Renting a car driving around is the best way to discover a destination and its hidden corners. This is why I wrote this 15-day Yucatan itinerary, one of the many I did, with the hope to inspire you to do the same.
If you believe it’s dangerous, I would like to show you that it is not, if you follow some commonsense rules.
I have lived in Cancun for 7 years and traveled around, by car and by bus for 2 years, and besides some common-sense rules, there are other local details to pay attention to, which I will talk about in another post.
In this article, I have tailored two examples of a 15 days Yucatan itinerary, just the way I would do it if I were coming to Mexico for the first time.
In both Yucatan Itineraries I will take you through the most amazing things to do in Yucatan, and the Riviera Maya, which is not in Yucatan, but it is in the Yucatan peninsula, the entire region that includes Yucatan, Quintana Roo and Campeche.
I will also cover some practical tips and things to do and to see where to eat and much more.
Read on, and let me take you around my beautiful Yucatan peninsula!
ITINERARY A – 15 DAYS ITINERARY IN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA (INCLUDING TULUM)
Map of Yucatan peninsula
Day 1 – Arrival and driving to Xpu-ha
You will arrive at Cancun International Airport, but I would leave Cancun for the last and drive straight to Akumal, at about 100 km south on the Riviera Maya, unless your plane gets late at night and you are exhausted.
You would have booked your car already. I use Discover Car to find out the best available rate on the market.
Once you pick up your car at the airport you drive all the way down along the Riviera Maya, along the Carretera Federal to your destination. There are about 100 km, 80miles. That’s why I was saying, depending on what time you arrive and how exhausted you are you can decide whether to stay in Cancun for the night or to hit the road right away.
I would opt for the second option if you can.
Let me explain.
You can get either to Xpua or Akumal, they are the best beach in the Riviera Maya and worth a stop. Akumal has also some friendly turtles that swim right off shore.
So you can literally swim with them. I wrote a post on how to swim with the turtles in Akumal that goes more in details.
Here you can choose between the following hotels. Well, there are many more of course, but those two are my pick.
Akumal Club Caribe – it’s a scarce 3 stars only, nothing fancy or glamorous, let’s say decent, and has lots of good reviews, but it has the advantage to be right on the beach, right where the turtles are.
Esencia – If you want to get fancy and take a splurge, this is the place to be. One of my favorite spots on the Riviera Maya and where I would stay. Here you will find the elegant simplicity of the Italian taste merging with the Mexican feel. Service and food are top-notch and the location is just unbeatable right on Xpu-ha beach. This hotel is a full 5 stars.
Day 2 – Relax on the beach in Akumal and swim with the turtles
Today you will swim with the turtles in Akumal and I would explore also Xpuha beach for a nice long walk. You can also enjoy some paddleboarding or for the bravest, try kite surfing.
If you are like me and prefer to explore rather than laying on the beach doing nothing, just outside Akumal on the main road, there are a few great cenotes that you can check out. I recommend going early morning especially if it falls in the weekend.
I enjoyed very much the cenote Eden where you can jump and snorkel or just relax on the wooden platforms.
But if you wish to check out all the cenotes in the surrounding you can have a look at my guide to the cenotes of the Riviera Maya, where you will find a lot of inspiration on places to visit while you are in the area
At the end of the day, you will move to Tulum, because, you’ve got to live the Tulum vibes.
You will check out at your hotel and will go have dinner in the so renowned Hartwood restaurant on the beach road. If there is too long of a cue, (because they don’t accept reservations) you can choose among many other great restaurants. Check out my post on the best restaurants in Tulum, I obviously don’t talk about all of them but I mention the most popular ones that are also my favorite.
Where to stay in Tulum
A difficult choice indeed. There are so many beautiful places and for any budget. Here is my pick for you but you can check out a longer list among my favorite hotels in Tulum
Trendiest Beach hotel in Tulum – CASA MALCA
Tulum Luxury beach hotel – BE TULUM
All-inclusive resort in Tulum – DREAMS TULUM
Best hotel in the new trendy neighborhood (not on the beach) La Veleta Tulum – HOLISTIKA TULUM
Lessly priced hotel in Tulum – HOWLITA
Day 3 – Tulum archeological site and beach time to relax
I would go to see the archeological site in Tulum early morning. It opens at 8 and closes at 16.30 and you can either have access from the beach road or from the Carretera federal coming from Akumal on the left you will see the sign.
The best way to enjoy a Mayan ancient city is early morning when few other people are around, but most of all when it’s not so hot. Especially in the summer, I would avoid midday time.
You can also have access at 6.30 am paying extra money, it was around 250 MXN when I checked last year.
However, if you go for the sunrise, consider that in the summer the sun rises at around 6.30 so you will miss it.
If you are there in winter, the sunrise is at around 7.20 so you will be able to enjoy the ruins at sunrise. If you are a photographer you might want to check it out. Just keep in mind that early morning opening hours ar not 100% reliable.
There are guides at the entrance that you can hire to give you some interesting information on the site, as well if you like.
What can you do if you have only one day in Tulum?
After the tour, you can just hang out on the beach for the day and in the late afternoon when it’s not so hot, you might want to take a walk in the pueblo or on the beach road and check out local shops, have a coffee and wander around to explore the local life go by.
If you want to optimize every single minute of your time there (not that you wouldn’t do it with option 2) and check out other Tulum wanders, you can visit one of the nearby cenotes.
There are so many. In this guide on the 10 cenotes that you can visit around Tulum, you can choose among the most beautiful ones.
In the night you can stay in your spectacular hotel or find another awesome restaurant in the guide I gave you here above.
Day 4 – Muyil and Sian Ka’an – off the beaten track
Today I don’t give you options if you love my travels, and the things that I have visited so far, you will love this day that I have organized for you.
Get up early and after a quick breakfast just drive southwards and stop at Muyil archaeological site. A gem. You can walk around on your own and climb to the tower at the end of the circuit to get a spectacular view of the area. You can access to the see from there as well. I missed that way out when I went back and drove on the main road down to the next stop, where fishing boats are waiting for you to take you on a tour of a lifetime.
You are now within the territory of the Sian Ka’an protected reserve. There are 2 tours available. A short one and the longer one. I took the first one and I am dying to take the other. Hopefully soon.
The boat will take you through those natural canals among the mangroves in the lagoon down to a path called the lazy river. You will then jump off the boat and float all the way to the end, letting the gentle current take you down. It’s so soothing and fun. I did it on my own and it was almost a mystical experience to me.
The longer tour would continue the trip down to the other side of the biosphere where the lagoon meets the Caribbean sea. It must be spectacular indeed. Let me know if you pick this one.
Please make sure you arrange the price with your guide before starting the tour and pay at the end. They only accept cash. Please be reminded that in order to take these local tours it’s always advisable to have local currency at hand.
End your day basking on the beach in your hotel, or if you haven’t booked a beach hotel you can just hang out in the pool of your own place in town or find a rooftop bar for a breathtaking sunset on the jungle.
Day 5 – Coba all day and night in Valladolid
Among the amazing things to do in Yucatan, you will see that Coba is included, but it’s actually not in Yucatan, but in the Mexican State of Quintana Roo, in the geographical area of the Yucatan peninsula.
Anyway, it’s amazing, one of my favorites and you absolutely cannot miss it. Besides, it fits perfectly in your Yucatan itinerary.
It’s a refreshing walk around the ancient buildings, or what remains of them and the climbing to the tower top will offer you an astounding view over the jungle, an infinite green carpet. Totally worth the effort.
Be it the first thing to do in Coba, in the morning, when the temperature is still bearable.
Then when you end your visit to the Archeological site, you can head to the cenotes for a refreshing dip.
You will drive then to your beautiful hotel in Valladolid at about 1h 30” drive.
Among the suggested Hotels:
Meson del Marques, right on the main plaza in Valladolid, it’s a very simple but comfortable, mid-range priced hotel. View prices and info on Booking.com
Verde Morada: luxury property in the elegant Calzada de los Frailes road, where everything happens in Valladolid. View prices and info on Booking.com
Day 6 – Valladolid explore the town
Valladolid is the getaway to Yucatan from the Riviera Maya, a colorful pretty town with beautiful colonial buildings, recently restored to become magnificent mansions and hotels. Here you can browse around the town and enjoy local museums, take a dip in the cenote, right in the historical center, or explore the nearby areas. In my thorough guide, I am including all the amazing things to do in Valladolid, among which:
- WALK AROUND THE HISTORICAL CENTRE
- VISIT THE EX CONVENT
- HANG OUT ON THE MAIN SQUARE
- JOIN A FREE WALKING TOUR
- ENJOY THE SHOW OF LIGHT AND MUSIC
- RENT A BIKE AND EXPLORE THE NEARBY CENOTES
- VISIT THE MUSEUMS
- TAKE A DIP IN THE CENOTE ZACI
- TAKE A BIKE TOUR
- GO VISIT ONE OF THE 7TH WONDERS OF THE WORLD – Chichen Itza’
Day 7 – Chichen-Itza and cenote – night in Izamal
Today you will get up early and get to Chichen Itza by 8.00 am, right when it opens. It’s the best time to visit the remaining of the majestic Mayan city before the crowds of tourists arrive on the big busses. It’s a mystical place and the way to visit is in peace and tranquillity.
Too bad for the local vendors, but at that time they are still setting up their boots
Take your time and walk around or hire a guide to explain about the Mayan history and Chichen-Itza prosperous times.
Don’t forget to get to the sacred cenote and look out for the beautiful bluebirds with a long tail shaped like a pendulum
Consider at least 3 hours to visit the entire site.
Entrance 232 MXN
Head to the very touristy but worth visiting cenote Ik-kil- It’s a cave cenote with wild plants hanging from above and covering the rocky walls. A little over-crowded but a beautiful picture-worthy place.
Entrance 80 MXN
Head to Izamal and enjoy the night walking tour around the city when the project scenes of the colonization times on the city walls, with games of light and music. Narration is both in English and Spanish
Day 8 – All day in Izamal
Izamal is mostly renowned as the Yellow town, for the yellow walls of the buildings in the historical center. It’s mesmerizing to watch. The plaza is where everything happens, colorful vendors will be hanging out to sell their goodies and locals and tourists alike are wandering around day and evening. It’s a very safe town, but always be on the alert.
What to do in Izamal?
There is not much to see besides exploring the Monastery of San Antonio de Padua, right in the heart of the town, and walk around the yellow roads, sit in a cafe’ and enjoy the colonial vibes.
What not to do in Izamal?
I would not take a ride in one of that horse-chart and if you are a conscious traveler like me you wouldn’t want to promote tourist attraction created by animal exploitation.
Where to stay in Izamal
I stayed at San Miguel Archangel hotel, a simple but cozy property right by the plaza. Check out prices and reviews on Booking.com
Day 9 – Merida city tour
Merida is an unmissable stop, with its pretentious old colonial houses, lining Paseo de Montejo, built as a copy of the Champes d’Elises, witness of the ambitious goals of the colonizers and founders of the city.
The main plaza as well is the heartbeat of the city, especially on weekends where local families and tourists alike gather to attend local dances and music. Don’t miss it, if you want to get into the Yucatecan folklore, taste local street food
Day 10 – Driving to Rio Lagartos through small towns
From Merida to Rio Lagartos it appears to be a long drive but it’s a tour on its’ own. Driving through the small local town where tourist invasion hasn’t arrive will take you into a journey through the autentic Mexico. If you are a photographer amateur or pro, you will find lots of subjects for your amazing unique pictures.
Try to get to Rio Lagartos by sunset though, because although the fishing town doesn’t have anything charming, sunsets and sunrises on the water are always quite a remarkable gift of nature. And because of its location you will be lucky to see both.
Find a Hotel where to stay in Rio Lagartos for the night have dinner in one of the local restaurants. My vegan friends you might need to stick to the usual guacamole, my lifesaver when I travel in Mexico because the place is not very vegan-friendly.
One of the newest addition, the cute little hotel Yuum Ha is located right on the water in the heart of Rio Lagartos.
Check rates & availability: Booking.com
POSADA PERICO MARINERO
This cute property was one of my favorite when I visited. The rooms are spacious, brand new, and nicely decorated. It’s also right on the water.
Check rates & availability: Booking.com
Click here to see other options on where to stay in Rio Lagartos
Day 11 – Rio Lagartos tour and Las Coloradas
Today you have an appointment with your guide that you would have previously booked if you have followed my instructions on the best way to visit Rio Lagartos
I always recommend booking your tour with William, because he’s the only guide who is also a biologist and a photographer and very passionate about the area, which is also his home. He will take you around the best spots at the right time to make the most of your trip to Rio Lagartos. His tours can also include Las Coloradas if you wish so that you don’t have to worry about the bus limited schedule, and you can do it all in one day.
And, he speaks English.
At the end of the tour, you can either spend another night there and use the next days to make your way back to Cancun slowly and stopping at the Ek Balam Archeological site.
Day 12 – Ek Balam and cenotes (or Back to Cancun)
If you decide to stop by Ek Balam Archeological site you will be fascinated by this less known but still spectacular old Mayan city. I would ask for a guide to take you around and give you some historical facts. Otherwise, you can just take a walk around the remains of the old buildings that have been dug out from the thick jungle. You can now walk through secular trees and ancient paths like a real explorer of the ancient civilizations.
At the end of your visit, the fun is not over. You can rent a bike and reach the cenote that’s about a couple of miles away from the site entrance. There you can find a refreshing stop before hitting the road again and reaching your next destination.
Day 13 – Cancun relaxing day before departure
If you have your flight in the next couple of days, you can end your Mexican vacation in Cancun. Whether you are in the mood of a relaxing couple of days or you wish to continue to explore Cancun will be just right for you.
Choose among the best luxury hotels on the beach if you wish to splurge and get pampered.
Or if you prefer to continue to explore you can choose a hotel in downtown Cancun and then organize some daily trips from there.
You can visit Isla Mujeres
There are a million things you can do in Cancun. You just run the risk that you will never want to leave.
Suggested hotels in Cancun
NIZUC Resort & Spa – High-end property, not all-inclusive, elegant and classy for both family or couples, or a friend retreats. (you have an adult only beach and pool worry not!) From 500 USD
Check rates & availability on Booking.com
Marriott Cancun – Marriott brand has always been a guarantee for quality and the Cancun resort keeps the promise. Also located on a spectacular stretch of the worldly famous Cancun beach this beautiful hotel is perfect for those who want to travel in style without breaking the bank. From 200 USD
Check rates & availability on Booking.com
Salinas Cancun – For those who love to travel on a budget and prioritize convenient locations and functionality, Salinas might be for you. If you don’t like dormitories, they have private rooms as well, beautifully decorated and spacious. The hotel is right in the heart of downtown Cancun right beside the ADO station. A private room can get as low as 60USD
Check rates & availability on Booking.com
MEXICO ON THE ROAD – ITINERARY B – 15 DAYS AROUND THE YUCATAN PENINSULA (INCLUDING HOLBOX)
Map of the itinerary B around the Yucatan Peninsula
This itinerary is very similar to the above one but I gave much more importance to the historical part, avoiding Tulum, the most touristic.
This way, I thought, I would make everybody happy.
Of course, itinerary samples can be countless, but I hope that these two can give you an idea of the distances and what you can do and see in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Please note that where you don’t see the descriptions you can refer to the first itinerary. Otherwise, please feel free to ask or click on the links I share with the relative posts, for more detailed information.
Day 1 – Arriving in Cancun, get your car rental and either spend one night there or head to Valladolid
Depending on the arrival time. Any time before 3 pm you can get to Valladolid and leave the touristy part for last.
I always recommend avoiding driving at night.
Sleep in Cancun or Valladolid
Day 2 – Valladolid city visit
Day 3 – Chichen-Itzà
Visit Chichen-Itza’ early morning, cenote Ik-ill, then head to Merida.
Day 5 – Visit Merida
One day in Merida, visiting the city, take the free walking tour at 10 am from the visitor center in the main plaza.
Sleep in Merida
Day 6 – Uxmal ruins and the Ruta Puuc
If you are interested in Mexican culture and history you cannot avoid Uxmal, to me even a more interesting archeological site than Chichen-Itza’.
Then I would spend the night in the Uxmal Hacienda or one of the lovely hotels around Uxmal and enjoy the jungle vibes. If you like to venture out there are a few cenotes in the area.
I almost got lost so I am not able now to give you directions, but if you ask the locals there they will let you know.
You can also visit the other archeological sites of the Ruta Puuc, Sayil is the one that I liked a lot.
Otherwise, just relax in your charming hacienda, listen to the chirping birds and look out for some monkey or other cute (and not so cute) jungle inhabitants.
Day 7 – Visit Izamal
Drive to Izamal visit the town and stay for the day and night
Day 8 – Ek Balam – Rio Lagartos
Set off to Ek Balam ruins (better said Ek Balam archeological site) on your way to Rio Lagarto. It’s a nice cultural stop and you will certainly have time for a stop in the cenote. Then head to Rio Lagartos
Day 9 – Rio Lagartos tour
The unmissable tour with William, the best naturalistic guide in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Sleep in Rio Lagartos
Day 10 – 12 Holbox
Spend 3 nights in the spectacular island of Holbox – enjoy the sargasso-free immaculate white sand beach, watch the graceful flamingos hanging out carless of the human presence, eat delicious healthy food. And if it’s whale sharks season (June through September) don’t miss the spectacular tour that takes you to swim with these gentle giants of the sea.
Check out Holbox hotels on Booking.com
Day 13 – Cancun
On day 13 leave Holbox in the morning and head to Cancun (2 hours drive). You will relax in one of the fancy hotels on the spectacular and Oh! So famous Cancun beach before heading back home, or continue your journey anywhere else.
End of the trip!
Suggested variation of the itinerary B around Yucatan
Squeeze in El Cuyo
If you are an explorer like me and want to see as much as possible, you might want to check out El Cuyo, a newborn touristic resort, previously known among the kite surfers for the frequent favorable windy days, now on the map of any beach lover escaping from the crowds of the Riviera Maya.
So you could spend one night less in Holbox and squeeze one night at El Cuyo.
In this post on El Cuyo Yucatan, I am sharing all the reasons why you will love El Cuyo, and I will give you tips on where to stay, to eat, and more.
Stop by one of the most beautiful cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula: Chooj-Ja
On the way from Cancun to Valladolid by the statal road (libre), not the highway (Cuota), you cannot miss the cenote sign (see picture below).
It’s located on the stretch of road between the turn to Chiquila’ (Holbox) and the one to El Cuyo.
Entry is 100 MXN, showers are available and mandatory to use in order to wash off any cream you might have on the skin that can contaminate the water of the cenote. Open every day from 8 to 4 but it’s recommendable to go on Wednesdays and Fridays where it’s most likely that you have the cenote all for yourself. (and you are most welcome )
ORGANIZED GUIDED ITINERARIES IN YUCATAN
If traveling alone is not your gem or if you just want to join a group of like-minded people to travel with for some time. I have partnered with a prestigious and world-wide renewed company that organizes travel itineraries all around the world. You can choose your trip among many others based not only on the itinerary but on age range and type of trip. They have everything for all needs.
MAP OF THE YUCATAN PENINSULA
In this map, I have included all the places I am talking about in the post, but also those where I haven’t included for time availability reasons, but you could still use it as an alternative to the mentioned things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula.
FOR FURTHER READING
- 25 Unmissable Pueblos Magicos – Mexico
- San Cristobal de las Casas – Mexico: top things to do and where to stay
- The Monarch butterfly sanctuary in Valle de Bravo Mexico
- Valle de bravo – Mexico: a travel guide to the Mexican Hamptons
- Airbnb Cozumel: the 11 pretty homes to rent for a perfect vacation