Feature: Road-Tripping in the Yucatán

Grab the wheel and explore Mexico’s coast.

By Stirling Kelso | Photography by Matt Dutile

If you’ve been to the Riviera Maya, chances are you’ve driven down Highway 307, a strip of asphalt that tells a story: What was once a two-lane road fighting back dense jungle is now a massive federal carretera with access roads and overpasses, gas stations and convenience stores. It connects grand gated hotels and turnoffs for amusement parks. It delivers travelers to the thriving city of Playa del Carmen and the area’s bohemian capital, Tulum, as well as secret lagoons and beach coves. It’s also a cinch to navigate. So hold on to your sombrero and start thinking in kilometers: Mexico’s Caribbean coastline is practically made for a road trip—and you won’t believe how easy it can be.

Playa del Carmen

Start your trip in Playa, as it’s lovingly called by locals. Over the past 30 years, this once-tiny fishing village has transformed into a cosmopolitan Caribbean city known for its acclaimed restaurants, an haute shopping scene and world-class hotels.

Let’s start with the shops: La Quinta, or Fifth Avenue, is filled with familiar brands ranging from Zara to Tommy Hilfiger. What you won’t find everywhere else is the Corazón de México (17 Quinta Ave.; 011-52-984-803-3355), where works by Mexican artists and artisans are on display. There’s also Guayaberas Dexorden (Calle 16 Norte Bis; 011-52-984-147-7866), named for the shop’s breezy Mexican tuxedo shirts, designed and sewn in Mexico and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Around sunset, consider making your way to the year-old Grand Hyatt Playa (1st Ave. and Calle 26; 011-52-984-875-1234; drinks for two, $15*) for happy-hour margaritas served in hand-blown glasses. Bars and lounges at the property, designed by Mexico City–based Sordo Madaleno Arquitectos, flank the impressive open-air lobby, which looks like a runway that slopes down to the ocean.

You’ll need reservations to have dinner at the elegant Plank restaurant (1st Ave. and Calle 16; 011-52-984-803-0108; dinner for two, $100*). Meals should start with heady cocktails like the gin-and-rosemary martini, followed by Chilean sea bass and rib-eye steaks served on hot Himalayan salt slabs. For dessert, don’t miss the chocolate mousse with peanut butter ice cream.

Caribbean Pit Stops

En route to Tulum, your next destination, consider breaking up the drive with side trips to hidden beaches and cenotes (underground rivers turned swimming holes). Akumal, a small but well-established beach town on a thriving reef, is 24 miles down the road. It’s one of the best spots on the coast to snorkel with turtles, which are attracted to the bay’s underwater sea grasses. You can hire a guide or rent gear from the Akumal Dive Center (Carr. Cancun–Tulum km 104, Akumal; 011-52-984-875-9025; tours, $50; rentals, from $5). Afterward, fill up on shrimp ceviche at a waterfront table under a palm-frond palapa at the casual La Buena Vida restaurant (Beach Rd., Lote 35, Akumal; 011-52-984-875-9061; lunch for two, $25).

Continue to Cenote Dos Ojos (turnoff is at Carr. Federal Playa del Carmen–Tulum km 1; 011-52-984-206-1976; admission, from $7), owned by a Mayan community and located off the highway down a dirt road. You can take a guided snorkeling tour of the pair of caves to see freshwater fish and unusual rock formations. At Nicte Ha (turnoff is at km 1, Carr. Federal Playa del Carmen–Tulum; admission, $5.50), a smaller, lesser-known cenote on the way to Dos Ojos, thrill seekers can jump from a cliff into the water (you can also take steps that descend into the water) and float among bright green lily pads.

Back on the highway, double back four miles to Soliman Bay—the turnoff is located right after Carreterra Federal’s kilometer marker 241—found along a gravel trail marked with signs painted with iguanas and the message “Slow down, let them cross.” The short jaunt to the beach might feel like off-roading at times, but you’ll be rewarded with a glittering snorkeling cove with timid waves. At the restaurant Chamico’s (Soliman Bay; lunch for two, $30), a collection of plastic waterfront tables and hammocks encourage a half day’s lingering. Highlights include the guacamole and the mero, a whole fried fish, and a pair of spicy micheladas, or beers mixed with lime juice and hot sauce.

Tulum

Put off by the crowds in Cancún, in-the-know adventurers head to our next stop, Tulum, where they’ve long found soul-restoring stretches of open coastline, as well as Bikram yoga classes, waterfront licuado (fresh fruit smoothie) stands and Mayan-inspired massages.

Regulars think of this hip city in two parts, the beach and the town, which are separated by two miles of thick jungle. While the town certainly has its gems—local fruit and vegetable markets, affordable souvenir stores and surprisingly good street art—the beach is home to Tulum’s most appealing shops and restaurants. Stop in La Troupe (Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila km 7.5; 011-52-984-147-1178) to see embroidered clothing and throw pillows designed by three Argentine women and sewn by Mayan artisans. The store also sells other made-in-Mexico works, such as industrial beach bags by Ariane Dutzi, a German who lives in the nearby town of Valladolid. Down the street you’ll find a paving-stone corridor that cuts into the jungle but is also lined with elegant shops. At Wanderlust (Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila km 7.5) there are crocheted bathing suit covers and necklaces made with vintage Mexican coins. Hoki Poki Kana (Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila km 7.5), a few storefronts down, stocks high-end bathing suits and pin-striped skirts by New York designer Lisa Marie Fernandez.

Start the evening right with a cocktail (the Sr. Romano, made with gin, mashed cucumber and rosemary, is one refreshing sip) at the toes-in-the-sand beach bar of the Be Tulum Hotel (Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila, km 10; 011-52-984-132-6215; drinks for two, $15). For a more upbeat vibe, consider heading to Gitano (Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila, km 7; drinks for two, $20). Here, chicly dressed diners sip mescal and sample ceviches under strings of twinkling lights.

For dinner you can make a reservation at Kitchen Table (Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila, km 1.5; 011-52-984-188-4924; dinner for two, $60), located in a solar-powered restaurant built from locally sourced materials. Chef Inacio Lamas serves smoky steaks and ribs straight from the grill, as well as whole octopus in a cast-iron pan, beautifully cooked sesame-glazed tuna, and roasted figs and goat cheese atop a bed of Genovese and local Mayan basil. The mood is romantic at Posada Margherita (Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila, km 4.5; 011-52-984-801-8493; dinner for two, $80), thanks to candlelit tables looking out on the water and a kitchen that turns out freshly made pasta dishes like porcini mushrooms and broccoli over egg noodles. Mix-and-match tables set a whimsical tone at El Tabano! (Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila, km 7; 011-52-984-134-8725; breakfast for two, $20), where morning meals start with a cup of strong coffee and a house smoothie—a blend of pineapple, apple, ginger and pear. If you’re craving a classic Mexican dish, opt for their huevos rancheros, topped with a house-made salsa; on the sweeter side, twisted crêpes with caramelized fruit are decadent and filling.

You’ll spot as many yoga studios in Tulum as you do Starbucks in Seattle. Sign up for a vinyasa class followed by a wind-down session in the temazcal, or traditional Mayan sweat lodge, at Maya Tulum (Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila km 7; 011-52-984-116-4495; classes, $15). The eco-hotel’s restaurant also serves a vegetarian lunch that changes daily.

It’s worth blocking out a half day to explore Sian Ka’an (Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila km 15.8), a 780,000-acre ecological reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site that borders Tulum. The reserve has Mayan roots—Sian Ka’an means “origin of the sky”—and guides of Mayan descent lead boat tours through the reserve’s lagoons and natural canals. One great operation is UnikGo (800-480-7197; group tours, from $105 a person), whose tours launch from the Muyil Archaeological Reserve. You might stop to see a 1,200-year-old Mayan dwelling, likely used by merchants who managed trade between the Yucatán interior and coastline, as well as lagoons where manatees are known to lurk. And don’t miss floating in your lifejacket down a natural canal where waters are shaded by mangroves and blooming orchids.

Bacalar

It’s another two and a half hours to Laguna de Bacalar, a narrow 26-mile-long lake bordered by mangroves, villas and eco-resorts. En route, follow the informative signs to Chacchobén (Carr. Federal, km 9.1; admission, $3; tours, $7), a collection of Mayan ruins that date back to the 8th century. Unlike crowded Chichén Itzá, the Yucatán’s most popular ruin, there’s a good chance you won’t see anyone else on Chacchobén’s grounds. Wander solo among the temples or hire an English-speaking guide for a history lesson about the complex. Keep an eye out for parrots and long-tailed spider monkeys swinging among the gum and pepper trees.

Although not many American tourists pass through Bacalar, it’s a known destination among Mexicans, many of whom have houses on the lake, nicknamed the Lagoon of Seven Colors. A modest waterfront town is anchored by the Fuerte de San Felipe (3rd Ave. and Calle 22; 011-52-983-834-2886; admission, $4), a fort originally built by the Spanish in 1733 to protect the region from pirates. Along with water lookouts over terraced walls, there’s an excellent museum that features information about the area’s Mayan roots and colonial conquests, as well as a gift shop with works by local artist Eli Gamaliel on display.

For lunch you can walk up Calle 22 to El Manatí (116 Calle 22; 011-52-983-834-2021; lunch for two, $15), a restaurant, gallery and shop owned by Abraham Illescas Bernal, who runs an artist-in-residence program here, and his wife, Isabel González, a Yucatán native. She picks out contemporary artisanal goods—like rainbow-striped beach blankets and colorful hammocks—as well as shoes, jewelry and huipils (traditional embroidered shirts), all made in Mexico. Take a seat at a painted pastel table for sandwiches made with house-made bread, or try a delicious salad (a rarity in the Yucatán) with chopped jicama, pineapple, sesame seeds and chaya, a leafy green similar to spinach. For dessert you can hop across the street to Annie Delicias (Calle 22 and Avenida 5; 011-52-55-4194-7287; dessert for two, $1) for a paleta, a popsicle made with fresh fruits such as cantaloupe and watermelon.

Of Bacalar’s slew of waterfront resorts, Rancho Encantado (Carr. Federal 307, km 24; 011-52-983-839-7900; doubles from $100 a night) is popular for its bright whitewashed rooms, a pier with overwater hammocks and complimentary activities such as kayaking. You can also sign up for a three-hour lagoon tour with snorkeling stops. Opt for the evening boat to catch the sunset.

Transportation Tips

Airport

Travelers should fly in and out of Cancún International Airport (CUN), 42 miles north of Playa del Carmen, this road trip’s starting point.

Roadside Assistance

Need help fixing a flat? Throughout Mexico you can call on Los Angeles Verdes (the Green Angels), a fleet of tourist-assistance vehicles manned by bilingual crews that are trained in mechanics and first aid. The service is also free, not including the cost of car parts, though tips are always appreciated. 866-640-0597

STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts in the Yucatán include:
Hard Rock Hotel Cancun—All Inclusive 2065

Guests are treated as VIPs, with gourmet dining, nightlife and entertainment. Paseo Kukulcán km. 14.5, Zona Hotelera, Cancún
Member Review: “Awesome pool and close to the beach.”

Grand Sirenis Riviera Maya Resort & Spa C180

On-site shops display authentic Mayan glassware and jewelry. Km. 258.693, Akumal Catela, Yalkú
Member Review: “Perfect for anyone who loves to snorkel and scuba dive.”

Hotel y Villas Solaris Cancún 1396

Hotel, studio and apartment units can accommodate different party sizes. Blvd. Kukulcán km. 20.5, Lotes 63–64, Segunda Etapa, Zona Hotelera, Cancún
Member Review: “Great value and friendly staff.”

El Dorado Royale—a Gourmet Inclusive Resort, by Karisma 6290

A white-sand beach, yoga classes and tequila tastings are just three reasons to escape to this adults-only resort. Carr. Cancún–Tulum km. 45, Riviera Maya
Member Review: “Phenomenal restaurants and well-manicured grounds.”

The Grand Mayan Riviera Maya 6973

Guests can play a friendly game at the on-site golf course and tennis courts. Carr. Federal Cancún km. 48, Playa del Carmen
Member Review: “We loved how you can walk everywhere.”

BPPC @ Gran Bahia Principe Coba C565

You can explore the Mayan jungle and spot native birds, manta rays and turtles during your stay. Carr. Chetumal km. 250, Benito Juárez, Local B, Akumal
Member Review: “Excellent service and amenities.”

Dreams Tulum Resort and Spa by UVC C583

More than 400 rooms offer private terraces at this Mexican colonial-style resort. Carr. Chetumal–PTO Juarez km. 236.7, Tulum
Member Review: “Near the ancient Mayan ruins in Tulum.”

Secrets Akumal Riviera Maya by UVC DC13

Consider relaxing at the spa or in one of the 11 pools at this adults-only resort. Carr. 307 km. 254+600, Pueblo de Akumal
Member Review: Not yet rated

Breathless Riviera Cancun Resort & Spa by UVC DD17

Weekly events and theme parties provide ample entertainment. Carr. Cancún P. Morelos km. 27.5, Mz. 41, Sm. 12, Fracc. Bahia Petempich, Puerto Morelos
Member Review: Not yet rated

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.
RCI® Tip

Many resorts offer free on-site events and activities that guests can enjoy, such as tequila tastings, sunset catamaran tours and yoga on the beach! Excursions such as deep-sea fishing, golfing and cultural tours may also be available at an additional cost. Be sure to check the resort’s website or events calendar before you go in order to take advantage of a unique experience while you revel in all that Mexico has to offer.

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Non-RCI Affiliated Resorts in the Yucatán include:
The Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen

The most impressive aspect of this year-old hotel is its lobby, an artful walkway that stretches from the streets of Playa del Carmen to the sea. All 314 rooms have balconies. 1st Ave. and Calle 26; 011-52-984-875-1234; playadelcarmen.grand.hyatt.com; doubles from $200 a night

Maya Tulum

This eco-resort is known for its daily yoga classes, as well as its private-feeling beach cove. Rooms have tubs, large screened windows and beds with mosquito nets. Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila km. 7; 011-52-984-116-4495; mayatulum.com; doubles from $195 a night

Rancho Encantado

Winding walkways cut through jungle gardens on this waterfront property. Ask for a room with a balcony hammock or private pier on the lake. Carr. Federal 307 km. 24; 011-52-983-839-7900; encantado.com; doubles from $100 a night

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Winter 2016