Private Journeys

Self-drive Mexico: Discover the Yucatan Peninsula

13 days from £1,850pp

Mexico


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Overview & Highlights

The Yucatán peninsula has a decent road network suiting independent drivers who want flexibility to explore the multitude of Mayan ruins and colonial towns. Car and hotels are pre-booked.

Mexico is ideal for independent exploration by self-drive car hire, particularly in the Yucatán peninsula and along the Caribbean coast. Your point-to-point itinerary planned out for you, with hotel reservations made in advance and maps provided, so you can explore the Mayan ruins and colonial towns at leisure..

Here, you’ll find vestiges of the once supreme Maya civilisation. Sites replete with temples and pyramids festooned with sacred carvings were, once abandoned, swallowed up by a rapacious jungle but are now gradually being revealed. The best known sites, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Tulum are easily accessible; smaller, less well-known sites are always close to minor roads and with your own car you can explore at will.

You’ll also visit graceful Spanish colonial towns with their friendly Maya inhabitants. Markets, restaurants and entertainments flourish here. 

At your beach hotel base on the soft-sand Caribbean coast at tranquil Tulum village there is time to laze on the beach and take part in water sports or visit nearby resort towns.

Itinerary

Day 1

Arrive in Cancún, collect hire car.

On arrival at Cancún airport you should proceed to the Europcar desk and advise the agent that you have a pre-booked car. You will then be escorted the car hire office, a short walk from the Terminal 2 or short escorted drive from Terminal 3. Our guide will be waiting for you there to assist and will stay with you until you have checked the car and documentation. Your car will be a mid-sized Chevrolet Aveo (or similar) which will be your companion for 12 days. Other sizes of car are available but terms and conditions are subject to change. Drive to your hotel in town.

Cancún straddles a lagoon on the north-eastern tip of the Yucatán peninsula. It's a purpose-built resort with beautiful beaches, good diving and water sports. Alongside the facilities that come with five-star hotels are high-class shopping and fashionable nightclubs and bars.

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Day 2

Drive to Mayan archaeological site at Chichén Itzá. Overnight.

Drive inland to Chichén Itzá (2 hours direct) the grandest and most well organised of all the Mayan sites, dominated by the huge, symmetrical, stepped El Castillo pyramid. The origins of the site are mysterious. It has the largest and best-preserved ball court in the Americas: the venue for an ancient ritual game that was played throughout the continent, but which is still not fully understood. Archaeologists have not been able to determine whether the losers or winners were decapitated, but judging from the gory carvings along the base of the court’s walls, someone certainly came to an unpleasant end.

En route you might want to visit the laid-back colonial town of Valladolid with its grand church and peaceful plaza. It's also a good spot from which to visit one of the cenotes which pit the peninsula. Cenotes are steep-sided freshwater sinkholes fed by underground rivers, deep enough for you to take a dip into their sparkling clear turquoise and emerald waters.

Accommodation is a short walk from the site, and in the evening there is the option to return for the Sound and Light Show. 

Tom Parrott ©

Day 3

Drive to Mérida, lively colonial and Mayan city; 3 nights.

Drive to Mérida (2 hours direct), capital of the state of Yucatán. The city was founded by the Maya, but in 1542 it was conquered by the Spanish conquistadores and became immensely wealthy, described as the ‘Paris of the New World’. Its income came from the production of sisal, cactus fibres that are used to make rope, and it was culturally and geographically isolated from the rest of the country until transport infrastructure reached it in the 1950s. 

Today, Mérida retains a lovely colonial centre with a mix of opulent and crumbly buildings, but it is a modern, bustling, thriving city with lots of local character, some excellent places to eat and good shops and markets. The inhabitants, descendants of the Maya and the colonists, love a good fiesta, and you may well find one going on, with live music and street stalls, while you are there.

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Day 4

At leisure in the city or optional drive to Uxmal.

At leisure in the city. Stroll around the sunny streets, shop for local lace or one of the region’s famous hammocks. Outside town you might drive to the ruined ceremonial temples of Uxmal, for many the most dramatic forest-clad Maya site. It’s just over an hour from Mérida, but you enter a different world. The site is dominated by the majestic Pyramid of the Magician, inhabited by birds and bats, alongside which is an elegant ‘nunnery’ quadrangle with Puuc-style complex stonework pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. This is the site with the most mystic ambience.

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Day 5

At leisure or drive to Celestún on the Gulf coast.

Also in contrast to the lively city of Mérida is Celestún on the remote, undeveloped and swampy gulf coast just 45 minutes' drive away. A low-key beach resort favoured by Mexican families, the once isolated fishing port has an inviting, broad white sandy beach and good seafood restaurants. But it is most famous for the lagoons at the entrance to town which are filled with rose-coloured flamingoes. Boat trips can be booked locally and there are car parking areas now. There are three main routes out of Mérida on the west side from the Pereferico. The newest route is via Tetiz and Kinchil, which is the quickest.     

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Day 6

Drive to Campeche; 2 nights.

Drive to Campeche (2 hours direct) on the coast facing the Gulf of Mexico. The old walled city is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site - pastel-painted mansions built by aristocratic Spanish families, pristine white churches and the shady zócalo main square evoke the city's era of glory. There’s a lovely seaside promenade, perfect for walking at sunset.

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Day 7

At leisure in this Spanish colonial city.

At leisure to explore the city, or drive to the little-visited Mayan pyramid complex at Edzná, a few miles outside town.

Mary Anne Nelson ©

Day 8

Drive to Xpujil; 2 nights.

Drive to Xpujil and the Ecolodge at Chicanná via the coastal road and the fishing port of Champoton where seafood stalls line the promenade. As you head inland you'll enter the Rio Bec route of Mayan sites where every few kilometres different sites pepper the route. On this section look out for Balamku and Becan.

This resort hotel, with gardens and pool, is a convenient base for explorations of remote and scarcely visited Mayan sites. Opposite the hotel are the impressive ruins at Chicanna and shady Xpujil site is literally around the corner. 

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Day 9

Visit local Mayan sites and Calakmul.

Calakmul is undoubtedly the main reason for visiting this region, smothered in rainforest, it's an important and very impressive site of what was once a vast and powerful city. There are 6,750 ancient structures identified there, the largest of which is the great pyramid at the site, at 45m high one of the highest temples of the Maya world. 

Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is home to some wildcat species, such as the cougar, the ocelot and the emblematic jaguar, an endangered species and very precious in the Maya culture. Mammals living in this jungle are the howler monkey, spider monkey, anteater, armadillo and deer. There are almost 300 species of birds, among them: parakeets, toucans and wild turkeys. There are also about 50 species of reptiles and 400 of butterflies.

You will need to drive 40 minutes back from Chicanna to the entrance of Calakmul Biosphere and we recommend departing very early in the morning and stocking up on provisions the night before.  

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Day 10

Drive to Tulum on the Caribbean coast; 3 nights.

Drive to Tulum on the Caribbean coast via Kohunlich (1.5 hours). Kohunlich is another site surrounded by dense rainforest and it contains almost 200 mounds that remain largely unexcavated. The city was elaborately planned and engineered, with raised platforms and pyramids, citadels, courtyards and plazas surrounded with palace platforms, all laid out to channel drainage into a system of cisterns and an enormous reservoir to collect rainwater.

The site is best known for its Temple of the Masks, a pyramid with a central stairway flanked by huge humanised stucco masks.

En route to Tulum (4 hours) you could stop for lunch at the Bacalar and go for a swim in the Lagoon of Seven Colours. The small town of Tulum has small thatched palapa-style bars, restaurants, hotels and guesthouses flanking the main road which cuts through town and continues along the peninsula as far as the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. The nearby beaches are simply superb with sugary white sand and enticing turquoise waters. To cap it all, the white Mayan ruins of Tulum are spectacularly perched on a cliff behind the main beach.

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Days 11-12

At leisure on the beach in the shadow of Tulum ruins; optional trips in the vicinity.

At leisure. Explore the ruins and relax on the beach below, or head inland to Mayan Cobá in the jungle. For a change from Mayan ruins you might visit the effervescent little resort of Playa del Carmen up the coast, a family-friendly place where there is a plethora of restaurants, bars, shops and entertainment. Alternatively drive to Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve which embraces tropical forest, mangrove and savannah and a coast and offshore marine reserve. The area is abundant with wildlife particularly aquatic birds. Other inhabitants include monkeys, tapirs, turtles, ocelots and jaguars. Guided boat trips through the wetlands can be organised locally.

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Day 13

Drive to Cancún and drop off car at airport; take international flight home.

Essentials

Tour info

Transport

Self-drive car, Chevrolet Aveo or similar with air-conditioning.

Accommodation

Here we always have chosen properties convenient for exploring the cultural attractions in the area. They are all mid-range but vary in style from historic conversions to resort style properties and cosy, rustic and homely guesthouses. 

Meals

Breakfast daily.

Guides

We carefully select our local partners, some of whom we have worked with for over 25 years. Their English-speaking guides understand the expectations of our clients very well, and are consistently singled out for praise by the latter on their return.

Summary Of Nights

13 days, 12 nights: Cancún 1; Chichén Itzá 1; Mérida 3; Campeche 2; Chicanná 2; Tulum 3.

Currency

The unit of currency in Mexico is the Mexican peso.

How To Take It

Cash machines are available in all major cities and towns, such as Cancún and Mérida. Taking a debit or credit card with a PIN number is the most convenient way of withdrawing money while on your trip, and in many shops and restaurants you can also pay by card. However, since cards can get lost, damaged, withheld or blocked, you should not rely exclusively on a card to access funds. Not all petrol stations accept cards.

We recommend that additionally you take a reasonable quantity of US dollars cash (no more than is covered by your insurance), which you can exchange into local currency, and possibly some travellers’ cheques, though these are gradually falling out of use (American Express are the most widely accepted). Dollar bills should be in good condition, soiled or torn bills may be refused. You can take sterling, but the exchange rate is not always competitive or even available, restricting the number of places where you can change money.

Daily Spend

It is very difficult to give a guideline for essential expenses but a budget of around US$45 per day should cover the cost of meals not included in the holiday itinerary, drinks and the odd souvenir. Eat at the best restaurants and you will pay considerably more. US$200 is an approximate fuel allowance for this trip.    

Tipping

Tips are expected and local guides often rely on their tip as a significant proportion of their income.

Most service industry workers will expect a tip of some kind and so it is useful to have spare change for hotel porters, taxi drivers and the like. It is common to leave 10 – 12% in restaurants.

Tipping guidelines can be found in our Briefing Dossier.

Insurance And Documents

Travel insurance is essential. 

Details of our recommended policy can be found on our Travel Insurance page. Additional Liability and Loss Damage Waiver (CDW without excess and inclusion of theft protection) is included as well as Personal Accident and Third Party insurance

Visas

Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa, although passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the trip begins. Anyone with a different nationality should enquire with us or check with the relevant consulate.

If flying to the US, or via the US you will need to fill in your online ESTA application.

Airport Taxes

If you have purchased your flights through Journey Latin America, the international departure tax is usually included in the ticket.

Journey Grade

There are no really long days of travel on the suggested routes of this trip. The routes from A to B take about 3hrs (max) but you may well want to make a detour or stop off for a while. Roads are generally in good condition but less used routes may have potholes. Signage on major roads is good, less so on minor roads. Many people speak a little English but a smattering of Spanish will stand you in good stead.

If you have a disability that we need to be aware of, please contact us. 

In the months of June to August the weather is extremely hot and humid, you might want bear this in mind. July to November there are chances of tropical storms or hurricanes hitting the region.

Climate

The Yucatán peninsula is hot (around 30°C) and humid all year round. October – April is the driest and sunniest period. The hurricane season runs from July to November.

Clothing And Special Equipment

For day-to-day wear you should take loose-fitting, breathable clothes. Comfortable shoes are important and sports sandals are useful. A sun hat, sun block and sunglasses are necessary, and you should take a light fleece for cool nights and a breathable/waterproof outer layer and/or umbrella, as well as swimwear, a towel, insect repellent and a torch. If you plan to go to good restaurants or out for evening entertainment, you might bring something a bit smarter as well (although formal attire will not be required).

Please get in touch with the office before departure if you have any doubts. 

Vaccinations

Preventative vaccinations are recommended against the following:  tetanus; hepatitis A. You should consult your GP for specific requirements, including advice on yellow fever and malaria tablets.

You can also find helpful information on the Masta Travel Health website. 

What's included in the price

  • Services of our team of experts in our London office
  • Services of Journey Latin America local representatives and guides
  • Car hire with assistance in Cancún
  • Road map of the area
  • Accommodation as specified
  • Meals as specified

What's not included in the price

  • Tips and gratuities
  • Meals other than specified
  • International flights to Latin America
  • Airport taxes, when not included in the ticket
  • Optional excursions

Real Latin America Experts

  • Hannah Waterhouse
    Hannah Waterhouse - Travel Consultant

    Hannah had an early introduction to Latin America when her family moved to Ecuador and she returned to study in Buenos Aires for a year before backpacking across the continent.

  • JimAshworth
    Jim Ashworth - Travel Consultant

    Jim first caught the Latin American travel bug in 2001 when he decided at the last minute to join a friend travelling around Central America – he hasn't looked back since.

  • Sophie Barber
    Sophie Barber - Travel Consultant

    Sophie lived in Chile before joining us and has travelled extensively across Latin America, from Mexico to the furthest tip of Patagonia.

  • Paul Winrow Giffen
    Paul Winrow-Giffin - Travel Consultant

    After graduating in Computer Science, Paul spent seven months travelling from Colombia to Argentina and came home hooked on Latin America.

  • Kathryn Rhodes
    Kathryn Rhodes - Travel Consultant

    Kathryn backpacked across Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru before joining us. She has a degree in Philosophy and French and is a keen netball player.

  • Jamie Swan
    Jamie Swan - Travel Consultant

    Jamie backpacked across Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil before joining us; he has a degree in politics and is also a keen sportsman..

Meet the team