Mexico / Itineraries

Northern Yucatan Highlights

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Starting and finishing in Cancun, this suggested 10-night itinerary takes in pretty much all of the key highlights of the northern Yucatan Peninsula, combining Mayan & Colonial sites as well as a taste of the region’s nature-based attractions. At the end of the itinerary there is the option of extending your holiday at the beach.

  • Day 1 — Cancun

    Flights from Europe arrive into Cancun from the late afternoon onwards so, having collected your car at the airport, it’s just a short drive to the suggested Marriott Courtyard for an initial overnight stay. Having settled in, head down to the terrace bar and make sure you ask for a bowl of tacos and salsa – it’ll be the first of many.

    Suggested Accommodation: Marriott Courtyard Cancun
    • — Cancun
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    • — Tacos & salsa
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  • Day 2 — Cancun to Valladolid

    Departing the hotel after breakfast, you will soon be on the main east – west toll road that runs from Cancun all the way to Merida.

    The initial stretch of this toll road, as far as Valladolid, takes a little over 2 hours and we suggest that you exit here.

    First settled in 1545, and named after the one-time capital of Spain, the charming little town of Valladolid is a destination in its own right as well as a popular base for exploring a wide variety of nearby attractions.

    Having checked into your hotel in town, our suggestion is that you spend the rest of the day exploring Valladolid on foot.

    Valladolid itself is a great place to simply go for a stroll and boasts a number of attractive, colonial-era buildings, most of them clustered around the main square, Parque Francisco Canton. If you like quirky museums, the privately-owned Casa de los Venadas houses an impressive collection of over 3000 pieces of Mexican folk art and is well worth a visit.

    Suggested Accommodation: Hotel Posada San Juan Meals Included: Breakfast
    • — Valladolid
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    • — Valladolid
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    • — Valladolid
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  • Day 3 — Valladolid (Day trip to Chichen Itza)

    We suggest you get up as early as possible, both to avoid the heat of the day and potential crowds later on, and drive the 30 minutes or so to Chichen Itza.

    Possibly the most famous archaeological site in Mexico, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Chichen Itza is the most extensively excavated of all the Mayan sites and one could easily spend an entire day exploring its scattered ruins.

    Historically, Chichen Itza was something of a late starter, only reaching its peak well after the great Mayan cities of the south, such as Calakmul, Tikal & Palenque, had been largely abandoned. Although Mayanologists still disagree about exactly who founded the city, the variety of architectural styles point to an ethnic diversity that is hard to find elsewhere.

    At the centre of Chichen Itza is its most recognisable structure, the imposing Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo. This pyramid has precisely 365 steps – 91 steps on each of the 4 sides plus the top platform – all tied in with the Mayan’s incredible understanding of astronomy and most clearly demonstrated on the spring and autumn equinoxes.

    It’s easy enough to explore Chichen Itza on your own although, if you prefer a guide, this can be arranged on arrival without any problem.

    Suggested Accommodation: Hotel Posada San Juan Meals Included: Breakfast
    • — Chichen Itza
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    • — Chichen Itza, ball court
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  • Day 4 — Valladolid (Day trip to Rio Lagartos)

    Located on the Yucatan Peninsula’s north coast, Rio Lagartos is a somnolent little fishing village that doubles as a jumping off point for the Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Lagartos, home to the largest colony of flamingos in Mexico.

    It’s not just flamingos that make Rio Lagartos their home either. The Reserva estuary is home to a huge variety of birdlife (just under 400 species it is said) including Storks, Spoonbills, Snowy Egrets, Hummingbirds, Herons, Ibis and the rare Mexican Sheartails as well as the crocodiles from which the area derives its name.

    Boat trips generally depart from the village in the morning and normally last a couple of hours. Parking your car in Rio Lagartos isn’t a problem and, on returning from your boat trip, there are a selection of simple restaurants serving up fresh seafood.

    Rio Lagartos is approximately 2 hours drive from Valladolid and, after your visit, you can either return straight to Valladolid or perhaps make a detour to the Mayan ruins at Ek Balam.

    Suggested Accommodation: Hotel Posada San Juan Meals Included: Breakfast
    • — Rio Lagartos
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    • — Rio Lagartos
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    • — Rio Lagartos
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  • Day 5 — Valladolid to Izamal

    Departing Valladolid in the morning, you’ll continue your journey west towards another of the Yucatan Peninsula’s charming colonial towns, Izamal.

    Although commonly referred to as a colonial town, the history of Izamal pre-dates the arrival of the Spanish by many hundred years; it is thought that Izamal was founded in the Late Formative Period (750-200 BC) and was then continuously inhabited until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.

    Even today, Izamal is sometimes referred to as the City of Hills, the ‘hills’ in question being the remains of ancient Mayan pyramids. Five of these ‘hills’ are still clearly visible town including the largest, what would have been the pyramid of Kinich Kak Mo, which you can climb for free.

    What most people first notice about Izamal however, is the colour of its buildings; the town is also known as the Yellow City as almost every building in the town centre is painted the same, delightful, warm yellow. There is no great historical significance to this, it was simply done to commemorate the Pope’s visit to the town in 1993.

    Aside from the old Mayan pyramids, the main attraction in Izamal is the Franciscan convent of San Antonio de Padua which, in keeping with the general practise of the Spanish, was built on top of the original Mayan Acropolis. The atrium to this Convent is only surpassed in size by that of St Peter’s in Vatican City.

    Izamal can easily be explore on foot so, after checking in to your hotel and unpacking, the rest of the can be spent exploring on your own.

    Suggested Accommodation: Hotel Hacienda Santo Domingo Meals Included: Breakfast
    • — Izamal
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    • — Izamal
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    • — Izamal
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  • Day 6 — Izamal to Campeche via Uxmal

    Departing Izamal and continuing west, you will skirt around the city of Merida before heading south to Campeche.

    Midway to Campeche, and for the first time on your holiday, the road climbs slightly as you reach the Puuc hills, home to a number of Mayan sites including the UNESCO World Heritage site of Uxmal.

    Founded around 700 AD, Uxmal (pronounced Oosh mahl) reached the height of its power towards the end of the 9th century but, by 1200, the city lay largely abandoned, perhaps as a result of the rise of Chichen Itza to the east.

    Uxmal’s primary importance comes from the fact that, for most experts, it represents the high-point in Mayan architecture and art. Perhaps no single building better represents this than the magnificent Pyramid of the Magician which, unlike almost every other Mayan pyramid, has a much softer, more cylindrical design.

    Other important buildings within the site include the Quadrangle of the Nuns, the Governor’s Palace, the House of the Tortoises and the Ball Court. As with most Mayan sites, much of Uxmal still remains covered by dense vegetation, including the extensive Southern Complex.

    As with Chichen Itza, Uxmal can easily be explored on one’s own although it is normally possible to arrange a guide locally. After lunch at Uxmal, continue south until you reach the Campeche later that afternoon.

    Suggested Accommodation: Hotel Castelmar Meals Included: Breakfast
    • — Uxmal
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    • — Uxmal
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    • — Uxmal
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  • Day 7 — Campeche

    Capital of the state of the same name, the UNESCO World Heritage city of Campeche is located on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.

    As with elsewhere in the region, Campeche was founded by the Spanish at the site of an existing Mayan settlement, Can Pech, from which the new city took its name in 1540. Having overcome the local Mayans, the Spanish then found themselves fending off repeated attacks from British & Dutch pirates and buccaneers, including Sir Francis Drake.

    In order to defend the city, the Spanish inhabitants built a vast city wall and fortifications, parts of which survive to this day. Within these walls, the Spanish built a traditional colonial town with a central square, cathedral and numerous, grand civic buildings. With much of this inner city largely untouched over the years, in 1999 the city was granted UNESCO World Heritage status.

    Although Campeche lacks any outstanding monuments or museums, it’s a great place to stroll about on one’s own, taking in the many pastel-coloured buildings that dominate the old town.

    Suggested Accommodation: Hotel Castelmar Meals Included: Breakfast
    • — Campeche
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    • — Campeche
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    • — Campeche
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  • Day 8 — Campeche to Merida via Sotuta de Peon

    Departing from Campeche in the morning, you now begin your journey back, heading north to Merida.

    En-route, we recommend that you stop and visit the Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, a restoration project-cum-museum that gives visitors a glimpse into how henequen (known as Green Gold in its heyday) was grown and processed and what life on a working hacienda would have been like.

    As part of the tour, visitors will also briefly experience transportation on wooden platforms, known as ‘trucks’ which are pulled along rails by mules.

    There is a restaurant at the hacienda where you can have lunch before continuing your journey north to the small village of Santa Cruz, located just south of Merida.

    Suggested Accommodation: Hacienda Santa Cruz Meals Included: Breakfast
    • — Hacienda Sotuta De Peon
  • Day 9 — Merida

    The capital of Yucatan State, and the cultural heart of the broader Yucatan Peninsula, Merida is a charming, easy-going city as well as a great base for exploring numerous, varied, nearby attractions.

    Merida’s colonial history dates back to its founding by Francisco de Montejo y León in 1542, although, as with elsewhere in the region, the city was actually built on top of the ancient Maya city of T’ho whose stones were recycled as building material for the new city.

    The centre of Merida is typically defined as being the Zocalo, or central square, around which are a number of venerable, colonial buildings as well as San Ildefonso Cathedral, one of the oldest in Mexico. In addition to the vast, central square, there are a number of nearby, shady, much smaller squares which are great places to sit and watch the world go by.

    Also close to the main square, and one of the city’s main draws, is the impressive Paseo Montejo, a grand, triumphalist, tree-lined boulevard, occupied on either side by opulent mansions that draw their inspiration from the Belle Epoque.

    Merida is also home to a variety of colonial museums and contemporary galleries although none are more impressive than the new, must-visit Gran Museo del Mundo Maya.

    Rather than drive yourself, it’s much easier to get the hotel to arrange a taxi transfer for the 30-minute ride into the centre of Merida. The city can easily be explored on foot and getting a taxi back to Santa Cruz is no problem.

    Suggested Accommodation: Hacienda Santa Cruz Meals Included: Breakfast
    • — Merida
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    • — Merida
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    • — Merida
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  • Day 10 — Merida (Day trip to the Convent Route)

    A popular self-drive route south of Merida is the Convent Route (Ruta de los Conventos) which takes in a number of colonial-era churches, convents and chapels that were built, almost always at sites that were already sacred to the local Maya, with the express intention of converting the indigenous population to Christianity.

    There is no set route to follow so it very much depends on how many different locations you wish to visit. Some of the key sites to visit include Acanceh, Tecoh, Telchaquillo, Tekit, Chumayel, Teabo and Mani. Depending on how long you plan to be out and about for, the hotel Na Luum in Tecoh is one of the best options for lunch.

    As an And / Or consideration, if you enjoyed Rio Lagartos and would like to take in more of the Yucatan’s natural attributes, the Celestun Special Biosphere Reserve is a 146,000 acre park located on the Gulf coast, east of Merida, and is a combination of coastal scrub, estuary and mangrove that provides a home for a variety of wildlife.

    Suggested Accommodation: Hacienda Santa Cruz Meals Included: Breakfast
    • Church at Mani on the Convent Route in Yucatan
      — Convent Route, Mani
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    • — Celestun, near Merida
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  • Day 11 — Merida to Cancun & Home

    One should allow a good 4 hours for the drive back to Cancun airport so your schedule today will depend on your flight times.

    If it’s an evening flight, there are plenty more things to see and do near Santa Cruz (the hotel can offer suitable advice) or you can simply kick back and relax by the pool.

    Meals Included: Breakfast

Please Note

This itinerary is no more than a sample idea which can be tailor made to your exact requirements.

Although based on Fly Drive, it can just as easily be arranged with a Car & Driver.

The 'From price' is for travel in September and is based on two adults sharing the same room throughout. Supplements apply for sole occupancy / transport.

Beach Extensions

Beach Extensions

For clients wishing to extend (or even start) their holiday with time at one of the Yucatan Peninsula’s numerous beach resorts there are numerous options. The vast majority of beach hotels are located along the east coast, within easy reach of Cancun airport. Please call or email for advice.

Suggested Accommodation

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