We flew in and out of Mérida, driving the entire Yucatán peninsula on a two-week road trip itinerary. After exploring the states of Yucatán and Campeche, we moved on to neighboring Quintana Roo. Home to Mexico’s most spectacular coastline, beautiful beaches and mass tourism are never far away.
Day 8 – Bacalar
We arrived in Bacalar late at night, after a long drive from Campeche. It wasn’t until the next morning that our beautiful surroundings were revealed: the lakeside hotels in Bacalar offer a gateway to paradise.
Our stay in Casa Shiva came with free paddle boards and kayaks for a little morning exercise on the lake. The hotel is far from luxurious, but the stunning location made us quickly forget about the holes in the towels.
We reserved a boat tour through the hotel to get up close with the seven colors of Laguna Bacalar. The boat departed from the neighboring Casa China with one more family on board.
Our captain took us to secluded areas of the lake in return for a generous tip, and kept the coronitas flowing to assure the latter.
Before our trip, we read a lot about the irreversible contamination of the lake due to heavy rains and pollution. We decided to see it with our own eyes and were so glad we did! Laguna Bacalar looks as stunning as ever and locals like our captain treat it with respect.
Our next destination was Tulum, a little over two hours from Bacalar. Before hitting the road, we had a tasty seafood lunch with lagoon views at Katx Marisquería.
Day 9 – Tulum
After more than a week of traveling in tranquil Yucatán, arriving in Tulum required some adjusting. No more hidden cenotes and pyramids, but hordes of people and tour busses. We stayed in Tulum Pueblo, a “Magic Town” with a flip side.
Parking at the Tulum Ruins was our initiation into mass tourism. After finding a spot that didn’t include a shady offer, we started the one-kilometer walk to the ruins dodging souvenir sellers, self-proclaimed guides and a pet snake. The ruins receive a lot of visitors with good reason. The site has a stunning location overlooking the ocean.
Tulum’s other main attraction is the Zona Hotelera, a bumpy dirt road flanked by overpriced hotels and restaurants. The adjacent coastline is a succession of beach bars, inspired by the hippie town that Tulum once was. We settled down at the Hip Hotel Beach Club, a great option away from the boho-chic craziness.
Day 10 – Akumal
One day in Tulum was enough for us, so we escaped to nearby Akumal the next morning. Akumal Beach is located in a peaceful bay with a coral reef, known to house sea turtles.
In Mexico, most tourist sites aren’t managed by state or federal governments; instead, the local population runs “their” tourist attraction. They organize tours and set the entrance price, ranging from reasonable to completely outrageous. On Akumal Beach, this translated into an entrance fee and a guided tour to see the turtles. Only a small, segregated area of the bay was accesible without the tour. My mom, on her solo quest for a turtle, was frequently reminded to stay in the kiddie-pool.
In our experience, the tour definitely paid off. Our snorkel guide brought us up close with two sea turtles, an unforgettable experience.
In the morning, we had the beach practically to ourselves. After our beach lunch at laid-back Lol-Ha, the tour groups started flooding in.
Day 11 – Isla Mujeres
From Tulum, we drove to Puerto Juarez in Cancún. Happily bypassing the resorts of Cancún, we boarded the ferry to Isla Mujeres instead. Isla Mujeres is a narrow strip of land just off the coast from Cancún. The ferry ride was the perfect start to our island excursion. To the sound of an Elvis cover band, we passed fifty shades of blue and even spotted a sea turtle coming up for air.
Upon arrival, we headed straight to Playa Norte, considered one of the prettiest beaches in Mexico. We got front-row seats and tequila refills at one of the many Mexican eateries lining Playa Norte.
Our stay for the night was a big part of the Isla experience. The Izla Hotel offers an impressive rooftop pool and amazing ocean views from the rooms. We would have loved to stay another night, but the next island was calling.
Day 12 & 13 – Isla Holbox
Isla Holbox is a small island off Yucatan’s northern coast. It can only be reached by boat from the remote town of Chiquilá.
The laid-back hippie vibe that Tulum lost a long time ago can still be found on Isla Holbox: there is not a single resort and the island is completely car-free. The only way to get around is by foot or golf cart. We loaded the luggage with my parents into a golf-cart and sent them off for a very bumpy ride to the hotel.
We stayed in beachfront hotel La Palapa, our favorite stay on the trip that took beachfront to another level. The hotel is located steps away from the ocean, with balconies amid the palm trees. Nothing like sleeping with the sound of gentil waves.
After a delicious oceanfront breakfast, we embarked on a Three Islands Tour. The first stop is Isla Pájaros, a small island home to 140 bird species. This stop is a quick one, as it is not possible to walk on the island.
The next stop is a cenote across from Isla Holbox on the mainland shore. The adjacent watchtower shows the remoteness of the area. On our way out, we spotted a sunbathing crocodile.
The last island on the tour is Isla de la Pasión, deriving its name from the honeymoon destination it once was for locals. The calm blue waters nowadays attract tourists and lots of mosquitos.
Holbox’s remoteness comes with a natural spectacle at nighttime. Bioluminescence lights up the ocean and lagoons, only visible from the most remote corners of the island. We set our alarms at 2 AM for a guided excursion through the mangroves. By wading in the water, a sparkly blue glow is revealed. A truly unique spectacle that cannot be photographed or witnessed in the vicinity of artificial light.
Day 14 – Valladolid
After a week in Quintana Roo, we circled back to the state of Yucatán for the last days of our trip. Valladolid is a colonial city surrounded by jungle and cenotes. We escaped the rain in Hotel Le Muuch, an urban oasis with hidden pools, gardens and terraces.
The next day, we set out for a self-guided cenote tour around Valladolid. There are three types of cenotes: open, semi-open and closed, ranging from mature to young. Cenote Palomitas was first up, a closed cenote in an impressive cavern.
The roads around Valladolid are scattered with cenote-signs. We let the locals guide us to Cenote Sac-Aua, a semi-open cenote with an island in the middle. Apart from little black fish, we had the company of two turtles.
Heavy rain and a lack of cash got in the way of our third and last cenote, next to the Ek Balam Ruins. We took our chances on the worst possible moment and ended up back in the car, completely drenched.
Day 15 – Chichén Itzá & Izamal
We left the most touristy attraction of Yucatán for the last day. Before visiting Chichén Itzá on our way from Valladolid to Izamal, we stopped at nearby cenote Ik Kil. Overgrown with lush plants and hanging vines, this cenote features in many tourism brochures. We arrived around 9:00 AM, just before the tour busses took over.
Our early start at the cenote gave us a late start at Chichén Itzá. We parked next to the road outside of the park and joined the stream of people to the entrance. The archeological zone looks more like a souvenir market, with over 600 vendors whistling like jaguars and snakes. This might come to end soon, as the government is looking to relocate them.
An hour later, we were lunching far away from the crowds in the quaint yellow town of Izamal.
We ended our trip in style at the stunning Hacienda Sacnicte. The beautiful rooms and grounds made it even more difficult to set our alarms at 4 AM and head back home, after an amazing journey on the Yucatán Peninsula.