Adventure Driving in Mexico – the Yucatan Peninsula

β€œIs 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 rentalcars.com.  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!

22 thoughts on “Adventure Driving in Mexico – the Yucatan Peninsula”

  1. Hello there! Found your post through a google search, as we are planning a road trip to the Yucatan in a few months. I was happy to hear that it is easy to rent a car – where did you rent through, and would you recommend them? I was hoping to cover a pretty large area in our 15 days, looks I might have to scale back too! πŸ™‚

    1. Katie – so happy that our post was able to help you! Yes, we would definitely recommend renting a car in the Yucatan. I’m not sure where you are flying into, but we flew into the Cancun airport. We rented through America Rental Car – and yes, we would recommend them! They were very courteous and helpful. They picked us up at the airport and took us to their office to pick up the car, and at the end of the trip when we dropped off the car, they returned us to the airport. They were very professional!

      You should be able to see a lot in 15 days. We only had 7 days and covered quite an area. Have fun and let us know if you have any other questions.

      – Liz & Josh

  2. Ruben & Isabel

    Hi! That’s the kind of route we’d like to do in our 7 day-trip to Yucatan! We plan to stay off resorts so we’re looking for accommodation along the route…. Which places did you stay in the area, and which websites did you check to search for accommodation, apart from the Mayaland? Were those places self-catered? We’d like to buy in markets and cook our own meals half of the time.. πŸ™‚
    Thanks a bunch!

    And great site! πŸ™‚

    1. Hey there Ruben & Isabel – thanks for the comment! πŸ™‚

      Near Chichen Itza, there is a town called Piste – but there isn’t much there. If you are looking for markets and local life, I would recommend staying in Valladolid. We loved it! Great place, and I’m sure you could rent a self-catering apartment of some kind. We also stayed in Tulum, as well as Paa Mul (just south of Playa del Carmen).

      I would recommend checking out Airbnb.com. You can rent direct from owners who offer entire residences, or rooms. This also gives you an opportunity to meet people too. We found some really cool places in this part of Mexico on Airbnb.com – so definitely check it out.

      Have fun! We miss it down there – so much fun!

      – Liz

  3. Hey!

    Currently trying to decide whether to visit Mexico City or to do a road trip around the Yucatan Peninsula, and your blog is definitely making me think more about the road trip idea! I have a few questions:

    – Did you have any trouble parking your car somewhere overnight?
    – How was the driving in general? Conditions of the roads? Other drivers?
    – Was it hard to navigate? Did you buy a map in advance?

    Thanks!

    1. Thanks for reading and for the questions Elizabeth!

      We loved driving around the Yucatan. We didn’t have any issues parking, although bigger cities can be challenging, it’s still fairly easy to find parking. But we always had overnight parking when staying in a hotel / hostel. The driving was perfectly find. The main highways are quite good, aside from a few potholes here and there – so just beware of those. Secondary roads are pretty decent too, but anything off the beaten path will be rough. We took some small country roads a few times and it was like an obstacle course avoiding the potholes — but totally manageable.

      Other drivers are fine, just drive with caution. Driving at night isn’t advisable – mostly because of a lack of streetlights, wildlife, potholes…and they do have an issue with drunk driving at night. So safer to try and be off the road if possible.

      We had a few maps, but we actually used our GPS navigation, which was perfect! It was super helpful. The main roads are easy to navigate with a map, mostly the GPS helped out when we were in towns, like Valladolid, and trying to find our way around.

      Overall, we would recommend it. It was easier than we thought it would be to drive around the Yucatan – and we really had a wonderful time doing it! The experience wouldn’t have been the same any other way.

      Cheers & let us know if you have any other questions.
      – Liz

  4. I am flying to Cancun in the beginning of December and heading over to Isla Mujeres where I have rented a studio apt for 3 months. A friend is going to meet me at the end of February and we plan on renting a car and going on a road trip for 9 or 10 days. We don’t plan on getting places to stay ahead of time, we are just going to wing it. I am hoping to make it to Merida & possibly Campeche. We would like to stay on coastal roads as much as possible but obviously that may not end up working out. Do you think that we will have any trouble finding places to stay? We have already visited Playa & Tulum on day trips so we are more into experiencing small towns. Any thoughts?

    1. Hi There Katie – thanks for reading!

      You should be able to find places to stay, but depending on your level of Spanish, it could be challenging in some of the more remote areas. Overall, it is a bit easier to book online — even if it is the day of. So if you can get somewhere with wifi in the afternoon and do some online searching, that will definitely save you some time, as opposed to driving around a town in the evening trying to find a place to stay. But really, I don’t think you should have much trouble. It just depends on your budget and how comfortable you are with winging it in some of the more remote areas. If you are out of the big cities (Cancun, Playa, Tulum, Merida, etc.) then it can get pretty remote. Hope you have a great time! 3 months in Isla Mujeres sounds wonderful!!!

      Happy Travels!
      – Liz

      1. Thank you for your response I went ahead and rented from America and they are supposed to pick us up at the ferry from Isla. We went ahead and booked 1 night in Merida and 2 on the beach in Chelem. After that we plan on campeche and will decide if we want to continue down the coast to Ciudad Del Carmen and beyond or head back across towards Chetumal, I’ll let you know how it all works out!

        1. That’s awesome – thanks for letting us know! I hope all goes well and that you have a fantastic vacation!

          I would love to be somewhere warm right now. We are in China and it is COLD! I miss sunny beaches! πŸ™‚

          Happy Travels!
          – Liz

  5. Hi Liz,

    Your website was extremely helpful, so thank you!

    I was wondering about Highway Tolls. Unfortunately the link you posted is no longer available. I am just wondering, if by memory, you remember the following:

    -How many tolls you passed
    -How much on average were the tolls
    -Did you need to pay cash at all of them

    Thank you so much!

    1. Stephanie – thanks for letting me know about the link. I will need to check into that and see if I can get an update.

      From what I recall, there are a couple toll booths. One is about mid-way through to Chichen Itza (before Valladolid), while the other is just before the exit to Chichen Itza / Piste. We actually only drove through the first one, then we exited the highway at Valladolid and took some back roads to get there. This way we avoided the final toll and got to drive on some back roads for sight seeing. There are some Cenotes and cool things to explore, but the toll road is fastest.

      From what I remember, it is probably a few hundred pesos for the tolls — and yes, bring cash!

      Have fun!
      – Liz

  6. Liz,
    Thanks for your informative posts. My boyfriend and I are staying in a resort in Puerto Morales which is the NOW Sapphire Resort. We were pricing out excursions for the 5 days and 4 nights so just a quick trip but the excursions to Tulum is over $200 for the both of us then Chichen itza is almost the same. After reading your article I believe we can rent a car and get around at our own pace and cost less. What do you think? I am military and have driven in Afghanistan and Iraq so no fears here but price is my factor now and yet see the real culture? We leave August 27th- Sept 2nd 2015

    1. Hi there Heidi – thanks for reading.

      Yeah, the tours can get expensive — and while they can be informative they also restrict your freedom a bit. Renting a car is definitely doable, and with your experience, you shouldn’t have any trouble. I would recommend pricing out car rentals online — but not keep in mind that most of them don’t include the required Mexican liability insurance (https://www.peanutsorpretzels.com/tips-renting-a-car-in-mexico-liability-insurance/).

      The one company we found that will quote you INCLUDING the extra insurance is America Car Rental — that way, you will be able to price out the car for your visit and see how the total price of the rental (with insurance) compares to the tour prices. I can’t say for sure how much it will cost. For us, I believe we paid around $300 for around 10 days — and that included all the extra insurance. So I believe it will be less than the tours.

      We really loved having the car to be able and explore on our own. It was nice to go for a drive, and stop in some of the towns — relaxing for a lunch or having a beer. And the Yucatan is just a great place!

      I hope this helps – have fun!

      Liz

  7. Thanks for sharing your experience! I am planning on renting a car while in Tulum and Merida this fall and am looking forward to getting off the beaten path to explore some lesser known ruins and cenotes. I am hoping all goes well with the driving and rental agency!

  8. Hi Liz

    Great blog. We are looking at 10 days in late March. Rental car loop including Vallavoid, Merida, Campeche Calakmul.

    The only real issue is that we are Australian so I will be driving on the other side of the road.

    From what I can see all the main roads look pretty good but since the idea of renting the car is to get off the main roads any info you have on secondary road system would be great.

    Thanks

    Scotty

  9. Hi Liz,

    My husband and I are planning to rent a car to drice around the yucatan as you did. However, my concern is, is it safe to leave luggage in the car while exploring ruins etc?? Cars with big trunks/boots are way to expensive, so I am wondering how we will be able to make stops with luggages in the car.

    Thanks,
    Joanna

    1. Hey there Joanna – thanks for reading and for the comment!

      The risk in the Yucatan is just about the same as anywhere when it comes to leaving luggage in the car. We had this issue too when we were there, because we only had a small hatchback car. The best thing to do is to try and cover it as best you can, and try to limit how much you bring. Obviously if there is a car overloaded up to the windows it will get people’s attention. But if you keep it low and cover it with coats and things like that, it’s about all you can do. Take your valuables with you, or also lock them in the glove box if you can.

      We made some stops between hotels and felt comfortable leaving the luggage in the car while we explored a bit.

      I hope this helps. Have a fun trip!

      – Liz

  10. Susan Branch Smith

    Enjoyed your post. It’s been almost 30 years since I first drove a truck (not a rental) in Mexico. It was great to be on our own. I’m thinking of making a trip to the Yucatan solo. What’s your safety advice?

    1. Hi Susan – thanks for reading and for the comment!

      The Yucatan overall is quite a safe part of Mexico. However, basic precautions should be made whether you are traveling solo or not. In general, it’s always good to make your family and friends aware of your detailed travel plans. You should also have a good cell phone that will work in Mexico. Staying on the main roads is best, and always have a map / GPS. You also shouldn’t drive at night because it is quite dangerous due to the lack of road lighting and conditions.

      If you are driving to the Yucatan from other parts of Mexico, I recommend reviewing the State departments warnings and that you stay up-to-date on them. There are definitely some areas in Mexico where you don’t want to drive through at night, especially if you are alone. I don’t know all the different areas, so I think it’s best that you check out the State depts. website for more detailed information about all of Mexico.

      Thanks for reading and I hope you have a great trip!

      Liz

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