The Ultimate Yucatan Peninsula Road Trip Itinerary

by | Jul 22, 2020 | Mexico | 9 comments

Disclaimer: This article may contain affiliate links that earn me a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support!

With ancient Mayan ruins, jaw-dropping cenotes, incredible beaches, islands, and more, road tripping the Yucatan Peninsula in eastern Mexico is worthy of a bucket list checkmark! There is so much to do and see this side of Mexico that it’s ideal for a loaded backpacking itinerary or road trip adventure.

But before I share my ultimate Yucatan itinerary with you, here is some helpful info at placing the Yucatan on the map!

The Yucatan Peninsula makes up the three states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Campeche on Mexico’s Gulf coast. Sometimes this can be confusing to many people since most just refer to all of this together as simply “the Yucatan”. But it’s not! The Yucatan Peninsula encompasses three states that are quite big. Because of this, oftentimes people will underestimate the amount of time it takes to drive between destinations.

It helps to think of the peninsula as a pie and its states are sliced into three servings. Merida is the capital of the Yucatan, Chetumal is the capital of Quintana Roo, and Campeche’s capital shares the same name. Furthermore, the popular resort towns of Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen, are all in the state of Quintana Roo (not the state of Yucatan) and this section of the peninsula is known famously as the Riviera Maya.

So with that said, this article gives a detailed Yucatan Peninsula itinerary and highlights the most popular places to see in the Yucatan Peninsula including some hidden gems.

Here’s the ultimate Yucatan Peninsula road trip itinerary!

The Ultimate Yucatan Peninsula Itinerary for Backpacking & Road Trips

How Many Days Do You Need to Travel the Yucatan?

The Yucatan Peninsula is A LOT bigger than people expect. Driving distances between states can sometimes take hours, depending on where you want to go. If you want to visit all three states within the Yucatan Peninsula, then a minimum of 2-3 weeks is best.

This guide offers an ultimate itinerary accounting for 3-4 weeks. But I also recommend shorter itineraries further below in case you have only 2 weeks or 10 days or less!

Best Time to Visit the Yucatan Peninsula

Most people visit the Yucatan over the holidays. The high season in Mexico for tourism on the coasts is usually between November-April when the tropical weather is drier and not so humid as it is in the wet season. December-January will be extremely busy because of Christmas and New Year, so try to plan your trip sometime before or after that period.

Renting a Car

Renting a car in Mexico is just like anywhere else. It’s easiest to book your car rental online and then go pick it up at the day and time indicated. On the two separate occasions where we rented cars from Cancun, we booked online at one of the rental companies located right next to the airport.

I’d recommend budgeting at least $15-30 per day on the car rental. If you’re traveling with friends or family – the total price will work out to be fairly cheap per person. Even if your rental is $40/day, divided by a car of 4 equals approx. $10/person per day which isn’t bad.

Yucatan Peninsula Road Trip Map

3-4 Weeks Yucatan Peninsula Itinerary

Three weeks or more is an ideal amount of time to really get an all-around view of the Yucatan Peninsula! Note: Shorter itineraries for 2 weeks or 10 days in the Yucatan are suggested down below.

Feel free to make this itinerary your own! I am combining my personal experiences from both my trips to the Yucatan Peninsula to give you an overview of the different places you can visit here. But by all means, customize away!

Days 1-3: Cancun & Isla Mujeres

Flying into Cancun is the fastest and cheapest way to start your Yucatan adventure. You can easily rent your car here and return it after traveling 2 or 3 weeks around the Yucatan.

There are lots of unique things to do in Cancun that can easily fill up a 5-day itinerary, but I recommend spending only 3 full days here with one day being dedicated to visiting Isla Mujeres.

When in Cancun, spend a day to hit up the beaches spread out across the bustling Hotel Zone. But don’t get caught up here. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to lounge beachside with this Yucatan itinerary. Instead, take advantage of Cancun’s museums (Museo Maya), local markets (Mercado 28), and food scene.

Spend your second or third full day in Cancun by taking a ferry to the small tropical island of Isla Mujeres. You can tour the island in one day on a golf cart, visit a turtle sanctuary, check out the artsy murals hidden around downtown, or go on a sustainable swimming adventure with whale sharks (in season).

Next, continue your Yucatan road trip to the next destination: Playa del Carmen!

Cancun – Playa del Carmen takes just 1 hour driving, so you can leave sometime in the morning on day 4.

cancun mexico beach with palms

Days 4-6: Playa Del Carmen & Cozumel

Playa del Carmen is a popular place to stop on any Yucatan road trip. I always think of Playa as a mixture between Cancun and Tulum because it has both fancy Cancun-style resorts combined with cute boutique hotels iconic of boho-chic Tulum. Playa del Carmen also has the Quinta Avenida which is lined with all types of shops, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs and is within seconds of the beach.

The real attraction to Playa though, for me, is its prime location. From here, you can reach several must-see cenotes like Cenote Azul, Cristalliano, and Jardin del Eden. You can also take a day trip or overnight venture to Cozumel where you can scuba dive, tour the port town, and explore the island by car or jeep.

I recommend spending days 4 and 5 in Playa, then spending a full-day or night in Cozumel. You might want to extend a night because it’s worth spending at least two days in Cozumel, but you can always adjust depending on what it is you really want to include in your Yucatan itinerary. Or, skip Cozumel entirely since this itinerary already includes the islands of Isla Mujeres and later on, the wild island of Holbox.

The ferry to Cozumel takes 45 minutes and runs basically every hour.

Driving from Playa del Carmen – Tulum takes 1 hour.

Days 7-9: Tulum & Coba

Tulum is THE favorite resort town to visit in the Riviera Maya thanks to its jungly vibes, coastal Mayan ruins, cenotes, and boho-chic resorts, shops, and cafes.

I have a love-hate relationship with Tulum because mass tourism there is polluting the underground rivers and cenotes, and is straining the local population as the cost of living continues to spike enormously. I understand that not all tourism is bad, but it’s crucial to be an eco-friendly traveler and practice sustainable tourism to protect the natural environment and support the local communities we visit.

Nevertheless, it’s likely you’re going to fall in love with Tulum as much as the next person. The Tulum Mayan ruins are well worth a visit as its one of the only ruin sites to be right on the coast overlooking the water. Also, Tulum is legit surrounded by breathtaking cenotes. So if you didn’t have time to see any while passing Playa del Carmen, don’t fret. Tulum’s cenotes are some of the best. While there are some that are way too touristy now (i.e. Gran Cenote, Dos Ojos, etc), you can still travel a bit further around to find ones off the beaten track.

Coba is another awesome destination where you’ll find Mayan ruins hidden under a forest canopy. However, getting here takes around 40 minutes one-way from Tulum. For this Yucatan itinerary, our next stop is Bacalar, so that means you’d have to go out there and turn around since it’s not on the route heading south.

My advice: visiting Coba is ideal for shorter itineraries that go from Tulum > Coba > Valladolid, skipping over Bacalar, Calakmul, and Campeche entirely. Go to Coba if you’re not going to see the Mayan ruins of Calakmul, which to me, is like Coba on steroids.

Playa del Carmen to Tulum: 1 hour

Tulum Mayan Ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula

Days 10-11: Bacalar

Bacalar is a small Magic Town known for its vivid “Lagoon of Seven Colors.” Unlike Tulum, Bacalar is quieter and attracts a more conscious type of tourism thanks to local initiatives where sustainability is at the forefront.

There are all sorts of eco-glamping campsites (like Casa Lamut where we stayed) next to the lake which you can then explore on a kayak, SUP, paddleboat, eco catamaran, or even on a sustainable aqua bike!

There is “less” to do here and we love Bacalar for that reason – it’s super relaxing.

You can swim and snorkel in the lagoon all day, stroll the town peacefully, visit the San Felipe Fort, and seek out hidden cafes and shops. If you have extra time you can take a quick drive to visit Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo, which sits practically on the border of Mexico-Belize.

Tulum – Bacalar takes 2.5 hours driving.

Days 12-13: Calakmul

Ok fellow adventurers, get ready to see one of the most fascinating Mayan ruins sites! Calakmul in the state of Campeche is one of the largest Mayan ruin sites ever discovered with a protected reserve spanning 1.8 million acres.

To reach the ruins you’ll have to drive via a secluded dirt road an hour into the jungle of the Reserva de la Biosfera Calakmul (Calakmul Biosphere Reserve). Here, you can learn about the lost city of Calakmul which was once a rival city to Tikal in Guatemala.

Visiting Calakmul isn’t just about the ruins though. It’s more about the whole experience of being immersed in the jungle with the ruins. You can spot tons of wildlife, including jaguars, ocellated turkeys, brown brocket deer, spider monkeys, and more!

The best part about Calakmul is that it’s so not on the tourist trail that if you go in the morning at opening time, you’ll be the only ones there for a while. It’s seriously a stunning place to visit and well worth the effort to get there.

The best time to visit Calakmul is to see it in the morning, meaning you should stay nearby in the very local town of Xpujil. We stayed at Valentín Natural – a family-owned, eco-tourism campsite where we got to see toucans and learn all about the jungle.

Bacalar – Xpujil / Calakmul: 1.5 hours driving

Don’t forget to account for two hours drive time round-trip to reach Calakmul from the highway and back.

From Calakmul, you can either head north to Merida in Yucatan, or, head further west in the state of Campeche.

calakmul mayan ruins pyramid in campeche, mexico

Days 14-16: Campeche (Optional)

Campeche is a state and its colorful capital city shares the same name. We didn’t get to visit this area in detail as we only drove through it once. Nonetheless, I still wanted to include it here because, if you have time, Campeche is a gorgeous part of the Yucatan Peninsula not to miss out on.

The capital city of Campeche is often called “Rainbow City” thanks to its colonial buildings painted in an assortment of pastel colors. The city is also a port and fortress city, so you can visit the old bastion and fortress walls or take a stroll by the seaside on the boardwalk (Malecón).

If you have time, you can also head further north into Campeche to Ría Celestún Natural Park to see thousands of pink flamingos.

Calakmul to Campeche city takes approx. 4 hours.

campeche city in mexico's yucatan peninsulaCampeche, Mexico | PC: Canva

Days 17-19: Mérida

Mérida, the White City and capital of the state of Yucatan, is the next big stop on this ultimate Yucatan road trip itinerary. But first, on the way here from Campeche you can take a detour through Uxmal, Kabah, and Labna on the Ruta Puuc which is a driving route connecting famous Mayan ruin sites.

Merida is much bigger than other cities in the Yucatan Peninsula, but it still has a small-town feeling as it’s divided up into neighborhoods. There is so much to see and do in Merida, including touring plazas, museums, colonial mansions, and cathedrals, plus shopping, dining, and more, that spending 2-3 days here is ideal. My favorite activities were shopping for fair-trade Mexican crafts at La Casa de las Artesanias and getting to see a Yucatecan serenade at night in the Parque de Santa Lucia.

During our time in Merida, we also took a mini day trip to Cuzama, a small charming town filled to the brim with cenotes which can be toured with a local guide as you cruise through the town and backroads on a tuk-tuk. Another popular day trip from Merida is to head to the beaches at Progreso. We chose not to go there though, seeing as we already spent so much beach time in other parts of the peninsula.

Driving direct from Xpujil / Calakmul to Merida via the Ruta Puuc: 6 hours

From Campeche – Merida: 2.5 hours

Days 20-21: Chichen Itza & Valladolid

Chichen Itza is the most famous Mayan ruin site in Mexico and the world. Visiting is a must on many people’s Mexico bucket list for places to see.

You can easily visit Chichen Itza in a day and then stay for a night or two in the colonial city of Valladolid where you’ll find more shopping, dining, lively plazas, and lots of iconic cenotes.

The best way to manage your time is to leave Merida early in the morning (1.5 hours drive) or stay overnight near Chichen Itza in Uayma or Valladolid (30-45 minutes drive). Both are doable.

That way, you can visit Chichen Itza in the morning, eat lunch in Valladolid or Piste, and then spend the afternoon and next day exploring the town and jumping into refreshing cenotes. The best cenotes to visit in Valladolid are Cenote Zaci (my favorite), Cenote Suytun, Cenote Oxman, and Cenotes X’keken and Samula.

Merida to Chichen Itza: 1.5 hours

Chichen to Valladolid: 45 mins

Days 22-24: Holbox

Isla Holbox is out of the way for many people, but quite the reward for those who take the time to get there! The island is so lush and wild with white sandy roads and gorgeous beaches all around. It’s a popular spot to go snorkeling, diving, and swimming with whale sharks. Everyone gets around on bikes or golf carts (which is both cool yet also a nightmare when traveling in large groups).

If you want to “escape to paradise” I can’t think of a better place than spending a few beach-filled days and starry night skies at Holbox Island. You’ll love it! The only hassle is it’s out of the way, but fairly straightforward nonetheless. You can easily take the highway from Valladolid to Chiquila, where you’ll then take a ferry taxi over to the island. Once there, get a golf cart taxi to take you to your hotel where you can then get out and explore.

When in Holbox, check out the beaches of Punta Coco and Punta Mosquitoe, ride bikes, lounge in hammocks in the water, volunteer at the animal refuge, and wade in the water to see the bioluminescence at night.

Valladolid – Chiquila: 2.5 hours

Chiquila ferry to Isla Holbox: 30 mins

Hammocks in the water at Isla Holbox in the Yucatan Peninsula

Day 25: Departure From Cancun

And that my friends, concludes this ultimate Yucatan Peninsula road trip itinerary!

Depending on your plans, you might have your return flight out of Cancun. Getting back from Holbox / Chiquila only takes 2 hours driving, but don’t forget you’ll need to add in time for returning your car rental and getting to the airport 2-3 hours in advance. If you need it, you can spend one extra night around Cancun to get to the airport in the morning.

Alternative 2 Week Yucatan Itinerary

If you have two weeks or less to travel around the Yucatan Peninsula, don’t fret! You can still pack A LOT inside a 2-week Yucatan itinerary.

With two weeks, it’s better that you stick to only the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Campeche has Calakmul, and it’s seriously beautiful, but it does add in a lot of extra driving time. If your content with not seeing Campeche, or Bacalar in southern Q. Roo, then you could shave off at least 5 days from the above itinerary.

Also, to save more time, instead of visiting the three islands – Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, and Holbox – you could choose to visit only one. This would give you extra time to spend exploring one island more in-depth. They all offer similar water activities anyway (i.e. whale sharks, snorkeling, scuba diving, beaches), so pick the one you think you’d enjoy discovering most!

Your 2-week Yucatan itinerary could look something like this instead:

  • Days 1-2: Cancun (+ Isla Mujeres)
  • Days 3-5: Playa del Carmen (+ Cozumel)
  • Days 6-9: Tulum & Coba
  • Days 10-13: Chichen Itza & Valladolid
  • Day 14: Flight out of Cancun

iguana basking in the sun in tulum, mexico

Recommended Yucatan Itinerary for < 10 Days

If you have 10 days, 7 days, or even 5 days to see the Yucatan Peninsula, it’s best to stick to the Riviera Maya on the east coast, unless you have a penchant to see Merida and the western part of the peninsula.

So a 10-day Yucatan itinerary could look similar to this:

  • Days 1-2: Cancun
  • Days 3-4: Playa del Carmen
  • Days 5-6: Tulum
  • Days 7-9: Coba, Chichen Itza, & Valladolid
  • Day 10: Return to Cancun

If you have only 7 days or less to travel around Yucatan, decide on where you REALLY want to go and spend the majority of your time there. It’s better to explore a place more slowly than to speedily see everything. So if you love Mayan ruins, make your itinerary around the Tulum ruins, Coba, and Chichen Itza only. If you want to spend most of the time at the beach or shopping, any of the resort towns will be perfect.

Many people that have 5 days or less spend it in Tulum with a day trip to Chichen Itza and back. It’s entirely up to your time allowance, style of travel, and budget. I always recommend slow traveling so you can have a fuller experience of the local culture in the community you’re in. I totally understand needing to check off the bucket list though, and so if it’s your first time in Mexico you probably want to stick to the top sights of Chichen and Tulum or Cancun.

Essential Travel Tips for Yucatan Mexico

What to pack: You’ll be traveling between beaches and jungle, so pack biodegradable sunscreen and insect repellent. If you forget, no worries. You can get everything you need once you get to Mexico in supermarkets like Wal-Mart, La Comer, Chedraui, and Mega.

How much to budget per day: Traveling in Mexico is fairly cheap, but you should still budget for at least $30 or more per person per day. Some days will be cheaper than others, and it all depends on where you choose to stay, eat, and play.

ATMs/Credit cards: Mexico, especially in the touristy Yucatan Peninsula, accepts almost all types of credit and debit cards. ATMs are also aplenty, but it’s best to take out cash (pesos) in advance as soon as you get to the airport in Cancun. The peso fluctuates, but the rate is about 18-20 pesos per $1 USD.

Staying safe: Mexico is extremely safe despite what the media says. You will be safe road tripping around the Yucatan Peninsula, but it’s best to avoid driving at night. Cops pulling over tourists for petty bribes is not uncommon per se (as it can happen), but it’s just not likely.

I hope this ultimate guide to the Yucatan Peninsula helps you plan your trip! Please share your thoughts, comments, and recommendations down below!

For more Mexico travel inspiration, check out my other Mexico travel guides including my ultimate bucket list for the Riviera Nayarit (the Pacific side of Mexico!).

Is traveling around the Yucatan on your Mexico bucket list?

 

Like it? Pin it!

You’ll Also Love…

The Complete Guide to Scuba Diving in Tulum, Mexico

The Complete Guide to Scuba Diving in Tulum, Mexico

Scuba diving in Tulum is a must-do on everyone's tropical adventure bucket list! Tulum is arguably one of the best places in the world to scuba dive because it has both incredible cenotes and the Mesoamerican Reef (the second largest after Australia's Great Barrier...

Diving in Casa Cenote with “Pancho” the Crocodile

Diving in Casa Cenote with “Pancho” the Crocodile

Have you ever wondered if there were crocodiles in the cenotes in Mexico? Well, up until now I hadn't seen one in person. But our discovery dive in Casa Cenote changed that! Casa Cenote is a long, snake-like open-air cenote that cuts through the mangroves. It is one...

12 Epic Day Trips From Tulum You Can’t Miss

12 Epic Day Trips From Tulum You Can’t Miss

Tulum is one of the most visited destinations in Mexico's beautiful Riviera Maya. But if you've already checked off your Tulum bucket list, then you should take a couple of day trips from Tulum to explore more of what Quintana Roo and the Yucatan Peninsula have to...

9 Comments

  1. molly

    Great post! This has been on my list for years! The white sand beaches of Isla Holbox sound amazing!

    Reply
    • Bri

      Thanks, Molly! That’s awesome! I hope you get to do it one day. And yesss, I’d love to spend more time soaking in a hammock in the water in Holbox! So beautiful!

      Reply
  2. Sam

    Ive only really seen Cancun, but after reading this, I need to get back to Mexico to explore these beautiful places you mentioned! Love all the photos!

    Reply
    • Bri

      I have no doubt you’d love it Sam! Mexico has so much to offer beyond the beaches! Thank you xx

      Reply
  3. Kelsey

    What an amazing location to spend 3 weeks. This looks like a wonderful beach vacation. I’m sure the photos and the memories are fantastic.

    Reply
    • Bri

      Definitely! There’s so much to do that even in 3 weeks it’s fairly packed. That’s why we got “stuck” living 2 years in Mexico – it’s just too easy to stay lol!

      Reply
  4. Diana

    Wow, this is such an in-depth blog post dear! You did an amazing job describing everything. I’m definitely saving it for later when my time to visit Mexico comes!

    Reply
    • Bri

      Yay, how wonderful! I hope you get to do this road trip around the Yucatan or elsewhere in Mexico! There are just so many great places to visit!

      Reply
  5. Sydney

    Amazing post! I would love to do this road trip one day! 🙂

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.