Yes, Cancun promises a great beach vacation, with diverse adventures and experiences, but don’t miss going on a road trip (or day trips) to explore the Yucatan Peninsula during your next visit to Mexico! Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is filled with breathtaking beaches, big malls, Mayan ruins, and trendy bars & restaurants that will make for a memorable and fun holiday.
There are many options to get to your hotel when you arrive at the Cancun Airport – you can take either bus, private shuttles, or taxis. You can get Cancun airport transportation so you won’t share your vehicle with strangers. But I recommend renting a car to explore the Yucatan…
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Tips for renting a car in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
The best option if you want to go explore beyond Cancun and go on a road trip in the Yucatan Peninsula is to get a car rental. There are a few options at the airport and we like Car Rental Cancun. It is a personal favorite option and a lifesaver if you travel with a lot of luggage. Book it in advance so you can travel stress-free and avoid the long wait for a vehicle. Cancun is quite a popular destination!
Cancun is just a hop away from Dallas (a direct flight gets us there in under 3 hours) and we have visited a few times. We have been to the Riviera Maya area, a couple of trips to Cancun but have never gone off the beaten path… A road trip in the Yucatan Peninsula to discover the brightly colored towns is in order when we go to Mexico next time!
Yucatan Peninsula Road Trip Map
See this map for planning a road trip in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, it has all the stops and highlights. You can download it or email it.
Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico Road trip Itinerary
- The beaches of Playa Del Carmen and Cancun
- Merida, the capital with its colorful houses
- Ancient Mayan Ruins at Uxmal
- The bright and cheery Colonial town of Izamal (it has bright yellow houses, my main reason to go here!)
- The iconic ruins of Chichen Itza, one of the 7 Wonders of the World
- Spend some time in Valladolid, a colonial town
- Enjoy the Bohemian & Beachy vibe at Tulum
- Visit the ruins at Coba and Tulum
- Stop at a few Cenotes along the way for some snorkeling and to cool off after a day of sightseeing.
- See Flamingoes and pink colored lagoons at Rio Lagartos National Park
Keep in mind that this is an aggressive 10 day Yucatan Peninsula Road trip itinerary (as seems to be the case with most of our trips). If you are NOT short on time, you might want to add a day or more to each stop and make it a full 2 week road trip in the Yucatan Peninsula.
See a visual story here.
Days 1-4 Cancun or Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
Spend the first 3 days by the beach either in Cancun or make the short hour drive to Playa Del Carmen. The area is home to dozens of hotels and resorts and is a perfect base for exploring the beaches in the area. While Cabo is considered the Mexican Riviera, this part of Mexico located on the Caribbean side has clear and calmer waters (weather permitting of course).
Visit Mayan Ruins, go snorkeling, discover cenotes, or play in the large ‘Disneyesque’ Eco-parks like Xplor, or Xelha. Or skip all that and enjoy the resort town and its idyllic palm-fringed sandy beaches, blue water… just lay on the beach and never leave the resort.
Accommodations in Playa del Carmen
On our first of the many visits to Mexico, we stayed at the Barceló Maya Palace in Riviera Maya and visited the Mayan Ruins. We have stayed at Riu Palace Cancun once but loved our stay at Paradisus so much more.
If you are staying in Playa del Carmen, both Riviera Maya and Mayakoba are great options. Located on 620 acres of pristine lagoons, jungles and beaches, the private gated community of Mayakoba is home to award-winning hotels like Rosewood, Andaz, Fairmont, and Banyan Tree.
If you are staying in Cancun, drive to Rio Lagartos to see the pink colored lakes, and the flamingoes who live in the Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Lagartos. You can drive to Merida to spend the night.
Days 5-6 Merida, Mexico
The next stop on this road trip of the Yucatan Peninsula is Merida! Colorful colonial houses, small eateries selling some amazing European-influenced Yucatecan food, historic squares rich with Spanish and French colonial architecture are waiting for you in Mérida! Vintage Beetles are everywhere in the city, adding to the charm of this city.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Mérida the capital city of Yucatán was said to house more millionaires than any other place in the world. Today, it has become a popular refuge for the modern-day creative class looking for an inexpensive place to call home. It has a bit of glamour, grit and free spirit!
Accommodations in Merida
Merida was voted the Cultural Capital of the Americas and deserves a spot on your Yucatan road trip itinerary. Stay at The Diplomat Hotel, or at the one bedroom suite at Coqui Coqui Perfumeria Residence. Up your culinary skills with lessons at the Los Dos cooking school and food tours. Taste some chocolate at Ki’Xocolatl and visit Gran Museo del Mundo Maya museum which was designed to represent an enormous ceiba, the sacred tree for the Mayas.
Make time to visit the Uxmal ruins which are located less than 1.5 hours away from Merida and the ruins are impressive and a lot less crowded than Chichen Itza. Then make your way back to the white sand beaches of Tulum!
On the way to Tulum
On the drive back to Tulum take the scenic route. Stop at Izamal, a small colonial town, about an hour away from Merida. Izamal was the center of worship for the Mayan sun god Itzamná, over which the Spanish colonialists built the giant monastery Convento de San Antonio (which looks like a mini version of Melk Abbey in Austria).
Today the town is famous for its chrome yellow houses and horse-drawn carriages – Izamal is one of the most photogenic places in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Valladolid is perfect for a day trip from Cancun
If you are planning to spend 2 weeks in Yucatan, then definitely stop in Valladolid for a couple of days. Or you can visit as a day trip from Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
Walk around town to admire the colonial Spanish architecture, the pastel-colored building and the ornate façades are stunning. Visit the Valladolid cathedral and Chichen Itza, which is not too far away. Ek Balam is an impressive set of ruins, but most of it still hasn’t been fully excavated.
Meander down the cobblestone street of Calzada de los Frailes, you will find it draped in bougainvillea and dotted with artsy boutiques and cozy cafés. Tour the Templo de San Bernardino, a Franciscan church that doubled as a fortress during the Caste War. Don’t miss a visit to the Casa de los Venados, a 17th-century casona (mansion), that houses an impressive collection of Mexican folk art.
Now it is time to drive back to the beaches on Yucatan Peninsula! If you didn’t stop anywhere, the drive from Merida to Tulum should take about 3.5 hours.
Day 7-9 Tulum, Mexico
Tulum needs no introduction, it is a Mexican town that often makes the list of one of the top places to visit in Mexico. Tulum means wall in Maya, but, the town’s original name, Zamá means “Place of the dawning sun.” It was one of the few enclosed cities built by the Mayas. Tulum, much like Bali has that unique boho style that makes it perfect for yoga retreats and lounging in hammocks and stuffing your face with tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Trust me, you don’t miss out on the Mexican food while visiting the Yucatan! While we love our TexMex in Texas, nothing compares to the authentic food in Mexico! If you didn’t have time for a cooking school in Merida, you can try one in Tulum. There are plenty of smoothie bars and restaurants serving fine-dining and creative menus, a few you should try are: Nü, El Camello Restaurant, Macondo, Charly’s Vegan Tacos, Hartwood, Arca, and Taqueria La Eufemia
Even if you are not doing the complete road trip and just driving from Cancun to Tulum, Cancun Car Rental is the way to go. That way you have the flexibility to check out the archeological spots, Mayan ruins, a few underground cenotes and the large reserve of Sian Ka’an Biosphere that boasts many native species of flora and fauna like spider monkeys, dolphins and flamingoes.
Once in Tulum, and settled in your hotel, bike rides through the town are a must to do. Many hotels offer free bike rentals or a special price for guests, but you can also get them downtown. Since Tulum is a small town, the distance is pretty short from the beach, craft shops, and restaurants.
Some of the things to do in Tulum
- Go on a day trip to Sian Ka’an Biosphere – the road to get there is bumpy but there are a lot of secluded beaches along the way. In Sian Ka’an Biosphere book a tour, to go on a kayak tour through mangroves and nature reserve.
- Explore Tulum pueblo – it has street art and chilled out vibes.
- Visit Tulum’s Mayan ruins located at the north end of the beach, perched dramatically on seaside cliffs, overlooking the ocean.
- Visiting the Coba ruins – the ruins aren’t that impressive but you can climb to the top
- Swimming & snorkeling in the Cenotes around Tulum – there are plenty to choose from, but some of the best ones are Grand Cenote, Cenote Azul and Dos Ojos. If you don’t want to make multiple stops try Cenote Zapote Ecopark, a Prehistoric Park with 4 different cenotes.
Accommodation in Tulum
Tulum is divided into 2 distinct parts where you can stay – the hotels on the beach zone hotel and a bohemian downtown Tulum pueblo.
The Pueblo is authentic, affordable and lively downtown area of Tulum, full of wonderful restaurants, bars, and clubs. Two of Tulum’s best yoga studios are here: Yoga Dicha (featuring yoga with puppies every Monday morning) and Tribal Tulum, a yoga studio/dive shop.
The Beach Zone (Middle Beach especially) is the heart of Tulum’s beach area, with upscale dining, high-end boutiques, and open-air nightclubs, hotels with attached roofs and swaying palms. It has a great party scene and plethora of restaurants serving creative menus.
The South Beach Zone with a long, wide stretch of sandy beach with no rocky parts is great for families and kids. Located near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, hotels in the south end tend to be quieter, more eco-conscious than hotels to the north.
There are a couple of options for overwater bungalows in Mexico but they are currently adult only.
Book your Yucatan Tours
Rio Lagartos, Mexico
If you have time… plan to add Río Lagartos (Alligator River) to your Yucatan Road trip itinerary. Located on the northern shore of the peninsula, Río Lagartos is a sleepy fishing village that has the densest concentration of flamingos in Mexico. Located within the Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Lagartos, this mangrove-lined estuary shelters bird species, including snowy egrets, red egrets, tiger herons and snowy white ibis, as well as the crocodiles that gave the town its name. It’s a beautiful area and worth the trip.
Social media famous, Las Coloradas is also part of the Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve – a protected wetlands area. You can tour the Unbelievable Pink Lake of Las Coloradas, which means ‘blush red’ in Spanish. It gets its unique tint from red-coloured algae, plankton and brine shrimp that use the salty water as their habitat, creating the magenta pink hue.
I hope this post gave you some itinerary ideas to explore beyond the beaches of Cancun as day trips or go on a road trip in the Yucatan Peninsula!
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