Our road trip to explore the Yucatan peninsula has been unforgettable! This is my full Travel Guide with all the Cenotes we’ve seen, insider tips for Chichen Itza and so much more.
OUR YUCATAN PENINSULA ROAD TRIP
A little note since I got a few questions about it: Whenever I write about “Yucatan Road trip” in this Blogpost I always mean the Yucatan Peninsula which consists of Quintana Roo and Yucatan.
The Yucatan Peninsula has been on my bucket list for a really long time and in February we finally booked a flight from Miami to Cancun.
Of course we planned to visit Tulum, but we also wanted to stay flexible so we decided to rent a car during the whole week.
Since we landed late night and could only pick up our rental car the next morning we slept a night in a hotel not far from the airport.
TULUM – THE BOHO PARADISE
The next morning we finally started our trip to Tulum which took us a bit longer than one hour.
What I only realized during this trip was that Tulum is kinda “splitted” in two parts: Tulum city and the hotel area at the beach – both are connected by a street.
The hotel area is a street in the middle of the jungle, with zero phone connection and the beach behind it. Here you will find all the fancy Hotels, Restaurants, shops, etc. you may know from Instagram.
The city is where you find some cheaper Hotels & Hostels, amazing restaurants for a good price and regular grocery shops etc.
The Matcha Mama is a Must visit and has the most refreshing Smoothies
Our first hotel
For the first night we stayed at the Nômade which is located right at the beach. We couldn’t stay longer since the hotel was already booked out for the other nights when we booked our trip two months earlier.
I really loved the gypsy design, the amazing beach and the whole concept of this place – it was like a Boho Utopia.
A disappointing experience at the famous Azulik Hotel
After a relaxing day at the Nômade we booked a table for dinner at the famous AZULIK hotel – which was super disappointing !
The restaurant and especially the Bar area of course have been super crowded cause everyone wanted to get one of the famous pictures sitting in a net and overlooking the hotel – me included. If you book a Table at the Kin Toh Restaurant you get access to an area where you find a second net which is a less crowded and ideal to take photos.
Our idea was to have a romantic dinner in one of the nests, overlooking the jungle and sunset. But when we asked about it they told us that you only get access to them if you spend a MINIMUM of 1000,- USD! Thats probably the reason why only one of them has been reserved. This was the first frustrating moment for me – of course we didn’t want to spend this amount of money only for the two of us.
All areas around the tables were closed, watched by countless staff members so nobody could go in “for free”. But the biggest disappointment was that it’s forbidden to take any pictures with your camera – only phones are allowed. Which is an absolute No-Go for bad light conditions cause you can’t really edit the phone pics in Lightroom.
One of the “famous” nets
The nests can only be entered if you spend a minimum of 1000,- USD
We still decided to give the food a try – the prices where quite expensive (especially by Mexican standards) but we already knew this before. A vegan meal was around 24 USD and 35 USD for a dish with meat.
This may sound like I’m a little over dramatic but I’m usually never complaining – but this experience has been very frustrating and a waste of a wonderful sunset.
So if you plan a trip to Tulum – Azulik is definitely NOT a must do.
Our Food at the Kin Toh
Tulum City for good food
There are so many amazing beach bars and sunset bars where you can enjoy your evening. And if you wanna have a really nice dinner for affordable prices go to Tulum city !
We had an amazing dinner at BURRITO AMOR and the best Tacos for lunch at a small place called HONORIO TAQUERIA.
RELAXING DAYS A LITTLE OUTSIDE OF TULUM – BEFORE WE CONTINUE OUR ROAD TRIP IN YUCATAN
The second hotel we stayed at was the modern O’TULUM. This place is located a little outside of Tulum city in a quiet area directly at the beach and away from all the bigger hotels. We really loved the relaxing atmosphere of this modern and small place.
VISITING THE RUINS OF TULUM DURING THE RIGHT TIME
The Mayan Ruins of Tulum are a Must Do during your visit! The regular opening hours are from 8am-5pm each day – but I would recommend you to go AFTER that. They reopen the park again at 5.15 pm which is not known by a lot of people so you will find the park almost empty during this time. The only minus is that you have to pay a higher entry fee during the evening. It’s 200 Pesos (10 USD) per Person – during the day you only pay 65 Pesos (3,50 USD). But it’s so worth the extra money cause you will have a completely different experience with only a few other visitors.
The magical thing about this archeological side is that it’s located right at the ocean. Seeing the Mayan ruins in a lush green surrounding and the blue ocean behind them makes an absolute impressive scenery.
Not a single person in sight!
The temple of the wind
The temple of the wind god is my favorite building of the Tulum ruins. Since we’ve been almost alone and met a friendly guard, he allowed us to cross some of the little fences to walk closer to the ruins and to get a better view – this would never be possible during the regular opening times.
THE ‘SWING’ CENOTE CALAVERA
After a relaxing noon at the O’Tulum we decided to visit one of the smaller but still famous Cenotes in the Tulum area. The Cenote Calavera is literally a hole in the ground filled with water. Someone put a string on the trees and made a swing in the water – cute for pictures but hurtful to sit on 😉
When we arrived early in the afternoon the Cenote has been packed. People have been jumping in the water or went snorkeling. Additionally the light conditions to take photos are quite bad during this time of the day (the sun was shining directly in the water so it was completely overexposed on pictures) so we waited a bit. The Cenote is closing at 4.45 pm which means you will have the place all for yourself starting from 4.15/4.30 pm. And also the light will be much better for photos in the later afternoon.
Would you jump in?
It’s easy to jump from the edge into the water since it’s not high and the water deep enough. In the Cenote you will spot stalactites and bats hanging above you. The water is clear but not really good for snorkeling since it’s dark at most areas. But we saw a lot of divers with lamps coming in and out the whole time. The Cenote Calavera leads into a natural underground canal system which is all together 14 km (8,7 miles) long!
This is how the Cenote looked like when we arrived in the early afternoon…
… and around 4.15 pm it looked like this 🙂
THE CENOTE DOS OJOS EARLY IN THE MORNING
For the next day we planned to see the Cenote Dos Ojos right at the opening hour 8am. But unfortunately the entrance was a little higher than expected. They only took cash and the next ATM was some miles away. So we needed 30 mins to find a cash machine nearby. So be sure to bring enough cash for your visit. The entry fee is 350 Pesos (18 USD) for an adult.
Dos Ojos means “two eyes” in English since the Cenote has two caves which can be entered all leading to the same underground cave. The first eye is smaller so I would recommend you to go there early to enjoy it – it will get full after 9.45 am.
Finding a little secret cave
At the first eye we spotted a little path leading into the jungle and found another access to the Cenote which had the most impressive stalactites & stalagmites. After some time a local guide noticed us and came closer to tell us that it’s not the best idea to go into the water cause there might be snakes in it! True or not – I quickly left the water 😀 It was still such an impressive experience to have this amazing place all to ourselves for a while.
COBÁ – MAYAN RUINS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE JUNGLE
After driving around 40 mins from Dos Ojos to the center of Yucatan we reached the village Cobá. It is famous for the Mayan ruins which are located in the middle of the lush jungle.
It used to be one of the largest Mayan cities in Yucatan around 600-900 AD.
The special thing about this place is that almost all buildings and ruins can be touched and explored. Only a few are closed to enter. This is quite unusual – in Tulum for example all ruins are widely enclosed.
The whole area is huge. Right after the first ruin area you have the possibility to rent a bicycle for around 3 USD or rent a bike-taxi for a little more. Of course you can also walk from spot to spot but it will take around 1-1,5 hrs. The bicycles are the best options to explore the jungle area.
One of the most famous places is the Nohoch Mul Pyramid which is 42 m (137 ft) high and can be climbed up to the top. This can be quite challenging in the hot midday heat and with the slippery steps. There is only one rope in the middle of the staircase to hold on if you wanna go down. But once you reach the top you can enjoy a fresh breeze and the amazing view over the jungle with the ruins.
For me Cobá was the most interesting archeological side we visited in Yucatan and is really worth a visit. Even so we came during the late morning it wasn’t super crowded due to the wide area of the side.
A nice lunch stop after visiting Cobá
If you’re looking for a nice lunch spot before or after your visit I can highly recommend the restaurant EL COCODRILO which had fresh delicious food for a really good price.
VALLADOLID DURING SUNSET – THE PRETTIEST CITY DURING OUR ROAD TRIP IN YUCATAN
In the late afternoon we reached the small city Valladolid with a beautiful main center park in the middle of the city.
The cathedral surrounded by palm trees, the colorful colonial style buildings and the music playing in the park are giving this place a special vibe. We really enjoyed to stroll around through the city during sunset. We found a cute Italian restaurant called ‘San Giovanni’ we can highly recommend for dinner. I really enjoyed eating a good pasta after the countless Tacos we had before 😀
At the end we regret we didn’t spend the night in Valladolid but to take the 1 h 45 mins drive to the Yucatan capital.
YUCATANS CAPITAL – MÉRIDA
Mérida is also a really beautiful colonial city but way larger than Valladolid. With the same cute colorful houses and main park in the center.
For the next day we decided to visit the Museum of Mayan history which was interesting. But unfortunately only a few things were translated into English. So it wasn’t as informative as we thought it would be.
Exploring the colorful streets of Mérida has been my favorite thing to do. It even felt a bit like Havana.
Mérida even has the oldest cathedral in America – The ‘Cadedral de San Ildefonso’ built in 1598.
The best restaurant in Merida
The best restaurant in Mérida and even the No. 1 on Tripadvisor is a small Cuban restaurant called ‘La Cubanita’. The restaurant is run by a Cuban Family with a small daily changing menu with the most delicious dishes. Even in the afternoon the restaurant is really busy. You definitely have to come here for lunch during your trip!
Traditional & yummy food at the La Cubanita
If we come back to Yucatán another time we will skip Mérida eventually. Not because it’s not worth a visit but simply because it’s located quite far in the west. Valladolid is much closer to Tulum and at least as charming as Mérida.
For the next morning my alarm woke us up at 5 am cause we wanted to go to the famous world wonder Chichén Itzá. This spot is on everyones list for Yucatán and thats why it’s always crowded!
The ticket counter opens at 8 am (which is 9 am Tulum time! Yucatán has two different time zones) and there will be already a loooong line during this time. Your only chance is to arrive at 7.15 am to be one of the first ones to get in!
That’s what we did and maybe had 20 other people before us. The area was still super empty when we reached the famous Mayan pyramid El Castillo.
How to find the Chichén Itzá pyramid empty
Once you see the pyramid quickly walk around it to the back side. Most people stop immediately as soon as they see the monument to take pics. But early in the morning there will be a harsh backlight from this perspective. On the other side of the pyramid you will have much better light conditions plus you will be almost alone for several minutes.
We first did all our pics and when we finished after maybe half an hour the meadow around the pyramid was already full of people and groups.
At 9 am all salesman start to open their souvenir stalls almost everywhere.
The Chichén Itzá Pyramid
A highlight during our Road trip in Yucatan
We walked to all the other sites in Chichén Itzá, which used to be one of the largest Mayan cities. We saw places like the Ball Ground, the Temple of Warriors and the Sacred Cenote. But the increasing temperature and amount of tourists made it more and more uncomfortable from minute to minute.
Chichén Itzá is on everyones list for a good reason! It’s an impressive feeling to see the ancient Mayan city but if you don’t come early it won’t be the same experience.
After our Mexico trip we found out that visitors can book a sunrise tour to Chichén Itzá with a limited number of participants. This must be a magical way to visit the Mayan site!
The Tzompantli ( Skull Platform)
The Ball Ground used to be a field where the Mayas played a Meso-American ball game
The Sacred Cenote
MAGICAL CENOTE SUYTUN
On our way back to the East Coast we made a stop at the Cenote Suytun which is close to Valladolid.
The special thing about this Cenote is that it’s underground. In the middle of the water is a platform with a hole above it which lets sunshine inside. Depending on the time of your visit there will be a strong or soft light ray shining in the cave.
When we came here in the afternoon (3.45 pm) we had the Cenote all to ourselves. But there’s a huge tour bus full of tourists which arrives daily around 4.15 pm so make sure to be here earlier.
The entrance fee is only 70 Pesos ( 3,60 USD ) and you can even swim here.
PLAYA DEL CARMEN FOR RELAXING BEACH DAYS AFTER OUR ROAD TRIP IN YUCATAN
For the last days of our trip we planned two nights in Playa del Carmen – a famous Beach destination in Mexico. We stayed at the Fairmont Mayakoba which is around 30 mins away from the city center. It’s located in a gated area (called Mayakoba) with several luxury resorts. We really loved the area which is a huge mangrove forest with the beach behind it.
In the evening we drove to the Playa del Carmen center with all the restaurants and bars – we didn’t like it to much. If you’re looking for a party place with bars & clubs to have fun you will love it here. But if you wanna enjoy a relaxing time with good quality food you will be super disappointed. That’s why we explored the Mayakoba area by bike and enjoyed some sunbathing at the beach for the rest of the time.
We will be back in Mexico for sure but next time we will skip Playa Del Carmen cause it’s simply not our vibe .
Also there are so many more Cenotes to explore and Mayan temples to see! One week is simply not enough to see everything but it was perfect for a first impression of Yucatan 🙂
CONTACT WITH THE LOCALS DURING OUR ROAD TRIP IN YUCATAN
Most of the Mexicans are super friendly – especially outside from the touristic places. Nevertheless you have to be a little careful. Cause some people will try to rip you off. In Cancun we called a taxi from the hotel to the rental car station – shortly before arriving I noticed that there was no taximeter so we had to pay 300 Pesos (15,50 USD) for a 5 Minute drive which is way more than the triple of the usual price. So make sure to ask about prices BEFORE you accept any service. Also keep an eye of the exchange rate locals are using. We felt like a lot of people in the Cancun & Playa del Carmen area tried to fool us. We also didn’t take any expensive stuff like handbags, laptops with us while walking in the city.
Beside this we felt safe all the time and met so many friendly people.
DON’T FORGET TO BRING THESE THINGS FOR YOU ROAD TRIP IN YUCATAN
Here are some tips which will really help you during your visit:
- As soon as you arrive in Mexico you should get some cash! Credit cards are no common payment methods especially if you’re not in touristic areas. Even most of the entry fees for Cenotes, Mayan sides etc. have to be payed in cash. We always got some cash from the ATM’s with our credit card since the withdrawal fees were mostly only about 30-50 Pesos. (1,50 – 2,50 USD), At the first ATM I was super shocked that I had to pay a fee of 30 $! But only until I realized that the symbol for Mexican Pesos is the same like for USD! 😀
- Make sure to bring some charcoal tablets or other anti diarrhea medicine. It’s super easy to get a food poisoning during your stay. Especially the tap water should never be used as drinking water! I was sick one day from having Ice cubes made out of tap water in my glass!
- Most of Yucatan is a jungle so there will be many insects. That’s why it’s important to bring some mosquito repellent. But be careful! It’s not allowed to use any repellant or sun blocker right before entering Cenotes cause this contaminates the fresh water quickly!