I think it’s an amazing idea to rent a car; that way you’ll have complete freedom to explore this gorgeous part of Mexico. I backpacked around Mexico for 6 months in 2012 and I can tell you, you’ve chosen an amazing place to spend your vacation! 🙂
If you’re looking for adrenaline-pumping adventure, authentic cultural immersion and drop-dead-gorgeous beaches, then you’ll find it all in the Yucatan Peninsula; it has the perfect mix of tropical beaches with unique ‘can’t-be-found-anywhere-else-in-the-world’ sights, such as the incredible underwater caves (cenotes) and impressive Mayan ruins dotted all around the Peninsula. You’re also gonna catch the end of whale shark season meaning you have the chance to encounter these breath-taking animals in the wild, if you’re into that kind of crazy adventure? I can recommend an amazing, off-the-beaten path place to see the whale sharks and more; getting away from the commercialized concrete jungle of Cancun. It’s not that easy to find authentically Mexican places in the Yucatan, but if you know where to look, there are plenty to be found! The beaches in the Yucatan are the best, the food is, as always, amazing and the people are very friendly. It’s also a really really safe area of Mexico, so you don’t need to worry about any safety issues while there. Pick me to write your itinerary and I’ll give you lots of more great tips!
Isla Mujeres; Sun, Sea, and Sand-Paved Streets!
Cancun may be one of the most visited locations in Mexico, but the sooner you leave, the better! Cancun is overly developed and ‘gringo-ized’, so since you’re looking to discover the real Mexico, I would head straight for Isla Mujeres as soon as you arrive. You won’t need a car for your first day, as Isla Mujeres is small enough to explore on foot, or you can just rent a golf cart to get around the island. Renting a golf cart will set you back about $50 USD for the day, so it might be more cost-efficient to grab a local taxi if you want to explore the other end of the island. Alternatively, you can just hang around the beaches of the north of the island, surfing, snorkeling and swimming.
To get to the stunning ‘Island of Women’, head to the newer port in Cancun, Gran Puerto, where you can get the fast ferry, Ultramar (~ 25 minutes and $19 USD roundtrip) to Isla Mujeres. Sit on the ferry’s top deck to enjoy the views and feel the wind in your face, which should come as a welcome relief from the heat.
The beaches in Isla Mujeres are easily reached on foot when you arrive. Just keep walking left once you depart from the ferry.
Rounding around the tip of the island to the north (beside the long wooden bridge that leads to Hotel Avalon), is a large lagoon-like pool bordered by rocks. It’s perfect for snorkeling and you don’t even need snorkel gear, the water is that clear!
At the opposite end of Isla Mujeres is the rocky cliff-face that looks out towards the distant Cancun skyline. These cliffs are populated by dozens of large iguanas, all sunbathing in the warm Mexican heat and you can get close enough to them (albeit at a safe distance) to take photos and be generally amused at their lazy manner.
There is also a large natural park just a few minutes away from the south tip of the island, called Garrafon, but it’s very expensive so I would avoid it since you can experience similar ‘wild’ encounters in other parts of Mexico…for free or cheaper.
Also at the southern tip of the island is a lovely path that extends around the island. You need to pay a few pesos to enter the path, but it’s worth it for the gorgeous views of the turquoise ocean.
Isla Mujeres is generally quiet and laid-back compared to Cancun, although you’ll still find plenty of places to grab a cold beer in the evening and meet some friendly travelers and locals.
There are around 10 bars on the island where you can grab a cocktail and soak up the atmosphere of tropical island life. Tiny’s Bar is one of the most popular hangout spots on the island, so just ask any local for directions and they’ll know what you’re talking about.
My accommodation recommendations (Cabanas Maria del Mar) is right in front of the beach, so you can enjoy an early morning swim and have the beach to yourself the next day before checking out.
Swimming with Sea Turtles in the Wild!
Once you’re back in Cancun from Isla Mujeres, you can rent a car with EasyWay and get ready to explore the Yucatan. Your first stop will be the laid-back beach town of Playa del Carmen, just an hour south of Cancun.
Check in at the Aventura Mexicana Hotel, then get back in the car and head straight to Akumal, a relatively unknown and small area between Tulum and Cancun. Akumal is home to one of the best-kept secrets in the Yucatan; swimming with sea-turtles in the wild for free! So, instead of paying the extortionate prices that many parks in the area offer for the same experience, head to this beautiful, relaxed beach and swim side by side with these amazing creatures yourself.
If you’ve got your own snorkel gear, or if you’re able to borrow some from your hotel, you can do it completely free. However, renting gear in Akumal won’t set you back a lot.
A life jacket is definitely recommended, especially if you get tired easily in water, since the turtles are usually out a few hundred feet from the shore, so you’ll need to thread water for a substantial amount of time to remain in the same area as them. However, once you see them swimming below you, and coming up for air, you’ll never want to leave the water.
There are some nice restaurants around the beach to get dinner, so if you get tired of watching the turtles (which you probably won’t), you can go back to the shore to relax and grab some delicious Mexican seafood!
Or if you prefer, head back to Playa del Carmen for dinner and some evening drinks in this awesome bohemian surf town.
Ancient Ruins and Timeless Cenotes
On the road again! After checking out of your hotel in Playa del Carmen, drive to the Tulum Archaeological Site (45 minutes) to have your first experience of the amazing Mayan Ruins. There’s not much to see in Tulum town itself, so no need to waste time there.
Try to leave Playa del Carmen early to beat the crowds of tourists coming to the site from Cancun.
Although Tulum is one of the most commercial and touristic attractions in the Yucatan, it doesn’t take away from how beautiful the site is, and how fascinating the ruins are. Allow about 2-3 hours for exploring the area. After wandering around and enjoying a relaxing dip in the ocean below the great ruins, drive 20 minutes north for another swim; this time in the refreshingly cold and beautiful Gran Cenote.
Travel Tip: Try to leave the Tulum Ruins before 3pm so you have time to go to Gran Cenote and enjoy it for at least 2 hours before it closes at 5pm.
Gran Cenote is gorgeous and is a great introduction to Mexico’s cenotes, as it has both caves and a lovely open water area. If you’re feeling really brave (and if you have previous experience) you can book a cave diving session in advance, with a guide who will take you deep into the darkness of the underground cave system.
If you’re able for it, continue your journey north towards Valladolid (1 hour, 45 minutes), a charming colonial town where you can base yourselves for the next two days. Check in at the El Meson del Marques.
Colonial Valladolid and More Cenotes
Valladolid is one of Mexico’s ‘pueblos magicos’, meaning ‘magical towns’. It’s very different from Cancun or Tulum, as it is known for its huge wide streets, colorful colonial buildings and its laid-back vibe. Valladolid is a great base for anyone looking to explore the surrounding wonders of Chichen Itza or Ek Balam, and the gorgeous cenotes of Dzitnup and Samula.
In the morning, you can rent a bike from your hotel and head straight for the cenotes just outside of the city. You could also drive, but cycling there does not take too long (around 30-45 minutes each way). Dzitnup cenote and Samula cenote are right next to each other, although they each have a separate entrance fee of $50 pesos.
Dzitnup cenote is known for the heavenly light that spills into its cavern, and its strange rock formations inside. The water is extremely cold, but its definitely worth swimming among the small black fish and bats flying overhead. Samula cenote is more open and shallow, and is known for the strange hanging tree roots that fall from the surface into the cavern. After experiencing the intense Mexican sun, you’ll be grateful for the very cold waters of these gorgeous cenotes.
The cenotes are open from 8am to 4:30pm and are highly recommended.
After coming back from the cenotes, walk around the beautiful main plaza in Valladolid, as it is often the host for many cultural and arts events in the area. Enjoy dinner and settle down people-watching in the plaza for the night.
Time to explore Mayan Ruins in the Jungle
If you’re not keen on going to Chichen Itza, you have plenty of other options. Ek-Balam, meaning ‘Black Jaguar’, is a Mayan ruin site just 30 minute drive from Valladolid.
The best part about this site is that everyone goes to Chichen Itza instead, so you might even get the entire site to yourself if you arrive early.
Ek Balam opens from 8am to 5pm and you can easily spend 2 hours exploring the site at a relaxed pace. That leaves the rest of your day free.
Although Chichen Itza is overrun with tourists, it’s for good reason. I personally found the site fascinating and beautiful, so if you’re in the mood for more ruins, just drive back to Valladolid, then continue on for another 40 minutes to Chichen Itza; one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
If you are into history, architecture and archaeology, you will love Chichen Itza, and even if you’re not, it’s impossibly hard not to be impressed by the sophistication and grandeur of the structures.
Expect to spend at least 4 hours exploring Chichen Itza, more if you want to take your time. Also bring sunscreen, water and a hat, as there is not much shade in the park.
Entrance to Ek Balam is just $152 Mexican pesos (almost $12). Hiring a guide to show you around the site will cost extra but will help you understand the structures better. Entrance to Chichen Itza is just over $230 Mexican pesos, which also does not include a guided tour nor access to the light and sound show in the evening.