It’s easy enough to get to Mexico, to find a beach and a beer and relax, or find a crowd and have a good time, but in a place like Cancún, or along the highway south to Tulum, there’s a strange feeling to things. The resorts are epic, larger than life, sprung miraculously manicured from the chaos of the scrub jungle. It’s all very beautiful, idyllic even, and that’s where the strange feeling sits: it’s not this idyllic where you come from, it’s not this manicured, the world doesn’t cater so readily to your needs back at home, so where’s the real part of Mexico around all this? It’s there, definitely, all the people who work in those resorts and manicure those beautiful landscapes live in Mexico, not on resort grounds, after all. Standing on the beach, looking out onto the Caribbean, behind you stretches an entire country, only the last mile of which has been carefully constructed. The rest of it is all history, all real people.
There are plenty of tour companies that can help you explore the “regular people” parts of the Yucatán, but the fundamental problem with tour companies is that they tend to stick you on this big tour bus with a bunch of other tourists, so the world you are trying to get away from comes with you. It creates a kind of tourism bubble around you: the towns you stop in gather when the busses stop to sell souvenirs, the hawkers warm up their voices outside the restaurants. Its good business for them, but it’s not all that different of an experience for you. Of course, if you’re on a tight time frame, or if you aren’t comfortable driving in a different country, or exploring on your own, the tours are a great option, but if you want to get away from the crowds, if you want to see the Yucatán on your own terms, we’d recommend doing what we did and renting a car, even if only for a weekend. It’s amazing what you can get out there and see.
Besides the well-known Mayan ruins, cenotes are main attraction on inland Yucatán. Frankly, if you’re pressed for time and have to choose one or the other, we recommend spending your time in cenotes versus exploring ruins (unless you’re a history buff, of course) because it’s notoriously hot and humid on the peninsula, and we find it to be much more pleasant to swim in a shaded cave than to explore swelteringly hot stone ruins all day. But hey, that’s just us. The two cenotes we visited were Cenote Samula and Cenote Azul, located outside of Valladolid and Tulum, respectively.
To be fair, Cenote Azul (above) is not actually a classical cenote: it’s a gorgeous open-air fresh water pool that’s similar to the cenote experience. There’s ample shade near the open water and also two smaller shaded pools so it’s not only fun in the sun (remember, to keep the water pure, there’s no sunscreen allowed when swimming in cenotes). Cenote Samula (bel0w) is a more conventional cenote, featuring a domed rock chamber, natural skylight and fresh clear water inside. Bonus part about Cenote Samula is that it’s located on the same grounds as Cenote Xkeken so for a little bit more, you can visit both on the same trip (you also may see either or both referred to as Cenote Dzitnup, named for the town in which they’re located). It’s very easy to spend the whole day out any of the cenotes listed here because they all sell refreshments and have restrooms.
Note that depending on the time of year you visit, cenotes can be crowded. The Yucatán is an immensely popular world-wide tourism destination so it’s best to try to visit off-season, if avoiding crowds is important to you. We visited in November, so we didn’t have to battle over-crowding and we were able to enjoy ourselves and take our time at these ancient Mayan watering holes.
On the one full day we had the car, we visited Isla Holbox (pronounced Hol-bosh). It was a five hour round-trip drive from Valladolid, our home base, but it was worth the drive. The island is only accessible by ferry: we parked in a private lot in the port of Chiquita and took the ferry across the bay. The island is in an interesting state of flux—it’s still populated with small houses and tiendas for locals but more and more, there are resorts and attractions geared toward tourists like restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. But Isla Holbox is still unspoiled enough to be small, easy, and relaxing.
There is no traffic on the island save for the numerous golf carts that transport people around. The roads are just packed sand and the smaller side streets routinely hold small ponds of water after a good rain. The beach is easy to reach—simply get off the ferry and keep walking until you reach it (about five minutes). We were even able to find some free shade on the beach, under coconut trees and palms. We swam and explored the island. We napped and relaxed with a few beers, watching the gulf crash in and flow out, as it has for basically forever.
If you arrive by plane on the Yucatán, it will most likely be in Cancún or Cozumel, where you will be in the epicenter of the Riviera Maya tourism world. It’s easy to rent a car in these places. From there, you can fan out and visit some of the smaller, more local communities and experience a truer version of Mexican life. An obvious choice for a visit is the town of Valladolid, since it’s two hours due west of Cancún, easily accessible by a fast and newly paved toll road, or by the less direct but far cheaper and vastly more interesting free road.
Leaving the over-designed, tourism-focused places like Cancún, Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and even Tulum these days, and heading to somewhere like Valladolid will better show you how the average Mexican citizen lives on the Yucatán. The houses are small and modest in town, as is the town in general, but Valladolid has a large center square with a 300+ year old cathedral and many restaurants and shops to peruse. If you want to spend a few days there, you can even drive yourself out to Cenotes Samula and Xkeken or Chichen Itza, the ancient Mayan ruins with their impressive El Castillo pyramid.
If you’re looking to make the most of your trip to the Yucatán, forking over the cash for a rental car is the way to go (The rental fee is cheap, but the insurance adds up, and you have to buy basic insurance in Mexico. The rental car guy isn’t trying to rip you off, it’s the law). While busses will take you most places, having your own car will give you a level of freedom that busses just can’t, with a more intimate perspective. Plus, you’ll probably end up spending about the same amount if you have two or more people. Bonus: you can be places when the tourists aren’t because you’re on your own schedule. Getting out of the tourist zone and into the more “real” parts of the Yucatán provides a richer experience and also better photos and more interesting stories!