards the curve of the hook, then turned around and came back to where we started. We passed through the Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche, Tabasco (quickly) and Chiapas.
Why do a Mexico road trip in Yucatan, Campeche and Chiapas?
Mexico might call you for a variety of reasons, but you’ll stay for the food. We loved trying all the different types of tortilla-based cuisine and hunting out options that had nothing to do with flatbread. Some highlights were seafood in Campeche and a delicious banana stuffed with beef in Palenque.
Of course, culture is a big drawcard too, especially if you are interested in history. We visited three Mayan ruin sites and a fantastic Mayan museum, and felt like we only touched the surface of this amazing society. I’d love to learn more!
Geology fans will love the cenotes, underground pools that were apparently used by the Mayas for human sacrifice. Actually, cenotes are great for everyone — many are open to the public, and for a fee you can have a swim and cool off on a hot day.
We flew into Cancún, but there are lots of international airports to choose from, depending on where you want to start your trip. Mérida is a good option, and Mexico City could be a good entrance point — you can take a bus or internal flight to your preferred starting point.
You can also enter by bus from the United States, Guatemala and Belize.
Get around Mexico
Since there were four of us travelling together, we hired a car and split the costs. This was more expensive than we would have liked, though it still came in at less than US$20 per person per day including tolls and petrol, which seems reasonable for the amount of flexibility it gave us. Not having to find transport from bus stations to hotels was a definite luxury!
Be aware that tolls can be quite expensive and roads are often in a very bad state of repair. If you’re not confident about avoiding potholes, driving might not be your best option. You may also have to pay bribes to police officers or protestors, which can be quite stressful.
If you’re travelling alone or as a couple, or just not interested in driving, the bus network is excellent and fairly priced, though not cheap: around 100 pesos per hour of travel. We used ADO for a couple of trips and found it comfortable and convenient, though there are other bus companies to choose from, depending on where you’re going.
You could also consider ride-sharing. Mexico’s BlaBlaCar network is extensive, and we had a positive experience travelling from Monterrey to Querétaro. Just make sure to choose people with good references and let friends or family know what you’re doing.
Valladolid is a lovely old city that’s a good starting point for a trip to Chichen Itzá. One night is enough to see what it has to offer, which includes an old convent, a Mayan Chocolate Museum, and a shop that offers tequila tastings.
The most famous of the Mayan ruins in Mexico is certainly worth a visit, though its popularity is also its liability. Get there early to beat the crowds, many of which are coming all the way from Cancún on bus tours. Parking costs 30 pesos and the entrance fee is currently 224 pesos. Guides are available for 600 pesos for a one-hour highlights tour, though we used a free audio-guide app and showed ourselves around instead.
The yellow town is certainly worth a stop, for its colourful buildings and many ruins. Wander around and enjoy the atmosphere and climb a pyramid or two for an excellent view of the town.
Mérida was one of the highlights of our trip, and it’s worth spending a few days here. Music events are put on every night in the main square, which is often packed with locals, tourists, and food stalls. Parking can be an issue, though, so choose a hotel with parking if you’re driving. Also be aware that most attractions are closed on Monday, and many on Tuesday too, so plan your visit for later in the week if possible.
We enjoyed the Mayan museum on the outskirts of town, it’s great for getting a good overview of Mayan culture — which will definitely be part of any trip to this part of Mexico.
Uxmal was another fantastic ruin, conveniently located not too far from Mérida. Prices were similar to Chichen Itzá but it wasn’t as crowded; we decided to show ourselves around rather than hire a guide.
Campeche is so proud of its colourful houses that its car licence-plate symbol is a collection of brightly coloured buildings. You’ll love wandering around admiring the city, and can get a good view by walking along the city walls. The main square is a nice place for a drink in the evening, and there are various light shows to see after dark. The one we saw was a little underwhelming though!
We headed out to the beach on our last morning in town, and had what was possibly our best meal of the trip at a restaurant called Playa Gaviotas: coconut shrimp, fish, beef, beer, and a collection of tapas that came free with the drinks.
It’s a long drive from Campeche to Palenque, but these ruins are worth the effort. The entrance fee is only 64 pesos, and the excavated section warrants several hours of exploring. However, a lot of the site hasn’t been excavated and is still covered by the jungle. You can hire a guide to take you into this part, which we did — it was awesome! Seeing a Mayan swimming pool and climbing through an ancient aqueduct made the 1000 peso price tag (for the group) seem quite reasonable.
Cascadas de Agua Azul
The “Blue water waterfalls” weren’t blue when we were there, but it was still a pleasant stop. There’s a small entrance fee into the complex, which includes a long series of small waterfalls with swimming spots in between, and a variety of handcraft stalls and small restaurants. It’s a good place to stop for lunch and a refreshing swim.
Although the drive in is long and bumpy, and the highway was closed when we wanted to leave, the journey to San Cristobal is worth the effort. This colonial town will charm you with its pleasant atmosphere, colourful streets, and many, many churches and plazas. It is a tourist hotspot, which means you’ll have to deal with street vendors and touts, but it was one of our favourite stops on our journey.
The Na Balom museum is worth a visit to learn about local tribes and the anthropologist couple who worked with them last century.
After San Cristobal, we stopped for a night in Frontera and ran through Ciudad del Carmen, and also made an overnight stop in Xpujil before relaxing by the Bacalar lagoon for a night. Unfortunately, though, we couldn’t do everything on our road trip through Yucatan, Campeche, and Chiapas — there are many more ruins to see and tacos to eat, and we couldn’t do it all. So, it’s over to you… have a good trip and let us know how it goes!