Yucatan Road Trip: 3 Weeks Travel Itinerary

by Tsvete Popp
Visiting Chichen Itza, El Castillo, Kukulkan Pyramid

Yucatan Road Trip

Embark on an unforgettable Yucatan road trip with our meticulously crafted 3-week itinerary. Discover the mesmerizing beauty of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula as you journey through ancient ruins, azure cenotes, and picturesque coastal towns. Immerse yourself in the rich Mayan culture, explore iconic sites like Chichen Itza and Uxmal, and indulge in authentic local cuisine. From the vibrant city of Merida to the breathtaking beaches of Tulum, our comprehensive guide will ensure you make the most of your adventure. Get ready for a thrilling road trip filled with awe-inspiring landscapes, cultural immersion, and endless memories. Start planning your Yucatan road trip today!

Yucatan Road Trip

The Story Of Our Yucatan Road Trip

The idea of a Yucatan Road Trip in Mexico was born on the 17th of June during a game of the FIFA World Cup 2018. The ex-world champion Germany was playing against Mexico. During the game, we were talking about where to spend the winter holidays at the end of this year. Somehow, we joked about Mexico winning against Germany, as the ex-world champion was not good at all during that game. Then we joked again: “When Mexico wins, the next flight tickets we buy will be the tickets to Mexico!”. Some 60 minutes later, Mexico won against Germany with 1:0.

One month later we started research on finding some cheap flights to Mexico. As we wanted to visit Yucatan for about 3 weeks during the winter holidays incl. Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the word “cheap” lost a lot of its meaning. We already knew that we are going for a road trip through the Yucatan Peninsula so we had the choice to fly from Munich to Cancun or to Merida. The direct flights were way too expensive as the prices started at 1280 € p.p. So I started to search for flights + transit in the USA. American Airlines had the best value for money tickets: Munich – Philadelphia – Cancun for 780 € p.p. So we decided to save the money from the direct flights and spend it on hiring a car.

Yucatan Road Trip

The second step was to rent a car – this step was easier than finding a cheap flight to Yucatan. But again, the prices for renting a car during Christmas and New Year’s Eve are much higher than in the rest of the year. This pattern is repeated not only for flight tickets and renting a car but also in booking accommodations, eating in a restaurant, shopping, etc. Therefore my first tip for travelling to Yucatan: If you can avoid travelling to Mexico during the winter holidays, do it! It will save you a loooot of money!

Yucatan Road Trip

The next kind-of-problem in the planning was to decide where to stay and for how long. I always wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve on the beach so I could easily make this dream come while in Mexico. Actually, we were planning to drive through the Yucatan Peninsula for longer than we did. The plan was to visit Campeche after visiting Valladolid and Merida, but if we had to put Campeche on our Itinerary, this would have meant cutting the beach party on the 31st of January. What we did is “cut” Campeche instead. How stupid I was! If I only knew that the countryside of Yucatan is much more interesting and authentic than the beachside…

Road Trip Yucatan Peninsula

Finding the right accommodation was also not easy! I booked all accommodations 2 months in advance and it was a hardcore action! Yucatan is everything else but not cheap. The worst was finding a hotel/hostel/whatever in or near Tulum. The prices were insane! We could choose between 3-star hostels for 80 € p.p and night or 150+ € p.p and night for 3-start hotels. No, thank you! We were lucky as we found a Condo (a luxury apartment) in Akumal (20 minutes from Tulum) for 65 € p.p. and night! This was the best accommodation we had in Mexico – we absolutely loved it!

Another decision we took, was not to visit the islands around Yucatan Peninsula. In 2018 we already had visited more than 10 islands including the best island of Thailand and Seychelles … After some research on the internet and several YouTube videos, we already knew we will be rather disappointed than positively surprised by Cozumel, Isla Mojeres or Holbox.

Uxmal, Yucatan

Cancun: 3 Days

We flew from Munich to Cancún and we spent two days in the city in order to get used to the weather and the new time zone. This was the only reason why we stayed there for less than 72 hours. The two days were enough to realize Cancún is not our place to be. The strip of Cancún felt like the cheapest version of Las Vegas. There were many drunk Americans everywhere. The beaches are wide, but overcrowded for my taste. Everyone tried to make money out of our visit, no matter if it was parking, buying something or just having some lunch. The two days were arduous! The best feeling was leaving Cancún after the 2 days of constant disappointment …

Yucatan Road Trip

Yucatan Road Trip

With 50 years of modern history, Cancún is one of the youngest cities in Mexico. Despite this fact, Cancún has become one of the most visited and important tourism hotspots in Central America. For many people, Cancún is the dream destination. In fact, the weather is good throughout the whole year, the Caribbean white-sand beaches are gorgeous. And if you are searching for a good party – this is probably your place to be!

Yucatan Road Trip

I’m trying to stay fair with Cancún as with any destination I’m visiting. The city of Cancún is not the place where I want to spend my holidays, but this doesn’t mean you won’t like it. It depends on the type of traveller. If you are the “All Inclusive” type of a person, or you don’t mind touristy destinations, or dealing with overpriced activities doesn’t bother you – there is a good chance you will like Cancún. But if you are looking for the real culture, adventure, nature, and the real vibe of Mexico, it is better to leave the city as soon as possible after landing, I guess!

Valladolid: 3 Days

Valladolid is a small and colourful colonial city in Mexico and a visit should be on every traveller’s list! When planning a trip to Yucatan, Mexico, many travellers will choose to stay in Mérida. But the colonial city of Valladolid is quite simply one of the most vibrant, authentic places you’ll find in Yucatan! Valladolid is the hidden gem of Yucatan and is still off the beaten path which makes it a great opportunity to experience the more authentic Mayan culture and history.

Visiting Valladolid, Yucatan Mexico

Visiting Valladolid, Yucatan Mexico

Many tourists visit Valladolid on a day trip from Cancun and Playa, or they just skip it! Travellers and backpackers just stay for one night while passing through Chichen Itza and other destinations. Not us though, we stayed here for three nights as the city is a great base for excursions to Ek Balam, Coba, Chichen Itza and countless cenotes in the area. But we didn’t use the town as a home base for discovering the region’s attractions only – Valladolid is worth exploring too!

Visit The Best Cenotes Near Valladolid

One of the coolest things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula is visiting a cenote and this was also my favourite activity during our road trip in Mexico! Probably the most beautiful cenotes of Yucatan are located near Valladolid. The small colonial city is the perfect place to stay, not only because of Chichen Itza or Ek’ Balam but also to enjoy some of the greatest cenotes in Mexico! There are also many other cenotes located near Merida, Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancun.

Cenotes are a system of more than 6000 natural sinkholes, found all over the Yucatan in Mexico. Cenotes are prevalent in the Yucatan Peninsula where the ground is primarily made up of limestone. In fact, a cenote is a deep sinkhole filled with rainwater and water flowing from underground rivers coming up to the earth’s surface. Cenotes are actually all connected with one another, forming the longest underground river in the world.

Cenote Oxman, Valladolid, Mexico

Cenote Ik Kil, Chichen Itza, Valladolid, Mexico

Cenote Suytun, Valladiolid, Yucatan, Mexico 3

Cenotes are created when the roof of an underground cavern collapses. Many of the cenotes near Valladolid were slowly forming over hundreds of years. They served as an entrance to the underworld for the Mayans Civilization. The word “cenote” or “dzonot” means “location with accessible groundwater” in the Mayan language. The cenotes were and still are the main source of clear water in this area of Mexico.

Visit One of The New World Wonders ~ Chichen Itza

Holding the title of one of the new seven wonders of the world, Chichen Itza is the most well-known and frequently visited Mayan ruins site in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and the second most visited archaeological site in Mexico. The pre-Hispanic city of Yucatan and UNESCO World Heritage Site has a challenging 1000-year-old history. The most famous attraction of Chichen Itza is the Temple and Pyramid of Kukulcan, known also as El Castillo.

Although I generally tend to prefer exploring lesser-visited places that are situated a little further off the main tourist path, Chichen Itza is a magnificent place and it is definitely a site worth visiting when travelling to Mexico.

Visiting Chichen Itza, El Castillo, Kukulkan Pyramid

Chichen Itza has a very central location in the Yucatan Peninsula. The Mayan ruins are extensive and cover 300 hectares but many sections have still never been excavated. Due to its location, you can visit the historical place from many cities in Yucatan like Cancun, Merida or Playa del Carmen but the best option is staying in the colonial city of Valladolid (less than an hour’s drive away)!

We visited Chichen Itza on the 24th of December which was the most exciting thing I have ever done on this day! The weather was perfect and there were not many people (at least till 9:30 a.m.). We stayed in Valladolid for 3 days from where we travelled to Chichen Itza in the early morning on the first day of our stay. Despite its popularity, Chichen Itza is one of those must-see places that everybody should visit at least once in a lifetime!

Visit The Mayan Ruins of Ek’ Balam

On our second day of staying in the town of Valladolid, we decided to explore another archaeological site of Yucatan – the ruins of Ek’ Balam! Ek’ Balam is a unique and lesser-known Mayan site. The ruins include some impressive unexcavated structures with interesting architecture situated among the dense jungle.

The ruins of Ek’ Balam are located just north of the colonial city of Valladolid in the centre of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The archaeological park is surrounded by the dense jungle of Yucatan. I absolutely loved the natural feel of these ruins with plants growing everywhere between the structures. The atmosphere was so peaceful, relaxing and quiet.

Visiting Ek' Balam in Yucatan, Mexico
Visiting Ek' Balam in Yucatan, Mexico

The best thing about the ruins of Ek’ Balam is that it is visited by only a fraction of the tourists that visit the more popular sites of Chichen Itza and Tulum! It is lesser-known, uncrowded and slightly off the main tourist path. I thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful and quiet atmosphere at the ruins being able to explore the surroundings and enjoy the incredible panoramic views of the jungle from the top of the Acropolis.

Merida: 4 Days

After spending 3 days exploring the region around Valladolid we kept heading west to Mérida, the capital of Yucatán state in Mexico. Mérida is the biggest city on the Yucatan peninsula with around one million inhabitants, well known for being one of the safest and cleanest cities in Mexico! Mérida is also home to many digital nomads and food junkies and after spending some 4 days in the city I can easily understand why!

Mérida is a beautiful and colourful city with a great location. Mérida is full of history, authentic people and has the best food on Earth! Mérida’s atmosphere is peaceful and its vibe – is carefree. Mérida’s colonial architecture is European-influenced and is still glitz and glamour.

View from Palacio Municipal de Mérida

Paseo de Montejo, Merida, Yucatan

Mérida in Mexico has truly so much to offer to its visitors. With its colonial past, Mérida boasts a rich culture, history, art and traditions. Probably that’s why Mérida has been the only city to be selected twice as the American Capital of Culture in the years 2000 and 2017. Another interesting fact is that Mérida was said to house more millionaires than any other place in the world… But you don’t have to be a millionaire in order to enjoy the city at its fullest!

One-Day Trip to Celestun

Have you ever seen a flamingo in flight? Before travelling to Mexico I had seen flamingos only in Vienna’s and San Diego’s Zoo. But the chance to see them in their natural surroundings excited me A LOT! Next to the Mayan ruins, seeing flamingos in the wild was at the top of my wishlist for our trip to Yucatan. There are two main biospheres in Mexico where you can see thousands of flamingos and the two are in the Yucatan Peninsula. The first place is Celestun (1h 45min drive from Merida) on the west Caribbean coast of Yucatan, and the other is at Rio Lagardos on the north coast (1h 30min drive from Valladolid). I have read in some travel blogs that you can also see flamingos on the island of Holbox.

See Thousands of Flamingos in Celestun Mexico

Flamingos are probably my favourite bird kind, so seeing thousands of them at once seemed like a brave thing to dream about. The best thing about dreams – you can make them come true!

We decided to visit the flamingos in Celestun. The fisher village is considered as a “back to nature” attraction for travellers. And we were not disappointed! Celestun is heaven to observe the elegant pink creatures and many other birds! The village has more to offer to its visitors than the beautiful flamingos at Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Celestún – here is a great place to relax on the beach, explore the mangroves and enjoy the great food of Celest.

Visit The Mayan Ruins of Uxmal

On our first day after arriving in Merida, we headed toward one of the most exciting historical sites of Yucatan – Uxmal and the Pyramid of the Magician. We started in the early morning at about 7:30 a.m. when the temperatures are still moderate and endurable. All in all, it took us about an hour out there and an hour back of actual driving from Merida, excluding the time for all the stops we made at some interesting places on our way back.

Uxmal, Yucatan

The imposing Uxmal ruins should be a must-visit on every Yucatan travel itinerary. Why? There are many reasons for that, but the most important one is that Uxmal is off the beaten path, so you won’t be disturbed by thousands of other tourists, guides and groups here (like in Chechen Itza). The other reason – Uxmal was one of the largest cities in the Yucatan region which still has one of the best-preserved archaeological sites in Mexico and one of the most interesting circular-shaped pyramids that is unlike any other pyramid.

Playa del Carmen: 3 Days

The biggest disappointment after Cancun (or even bigger) was Play del Carmen. I was expecting a small coastal town with beautiful Carribean white sand beaches. What we saw instead was a huge and overpopulated city and not that beautiful (full of seaweed) beaches. I have heard so many good things about Playa, so I was expecting way too much!

There is not so much to see and do in Playa, apart from shopping and partying. The positive thing about Playa was celebrating New Year’s Eve. It was really something different and fun to celebrate with people from all over the world on the beach of Playa.

Visit The Mayan Ruins of Tulum

The archaeological ruins of Tulum are one of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites in Mexico and probably, it won’t be the best idea to visit Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula without seeing the Mayan Ruins of Tulum. The ruins of Tulum is very (and probably too!) popular day trip from Playa del Carmen and Cancun.

Visiting The Ruins of Tulum, Mexico Visiting The Ruins of Tulum, Mexico

If you cannot come as early as possible (which means before opening!) you will have to share the experience with hundreds of people and tons of guided groups. And it gets overcrowded! But it is a beautiful place to visit and still the most preserved coastal Maya city which makes it so interesting for tourists to visit. Back in the day, it was possible to climb the pyramids, but that’s no longer the case. If you want to climb a pyramid visit Coba (50 minutes by car from Tulum) or Ek Balam (2 hours by car from Tulum).

Tulum & Akumal

Tulum is controversial no matter how you look at it. When a travel destination is too overhyped, it also happens to be overrated. The question is if Tulum is overrated. Depends on what you are looking for.

What you want is not always what you get. I’m not trying to rail at Tulum for what it has become. I’m just saying that I didn’t experience the Ubud vibe as expected, but rather a Black-Sea-resort vibe from the ‘90s. If you ask me what makes Tulum unique and why are people going there instead of going to Playa del Carmen or Cancun? Well, because of the people! Tulum has a specific target group – Instagrammers, wanna-be-hippies, hipsters, and easy-going people. Tulum has changed in order to win this target group and become a popular getaway and a hot spot for yoga retreats, festivals and boutique shopping.

Tulum Travel Guide

Yucatan Road Trip

Tulum is ridiculously expensive! Everything is more expensive here than anywhere in Riviera Maya. The boutique prices are like those in Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles. In Tulum, you can easily pay between 200 € and 300 € per night to stay at a 3-star hotel on the beach (even Santa Monica was not that expensive!). You can find the same stuff in Playa for less than half of the prices in Tulum. Taxis, restaurants, and shopping work the same way. The restaurants and cafes are way too fancy … And of course expensive. The food was always good, but nothing spectacular, to be honest!

Visit The Mayan Ruins of Coba

The Mayan ruins of Coba are some of the most spectacular and underrated ruins in the eastern part of Yucatán. The Mayan ruins of Coba are believed to be one of the most important in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Coba has significantly fewer tourists than Chichen Itza, and you can pretty much have the ruins to yourself. Here, you are allowed to touch and even climb the Great Pyramid – the jungle views from above are brilliant and the experience is unforgettable!

Visiting Coba in Yucatan, Mexico

Visiting Coba in Yucatan, Mexico

Visiting Coba is an amazing day trip experience within reach of Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Valladolid. We actually travelled to Coba from Tulum by car. The best way to explore the site of Coba is by yourself! You don’t have to book a private tour or guide. Just take your time and camera, climb the pyramid and wander through the pathways and tunnels of Coba!

Dos Ojos: Cenote Diving Near Tulum

Tulum’s diving scene is a unique mix of cenotes and reefs. Especially if you are into diving, Tulum is a great place for exploring not only the coral reef but you will also have the opportunity to dive in the unique underworld of Mexico!

Of course – cenote diving Tulum is an extraordinary experience! You can choose between cenote cavern diving and cenote cave diving. The best diving cenotes near Tulum are Pit Cenote, Dos Ojos Cenote, Angelita, Calavera and Grand Cenote.

Peter decided to have two dive sessions in Dos Ojos. The name of Dos Ojos means two eyes as you will dive not in one cenote but in two neighbouring cenotes connected by underground tunnels. The very first cave diving exploration of the whole cave system in Yucatan began here in these two cenotes.

Dos Ojos Cenote

Dos Ojos Cenote

Half-Day Trip to Sian Ka’an

The best comes last! Our last day in Mexico turned out to be one of my favourite days as we decided to visit Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Sian Ka’an has a national park status since the year of 1986 and is one of 34 UNESCO World Heritage Sites but luckily, mass tourism has not reached the wonderful biosphere reserve till nowadays. The statistic proves it – only 80,000 tourists a year visit Sian Ka’an Reserve.

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, Mexico

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, Mexico

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, Mexico

Sian Ka’an is certainly the wildest place in the Riviera Maya which is home to thousands of species of flora & fauna including more than 300 species of birds, crocodiles, lamentins, dolphins, turtles and many others. The natural wonder of Sian Ka’an encompasses 5280 km² of a protected area which is a must-visit place especially if you are a nature lover.

In Sian Ka’an you can enjoy not only the tropical forests and mangroves, savanna grasslands and coral reef but also some Mayan Ruins. Sian Ka’an is also famous for its pristine and untouched beaches where you can enjoy snorkelling and swimming in preserved coral reefs.

Sargassum Problem in Mexico

Let’s talk about the beaches – Tulum is situated on the coastline of the Caribbean Sea and is claimed to be “a must” on every beach lover’s bucket list. Yes, the beaches of Tulum are Caribbean white sand beaches with turquoise water, but here it comes the big “BUT” – sargassum!

Sargassum is a seaweed that smells bad and looks unattractive. Sargassum is invading all the beaches of Riviera Maya since 2017. The massive amount of seaweed is turning the beautiful turquoise waters brown and the sugary-white sand beaches into a stinky area. The seaweed problem has seriously affected the whole business during the last couple of years. There are parts of the beach that are clear though (if the hotel decides to clean the beach or not!)

Tulum Travel Guide Yucatan Road Trip

Planning a trip to Mexico?

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Enjoy the day!

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