In January 2016 we took a 12 day road trip through the Yucatán peninsula with our then 5 and 7 year olds. We had been to the island of Isla Mujeres (off the coast of Cancun) with them twice as toddlers and were ready to venture out further into the Yucatán for some more adventures.
We left a few days after Christmas and since we were visiting family in NJ we flew out of Newark. We made sure to pack light with one carry-on each (and during the trip I still felt we still had too much stuff!)
Our flight connected in Charlotte and was delayed, so that we missed the connection. Luckily they were able to rebook us for about an hour and a half later, and we arrived in Cancun in the late afternoon. We headed over to the easyway car rental company. I had done a lot of research about renting cars in Cancun, as the internet was full of horror stories. Much of what I read suggested to stay away from the companies that sound like typical US companies, such as Alamo, and that they lure you in with the promise of a cheap daily rate and then pile on the extra insurance. I read that easyway was a local company that was more trustworthy. I also read that the rental cars have special license plates that make them easier to spot for shakedowns, whereas easyway doesn’t use those plates.
We finally got our very, very basic car. There was not even a cigarette lighter to charge our devices, and headed out on the toll road to Merida, a 3 hour drive. The road is pretty well maintained but flat and boring. We were exhausted so the kids fell asleep and we finally got to Merida around 7pm. We checked into our cute little hotel, in the traditional Spanish style with an open courtyard in the center, and then walked over to a nearby plaza that had several restaurants. The plaza was lively with lots of outdoor seating, and we ate at a burger place before finally crashing back at our hotel.
The next morning we walked around the city and the kids took pictures with the go-pro cameras they had gotten as gifts for the holidays. They ended up taking some really amazing photos! It’s cool to see the little details they focused on, whereas the adults are used to taking pictures of the large things, like historic buildings. I felt that their photos give an even more authentic view of Merida.
The architecture and colors are gorgeous in Merida, but it got hot quickly so we went back to the hotel for a dip in the pool. That afternoon we took a cab to El Gran Museo de el Mundo Maya, which had some excellent exhibits on the ancient Mayans. That night we ate dinner at a great traditional restaurant, which in was the house where Andres Quintana Roo once lived.
The next day we headed out of the city a little bit to take a tour of an old sisal plantation. Sisal is a fiber used for ropes made by a plant similar to agave, and the region was once booming with this industry. The tour was well done, and after the tour they showed you around the plantation and took you via a small train thing our to the cenote on their property! This cenote was underground in a cave, and it was so much fun to splash around! After that they offered us a Yucatecan lunch which was delicious, and we headed back to the hotel.
That night was New Year’s Eve and we learned that it’s actually a fairly quiet holiday in Mexico as most people celebrate at home with their families. We decided to take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the city and we got to see some gorgeous mansions all lit up. Afterwards we headed over to the famous restaurant, La Chaya Maya, which has traditional Mayan food. The food was delicious but the service was awful. There were two ladies right next to us making homemade tortillas, yet our server never brought us any! Talk about a tease! The kids were exhausted and my oldest literally fell asleep at the table, so we had a quiet New Year’s drinking wine in the hotel courtyard after the restaurant.
The next morning we checked out of the hotel and took the slow road to Valladolid, through little Mayan villages. We drove through Valladolid and up to the ruins at Ek Balam. These ended up being my favorite ruins of the trip. They had a large temple you could climb, and the site was not very crowded at all. They also had their own cenote you could bike to but it was getting closer to evening so we headed back to our hotel.
We got to our lodge, Mayaland, in the early evening. This is a large property that abuts Chichen Itza, so they have their own back entrance to the ruins! You can even see the observatory right from the hotel lobby. We ate at the hotel’s buffet dinner which was fun because they had traditional dancers for entertainment. After dinner we went for a night swim in one of the hotel’s pools and then to bed.
The next morning we woke up early and had breakfast before getting into Chichen Itza right when it opened. It was so nice to be there before the big crowds came in the tour buses. As we headed over to the big temple, Kulkulcan, the crowds grew larger and the heat got more intense, but it was truly breathtaking to see the temple in person, as well as many of the other ancient structures. By mid-day the heat and crowds started to get pretty bad, so we drove a few miles into the town of Piste. There is a cenote there run by a collective of Mayan women, cenote Yodkoznot. It was an open sinkhole-style cenote and they had steps going down into it and also offered life vests. It was not very crowded, in fact we even had it to ourselves at one point!
We also ate lunch at their little restaurant and the food was absolutely delicious. After we rested that afternoon we drove back into town to have dinner at one of the little restaurants and we let the kids run around the town plaza for a bit.
The next morning we drove back to the town of Valladolid and had breakfast and walked around the town square. It was a very cute little town and I would have liked to stay longer but my youngest was having a meltdown after he dropped the onyx jaguar he got at Chichen Itza and it broke.
We drove about another hour south to the ruins at Coba and everyone seemed to be in a better mood by then. These were the oldest ruins we saw on the trip and definitely impressive. There are two main areas separated by about a mile, which you can walk or hire a bicycle taxi to pedal you over. We chose the latter, which was a good choice because the bike driver also functioned as a tour guide and he taught us some Mayan words. You can also climb the main pyramid at Coba but the kids were too scared to, so I stayed with them while my husband climbed to the top. He said it was exhilarating.
After a quick lunch at a restaurant near the ruins we drove out to the beach town of Tulum where we had rented a beach bungalow for the next 6 days. Our bungalow was in a little cluster of about 5 other bungalows on the property and was on the beach, about 40 feet from the ocean! We also found out via Facebook that friends of ours were in town so they met us on the beach and the kids made a beeline for the water.
We loved our little bungalow however we were a little annoyed but how Tulum was laid out. There was the main little Pueblo about 5 miles from the beach, and then a small road along the beach with jungle restaurants and boutique hotels on either side of the road. The road was jam packed with cars, taxis, and bicycles, so it took forever to get anywhere.
We spent the next several days enjoying the beach and exploring the town a little. The ruins at Tulum were nearby so we headed over there one morning. This was my least favorite site as it was very small and very crowded. Although the scenery was gorgeous as they are perched on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. If you plan to check these out I would recommend going first thing in the morning before it gets too crowded.
One of our favorite experiences at Tulum was going to Zine, a dinner and a movie restaurant in the jungle. They had a receiving area where you choose your movie and dinner, and then they take you to a private screening room with a large movie screen and comfy chairs and cushions. They brought you popcorn and drinks while you waited for food and when that was ready they quietly brought it in while the movie played. One side of the room was a screen door so you could see and hear the jungle while you watched your movie. We had a great night and never would have expected this type of place in the jungle! Sadly, I don’t think this place exists anymore.
On one of our last days we drove over to Xel-Ha, a large “eco-park” where you can go snorkeling, tubing, zip-lining, and cliff jumping. We took tubes through a mangrove forest into the main lagoon, and then the kids practiced snorkeling. We also bought the “all inclusive” package where you can eat at the breakfast and lunch buffets and drink at the bars. Unfortunately later that evening my kids both felt sick and started vomiting. We finally got them to sleep and then I spent a miserable night with my head over the toilet as well. It seemed that we had gotten food poisoning. Well at least the kids and I, my husband was spared.
The kids felt better the next day but I was wiped out and just laid on a lounge chair on the beach. The day after that we finally started making our way back to Cancun for an early evening flight home. On the way we stopped at a little zoo called, Crococun, which was fun for the kids as they got to pick up and pet some of the animals.
After that we dropped off the rental car and boarded our flight back to the US!
Overall it was a fabulous trip. We love the people and culture of the Yucatán and it was great to see some cities such as Merida and Valladolid, as well as have some time at the beach. As I mentioned, my favorite ruins were Ek Balam and I would have liked to have spent more time in Valladolid and some of the other small towns.
We were not big fans of Tulum. The beach was beautiful but the restaurants along the beach road were very over-priced and seemed to cater to the boho-chic set. The prices for food in the Pueblo were a little better (still expensive for Mexico), but you had to drive into town, and as I mentioned, the one road in and out was always clogged with cars and bicycles, making the ride into town super annoying. So while I would return to Merida and Valladolid, and I would like to explore some more of the Yucatán, I probably wouldn’t do a return trip to Tulum.
We also thought it was a great trip for kids! They loved the ruins, the beach, and Xel-ha (despite the food poisoning), were all fun for them. Mexico is known for being very child and family friendly and we definitely found that to be the case on this trip.