Adventure Driving in Mexico – the Yucatan Peninsula

“Is it safe?”  That’s what all of our friends and family asked us when we told them that we were planning a trip to Mexico that included driving in Mexico around the Yucatan Peninsula for our 1 year anniversary.  With so many people questioning us, even Josh started to wonder if I was crazy for suggesting it.  But the Yucatan is a very different place than the Mexico that makes the news here in the States.  Of course, you must take the same precautions as you would when traveling anywhere, but overall, traveling in the Yucatan is about as safe as many other places around the world.  And with only a 2 hour flight from Atlanta, you can’t beat the culture, food, history, natural landscapes, adventure, and amazing people! 

Liz sitting in passenger seat of bright red rental car in Mexico - this is what we drove around the Yucatan during our trip
Meet “La Roja” – we name all of our rental cars!

Driving in Mexico – our Yucatan Map

For this trip we only had 8 nights, and we were planning to fit in a variety of activities (our darn jobs always get in the way of traveling, but we do what we can to maximize our time off work!).  With regard to our itinerary, we decided on the following:  2 nights in Cancun, 2 nights at Chichen Itza, 2 nights in Tulum, and 2 nights in Paa Mul (south of Playa del Carmen).  There were so many things that we wanted to see and do in the Yucatan, it was really hard coming up with a plan.  Many of our ideas had to be eliminated due to time constraints, such as Merida and Uxmal; but there is always next time!

Read our post – Tips for Driving in Mexico.

This is our driving map in the Yucatan from Google with marks for all our stops and where we stayed.
The map of our road trip around the Yucatan Peninsula – wish we would have had more time to explore!

Renting a Car in Mexico & Mexican Liability Insurance

Renting a car in Mexico is fairly easy.  However, there are some unique things to keep in mind; such as the mandatory Mexican Liability Insurance!  This topic gets a bit more complicated, so we wrote a whole separate post about renting a car in Mexico and purchasing the special insurance.  Click here to read the story.

We were lucky to find a great rental car company!

We’ve heard a lot of horror stories about people being overcharged for insurance and other crazy fees by car rental companies in Mexico.  However, we had a great experience with American Car Rental.  If you are interested in America Car Rental, click on the banner below to search  America is currently one of their vendors, and their price includes the mandatory Mexican Liability Insurance!

Cancun – “Eh”

We first spent some time relaxing at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun.  Overall, we don’t believe it was worth what we paid, but it was nice to relax on the beach.  Unfortunately it was flooding rain while in Cancun, so we missed out on some of the activities that we wanted to do, such as going snorkeling at the MUSA underwater museum.  The seas were too choppy and visibility was low due to the weather.  Instead, we decided to explore Cancun while doing a bit of geocaching.

Liz in drivers seat giving thumbs up in our red rental car while driving around Cancun, Mexico
“La Roja” helped us get all around Mexico & handed the rough road and potholes well!

Geocaching in the Yucatan

We pulled out our trusty Garmin Oregon 650T GPS unit, which Josh had pre-loaded with geocaches around our Mexico itinerary.  We discovered that geocaching in Cancun was a bit of a bust, but we enjoyed driving around and exploring the less-than-touristy parts of town.  We did some shopping and found a real hidden gem for lunch, and our GPS worked great for getting us around town.

Luckily, we were able to find a number of other great geocaches in the Yucatan outside of Cancun, and many virtual Earthcaches too!  We came to really enjoy the flexibility of our Garmin because we were able to easily switch from driving mode to geocaching mode.  The GPS unit would automatically show us all the caches located near us.  It was very convenient!

holding a garmin GPS and following the compass in the direction of a geocache at the famous tulum ruins in the yucatan of mexico
Our Garmin pointing us to the site of the Virtual Cache in Tulum

Colonial Towns, Tequila, and Amazing Tacos!

Most people who head to the Yucatan tend to stay in the main coastal towns, such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum.  If they do venture into the interior it is often just for a day trip to Chichen Itza on a tour.  While this isn’t a bad way to see the sights, we really feel like you need to explore beyond these main sights so that you can get a feel for the people and the culture.  Plus, there are so many other beautiful places to see that are just slightly off the main tourist path.

Having a rental car gives you the freedom to explore some of these tiny towns.  We were able to stop off at some local restaurants and enjoy phenomenal home-made food, and even practice our Spanish with the owners.  This is a much more authentic way to experience a destination.

Having parked our red rental car, Liz is standing outside as we walk to get tacos for lunch in a small town in the Yucatan during our road trip
Stopping for a quick bite to eat in a small town on our way around the Yucatan. Not another tourist in sight.

If you do make your way out toward Chichen Itza, be sure to stop by Valladolid.  

This is a gorgeous colonial town, and we  fell in love with its authentic Mexican charm.  We had lunch in the square and did some shopping at the market.  We also learned that there is wifi in the town square – yes, at the flag pole!  Valladolid is a tourist friendly town, they even have a set of officers dedicated for tourists.  When we asked him about wifi, he told us to go toward the flag pole in the square.  We were confused and thought perhaps that there was a language misunderstanding, but sure enough, there was wifi at the flag pole!

Classic shot of old colonial square in valladolid, Mexico with cathedral steeple, fountain, and woman walking in traditional Mayan dress across the square
Enjoying the beautiful scenery in the center of town – Valladolid, Mexico

If you visit Valladolid, be sure to stop by the Mayapan Tequila Distillery outside of town.  We had actually looked up distilleries in advance when we were planning our trip, and couldn’t find any online.  However, we stumbled across this while exiting the toll highway at Valladolid — both Josh and I caught a glimpse of a billboard.  We immediately turned the car around and were pleasantly surprised with this discovery!  The tour is inexpensive and includes 3 samples of the product.  It was so good that we purchased a few bottles to take home with us.

Looking at a field of Agave plants at Mayapan tequila farm and distillery outside valladolid mexico in the yucatan with bright yellow building in the background
Mayapan Tequila Farm

Mayan Ruins Galore!

There are plenty of ancient Mayan Ruins to explore all around the Yucatan Peninsula.  We first chose to explore Chichen Itza and the surrounding area.  When we left Valladolid, we were able to just do a search on our Garmin for nearby points of interest.  We selected Chichen Itza, and our Garmin automatically showed us our route, and our estimated arrival time!  Having this feature really helped us get the most out of our trip because it allowed us to be spontaneous and explore new places that we hadn’t planned to see, while also keeping us from getting lost.  See our post on Tips for Visiting Chichen Itza.

Up close picture of our Garmin GPS guiding us to drive to Chichen Itza during our road trip in the Yucatan Mexico
Our Garmin pointed us in the right direction in the Yucatan

Chichen Itza is an iconic site that is incredibly popular, especially with day trippers from Cancun.  It is much more pleasant if you visit in the early morning or late afternoon, to avoid the intense afternoon sun (and drenching humidity) as well as the mass of tour groups.  There are actually a number of accommodation options nearby the site, but we chose to stay at one of only two hotels on the archaeological property, the Mayaland Hotel.  With a private entrance to the ruins and 5-star service, we can’t recommend this place enough.  

** See full post on our Stay at Chichen Itza Mexico – The Amazing Mayaland Resort.

Liz and Josh, couple posing in front of the famous pyramid at Chichen Itza in the Yuctan of Mexico with no crowds around
We made it to Chichen Itza!

Another interesting archeological site is Coba, between Valladolid and Tulum.  This particular site is far less crowded than Chichen Itza, and it felt more natural because it didn’t have all the restoration work done to it.  It is pretty spread out in the jungle.  So take advantage of the bike guides who will pedal you around and share some interesting information with you about the site.  Saving your energy is important here, because this is one place where you can still climb the big pyramid.  It’s a hot, steep journey (not for the faint of heart), but the view is worth it!

Liz climbing carefully up the Coba Pyramid in the Yuctan Mexico.
Getting prepped up for the climb to the top at Coba

Ultimately, we made our way to the coastal town of Tulum.  This was a funky little town with a cool vibe & a lot of awesome outdoor and water activities.  It is also home to some of the most photographed ruins in the area, perched on the Caribbean coast.  Again, get there early if you can because it gets crowded and hot.  They do offer an optional tour that will take you around the ruins as well as taking you down to the beach so that you can go out snorkeling off the coast – for a dramatic view of the ruins from the water.  In the end, we really wish we had more time here because there are so many fun things to do in Tulum!  We loved it.

Adventures in Nature

Beyond the ancient ruins, the Yucatan Peninsula is home to numerous outdoor adventure activities, it’s quite impressive really.  Just off shore in the Caribbean Sea is the second largest reef in the world where you can do all kinds of snorkeling and scuba diving.  We also experienced some thrilling outdoor activities in the jungle, such as zip lining and a jungle canopy bike (the only one in the Yucatan) and we explored an underground river system!

Liz and Josh, couple with wetsuits, lifejackets, yellow helmet and headlamp exploring the famous Rio Secreto underground cave and river system in the Yucatan Mexico
We spent hours exploring this underground river system – at Rio Secreto

The Yucatan Peninsula was once a coral reef under the sea.  Now, the limestone is so delicate and porous that there are no above ground rivers in the area; all the water is underground in the form of rivers or Cenotes (sinkholes that fill with water).  The ancient Maya believed this was the entry to the underworld, so it was very sacred to them.  

Nowadays, you can go on guided underground river tours through the caves, or go swimming, snorkeling or even diving these Cenotes.  In fact, we went snorkeling deep into a Cenote cave – it was pitch dark and we needed our flashlights to guide the way as we squeezed between stalactites!  The water is cool but not cold, crystal clear, and feels amazingly fresh.  Swimming in these Cenotes were by far some of the best memories of our road trip around the Yucatan, Mexico.

Until Next Time Mexico

In the end, we were incredibly sad to leave Mexico.  Both Josh and I had been to the Yucatan before, but only for short visits.  We knew that driving around Mexico, and specifically the Yucatan, would be fun; but it actually exceeded our expectations.   The Yucatan Peninsula is an amazing place with so much adventure and fun to be had.  The people are wonderful, the main roads are pretty good, the food is amazing, and the natural landscape is stunning.  We loved every minute of our trip and cannot wait to return.

Looking out at the morning sunrise from our Bungalow on the beach over the ocean with palm trees in Akumal Paa Mul, Mexico in the Yucatan - a great place to stay during our road trip!
Sunrise in Paradise – Paa Mul, Mexico

Check Out Our Complete Mexico Travel Guide!

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