Mexico’s Yucatan Travel Itinerary
If you’ve got two or three weeks to spare for a vacation, and you want a cheap flight somewhere from the US, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is a great place to look into. The rest of Mexico is a little iffy now in regards to tourist safety, but so far the Yucatán seems just fine. Flights from New York to Cancun run as low as a couple hundred dollars, so it’s really not breaking the bank too much. Whether you’re interested in the beach, shopping, eating Mexican food, wildlife, ancient ruins, or exploring breathtaking jungles, Mexico has it all, and in this ‘Mexico’s Yucatan Travel Itinerary‘ we will lead you through the major sites in Mexico’s Yucatán, all on a budget of $80 USD per day for a couple, in a time frame of just under three weeks.
Getting into Mexico
We flew into Cancun International Airport, because the flight cost was cheaper than Mérida. The airport is relatively small compared to most, with an efficient immigration and customs system. After landing, we were in an out in roughly 20 minutes. We are backpackers on a tight budget, so we considered what would be best for us in terms of transportation, whether it would be taking local buses/taxis, or renting a car. In the end renting a car was the more affordable option, and left us with the freedom to come and go everywhere as we pleased. We rented a 4-door automatic car from Hertz at the airport, and was able to negotiate down to only $17 USD per day, which included 100% insurance with no deductibles. We opted for the additional $3 USD per day, which gave us complete roadside assistance and piece of mind since we weren’t sure how well the roads would be kept up, or god-forbid we locked the keys in the car or ran out of gas. (Be aware taxes will be an additional charge)
When exchanging money into pesos, go to a local currency exchange or bank in the first town you are stopping in. The airport offered horrible rates ($14 pesos per dollar when the exchange was actually $18.25 pesos per dollar). There was a currency exchange just down the street from the airport offering full exchange, or places within each town offered decent rates at around $17.7 pesos per dollar.
When purchasing SIM cards for you phone, the two main options are Telcel or AT&T. A SIM will cost you around $80 pesos ($4.50 USD) and 2.5 GB of internet with unlimited calling will run you around $500 pesos ($25 USD).
First Stop in Mexico – Playa del Carmen
If you’re looking for decent beach town with modern amenities but without the large herds of tourists like Cancún, Playa del Carmen is a good option for you. It’s a great place to get you settled and orient yourself into Mexico. You’ll find everything and anything Western here along the beach and 5th avenue, but a 15 min walk away from the beach towards 20th to 30th avenue (the avenues jump by 5) and you’ll find great local neighborhoods with real Mexican restaurants at affordable prices. There are hostels and guesthouses spaced throughout here, as well as bars.
There are many places to visit nearby to Playa del Carmen, and if you rented a car even better to save on all the transportation costs, such as local cenotes (natural freshwater sinkholes) for swimming, adventure parks, and great beaches for snorkeling, swimming with sea turtles, and getting away from the crowds at Playa’s beach.
Second Stop in Mexico – Tulum
Tulum is only a 40 minute drive from Playa del Carmen, and if you want to break up the trip a bit you can stop at one of the beautiful cenotes along the way, such as Cenote Azul or Cenote Jardin de Eden, or Akumal beach for snorkeling and swimming with sea turtles.
Tulum is often referred to as ‘Eco Chic’ because of its increasingly high concentration in retreats, yoga, juice bars, etc., however that’s mostly centered around the ‘Hotel Zone’ near the beach. Staying in Tulum town does not give you that vibe, and offers a more authentic Mexican experience with excellent restaurants and bars (plus some shopping, yoga, and juice bars here and there). High end restaurants blend in with the ‘plastic chair’ mom and pop type restaurants.
The main reason to visit Tulum is to see the Tulum National Park, where the 13th century Mayan port city ruins overlook the Caribbean Ocean. Also nearby are breathtaking cenotes along the mangrove coast.
Third Stop in Mexico – Valladolid
Valladolid is around a 1 and 1/2 hour drive from Tulum. Leave Tulum around 7:00am and stop at the Mayan ruins of Coba on the way to break up your trip. The ruins open at 8:00am and you will definitely want to be the first people there to climb to the top of Nohuch Mul. After leaving Coba, stop at the nearby Choo-Ha cenote, deep inside a cave. For more information on ‘How to beat the crowds at Coba’, click here.
From Coba, continue your drive to Valladolid. This city is one of the most picturesque cities we have ever been to, and you can get lost for hours roaming the colorful streets. From bright green, to pink, to turquoise, the colors are truly breath-taking. Visit the Cathedral de San Gervasio or tour around the Monastery. People watch from the park in the center of the city, or take a stroll down the famous Calle 41A. Valladolid has some of the cheapest and most delicious food, so use this as a stop on your travels to save some money. Don’t miss out on the famous specialty, Valladolid sausage, or the vegetarian Papadzules. If you need more reasons to visit this ‘ off the tourist track’ city, please check out our article ‘5 reasons to visit Valladolid’.
Fourth Stop in Mexico – Izamal
Izamal, or ‘The Yellow City’ is a perfect day trip from Valladolid on your way to Merida. Only around 1 and 1/2 hours from Valladolid, you can see all that this sacred town as to offer in just a few hours. Stroll along the mustard yellow streets, visit the Izamal Monastery from the 1500’s, climb to the top of an ancient Mayan ruin – Kinich Kakmo, or partake in the Sunday festivals at Parque Zamna. From Izamal continue to the colonial city of Merida.
Fifth Stop in Mexico – Merida
Merida is the largest city so far on this itinerary, and the capital of the Yucatan. Merida can be described as an old Spanish city with unique architecture, museums, and a solid art scene. Being an hours drive from Izamal, or a two-hour drive from Valladolid, you will want to spend a few days exploring this city. Walk along Paseo de Montejo to visit museums or see the Monumento a la Patria. On Saturdays take a stroll to the end of Paseo de Montejo to join in the festival with local dance and street food.
Walk down Calle 60 to visit art galleries and authentic Italian restaurants. Stop for a quick drink at La Negrita Cantina on Calle 62 for an authentic Mexican pub. Use your time in Merida as a chance to catch up on laundry, visit the bank, or even a trip to Walmart if you’re in need of some supplies. You won’t find those luxuries as much in other Yucatan cities.
Take a day trip from Merida to visit the Mayan ruins of Uxmal. Arrive at 8:00am to beat the crowds and walk around alone. Make sure to climb to the top of the ruin that is still permitted for a view of the main temple. Watch for the Black Spiny Tailed Iguanas that call Uxmal their home, or catch a shot of colorful birds.
Sixth Stop in Mexico – Chichen Itza
No trip to Mexico is complete without a visit to the most famous of the Mayan ruins, and one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World’, the ruins at Chichen Itza. Once again arrive bright and early to beat the hundreds of people who will be making their way through. See the amazing ‘Ball Court‘ where losing team’s captains lost their heads at the end of the game. Visit the Cenote where the Mayan people tossed Human sacrifices into, or the Observatory where the Mayans studied the Universe.
Spend a night or two near Chichen Itza so that you can also visit one of the most beautiful Cenotes in all of Mexico, Ik Kil, located only a few kilometers away. This place is sure to take your breath away, you might even say it’s more beautiful than any of the ruins you visited along your travels in Mexico. Arrive at 9:00am because if you arrive after 10:00am, you’ll have to beat the hundreds of vans and tour buses coming through for a selfie at the base of this fresh water sink hole. The water is surprisingly warmer than the other Cenotes in Mexico, and a true jungle paradise with the waterfalls, birds, and large tree roots that hang over 100 feet from the top of the hole to touch the water.
The Seventh and Last Stop in Mexico – Bacalar
Bacalar is a 2 1/2 hour drive from Tulum and a 4 hour drive from Chichen Itza. This small town is home to the Bacalar Lagoon, a famous lagoon known for its 7 shades of blue and green, and its inhabitants, one of the oldest living things on Planet Earth, Stromatolites. These masses of microorganisms date back 3.7 billion years, and Bacalar Lagoon has the largest-sized Stromatolites in the entire world. Take a boat trip out into the lagoon, or rent jet-skies or kayaks. Lounge in a swing or hammock along the lagoon edge, or eat a nutritious meal at the vegan and earth friendly restaurant, Mango y Chile. Take a few selfies at the Spanish Fort overlooking the lagoon at sunset. Nearby you’ll find another Cenote Azul.
Use Bacalar as your cross-over point into either Belize or Guatemala, since it is only 30 minutes from the border. You can book a trip with Green Monkey Hostel or Marlin Espadas tour company to cross the border for only $40 USD. Don’t forget to prepare your Mexican exit tax of $30 USD.
Not traveling overland but flying home? Head back to Cancun for your return flight or fly out of Chetumal, a city just 17 kilometers from Bacalar and directly on the border with Belize.
There you have it – 7 cities, 5 different sites of Mayan ruins, multiple cenotes and lagoons, and all the delicious food you can possibly eat. Did we miss something or someplace important? Make sure to let us know in the comments below! An as usual, please share with fellow travelers who are interested in independently traveling through Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
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