- Day 1 – Arrive in Cancun
- Day 2 – Chichen Itza and Ek Balam
- Day 3 – Coba and Tulum
- Day 4 – Your Choice
If you enjoy seeing old historic sites, you really can’t go wrong with visiting the Yucatan in Mexico. The great part about it is that it’s really easy to get to. Traveling solo can get you in and out of sites quickly and keep you moving. Also, you won’t have to be beholden to the tour bus schedule to get around which will allow you to get to more sites that are off the beaten path. Here is a quick itinerary to plan your trip here.
Day 1 – Arrive in Cancun
Flying into Cancun is really easy because it’s serviced by so many international airlines. As a resort destination, people from all over come to Cancun to relax, drink on the beach, and party all night long. It’s no wonder why it’s such a mecca for spring breakers. The city’s popularity works really well because the airport offers a lot of options to get around. The airport has a lot of services to offer which really help in making the trip go smoothly.
First, you’ll absolutely need to rent a car. Luckily all the major car rental companies have offices here. You don’t need a special vehicle since all the roads are paved (or mostly paved) so anything with four wheels in working order is fine.
Next, figure out where you want to stay. Although there are a lot of options in Cancun in terms of hotels and resorts, you’ll probably want to stay a little bit south in Playa del Carmen or even further south in the Tulum area. The reason being it’s much less crowded. Playa del Carmen is certainly crowded with it’s own set of tourists but it isn’t nearly as bad as being in Cancun. Playa del Carmen is also nice because it’ll put you closer to some of the sites and the main roads to get there are easily accessible. It may not have the party all night long atmosphere of Cancun but it has more than enough bars and nightclubs to keep you entertained throughout your stay.
I stayed at the Hilton Playa del Carmen. It was a fine hotel but it was also an all inclusive resort. If you’re interested in the pros and cons of all inclusive resorts, you can read my post here. I enjoyed my stay there but I wouldn’t stay there again. The resort is geared toward partiers and honeymooners so although it’s great if you want to drink and lounge on the beach all day, you may find other hotels that better suit your needs. It also seemed like this resort was selling timeshares so make sure you don’t get snagged into one of those sales meetings.
After renting your car, drive about 45 mins south to Playa del Carmen. It’s an easy drive because there’s only one road to take you there. Also, there are plenty of signs leading you there. The drive is really easy because the airport isn’t located in Cancun so there really isn’t too much traffic. Actually you’ll only hit traffic as you get closer to and in Playa del Carmen. You’ll probably be getting off the freeway around Avenue Constituyentes and from there, just drive toward the ocean. That pretty much puts you on the northern border of the tourists area and everything from there is walkable and primarily pedestrian friendly.
For your first day, just walk around and enjoy the beach. You’ll end up having a pretty busy few days ahead. For dinner, walk off the main drag and walk down one of the many streets. You’ll find so many taco stands selling amazing street tacos for next to nothing that you’ll never want to eat at a run of the mill Mexican restaurant ever again. Combine that with some homemade guacamole and salsa and you’ll fall in love with Mexican street tacos.
Day 2 – Chichen Itza
Get up early…very early and drive to Chichen Itza. The site opens at 8am and you’ll want to get there exactly at 8am. It’s about a 3 hour drive from Playa to Chichen Itza on the toll road and the road is an easy drive. You won’t get much reception since you’ll be driving in the middle of the Yucatan and the scenery isn’t much to look at since it all looks the same (more of a boring drive on the way back since it’ll be dark when you leave).
One thing to note is that the state Playa del Carmen and Cancun are located does not observe daylight savings time while the rest of Mexico does. So, depending on the time of year you go, you may experience a time difference without knowing it and end up getting to Chichen Itza an hour early. However, if you want to be the first one in, this won’t matter.
Once you’re at the gate, you won’t be allowed to drive through the gate until the site opens at 8am so if you get there early, you might have a slight wait. Everyone waiting will not understand that there was a time change so there’ll be some confusion as to the wait. After you park, you’ll basically be able to walk straight up to the gate and enter.
The whole park will take about 2 hours but you can take as long as you want. You’ll want to get your photos in front of the main pyramid first while there’s no one there but outside of that, you’ll pretty much have the whole park to yourself. As you walk back, you’ll obviously see more and more people. When you exit, look around. You’ll see all the tourists there because all the tour busses will have arrived and the entrance that was empty when you went through will be packed with people.
Next, drive toward Valladolid where you can park, walk around the small town, and grab some lunch. Valladolid is a straight shot from Chichen Itza so you can’t miss it. In the center of town is the church and you can park on one of the many side streets. I’m sure there are some interesting things to do there but I only used it as a stop to get gas and quickly check out the town before heading onward.
From Valladolid, drive north to Ek Balam. This is another Mayan site that is about 30 mins away and worth the visit since you’re already there. What’s great about Ek Balam is that it’s off the beaten path so there are very few tourists there. Unlike the fairly sterile environment of Chichen Itza where you can’t really get close to any of the ruins since they’re roped off, Ek Balam allows you to walk in, around, and on the structures. If you climb to the top of the main pyramid, it’ll give you an amazing view of the surrounding area and the thick jungle that’s all around.
What’s also cool about Ek Balam is that it has a cenote on site. A cenote is an underground pool of water. It’s in a cave setting and a really refreshing way to break up the day, especially when it’s hot. If you’re in the mood for a swim, there’s no better place than a cenote.
After a full day of exploring, you’ll want to take a break (and possibly a nap) and head back to Playa del Carmen to relax. You remembered to get gas in Valladolid right? If you didn’t, you‘ll want to make sure you get gas before you head back on the toll road because there aren’t any gas stations along the road.
For dinner, I can only suggest walking down the streets again in search for more street tacos. And the way I look at it, the street tacos are small so they’re pretty much calorie free! ; )
Day 3 – Coba and Tulum
Get up early again and drive to Coba. The drive from Playa will take about an hour and a half. Unfortunately, it might take a little longer since you’ll have to take the main roads to get there. Unlike the toll road to Chichen Itza that well maintained, the road to Coba is just a normal road. This wouldn’t be a huge problem if they didn’t have random speed bumps in the middle of the road that come out of nowhere. After you go flying over one, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye out for them.
Coba is definitely a tourist hotspot so getting there early will be essential if you want to walk around without other tourists. You can climb the main pyramid here as well. The site of Coba is massive and you can easily spend a few hours without realizing it. There are even bikes you can rent to go from site to site but the trails can get pretty rocky in spots so I didn’t see much of an advantage.
As you drive back from Coba, you can stop at Tulum. This site is actually really underwhelming (especially after having been to Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and Coba) but it might be the most picturesque since it’s right on the ocean. Being so close to Playa and Cancun, it’s also a massive tourist site. If you’re tired of seeing ruins, this is the one to skip.
Quick tip at Tulum, if you don’t mind paying for your entrance with a credit card, you can go up to one of the automated kiosks and purchase your ticket and go in without having to wait in line. When I went, there was a massive line of people waiting to get in but no one was utilizing the kiosks. That’ll certainly save you a lot of time. The site itself only takes about 30 mins to see and that’s if you’re walking really slowly. You’ll just want to take your photos and leave. At least the site isn’t very expensive to visit (I think it was 75 pesos when I was there).
Outside of Tulum is a mall/carnival of sorts so you can walk around and get some food while you’re there. Nothing really caught my eye but that’s not to say it’s bad. Tulum itself is a tourist site so you can easily walk or drive around and find places to eat catering to tourists.
Once back in Playa, you may want to take it easy and enjoy the beaches there or walk around town some more if you didn’t get a chance when you first arrived. It may not sound like a lot but that’s a lot of driving, walking, and climbing you’ve done in a couple days so a break might be exactly what you need.
Day 4 – Cozumel/Playa del Carmen/Cancun/Depart
For day 4, you can do a lot of the touristy things that you want to do in the area. Day trips include taking the ferry over to Cozumel, spending more time in Playa area, head into Cancun or depart. But I would suggest that whatever you do, make sure you get some more street tacos to enjoy.
You can take a ferry to Cozumel that takes about an hour or so. There are 2 different companies that cross the water and you can just get 2 one way tickets so that you can come and go as you please. The island itself wasn’t that exciting from my point of view but maybe you’ll find it more interesting. There are a lot of shops and restaurants on the island because it is a popular stop for cruise ships. However it seemed like a lot of the interesting things were on the secluded side of the island I didn’t bother renting a car since I only went to see the island and walk around for a few hours but I would have if I had more time.
In Cancun, you can do just about everything. Obviously known for its beaches, you can also enjoy the party scene there. Let’s face it, all those spring breakers need a place to go at night and places like Coco Bongo and Cuncrawl are famous for a reason. But, if that’s your scene, you’ll definitely have a lot of fun. I didn’t go to Cancun but having been to other spring break spots in Mexico, I will say that these clubs tend to be MASSIVE with the intent of hosting hundreds of people a night during peak season. So if you’re there during a slow time of year, the club could feel eerily empty even if there are a decent number of people there because it’s so big. Just food for thought.
Driving back to the airport is simple since it’s the same road as the one you drove down. There are plenty of gas stations on the way to the airport to fill up the rental before returning it. If you have access to an airport lounge (read about how to get into airport lounges here), Cancun International has a number of Priority Pass lounges to choose from which is much more comfortable than sitting at the gate.
The Yucatan is a special place to visit. As a traveler, I particularly enjoy visiting old ruins and sites of historical value so it was great to walk around and see these old Mayan ruins. However, the Yucatan is also a great place to go if you’re more into the nightlife and party scene. There are so many bars and clubs in Cancun and Playa that you won’t have any problems finding ways to spend your evenings. Also, if you’re more into outdoor activities, you can ride ATVs, snorkel or dive some amazing reefs, go deep sea fishing, and much more. This is an adult playground with the volume turned way up. It’s not possible to have a boring time.