After months of guided tours throughout South America, I arrived in the Yucatan Peninsula craving a bit more freedom as I explored this beautiful region of Mexico. Since there are so many places to visit in the Yucatan, from Mayan ruins, to cenotes, stunning beaches, and cute little towns, I decided to rent a car and turn my time in Mexico into a Yucatan Peninsula road trip!
In this post, I’ll share with you my favorite, and least favorite, parts of my Yucatan road trip itinerary as well as mistakes I made that you should 100% avoid. Ready? Let’s get to it!
This post contains affiliate links, which means that, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a tiny bit of income if you decide to make a purchase or booking.
What to Expect Renting a Car in Mexico
You’ll find lots of great deals for rental cars in Mexico online. I’d read a few horror stories about visitors booking with a third party website for a good deal, arriving at the company, and the company not being able to deliver. In order to avoid all of this, I booked directly with the company’s website, which ended up giving me a 40% discount, including the required insurance.
For one week this meant I would be spending roughly $15 per day on the car (not including gas). It sounded like a great deal! However, when I arrived at the rental car location in Playa del Carmen, the company recommended additional insurance. The insurance required by law, which was included in the online price of the rental car, only covered the other individual in case of an accident. The insurance recommended to me, would also cover me and the car.
Yucatan Road Trip Mistake #1
Here’s where I should’ve researched my credit card’s coverage. At first, I decided not to get the insurance, I was signing all of the paperwork and at the last minute had a change of heart. IF something did happen, this insurance would let me just file the report and walk away without having to pay anything. That would provide the “priceless” peace of mind.
The additional insurance brought my daily total to around $50 per day for 8 days total. While more expensive than I thought it was still significantly cheaper than any car I’ve rented in the US.
Tips for Renting a Car in the Yucatan
- Read the fine print of your credit card’s insurance policy and the rental car contract
- Take your own photos of the car before you leave the rental car agency
- Obey all speed limits and respect the speed bumps
- Return the car with a filled up gas tank
- Keep plenty of snacks with you
- Download Google Maps to use offline
- Try not to drive past dark
8 Day Yucatan Road Trip Itinerary
Once all of the paperwork was signed for the rental car, I hit the road. I rented the car in Playa del Carmen and planned to return it there. I opted to drive as far south as I wanted and work my way back to Playa del Carmen, with the bulk of the time being spend in Tulum.
Here’s a quick overview of the 8 day Yucatan road trip itinerary:
Day 1: Playa del Carmen to Bacalar
Day 2: Bacalar
Day 3: Bacalar to Tulum
Day 4: Mayan Ruins & Cenotes
Day 5: Tulum
Day 6: Coba & Gran Cenota
Day 7: Tulum
Day 8: Tulum & Return the Car
Yucatan Road Trip Day 1: Playa del Carmen to Bacalar
I started in Playa del Carmen because I’d previously spent four days at an all-inclusive resort close by. This resort experience was quite a nice break and something that I’d earned as a result of my work as an online health coach. I couldn’t pass it up!
From Playa del Carmen, I headed south towards Bacalar. On the way I intended to stop at Dos Ojos and Cenote Azul for swimming and snorkeling, however, I didn’t have enough cash on me and they didn’t accept credit cards.
Instead, I stopped in Akumal, a tiny beach town where the main attraction is swimming with turtles. I opted out of this as I was starving, and had done plenty of snorkeling with turtles in the Galapagos Islands. I found a free parking spot in front of La Buena Vida where I enjoyed lunch with a view! Lunch was probably the healthiest meal I’d had in quite a while, a fresh red juice (beets and other delicious veggies) and a quinoa salad. The service was attentive and unrushed. I highly recommend stopping here.
Considering it was getting late, and I still had about two hours until Bacalar, I headed back to the car and resumed driving. I didn’t really want to be driving through Mexico alone at night. After four months of not driving, being behind the wheel felt good. There’s such freedom in driving that you can’t get from a tour.
Until a cop pulls you over. Well, four cops.
Yucatan Road Trip Mistake #2:
I’d been following the posted speed limit signs as other cars whizzed past me. Cars don’t honk here and if you’re going slow you just move over to the right and they’ll go around you. It’s all very civilized. I was just coming out of a tiny town and beginning to speed up when I hit two speed bumps that I didn’t see in advance.
There were no signs and no markings on them. All of the other speed bumps I’d passed had yellow or white lines on them. Well, I hit these surprising speed bumps pretty damn hard as a police truck was driving the opposite the direction.
They got me.
The cops wanted to take my license and have me return to this small town the following day. At least an hour drive to Bacalar was left and I did not want to drive without my license. I also had no idea where I was and they couldn’t give me directions to this “office” where I’d go to pay my fine.
I asked them if I could just pay it on the spot. And they gave me a number in pesos. I only had 20 pesos on me. And they laughed at my counter offer. Then I remembered I had some USD in my backpack, which I told them. I ended up paying $160 to get my license back and drive on toward Bacalar.
To be honest, I didn’t realize until about 20 minutes down the road what had just happened. I drove extra slowly and felt much less relaxed than I had before this. At this point I was really over the whole road trip and wished I could just return the car early.
Ultimately, I arrived in Bacalar just a few dollars lighter.
Bacalar is the best place to arrive after an incident like that. I immediately felt a bit calmer upon checking into the Yak Lake House Hostel. I was only supposed to stay for one night. Bacalar is absolutely stunning and a great place to spend a few nights, but the main reason I booked an extra night: I wasn’t ready to drive again.
Bacalar has one stand-alone ATM where I replenished my cash. I went back the second day to withdraw more. I knew using a stand-alone ATM was highly dangerous in terms of my card information getting stolen – but I really had no other option at this point (this will turn into mistake #3 in a few days).
Yucatan Road Trip Day 2: A Day Spent Relaxing in Bacalar
Bacalar is a small town near the Belize border known for its Lake called the Lagoon of Seven Colors due the variety of blue and turquoise hues. That being said, the best way to spend a day in Bacalar is by the lake. Getting up early is an absolute must as you’ll see absolutely spectacular sunrises over the lake.
A few fun things to do in Bacalar:
- Sunrise at Laguna Bacalar
- Paddleboard tour of Laguna Bacalar
- Sail boat tour of Laguna Bacalar
- Swim in Cenote Azul
- Swim in the lake
- Explore the old fort: Fuerte de San Felipe de Bacalar
- Eat tacos from La Taqueria
- Explore the street art
- Take a yoga class from Ashtangamor
I debated staying a third night in Bacalar. The Yak Lake House is just too good not to enjoy as long as possible. Yet I realized the car was very expensive to just be sitting in a parking lot. So after another sunrise swim and some free breakfast, I packed it up and headed to Tulum.
Where to Stay in Bacalar
- Yak Lake House: honestly this is one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. It’s located directly on Lake Bacalar and they can set up any paddleboarding or sailing you’d like to do. Plus there is a pier allowing you to easily hop into the lake for a swim. Also, a huge shared kitchen with free breakfast, incredibly clean bathrooms, and fun social events.
Yucatan Road Trip Day 3: Bacalar to Tulum
After 3 hours of driving the posted speed limits and keeping an eye out for speed bumps and police cars, I arrived in Tulum without any incident. Plus, I easily found free street parking directly in front of my hostel, Mama’s Home, in Tulum.
The hostel owner recommended I take the collectivo down to the beach for tacos as parking at the beach is limited. The collectivo departed just down the street from the hostel and it took about 20 minutes to reach the Instagrammable beach road of Tulum.
I wandered up and down the beach front a bit trying to find the beach entrance only to realize the only way to get to the beach was through one of the many beachfront hotels. Not sure I could actually just waltzed through a hotel, I went to the recommended beach front taco spot, La Eufemia.
La Eufemia is an excellent spot for backpackers and budget travelers. There is no cost to use their beach front chairs. But you should definitely order all varieties of their seafood tacos and margaritas. So delicious. They’ll bring them to your chair too, so you don’t lose your spot.
Yucatan Road Trip Day 4: Chichen Itza, Ek Balama, and Cenotes
After a relaxed first day in Tulum, I had a very early start for a day spent learning about Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and swimming in cenotes.
Chichen Itza & Suytun Cenote
Chichen Itza is approximately two and a half hours from Tulum. With a goal of beating the large tour groups and the heat of the day, I left Tulum around 6:00 am and arrived at 8:30 am. Since I arrived so early, I found a free parking spot on the street leading into the parking lot!
The site was fairly empty, the parking lot only had three tour buses parked, but no other cars. Vendors were just arriving to set up their stalls. And there were plenty of tour guides offering their services as I walked to the parking lot.
You can enter Chichen Itza without a guide, but I wanted to learn about its history, as I didn’t really know much about this World Wonder. To be honest, I don’t remember the price I paid for the tour, I didn’t try to bargain with him and took the first guide who offered his services. It didn’t include the cost of admission to Chichen Itza.
It turned out to be well worth the money as I had a private tour of the entire complex, he took as many photos of me as I wanted, and he gave me insight into other ruins that I should add to my list.
About two hours later, the sun really starting to get strong, so I left Chichen Itza to explore the other ruins my guide recommended. Upon leaving, I noticed the parking lot was packed with cars! I’d successfully witness this new Wonder of the World without crowds and in minimal Mexico heat. Success!
My Chichen-Itza guide recommended I go to Ek Balam in the afternoon since I had a car. It was about 45 minutes away and another great Mayan ruin site where I could climb the pyramids. SOLD!
But first – I headed to Suytun Cenote. It was only 10:30 am, but it was hot! Located on the outskirts of Valladolid, it took about 45 minutes to arrive from Chichen Itza. I arrived just as two tour buses were unloading. Before paying for my entrance I made sure that the tours weren’t in the Cenote yet. I paid my ticket and made a beeline for the Cenote, where I was able to happily swim with a handful of other visitors for about 30 minutes.
The water in centoes is very cold, but so refreshing after being in the heat and humidity. After about 30 minutes of swimming, I made my way back to the car just as the two tour groups were coming down the stairs.
I seriously felt like I was winning the day with my timing!
Ek-Balam & Cenote Xcanche
I hopped back on the two-lane highway for Ek-Balam, passing through a couple of really cute towns, with people selling fruit and food on the side of the road. It was approaching 1:00 pm, and I hadn’t eaten anything yet. All I wanted was some pineapple, but they only had mangos, which were absolutely fantastic! That’s the beauty of driving your own car – if you want to slow down to buy food on the side of the road, you can!
It took about 30 minutes to arrive at Ek-Balam from Suytun Cenote. Parking is free and safe here, but there are a few enterprising kids who will offer to ensure your car’s safety for a few pesos.
Ek-Balam is a large complex of buildings and you can climb to the top of them if you’re so inclined. I opted out of a guide here, mostly by default as I didn’t see any guides offering their services. After climbing to the top of one of the pyramids it was time to jump in the Xcanche Cenote, which is on the same site as the ruins. However, you have to pay for each separately.
It’s a long walk to the Cenote, about 1.5km, down a gravel path with minimal shade. They offer bike rentals or a pedi-cab ride to help you get there faster. For some reason, I decided to walk and regretted it. I highly recommend taking a ride! At the cenote, you can rope swing into the water and jump in from above. It’s much less restricted than Suytun – no life jackets required. There’s also a rope in the middle of the water you can rest on.
After about 45 minutes of swimming and jumping into the water, I ate some much needed tacos at the cafe next to the cenote and headed back to Tulum. When I returned to my hostel that night, I told people I’d gone to Ek-Balam and it seemed that no one had heard of it. It was nice having my car so I could explore two ruins and two cenotes in one day when a tour would usually do just one.
It made for a long day, but it was worth it!
Yucatan Road Trip Day 5: A Day in Tulum
After a busy day exploring ruins and cenotes, I opted for a relaxed day in Tulum. I checked out a few cafes in town where I met up with friends I’d made on Cozumel, another great place to visit in the Yucatan. We spent the remainder of the day together at the beach. Instead of going towards the touristy part of the Tulum beachfront, we took a taxi to the more local beach. There we watched the sunset and made plans to visit Coba and the Gran Cenote the following day.
A Few Fun Things to Do in Tulum:
- Visit the Tulum ruins
- Take Spanish classes
- Take a yoga class
- Enjoy a matcha from Matcha Mama
- Eat fish tacos on the beach at La Eufemia
- Eat tacos in town from Antojitos La Chiapaneca
- Visit Casa Malca
- Relax at the beach
Where to Stay in Tulum
There are quite a few accommodation options in Tulum for every budget. Staying in town is much cheaper than staying on the beachfront. I really enjoyed staying at Mama’s Home. There was a very welcoming atmosphere, fun social activities, and it was very clean!
Yucatan Road Trip Day 6: Coba & Gran Cenote
Today, my friends and I piled into my car around 7:00 am to head to Coba. Coba is the closest Mayan ruins site to Tulum, aside from the Tulum ruins, only taking about an hour to arrive. It cost 50 pesos to park the car in the very empty parking lot at 8:00 am. After exploring the ruins and taking our climb up the 120ish pyramid steps we left the site around 10:00 am. The parking lot was packed!
Gran Cenote is on the way back to Tulum, so we stopped there, but not before checking out an artisanal market where my friend was able to bargain with the owner for a towel. The owner agreed as our car was his first business of the day! A win for the car! Then we parked at Gran Cenote, for free, and enjoyed a refreshing swim in a beautiful place.
Yucatan Road Trip Day 7: Learning Spanish & Enjoying the Beach in Tulum
One things I really wanted to do during my time in Mexico was continue my Spanish language studies, so I enrolled in a week long Spanish class that started today!
Afterward, I paid 20 pesos to take the collectivo to the beach. I figured this was cheaper than paying for parking and gas. Plus if I decided to have a drink I could do so without worry of cop problems. I returned to La Eufemia which was quickly becoming my favorite place in Tulum. While at the beach, I ran into friends from Mama’s home hostel who offered me a ride back to town, as they did drive their rental car.
Yucatan Road Trip Day 8: Casa Malca & Return to Playa del Carmen
On my final day with the car, my friend from the hostel and I drove to Casa Malca. Casa Malca is a beautiful hotel, formerly Pablo Escobar’s home located at one end of Tulum’s beach front. In general, you are not allowed to park on the side of the beach road as it’s quite narrow and very busy. Yet, Casa Malca is quite far from the main area, so I could park outside, in the shade for free!
After taking plenty of photos at the beautiful swing in the front of the property, we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon in the hammocks of Casa Malca for free on the beach.
Yucatan Road Trip Mistake #3
Remember above when I mentioned that I’d used a stand alone bank in Bacalar that would lead me to my third mistake on this road trip?
Well, when I was driving the car back to Playa del Carmen, I received a phone call from my bank asking me to confirm a withdrawal in Belize. I hadn’t been to Belize. But it is just over the border from Bacalar. Someone had gotten my ATM card information from that stand-alone ATM. I couldn’t wait to get rid of that car, returning it without a full tank of gas, which she thankfully let slide after I told her my story. From Playa del Carmen, I took an ADO bus back to Tulum. Effectively ending my road trip in the Yucatan.
Other Things to Do in the Yucatan
After returning the rental car, I spent about another week in Tulum going to Spanish classes, exploring the town, eating tacos at La Eufemia, and visiting the Tulum ruins. The initial awe of Tulum’s beauty wore off quite quickly though as I started to see what it was hiding behind the Instagram famous beachfront.
So I hopped a bus and headed for a small island called Isla Holbox, another place that should definitely be on your Yucatan itinerary.
Was Renting a Car in Mexico Worth It?
I quite enjoyed having the freedom to move about as I liked. I was able to visit many of the distant ruins and cenotes, even getting to see two in one day, without being confined to a tour company’s schedule. Beating the crowds, and the heat, was one of my main goals with the car, which I accomplished!
Yet, after the ticket, I never quite felt relaxed while driving. I always felt that a cop was going to find some reason to pull me over, even though I was going the posted speed limits as cars whizzed by me .Also, the car did just sit parked for three of the eight days that I had it. This was partly due to a bit of trepidation driving and partly due to poor planning. I could’ve condensed the trip a bit better, instead of taking days off in between sight seeing, scheduling them back to back. Yet, I’d paid for the car in advance and wouldn’t get any money back if I returned it early.
All in all, with gas, the ticket, and cost of the car I paid around $500 for 8 days, 5 of those days the car actually got used. If I were to do this again, I wouldn’t do a road trip.
What I Would Do Differently in the Yucatan
I would take the ADO bus from Playa del Carmen to Bacalar, then use the same bus company to take me to Tulum. Once in Tulum, I would rent a car for three days. One day to see Chichen-Itza, Ek-Balam, and the cenotes. The next day I would see Coba and Gran Cenote. The final day to see Tulum ruins and then return the car in the evening. This would make it much more convenient as I wouldn’t have had to drive back to Playa del Carmen, then take a bus back to Tulum. It also would’ve been cheaper in the long run.
Alternatively, I could’ve stayed a few days in Valladolid which I’m sorry I overlooked. I’ve since heard excellent things about this town and I simply drove right by it. Just a reason to go back, right?!
Have you ever rented a car in a foreign country? What was your experience?