Spring Break Alternative: A Road Trip to Southeast Mexico
The police didn't ask for bribes. The roads were safe and fast. The food was particular, yet delicious.
A road trip across southeast Mexico offered the perfect antidote to winter: sun, beaches, yummy food, great drinks and amazing sights, from a colonial old town to ancient Mayan structures. Best of all, the longest stretch of driving was just five hours from Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean to Campeche on Mexico's Gulf Coast.
The roughly 1,000-mile loop also traversed three remarkably different states. Quintana Roo, home to resort-laden Cancun and Playa del Carmen, has more of an American feel than most places in Mexico. Campeche's laidback and colorful atmosphere is a nice contrast to Yucatan's earthy cuisine and cultural significance.
Car rental rates are low (though locally obtained insurance, which is essential, will up the cost). Major highways in the region are split into freeways and toll roads, cuotas. The tolls are relatively inexpensive and the cuotas are often empty. At times you can travel almost alone for miles. With $250 round-trip flights from the U.S. and the Mexican peso worth half what it was five years ago against the dollar, there's no better time to visit.
HISTORY AND IGUANAS
The trip started at Petit Lafitte , a small locally-owned resort situated just far enough outside of Playa del Carmen to avoid its boozy vibe. The resort has drawn a faithful clientele of Americans for decades. Returning guests greet staff with hugs and everyone is on first-name basis.
After a week of lazy beach days and ceviche feasts, the road beckoned. First stop, Campeche's capital city, also called Campeche, which has a small town feel and a colorful grid of streets. The old town, which dates to the mid-17th century, is surrounded by a hexagonal wall with seven intact bulwarks, each unique in design and significance. Right outside the Puerta del Mar bulwark is a long, beautiful seaside walkway where joggers, strollers and tourists congregate.
An hour from Campeche lies the pristine Mayan site of Edzna, which dates to the seventh century B.C. Perfectly manicured lawns separate the Mayan structures, the most impressive of which is the 120-foot Edificio de los Cincos Pisos (which means building of five floors). Kids will love running around spotting iguanas.
Driving from Campeche to Yucatan's capital, Merida, consider a stop at the beautiful Hacienda Santa Rosa, a luxury Starwood property where rooms start at $300 or so a night. The restaurant serves delicious Yucatan fare at reasonable prices in a serene atmosphere. The spa was once a small church.
MERIDA, FLAMINGOS AND UXMAL
Merida is everything Campeche isn't. It's big, busy, noisy and dusty. But this cultural hub has many interesting sights to lure tourists and, increasingly, American and Canadian retirees. The town's cathedral is an austere and intimidating structure whose once-ornate decorations were stripped away by secular Mexicans during the revolution. Churches dot the town's historic center. Caleche (horse-drawn carriage) rides through the old town are an entertaining way to spend an hour. Open bus tours visit Merida's modern neighborhoods, which have some stunning mansions, especially along Paseo de Montejo. The local Starbucks looks like something from a belle epoque flick.
Merida is also a good jumping-off point for the trip's most stunning sites: the biosphere reserve at Celestun, and Uxmal, a Mayan mecca.
Celestun will draw shrieks of wonderment from even the most bored teenager with its year-round colony of thousands of pink flamingos. Small motorboats take you 100 yards or so from the colorful flocks, which look like a haze of pink from far away. You won't need binoculars to watch them gracefully fly, then land on water.
The sprawling Uxmal complex boasts many unique structures including the Governor's Palace, the Nuns' Quadrangle (take note of the intact colorful decorations on its walls), and the amazing Pyramid of the Magician, with curved outlines unique among Mayan pyramids. Uxmal provides a solid impression of what Mayan life was like without the crowds of the more-touristy Chichen Itza.
If beaches, colonial cities and Mayan sites aren't enticing enough, the region's cuisine will do the trick. Mexican ceviche (different from Peruvian - no potatoes or corn, just seafood) and fresh fish cooked in garlic and chili sauce are amazing. The region's ubiquitous main dish, cochinita pibil, is pork marinated in citrus and spices, then wrapped in banana leaves and slow-roasted for a unique, delicate yet earthy flavor. Relleno negro is another specialty of turkey stuffed with chopped pork, cooked in a rich dark sauce. In Merida, evening food carts sell hot crepes filled with Nutella or cheese for about a dollar. For breakfast, feast on huevos motulenos (fried eggs topped with beans, peas, ham, cheese and chili on a tortilla).
Best meals: La Pigua, an upscale fish restaurant outside the walls of Campeche, and Portico del Peregrino in Merida, with distinctive mole dishes.
Mexican chocolate is all the rage in hipster joints across America. Merida and Campeche offer a chance to try the real thing (Chocolateria de la Mora in Campeche is amazing). Opt for less milk and less sugar to truly savor the chocolate.
If You Go...
GETTING THERE: You can fly into Merida but cheapest fares from the U.S. are to Cancun.
ZIKA: Mexico is in the zone for Zika-carrying mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are more prevalent at inland Maya sites than beaches. Consider buying mosquito-repelling plastic bracelets to take with you.
This story is part of our special report titled "Winter 2017." Want to read more? Here's the full list.