Mexico Road Trip: All You Need To Know About Driving in Mexico
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Picture this. You’ve just tossed all your belongings into the back of your car to embark on a Mexico road trip. You’ve planned it all and you want to go off the normal tourist trail to explore the “real” Mexico.
You’ll drive through deserts filled with cactuses, explore colorful colonial cities and visit ancient ruins. Cruise past jungle (and maybe even spot a wild big cat), over misty mountain ranges and pull up at the most beautiful secluded beaches you’ve ever seen. Dive into the crystal-clear waters of a cenote, spot incredible sea-life just offshore and marvel at bright pink flamingoes milling around in shallow lakes. This is what it’s like driving in Mexico, on the ultimate road trip of a lifetime.
We have done two Mexican road trips in our time and we have written this guide to really help you to plan and embark on your own ultimate road trip to Mexico!
MEXICO ROAD TRIP PLANNER – CONTENTS
HOW TO RENT A CAR IN MEXICO
Renting a car in Mexico is super easy. It’s generally the same as it is anywhere else in the world. To rent a car in Mexico, you have to be 21 years old or over (max 75 years old) and have held your license for a minimum of two years. Drivers under 25 may incur a young driver surcharge. These guidelines may vary between rental suppliers though.
When I rent a car I always check the prices online across a variety of offers to get the lowest price. However, I almost always end up going with Hertz Car Rental as they have great prices and are very trustworthy.
Do you N
eed an International Driver’s License in Mexico?
Foreign domestic drivers licenses are recognized in Mexico so long as they are written in English or Spanish. You are fine to both rent a car and drive in Mexico with a driver’s license written in English or Spanish. The License must be valid for the entire rental period.
An International Driving Permit (IDP/IDL) or an official translation in English is strongly recommended if your domestic driver’s license is not in English (Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin, etc) when renting a car or driving in Mexico. If you have an IDL, you must present both this and your domestic driver’s license to the office when you rent a car.
In Mexico, if you are pulled over by police it is highly unlikely they will ask to see an international driver’s license. But it can happen. Unfortunately, even if you are in the right and have done nothing wrong the police may still ask you for a bribe. It is up to you whether you want to fight it or pay it. Usually, police don’t want to cause a scene so you could ask to be taken to the official office for processing as a way to get out of paying a bribe. Our experience with police has, for the most part, been amazing. But we did have to pay $5 for a broken tail light once. We think that’s pretty fair though.
Car Rental Dangers
As with everywhere in the world, you need to cover your butt when renting a car. And I’m not just talking about insurance here. I’m not going to tell you how much insurance coverage you should opt for when renting as that is up to you.
What I do strongly recommend though, is to not only scrutiniz the check-out form (the diagram of a car that the rental company uses to mark down the condition of the car) but to also run your phone’s video camera over the entire car when you pick it up. It’s not enough to just take photos because you might miss important parts of the car. Don’t forget to take a quick picture of the fuel gauge to easily remember the level!
To see how we film over a car when we pick them up from the car rental agency; watch this video. Recording a video has saved us from paying unfair damage costs on at least two occasions.
DRIVING IN MEXICO: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The roads in Mexico are bad. Honestly, driving in Mexico is an extremely intense experience, only made better by knowing what you’ll be getting yourself in for.
Look out for topes
Topes are speed bumps in Mexico. Look out for the signs, they are easy to miss! The signs vary between each signpost and they aren’t like the ones you might be used to at home. Some signs are even hand-written by residents of the area!
Topes can be found on major highways and in small towns. Some topes are actually built by locals out of dirt and concrete, and sometimes they aren’t even signposted at all! Hitting one going too fast could really damage your car. For this reason, it’s better to avoid driving at night. If you must drive at night, we recommend you use the paid roads (
Carretera Cuota vs Carretera Libre
The best roads to drive on in Mexico are called
Otherwise, you can also use the secondary free highways called libre, which usually run alongside the quota highways and go through all of the small towns along the way. It will take a much longer time to use these roads, and there will be loads of topes on them.
As mentioned Mexico’s roads aren’t the best. We would compare the time that Google Maps said it would take with how long it actually took us and it would almost always take twice as long as what Google Maps had said. There are also lots of military stops, especially between states. You are required to line up, then let them search the car before you’ll be able to move on.
Safety While Driving in Mexico
The #1 concern for everyone considering this type of travel is: “is it safe to road trip through Mexico?”
Firstly, driving through Mexico is quite safe, for the most part. There are some occurrences of drug-related violence which I will talk about below. To avoid drug violence, you need to plan your route according to the latest news. Mostly, however, it is the lack of quality of the roads that will be the biggest problem for you on this trip. You will need to take most of Mexico’s roads slowly and tentatively, always being alert. Don’t try to rush this road trip, as that will cause fatigue.
If you’re headed out on a less-explored route, you may like to know the current conditions of the road (spoiler: it’s probably terrible,
Since there isn’t much online about these sorts of things, you might find it useful to ask a forum about your planned route. Expats in Mexico is a great Facebook group to join (or search Facebook for ‘Expats in Whatever City You’re Headed To‘). No doubt you’ll easily find someone who has recently done the same route and is happy to give you advice.
Drug Violence in Mexico
Possibly one of the scariest problems you might encounter while doing your road trip through Mexico would be the drug-related problems, especially if you are driving south coming from the USA.
If you are crossing from the USA, log all your plans with family or friends. Do a bit of research into which entry/exits are better than others. Here’s a great forum with this exact question asked. However, it will really depend on where you plan to cross.
Driving in Mexico isn’t Cheap
It’s actually quite expensive. Expect petrol to be the same price as home (possibly even more expensive) and the tolls on the highways too. Everything else is cheap in Mexico, but driving is definitely not!
CROSSING INTO MEXICO FROM THE USA
Are you coming from a road trip from the USA? When you drive your American (or Canadian) registered vehicle into Mexico from the USA you will need to buy insurance and to fill out the required paperwork either at the border or before you leave. You may also need to purchase a Temporary Import Permit for your vehicle. Read on for more details.
If you are traveling to Mexico by car, it is Mexican law that all drivers have insurance, and you will need to prove your insurance once you have crossed the Mexican border.
What you will need to show at customs:
- Passport of the registered owner (original and 1 copy).
- Vehicle registration (original and 1 copy).
- Drivers license of the registered owner (original and 1 copy).
- Mexico Tourist Card you received when you crossed the border
At the border the owner of the vehicle gains entry at immigration, their passport is stamped and they are given a Mexico Tourist Card. The owner of the vehicle may also be required to obtain a Temporary Import Permit for the vehicle as well.
The Mexpro website explains that if you plan to drive a vehicle beyond the Mexico Free Zone you will need to purchase a Mexico Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP). This permit can only be obtained from Banjercito, which is the official Mexican issuing agency.
If you are only doing a short road trip through Mexico, you may be in luck. You won’t need a TIP if you are driving your car in any part of the Baja Peninsula or the Sonoran Free Zone.
Mexico Vehicle Insurance
Insurance is mandatory in Mexico, and you will have problems with the police if you don’t purchase it. You can buy it at the border, or many companies exist online that piggy-back on your USA car insurance.
Some American policies cover you in Mexico, but they may have limitations. If you are taking a USA rental car, verify the insurance and terms of driving in Mexico with the rental agency. If insurance is not included, add it to your rental policy.
Mexico car insurance companies:
Note that you must maintain your home country comprehensive/collision insurance while you are in Mexico
Do You Need to Speak Spanish?
You won’t NEED Spanish while on the road in Mexico, you can definitely get by without it. Many Mexicans speak English, especially the ones who work in the tourism sectors. But I do suggest you spend some time learning if you want to make the most out of your travels and get the local prices, etc. You can take private lessons all around Mexico for as little as $5 USD an hour.
Right. Enough of the formalities, let’s decide where to go on a Mexico road trip!
WHERE TO GO ON A ROAD TRIP IN MEXICO
Going on a road trip really is one of the best ways to explore Mexico. Not everything can be accessed by a colectivo, bus or even a taxi. Mexico is incredibly diverse, and having your own transport will allow you to experience more and enjoy this amazing country in an immersive way.
What road trip route you decide to take will probably depend on where you leave from and how much time you have. Below, we have color-coded each recommended road trip in Mexico on a map. We have also listed how long you will need to complete that road trip. If available, we give you the opportunity to read even more about each destination so you can plan accordingly.
Where to Stay on Your Mexico Road Trip
Our best recommendations on where to stay during this road trip are at the bottom of each section. We tend to suggest value-for-money hotels with private rooms in an intimate setting. Only hotels that are packed with character, have great ratings, and excellent service passes our recommendations test. Plus, all these hotels have FREE parking, either securely on site or on the street nearby.
We also rave about Booking.com as the best hotel booking agency since they consistently have the lowest price and amazing loyalty discounts that are put on automatically after your first few bookings with them.
Mexico Road Trip Map
This custom map of all the road trips in Mexico includes all of the best Mexican road trips, and where you should stop to sightsee and/or stay a night or two.
To open any of the road trip maps into your own Google Maps app, simply tap the small square icon on the top right-hand side of the map when looking at this article from your phone.
The map will automatically save into “Your Places” > “MAPS”. You can then select an area to download and use offline ready for when you don’t have access to mobile data in Mexico. For more information on how to download maps for offline, click here.
3 NORTHERN MEXICO ROAD TRIPS
Need cheap road trip ideas? Mexico is the place to be! Vast deserts filled with cactus, incredible beaches covered in white sand, calm bays, swaying palm trees and lush mountain ranges. This is northern Mexico, and it is the road trip of a lifetime!
USA TO TIJUANA AND GUADALUPE LOOP
If you are going to be in San Diego, California as part of a larger west coast road trip why not cross the border into Mexico? After all, the Mexico border is only approximately 20 minutes from San Diego.
If you are crossing into Mexico from the USA in your own vehicle, be sure to read my tips above about bringing your car into Mexico. Below is a route planner for the
DISTANCE COVERED: 277 km (172 miles)
TIME NEEDED: 5 – 7 Days
Tijuana and Rosarito
After making your way across the border plan a stop in Tijuana. This city has some amazing food options. Beside the Cesaer salad originating in Tijuana, over the past decade, food has been putting Tijuana on the map. They now have an established gastro district that extends from downtown to Zona Río on Avenida Sonora in the Chapultepec area.
Once your belly is filled, head to the seaside town of Rosarito. There are oodles of things to do here. Try ziplining or ride an ATV on the dunes. Learn to surf or horseback ride on the beach. If you like art, you can find plenty of that as well as wood and metal craft at Artist Alley along the Free Road (Km 30). If it’s shopping you want, check out the cigar shops, jewelry stores, and souvenir stalls along the boulevard. Be sure to make a stop at the candy store, Dulceria Ayala.
Valle de Guadalupe
After spending the night in Rosarito, head to Baja’s Wine Country in Valle de Guadalupe. Vineyards, old and new, dot the landscape along Valle’s main thorofare, Mexico’s Route 3. Currently, there are over 120 vineyards in Valle de Guadalupe. Obviously, you can’t visit them all in one trip. Some of the most memorable include Santo Tomas and AlXimia. AlXimia is a can’t miss.
Next head to Tecate. But before leaving Valle you may want to stop at the Wine Museum. This
Tecate is an underrated small town with a lot to offer. Art, culture, wine, gastronomy, and nature are just a few reasons to visit. If you choose to stay the night you could spend one day exploring the culture and gastronomy of the town and another exploring nature. The breathtakingly beautiful La Rumorosa is just 40 minutes outside of town.
Upon your return, you can cross the border back into the US at Tecate or head west to Otay Mesa. Both will take approximately the same amount of time. There is rarely a wait at Tecate.
Where to Stay on a Northern Baja Road Trip
BAJA CALIFORNIA SOUTH ROAD TRIP
Ruta 1 is a more than 1,000 km stretch of Mexico that takes you through wine country, valleys, and desert, and along the coastline, past mountains and through many charming little villages and beach towns. You could say it offers a sampling of much of what the country of Mexico has to offer.
DISTANCE COVERED: 1,660 km (1,031 miles)
TIME NEEDED: 2 – 3 Weeks
Ensenada is less than 2 hours south of Tijuana and makes a good place to stop overnight or, if time allows,
Guerrero Negro is eight hours driving south of Ensenada. It’s an amazing place to whale watch if you’re there between December and April. Otherwise, it’s a welcome overnight break after a grueling day of driving windy roads through fields of giant cacti as far as the eye can see.
San Ignacio and Mulege
If you’re taking it slow, you can take overnight stops at San Ignacio, a cute village on a lake, or Mulege for beautiful beaches. Short on time? You can head straight to Loreto, 6 hours southeast of Guerrero Negro.
This lovely little mission town charmed us into staying two nights and we could have stayed longer. Next, stop in overnight at La Paz, which is just over 4 hours from Loreto.
La Paz and Todos Santos
La Paz is the largest town on the Baja and has everything you would need in a city. Plus it boasts a pretty
Slower road trippers should stop in Todos Santos next. This is another mission town and the location of the Hotel California which many say is the famed one from the Eagles song.
The final stop on your South Baja California road trip is Los Cabos, another 2 hours south of La Paz. Actually, there are two towns here: Cabo San Lucas with its popular beaches, bars, restaurants, and resorts and the quieter, less touristy San Jose del Cabo.
We stopped from one to three nights in each place. Returning north we followed the same route, overnighting in mainly the same locations and taking in other sights that we skipped going down. Alternatively, there is a car ferry that departs from the Pichilingue Terminal in La Paz to two different ports on mainland Mexico up to nine times per week. Check this timetable for prices and timings.
Cabo San Lucas Tours
Where to Stay on the Southern Baja Road Trip
MEXICO CITY TO SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, REAL DE CATORCE AND GUADALAJARA TRIANGLE
This road trip is for people who like colonial-style cities and the wild, wild west. Beautiful architecture, tequila, gothic churches, rough local bars, and abandoned villages dominate this route. It’s the best of Mexico’s central highlands, bundled into just 10 days.
DISTANCE COVERED: 1,839 km (1,143 miles)
TIME NEEDED: 10 – 14 Days
Your road trip starts in Mexico City, where you will see the countries beating heart. It’s rough around the edges and full of people (did you know Mexico City’s population is the same as the whole of Australia’s?) but with a charm that cannot be ignored. And some of the best food in Mexico! Make sure you spend at least a couple of days here. If you get time,
San Miguel de Allende
The streets are lined with cobblestones and flowers and the buildings are filled with beautiful restaurants, bars,
San Luis Potosi City
San Luis Potosi (or SLP) is another 6-hour drive from San Miguel. It was a major trading hub for gold and silver in the 16th to 19th centuries. ‘Potosi’ means silver in Spanish but most of the Potosino locals simply call it San Luis. Another baroque-style city, San Luis Potosi boasts it’s own (but less impressive in my opinion) gothic style church as well as more beautiful architecture scattered around the city. The UNESCO listed Centro Historico, as well as the many quaint shopfronts, bars, and cafes, will surely delight your senses.
It is much larger than San Miguel de Allende and not so much on the “tourist trail” which can make it a bit harder to explore. But that’s fine; just see what you can, because the place you will visit next will be sure to impress you the most!
Real de Catorce
This is the reason you have made this trip, to visit the partially abandoned mind-blowing village of Real de Catorce.
Maybe you’ve heard of it before in association to peyote and how it is somewhat a pilgrimage for drug-taking hippies? I’m not going to tell you it isn’t, but the entire village should not be reduced to just that. It is honestly one of the coolest places I have ever visited in my life. For starters, just to get into the town you have to drive through a 2 km tunnel through the mountains.
Do a tour of the church where you will learn that Real de Catorce is also a pilgrimage site for Mexicans who want to pray to the shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi. I don’t want to give away too much, but the stories are heartwarming and so very interesting!
You can also take a horseback ride to see views of the city and other important landmarks nearby, go on a hike or ride on the top of
If you have your own transport, I implore you to stay in one of the magical hotels in Real de Catorce for at least a couple of nights. It is the type of place that will change your life forever!
You’ve seen the pictures, now it’s time to explore this famous multicolored city! But after driving a long 8 hours you’ll probably want to just curl up in your hotel and explore the city properly the next day. If 7-8 hours driving is too much, split your trip in half by stopping in at Leon (known as the “shoe capital of the world and is a pretty colonial, industrial city) for a night.
Famous for its tequila and mariachi music, Guadalajara is where you will come to soak up some authentic Mexico feels far off the busy tourist trail. You will be able to visit more gothic-style churches, including a cathedral with twin god spires, and immerse yourselves in the vibrant streets steeped in tradition and culture. Visit the nearby town of Tequila to experience the makings of this famous drink yourself or explore the labyrinth of a local market.
Then take a break to relax and listen to the mariachi while you sip on premium tequila cocktails and much on torta
When you finally decide to bring your road trip to an end, you’ll drive another 6 hours back to Mexico City.
Where to stay on the Golden Triangle Road Trip
CENTRAL MEXICO ROAD TRIP
This quintessential road trip takes you through some of the most spectacular driving scenery Mexico has to offer. Visit areas in Mexico, renowned for their strong cultural identity and bizarre religious practices. Eat food to die for, explore cactus gardens and swim in warm, pristine oceans.
On this Central Mexico road trip you’ll drive from Mexico City to Oaxaca, stopping in at the pretty city of Puebla and an incredible UNESCO heritage biosphere reserve to see thousands of cactuses. In Oaxaca, you’ll experience deep, colorful Mexican culture and some of the best
You’ll then follow the spectacular Oaxacan coast for a while before turning off to head back up the mountains of Chiapas to the gorgeous colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas. You’ll finish your road trip in Palenque where you can visit important Mayan ruins and relax in vivid baby blue waterfalls.
💡 If you don’t have much time, you can shorten this to a road trip from Mexico City to Oaxaca City via Puebla. A Mexico City / Oaxaca road trip would give you a great taste of pretty cities, cactuses, mountains and culture achievable in just a few days. Plus the drive between the two cities is pleasurable and relatively easygoing.
DISTANCE COVERED: 1,739 km (1,080 miles)
TIME NEEDED: 3 Weeks – 1.5 months
First up, Mexico City is the multicultural melting pot of Mexico. It’s dirty, grungy and
Give it some time though, and you’ll find reasons to remember this city. From the ancient skulls buried under the main Cathedral, Aztec ruins in the city center to the gothic-style buildings looming overhead. Explore ancient ruins, watch a wrestling match or explore mind-altering museums until your feet scream. You’ll soon warm up to Mexico City.
Puebla City (Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza)
Puebla is a picturesque colonial city just a 3-hour drive outside of Mexico City. Its famous for its incredible Mexican food, impressive architecture and beautiful pottery. Stop here overnight to explore the city.
A mere two hours outside of Puebla, you can find the incredible Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve which offers barren rugged landscape interrupted by gigantic cacti in large numbers. If you’re after that quintessential “I’m in Mexico” photo, this is the place to get it.
We suggest you leave early from Puebla City to the Biosphere Reserve so you have as much time to explore as you need before overnighting in Tehuacán. The next day will be a 4-hour drive to Oaxaca City.
Oaxaca City (Oaxaca de Juarez)
Oaxaca City is a magical place. Not as many tourists get here, as it’s not so much on the main tourist path. But boasting some of the strongest native cultures in Mexico, surrounded by dramatic mountains, history-rich ruins,
The state of Oaxaca is probably best known for its indigenous peoples; the Zapotecs and Mixtecs. These cultures have survived better than most others due to the rugged and isolated terrain in which they live. In the city, you’ll be able to buy vibrant arts and crafts and sample unique delicious Oaxacan cuisines.
Driving over the mountains from Oaxaca City to Puerto Escondido is absolutely beautiful, but also scary as shit due to the tight narrow winding roads and the large trucks that go up and down these mountains. This drive will take you between seven to ten hours, depending on whether you get a good run. Carsickness can also be a problem on these roads, so buy some tablets in Oaxaca before you leave. Take these roads slowly and don’t drive tired.
Also, make sure you keep the petrol topped up! I’m talking from experience here after we ran out of petrol
Puerto Escondido and Huatulco
Puerto Escondido is a small coastal town popular with surfers from all around the world. The beaches are deliciously sandy, clear and usually pretty quiet, especially outside of high season. Huatulco is only a 2.5 hours drive from Puerto Escondido and the beaches along this part of the Oaxacan Coastline are even quieter. The beaches in Huatulco were some of my favorite in Mexico. If you enjoy the laid back, sun-soaked life, be sure to spend at least a week in these two towns.
In Puerto Escondido, take a surfing lesson and release a baby turtle while you’re there. Go on an incredibly cheap dolphin watching boat trip and drive around to see as many tranquil bays and beaches as you can find. Psst, I wrote a post to help you choose which Oaxacan beaches are best to visit.
If you have the time, be sure to visit the even smaller and cuter Mazunte and Zipolite. You may also like to take a detour back up the mountains to San Juan del Pacifico. This tiny, misty mountain town is a highlight, especially if you love a town with a strong community (read: hippy) feel. Just FYI, magic mushrooms grow freely here and the town has made a name for itself as being a popular place to go to try them out in a gorgeous natural setting.
Once you’ve finished with Huatulco, you’ll be crossing the state boarder into Chiapas. It’s a whopping 8 hours drive before you’ll arrive for an overnight in Tuxtla Gutierrez (add an extra 1 hour onwards to San Cristobal de las Casas if you don’t want to stay in Tuxtla).
You may want to split this drive up by staying overnight in Selina Cruz before tackling the mountains in Chiapas. But there really isn’t anything to do in Selina Cruz, so you would only sleep there.
The mountains around San Cristobal are a
Tuxtla Gutierrez and San Cristobal de las Casas
Tuxtla Gutierrez isn’t the most impressive of towns. However, from this town, you should embark on a tour through the Canyon de Sumidero to see the Christmas Tree Falls.
The best of these two places though is San Cristobal de las Casas. A small colonial city complete with narrow cobblestone streets, colorful houses with plant pots on every patio, surrounded by lush mountains and flower farms.
From San Cristobal de las Casas you can either take a long day trip to the remote El Chiflon falls, or you can go there on the way to your next stop of Palenque. This mountainous drive will take 3 hours to get to El Chiflon from San Cristobal de las Casas. Once there, however, mighty Rainbow Falls at El Chiflon will certainly blow you away.
💡 Going from El Chiflon to Palenque will take you another grueling 8 hours of slow mountainous driving. However, halfway through this drive, a small town called Ocosingo closed down due to protests and it was dangerous to drive through (in mid-2018). The protests lasted for many months. If you want to travel this road, be sure to ask any forums you are a part of or join the San Cristobal Expat Facebook group to ask. If it is closed, you will have to get to Palenque via Villahermosa and Tabasco, which will take about 8 hours from San Cristobal.
A cute mountain town bursting with beauty and history, Palenque is a stop you cannot miss. Visit beautifully secluded falls like Agua Azul, Misol-Ha and Roberto Barrios. Don’t forget to spend a day marveling at the history and temples of the ancient Maya at Palenque ruins and museum too.
If you’re renting a car that must be returned to Mexico City, this is a great opportunity to change up the scenery by running along the top of Mexico though Tabasco (stopping in at Villahermosa), Veracruz and Córdoba.
Where to Stay on the Central Mexico Road Trip
YUCATAN PENINSULA ROAD TRIP
If you’re coming from Palenque this will be an easy drive that takes you out of the gorgeous jungle and Northeast towards the Colonial City of Merida, the mind-blowing Chichen Itza pyramids, white-sandy islands,
Although quite touristy, the Yucatan Peninsula is one of the best places to road trip
In the Riviera Maya in Mexico, you can see baby turtles hatch (August to November), swim with whale sharks (May to August) and check out amazing underground rivers called cenotes (year round) that are found only in the Yucatan. Cancun is a popular place to hire cars so it’s easy to start and end your Mexico road trip here.
The roads in the Yucatan are some of the best we traveled on in Mexico. Although if you only take the free roads (
DISTANCE COVERED: 1,411 km (877 miles)
TIME NEEDED: 2 – 4 Weeks
Cancun and Isla Mujeres
Unless you’re staying in a fancy beachside resort or partying it up in enormous nightclubs, you’ll probably want to leave Cancun as soon as possible. My recommendation would be to first head over to Isla Mujeres for a day or two before picking up your rental car and heading off to see the rest of Quintana Roo state.
Got your own car? You have two other options. You can pop your vehicle on a car ferry, or you can leave it in the secured parking lot at Puerto Juarez in Cancun. I’d just recommend leaving it on the mainland safely in the parking lot because you really don’t need a car on Isla Mujeres.
Isla Mujeres is one of those places that quickly captures the hearts of everyone who goes there. It’s a small, pregnant-fish-shaped island filled with amazing snorkeling and scuba diving. Soak up the sun on pristine beaches with a cocktail, tear around the island in a golf cart or head out on day tours to swim with whale sharks (seasonal) or marvel at the underwater museum.
Once you’ve managed to tear yourself away from Isla Mujeres, you’ll be picking up your car and driving a measly 1.5 hours down the
Playa del Carmen and Tulum
Playa del Carmen is a bustling touristy town with beautiful but busy beaches, huge nightclubs, and even bigger water parks. It’s worth a night here if you like that sort of atmosphere, but if you don’t, I suggest carrying on down the highway for an hour to the smaller and much more beautiful Tulum to stay the night.
On the way to Tulum, stop in at one of the many cenotes such as Cenote Azul, Garden of Eden Cenote or Yal-Ku Lagoon. Alternatively, you can do these activities as day trips from Tulum or Playa del Carmen. Read more about all these cenotes and more in this epic cenote guide. Near Yal-Ku you can swim with turtles at Akumal – a once in a lifetime experience.
Lovely Tulum has two parts to it, the main beach area and the town. I highly recommend heading to the beach area to stay because the town can be quite hot and dusty. However, if you’re on a budget, stay in town to save money. From Tulum, you can visit even more amazing cenotes (my favorites are Cenote Carwash, Cenote Calavera and Dos Ojos), or you can explore Tulum ruins.
If you would like to take your car to a Mexican island, Cozumel is going to be your best bet. The car ferry leaves from Playa del Carmen and is much more frequent than the Isla Mujeres car ferry. Plus, Cozumel is built up perfectly for cars. Isla Cozumel is an extremely pretty island, but I personally don’t like places that are super touristy, which Cozumel most definitely is.
Bacalar and Calakmul
Next, you’ll drive about 3 hours to Bacalar, where you’ll experience Mexico’s version of Bora Bora or the Maldives (but on a budget!). Bacalar boasts a crystalline lake called Siete Colores (Seven Colors) as well as another mind-blowing cenote (Cenote Azul). Have fun cramming as many water-based activities that you can fit in your schedule.
If you haven’t seen enough ruins yet, be sure to rise super early for a stopover at Calakmul, one of Mexico’s more impressive but lesser-visited ancient Mayan ruins. Calakmul is a 6-hour drive from Bacalar, so you will need to stay the night here.
Next, overnight in Campeche after a 7-hour drive, and explore the beautiful walled-in colonial city on the still waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Merida, Celestun and Chichen Itza
Head Northeast 3 hours to Merida, and explore one of the largest historic center districts in the Americas. The city is adorned with gorgeous brightly colored buildings, in which you can sample some exquisite traditional Yucatec dishes, and drink in rustic Mexican bars.
Day trip from Mérida to Celestún to take a boat trip and see the bright pink flamboyance of flamingos and relax on the water’s edge. If you have time, take another day trip to the cenotes of Cuzama, where you’ll take a tour by horse and cart along the train tracks to three different but impressive cenotes.
From Merida, it’s an easy 2-hour drive to the ruins of Chichen Itza. Although touristy, there’s a reason why. The Kukulkan Pyramid is so smooth and symmetrical, it will leave you speechless no doubt. Don’t stay the night here though, it’s terribly overpriced. Drive just an hour to Valladolid – my favorite town in Mexico.
Valladolid and Coba
Valladolid was originally a Mayan settlement called Zaci, but after Spanish settlement, the name only remains on its most famous cenote. The small town boasts all of the comforts of a touristy town, without the tourists. Spend a couple of days in Valladolid and visit Cenote Oxman (my favorite cenote ever – it’s like straight out of the Jungle Book), Cenote X’canche and the ruins of Ek Balam. If you have a lot of time, be sure to do a day trip to Las Colores, the pink lakes.
If you haven’t got your cenote fix yet, visit Coba for a handful of really cool underground cave cenotes (which are super cheap) and Coba Ruins if you want to climb to the top of the tallest ancient Mayan temple in the Yucatan.
From Cobá you’ll drive an easy 2.5 hours to Chiquilá where there are plenty of places to store your car at the ferry terminal (for only $50 pesos per day). Jump on one of the hourly ferries and spend your last few days relaxing on the white sandy secluded beaches of Isla Holbox.
If you can only go to just one island in Mexico, I suggest you make it Isla Holbox. Complete with small sandy streets (no tar or cars in sight!), fresh seafood restaurants by the bucketful, golf carts to explore the island on and hammocks set up on the calm tranquil ocean waters (that’s right – IN the water). Honestly, there’s nowhere else quite like Isla Holbox.
Complete your Yucatan Road trip, Mexico by returning to Cancun (only 3 hours away) and dropping back your rental car.
Where to Stay on a Yucatan Peninsula Road Trip
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Originally Posted: 27 May 2017. Frequently updated.
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