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The most common question I receive is what can I do on the Riviera Maya if I have 3 weeks to spend. My answer is always this “rent a car and get out of the most touristic area and explore the surroundings”. There is so much to see but in 3 weeks you can definitely cover the most interesting places. Driving around the Yucatan peninsula is not dangerous at all and the car will take you to places that are difficult to reach by bus.
If you are concern about safety, in general, I wrote a lot about safety in Mexico on a very detailed post which sums up to: Yes, Mexico is safe to travel but you need to be wise and follow some easy common sense rules.
After these articles, you will feel like you have been living there forever and know all the tricks and tips on how to move around like a local.
Here below my suggested itinerary :
Day 1: Arriving in Cancun
You will want to pick up your car at the airport after you manage to get through all the airport formalities so that you are free to move around from the very first day.
You can either decide whether you want to stay on the beach or in town.
If you love the beach and you come from a city I would suggest you should spend the first two nights at a hotel on the beautiful beach of Cancun. It’s totally worth it. You have plenty of choice in terms of hotel, although the majority offer all-inclusive service, but you will also have the option for a room only accommodation and decide on where you want to go to eat, in or out of your hotel. If you love luxury and you don’t have any budget limits here is my suggestion. If you wish to choose from a broader choice I would use this site where you can find hundreds of hotel options.
You can spend a day relaxing on the beautiful beach in Cancun and get fully recharged for your adventure.
Suggested hotels on Cancun beach:
CANCUN TOP LUXURY HOTEL
CANCUN BEST ALL INCLUSIVE FAMILY RESORT
CANCUN BEST ALL INCLUSIVE COUPLE RESORT
DAY 3 EK BALAM AND RIO LAGARTOS
Drive to Ekbalam and Rio Lagartos where you will spend the night.
If you take the regular road (LIBRE) instead of the highway you will pass through local villages and start to get the feeling of Mexico, but most of all you will have the chance to visit one of the most beautiful cenotes that I have ever seen. Cenote Choj-ha, located a few kilometers before the turn towards Ek Balam.
You can check out the pictures on this blog from a friend of mine, Sandra Salvado’, a great photographer and an expert on the Mayan World and cenotes.
After this stop, you will fall in love with Mexico even more. I would suggest you not to go on a weekend if you wish to enjoy the cenote all for yourself or with few visitors. It’s magic.
You will then move on to Ek Balam where besides visiting the interesting archeological site, you can rent a bike and ride for 1 km to reach another cenote. This one is open, not in a cave, less of a visual impact but certainly a great option to cool down after the walk around the Mayan ruins.
You will then proceed to Rio Lagartos where you will enjoy a stunning sunset while dining in a local restaurant on the coast.
Where to stay in Rio Lagartos
In Rio Lagartos you won’t find luxury properties, but very modest small hotels just for you to spend one night and leave for the tour early morning.
Here there are a couple of hotel options that I suggest. I didn’t stay there but I checked them out during my visit.
Both of them are very simple but with great reviews and awesome views.
Day 4 Rio Lagartos Tour
I would wake up early morning and do the tour on the lagoon with one of the fisherman boats. You can arrange it on the previous day or do it directly on the very same morning. All the fishermen will be there. If you want a professional experience you can check out the amazing tours by William Ramon Cruz. He’s a real expert of the area, bird watcher and photographer. You will see the gracious flamingoes and other local fauna. I don’t have any business interest, but I would really like to highlight the difference between any fisherman who can just take you around but don’t have any specific knowledge about local flora and fauna and the territory in general, and a professional like William who knows every single piece of this land and its animal population. In fact he also organizes night trips to see crocodiles, bird watching tours, and sports fishing. He’s quite demanded so if you wish to have a tour with him, you should contact him beforehand. he speaks English of course. His number is 0052.9861138918 or his email address is email@example.com .
One of the fisherman boat in Rio Lagartos
Day 5 Valladolid, the getaway to the colonial Yucatan
After the tour, you will want to drive to Valladolid and spend the night there. Here you will find a beautiful colonial city, and it is the first gateway to the Yucatan. One of the “Pueblos Mágicos”, you cannot go anywhere without stopping in Valladolid. On arrival, you will have time to take a dip in Cenote Zaci, located 2 blocks from the center, which will cool you off and get you ready and refreshed for the hotter part of your day.
The second, essential stop is the main square with the cathedral of San Gervasio which is well worth a visit; from there you can continue towards Calle 41 and then Calzada de Los Frailes, where you can walk past the typical brightly-colored houses, explore high-quality artisan shops, and stop by the famous Jardin de Los Frailes for a delicious local lunch.
You can split all these visits between the day you arrive and the following day. No rush.
Where to stay in Valladolid
I’ve been going to Valladolid for several years now and I notice that the level of Hotel quality in Valladolid has increased quite a bit, especially in recent times.
Here is my choice for each category:
Budget hotel but with great quality
Mid-range price for cozy boutique hotels
Day 6 – Chichen-Itza
If it is your first time in Mexico you will want to see Chichen – Itza and its majestic pyramids and history. I need to warn you it’s going to be a very tiring visit, not only for the huge site but for the number of people visiting and the tiresome insisting vendors. I must confess after the first time I went, 15 years ago, I never went back, while I visited Uxmal 3 times.
I am encouraging you to check it out at least once in your life, though. You should probably plan to be at the gate by 8 am when it opens so that you might avoid the crowd. Close to Chichen- Itza, there is one of the most visited and photographed cenotes, Ik-Kil. it’s beautiful indeed but there are others less known and still amazing. I enjoy cenotes when I am not surrounded by a huge crowd.
Another less known is Hubiku, also breath-taking. If you want to know more about the cenote, the best website is this one “El camino mas corto“, mentioned above.
After the visit to Chichen Itza, you can drive to Homun where you will be ready for the next day for a full cenote tour.
Homun is a small town in the heart of the Ruta de Los cenotes. I would spend 2 nights there so that you will have 1 full day to visit all the possible cenotes. Homun is a very small town where there is nothing else to do or to see and not particularly charming. The hotel option goes down to 1. Hotel and Restaurant Santa Maria, it’s really modest and simple but clean and decent. The restaurant is great too and the staff very friendly and helpful.
The area is full of cenotes to keep you busy for one entire day and you can decide whether going by car on your own, or rent those local taxi-bikes that are typical of Yucatan.
The cost is relatively cheap, around 400 Mxn ( about 22 USD) for the entire day, although the price varies and it is always negotiable.
As I love to support the local communities as much as I can, I would rent and give them what they ask, especially if you stay with them all day, this will represent their only income for the day or some of it as they might have to pay for the taxi rental. They will be able to take you around and show you the best cenotes of the areas with some information, while you relax and enjoy the views.
If you decide to chose for a luxury option, not so far away, in Acanceh, you will find hotel Hacienda Sac- chich and you will thank me forever :). It’s located at only 20 minutes drive from Homun so you can easily enjoy the full day and then go back to your luxury accommodation.
Where to stay in Homun
Here some other options if you wish to stay in the village of Homun
Day 8 – Izamal
Drive to Izamal and spend 2 nights there. In this way, you will have the time to browse around the town and enjoy its colonial feeling and try the local restaurants.
You can read more about Izamal in this post.
Where to stay in Izamal
Budget hotel but with great quality
Hotel San Miguel Arcangel – Booking.com –
Mid-range price for cozy boutique hotels
Hacienda Santo Domingo – Booking.com –
Day 10 Merida
I would certainly spend one day or 2 in Merida, the white city. Especially if you are interested in history and art, the city has a lot to offer. As for accommodation you can choose to stay either in the city, there are a lot of lovely properties in the main plaza. You can read more about Merida here.
Otherwise, you can decide to stay in a beautiful hacienda on the outskirts of Merida and do daily visits from there.
They are located at a short distance from Merida and the archeological site that I will suggest you should go in the next days.
As for the haciendas you can read about them here on this post.
In Merida, remember if you wish to enjoy the local folklore, they have a very good nightly program of shows on history and tradition that happens every night, but the most colorful and interesting day is Sunday when everything happens around the main plaza. In my dedicated post on Merida, you can get more info.
Where to stay in Merida – Suggested Hotels
Hotel Rosas y Chocolate – Booking.com –
You can click here for more hotel options.
Day 11 – Uxmal
Visit Uxmal and the other archaeological sites on the Ruta Puuc and stay in the amazing hotels in close to Uxmal ( 3 or 4 days). I haven’t written a full article on the Ruta Puuc but if you are interested in archeology and Mayan history this is the place where you want to go. Uxmal, Labná, Sayil, Xlapak y KabahUxmal. Except for Uxmal, which is the biggest and will take the most part of the day, the others are doable in one day altogether. I would stay in the area for 3 nights and dedicate 1 full day and a half to visit all the sites and the Loltun caves (grutas de Loltun). It’s a great opportunity to see the underworld in the Yucatan Peninsula. The rock formation, stalactites, and stalagmites are of incredible beauty and you will see the witness of human settlements of 7000 years old. The visits are organized and accompanied by a local guide. They have fixed time of visits 9:30, 11, 12:30, 14, 15 y 16 h. and the cost is about 150mxn per person.
The caves are close to a very characteristic town, Oxkuztcab, where you can enjoy a visit to the colorful local market and try local specialties right in the market.
Day 13 Campeche
Drive to Campeche and spend 3 nights there. I love this city but you don’t need more than 3 nights to visit. One day to enjoy the city and one to visit the majestic archeological site of Edzna’. You can check out my full article here. Driving from the Ruta Puuc to Campeche it’s quite a drive for about 4 hours but really pleasant. You will pass through Maxcanu and then follow the indication to Campeche.
I would suggest you should stay in one of the haciendas of Uayamon ( outside the city) or Puerta Campeche within the city ancient walls ( stunning). Or if you are traveling on a budget there are a lot of lovely hotels in the city ancient walls.
Suggested hotels in Campeche
Hacienda Puerta Campeche – Booking.com – (Luxury hacienda right in the city historical center)
You can click here for more hotel options.
Day 15 Miguel Colorado
I would live early morning and drive to Xpuhil but I would stop in Miguel Colorado to visit the Cenote Azul. This a great natural place to visit off the beaten track. It’s an open cenote where you can swim, kayak or you can also enjoy a zip line trip. You can spend the night there if you like adventure.
There are nice cabañas, but they are a bit isolated, with external bathroom, not for everybody. If you decide to stay ask the owner of the cabañas how to see the bat shows. This is something that happens every night, right after sunset, in a cave close to the cabañas. millions of bats are flying out in search of food forming like a vortex. amazing.
If there is a full moon and clear sky you will be able to see them more clearly. Also, the fact to be in the forest in the middle of the night is scary and exciting at the same time. Remember to bring a torch, long pants and hiking shoes. If you want to just stop for the cenote and leave you will be heading to Calakmul.
Day 16 – Calakmul
Suppose you decided to just drive through and reach the next stop the same day. Campeche – Miguel Colorado is about 2h 30′ drive and so is Miguel Colorado to Calakmul. Here I would sleep at Puerta Calakmul, an oasis in the jungle, what I call laid-back luxury. It’s right at the door of the biosphere of Calakmul.
Also about all the area and the Calakmul biosphere, I have written a long and comprehensive post here.
There is so much to see in the area that you could spend the entire week as I did. However, since you have limited time I would suggest you to at least spend 2 nights and 1 full day in the Biosphere.
Here you really need to hire a guide in order to appreciate it fully.
Since you will arrive late afternoon you can pay a visit to Visit Calakmul tourist office and ask them to organize a guide for you who would wait for you at the entrance of the Biosphere at 6 am or even earlier.
That’s the best time to enter and see many spices of fauna before entering the archeological site.
Where to stay in Calakmul
But if you wish to know about other kinds of accommodation you can check out this detailed post.
Day 17 – Bacalar
You will drive all the way to Bacalar, the charming magic town on the cost of the Lagoon of the 7 colors, for the shades of blue of its water. You will fall in love with this place, I assure you. I have written a fully comprehensive guide about it, here. You will want to stay longer after reading the guide but we need to move on as I wanted to show you other beauties of the region. I would spend the full day between a boat trip and a visit to the rapids, my two favorite places in Bacalar.
Where to stay in Bacalar
I have also written a full guide on many hotel options in Bacalar
Day 19 Tulum
I wrote a lot of posts about Tulum that will help you make up your mind.
Day 21 – time to go home… if you didn’t decide to stay
Remember you have a flight to go back home…
Now you will notice that I have left little beach time and you will want to spend a full week in Tulum instead also because you will see there are thousands of things that you can do while staying in Tulum.
There is no problem because you can easily modify the itinerary as you please cutting and adding at your pleasure. This is one example of itineraries but there are thousands more and I will write more to give you ideas.. If you want to ask me specific information please do not hesitate to write in the comment below or send me an email. I will be pleased to help you out and do your personalized itinerary.
Bye for now and safe travels!