Are you planning a trip to the Yucatán Peninsula and are overwhelmed with where to start? Let’s break it down! This two-week suggested itinerary will cover most of the main attractions, cities, cenotes and colonial towns along Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, covering three of Mexico’s 32 states (Quintana Roo, Yucatán and Campeche.)
If you’re planning a trip to Mexico, check out my Ultimate Guide to Visiting Mexico – Everything You Need To Know Before Traveling To Mexico
And if you plan on moving to Mexico, for a short or long period of time, you may find this blog post as a helpful resource: Everything You Need To Know About How To (Temporarily) Move To Mexico
Here’s a Googlemaps view of the full trip:
Cancún Airport –> Tulum –> Bacalar –> Kohunlich Ruins –> Campeche –> Uxmal Ruins –> Mérida –> Celestún –> Izamal (The Yellow City) –> Valladolid –> Playa Del Carmen –> Cancún Airport
Two weeks was just enough time to get an overall sense of this beautiful region of Mexico’s Southern Peninsula, but you could easily spend months in this area alone!
Before we dive in, here are some helpful tips and things to know before visiting the Yucatán.
What To Know Before Visiting Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula:
- Cajero = ATM
- Tope = speed hump – you will find these everywhere, so don’t drive too fast because some of them are really easy to miss until you hit it and go flying. They are usually marked with a yellow sign and a black symbol with two or three humps
- An “E” with a circle around it (and sometimes a diagonal slash through it) stands for estacionar, which means “parking”
- Be careful about the bill bait and switch when paying at a gas station with efectivo (cash). Some places will try to trick tourists if you give them a 500 peso bill, they’ll try to claim that you gave them a 50 peso bill, so you can avoid this scheme by having them repeat the amount back to you and only give it to them and have them hold it in one hand whilst getting your change with the other hand. If paying by credit card, watch the meter
- Bring mosquito repellant. This area has tons of mosquitoes everywhere
- Be aware of the retornos (turnaround points) along the highway. These are used instead of exits with a loop around like in the U.S. This is a common way to get into an accident, especially with buses or trucks because they stick out
- The main roads are generally in good condition, but on the smaller dirt roads towards the more remote ruins, there are lots of potholes. Don’t drive fast because there’s usually no reception in these areas if you get a flat tire or break down
- Having the T-Mobile International plan was very helpful because we didn’t have to worry about buying a SIM card
- Do not over-bargain. Most of the vendors are selling their wares to support their families. $5 is nothing for a tourist who can afford to visit Mexico on holiday, but $5 means a lot more to them, as it’s enough to feed a mouth
- Stay in the old town when you visit cities such as Merida or Valladolid because most hotels offer free private parking and being able to walk everywhere directly from your accommodation is really nice
- Carry cash with you at all times for places like cenotes and smaller Mayan ruins. Otherwise, most establishments accept credit card and some charge a small fee
- Bring your own snorkel for cenotes. Shared mouthpieces with questionable sanitization…no thank you
- Only bring natural mineral sunscreen. You are not meant to wear sunscreen in the cenotes or in Bacalar Lagoon because it kills the stromatolites and sea life. This also helps to protect the reef when swimming in the ocean / sea
- The security guards and police at checkpoints are generally very friendly, though it is very helpful to speak Spanish
- Police don’t seem to control speed on the highway; during our two weeks driving all around the Peninsula, we saw zero cops waiting on the side of the road. The only time we saw police were at checkpoints and when there were accidents. Go with the flow of traffic but do not speed
- Do as the locals do, and turn on your emergency flashers when approaching a speed hump, slow down, accident, or if it’s raining
- Carry electrolytes (such as Nuun) and activated charcoal in case you get diarrhea. There are pharmacies everywhere, but you may be unfamiliar with the language or the products that you’re used to back home, which may upset your stomach even more
- Don’t drink tap water, anywhere, ever
- Bring reusable hydroflasks or water bottles to help minimize the plastic consumption waste in Mexico
- Instead of purchasing small water bottles throughout your trip, purchase the giant 3-gallon jugs of water. We just kept it in our rental car and used it to fill up our reusable water bottles. One jug lasts two of us about three days. The store also gives you a discount when you return it to buy another jug
- Buy a sombrero once you get to Mexico, don’t bring one from home – you’re supporting the local vendors and many of them are actually high quality and inexpensive. Our sombreros are now hanging from the wall in our living room as a memoir of our trip
- Popular artisanal locally made products from this region include: hammocks, swings, blankets, rugs, wood products, embroidered stitched purses, sombreros and day of the dead paraphernalia (small items for the kitchen such as salt and pepper shakers, bowls, etc.)
- The letter “X” is pronounced “shh” like you’re telling somebody to be quiet
- If you’re coming from the U.S., divide MXN pesos by 20 to figure out USD (for example, $80 pesos is approximately $4 USD) – good mental math
- There are 32 states in Mexico. If you do the suggested road trip below, you will visit three of them
- If you’re visiting during the winter, bring warm clothing! We visited during mid – late December and it actually dipped into the low 60’s at night! Combined with wind, it can actually get chilly! Bring a light sweater, a wind breaker or light jacket, a light scarf or shawl, a few pairs of jeans, and closed toed shoes. The longer clothes also help prevent mosquito bites!
Drive time from Cancún to Tulum: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Time Zone: Eastern Standard Time
Read More: The Controversial and Enchanting Tulum, Mexico
With its turquoise waters and powdery white sand beaches, this paradise has a certain seduction that draws you in. Visit La Zona Arqueológica de Tulum for Mayan ruins atop sea cliffs overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Discover the craziness of Tulum Beach Road where you can dine underneath canopies of human-sized birds nests, decorative of the boutique hotels which line the stretch of white sand beach, whilst sipping a craft cocktail with the smoky Mezcal. Photograph the Heart Opener Sculpture in front of the vegan restaurant Raw Love, then jump into crystal clear water at Dos Ojos Cenote.
Sadly I no longer recommend visiting Tulum. In fact, I strongly advise that you skip Tulum, and tell your friends and family to avoid it as well. We returned one year later from the first time we visited, just to see if conditions had improved, and it was even worse. After learning more about the “behind the scenes” of the “real” Tulum, if you’re at all in tune with environmental sustainability, skip it. I cannot stomach supporting a town built on what was once a beautiful jungle with pristine beaches, that has now turned into a literal contaminated sewage dump. Beaches in Mexico are legally meant to be free to the public, but the only way you can access and enjoy Tulum’s beaches is if you pay an absurd amount to get into a beach club. I can confidently say that Tulum had its heyday during the worst of Covid because it was one of the only places that remained open with nightly jungle parties whilst the rest of the world was shut down, but now it is on its way out, and I’m happy to see that. Maybe now this once pristine area can go back to restoring the beautiful nature that it’s meant to be, and partying tourists can take their dollars elsewhere. There are so many other remarkable and culturally-rich towns to visit in the Yucatán area, which I will detail below.
Drive time from Tulum to Bacalar: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Time Zone: Eastern Standard Time
Read More: Bacalar & Kohunlich Ruins, Mexico
Discover one of the gems of the Yucatán where you can kayak or float along Los Rápidos. Enjoy a book on one of the many swings or hammocks floating above the jade-colored lagoon. Enjoy supper at Nixtamal where you can taste the flavors of the region’s cuisine. Stop at Kohunlich Ruins on your way to Campeche, which is destination #3.
Drive time from Bacalar to Campeche: 6 hours (this will be the longest stretch of driving in your full two-week itinerary.) This is why I recommend stopping at Kohunlich Ruins on the way, which is just one hour from Bacalar to Kohunlich. Then it’s another five hours from Kohunlich to Campeche.
Time Zone: Central Standard Time (you’ll gain one hour coming from Bacalar)
Read More: Campeche, Mexico
This charming colonial city is one of Mexico’s many port towns and is surrounded by a wall, which acted as a fortress against pirate attacks dating back to the 1600’s. This was our favorite place for culture and history. Walk along the cobblestone streets of Calle 59 for eateries and beautifully painted vibrant buildings. Visit the Museo de Arquitectura Maya and walk atop the wall and ring the bell. Talk a walk through history at the Museo El Palacio Centro Cultural and cool off in the shade of the Jardin Botanico Xmuch’haltun. Take a day trip to Uxmal Ruins.
Day 7 – 10: MERIDA
Drive time from Campeche to Merida: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Time Zone: Central Standard Time
Another quaint and colorful colonial town, Mérida is the capital city of the Yucatán and is an excellent base for taking various day trips to neighboring points of interest. Mérida is also one of the safest cities in Mexico, as government officials and diplomats house their children and families here. It’s one of the cleanest and quietest cities in Mexico, and has more of a local feel. The colonial architecture is really beautiful, and quite different from what you would see in a touristy city like Playa Del Carmen. Some buildings are pristine and newly restored, and others look like deserted haunted mansions, fit for a scary Halloween story. Merida is an excellent place to purchase artisanal hand-crafted goods, such as blankets, purses and textiles.
WHERE TO EAT IN MERIDA
- El Apapacho – run by a German expat and her Mexican husband. Their Aztec hot chocolate with a shot of espresso and coconut milk was a highlight
- Merci Paseo 60 – the best breakfast in Merida with great outdoor seating in a lovely courtyard. They bake their own bread, which smells divine!
- Marago Coffee – specialty coffee
DAY TRIPS FROM MERIDA
See the Flamingos at Celestún
Celestún is a small sea town on the coast with a beautiful lake that runs parallel to the sea where you can find hundreds and sometimes thousands (depending on the season) of flamingos in the wild! The only way to see these beautiful pink creatures is to take a boat tour. The cost is $1,800 pesos (approximately $90 USD) for a private boat, which fits up to six people. It comes with a boat driver who is also your guide. Most guides do not speak English, so your tour will be in Spanish. This is your time to practice! In addition to flamingos, you’ll see other wildlife such as birds, crocodiles and even a boa constrictor hiding in the mangroves!
You will not be able to see many flamingos during rainy season (June-ish – September-ish) because they like low water levels so that they can peck at the krill on the lake floor. There are six species of flamingo in the world, and one species is native right here to the Yucatán. The flamingos fly between this area and La Isla Holbox (pronounced “hole-bosh”) during the summer.
Fun Facts About Flamingos:
- They lay one egg per year
- Baby flamingos are born white
- They eat pink shrimp (krill), which makes them pink, and the older the flamingo is, the stronger the pink color is
- Their life cycle is approximately 20 years
- Their predator is the cocodrillo (crocodile)
- They fly nearly completely horizontally and look like long sticks
- The tips of the inside of their feathers are black!
- They stay in groups to avoid being attacked by crocodiles
- What do you call a flock of flamingos? = A FLAMBOYANCE! (this is actually true, it’s not a joke – this was my favorite!)
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS IN MERIDA
- Palacio Canton, a Mayan archaeology museum across two levels of a new classical mansion
- Museo Fernando Garcia Ponce Contemporary Art Museum
- Casa de Montejo (free admission) – shows what life was like back in the hacienda days as you walk through a traditional home
- Monumento a la Patria – an impressive structure dedicated to the President. On the back side of the monument, you’ll see decorated plaques for each of Mexico’s 32 states, similar to Plaza España in Sevilla, Spain
- Casa Museo (entry is approximately $4 USD)
- Paseo de Montejo – stroll along Merida’s longest and most famous boulevard (every Sunday they close the street going one way until 1:00 PM for bicyclists, pedestrians, dogs and families to enjoy car-free!)
- Progreso Beach (35 minutes by car from Merida’s center)
Progreso Beach is 30 – 45 minutes by car from the center of Merida, and is a great place to spend the day and enjoy the sunset on the pier with delicious fresh-made churros in hand.
DAY 10 – 12: VALLADOLID
Valladolid is another colonial city and a good base for day trips such as Chichen Itza: 40 minutes, Rio Lagartos (Las Coloradas): 2 hours, or the very nearby Cenote Dzitnup: 10 minutes.
Stop at Casa Maca Vegan Concept where you can try home made kombuchas or enjoy a refreshing salad – a nice break from all that heavy Mexican food you’ll be eating!
We always love to try traditional foods from the region we’re visiting, and the place I’m about to recommend has some of the best food I’ve eaten in all of Mexico, and YES that is a big statement because we’ve visited and / or lived in five states and over 10 cities over nearly six months. When in Valladolid, you MUST visit Ix Cat Ik, a hidden local gem serving traditional Mayan cuisine. This place is very local, so you’ll see very few tourists, if any at all. It’s a beautiful space with both indoor and outdoor seating in the garden, complete with hammocks and Mayan women making tortillas the traditional way over a comal, a flat griddle heated by real fire outside in a covered cave-like structure that reminded me of a temazcal (which we tried when we visited Oaxaca.) If you ask your mesero (server) to show you how the paste is made for their signature dishes, he will physically demonstrate it for you on their sample table, using a traditional metate (a stone mortar used to grind ingredients such as cacao, coriander seeds, cinnamon, etc.)
Traditional Mayan cuisine uses chaya in nearly all their dishes. Chaya is in the spinach family and is a green leafy vegetable that Mayans use for making juices, by naturally coloring tortillas, and baked into dishes. The two most popular items to order here are the Valladolid Sausage (Longaniza de Valladolid) – I will be dreaming about this sausage for years to come…and Póok Chúuk, their signature dish – a pig cooked underground for 8 hours beneath the Earth, after being rubbed and marinated in over 10 spices. They actually cook it right outside the restaurant where the outdoor seating is, so you can see the entire process. This is a true farm-to-table experience, and reminded me very much of the Hawaiian tradition of Lūʻau where they cook the pig in the ‘imu (underground Earth oven) and covered with ti leaves.
Walk La Calle de las Frailes, a very cute walking street with artisanal shops and coffee.
If visiting Valladolid, don’t miss the famous Cenote Suytun, just a 20-minute drive from the city center. You simply drive into the car park, pay the entrance fee and walk down into a massive and jaw-dropping cave filled with stalactites. A small hole in the cave’s ceiling creates a perfect spotlight right onto a platform, making for the most epic photos.
On the way from Merida to Valladolid to break up the drive, don’t miss a stop at Izamal, The Yellow City, just 1.5 hours by car from Valladolid. Nearly everything in this quaint town is painted a mustard yellow to reflect the sun. Mayans considered Izamal to be the manifestation of the sun God.
In Izamal, don’t miss the Kinich Ka Moo Ruins, which are free to enter and you can actually climb them! I recommend going during sunset to catch the golden hour over the yellow city…it’s just perfect.
DAY 12 – 14 + Extended Time: PLAYA DEL CARMEN
At this point, Sasha and I have spent nearly half a year cumulatively of living in Mexico, and while Puerto Vallarta is our favorite place to live, Playa Del Carmen definitely has some great perks! (If you’re planning to visit or live in Puerto Vallarta, I wrote a Complete Guide To Visiting Puerto Vallarta, which has helped tens of thousands of people plan their trip / move.)
We lived in Playa Del Carmen (the locals and expats just refer to it as “Playa”) for one month, and really enjoyed the ease of life. While Uber is illegal in Playa, taxis are inexpensive and plentiful, and Uber Eats partners with a local food delivery company called Didi, which we found to be extremely helpful since we work remotely on Seattle time zone and didn’t have time to go out and grab lunch every day. We also joined a local gym, and enjoyed several yoga classes, dance classes, and a great running track right across from our place. Though Playa has a great walking street (5th Avenue – the main drag), we found it to be really touristy and quite small. The architecture lacks character since it’s all built for tourists and expats, so there’s no quaint old town, colonial church or cobblestone streets as you would find in some of the other towns I highlighted above. Playa is an enormous magnet for expats and digital nomads, so it lacks authentic Mexican culture; however, if you’re looking for beautiful Caribbean beaches with turquoise water and pillowy white sand beaches, Playa is your place! Our favorite beach was located just 30 minutes South, called Xpu-Ha, which had some boutique and luxury beach clubs to spend a whole day relaxing.
Another favorite more local beach, is Playa Punta Esmeralda, located just a ten-minute taxi drive from the main city center, or a 15-minute bike ride.
Two of our all-time favorite restaurants in Playa, are Ojo de Agua, great for breakfast, lunch and delicious cold pressed juices and smoothies, and Cassa Ceviche for outstanding artisan craft cocktails and Peruvian style ceviche (with vegetarian options).
So there you have it! A jam-packed 14-day itinerary to thoroughly explore all that the Yucatan has to offer.
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