By Judy Waytiuk

We’ve all heard horror stories about driving in Mexico, but those tales are ludicrously outdated. Mexican roads these days are better-built and maintained than a lot of Canadian highways, and the only threats they might pose in remote areas are dozing cows, who love sleeping on warm pavement.

So don’t drive at night.

But you simply must drive the Yucatan peninsula at least once in your lifetime. It’s a genuinely wondrous journey, memories of which you’ll treasure forever.

And it's far less daunting an adventure than one might think.

The road into the interior starts at the rental car desk in Cancun’s International Airport, and a loop tour hits a cornucopia of remarkable cities, ruins, cenotes, caves, tiny villages and cultural treasures like colonial henequen haciendas.

Drivers can take toll roada – autopistas or cuotas – or choose libre (free) roads, which make for much slower driving, but are more splendidly-immersive. These are the roads the locals use, along which tiny, traditional villages are strung like simple, unpolished gems of local culture. Here, goats wander, thick shipping ropes wound together form topes (speed bumps) that slow cars coming through road-bisected villages, and children gape in wonder as the Norte Americanos pass in their shiny vehicles. You’re driving into colourful and unique cultural history, and it’s well worth savouring.

Here’s a simple road trip itinerary that can be stretched or shortened. Longer, of course, is better.

Cenote Valladolid 2Yucatan TurismoDay One to Three: From Cancun or Playa del Carmen to Valladolid
About three hours from Cancun or Playa on Highway 180, the colonial town of Valladolid’s a great two- or three-night stay as a jumping off point for the fabled Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, a half-hour away, and there are plenty of good hotels here. THE CENOTE ZACI IN THE MIDDLE OF TOWN’S A GREAT SPOT FOR A SWIM, as is Dzitnup, 15 minutes from town. Enroute to Valladolid, stop for a walk through the Balankanche Caves six kilometres from Chichen Itza. These caves were an important Maya ceremonial site, and a sound and light show accompanies your hike (They are hot, close and very humid. The claustrophobic should not try them.) Then check into your hotel in Valladolid. Visit Chichen Itza on Day Two (go early to avoid crowds), and explore town and swim on Day Three.

IZAMAL 4Yucatan TurismoDay Four & Five: Valladolid to Izamal
Less than three hours from Valladolid is the YELLOW CITY OF IZAMAL, SO NAMED FOR THE COLOUR ITS ENTIRE COLONIAL CENTRE IS PAINTED – INCLUDING THE LARGEST RELIGIOUS SQUARE OUTSIDE OF THE VATICAN, fronting the city’s famed monastery; Pope John Paul stayed here in 1993 and visited the spot. This city was one of the greatest Mayan urban centres, but few original remains have been uncovered. Many were buried beneath Spanish colonial over-building – the monastery, for example – done to show the natives the superiority of the Spanish.

Because it’s off the beaten path, Izamal, like the rest of the Yucatan interior, possesses a refreshing, genuine atmosphere. Not much English is spoken; Spanish-English phrasebooks are a necessity. 

Beside the monastery, taxis – horses and buggies – get brisk use by locals and the few tourists around. And the market is here as well, for fruit (wash it well in bottled agua purificada – purified water) and snacks to carry with you as you forge deeper into the Yucatan. Check into the Hotel Macanche or Hotel Santo Domingo, spend the day exploring town (your camera will love this place), dine at a restaurant (there are few) recommended by your hotel and tuck in early; there’s no nightlife here.

Uxmal 1Yucatan TurismoDay Five to Seven: Merida and Beyond
From Izamal, head along the Puuc Route – A ROAD WINDING FROM THE WHITE CITY OF MERIDA THROUGH TINY VILLAGES AND THE REMARKABLE RUINS OF UXMAL, Labna, Kabah, Edzna, possibly lesser ruins Sayil and Klapak, and, with a brief detour, THE LABYRINTH OF CAVES THAT MAKE UP THE ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE OF LOLTUN, THE PENINSULA’S BIGGEST SET OF CAVES. Early Mayans lived underground, and here lies ample evidence of their ancient presence.

Choose a hotel or hacienda in or near Merida (the remarkably-restored henequen Hacienda Xcanatun is just outside the city), or overnight at a hotel near Uxmal (the Mision Park Inn, Hacienda Uxmal, and the Lodge at Uxmal are solid choices). The Uxmal ruins, much larger than Chichen Itza, more ornate and better-preserved, will occupy a full day, and the sound and light show there will take up the evening.

Touring the other ruins and Loltun needs another full – and long day, so count on at least two hotel nights here. You must buy an entrance ticket for your camera, but hang onto it. Unlike tickets for people, it’s good for all sites. And all sites are free on Sundays (though the camera still pays).

Los Portales 1Yucatan TurismoDay Seven Through Ten, Twelve Or More: Roughing It In The Jungle
Now, you have a choice. Head further south to Campeche, or double back east toward Tulum, on a more southernly highway so you’re still making new discoveries all the way.

More remote villages dot the deep jungle on the road to the World Heritage Site walled seaside city of Campeche and Calakmul, one of the ancient Mayans’ most powerful cities. Those ruins are in the huge Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, 35 kilometres from the Guatemalan border.

Not many North American tourists venture here, but holidaying Europeans and Mexicans do, so there’s no shortage of facilities – just a shortage of English.

There’s also a Best Western and a Holiday Inn. But for local flavour, there’s the colonial and relatively-reasonably-priced (at under $100) Hotel Plaza Campeche, facing San Martin Park, and the decidedly-upscale (at well over $400) Hacienda Puerta Campeche, a set of 17th-century houses remodeled into rooms and suites.  THE CITY’S DOWNTOWN IS RIGOROUSLY-KEPT AND A PHOTOGRAPHER’S JOY, with colonial houses painted pastel colours and some knock-your-eyes-out churches and cathedrals.

And since you’ve come this far, why not keep going? Just six more hours south, romantic, adventurous World Heritage Site Palenque, Mexico's most spectacular Mayan city, beckons from the Chiapas jungle. The adjacent small town offers some three dozen hotels. Plan for at least two nights here before doubling back through Campeche, back to the Uxmal area, along Highway 184 to Felipe Carrillo Puerto, through part of the Si’an Kaan Biosphere Reserve, then north to Tulum, the Riviera Maya and your car rental desk at Cancun.

Loltun 2Yucatan TurismoAlternately, skip the Campeche leg and return to the coast from Uxmal, stopping at Mani, the historic little town where a Spanish priest once stood in the church courtyard and burned all the written history books of the Maya as blasphemous. Near Loltun, Ticul’s churches are worth a look, there are craft collectives here for shoppers who want genuine souvenirs, sprinklings of ruins, and the Cenote of Kukuyache a few kilometres south. You may want to overnight here, since the Posada del Jardin and the Hotel Plaza are both acceptable hotels, and the next highway stop before you reach Felipe Carrillo Puerto is the small town of Peto, with an incongruously massive, ornate cathedral – and no hotels up to North American standards.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto, 224 kilometres south of Cancun, has a gas station, ATMs, the very simple and small El Faisán y El Venado hotel with a great local-style restaurant, and plenty of traditional Mayan charm and colour. Few travellers overnight here. Most drive from Ticul to Tulum (north on Highway 307 out of Felipe Carrillo Puerto) during the day, stopping at Peto’s cathedral and Felipe Carrillo Puerto’s gas station, local market to soak up local colour and maybe lunch at the hotel restaurant before moving on back to the Riviera Maya – where you can hop from Tulum to Playa del Carmen to Cancun, overnighting here or there before heading home with a bagful of amazing photos and stories to tell about the real, remote, remarkable Yucatan.

Yucatan Jungle Tips
• Book the car rental from home and it will cost less.
• If you rent a car you will pay for liability coverage, but on cuotas, you pay progressive tolls, and keep the receipts; they’re insurance certificates in the event of accidents. Your car rental agency will have a phone number to call in emergencies, and there are also volunteer Angeles Verdes (Green Angels) who ask only for reimbursement of the cost of any parts needed. Their phone number is 999-983-1184. And they don’t accept tips.
• Fill up at every gas station; they’re rare.
• Carry plenty of extra bottled water. Use hats and sunscreen at all times. Expect mosquitoes in the interior.
• Credit cards are accepted by most larger interior hotels, but cash often inspires discounts. You’ll need small-bill pesos to enter ruin sites. There are few ATMs outside Cancun, Merida and Campeche.
• Buy a Guia Roji Yucatan Peninsula map in Cancun before venturing inland.
• Take adapters to re-charge camera batteries.