There’s more to the Yucatan peninsula than lying on the beach in Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum, visiting Chichen Itza, and swimming in cenotes. And a driving trip, either just through the region or within the context of a visit which includes Chiapas or Oaxaca, inevitably results in an extremely rewarding vacation. As long as you drive only during the daylight hours safety should not be an issue, and your two week jaunt can include wonderful lesser known archaeological sites, visits to both run-down and restored haciendas, an abundance of wildlife sightings including monkeys and flamingos, and yes cenotes. For those who are aficionados of tequila or mezcal, and in particular its agave raw material, you can include a day learning about the fascinating history of henequen (sisal) production.
I’ve already written about the drive from Oaxaca through Chiapas. So, since the latter is close to Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo, and in fact borders the peninsula, this article centers upon the region as it relates to arriving from the state of Oaxaca, a state with which in any event I am better acquainted.
Innumerable Driving Options and Getting Started for a Yucatan Adventure
If you are comfortable with a GPS then I suppose that is all you need. Otherwise, and in my opinion in any event, you should consider buying the Guia Roji for Mexico, available at all decent bookstores, often at Proveedor Escolar, etc. Of course there are maps for each of Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo, which my wife and I purchased for our 2017 trip, which we did not need because of the Guia Roji. There are a couple of general maps of the country which would do, but Guia Roji has been my bible for well over a dozen years so I recommend it.
Your routing can form more or less a circle to minimize doubling back. For example you can drive out of Oaxaca along the toll road towards Mexico City and Puebla and turn off at the Orizaba cut-off, then return either via Chiapas (through Palenque, San Cristobal de las Casas, Salina Cruz, etc.), or along the secondary highway which goes through Tuxtepec. We’d been through Chiapas already, and had been told by multiple sources that the safest route would be sticking to the main toll roads with a view to avoiding narrow windy roads along the Tuxtepec route, apparently other insecurities in that region, etc. While we have never been to Tuxtepec, we opted to not go there this time. Instead we repeated the drive between Oaxaca and Villahermosa, coming and going. Otherwise, there was no significant doubling back, and the roads throughout the entire trip were essentially safe, wide, and a pleasure to travel, much more pleasant than those in cities and towns throughout the state of Oaxaca.
Avoid driving anywhere outside of cities after dark, and if you have not booked lodging online, arrive at a town or city in search of your hotel no later than about 4:30 pm. We found that booking online, even the day before, generally results in a lesser rate than pulling up to a hotel and asking reception about availability for that night. On one occasion we booked online for one night, did not particularly like the lodging (which had been recommended by a friend), so then the next day spent an hour or so on foot until we found something more to our liking and style for the next two nights.
As long as your budget permits, mix up economical and quaint (i.e. Casa Kaan near the Calakmul archaeological site, or anything at Celestun), contemporary (i.e. City Express in most cities, always comfortable and predictable), and then throw in “the big splurge” (i.e. Sotuta de Peon, with our own cabin complete with mini swimming pool). At the end of the day, across the board lodging for the entire journey is affordable, ranging from roughly 700 to 2,000 pesos a night, averaging about 1,100 pesos. It all depends on budget and vacationing style. You can always find modest lodging, but in small villages typically nothing high end unless there is a spa-like alternative.
If you have much more than a couple of weeks for the trip, then dig deeper into your travel guides and the internet to find interesting places to visit in addition to those noted here. But this sojourn was for only 17 days, covered about 4,000 km of territory, never driving more than about seven hours in a day except for our last day returning home, and centered upon what was of the greatest interest to us; with nary a day on the beach. Landscapes, wildlife, cenotes, agave distillate (i.e. mezcal) and maguey, crafts and antiques, and the history and vestiges of colonization were what we sought, and encountered.
The Meat of the Yucatan Visit
Spend a day and a half or two days getting to Campeche from the city of Oaxaca. With a bit of luck the vistas on your first day will be clear and you’ll see the impressive snow-capped pico de Orizaba. But climbing though the mountains you could be delayed by very dense fog, so take it easy. On the way out we encountered fog as never experienced before, and on the way back a delay occasioned by an accident but on the return we did see the volcano quite clearly. Depending on your start time the first day, you have several options for bedding down, as close to Oaxaca as Tehuacan, and as close to the Yucatan peninsula as Villahermosa.
Campeche has a lot to offer, so consider a couple of days there. We opted for a morning open air trolly bus tour the first day, to give us a sense of how to best spend the balance of our time in and around the city. It leaves every morning from the city square and highlights history and attractions. We were extremely impressed with how much of the land on the Gulf of Mexico had been reclaimed during the latter half of the 20th century, now housing hotels, office buildings, restaurants and more. Certainly enjoy a meal at one of the several seafood restaurants along the boardwalk, stroll the heart of downtown, and be sure to visit each of the several fortresses (or baluartes) strung out along what was initially the waterfront. Each now contains a museum of sorts, with staff eager and ready to explain pre-history of the region, colonization, piracy and the reclamation of gulf lands. It’s a lot of walking, but definitively worth it. En route you will find craft shops and restaurants galore. We decided to visit the closest archaeological site to Campeche one morning, about an hour’s drive away, known as Edzna, and it way thoroughly impressive.
Leaving the state of Campeche for Yucatan and its capital of Merida, you can choose to visit attractions en route, or simply take the toll road and use Merida as your base for a few days. We opted for the latter. For this part of the trip we were content with a bit of duplication in highway routes, but really, if you don’t want any doubling back along the same routes, you can avoid it. For example, we drove to Puerto Progreso one afternoon to spend the evening with friends, then headed back towards Merida the next day. There is a toll road, but also there are secondary highways connecting Merida and Progreso, so depending on your inclination and time, you have options. Progreso has a significant ex-pat population and expansive beaches flecked with restaurants. Otherwise, to my thinking there is little reason for visiting the town, and for us catching up with an old friend was the only reason we went there.
Merida is known for its several factories and retail outlets specializing in the sale of guayaberas, so if that Cuban look is for you, the city is a goldmine in that respect. And, we also stumbled upon a downtown antique shop.
The Gulf of Mexico coastal town of Celestun is only an hour’s drive from Merida. It’s known primarily for the flamingo population in the lagoons, and other aquatic wildlife including other birds and crocodiles. Check in advance for seasonal fluctuations in the flamingo population since there is a certain time of the year when literally thousands can be seen up close in the course of a lagoon boat ride, when they arrive to feed on tiny shrimp (giving them their pink color we were told). Celestun was at one time a popular beach destination, but with the construction and promotion of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, and more recently Tulum, it has been forgotten. The good news is that the lodgings are small and quaint, and residents are anxious to please. Consider an afternoon drive to Celestun, perhaps making a couple of stops en route, and spending the night there so you can take the lagoon tour no later than 9 am the next day and thus avoid crowds. Most visitors and certainly the tour buses do day trips for a few hours.
The Merida region, and all the way to Valladolid, is known for cenotes. Swimming in one was a priority for the trip. You can certainly visit several of these sink holes in a single day, or combine them with other sights in the area over the course of a couple of days, which is what we did. Take a day trip from Merida to Cuzama and hire a local to drive you on a horse drawn tiny railway car on a track, a holdover from the hacienda / sisal industry era, to the three cenotes. Don’t get talked into going with people waving you down on the side of the road near the town, but rather continue a bit beyond Cuzama until you come across, at the side of the road on the right side, a series of parked railway cars and a couple of horses, where people will calmly direct you to parking on the left, explain the modest fee, etc. The experience was a highlight of the trip. Afterwards, you can continue along that secondary highway and stop at the guayabera factory at San Isidro Ochil, then circle around and return to Merida on a different secondary highway or on the toll road. This and any other of the routes along this part of the peninsula contain many abandoned haciendas which can be visited, providing good photo opportunities.
In our case we headed back to Merida along one of the smaller roads and the next day had our big splurge. But you can do it all in one day I suppose. Sotuta de Peon just outside of Tecoh is worth every penny of the cost and every minute of struggle making sure you’re on the right road. But getting a bit lost enabled us to visit perhaps one of the most colorful and unique cemeteries in the region if not the country, stop at craft shops, and otherwise wander the highways at a leisurely pace meeting and interacting with locals.
If you have at least a couple of weeks for the trip, there is really no point in rushing to get anywhere. Build in a couple of extra days for contingencies, and if things go smoothly you can visit places which were initial “maybes,” and places you will surely come across which simply were not anticipated.
Sotuta de Peon provides a comprehensive albeit touristy experience. It is a restored sisal hacienda with plantation now up and running (predominantly to show visitors how the industry functioned after Spanish colonization); and an exquisite higher end spa-like hotel complex. There are two restaurants, and a number of cenotes. A three hour horse-drawn rail ride explaining the history of the region includes visiting restored interior parts of the hacienda’s lavish living quarters with period furniture and other high end accoutrements of the era, the fully functioning henequen (sisal) industry factory facilities, and more. For me it was a must given that I am involved in the mezcal industry and tout sustainability which continues today with the production of the agave based spirit. Also for both of us it was an opportunity to live how wealthy Spanish-stock aristocrats lived, to again visit cenotes, and to ready ourselves for the subsequent jungle experience.
Try to arrive at Sotuta de Peon after 3 pm, enjoy dinner and your luxury pad, retire early perhaps after a swim in your own pool, and then embark upon the tour the next morning, perhaps with a drink and/or massage thrown in later morning while some in your group are swimming in a cenote. Yes, they are larger group tours, but if you opt for the morning excursion you should be able to avoid the tour buses. By contrast, the Cuzama cenote experience can be for just you and your small group or partner.
The morning after your spa experience at Sotuta de Peon, head out towards Valladolid, a city which houses apparently the largest selection of Mexican folk art in the country. For me the drive gave us an opportunity to visit a distillery at Izamal, more or less en route. But as sometimes happens, what you read is no longer accurate; the agave distillery was no more, and had been converted into a wine production facility. Some had told us it still existed, while others advised that it was no more. But as often occurs on such adventures, all was not lost. Izamal is a quaint town visited by Mexican nationals on vacation, is known for all buildings being painted in yellow, has a lovely ex-convent, and wouldn’t you know it, en route we came across an art gallery / antique store owned by a Canadian.
It’s definitively worth the trip to Valladolid because of the privately owned folk art museum known as Casa de los Venados, actually the extensive collection housed in the residence of its owners, an American couple. However the “mezcal/tequila” distillery in the city, Mayapan, while functioning, for me was a disappointment. Firstly because it was very touristy, and secondly since it sold agave distillate at only 38%. The distillery seemed to specialize in the sale of spirits produced in other parts of the country such as tequila and to a very limited extent mezcal, with only one brand of the latter on the shelves. But for those who have never been to a functioning agave distillery, it should be worth a stop, and for those who have been, I suppose because the distillate is made from only blue agave, it may hold some interest.
For your final foray on the trip, loop down to Chetumal before driving over to the archaeological site of Calakmul, and stay somewhere en route to the archaeological zone, perhaps 30 – 60 minutes east of it, on the main highway in or near Xpujil. There are numerous lodgings along the way, one of which is Casa Kaan, which also offers tours of Calakmul under the name Ka’an Expeditions. The archaeological zone is indeed easily navigable on your own, and the literature suggesting the road is difficult is either stale dated or overblown, but a good guide makes the day absolutely incredible.
At Casa Kaan we once again had our own cabin, albeit not the lap of luxury of Sotuta de Peon. However, it did have its own kitchen. Every morning a staff member entered our unit from an exterior kitchen door so as not to infringe on our privacy, and prepared a hot breakfast for us. What a nice personal touch.
One might wonder why we did not go to Chichen Itza. My wife had been there decades earlier; we had been told that it is now highly touristed with visitors from Playa del Carmen, Cancun and Tulum; and Calakmul is still fairly rustic, expansive, and with a good guide you will have an opportunity to see non-human primates (monkeys), other large mammals, and wild turkeys with colorful plumage, all in their nature habitats. On your own you can spend a full day at the site, and with a guide perhaps three or four hours. My suggestion is to arrive at a lodging in the afternoon prior to heading out to Calakmul so you get an early start visiting the site. Then, either spend a second night at the same lodging, or get a few hours’ head start on your way back to Oaxaca.
Epilogue to a Driving Vacation from Oaxaca to the Yucatan Peninsula
Oaxaca is a good two day drive from Calakmul any way you cut it, longer if you want to take in any additional sights en route. As suggested near the outset, you can return via Chiapas, via Tuxtepec, or the way you first arrived in the region via Villahermosa. It all depends on your inclination and any time limitations. Our return along the same stretch of highway enabled us to leisurely stop at places we missed on the way to the peninsula because we were perhaps overly anxious to arrive in the Yucatan region. Other stops? For locally produced coffee, and even coffee bean rosaries; toritos (low alcohol milky beverages including peanut flavored, our favorite); wooden, palm leaf and leather handicrafts; artisanal small batch cheeses; and the list goes on.
We did buy more, much more, and I suppose that’s one of the advantages of a driving vacation in your own or a rented vehicle. We always manage to fill the SUV. The foregoing were only a few of the stops and highlights of our Yucatan vacation. Our trip included other archaeological sites, antique and craft buying opportunities, other wildlife sightings, and opportunities to stop and marvel at a plethora of different vegetation including plantations of pineapples, tall grasses and of course agave, and numerous additional attractions unique to the states of Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo. Take your time, and leave a couple of days for the unexpected. And don’t forget that you’ll be only minutes from Belize and no more than a couple of hours from Guatemala.