Just back from Tulum for the first time since 2008, I have been reflecting on the ways in which the little city on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula has changed — that much-discussed evolution of Tulum from sleepy beach town to New York trend-story fodder.
That reflection led me to plumb the endless depths of the Internet for my now-defunct blog from back then, in which I described that first trip to the region. What I found was 1) such novice blogging I’m actually embarrassed, and more importantly 2) actually a pretty great template for a Yucatán Peninsula road trip that can be replicated in just five days of travel, and on a budget.
Because of that old post’s legit travelogue value, I’ve decided to repost it here (with some edits for clarity and comparison, and to minimize the meandering writing). A swiftly moving five-day outline on a reasonable budget, with a healthily balanced itinerary including relaxation, adventure, and culture, it can be a source of trip-planning inspiration for would-be Yucatán Peninsula road trip goers — or just fodder for wanderlust daydreams!
Without further ado…
Yucatán Peninsula Road Trip Blog
Yucatán Peninsula Road Trip: Cancun to Mérida via Vallodolid
On a Thursday, we flew into Cancun, rented a hooptie-ish Nissan Tsuru and drove by way of the very expensive toll road (the cuota) all the way to Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán. The 300-peso or so road offers only one stop, in Vallodolid, and is almost curiously well marked with signs that mostly tell you you’re driving too fast. It’s a straight shot through nothing but jungle.
Arriving at last, we checked in to an adorable little B&B, Cascadas de Mérida, sheltered from the noise of the rather frenetic city behind thoughtful landscaping marked by waterfalls and a secluded pool.
Yucatán Peninsula Road Trip: Merida to Uxmal
From this HQ, we set out the next day for our first day trip, to the ruins of Uxmal. A spectacular site. I said, “As soon as we leave this place, I am going to imagine it was all a dream.” Because it’s so surreal, to see that glorious pyramid rising out of the jungle.
We shared the cost of a guida with a family from Seattle, who had two little boys who were very well behaved. I liked this family because the dad was inquisitive and asked a lot of smart questions, and reminded me of my dad. (Later, at Chichen Itza, we’d meet a pair of medievalists-turned-engineers who I would take to for the same reason.)
Back in Mérida, after a siesta, we strolled through the town in search of the pretty filigrana style of earrings I had wanted. We ate and ate and strolled and strolled and tried to find some ballet folklorico performance at the university, but alas it was happening instead the following Friday.
Yucatán Peninsula Road Trip: Mérida to Chichen Itza
That allowed us the opportunity to sleep earlier and wake earlier for the next adventure, this one to the ruins at Chichen Itza. I urge you to go and see Chichen once before you die. It is spectacular.
And the thing is, it’s a major tourist attraction. Tour buses filled with mainly Europeans and Asians flood into this place, but, at least from my perspective, it didn’t have that touristy feel; the former city is so huge—many kilometers in diameter—that the tourists are all spread out. And the fact that it’s a wide-open space surrounded by and intermingled with jungle kind of dampens any noise. Even the dozens (hundreds, probably) of vendors who hawk their pottery and embroidery and things to the hoards actually kind of add color and spirit to the place, rather than take away from it. The vast ball field, observatory, and of course the iconic pyramid were among my favorite spots, and the figure of Chac-Mool carved there in stone was so cute to me. Loved him. Bought a magnet bearing his likeness. See? Vendors.
Another thing? It’s hot as all get-out in Chichen Itza. We stayed three hours, but could have explored for days if not for A) it was suffocatingly hot and B) we, you know, have jobs back home.
N.B.: Inexplicably the ruin sites on the Yucatán peninsula seem to have the most luxurious public bathrooms anywhere. Lots of marble. Kind of like the Wynn. OK, not like the Wynn, but more luxe than you might expect from public bathrooms in a Mexican jungle.
Yucatán Peninsula Road Trip: Chichen Itza to Dzitnup
Moving on. Heading back toward the east side of the peninsula in the Tsuru, we stopped for a dip in Dzitnup, a cenote, or sinkhole in a cave filled with glassy fresh water. I had read much about the cenotes, including that Dzitnup offered water so turquoise and clear that “it might have been plucked from a dream.” I’m going with no on that. The cave seemed a bit dank, and the water far from turquoise, with little natural light actually coming from the hole in the top of the cave. (Later, at Aktun Chen, my faith in the Yucatán’s famed cenotes would be restored.)
Yucatán Peninsula Road Trip: Dzitnup to Tulum
With almost no daylight left of Saturday, we pulled into Tulum and checked into Mezzanine hotel. In the darkness, we couldn’t see the ocean yet (I was practically vibrating with anticipation; the beach portion of the trip had been the part about which I’d been dreaming forever), but we could sure hear the waves crashing feet from us. We checked in to our eight-room hotel; the reception desk is unmanned, so you go ask the bartender, who at his own pace finds the housekeeper, who strolls down the beach to find someone who feels like giving you a room key.
You see, there is no rush in Tulum for anything, and there is no need to throw your towel and bag down on the perfect spot on the beach before someone elae takes it because A) the spots are all perfect and B) there is no one else there. Thank god there is still a place like that on this earth. (Come to think of it, Treasure Beach, Jamaica is like that too.[Editor’s note: neither of those things may be as true anymore.]
Sun and wind power the hotel (both are in large supply), which has no air conditioner. [Editor’s note: In 2015, our air conditioner worked overtime!]
When the sun came up, the vast expanse of beach sprawled in front of us, the sea a color so blue it requires a new word for blue, or not a word, but a gesture, or not a gesture, but a sigh. Incredible, unspeakable. You run out of superlatives quickly at the sight of Tulum.
Mostly palapas and cabanas and a few very diminutive hotels dot the beach; so too do tents set up by Berkeley types on the now completely unmanned stretches of sand formerly occupied by tiny hotels that were wiped out by Wilma in 2005. It’s a peaceful commingling of types on this beach. Just peaceful and perfect.
So perfect. We walked easily along the beach a couple of kilometers to the ruins in Tulum, the only Mayan city built on the sea. We stopped for lunch at a very Corona-commercial-looking restaurant/hotel called, aptly, La Vita e Bella, and later hired a fisherman to take us out to the reef where we could snorkel. I actually think I saw a barracuda, and some other great big fish, but it was a windy day in Tulum and the sea was choppy; I was seasick even swimming. I was trying to talk to the fisherman in Spanish, but everything was coming out in Italian. It’s funny how much Italian I realized I still know when I was trying to speak Spanish.
Yada yada, SPFs of all varieties, reapply, reapply, swim, sweat…look, we got real sunburned. It was bad. It was regrettable. By the end of the day, I had the chills and I couldn’t get warm enough. After dinner (which I barely remember in my feverish state, but the photos I took suggest it was a gorgeous place), all I could do was moan in discomfort. And I think I said something about needing some rum, but I was asleep by 9.
Falling asleep early in Tulum is a useful thing, because it is natural to wake up with the sun. Despite there being no technology- or traffic-type noises, there is plenty of noise indeed: The waves crash loudly and the birds’ songs are, ahem, robust. It’s a delightful kind of cacophony. We spent two nights in Tulum.
[Editor’s note: Pick room 5,6, or 7 at Mezzanine and you’ll sleep in blissful peace!]
Yucatán Peninsula Road Trip: Tulum to Aktun Chen and Akumal
Determined not to let our full-on gringo sunburns slow us down, we left Tulum for Aktun Chen, a spectacular sprawling cave and cenote in the jungle just north. Underground was the right place for our pink selves, and our guide shared so many insights about the geology that makes the Yucatán such an unusual place: something about it being like Swiss cheese under there, which it certainly seems to be.
We wore hard hats to travel about 600 yards through many chambers of the cave; first we thought the hats were goofy props to make tourists feel like they were doing something treacherous, but we soon realized that they’re actually smart tools against hanging stalagmites of all lengths. In the last chamber was a cenote that looked as clear as if there were no water there at all, only air. Faith in the beauty of Yucatecan cenotes: fully restored.
A few kilometers north still, we stopped for a quick snorkel jaunt at Akumal, a lagoon that is very protected from the open water and therefore waveless. I saw three turtles swimming together, and was just tickled.
Yucatán Peninsula Road Trip: Akumal to Playa del Carmen
In a surprisingly uncharacteristic move, we pulled into Playa del Carmen with no hotel booked; I was almost testing myself to see if I could leave the last night of the trip to do whatever the heck we pleased, in whatever place, without totally freaking out that there was no plan. And I passed my own test.
We ended up finding a completely adorable hotel, Hotel Lunata, all colorful tiles and pretty bright linens…but not before getting pulled over by a Mexican motorcycle cop in aviators who was a ringer for one of the CHiPs. You see, we had mistakenly maneuvered the Tsuru the wrong way down a one-way street for a short distance before realizing his error, and we got busted. Somehow, in this moment, I spoke fluent Spanish. Anyway, no ticket. Just a warning for the sunburned gringos who busted out the politest kind of text-book-learned high-school Spanish under pressure.
Our night in Playa was rather dreamy; the main drag, Avenida 5, is as touristy as anywhere (i.e. you could, if you wanted, buy there a T-shirt emblazoned with “I Love to Fart. Playa del Carmen”) but really has charm and elegance somehow too. That night, I refused to take my glasses off in bed because that would be acknowledging that sleep was coming, and that would be acknowledging that the last night of our trip was over.
Yucatán Peninsula Road Trip: Playa del Carmen to Cozumel
Not to waste a moment, we hustled the next day to Cozumel by ferry for a snorkel session amid parrot fish and schools of others in hues like neon purple. Back at Playa, it was back in the Tsuru (on which we logged more than 1,100 kilometers, or close to 700 miles, all told) for the ride to Cancun to catch our flight home.