An easy Yucatan Peninsula Mexico road trip for first-time visitors

Giant kissing chairs Mexico

I almost didn’t write this post because I am not an expert on the Yucatan. It bothers me when people visit a place for the first time, then write an ‘ultimate guide’ or ‘must-do’ list. Full disclosure: I spent only seven days in the Yucatan peninsula, so my knowledge is limited to my own experience.

So why read this? My hope is that it will help other first-time visitors planning their own Yucatan Peninsula road trip. It will better inform your plans if (like I was) you’re not sure what to expect, especially with Cancun car rental.

Why road trip the Yucatan Peninsula Mexico

I went to Mexico once, when I was a freshman in college. We flew into Cancun and never set one foot outside of the hotel zone, except when heading to and from the airport. Did it even cross my mind that Chichen Itza, one of the seven wonders of the world, was right down the road?

Probably not.

The Yucatan Peninsula wasn’t my first choice for a Mexican vacation, mainly because I didn’t want to go back to Cancun, the one place in the country I’d already visited. But then I started doing research, and realized that it was actually a perfect option — a short, relatively inexpensive flight (Southwest, $361 each direct from Denver to Cancun), a compact area, and a variety of things to see and do, from gorgeous cenotes to ancient Mayan ruins.

Flight. Booked.

Car rental Cancun Mexico

Rental car cancun

Renting a car always comes with a little bit of anxiety for me, especially in a country where I’m not well-versed in the language. So I turned to my old friend the internet for advice.

The general consensus was that Mexico car rental, particularly in Cancun, is cheap and pretty straightforward. Still, I was paranoid that we’d tick the wrong box and get hit with avoidable fees.

But it all went really smoothly. We rented a shiny red manual transmission Chevy Beat for 7 days and it only cost $18USD, including an additional driver and the required liability insurance.

Here’s what we did:

  1. Booked in advance through Avis on using our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, which covered us for collision damage insurance. (Check the fine print of your rental to confirm liability insurance & 2nd driver are covered)
  2. Requested a letter from Chase showing proof of insurance, just in case. We didn’t need it, but it was nice to know we had it.
  3. Stopped at the Avis rental counter in the Cancun airport; they directed us to the Avis shuttle.
  4. Signed the paperwork at Avis, saying ‘no’ to any additional insurance offered. They also put a substantial hold—about $5,000 US—on the card because we declined their insurance.
  5. Agreed to bring the car back with a full tank of fuel.
  6. Walked around the car with an employee to check for existing damage.
  7. Hopped into the Beat and zoomed off on an adventure.
  8. Returned the car a week later. After another walk around, that was that. Our deposit was returned within a few days without hassle.

I recommend reading ‘5 Things You Should Know BEFORE Renting a Car in Cancun‘ on the travel blog Getting Stamped. It really helped me get a handle on what to expect before going.

Sample road trip itinerary for the Yucatan Peninsula Mexico

Views of Chichen Itza from a distance

The Yucatan Peninsula is made up of three Mexican states: Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Campeche. Think of Mexico like a mermaid’s tail: the Yucatan is the tip, curving up to form the southern barrier of the Gulf of Mexico. The eastern coast gives way to the Caribbean Sea.

You could easily stick to the coast, checking out Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, with side trips to the island of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. We decided to go inland, making three stops as we traveled west across the peninsula.

Stop 1: Valladolid

Valladolid Mexico

I really liked Valladolid. My impressions of the town have much to do with where we stayed, at the bottom of Calz. de los Frailes, a pedestrian-friendly row of shops, bars, and cafes. Every time we stepped out of our airbnb, we walked onto a cobbled street fronted by square, pastel-colored buildings. It was a nice way to start the trip, only two hours’ drive from Cancun. We stayed for two nights, which was enough time for us.

What to do in Valladolid

Light show at the convent

light show on convent

Valladolid is known for its free evening light show at the Convent of San Bernadino. Every night, a 20-minute visual history of the Yucatan Peninsula Mexico is projected on the front of the convent, first with Spanish narration and then again in English. I wasn’t overly motivated to go, but we were so close (you could hear it from our airbnb) that we did. It reminded me of the rides at Disney World, and I enjoyed it.

Cenotes Zaci & San Lorenzo Oxman

Swinging from rope swing into cenote Yucatan

Cenote Zaci is right in the city center, making it a popular activity in Valladolid. We did go, but alas, we were too early—it opens at 9 and we got there at 8. We never went back, so if you go please let me know how it is!

Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman is on the grounds of a well-kept hacienda only 5km southwest of Valladolid. You can take the back road from the city (Calle 54), but the main entrance is off the ring road. We started to take the back road but ended up turning around because it was so bumpy.

This was my favorite cenote in the Yucatan! Man, I loved that rope swing.

Parque Principal

white stone cathedral with flags

Visit the main square in the center of town for a taste of life in Valladolid. This is where I got my first glimpse of the Yucatan’s ‘kissing chairs,’ conjoined chairs that force young lovers to stay just out of reach on supervised dates. I bought esquites in stick form, a cob of corn slathered with cheese, lime, and spices. Messy, but tasty.

Ek Balam

Ruins near Valladolid

Ek Balam, or the ‘Jaguar City’, is an archeological site 30 minutes north of Valladolid. It’s said to be one of the best examples of Mayan ruins on the Yucatan, though I have limited knowledge on the subject. The main tower, El Torro, is about 100 feet high—it’s a steep climb, but you can take the stairs to the top and get a view of Chichen Itza in the distance.

Santo Domingo Church in Uayma

We didn’t get out here, but this church is famous for its intricate decoration, making it the focal point of the small town of Uayma.

Rio Lagartos

Rio Lagartos is 90 minutes north of Valladolid. It’s a lagoon known for its flamingos, which we’d seen in Bolivia, and pink lake (“Las Coloradas”), which we’d seen in Australia, so we didn’t make the trip, though with more time I would have.

Where to stay and eat in Valladolid

Pleasant cobbled square Valladolid
Our apartment was the one with the pink wall on the right!

We spent 2 nights in Casita Don Macario (US $42/night), and I would recommend it without hesitation. I loved the incredibly high ceilings, dramatic, somewhat confusing artwork, and stone floors. The location was fantastic—right off of the square pictured above—and we didn’t have trouble with parking. A light breakfast of toast and fruit was included, served at the cafe on the corner.

We stuck close to Calz. de los Frailes for most of our meals, as there were lots of options.

Tresvanbien: Argentinian-style empanadas in a cozy courtyard that feels like a friend’s house.

Mezcaleria Don Trejo: I didn’t love the tacos I had, but the live music, friendly service, and comfortable atmosphere made up for it.

Taqueria El Gallo Valladolid: Recommended by our host as the best cochinita in Valladolid; at 10 pesos per marinated chicken taco it was hard to beat. Cancun 216, Centro, Valladolid, Yuc., Mexico

Yerbabuena: We didn’t get a chance to eat at this vegetarian restaurant near the convent, but I wish we had because it looked great.

Stop 2: Xcalacoop (Chichen Itza)

El Castillo

Xcalacoop is a five-minute drive to Chichen Itza, so we spent one night here to could get an early start in the morning. You could easily visit Chichen Itza from Valladolid—it’s only 45 minutes away—but we wanted to avoid backtracking.

The real star of the show was Chichen Itza, the world wonder that keeps tourists streaming in year after year. It’s one of the best-known examples of Mayan ruins anywhere, not just in the Yucatan Peninsula Mexico, due to its condition and sheer scale.

Visiting Chichen Itza

Columns in Chichen itza

Chichen Itza opens at 8am; we arrived at 7:45am and the line was already 100 meters long. Entry was 481 Mexican pesos, paid at two separate windows as 406 + 75. The ruins had a carnival-like atmosphere, with vendors setting up along nearly every path, selling a selection of Mayan calendars, jaguar noisemakers, t-shirts, blankets, jewelry and statues.

We arrived without a plan (shocker), and drifted from structure to structure. It took about three hours. You can hire a guide on arrival for a more in-depth understanding of Chichen Itza. I’m stating the obvious here, but bring a hat, sunscreen, and water; you’ll be outside at the sun’s mercy.

Where to stay and eat in Xcalacoop

We stayed one night in this Mayan bungalow near Chichen Itza (US $40/night). Our host Luis was one of the most gracious hosts I’ve ever had, inviting us to join his mother’s birthday celebration that night. He showed us around his garden, encouraging us to crush and smell leaves, taste tiny citrus fruits, and drink a fresh glass of limeade. The breakfast was sublime: eggs, a heaping fruit platter, selection of breads, homemade jam, local honey, coffee, yogurt, juice, and muesli. I’m still not over how good it was.

On Luis’s suggestion, we ate at Sac-be Maya, one of the few restaurants in Xcalacoop. I ordered what was to become my favorite dish in the Yucatan, sopa de lima. It’s a simple chicken and lime soup but I could not believe how good it was.

Stop 3: Mérida

Merida sign

Mérida is the capital of the Yucatan. We went back and forth about dedicating three nights to a big city, especially with the added stress of driving, but my curiosity won out. I wanted to spend some time in a city, and when I read about the foodie scene in Mérida I was sold.

What to do in and around Mérida

Historic City Center

Mérida is a welcoming city, considered one of the safest in all of Mexico. Small squares are scattered across the city center, with statues, music, art, and food options galore. I spent most of my time roaming around, ducking in and out of shops just to see what I could see.


Yellow wall Izamal

Izamal is an hour east of Mérida; we stopped there on our way into town from Chichen Itza. The unusual mustard yellow buildings give it the nickname of the ‘yellow city.’

Walk to the convent for views of all that yellow, or go north another 800 meters (and up 111 feet) to Kinich Kakmo pyramid, constructed for the Mayan sun god Kinich Kak Mo. We ate lunch at the nearby Kinich Izamal, where I tried queso relleno (chile stuffed with edam cheese). It was…not my favorite, but I looooved the strawberry Italian ice, especially on such a hot day.


Climbing Mayan ruins

Dzibilchaltun is one of the Yucatan Peninsula Mexico’s lesser-visited ruins, only half an hour from Mérida on the way to Progreso. It was a nice way to spend an afternoon, checking out the crumbling stone structures mostly on our own. There’s an air-conditioned museum, which will give you some respite from the mosquitoes.


straw huts on the beach

Go directly north for 40 minutes from Mérida’s city center and you’ll hit the beach town of Progreso. We may have visited on a suboptimal day—the beach was weedy and the water choppy, so I wasn’t inclined to linger. There are a few restaurants and shops along the waterfront.

Paseo de Montejo

Walk along the Paseo de Montejo for a peek at some grand old buildings. This is sometimes referred to as Mérida’s answer to the Champs Élysées, thanks to the wide sidewalks and pleasant atmosphere.

Casa de las Artesanías del Estado de Yucatan

This is a fixed-price market supported by the government, great for souvenir shopping. You’ll find a mix of crafts, food, and clothing, all made by local artists. There seem to be several locations, but we went to the one at Calle 47 494, Zona Paseo Montejo, Centro, 97000 Mérida.

Our airbnb in Valladolid had a tiny devil figurine that I thought was cute, which concerned me. But I kept seeing them around, and kept thinking they were cute.

small red devil statue
I realize this makes me weird.

When I saw it at the shop in Mérida, I asked the saleswoman what the story was behind these little devils. If they had cultural significance, I didn’t want to pluck one from the shelves and display it in my home, totally detached from all meaning.

Es un diabolito,” she said, slowly, shaking it so its limbs wiggled.

It’s a little devil, you weirdo.

It now sits proudly in our apartment next to a tiny bottle of Tabasco. I still can’t explain why I think it’s cute, and I think Jared was slightly concerned when I bought it, but here we are.

Where to stay and eat in Mérida

man in a pool
We spent a lot of time right here.

We spent three nights in Posada Marie Private en Centro (US $30/night) and it was as advertised: private and central. The apartment was on a busy city street with honking horns and bus fumes, but once you walked through the doors it was like entering a different world. Our room opened into the secluded courtyard and pool area, which was a nice break from the city. Parking was wherever we could find a space on the side streets, but we didn’t have any trouble.

Although Mérida’s food scene was a draw card for me, I didn’t do a great job with my research. Usually I have an idea of where I want to eat and what I want to try, but by this point in our trip we just went where the wind blew us. All of my meals were good, but none of them rocked my world. That’s my fault, not Mérida’s!

Mercado 60: A trendy open-air market with a mix of food options, plus live music at night.

Entrance to market restaurant stalls
Mercado 60

La Negrita: A lively neighborhood cantina with an intimate front section and sprawling courtyard in the back with live music and giant cocktails.

The cantina’s name—La Negrita—did give me pause. I recommend reading “Culture Clash: When he called me Negrita” by Oneika the Traveller, a great post (with insightful comments) on language and cultural norms.

Cantina courtyard at night
La Negrita’s vast courtyard

Taqueria La Lupita: The taqueria from the ‘Acid’ episode of Salt Fat Acid Heat on Netflix. It closes in the early afternoon (around 1 or 2) so be prompt!

El Apapacho: Vegetarian art café with an extensive menu and small shop.

El Barrio: Organic comfort food with good coffee and breakfast, near Paseo de Montejo.

Casa Gelato: Artisanal gelato on Calle 60; I was a repeat customer!


Caribbean Sea Cancun

If you fly into the Yucatan Peninsula Mexico, chances are you’re going to Cancún. We spent one night in downtown Cancún the night before our flight, and I had one goal: set foot in the Caribbean Sea. We arrived after a day of driving, hot and irritable, but I insisted on jumping on the city bus into the hotel zone. Twenty minutes later, we were standing on white sand, staring into blue waters as the sun set. It was worth it, even though we had a horribly crowded bus ride back.

Where to stay and eat in downtown Cancún

Toloache Cafe Cancun
Toloache Cafe

We stayed in this Mexican apartment (US $27/night), my least favorite of all our accommodation. It was fine, but dingy and lacking the attention to detail we’d gotten used to. The wifi was also down, which was frustrating as we were relying on it to map our route to the airport.

Toloache Cafe: This cafe near the airbnb did nice sandwiches and has crazy decorations inside—dripping candle wax and odes to Saint Anthony. The server gave us a marker and encouraged us to write a message on the walls asking the Saint for something!

The empanadas from heaven: Just over the border into Quintana Roo, on the 180 free road, there’s a town called Ignacio Zaragoza. On the main road between Farmacia KM80 and a flat-fronted blue church, there’s a small food hut where we had the BEST empanadas ever. I couldn’t even tell you what the filling was. They were huge, fried up fresh, with shredded lettuce and sauce drizzled over the top. YUM.

fried empanadas Mexico
ahhhhh so good

Tips for visiting the Yucatan Peninsula Mexico

  • Cancún is in Quintana Roo (pronounced ‘ro’), which is an hour ahead of Yucatan.
  • The 180D (cuota) is the toll road; it’s quicker, but expensive (about $25 total from Cancun to Mérida, broken into 2-3 toll booths) and you must pay in cash. The 180 libre takes you through small towns, so if you’re not in a hurry there is definitely more to see on this road.
  • Gas attendants fill your car at the gas stations. We read to check that the attendant zeroed out the meter first, which everyone always did.
  • Download offline maps of the Yucatan before your trip! This saved us a few times. (Here’s how to do it)

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