The Yucatán Peninsula is Mexico’s number one tourist destination with good reason. Hidden cenotes, ancient pyramids, stunning haciendas and picture-perfect beaches, all wrapped in a tourist-friendly version of Mexico: no need to worry about safety, bumpy roads or excessive toll fees. We flew in and out of Mérida, driving the entire Yucatán peninsula on this two-week road trip itinerary. Week 1: Yucatán & Campeche.
Day 1 & 2 – Mérida
Mérida was the starting point of our road trip. With a beautiful and compact historic center, Mérida ended up as one of our favorite cities in Mexico. The colorful streets are especially pretty at sunset, when Paseo de Montejo turns into a bustling boulevard.
We arrived in Mérida during Hanal Pixan, the Yucatán version of Día de Muertos. Although festivities were limited due to COVID-19, we still got a good taste of this unique Mexican holiday. Decorated altars and the smell of incense followed us around the city. One of the ceremonial meals prepared to honor the death is Pib, a big tamal cooked underground.
The Museo de Gastronomía serves Pib and many other Yucatán staples. Our first dinner of the trip on their stunning patio made for the perfect introduction to Yucatán. Another traditional dining experience in Mérida is La Chaya Maya, always in high demand for its inexpensive yet delicious menu.
Yucatán’s typical dessert can be found on every corner of the street: the marquesita is a crepe rolled as a taco, filled with cajeta, nutella or other sweet spreads. The real deal is stuffed with cajeta and Edam cheese, known as queso de bola – an interesting combination of sweet and salty.
Leaving Mérida, I was ready to brace the Yucatán heat with a local handicraft: the jipijapa is a handwoven hat found throughout Yucatán and Campeche. Oscar joined the jipijapa movement with a model from Bécal in Campeche, the craddle of this craftwork.
Day 3 – Celestún
The northwestern coast of Yucatán is scattered with fishing villages and undeveloped beaches, a sharp contrast with the resorts of the Riviera Maya. We set out on a day trip from Mérida to Celestún, a sleepy beach town and gateway to the Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve. This birder’s paradise attracts thousands of migrating flamingos every winter and is home to over 300 bird species.
We signed up for a boat tour to get up close with the flamingos. As we were traveling at the start of November, only the early birds had arrived.
After a glimpse of the flamingos, the boat continued on the river to the mangroves. The ride through the mangroves was spectacular, with sunlight turning the water bright red. The coloration of the river comes from the red mangroves in the reserve.
We came for the flamingos, but stayed for the beach. From the boat pier, a short drive through the sleepy town of Celestún leads straight up to the ocean. We had a tasty seafood lunch at La Palapa, one of several low-key restaurants with tables right on the beach.
The entire beach was covered in seashells, which shows how unspoiled this area still is. The beaches of the Riviera Maya are definitely prettier, but these beautiful seashells were nowhere to be found.
Day 4 – Road to Uxmal
The drive from Mérida to Uxmal took us through the jungle, past haciendas and cenotes. The Yucatán peninsula is scattered with cenotes, some highly commercialized and many others not yet discovered by tourism. After passing a sign to Cenote Kankirixche, we took our chances and turned the Jetta into a dirt road. Its location hides this stunning cenote from the larger public. We were lucky to visit around noon, when sunlight hits the water and turns it bright blue.
After this refreshing dip, we continued to Hacienda Temozón for lunch. Hacienda Temozón is part of the Luxury Collection by Marriott, comprising five stunning haciendas in Yucatán and Campeche. The restaurant offers a peek into the beautiful grounds without breaking the bank.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the Lodge at Uxmal, our stay for two nights. The lodge is located so close to the Uxmal ruins that you can actually spot them from the garden. The rooms are located in unique two-story bungalows with thatched roofs, surrounded by lush vegetation and two beautiful pools. We had this exotic paradise practically to ourselves, as international tourism was still affected by COVID-19.
Day 5 – Uxmal
The following morning, we took a guided tour of the ancient Maya city of Uxmal. Tucked away in the jungle, the site receives just a fraction of the visitors that flock to Chichén Itzá. The architecture, jungle setting and tranquility of Uxmal certainly had our preference.
Nowadays, the ancient Maya city is dominated by iguanas in all sizes.
With an interesting take on Maya history, our guide brought the ruins to life. Towards the end of the tour, several great viewpoints await. We had to chase our guide down more than once, as photo ops were not part of his extensive tour.
We spent the afternoon learning all about chocolate in the Choco-Story eco-park, right across the street from the Uxmal ruins. In addition to exhibits about the history of cacao, the park houses a beautiful garden with cacao trees and other exotic flora and fauna.
Our favorite part was the traditional Maya chocolate tasting. Made with fresh cacao and rich spices, the drink is a real treat for dark chocolate lovers.
Day 6 – Campeche
We left Yucatan behind and crossed the state border to Campeche. The namesake coastal town has a colorful historic center, enclosed by old city walls. We tried an equally colorful dish for lunch: cochinita pibil is a Yucatán Peninsula classic.
Founded in the 16th century, Campeche was once the most important port city in the region. The city walls were erected to keep the pirates out, after numerous attacks. Nowadays, the Historic Fortified Town of Campeche is UNESCO World Heritage.
On our way to a delicious seafood dinner at La Pigua, we stumbled upon a danzón competition. Guided by a live orchestra, several couples were showing off their best moves. As Campeche is often overlooked by tourists, it maintains the feel of an authentic coastal town.
We slept with the sound of crashing waves at Hotel Gamma Campeche. The basic rooms all come with a balcony overlooking the Malecón and the ocean.
Day 7 – Calakmul
The ancient Maya city of Calakmul is nested deep in the jungle, close to the Guatemalan border. We visited Calakmul while crossing the Yucatán Peninsula from Campeche to Bacalar. This drive alone takes five hours. Halfway through the journey, the entrance to Calakmul appears on the right hand side of Highway 186.
From the entrance, another 1.5-hour drive through dense jungle awaits before reaching the archeological zone. The road is single-lane and extremely curvy for most part, asking for a slow and cautious drive.
The remote location of Calakmul makes it a secluded and mysterious site. Here, the rainforest still rules. We saw many spider monkeys jumping from tree to tree, while howler monkeys create an impressive background noise.
The archeological zone is made up of several connecting jungle trails. There are three impressive pyramids that can be climbed, with spectacular jungle views as a reward. That is, if you manage to locate them, since signage couldn’t be more confusing. The pyramids are among the tallest ever discovered in the Maya world.
By the time we left around 3 PM, the small parking was almost empty. Sunset comes early in winter, and making it out of the park past dark is not an option. After eight hours of driving, we arrived in Bacalar. The second part of our trip takes us along the stunning coast of Quintana Roo.