Mexican Escapade: Our One-Month Yucatan Road Trip – Part 1
How did our Yucatan road trip come about? Simple. Toronto’s weather in March can be a mess (and it was). This year, we wanted to spend March where the climate was warm, the beer was cold and life was interesting.
One word: Mexico, actually make that Yucatan. And so, we looked at the maps and planned for a one-month trip.
We’d fly into Cancun because there were lots of flight options. In previous years, when our son was young, we’d been at a few all-inclusive resorts in and around Cancun, and they were fun. This time, we wanted a Yucatan road trip that would give us a combination of some of Mexico’s best beaches, historic Spanish-built cities and majestic Mayan palaces and ruins.
Is Mexico Safe for a Road Trip?
People have asked us this question a few times. As we were planning our Yucatan road trip, there was a shooting in a Playa del Carmen club, just down the highway from Puerto Morelos, where we would stay. We also knew that overall, Mexico has a high crime rate, much of it to do with the drug trade. However, most of it is confined to other regions of the country. It didn’t faze us since we weren’t visiting those parts of Mexico.
It was interesting that when we chatted with people in Puerto Morelos, Mérida and Valladolid, they all made a point of mentioning that their town was safe. They were proud of it.
Yucatan depends on the tourist trade and they work hard to make sure everyone has a good time.
A Tip About Driving on a Yucatan Road Trip
Although we felt safe there, we made sure to schedule our driving during the daytime. We weren’t worried about people we wouldn’t be able to see at night, but more because of the roads.
Mexico is fond of using speed bumps, “topes” on their roads to encourage you to slow down, especially on highways as you’re entering and leaving a town. You can see them driving in daylight, but driving at night, you wouldn’t stand a chance. Some of the bumps are quite significant “speed mounds” and could do real damage to your car if you didn’t slow down.
Planning for our Yucatan Road Trip
Right from the beginning, we knew we wanted to experience Mérida. We’d read about it and a neighbor had bought a house there. Also, it was home to two leading Mayan museums.
After poring over maps, our Yucatan road trip looked like this:
- Fly into Cancun, rent a car, and drive a few kilometres down the coast
- Puerto Morelos – 3 nights
- Izamal – 1 night
- Mérida – 6 nights
- Celestún – 3 nights
- Campeche – 3 nights
- Uxmal – 5 nights
- Valladolid – 3 nights
- Puerto Morelos again – 3 nights
Also on our Plan, Travel Insurance
We don’t leave without travel insurance, especially on longer trips. It just makes sense, because you just never know what could go wrong on a trip like this.
Many travellers choose World Nomads travel insurance to cover their trip essentials. They’re easy to deal with, you can do everything online and choose the options that work best for you. Of course you hope you never have to use it, but just in case.
For accommodation, it was Airbnb, small hotels and a couple of medium-size hotels. All of our accommodations worked out well… except for one hotel which wasn’t so great.
Do You Want the “Mexican Fishing Village” Experience?
Then Puerto Morelos, just 25 km south of Cancun, is for you. Once we got to our hotel, we could walk to everything in the village.
For us, the short drive to Puerto Morelos meant that after the early morning flight, we would soon be swimming in the warm Caribbean.
We stayed at the Hacienda Morelos – a low-key 30-room hotel, right on the beach, clean, friendly, with all rooms and balconies facing the water.
It was quiet, parking was free, breakfast was included, the bed was comfortable, the shower worked and so did the WIFI. And the Dos XX beer was cold…
From the outdoor dining terrace, we could walk down the steps to the sand and go swimming or walk along the water to the restaurants and shops in the village.
We also soon discovered the Lola Y Moya coffee shop across from the hotel where they make the best espressos in a tiny 8-seat place. We became regulars for our second coffee of the morning.
Broiled Fish, Fish Tacos and Ceviche
Since this is a fishing village, and we like fish, we often shared a whole broiled fish and a plate of ceviche. It was fresh, cheap and very tasty. Careful with the orders of ceviche – what you might think is an appetizer is a big plate, easily enough to share.
We had two favorite restaurants – La Playita down at the other end of the beach and Tacos.com (weird name, I know) which is really two little restaurants in the center of town separated by a few other places. Eat at either – they have the same menu and very few tables. We always ended up at a table out on the street which was ideal for watching the passing scene. Perfect fajitas and margaritas! (hey it rhymes, it must be good)
Talking to the locals was interesting. They seemed genuinely happy that we were there and prided themselves on being a “real” Mexican town. They congratulated us for our discernment.
Based on these first days, we decided that we would return here for the end of our trip so that we would be close to the Cancun airport and car return.
An Easy Day Trip to Tulum
We had been to Tulum twice before, many years ago when there was virtually no town there, when you could just walk up to the ruins, climb the temples and swim at turquoise beaches, as long as you could change behind a towel (no change rooms).
In the past 20 years, Tulum has been substantially transformed. Now the town is full of hotels, bars and restaurants. It has become the world capital for yoga, meditation, soul searching, deep breathing, smoothies and vegan living. Somehow, that coexists right alongside burgers, beer and all-night partying. Take your pick, it’s all there for you in Tulum.
But even if you wish for the older, quieter Tulum, you can’t deny that the beaches are still spectacular and the Mayan ruins singularly beautiful.
It was easy to spend a day there, and if we ever need a yoga and meditation break, we know where to go.
Is Puerto Morelos for You?
You’ll like Puerto Morelos if you’re looking for:
- A small fishing village atmosphere with mostly casual restaurants and shops
- A public-access, sandy beach perfect for long walks and good swimming
- Low-key entertainment with musicians in restaurants and free music and art in the downtown square
- Opportunities to go fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving
- A handy location close to Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum
To Izamal, Mexico’s Yellow City
The interesting aspect of driving from Puerto Morelos to Izamal is that for most of the way we took the new toll highway, a beautifully paved 4-lane road. No traffic! It was a surreal experience driving through forests and fields with just the odd car or truck for company.
But that memory would soon be over-shadowed by a whole town painted bright yellow!
A Recognized “Magic Town”
Izamal is one of Mexico’s “magic towns”. This government designation promotes lesser known towns for their historical, cultural and aesthetic qualities. Although it was once a much larger center during Mayan times, it is now over-shadowed by nearby Mérida.
Izamal is a UNESCO World Heritage site well worth seeing if you’re planning a Yucatan road trip.
Most of the downtown buildings are painted egg-yolk yellow. How did that happen and what does it have to do with a pope visiting Izamal? Learn more about this unique stop on our Yucatan road trip on our blog post here.
Is Izamal for You?
You’ll like Izamal if you’re looking for:
- A memorable sight – once you’ve seen the yellow town you’ll never forget it
- A small-town atmosphere where bicycles and scooters are as common as cars, shopping is strictly local
- Mexican and Mayan arts and crafts produced by local artisans
- Mayan pyramids and sites that aren’t on the usual tourist circuit
- Authentic Mayan restaurants – brush up on your “restaurant Spanish” so you know what you’re ordering
Mérida, a City of Secrets
Izamal to Merida is a short drive and we were looking forward to our Airbnb house there. Would it be as good as the Airbnb listing?
I’ll stop the suspense – it was even better. The swimming pool, private enough to be clothing optional, was the icing on the cake. The house was spectacular.
By the way, if you’re considering renting through Airbnb for the first time, click here to take advantage of an introductory offer that gives you $50 off your rental.
A plain stucco exterior hides a house with lavish 14-foot ceilings, a luxurious kitchen, patterned tile floors and an oasis in the backyard. This was typical for many houses in Mérida and other Yucatan towns such as Campeche and Valladolid.
The Most Cosmopolitan City on our Yucatan Road Trip
Mérida is a bustling city of about a million people and growing rapidly. It’s always been the capital of Yucatan and grew rich during the era when sisal manufacturing was booming. Sisal was used to make rope. It was supplanted by nylon at the end of WWII, which meant the collapse of the sisal industry and a big blow to the Yucatan economy.
But Mérida seems to have recovered. Streets, shops and restaurants were all busy.
There’s an interesting contrast between the rococo white mansions which were built by sisal barons along the elegant Paseo de Montego , and many of the other houses that show a much more austere face to the world, but hide luxurious interiors.
The World of Maya, Up Close
For us, two of the highlights of Mérida were the Mayan museums: the Museo Regional de Anthropologia housed in the massive and extravagant Palacio Cantón, and in the north end of the city, the new Gran Museo del Mundo Maya.
Both featured large collections of Mayan artifacts from various sites in the region. Explanations were in Spanish and English. We spent hours in each of them. If you’re even vaguely interested in Mayan history and culture, they are a must-see.
Dancing in the Squares
What struck us in Mérida and other Mexican towns were the free social amenities, specifically the dances and celebrations in the town squares. In Mérida, you only had to know where the dancing would be on which night (there was a regular schedule) and then show up.
These dances are actually one of the most vivid memories of our Yucatan road trip.
We went on a Thursday evening to the Parque de Santiago. There was a full orchestra on stage, and rows of chairs were set up around the dance floor. Customers filled the restaurants around the square, or bought snacks from other food vendors who roamed through the crowds. Elegant couples, young and old, were showing off their Latin dance steps in the warm moonlight.
We found a table, ordered a late dinner and watched and listened, too shy to get up and dance – who could compete with these dancers? We wondered whether something like this would be either feasible or popular back in Canada.
Cantina Time in Mérida at La Negrita
On one of our walks, we stuck our head inside La Negrita, a small corner bar we wanted to check out later.
Well my little gringo, we were in for another Mérida-style surprise. This “small corner bar” was a lively cantina that goes on for three big rooms filled with locals and visitors eating, drinking and dancing to the band.
We squeezed ourselves in at the end of the bar. A sultry singer was preaching love, or perhaps love lost, while a couple was laying down a lesson in Latin dancing. Smooth, suave, mesmerizing!
At the break, we talked to the trumpet player. The singer was his wife, and when he found out we were from Toronto, he said he’d played with the well-known band Cubanismo at both Massey Hall and the Lula Lounge, a big Latin bar. Small world.
If you’re in Mérida, head for La Negrita at Calle 62 and 49. It’s been there since 1917, and it’ll wait for you.
Is Mérida for You?
You’ll like Mérida if you’re looking for:
- A Mexican city that’s manageable and easy to walk, but with lots of hustle
- World-leading Mayan museums
- Good nightlife including free orchestras and dancing in various parks and squares and a lively cantina scene with live music – take those Latin dance lessons now!
- A handy centre for exploring the beaches at Progresso to the north, the flamingos of Celestún to the west and the Mayan sites around Uxmal to the south
- Some American amenities (grocery stores, coffee shops), but plenty of Mexican and Mayan choices
Read Part 2 of our Yucatan road trip where we get up close with flurries of flamingos in Celestún, and keep an eye out for savage pirates around the walled city of Campeche.
Planning Your Mexico Visit
With all of the information on the Internet, we still like to have a guide book as reference. Our favorites are the Lonely Planet books. Have a look at the Lonely Planet Mexico books here. They’re available both hardcover and digital.
If you’re planning on staying Airbnb for the first time, click here to take advantage of our special discount which gives you the equivalent of $50 CDN off your first visit.
If you’re planning to stay in a hotel, look here for up to date best prices for hotels in Merida.
Here is the best selection for hotels in Puerto Morelos.
Looking for tours from Merida? Click here for a selection of city tours, Mayan sites and nature reserves.
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