Need a getaway from winter weather? Craving eternal sunshine – or at least sunshine that lasts as long as you’re on vacation?
Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is a great destination. You can lay on the beach, unplug from the world in an all-inclusive resort, explore the relics of seemingly-forgotten history, and experience natural wonders you won’t find elsewhere.
The Yucatan is best explored as an independently planned road trip, which can last 3-5 days based on the destinations below. You can easily extend your time in any of the cities or towns, peppering in day excursions as you see fit. Read on to discover which stops to add to your own Yucatan road trip itinerary.
Road Trip Itinerary for the Yucatan
In a minimum of 3 days, you can explore quite a lot of the Yucatan. For a three-day Yucatan road trip, here’s the itinerary I recommend:
- Day 1: Cancun, Chichen Itza, Ik Kil Cenote
- Day 2: Valladolid
- Day 3: Tulum, Rio Secreto
If you have more time, extend your time in each of the cities (Cancun, Valladolid, and Tulum) to get a deeper immersion! Let’s explore each recommended stop individually…
Cancun is Mexico’s primary Spring Break destination, and most of the city caters to the tourist crowd who want nothing more than a few days in a resort and/or laying on the beach drinking a lot of fruity drinks.
While Cancun is working hard to show travelers there’s more to the city than sprawling resorts and towering hotels, if that’s what you want to enjoy in Cancun, that’s totally okay. It’s why I’ve been to Cancun (twice!), and I made sure to explore more interesting, local parts of the area during my trips.
Resources for visiting Cancun:
- When I have visited Cancun, I stay at Moon Palace. You can read more about my experience here. All-inclusive from $638 per night.
- If you want to spend more time in Cancun, here are some of the best things to do in Cancun.
One of the great wonders of the world, Chichen Itza is a must-see, no matter how long you spend in the Yucatan.
Dating back to 600-1200 AD, Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a fantastic estate of Mayan ruins including the dominant El Castillo (pictured above), the ball courts, temples, and more. Just take a look:
Don’t be surprised if you come home with too-many-photos-for-one-section-of-this-blog-post, too!
Resources for visiting Chichen Itza:
- Visiting Chichen Itza is a great half-day trip, or a full day experience if you have the time.
- Admission to Chichen Itza, including the museum, is 232 pesos ($12 USD) for adults. Parking is 30 pesos ($1.50 USD) per car.
Ik Kil Cenote
If there’s one defining feature of the Yucatan peninsula, it’s the cenotes dotted all over the landscape. These natural sinkholes have formed in the limestone, and are now stunning places to swim and scuba dive in the region.
The most famous and visited cenote is Ik Kil, a short drive from Chichen Itza. Increasingly developed, Ik Kil cenote is 200ft wide and 130ft deep – but the dark water suggests deeper, more mysterious depths. (Actually, it really scared me because I’m afraid of deep water!)
You can visit Ik Kil, change in the dressing rooms, and descend to the water level plus a few diving platforms carved into the stone. Be prepared for crowds, as many bus tours stop here during the course of day trips on the Yucatan. The best times to visit and avoid crowds are around 10am (before the lunch rush) or after 4:30pm (once most buses are headed back to Cancun/Tulum).
Resources for visiting Ik Kil Cenote:
- Admission to Ik Kil Cenote is 70 Pesos (~$5 USD) for adults and 35 Pesos (~$2.50 USD).
- Ik Kil Cenote is a 10-minute drive from Chichen Itza, perfect as part of a day trip to experience both on the same day.
Valladolid, a town often overlooked or passed through when most people explore the Yucatan, is a perfect stop for a night or two during your road trip. The crossroads of several highways, there are several sights to see.
If you enjoy history, a stop at the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena is a must. Explore the beautiful old church, grounds, and former convent. The Cathedral of San Gervasio is another religious site worth exploring, with a beautiful design that makes it one of the city’s top tourist destinations. There are also several cenotes in the area if you haven’t gotten your fill of this unique Yucatan experience.
Resources for visiting Valladolid:
- Stay in the heart of the city, near the Parque Francisco Canton. Some great choices include El Mesón del Marqués (from $52 per night) or the adobe style Casa Tia Micha (from $105 per night).
- Like other destinations in Mexico, one of the best times of year to visit Valladolid is in November for Dia de Muertos. The opposite shoulder season in May is also good.
In the past few years, Tulum has become increasingly popular for digital nomads who set up on the Caribbean coast for a few weeks, snapping Instagram shots and riding bikes through this laid-back town. When you see a few pictures, it’s not hard to see what’s drawing them in:
White sand, lush green tropical forest, blue skies, and stony grey Mayan ruins are the main draws. Book a day or two relaxing in Tulum if you have the time; you’ll feel wonderfully disconnected from the first-world luxury and sterility of Cancun, and can sample the local flavors and dishes at some of Tulum’s popular restaurants and taquerias.
En route back to Cancun, you can also stop at the seaside town of Playa del Carmen. Check out this great list of Playa del Carmen restaurants where you can stop for a midday meal.
Resources for visiting Tulum:
- If you’re traveling sans kids, opt for one of the adults-only beachfront spa/resorts, like Kore Tulum. You’ll be close to the main road to town, and also able to escape the hustle and bustle. From $318/night.
- The most popular attraction in Tulum is the ruins, which draw travelers from around the region. Learn more and plan your trip on the Tulum Ruins website.
One of the newest attractions for visitors on the Yucatan, Rio Secreto allows you to enter one of the peninsula’s famous underground rivers. Carved over the millennia, these fantastic cave systems are home to fish who’ve never seen daylight, tarantulas, and stunning rock formations.
Plan a full day to spend at Rio Secreto, and opt for a private VIP tour of the cave system. Though even non-VIP group tours take routes that make you feel like you have the whole cave system to yourself, an expert guide will ensure you experience the wonder of this natural formation – and guide you safely out at the end.
Afterward, don’t forget to try the Mayan liqueur Xtabentún, offered at the end of the tour. If you can manage the strong, anise-flavored drink, it apparently proves your bravery. I personally hated it, but felt that surviving the cave system proved my own bravery well enough.
Resources for visiting Rio Secreto:
- Learn more about Rio Secreto and book through the official tour operator on their website.
- Tours start from $79 per person for adults and $39.50 for children (must be aged 4 or older).
- Rio Secreto is roughly 75-minutes drive from Cancun, or 45 minutes from Tulum.
Planning Your Yucatan Road Trip
No matter how long you have – or what you want to experience, the Yucatan peninsula is a perfect short road trip destination. You can mix and match the destinations listed above, or leave spare time to explore on your own and make new discoveries.
Questions? Ask in the comments and I’ll help you finish planning your trip!
This post was originally published in December 2014, and updated in January 2018.