Private Journeys

Self-drive Mexico: Discover the Yucatan Peninsula

13 days from £1,850pp

Mexico

Itinerary

map marker Map

Day 1

Arrive in Cancún, collect hire car.

On arrival at Cancún airport you should proceed to the Europcar desk and advise the agent that you have a pre-booked car. You will then be escorted the car hire office, a short walk from the Terminal 2 or short escorted drive from Terminal 3. Our guide will be waiting for you there to assist and will stay with you until you have checked the car and documentation. Your car will be a mid-sized Chevrolet Aveo (or similar) which will be your companion for 12 days. Other sizes of car are available but terms and conditions are subject to change. Drive to your hotel in town.

Cancún straddles a lagoon on the north-eastern tip of the Yucatán peninsula. It's a purpose-built resort with beautiful beaches, good diving and water sports. Alongside the facilities that come with five-star hotels are high-class shopping and fashionable nightclubs and bars.

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Day 2

Drive to Mayan archaeological site at Chichén Itzá. Overnight.

Drive inland to Chichén Itzá (2 hours direct) the grandest and most well organised of all the Mayan sites, dominated by the huge, symmetrical, stepped El Castillo pyramid. The origins of the site are mysterious. It has the largest and best-preserved ball court in the Americas: the venue for an ancient ritual game that was played throughout the continent, but which is still not fully understood. Archaeologists have not been able to determine whether the losers or winners were decapitated, but judging from the gory carvings along the base of the court’s walls, someone certainly came to an unpleasant end.

En route you might want to visit the laid-back colonial town of Valladolid with its grand church and peaceful plaza. It's also a good spot from which to visit one of the cenotes which pit the peninsula. Cenotes are steep-sided freshwater sinkholes fed by underground rivers, deep enough for you to take a dip into their sparkling clear turquoise and emerald waters.

Accommodation is a short walk from the site, and in the evening there is the option to return for the Sound and Light Show. 

Tom Parrott ©

Day 3

Drive to Mérida, lively colonial and Mayan city; 3 nights.

Drive to Mérida (2 hours direct), capital of the state of Yucatán. The city was founded by the Maya, but in 1542 it was conquered by the Spanish conquistadores and became immensely wealthy, described as the ‘Paris of the New World’. Its income came from the production of sisal, cactus fibres that are used to make rope, and it was culturally and geographically isolated from the rest of the country until transport infrastructure reached it in the 1950s. 

Today, Mérida retains a lovely colonial centre with a mix of opulent and crumbly buildings, but it is a modern, bustling, thriving city with lots of local character, some excellent places to eat and good shops and markets. The inhabitants, descendants of the Maya and the colonists, love a good fiesta, and you may well find one going on, with live music and street stalls, while you are there.

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Day 4

At leisure in the city or optional drive to Uxmal.

At leisure in the city. Stroll around the sunny streets, shop for local lace or one of the region’s famous hammocks. Outside town you might drive to the ruined ceremonial temples of Uxmal, for many the most dramatic forest-clad Maya site. It’s just over an hour from Mérida, but you enter a different world. The site is dominated by the majestic Pyramid of the Magician, inhabited by birds and bats, alongside which is an elegant ‘nunnery’ quadrangle with Puuc-style complex stonework pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. This is the site with the most mystic ambience.

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Day 5

At leisure or drive to Celestún on the Gulf coast.

Also in contrast to the lively city of Mérida is Celestún on the remote, undeveloped and swampy gulf coast just 45 minutes' drive away. A low-key beach resort favoured by Mexican families, the once isolated fishing port has an inviting, broad white sandy beach and good seafood restaurants. But it is most famous for the lagoons at the entrance to town which are filled with rose-coloured flamingoes. Boat trips can be booked locally and there are car parking areas now. There are three main routes out of Mérida on the west side from the Pereferico. The newest route is via Tetiz and Kinchil, which is the quickest.     

Mary Anne Nelson ©

Day 6

Drive to Campeche; 2 nights.

Drive to Campeche (2 hours direct) on the coast facing the Gulf of Mexico. The old walled city is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site - pastel-painted mansions built by aristocratic Spanish families, pristine white churches and the shady zócalo main square evoke the city's era of glory. There’s a lovely seaside promenade, perfect for walking at sunset.

Tom Parrott ©

Day 7

At leisure in this Spanish colonial city.

At leisure to explore the city, or drive to the little-visited Mayan pyramid complex at Edzná, a few miles outside town.

Mary Anne Nelson ©

Day 8

Drive to Xpujil; 2 nights.

Drive to Xpujil and the Ecolodge at Chicanná via the coastal road and the fishing port of Champoton where seafood stalls line the promenade. As you head inland you'll enter the Rio Bec route of Mayan sites where every few kilometres different sites pepper the route. On this section look out for Balamku and Becan.

This resort hotel, with gardens and pool, is a convenient base for explorations of remote and scarcely visited Mayan sites. Opposite the hotel are the impressive ruins at Chicanna and shady Xpujil site is literally around the corner. 

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Day 9

Visit local Mayan sites and Calakmul.

Calakmul is undoubtedly the main reason for visiting this region, smothered in rainforest, it's an important and very impressive site of what was once a vast and powerful city. There are 6,750 ancient structures identified there, the largest of which is the great pyramid at the site, at 45m high one of the highest temples of the Maya world. 

Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is home to some wildcat species, such as the cougar, the ocelot and the emblematic jaguar, an endangered species and very precious in the Maya culture. Mammals living in this jungle are the howler monkey, spider monkey, anteater, armadillo and deer. There are almost 300 species of birds, among them: parakeets, toucans and wild turkeys. There are also about 50 species of reptiles and 400 of butterflies.

You will need to drive 40 minutes back from Chicanna to the entrance of Calakmul Biosphere and we recommend departing very early in the morning and stocking up on provisions the night before.  

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Day 10

Drive to Tulum on the Caribbean coast; 3 nights.

Drive to Tulum on the Caribbean coast via Kohunlich (1.5 hours). Kohunlich is another site surrounded by dense rainforest and it contains almost 200 mounds that remain largely unexcavated. The city was elaborately planned and engineered, with raised platforms and pyramids, citadels, courtyards and plazas surrounded with palace platforms, all laid out to channel drainage into a system of cisterns and an enormous reservoir to collect rainwater.

The site is best known for its Temple of the Masks, a pyramid with a central stairway flanked by huge humanised stucco masks.

En route to Tulum (4 hours) you could stop for lunch at the Bacalar and go for a swim in the Lagoon of Seven Colours. The small town of Tulum has small thatched palapa-style bars, restaurants, hotels and guesthouses flanking the main road which cuts through town and continues along the peninsula as far as the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. The nearby beaches are simply superb with sugary white sand and enticing turquoise waters. To cap it all, the white Mayan ruins of Tulum are spectacularly perched on a cliff behind the main beach.

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Days 11-12

At leisure on the beach in the shadow of Tulum ruins; optional trips in the vicinity.

At leisure. Explore the ruins and relax on the beach below, or head inland to Mayan Cobá in the jungle. For a change from Mayan ruins you might visit the effervescent little resort of Playa del Carmen up the coast, a family-friendly place where there is a plethora of restaurants, bars, shops and entertainment. Alternatively drive to Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve which embraces tropical forest, mangrove and savannah and a coast and offshore marine reserve. The area is abundant with wildlife particularly aquatic birds. Other inhabitants include monkeys, tapirs, turtles, ocelots and jaguars. Guided boat trips through the wetlands can be organised locally.

Mary Anne Nelson ©

Day 13

Drive to Cancún and drop off car at airport; take international flight home.

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Real Latin America Experts

  • Jamie Swan
    Jamie Swan - Travel Consultant

    Jamie backpacked across Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil before joining us; he has a degree in politics and is also a keen sportsman..

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    Mary Anne Nelson - Travel Consultant

    Born in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, Mary’s insider knowledge and dry sense of humour make her a highly valued member of the Tailor-made team.

  • Sophie Barber
    Sophie Barber - Travel Consultant

    Sophie lived in Chile before joining us and has travelled extensively across Latin America, from Mexico to the furthest tip of Patagonia.

  • Ben Line
    Ben Line - Travel Consultant

    Ben fell in love with Latin America on a six month backpacking trip from Colombia to Mexico in 1995. Since then he has explored most of South America, including living in Peru for a year. He is now Manager of the Tailor-made Department.

  • Kathryn Rhodes
    Kathryn Rhodes - Travel Consultant

    Kathryn backpacked across Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru before joining us. She has a degree in Philosophy and French and is a keen netball player.

  • Carrie Gallagher
    Carrie Gallagher - Travel Consultant

    A former JLA tour leader, Carrie brings a wealth of on-the-ground experience to our London-based Escorted Groups team.

Meet the team