The ultimate guide to Mexico Road Trips
Just because Mexico may not automatically jump to the front of your mind when someone mentions road trip, you shouldn't automatically rule it out as a possibility.
Instead of reading little bits of other peoples' stories we wished that we had an Ultimate Guide to Mexico Road Trips to read where we could have found out everything we needed to know from people who had spent some serious time behind the wheel in Mexico.
When we first considered a Mexico road trip I was almost completely put off the idea after reading the first few posts because of the negativity and scary stories being put forward.
Even though I was a veteran of over 25,000 kilometres of International road trips they had me looking at whether we could use buses and private drivers to get a similar trip.
In the end I put on my big boy pants and we had an incredible 5000+ kilometre road trip across Mexico in 100 days, and all I can say is that we were both incredibly happy that we had made the decision to drive in Mexico. And all that scary stuff? Really wasn't scary at all.
And so now we have created the Ultimate Guide to Mexico Road Trips that we wish we had access to while planning our trip, in the hope that we can show you that a Mexico road trip should be an awesome adventure and not the horror story some bloggers want you to think it will be.
Use the Mexico Road Trip Shortcuts to jump to any section or just grab some chips and dip, and maybe a margarita, and find out if a road trip through Mexico should be your next free-wheeling adventure.
If you love the idea of taking on some of the Mexico road trip itineraries we suggest later in this post but still aren't 100% confident that you want to be doing the driving, I can tell you that many of them are still possible using the combination of intercity buses, taxis, and private drivers.
Mexico Road Trip Shortcuts
Why do a road trip in mexico?
The first thing you are probably wondering is why do a road trip in Mexico, especially considering that the spiritual home of road tripping, the USA, is right next door. And the simple answer is... a Mexican road trip offers you rewards that you just can't get anywhere else in the world. So let's look more closely at what's on offer here.
Immerse yourself in true Mexican culture
You may have been bragging to your friends that because you have been to Cancun, Cabo, or Tijuana, you have been to Mexico. Well... technically you would be correct, but if you also try to tell them anything about Mexican culture after only visiting those places then you are doing a disservive to Mexican culture.
Those towns in particular, and a few others you can probably work out, are little more than Mexican themed attractions for Americans and Canadians looking for cheap and "exotic" places to visit. But step away from those made-for-the-masses towns and you will discover the true meaning of Mexican culture in the small towns and villages most easily reached as a part of a road trip.
Each region of Mexico has its own unique and proud history and moving away from the usual tourist route allows you to immerse yourself in the traditions, food, and daily life as it happens and not just a performance of those things at a scheduled time each day.
Mexican history and culture is recognised globally as something very unique and special. It deserves to be experienced at the local level to truly understand why it is so special. And it is something you will not find unless you are willing to venture out to actually see and feel what it is all about.
Explore Mexico at your own pace
Unless this is your first road trip, and I have to say it is an ambitious way to start, you already understand the allure of exploring new places as a part of a road trip. No other form of transport offers anything near the same degree of flexibilty.
Whether we are talking about the flexibility to choose how long you stay in a particular place as you move around, where you should go next, or if you should stop to check out that unexpected hidden gem, there is no better way than driving yourself.
I will get more into the planning aspect later but for now just know that we are huge advocates of keeping your plan fairly loose and only booking accommodation for your starting point and maybe the first stop from there.
We usually only book a single night unless we know there are places or activities in the area that we must see or do, and after that first night we decide if we should extend or move on. The only exception is if we find a really incredible or unique place to sleep, or an event that only happens on a certain date, and we will book ahead knowing we have to be there by that date.
Sure, this type of travel is not for everyone. A lot of people need a more structured plan before they commit to anything beyond their home town limits, but if you plan on still doing a road trip in Mexico, even a more structured one, always allow time for unexpected moments of awesome. If your plan is too rigid (I'm talking to you spreadsheet, 15 minute interval people) then you miss out on what makes a road trip unique.
There are some parts of the world where you can plan a road trip from start to finish because it's well known that there is nothing special to see between two points on your map, but Mexico is definitely not one of those places.
Rushing from point to point here could have you missing out on captivating tiny towns, incredible scenery that you weren't expecting, and probably even an ancient ruin or two that you had never heard of. Only a road trip opens up these experiences to you.
Experience the diverse scenery of Mexico
Let's play a quick game of word association. When I say Mexican scenery, what images immediately come to mind? Let me guess... beautiful beaches packed with Spring Breakers, and cactus filled deserts, probably with a stereotypical Mexican in a sombrero and poncho sitting beneath it.
In truth both of those are places you will find in Mexico, although maybe not the sombrero clad hombre under the cactus. But to assume that is all you can expect from Mexico could not be further from the truth. Mexican landscapes are a study in diversity, so let's get some examples.
Beaches and Coastlines
This one is pretty obvious but with so much coastline on offer Mexico is a great place for beach lovers or those of us who love amazing sunrises and sunsets. But not all of the coastline provides the same type of beaches found around Cancun and the Riviera Maya.
The beaches surrounding the Gulf of Mexico offer a very different experience. Expect smaller, if any, waves and sand that probably won't give you that same WOW! factor the east coast has. But there are advantages to visiting this section of coastline. Here you will find beachside fishing villages, towns with rich, pirate laden histories and wildlife like flamingos! Need I say more?
While some nice beaches and great surfing can be found along the Pacaific coast of Baja, the rest of the west coast is far more rugged than you find on the other side of Mexico. Here you can find stunning secluded coves and beaches, as well as dramatic seaside cliffs.
MOuntains and Canyons
How awesome is the Grand Canyon? Pretty amazing wouldn't you say? But did you know that Mexico has a canyon system that is even bigger?
The Copper Canyon region, or Barranca del Cobre in Spanish, is located in the nothern Mexican state of Chihuahua and is larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. After a slow start tourism is growing in the region and, while it is possible to road trip in that region, there is a famous train journey that offers incredible views.
Mexico is also a land built from volcanos, and several of them seem to have unfinished business. The most famous volcanos are Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl located just south of Mexico City, near Puebla. The mountains with their billowing smoke and steam can be seen for many miles and is quite a sight.
Moving further south we find the mountains around the city of Oaxaca. Here the terrain is not only rugged but green and lush as we move away from the northern desert regions. These mountains are also home to one of the most impressive archaelogical sites in Mexico, Monte Alban.
Once we get into Chiapas we find another Canyon, but this one is very different from Copper Canyon. Sumidero Canyon is reminiscent of the world renowned Milford Sound in New Zealand, with its sheer cliffs rising from the water to incredible heights.
There are two lookouts, refered to as miradores, along the river which can be reached by vehicle. But the preferred option here is taking a leisurely boat ride and witnessing this incredible place from its base. Sumidero Canyon is a short drive from Chiapas' capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez.
Finally we come to something very different. A somewhat random rock towering into the sky from a mostly flat landscape. This is the famous monolith, the Peña de Bernal, which is listed as being one of the three largest monoliths in the world. (And also features a special town at its base)
I know I poked a bit of fun at people's generalisation of Mexican scenery earlier, but there actually is quite a bit of desert throughout the country. In fact most of the northern region is very arid. Which is not surprising when you consider it shares a border with Arizona.
Except for the coastal areas in the west most of Mexico north of Mexico City could realsitically be described as desert or desert-like. But don't immediately think arid means nothing to see or do. There is some dramatic scenery to be witnessed and some beautiful towns to explore.
Jungles and Rainforests
You weren't expecting this were you? For some reason this aspect of Mexico doesn't get near the amount of publicity that it deserves. Once you start moving south through Oaxaca state and then further around into Chiapas you will witness a dramatic transformation in the scenery.
Seemingly out of nowhere the brown and barron landscape starts getting greener, trees start popping up all over the place, and the weather gets cooler. The desert is behind you and things have suddenly become more lush.
Chiapas may be one of Mexico's poorest states in a financial sense but, as far as scenic beauty goes, it's probably right at the very top of the list. But it's not just the vegetation that will dazzle you, it is also the diverse and plentiful wildlife that goes along with the teritory.
What makes the jungle and rainforest region of Mexico special as a part of a road trip is that you never know what you will see around the next corner. In the arid north you can see nothing but flat ground as far as the eye can see, but here there may be a waterfall or eye-catching vista just ahead, and you won't know until you turn the corner.
Cenotes and underground rivers
Drive anywhere across the Yucatan Peninsula on your Mexico road trip and you will undoubtedly see signs drawing you to visiting one cenote or another. Cenote are natural sinkholes or freshwater pools that are formed when the roof of an underground cavern collapses, exposing the water beneath. Some are exposed to the sky while others remain completely covered.
There are hundreds of these cenotes and it has also been shown that many of them are connected through an underground river system. You will also find that they vary considerably in size, appearance, accessibility, and admission price. Yes, you will have to pay for most of them.
Swimming in the pristine, crystal clear waters of a cenote is an amazing experience, especially if you stumble upon one of the lesser known, but equally impressive options.
The best known cenotes like Ik-kil near Chitzen Itza can be overrun with tourists as they arrive by the busload every day. Don't get me wrong, it is an incredible place, which is why it is so popular. But search a little harder and you might find find a hidden gem.
We did exactly that during our stay in Valladolid, which a is town surrounded by cenotes. After a disappointing experience at our first option we followed a sign to a property advertising two cenotes on site. After a quick bit of Googling we decided it was worth a look.
What we found blew us away and has remained one of the standout memories from our 5000 km Mexico road trip. Note this down right now... you have to go to Cenote Palomitas. We had the entire cenote to ourselves for over an hour before anyone else showed up. And even then it was only two more people.
Lakes, lagoons and waterfalls
Yet another surprising thing about Mexico is how much water-based scenery you will find if you look in the right places. There are magical lakes and lagoons and some world-class waterfalls and rolling cascades for you to cool your feet, or your whole body for that matter.
The most visited of these sites is probably Lake Chapala. This is the largest freshwater lake in Mexico and is surrounded by several small towns. Due to its location Lake Chapala is a very popular weekend getaway spot for Mexico City residents.
And if lakes are your thing but you want something more picturesque and less populated, head down to the southest of Chiapas and spend some time exploring the magnificent Montebello Lakes, known as Lagunas de Montebello National Park.
The most notable feature of the park is its collection of lakes, which are best known for their vibrant colors ranging from deep blue to turquoise and emerald green. This is caused by the minerals and nutrients present in the water, as well as the reflection of sunlight.
Many of the lakes are accessible by vehicle while some will require a bit of hiking. And there are plenty of watersports on offer as well as guided tours from a few of the local towns. There are also a handful of accommodation options throughout the National Park.
While we are on the subject of beautifully coloured water let's move across to the east coast and visit a lagoon this time, and what a fine example this place is. Bacalar Lagoon, or the lagoon of seven colours as it is also known, is surely one of the most beautiful bodies of water you will find anywhere in the world.
The lagoon gets its name from the variety of colours across the lake, caused by wildly varying depths of water. Everything from the pale turquiose look over the sand banks to the deep blue, almost black, colour of the water in one of the incredibly deep cenotes inside the lagoon.
Once again there are a few places to get a great overview of the lagoon but to fully appreciate a day here we recommend joining one of the many boat ride options available. Just be sure to understand what you will be getting for your money and not just picking the cheapest deal.
The absolute highlight of Bacalar Lagoon is actually not in the lagoon at all, well not completely anyway. As the water moves between Bacalar and the smaller Xul-ha lagoon it funnels through a narrow stretch at a place called Los Rapidos (the rapids).
Los Rapidos is not only one of the most stunning waterways around but it makes for a fun and relaxing day out. The owners have built a walkway along the edge of the water that runs for a few hundred metres. From the end you simply plonk into the water and the natural lazy-river will carry you back to the main area. It is also fun to watch the people that have hired kayaks trying to paddle against the current.
And last, but by no means least, we come to the waterfalls of Mexico. I have to mention that the number of people who have seen our travel photos and said they had no idea Mexico even had waterfalls is staggering. Not only do they have them but they have world class versions!
The majority of the noteworthy waterfalls are found in Chiapas but we also had some good experiences during our time in Puebla state. Since time is limited here let's focus on a couple of absolute chart-toppers, and there is nothing better than the mighty El Chiflon when it comes to raw power.
El Chiflon is actually a packaged deal of five seperate waterfalls that make there way down the side of a mountain. There is a well maintained path leading from the carpark at the base all the way to the viewpoint at the highest waterfall. The path is 1200 metres long and quite steep in places. But so worth it.
Each of the five waterfalls is special in its own way but the true champion is the Cascada Velo de Novia, or Bridal Veil Falls in English. The water here plummets over 120 metres to a deep pool at its base and while great views can be had from either of the platforms, nothing can beat getting up close and personal from the closest of them.
This viewing platform is about sensual overload. You will be feel the power of nature all around you, the roar of the falling water is almost deafening, and you will be quickly drenched from the spray that hits the pool with such force that it shatters and bounces back over you. This place is special.
For something equally as stunning but at the other end of the serenity scale, head to either Cascadas Agua Azul or Cascadas Roberto Barrios. Both of these are a series of smaller cascading falls with swimming holes.
At their best both of these places have crystal clear water but while Agua Azul has a piercing blue colour Roberto Barrios has more of a green hue due to the limestone rocks along the river. During rainy season Barrios may be a better option as the increase in water can cause Agua Azul to look more like something from Willy Wonka's workshop.
It may not seem immediately apparent but it is certainly possible to include some time of one of Mexico's Islands in your road trip plans. It would mean leaving the car in a parking yard for a few days but for us it was worth it for the different experience it offered.
The three most likely options for the inclusion of some "island time" on your road trip are Isla Holbox, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel. All three of these islands offer a slightly different experience but it would be a personal choice as to which you think more suitable.
As a part of our epic Mexico road trip we left the car behind and have a few days on Isla Holbox, which offers beautiful white and blue water silmilar to that which is found at the world famous Whitsundays in Australia. You can also experience bioluminescence or flamigos at certain times of the year.
We also spent time on Cozumel at the end of our trip, after we had returned the car. This is a great option if you are flying home from Cancun or the local Cozumel airport. Cozumel is all about snorkeling and diving as it is right among the coral reef of the Caribbean.
Indulge in authentic local Mexican food
Everybody loves Mexican food! Or almost everybody, and if you are one of the few who don't then I am curious as to why you are reading a post about taking a road trip in Mexico. But by taking a road trip that gets you away from the tourist traps of Mexico, you will have the chance to savour the incredible flavours of traditional honest food, not just the "made for gringos" version you get at home.
As you travel from place to place in Mexico you will notice variations in the way certain common food items are offered as well as vastly different regional cuisine. Most places will have ridiculously cheap but usually delicious food, so there is no excuse not to be willing to try new things.
There are regions where pork is the protein of choice and others where it is beef, chicken or even lamb. If you love a good taco, and in all fairness who doesn't? Then you will be spoilt for choice as you move around.
You can visit regions where lamb barbacoa is the taco and choice, others that push pork tacos al pastor as the only game in town, and then the coastal favourite of shrimp or fish tacos. And for some reason now I feel like tacos for dinner!
All this talk about meat must be making the vegetarians among you question whether Mexico is a viable option for a road trip. And the short answer is a resounding YES. Because of the flavours imparted on everything in Mexican cuisine you will find meat-free options everywhere, and certainly not bland.
The freedom offered by a road trip in Mexico means you can visit parts of the country with far fewer tourists and the recipes have not been diluted for foreigners. Traditional Mexican food is way better than that stuff you get at your favourite place back home I assure you.
History at every turn
The history of Mexico ranks among the most interesting and rich stories anywhere in the world. This is a place where you can still find people living the traditions of their pre-hispanic ancestors, or archeological sites and ruins from some of the most powerful civilisations to have existed, buildings and monuments commemorating a history of conflict and invasion.
Mexico is a country where cultures blend but tradition is never forgotten. A place where in a single road trip day you can be exploring the ruins of Mayan cities, getting a feeling of travelling Europe as you wander through a massive Spanish Cathedral, and witnessing grand monuments from civil wars and battles for independence against the Spanish and French.
It seems everybody knows of the great pyramids of Egypt even though they are relatively few in number. But I was shocked by how many people were surprised that Mexico had hundreds of pyramids, and that a lot of people didn't know they had any!
As a traveller I would expect that you at least know of the most famous pyramids of Mexico like Teotihuacan and Chitzen Itza, but even I was amazed at the number of them we came across during our 100 days on the road.
But the ancient history of Mexico is not only found at these archaelogical sites, as you travel across the country you will have many opportunities to not only witness, but to immerse yourself in the traditions that have survived for centuries.
The captivating pre-hispanic history should be enough to get you excited about what you may stumble upon as you drive around Mexico, but wait... there's so much more. Because the Spanish influence has also left it mark on the architecture in Mexico.
From the bustling Mexico City down to some of the smallest towns in Mexico you find find Spanish influence. And it is usually most prominent in the shape of a church. They might range from a small, single-roomed church to an enormous Cathedral but the inflence is always obvious.
History is treated with the respect it deserves in Mexico and it is a real treat to be able to not only see the links to the past but to witness locals honouring their ancestral traditions as well. You don't need to go searching for history on your Mexico road trip, it is always around you.
Discover the hidden gems of Mexico
If you are an experienced road tripper then you will fully understand what I am about to say. The best memories you will take from a road trip will usually be of that place you found along the way that you never even knew existed. A hidden gem has that name for good reason.
And after returning from our epic 5000 km road trip through Mexico we could't even count the hidden gems we had found on two hands. There is everything from tiny towns you have never heard of but will totally charm you, ruins that are incredible but hidden in the middle of nowhere, local cuisine that will change the way you think about Mexican food, and scenery that you never imagined was in this place.
Mexico's Pueblos Magicos
There are about 130 or so towns in Mexico that have earned a special classification as Magic Towns. To earn this recognition they must offer something special in respect to general beauty of the buildings and town centre, historical significance, or respect towards maintaining tradition.
Some of these towns are quite well known and you can find many articles written about them. But when you are the master of your own destiny on a road trip your options open up to include dozens of these towns that have stayed off the tourist route. Which makes them special and exciting finds.
On our Mexico road trip we made sure to include as many of these towns as could reasonably fit into our itinerary. And most of them exceeded expectations and added greatly to our overall experience.
Get off the main roads and you can experience places like Tlalpjahua where almost the entire town is dedicated to producing intricate glass Christmas decorations. Or Atlixco where the streets are lined with flowers and an annual floral festival is the highlight of the year.
Another special place is Zacatlan de las Manzanas, the "apple town", where you can combine a picturesque town with stunning mountain views and nearby waterfalls. And for more waterfalls try nearby Cuetzalan which also has the bonus of a very different archaelogical site.
We didn't even know this site existed until our Airbnb host asked if we planned to visit Yohualichan. Well we hadn't planned it obviously but we do love a good ruin. Turns out that Yohu is an extraordinary place with a different style of pyramid construction than we had seen anywhere else. A true hidden gem!
This is barely scratching the surface of the special places you will find if you are willing to stop looking for shortcuts to your next destination and open yourself up to heading down the backroads. There are dozens more and they all offer something special.
Mexico's hidden ruins
That mention of Yohualichan seems the perfect segue to this next cache of hidden gems, and some of these genuinely dazzled us. For example, although Yohu was a comparatively small site we consider it a gem because of its unique construction with display windows along it sides.
We stayed at a hotel with a distant view of the famous Uxmal ruins and intended to visit the site, but we felt the entry price was too high and there were other options offering better value. It turned out to be a good decision as less than 30 minutes away we found a place called Kabah tucked in beside the road.
Entry to Kabah was about 20% of the Uxmal entry price and it turned out to be pretty amazing. It was once a major trading city with a direct path to Uxmal. And sure, the famous places are famous for a reason, but don't limit yourself to just those. The hidden ones can be amazing too.
Another place deserving of special mention is Tonina. Located halfway between the main tourist towns of Chiapas and the famous ruins at Palenque, this place is enormous. And in all honesty I rate it every bit as highly as Palenque itself. It just doesn't have the crowds and is very much a road trip stop only.
Most of Tonina is hidden from view by the surrounding jungle but the main pyramid rises dramatically above the canopy and can be seen for miles around. We found Tonina well worth a few hours of our time was the perfect place to break up a long driving day from Comitan to Palenque.
Mexico is strewn with ancient ruins of various size, design and state of repair and all you need to do is keep your eyes peeled. Because you never know if one of those special places is hidden behind a few trees beside the road.
Connect on a deeper level with locals
There are three things we have learned about locals from our many years of international travel:
The takeaway from this is that a road trip gives you more opportunity to travel beyond the major cities and tourist routes and meet locals. While sitting in a cafe or bar in a small town you are far more likely to strike up a genuine friendly chat with a local than your are in the city.
Take advantage of these opportunities to meet the locals because internet reviews are nowhere near as valuable as a recommendation from someone who lives in the area. Want to know where to eat or where you must visit? Ask a local, but good luck getting a decent answer from city folk.
What you need to know about driving in Mexico
As you would expect from any country, Mexico has some different rules when it comes to driving, both written and unwritten rules! And while you will see many Mexicans doing things that seem to be against the rules don't make the decision to always drive like they do. A traffic violation is not something you want.
For example, Mexican drivers have a different use for their indicator lights and rarely use them to indicate the direction they are turning. We recommend playing it safe and continuing to use them as you are used to doing. Another thing you may be surprised to witness are young children driving.
I was advised that locals do not always bother get a driver's licence or sit for any testing before taking to the streets. Child drivers are more likely found in regional areas but we saw a boy of about 10 driving a dump truck in a small village and another boy about the same age driving his grandma to the shops in a the middle of a busy town. The official age is 18 so seeing this was a surprise.
One other thing that deserves a special mention about driving in Mexico is the overly ambitious use of topes, reductores and viberadores. Or for those non-Spanish speakers... speed bumps. They are everywhere from the smallest two-horse town to major cities, and even unexpectedly on many main roads. With no design regulations some can be real axle-breakers.
Documents needed for driving in Mexico
Do I need a special driver's licence in Mexico?
As long as your current licence is valid and it was issued in either English or Spanish language then there is no need for any other International licence. In this case your licence is also suitable to allow you to rent a car from an agency in Mexico.
If your driver's licence has been issued in any language other than the two previously mentioned it is highly recommended that you obtain and International Driving Licence before you arrive in Mexico. Also note that you may still also need your official licence as a backup especially if you are renting a car here.
Do I need insurance when driving in Mexico?
It is compulsory to have your vehicle insured when you are driving in Mexico, which can be the cause of plenty of drama if you do not look closely at the inclusions when you are hiring a car. Many of the cheap prices you see on offer for car rental do not include this compulsory insurance and you won't find that out until you are at the counter to collect the car and they tell you it is going to cost more.
Another hidden aspect of many car insurance policies is the addition of a damage excess payment. This is where you are liable to cover a portion of the cost of repairs if you are involved in an accident, and is usually listed at $3000 - $5000 or thereabouts.
There are three options that may suit here. You can pay the additional fee offered by the rental company to make the policy "all-inclusive", which is often the most expensive option. Another option is that many credit cards offer some type of travel insurance and may include rental excess. Check this carefully.
The third option, and the one we always rely on when renting vehicles, is a dedicated travel insurance policy. Every sensible person that travels takes out a travel insurance policy and, as I used to tell clients when I was a travel agent, "if you can't afford the insurance, you can't afford to travel".
The important thing here is that when you are deciding which level of cover you are purchasing in a travel insurance policy, check the information regarding car rental excess, as it is not normally included in a basic policy. Spending a few dollars more here could save you thousands later.
Mexican road rules
It is not only important to follow the road rules when driving in Mexico but it is even better to err on the side of caution. I will explain further in the list below.
* We had a running joke going during our epic Mexico road trip that was about the third, although not officially recognised, reason to use your hazard lights. In every town you will find people who are parked in some of the most obstructive or unusual places and they all have their hazards on.
We started calling them the "park anywhere" lights because it seemed to us that as long as those lights were flashing it was OK to park anywhere.
What to expect from the roads in Mexico
We almost decided against a road trip in Mexico because of some articles I had read while researching. So many of them talked about how horrendous the roads were across the country and how long it took to get anywhere because of those conditions.
But we obviously went ahead with our initial plan and what did we discover? Other than a few roads that were far removed from major traffic or tourists the quality was pretty good. I don't know where the writers of those articles were from, maybe Germany with their amazing autobahn, but would would rate Mexico's roads as quite similar to those we have throughout Australia.
That is a combination of some stretches of top quality highway all the way back to potholed streets in some quieter urban areas, and even beyond that to a few poorly maintained goat tracks well off the beaten path. So don't just assume that the first opinion you read is always true for your itinerary.
While the quality of the roads in mexico ended up being better than we had prepared for there was one thing that lived up to the nightmarish expectations those articles had alluded to. The masive overuse of those dreaded topes!
More commonly known as speed bumps in Australia and speed humps in America, these things are absolutely everywhere in Mexico. And they are not just those well-shaped modest risers you may be used to. Here they could be any shape, size, height, material... you name it, we drove over it.
The crowning glory of these drivers' nightmares is that there are also no regulations on who can install them nor where they can be installed. If someone has a food stall beside the road then they have probably installed a home-made tope to bring your car to a near dead stop right at their front door.
It is not uncommon to have up to 20 topes along a single kilometre of road approaching and going through a very small town. Our trip was 5000 km long and we probably had to climb 5000 topes. And keep a close watch. We went over one tope we hadn't seen and it almost removed our wheels and axles!
The final point to cover on Mexican roads is that you will encounter toll roads along your road trip. There are some days your drive might be quite long with not a lot to see or do along the way. These are the times you will be grateful for a tollway.
The prices of tolls vary quite a bit but even the most expensive are far cheaper than you will be paying if you were to drive through Sydney in Australia. Apparently there is an app that you can use for toll payments in Mexico but it doesn't seem to cover the whole country.
We found that it was just as easy to have cash ready and just pay the person at the booth. You just need to remember to have coins and small bills handy as you will not be popular if you hand over big money and expect them to change it for you.
What are the possible issues with a road trip in Mexico?
As with any type of vacation, and especially one where you are in total control of every aspect of the trip, there is always a chance that something could go less well than you had planned. And when it comes to Mexico there are a couple of extra issues that may come in to play and cause you some concern.
Just before I elaborate on that point I have to mention that at certain times on our trip we encountered both of these issues and, while it was frustrating at the time, neither of them ruined our road trip. So don't be put off your Mexican road trip just because of something that may or may not happen.
Be prepared to hit the language barrier
On this point I would like to stress the importance of having at least a very basic grasp of some Spanish. Not only will it help you get through some situations where your bad Spanish and the other person's bad English get the job done, but making an effort at least shows some respect to the Mexicans you meet.
Over the 100 days of our road trip there were only a handful of occasions where the language barrier was even a slight problem. One of them was when we needed to ask directions after our GPS had lead us astray, another was explaining that we needed to get air in our tyres, and the third was filling the fuel.
My basic Spanish combined with a smile, Google translate and some questionable hand gestures got the job done every time we needed it to. After the first confusing time of doing these things we learned the phrases we needed whenever we stopped for air, fuel or directions and it got easier as the days passed.
You may meet some corrupt Police
Another thing that had me very concerned during our trip research were the stories everyone seemed to have about the corrupt cops in Mexico. They made it seem so bad that I was expecting to be pulled over for some fake infringement at least once per day.
I have to admit that these crooked cops do exist, but they are few and far between and, after further research, they tend to be more more common in Quintana Roo state, probably due to the high number of tourists they can prey on.
So no real surprise when our single incident happened very close to the end of our trip, yep you guessed it, in Quintana Roo as we drove north from Bacalar. Let me tell you the story and share the lessons I learned from that experience.
We were driving through a very small town with a couple of cars immediately ahead of us and another couple close behind. All of us were travelling at around 40 kph which I thought was very conservative. Half way through town I noticed a motorbike cop had joined our little motorcade.
Just as we were leaving town and about to get back to highway speeds the cop hit his siren and lights. Instinctively I pulled over and maintained the slow speed to let him past. However he didn't pass but instead signalled me to stop, while letting all of the other cars continue along.
We were all doing the same speed and so why was I singled out? My guess is that I had interstate plates on the car and he took a gamble on me being a scared, gullible tourist. And even though a part of me had been expecting this the whole trip it was still intimidating.
After having me hand over my licence and learning I was indeed a tourist with only basic Spanish skills he then started on his story about me speeding through a school zone. It was somewhat amusing that his story changed several times during the process too.
His first effort had me going 35kph in a 25 school zone, it then jumped to 45 in a 25 and finally to 50 in a 25! He then told me he was taking my licence and I had to return to the station tomorrow to get my ticket and collect my ID. And so I asked him how much was the fine and could I pay it now.
This is what he was waiting for and he offered an opening bid of 2000 pesos, which was too rich for my blood. I countered with 500 which is pretty much the most you should have to pay. I would have been more assertive if I didn't have the family in the car.
He was playing hardball and wouldn't budge so, to get it over and done with I went to 1000 pesos, and he came down to 1500. As that was much too high a price I made a big show of trying to find more money but only came out with another 20. Once again he said it wasn't enough.
I then went to the confusion tactic and told him the only other money I had was $25 Australian and handed him our brightly coloured notes. He had no idea what they were, probably because it looks like Monopoly money, but it had the desired effect. He settled for the 1020 pesos and the deal was done.
Did I pay too much? Most probably, but he caught me by surprise since I was driving so slowly. Did I learn anything from the experience? Yes I did, and let me give you my advice on how to deal with this situation.
Some people have suggested offering to go back to the station to sort it, which can work if the cop does not want his colleagues to know what he is doing, and will make a cheap deal on the spot. But I prefer to avoid the possibility of going to a Police station altogether.
I suggest you have a second wallet with you on the trip while you are driving. It should contain your driver's licence because you don't want to also be fined for not having one. But it should also have an old expired credit card or two and no more than about 500 pesos. But not exactly 500.
The credit cards are purely for theatre to make the wallet look like you use it, and the reason for having just a small amount of cash is that you can then hand all the money over and plead that it's the only cash you have. I figure most cops will just take whatever they think is the most they can get.
To close off this section I want to stress this point. If I had let concerns over corrupt cops stop me from taking on our epic adventure we would have missed out on one of the greatest trips of our lives. So go in knowing it could happen but that you are prepared if it does. Don't let it scare you off completely.
How to plan your Mexico road trip
Whether you are a spreadsheet person that needs to account for your travel time in 15 minute increments or you prefer to just keep it loose and free with just a starting point, finishing point, and total length of time decided, every good road trip starts with some planning. Here are the 9 simple steps to planning your ideal Mexico road trip.
Step 1: Work out what you want to get from your Mexico road trip
As you will discover, there are so many reasons to do a Mexican road trip, but you need to decide the overall theme of your plan. Doing this will help you decide which part of Mexico best suits your goal.
Step 2: Decide on how to use your time
There are a number of factors around timing with your road trip plan. Some are obvious while others may be something you hadn't really considered. The first factor is an obvious one... how much time do you have for your entire trip? A week, two weeks, a month, or maybe a crazy three months like we had?
After you know your total time you should consider how much of your time you want to spend behind the wheel and how much time you want to spend in each place.
Step 3: Decide on a budget for your Mexico road trip
As you plan your Mexico road trip making some decisions around budgeting the trip is crucial to getting to the end with great memories rather than a carload of stress and disappointment because you ran out of money early and had to miss out on some experiences you would have loved to have.
Step 4: Find the best route for your Mexico road trip
Now that you know how long you have, the distance you are willing to drive during that time, the theme that will suit your travel party, and an idea of budget, you now need to plan your Mexico road trip to take you to the right parts of the country to suit those needs.
Step 5: Choose the best time of year for your Mexico road trip
The final time-based factor is deciding what time of year best suits the region you are visiting and the theme of the trip you have planned. Some parts of Mexico get unbearably HOT in summer, while in other parts travelling in the rainy season could ruin your entire trip. Pick the right season.
Or maybe there is a special event, celebration, or festival on at a particular time of year that you should base your itinerary around. Being in the right place at the right time can take your road trip from good to amazing!
Step 6: Make sure the road trip itinerary includes something for everyone
Your perfect road trip plan may not feel the same for your travel companion, so it is crucial for everyone's happiness to include a few things that appeal to others rather than focusing everything on your own wants and needs.
Step 7: Select the right type of rental car for your Mexico road trip
This step may sound like a bit of a no-brainer but I have heard plenty of stories, and seen many examples while on our own road trips, of people who clearly made a poor decision when it was time to choose the right rental car for their chosen itinerary.
Step 8: Research accommodation and activities for your Mexico road trip
Whether you are the type of planner who knows exactly where you are going each day, where you are going each night, and what you will be doing in each place, or the type that plots a rough course that has ideas about where to go but no set time to get there, you should still do some research before you go.
Step 9: Putting it all together
If you have followed the previous steps then you should be well on your way to being able to plan your Mexico road trip. You should be confident knowing where you are going, when you are going, how long you will be travelling, what you can do along the way, the type of car you want to drive, and your budget.
The best Mexico road trip itineraries
Now that you know how long you have for your Mexico road trip, you have decided on the general theme of your road trip, and you know how far you prefer to drive each day and how long you want to spend in each place, it's time to put a little flesh on those bones. Here are some amazing Mexico road trip itineraries and a rating of how suitable they are for different trip themes.
The art, wine and cheese route of Queretaro
The Querétaro Art, Wine and Cheese Route is a popular itinerary through the state of Querétaro, Mexico. Querétaro state is known for its rich cultural heritage, picturesque landscapes, and growing wine and cheese industries.
For a road trip that combines a generous helping of Mexican Independence history, a pinch of ancient ruins and natural wonders, a healthy amount of local culture, and is a food and wine lover's dream, look no further than this easy-driving highlights reel just north of Mexico City.
The art,wine and cheese route of Queretaro road trip Highlights
Almost every aspect of this Queretaro road trip itinerary is a highlight but even so, there are a few points along the way that you should really make the effort to include.
The art,wine and cheese route of Queretaro basic 7 Day road trip
Your adventure starts in the city of Santiago de Queretaro where you will have two days exploring locations of great historical significance during the fight for Independence from the French, and getting your first taste of Mexican culture as you wander through the many local parks and plazas.
Day three is your first driving day as you make the short journey east to the stunning tiny-town of Bernal, which is not only a picture-perfect Mexican town but is also the site of one of Mexico's great natural wonders, the imposing Pena de Bernal.
The Pena is one of the three largest monoliths in the world and not only creates an incredible backdrop for the town, but is a haven for hikers, climbers and nature lovers. There is also a wondeful food culture in Bernal with traditional dishes and Mexican street food sure to please any hungry road tripper.
Back on the road again and day four sees you taking another relatively short drive to the spa town of Tequisquiapan, but not before a quick stopover in the Pueblo Magico of Cadereyta de Montes, which is famous for its impressive Botanic Gardens.
It will only be one night in Tequisquiapan, or Tequis as it is more widely known (and it's really no wonder that they like to shorten the name) so spend your time enjoying the colourful streets around the town centre of relaxing at one of the famous spas.
Tequis is also the hub of the wine industry in the region so you may wish to tweak this itinerary a little if the foodie element of this road trip is one of you main reasons for taking this itinerary on.
From here we leave the desert landscapes behind and head up into the mountains to Amealco de Bonfil. On the way you can have a short stop at another Pueblo Magico, this time San Juan del Rio.
Amealco is famous as the home of the traditional Lele dolls, which you will find everywhere around the town. Also called Maria dolls, they are beautifully crafted dolls in vibrant coloured clothing and hair ribbons. They have grown from a small traditional toy for children into the most famous doll in Mexico and recognised worldwide. They make a perfect, and cheap souvenir from this road trip.
Your final two days will be spent in one of Mexico's most pristine towns, the expat-heavy San Miguel de Allende. Although SMA does have a large American and Canadian expat population it has managed to keep a lot of Mexican culture. But the highlight is definitely the incredible buildings along every street.
San Miguel de Allende also has a vibrant food and arts scene which means you will never be short of something to eat or something to see. But for a great addition to everything else this road trip is giving you, take a half-day tour to the local archaelogical site of la Canada de la Virgen.
The ruins are from the pre-hispanic Otomi people and the site contains a pyramid and several other buildings in various state of repair. While not likely to feature among the most amazing ruins in Mexico, la Cañada offers enough to warrant its place on this road trip, and the surrounding area is impressive.
This historical colonial towns of Mexico road trip draws to a close as you complete the loop and head back to Santiago de Queretaro. Ending a week filled with history, culture, pretty towns, and typically delicious Mexican food. And all without having any long driving days!
The ultimate art, wine and cheese route of Queretaro road trip
Ideally you have a bit more time than a single week to cover this road trip itinerary because, even though the basic plan has plenty of time to experience Mexico and doesn't waste a lot of time getting from place to place, having more time to get to know each destination can only make the trip a richer experience.
Not to mention that by extending the length of your road trip here you will be increasing the time available to partake in a lot more sampling of the local wine and cheese, or more time to peruse the local galleries.
ROAD TRIP THE WINE AND CHEESE ROUTE OF QUERETARO
Indulge in a cultural and culinary road trip adventure on the Wine and Cheese Route of Querétaro. Get a taste of what Mexico is really about.
Extending the art, wine and cheese route of Mexico road trip
If you are lucky enough to have some spare time on your hands and would like to keep your Mexico road trip going then you may want to consider one or more of these options.
Instead of taking the final leg back to Queretaro you could continue further west to colourful Guanajuato. This awesome town is just like San Miguel but with brighter colours and way fewer expats. Which means you get a much better cultural experience for your time.
Due to the narrow streets and limited parking in the centre of old Guanajuato it is recommended to stay in the new part of town and get a taxi when you want to explore deeper. But this inconvenience is worth putting up with because the fun vibe of the town is sure to captivate.
After Guanajuato continue on to the city of Leon as a final destination, or even further until you make your way to Guadalajara.
Leon is best known for its murals on the walls of the Palacio Municipal which trace the history of the region. And for the shoppers in your group this is a great place for high quality leather goods.
If you are interested in continuing further south after completing the wine, cheese and art route then it's worth making a slight change to the initial itinerary. It would create a better flow to head straight to San Miguel from Queretaro before turning back to Bernal and the rest of the route.
This would make Amealco the final town on the initial plan and from there it is easy to continue south and visit the year-round Christmas town of Tlalpujahua and the nearby El Oro. Both of these towns are Pueblos Magicos and each have a unique charm.
From here you could either finish your trip walking through the colourful streets of Metepec or, after a couple of days there, continue on to finish in Mexico City.
The wonders of Chiapas trail
Chiapas may be one of the poorest states in Mexico but if you decide to take a road trip in Chiapas you will be richly rewarded with an adventure of a lifetime, chock full of incredible Mayan ruins, ancient traditions, and enough stunning scenery to satisfy even the most discerning nature lover.
For a road trip that takes you to one of Mexico's most beautiful towns, some of Mexico's most jaw-dropping waterfalls and lakes, Mayan cities that are sure to exceed expectations, and more, the Wonders of Chiapas Trail itinerary is the best option you will find.
The wonders of chiaps trail road trip Highlights
As you can tell from our sugar-skull ratings guide below, this is a road trip filled with highlights. So here are the top points of interest.
The wonders of chiapas trail 7 Day road trip
Let's hit the ground running as we start this adventure in the state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez. And while the city itself is quite unremarkable compared to many other Mexican cities, the same can not be said for the surrounding area. Which is exactly where you are heading today.
Roughly 30 minutes driving from Tuxtla are two very different points of interest. The first is the small town of Chiapa de Corzo, which is another of Mexico's Pueblos Magicos, and worth spending an hour or two to wander around the markets and learn about the history of the town.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly the magnificent Sumidero Canyon. Take a boat ride along the river that winds through the canyon and you will find an abundance of wildlide, sheer cliffs that tower above you on both sides, and a variety of impressive waterfalls.
Your next stop is one of Mexico's most magical towns, and a place that will live in your memories forever, San Cristobal de las Casas, or as the locals call it, SanCris. This is the type of town where you are happy to do nothing but wander the streets and immerse yourself in the everyday happenings.
But that's not to say there is nothng to do in SanCris, on the contrary it is more likely you will run out of time well before you run out of activities. There is a cooking tour at El Tzitz that is an incredible way to spend half of a day and learn about traditional food.
And taking one of the Free Walking Tours is the perfect way to get the lay of the land, introduce yourself to the artisan markets, and find a few of the local favourite restaurants and bars. Or just sit in the leafy central park and try to convince yourself that a town this captivating exists and that you are actually there.
The third stop on this quickfire itinerary is Comitan, a charming town with a great food culture and plenty of colour around the town square. Although Comitan is a nice town to spend some time exploring this 7 day road trip means you will want to focus on the nearby natural wonders.
Your first day trip takes you further east, almost to the Guatamala border, where you will find the sensational Montebello Lakes. This collection of lakes will dazzle with the incredible array of colours in the water due to the minerals in the ground in the area. Several lakes are accessible by vehicle while others may take some hiking to get to.
As impressive as the lakes are, the real showstopper in this region is the majestic El Chiflon Cascades. A series of waterfalls that work their way down the side of the mountain. Each fall is different in shape and size and there are swimming areas between some of the falls.
When you are standing on the viewing platform just above the base of Bridal Veil Falls you will be awestruck by the sheer beauty and power of nature. For rugged waterfalls in Mexico it doesn't get better than this.
Your final two days are all about Mayan history as you head to Palenque. But let's not jump ahead too quickly because there is an equally impressive, yet wildly underpromoted Mayan site halfway along your route today, and it is definitely worth the stop.
The ruins of Tonina display another prime example of the ingenuity of the Mayans and contains several massive buildings, some interesting tombs, and incredibly well-preserved frescos showing the artistic skills of these ancient people.
Tonina is a perfect warmup to get you in the mood for Mayan culture, because now you are going to see one of the great cities of the ancient Mayan empire, Palenque. Surrounded by a jungle filled with jaguar, monkeys and other animals, Palenque is a sprawling city that can't fail to impress.
Before we wind up this Chiapas road trip there should be time for a bit more natural beauty and some relax time before you go back to your real life. Head out of town to a private reserve called the Cascadas de Roberto Barrios.
You may be wondering if you need to visit more waterfalls since you've already done the most rugged falls in Mexico at El Chiflon, but this place is very different, and perhaps even more stunning. These seven gentle waterfalls form a chain that each have a swimming hole at its base.
The water is an eye-catching turquiose due to the limestone rocks which adds to the appeal. Sitting in a rock pool at the base of a waterfall with water gently running over you has to be the perfect way to end any road trip.
The wonders of chiapas trail ideal 12-16 Day road trip
Ideally you have a bit more time than a single week to cover this road trip itinerary because, even though the basic plan gives you a taste of Mexico and doesn't have too much time behind the wheel, having more time to experience the natural wonders and pre-hispanic history of Chiapas is a good thing.
And it's a pretty safe bet to say that you will not regret having a couple of extra days soaking up the atmosphere in SanCris or eating your way through Comitan.
As noted in the 7 day itinerary Tuxtla is not going to win any awards for being the best town to visit in Mexico, but that doesn't mean you won't find enough interesting things to do here to stretch your stay an extra day. A visit to the parks or markets is always a good way to spend some time in Mexico.
By having the extra time to play with you will not only be able to take the amazing boat ride along the river through Sumidero Canyon, but also to be able to drive to the viewpoints along the edge and get a bird's eye view. Seeing the Canyon from below and above is quite the experience.
Allowing at least two extra days over the basic road trip in San Cristobal is something you are going to remember as one of the best Mexico travel decisions you ever made. The original two days was never going to be long enough, but up that to four or five and you can better appreciate this town.
SanCris is what you get when you combine everything you think the perfect Mexican town should be. It has the deep connections to tradition and culture which you will clearly see as you wander through the markets, with indigenous women everywhere in their fluffy, black wool skirts.
The streets are lined with beautiful old buildings with colourful facades, there are traditional food options everywhere, and the whole place is built around a typical leafy central plaza, or Centro. Walking tours and cooking classes are the perfect way to immerse yourself into the Chiapas lifestyle here.
By adding an extra day in Comitan you will have some time to take an aimless walk around the streets, and to spend some quality time perusing the markets and the shops and restaurants around the main square. Comitan is a nice place to witness unspoilt local life happening.
You will also now have time for a longer stay at both the Montebello Lakes and the El Chiflon waterfalls. This works out well as both of these incredible natural attractions deserve your undivided attention for more than just a whirlwind visit.
As with most of the top attractions it is best to arrive early to avoid any bus tour groups. Although Chiapas has far fewer tourists than much of Mexico, almost everyone that goes there will visit El Chiflon. We had the path to ourselves on our way up the mountain, which gave us awesome, crowd-free photos.
We had the path to ourselves on our way up the mountain, which gave us awesome, crowd-free photos. But on the way back down we were surprised to see a couple of busloads of very pale-skinned, young Europeans tourists sunbathing at most of the waterfall viewpoints.
Extra days mean that you have more time to discover the Mayan city of Tonina as you travel between Comitan and Palenque. There is more than enough here to keep your explorer needs satisfied for hours, so it is a welcome option to be able to climb among the ruins for a few hours.
While the town of Palenque is far from being considered one of Mexico's prettiest, the amazing places surrounding the town make it a place that will easily keep you entertained for four or five days.
The Mayan site of ancient Palenque, and the surrounding hiking trails, can easily keep your attention for a full day or possibly more. And with the extra time this itinerary allows for in this region you can comfortably allow all the time you want here if history and nature are your thing.
Cascadas Roberto Barrios is another place that can easily fill an entire day. It is easy to let time slip by as you relax in the warm water at the base of a waterfall, oblivious to the usual stresses of the outside world. You should be looking at avoiding a weekend visit as it becomes very crowded with locals.
There are some refreshment options in the small village at Roberto Barrios but it is recommended that you bring your own food and drinks if you intend to make a day of your visit.
Extending the wonders of chiapas trail road trip
If this Chiapas road trip itinerary has left you wanting more and you have some extra time to extend your adventure, here are a couple of ways to continue your drive through Mexico.
You could use an option to begin your itinerary in Oaxaca, or to reverse the direction of the Wonders of Chiapas Trail where Tuxtla becomes the final town and you can then continue west to Oaxaca. This town is quintessential Mexico with its perfect, colourful streets, world-class food culture and rich history.
You have the choice of heading directly towards Oaxaca with a possible stop at Ixtepec and another at the historic site of Mitla, which is also the ideal base for a day at the incredible natural wonder of Hierve el Agua, which is one of only a few petrified waterfalls in the world.
The alternative would be to hug the coast and have some time among the beautiful beaches and rugged cliffs on the Oaxacan coast. Once you hit Puerto Escondido head north to the city of Oaxaca.
The second possibility for those who are ready to extend your trip is to head north into the Yucatan. By continuing on to the magical seaside town of Campeche you will be setting yourself up perfectly to connect with the next itinerary we will be discussing, the Yucatan Cross Country Explorer road trip
The Yucatan cross country explorer road trip
The 7 day Yucatan Cross Country Explorer Road trip showcases what the state of Yucatan is all about, colourful towns, Mayan ruins, and stunning cenotes. There is just enough time to get a good overview of this place without the feeling of being too rushed.
Whereas those who are fortunate enough to have a bit more time on their hands will not only find themselves able to get more deeply immersed in the history and culture, but also add some Pirate history, a bunch more Mayan wonders, and a touch of coastal life, for an awesome overall experience.
The yucatan cross country explorer road trip Highlights
Our sugar-skull ratings guide below tells the tale of this Mexico road trip. An itinerary full of history, culture, incredible food, and natural beauty. So here are the top points of interest.
The yucatan cross country explorer 7 Day road trip
Your Yucatan adventure begins in the state capital, and foodie hotspot, of Merida. Take some time to wander aimlessly through the pretty streets and you will find leafy parks, bustling markets, and more interesting food options than you could get through in an entire month.
Merida is the perfect town for a food crawl with cafes, restaurants, and hole-in-the-wall street food outlets on every street, and food carts in almost every park. But that is definitely not all this city has to offer. For colonial history buffs there are plenty of impressive churches and other buildings of note to explore.
The city has plenty of free events with tourists in mind but many of them are also favourite activities for locals. Every Sunday the main street and a few others are closed off to cars and become the "Biciruta", where you can hire bikes of various shapes and sizes and take a leisurely ride around the town.
Throughout the week you will also find exhibitions of Pok-to-pok, the ancient Mayan ball game, traditional music and dance shows, and a light painting show on the front of the Cathedral which tells the story of the Yucatan through animation and music.
For anyone wanting something a little different during your time in Merida, jump in the car and head west or north and spend a few hours on the coast. There are some decent swimming beaches and, if you are visiting at the right time of year, a chance to see hundreds of wild flamingos.
After leaving Merida it is time for a very different experience. The tiny town of Homun may not be a place that will fill your Instagram feed with stunning images but the surrounding area has a lot more than meets the eye. The reason for this is the attractions are mostly underground.
Homun is right in the centre of a very impressive collection of cenotes. For those of you who don't know yet, cenotes are sinkholes that are filled with water and were formed as the limestone eroded beneath the surface. Some are fully exposed while others totally shut off from the outside world.
There are literally dozens of private cenotes here and you will not have any problem finding them. On the contrary, by the end of the day you will be close to wishing you will never see another cenote tour salesman in your life! They will flag you down on almost every road around the town.
That being said, there is something very spiritual and relaxing about spending time floating around in a cenote. That is unless you have chosen to visit one of them that has made its way into the main tourist stop suggestions. Steer clear of these and find something a bit private, it's worth it.
Just a short drive today as you head towards one of the most unique and beautiful towns in Mexico, the golden town of Izamal. Why is it called the golden town? All will become obvious as you reach the outskirts of town and discover that almost every house from there to the centre is painted yellow.
There are a number of stories as to how Izamal came to look the way it does, and the truth is nobody really knows. But it doesn't change the fact that this town is a very special place and an absolute joy to spend a day exploring.
The highlight of the town is undoubtedly the Convento de San Antonio de Padua, a historic Franciscan monastery, which sits right beside the main town square and seems to cover half of the entire town. But look a bit deeper and just a few streets away you will find a Mayan pyramid which can be climbed to give you a magnificent 360 degree view of the town and entire Yucatan.
One of Mexico's top tourist attractions and agruably the most famous ruin in the country, Chitzen Itza, is a great place to stop on the way to your next destination. Leave Izamal early and get to Chitzen Itza before the tourist buses arrive and the thousands of tourist ruin your day and your photos.
Your final stop is another pretty town with large, leafy central park that comes alive with food carts and local artisans selling their wares every evening. Valladolid is a flat, easy walking town filled with colourful buildings, shops, and an abundance of food options.
It is an easy and fun place to spend an entire day just ambling through the quiet streets, finding impressive churches, small parks that always seem to have few resting locals just appreciating a few peaceful minutes, countless cafes and restaurants, and even a pretty cool cenote in the middle of town.
Your second day can be used to check out the surrounding areas where once again you will some dazzling examples of cenotes. And nothing is more welcomed than a chance to escape the Yucatecan heat than a soak in the pristine, refreshing waters of an undergound cenote.
Be careful when you are choosing which cenote to visit as the rules and admission prices vary greatly. A quick tip is that if they charge you in US dollars you are probably paying too much and may get overrun with tourists.
Our recommendation is to find Cenote Palomitas and Agua Dulce, which are both attached to a single property. These two cenotes are among the most beautiful you will find and, especially if you visit midweek, the chances are pretty good that you will have the entire place to yourself.
The yucatan cross country explorer ideal 14-18 Day road trip
If 7 days is just not enough for you and you have another week or so up your sleeve then you can do more than simply spend more time in each of the previously mentioned locations. The extra time will add an incredible new dimension to your Yucatan itinerary.
Your trip will become a much bigger and memorable experience when you have the time to add in a stay in a city filled with Pirate history, and a few extra unbelievable ancient Mayan cities.
Things are different right from the outset on this extended itinerary as you begin in the magnificent coastal city of Campeche. An historic walled-city surrounded by fortifications that were used to fight off Pirates who would frequently raid the city.
This fun history is just one of many reasons to spend a couple of days in Campeche. Head inside the walls of the city to be captivated by the pristine and colourful buildings that stretch the length of every street. Some streets are lined with nothing but cafes, bars and restaurants all offering outdoor and indoor seating that creates an amazing vibe.
Being a coastal town expect to find some of the best seafood in Mexico. But if your tastes lay elsewhere you will be spoiled for choice with more options than you could ever try. Another bonus of Campeche being on the coast is that you will be greeted each evening with some spectacular sunsets over the water.
The next two days are dedicated to the history of the ancient Mayan people, their cities, and their traditions. And the place to stay as you take on this experience is Uxmal, which is also one of the most famous and important Mayan cities.
But don't start thinking this is just a one off. The surrounding area is known as the Puuc Route and this 40km (25 mile) drive will give you the opportunity to explore half a dozen or more important Mayan sites, each with something different to offer visitors.
One final, and delicious, point of interest in the area that you should visit before moving on is Choco-Story, the Uxmal Chocolate Musem. This place is a great combination of chocolate history back to the Mayans, local animals, and re-enacted Mayan ceremonies. It is located just outside Uxmal.
The original 7 day itinerary dedicated three days to activities in and around the Yucatan capital of Merida, and you will fing that even doubling that will still leave you planning to come back for a second visit one day to see more of the things you still didn't have time for.
By having almost a week, or even a bit longer in Merida, you will have the chance to experience all of the free cultural events on offer across the city. It will also allow for some extra day trip opportunies for a bit more beach time or possibly flamingo spotting.
But the main reason for a longer stay in Merida is to eat your way through as much street food and as many Yucatecan traditional dishes as you possibly can. Because this is a city where food is cheap, the traditions run deep, and everything is delicious.
Merida is a town where flat terrain, plenty of shady parks, and a genuine Mexican vibe converge to create the perfect place to just spend time without a set plan.
Once you get to Homun it would be your choice as to whether a single day at the cenotes here is enough or to go for a second day. We felt that the extra time was better spent in Valladolid as it is a much nicer town and still offers a large selection of impressive cenotes.
The Yellow City awaits and with this longer itinerary it allows you enough time for a second day in Izamal. Even though the Convent and pyramid are the only two attractions of major note, Izamal is a nice town for wandering down the streets lined with yellow buildings.
There are several galleries to discover as you explore the back streets and no shortage of cafes for when you need to sit and refresh.
As mentioned in the 7 Day itinerary the drive from Izamal to Valladolid not only takes you right past the famous Mayan site of Chitzen Itza, but also the very touristy, but still extremely impressive, Cenote Ik-Kil. These two places are visited by almost every day tour group from Cancun so through the middle of the day the crowds can be crazy. Arrive early to beat the masses.
Once you arrive in Valladolid you will quickly come to see that the town and surrounding area has no shortage of things to do and see to fill at least three or four days.
Extending the yucatan cross country explorer road trip
Got even more vacation time available and wondering what to do to extend this road trip? Try these options for size.
Looking for some more beach time and seafood dishes, or a few days on a tropical island? Continuing east from Valladolid has you covered.
While this direction will most likely lead to a final destination of Cancun, there are many places along the way that will give you a far less "Spring-breaky" and more genuine experience. A few days of fun or relaxation on Isla Holbox is a great place to start.
Spend your days at one of the beach clubs or being dazzled by the beauty as you walk along the sandbar. Watch for flamigos or watch out for crocodiles, maybe even experience the incredible sensation of bioluminescence. Isla Holbox is also a foodie's dream come true.
After a few days continue on to the Riviera May and choose from reknowned spots like Tulum, Akumal, Playa del Carmen or Cozumel Island for some snorkelling, diving, or just more chilling on the beach. And don't forget about the plethora of Mexican based theme parks and adrenaline activities available in this area.
By reversing this entire road trip itinerary and ending in Campeche, you open up the option of continuing on to meet up with the Wonders of Chiapas Trail Road Trip previously discussed.
Doing this takes you away from the coast but opens up an adventure loaded with jungles, waterfalls and enough indigenous tradition to cover anyone's needs. Covering the famous Mayan city of Palenque, through to one of the most beautiful Mexican towns, San Cristobal de las Casas.
The south of Mexico City Route
Do you know that just a short drive south of Mexico City there is a group of incredible towns that are as diverse as they are beautiful? Colonial history overflows on this road trip and the staggering changes in scenery sure to keep even the most discerning road tripper excited.
Come along on an adventure like no other in Mexico. A journey of incredible food, the world's largest pyramid, flowers and festivals. You'll wonder how you could fit so much into such a short distance.
The south of Mexico City Route road trip Highlights
This road trip packs in so many highlights you won't believe it can be completed in 7 days. But with more time comes more memories. Our sugar-skull ratings guide below tells the tale of this Mexico road trip
The south of Mexico City Route 7 Day road trip
Although this entire road trip takes places very close to Mexico City, the places you will visit are a world away from the hustle and bustle. And there is no better place to get away from that constantly moving mass of humanity than in the historic silver mining town of Taxco.
The first thing you will notice about Taxco is that it is very different from almost every other town you will visit anywhere in Mexico. Not only is is built on the sides of a series of very steep hills, but it is painted almost entirely white. And there is a massive Jesus overlooking the town.
Taxco is a town that is a delight to explore on foot, although it will require a moderate level of fitness to do so due to the constant need to climb and descend hills. But go beyond the physical demands and you will find a maze of alleyways and narrow roads filled with charm.
An interesting experience to have in Taxco is to have a day trip to the old silver mines to learn about the history and how Taxco became one of the wealthiest towns in Mexico during its heyday. Once you get back into town it may be time for a bit of jewellery shopping. As you would expect, silver is cheap here.
The next town could not be more different, in fact it is generous to call it a town as it is really little more than a glorified village. But Tepoztlán is something special, with an history that goes back into legend. For this is reputed to be the birthplace of the great god Quetzalcoatl.
Tepoztlán is the ideal place to find authentic Mexican food, and the small markets in the centre are town is the place to be. The food is cheap and delicious, and made with love and skill that only comes from generations of tradition.
But the reason most tourists come to Tepoztlán (not that many tourists come here at all) is to visit the incredible Tepozteco pyramid, which is perched high above the town in the mountains and requires a challenging but extremely rewarding hike to access.
One final note about Tepoztlán. They have a local frozen dessert that can either be made from water or milk which is found at a famous shop call Tepoznieves. The milk version is like a gelato while the water more a flavoured finely shaved ice, and some of the flavours may leave you wondering what's going on.
The main store is an incredible place to visit due to the quirky decor. Everything from lifesized cartoon characters to dummies dressed in beautiful tradition costumes. This adds to the experience but it is having the chance to try flavours like Piña colada, Mimosa, fig with Mezcal, tuna (the cactus flower not the fish), and a somewhat odd combination of orange, sugar cane, sweet potato and squash!
Next it is a visit to one of the prettiest towns in Mexico, and a challenging destination for hayfever sufferers! Atlixco is the flower town, with streets overflowing with gloriously coloured flowers in pots and gardens. With a highlight being the annual floral festival.
There are a couple of places of note for visitors with the Capilla Del Cerro De San Miguel chapel high on the overlooking hill, giving amazing views across the town and to the smoking volcano in the distance, and La Escalera Ancha, a magnificently painted staircase that will brighten your day.
Your final destination combines incredible history and the ever-expected brightly coloured streets. Cholula is almost an outer suburb of the large city of Puebla but often considered a more pleasant option to stay than in the crowds of the city.
During your time it would certainly be possible to take the short trip into Puebla for a look around, but Cholula is also easily capable of providing two interesting days on your road trip. The area in and around the huge cebtral park is usually packed with locals on weekends which makes it a fun place to experience daily life and see how much family means to Mexicans.
But the main thing you will notice in Cholula is a bright yellow Church on the top of a hill a few blocks from the centre. And while this church is worth a visit to learn of its Spanish history and to see the incredible views of the active volcanos in the distance, the real attraction lies inside the hill.
For underneath that church is not a hill at all, but a structure that is regarded as the largest pyramid in the world. The Cholula pyramid has been partly excavated and it is also possible to take a tour through the seven miles of tunnels thay have already found inside the pyramid.
The south of Mexico City Route ideal 14-18 Day road trip
Got more than a week and loving the sound of what this road trip has on offer? Let's take a look at what can be achieved if you have an extra week or so.
Since this entire road trip is located just a short distance from Mexico City it would be a simple thing to add a few days in the capital at the beginning or end of this road trip itinerary. Although it is recommended to do this before you collect your vehicle or after you drop it off, as driving in Mexico City may be a challenge you prefer to avoid.
The first place to spend a bit more time than the 7 day road trip allowed is obviously Taxco. An extra day in this unique town gives you the opportunity to pace yourself rather than burning out early trying to see everything the town has to offer and exhausting yourself on the steep streets and alleys.
Taxco is also a great place for a food crawl, with options ranging from tiny food stalls offering snacks and local traditional items, to the quirky and awesome restaurants in the sidestreets like the fun La Intriga (try the pazole, it's delicious), through to the fancier restaurants around the main square with blaconies overlooking the park.
An extra day here also gives you the time to attempt to walk to the Cristo Monumental, the 7 metre tall Christ the Redeemer lookalike that stands watch from high above the city. Even though there are roads and staircases the climb to the statue is very challenging and you will find most people opt for a taxi for at least part of the way.
No real change here from the 7 day itinerary as two days in Tepoztlán is probably the right amount of time unless you are a hiker. If that sounds like you then the mountains have plenty of trails to keep you entertained for an extra day or two.
Atlixco really is a lovely town and the single day allocated in the short itinerary really doen't give it the respect it deserves. You will not be disappointed with an extra day or two here just to check out the markets and admire the flowers.
There is also a flourishing food scene here with some great restaurants for relatively little money. Of special note is Restaurant Bar Tecuani which is located just near the base of the famous stairs. It is the perfect place for great views, awesome food and some of the best cocktails in town.
The extra day ensures you will have enough time to climb to the top of the hill and visit Cerro de San Miguel, or you can drive if you are still recovering from the exertions in Tepoztlán. The view from the summit is certainly worth the effort to get there.
This may seem a long time to stay in what was previously described as little more than a suburb of a bigger city, but Cholula is not only the place to stay to check out everything the town has to offer, but also a good place to base yourself to see Puebla.
Of course you could have a few days in Cholula and then relocate completely to Puebla but why go through the hassle of packing and unpacking an extra time when it is far easier just to head into the city for a day trip or two?
Puebla walks that fine line between busy city and friendly town and is certainly worth some time during this longer road trip. The town squre is a UNESCO Heritage Zone and the nearby Callejon de los Sapos is rated one of the prettiest streets in Mexico.
Extending the south of Mexico City Route road trip
Want to keep this show going? There are a couple of great options for extending this road trip even further.
The potential route in this direction can be a challenging drive in sections but you will be rewarded with a visit to seven more of the Pueblos Magicos of Mexico including Tlaxcala, Tlaxco, Chignahuapan, Zacatlan, Tetela de Ocampo, Cuetzalan and Huamantla.
Each of these towns offers you a different experience with massive changes in landscape between the cities, and while some have a unique local flavour, others have incredible ruins, and others magnificent waterfalls. Whatever it is that you love about a Mexico road trip, you will find here.
On the point of some parts being a challenging drive, between Tetela de Ocampo and Cuetzalan there is one section of road that is in serious need of roadwork, where a 60 km (40 miles) stretch will take you approximately two hours to complete. Other than that it's smooth sailing!
We took ten days to complete this loop, which ends back in Puebla. Then towns were wonderful and, while a couple of them are only really short stops on the drive, towns like Zacatlan which is perched on the edge of a massive ravine was stunning. And Cuetzalan, with its impressive ancient ruins, caves and waterfalls was a great allrounder.
Pretty simple to describe this extension option... head south, have a lunch stop or maybe a night in Tehuacan, and then make your way to the culinary heart of Mexico, the city of Oaxaca.
This is a city where the best of Mexico has been condensed and brought together in a single place. And Oaxaca is so perfect that it is well worth an entire week based here and heading out for the occasional day trip.
Just a few of the highlights of Oaxaca are:
Common questions about Mexico road trips
Are Mexico Road Trips safe for travellers?
You have probably heard plenty of stories about how dangerous it is to travel to Mexico at all, let alone be driving around the country. But I'm willing to bet most of these stories are from people who have never even been there and "heard it from a friend" or "read it somewhere".
And while there is always a chance you will find trouble if you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time (which can be said about most places in the world), a bit of planning and common sense can make Mexico a captivating and memorable place for a road trip.
We have been to Mexico several times starting when our daughter was just 8 and have rarely, if ever, felt in any danger. She is now an adult but was with us for most of our recent 3 month road trip across half of Mexico, and our only incident was having to pay a "fine" to one bad cop.
What is the best time for a Mexico road trip?
Mexico is a very large country and the climate can vary dramatically from place to place. The short answer is that it depends on which part of Mexico you want to visit and what you want to do when you get there.
For example, the height of Summer is not a great time for driving across the Yucatan and spending time in Merida. The scorching temperatures and stifling humidity will very quickly convince you that you have made the wrong choice. Similarly going to Chiapas in the wet season could have you spending the whole trip driving in rain and staying indoors.
Here are a few things to consider when deciding on the right time for your Mexico road trip.
Can I rent a car for a road trip in Mexico?
Yes you can rent a car in Mexico but it is recommended to pre-book from a reputable source before you arrive. The main reason for this is to confirm that you have all of the required insurances in place and do not get a nasty surprise when you find out your bargain price has compulsory extras to pay!
If you are looking at a short term rental of a week or less then you can be confident that the well-known rental companies have many offices in Mexico. However, if you are renting for more than just a single day from a small, local company be sure to do a bit of research or be willing to take a gamble.
How can I plan a budget-friendly road trip in Mexico?
With the exception of a couple of places, Mexico is a very cheap country to visit. Which makes it quite a simple task to plan a budget-friendly road trip itinerary there. You will most likely discover that the majority of your total cost goes towards car rental.
Mexico is a country where you can find comfortable, clean and well positioned accomodation options for prices that are a fraction of the price you would expect to pay in Europe, the USA, or Australia for example. It is common to find a nice place for around 30 - 50 USD per night.
When it comes to food, unless you are one of those people who feel that if it's not expensive and served in a fine-dining restaurant then it can't be of good quality, get ready to eat delicious food until you are ready to burst for just a few dollars.
And the final way to stay on a budget-friendly route is to take advantage of the many amazing things you can do in Mexico for free. Chilling in one of the beautiful town squares watching local life take place is a wonderful experience, and who doesn't love exploring the colourful, buzzing local markets?
Do I need to know Spanish for a Mexico road trip?
The quick and easy answer here is no. You can certainly head off on a Mexico road trip without knowing any Spanish, relying on translate apps to get you out of a pinch. A better question to ask would be "should I learn some Spanish for my Mexico road trip?" And then the answer is a firm YES.
At least you should take the time to learn enough words and basic phrases to be polite. After all, if you were at home and someone came up to you speaking a foreign language asking for your help would you be more likely to be patient and helpful if they at least tried to speak your language? Or at a bare minimum you would want them to be able to communicate a simple hello, please and thankyou.
So please make the effort to learn how to be polite and, if nothing else, learn a couple of phrases that will help you during your road trip. Being able to say hello to a gas station attendant in Spanish or asking them to fill your tank or check the air in your tyres makes everyone's life easier.
Can I cross the border from the USA to road trip in Mexico?
It is certainly possible to take a vehicle across the border from the USA into Mexico but there are also some reasons why you might decide against it.
Unless you have a special road trip vehicle like a motorhome, or you specifically want to include the border region in your plan, it may be a better option to collect a rental vehicle in a safer area, or closer to the region you plan to explore.
Our expert opinion on driving a mexico road trip
What makes us experts?
We have road tripped over 30,000 kilometres in foreign countries, and a lot more at home in Australia. And of that extensive road trip experience we have driven in Mexico on three occasions, including our most recent trip that covered over 5000 km in 100 days.
We believe that a road trip is the ultimate way to experience a country as it gives you the flexibily to find the hidden gems most other methods of transport drive straight past or fly over. It also allows you to spend extra time in a place or move on earlier than expected without complicated logistics or potential change and cancellation fees.
Why choose a road trip in Mexico?
After 6 previous visits to this enchanting country, visiting different regions each time, and travelling mainly by intercity coach or plane, we decided that the only way to easily get around to the small towns, ruins, and natural wonders we hoped to visit was as a part of a road trip.
We were a little concerned during the research phase by the stories of violence, horrendous roads, and the dreaded speed bumps, but in the end we agreed that the only way to confirm or refute these stories was to experience it ourselves.
Is a Mexican road trip as scary as some people suggest?
Not even close! Sure the number, size and crazy height of the topes (speed bumps) was annoying, and occasionally dangerous, but the roads in general were as good as we are used to in Australia, and the only concerning moment was a run-in with one "over zealous" state cop in Quintana Roo.
It made me wonder about how many of the people writing about Mexico road trips had actually done one, and if they did, which part of Mexico was so dangerous. There are definitely parts we were determined to avoid and it seems to have paid off for us.
Would we do it again, and should you do your own?
We would go again tomorrow if there weren't so many more countries with roads waiting for us to drive. And we would happily do 90% of the same route all over again because it was just that damn impressive. Plus there is still more of Mexico we would try to include next time.
As far as you going on your own Mexico road trip... what are you waiting for? With a bit of common sense and some planning about where and when to go, Mexico is an unbelievable place to road trip. It is one of the few places in the world where you can find that perfect combination of scenery, good weather, beautiful towns, immense history, friendly people, and incredible food, all at a budget price.
If you have any questions or concerns about planning your Mexico road trip, or about our experiences, feel free to comment of send us an email. We are always happy to talk about the subject.