Our one month Mexico road trip had many challenges & many rewards. Here are the highs and the lows of our 4,000km journey and some tips to help make your road trip a little easier.


We love a road trip. The freedom to pack more into the day and go at our own pace makes self-drive travel the first choice for us whenever possible. And we are not shy about trying more challenging trips like driving over the wide open spaces of Namibia, fording rivers in Iceland or dealing with tetchy Jordanian police.

But spending one month on the road in Mexico was by far our most challenging and stressful road trip to date.

Here are our impressions from our trip – the highs and the lows, the challenges and the rewards – as well as some tips to help make your Mexico self-drive adventure a little smoother.

Was it all worth it? Read on to find out.


Please note / This post contains affiliate links which means if you buy something following a link on this page, we’ll get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting our blog. / Paul & Mark.

ONE MONTH MEXICO ROAD TRIP OVERVIEW

3 DAYS / Exploring Mexico City

4 DAYS  / Navigating speed bumps through artsy Puebla and Oaxaca

5 DAYS  / Resting on golden beaches on the Pacific Coast

3 DAYS  / Battling separatists around San Cristóbal de las Casas

3 DAYS / Enjoying the jungle-shrouded ruins of Palenque and Yaxchilán

9 DAYS / Finding the best beaches on the Caribbean Sea

3 DAYS / Revelling in the cenotes and ruins around Chichén Itzá


MEXICO ROAD TRIP ROUTE

We started our one month Mexico road trip in Mexico City, then ventured south through the states of Puebla and Oaxaca to the Pacific Coast, before swinging east through the waterfalls of Chiapas to the tourist-friendly Yucatán.

To save this map, click on the star to the right of the title – this will save the map to: YOUR PLACES -> MAPS in Google Maps.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS OF OUR MEXICO ROAD TRIP

We had magical moments on our Mexico road trip. Strolling jungle-shrouded ancient ruins, lazing on beautiful palm-fringed beaches, swimming in atmospheric cenotes, meeting friendly locals, understanding their history and trying delicious regional food.

With 62 different indigenous peoples, Mexico is a bustling, artistic mess of different cultures, cuisines and experiences. And as we moved from state to state, it was often like entering a totally different country. Different regional dishes, different dialects, different loyalties and an ever-changing quality of infrastructure.

This diversity is what makes Mexico a joy, but also challenging and stressful.

Challenging because the road quality in some states can be dreadful requiring concentration and focus. Stressful because sometimes safety is not guaranteed, particularly in less politically stable states like Chiapas.

Many tourists, visiting only Yucatán, have a narrow image of Mexico. But Yucatán is polished Mexico, where tourists are welcome and the roads are smooth. Mexico is so much more than that.

Here are the impressions and details of our journey with our tips to help you design your own Mexico road trip.

STARTING OUR ROAD TRIP IN MEXICO CITY

We spent 3 days in underrated Mexico City before beginning our Mexico road trip. We picked up our hire car from the airport to make driving out of Mexico City a little easier. This was our first mistake.

Hire car companies in Mexico add a surcharge to pick up from the airport which is a percentage of the total rental fee. As we were hiring a car for a month, this was an astronomical figure – one that wasn’t explained on our initial contract. Learn from our mistakes and pick up your car somewhere in central Mexico City.

That first hour in a new car in a new country is always a challenge. Indicators and windscreen wipers on different sides. Driving on the other side of the road. Getting used to different road systems and different driving techniques. But in general, the roads in Mexico City are decent and relatively easy to navigate (see Google tips at the end of this article). Although drivers don’t indicate regularly and swap lanes often, it’s not too difficult.

TEOTIHUACÁN, PUEBLA AND OAXACA

After leaving Mexico City, we headed for Teotihuacán (1 hr 15 min) to explore the Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun. We started early to arrive at opening time, thereby beating the crowds, the heat and finding parking space (there were lots). After three hours strolling the sights, we made the 2-hour drive to Puebla arriving in the mid-afternoon.

Our only hiccup occurred when the police forced us down the wrong way of a dual lane highway to avoid an accident. With other drivers screaming at us we spent a good hour finding another way through the back roads of Puebla.

Puebla is well worth a stop. It is a pretty town with some small good sights. The Capilla del Rosario, the Museo de la Revolución Mexicana (which still has bullet damage from the early days of the revolution) and the antiques market were all top things to do.

We spent the night at the excellent El Sueno Hotel, before taking the 4-hour drive to Oaxaca in the morning. Flying past mountains and volcanoes looming on the horizon, it’s a straight forward road on a fast highway.

FOODY, ARTY OAXACA CITY

Oaxaca City itself is a joy to visit. Regal churches tower over little squares and cobbled roads are lined with art galleries, coffee shops and craft stores. The excellent ruins of Monte Alban, the ancient capital of the Zapotecs, sits on a hill just outside the city. If you can be here for the Day of the Dead festival at the beginning of November, all the better.

We joined a walk in Pueblos Mancomunados, the hills that surround the town. But to be honest the drive out there was tedious, the views less than impressive and the indigenous villages empty and underwhelming. So we’d suggest giving it a miss.

After three nights we headed south to Puerto Escondido and the Pacific Coast.

NAVIGATING SPEED BUMPS THROUGH OAXACA STATE

The drive from Puebla to Puerto Escondido was grim. It’s only 250km (on road 131), but it took us 6 hours and 30 minutes –  an average of under 40km/h. Why so slow?

Firstly, it’s a windy mountain road zig-zagging through thick jungle. Pretty, but very slow.

Secondly, there are hundreds and hundreds of speed bumps (tope in Spanish). Every junction and almost every driveway has a speed bump that needs to be traversed very slowly. They’re not always well signed.

Thirdly, the road quality is poor with lots of potholes. Not insignificant potholes, great crevasses in the road. Serious damage would be incurred if you went too fast through them. Given that many are around steep corners, driving slowly and carefully is necessary.

Finally, Oaxaca is poor and locals pull up ropes across the road to get you to stop. Some just want you to buy their goods, but others look more menacing and attempt a bribe to let you pass. Many suggest the road up ahead is blocked, but it never was. We just drove through the rope and never had a problem but it can slow you down.

All these challenges make the drive slow, uncomfortable and a bit stressful.

RESTING ON THE BEACHES OF THE PACIFIC COAST

We spent the next 5 days split between Puerto Escondido and Bahia Huatulco on the Pacific Coast. The barrel waves in Puerto Escondido make it great for surfing and there is a good variety of beaches to discover. The ocean life is varied and you can swim out from the shore in places, making it useful to rent or have your own snorkel gear. We saw whales and dolphins from the boat and snorkelled with turtles. The town itself is a touristy holiday resort of little note.

Next, we went to Tangolunda on Bahia Huatulco, lured by pictures of beautiful virgin beaches and good snorkelling. The virgin beaches are great but the whole place is a fenced off western enclave. Americans have bought up the property and live along the attractive hilly coastline. The result is a lack of local atmosphere which can be skipped.

NEXT STOP, CHIAPAS

After 5 days soaking up the sun, we headed back inland, out of Oaxaca state and into Chiapas. The roads had improved and were good, straight and pretty fast. We made a pitstop at El Aguacero, a beautiful waterfall in a steep valley at the end of a slightly hairy concrete road.

After spending the night at Chiapa de Corzo (7-hour drive from Tangolunda) we took a boat trip up the Cañón del Sumidero. The 2-hour trip covers the 35 kilometres through the canyon, with walls rising 800 metres. Boats leave whenever they are full, so a bit of patience is needed.

BATTLING SEPARATISTS AROUND SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS

Next, we drove into San Cristóbal de las Casas. This is the capital of Chiapas and the trading centre for many of the indigenous people that live in the surrounding villages. The town is an exciting mix of Spanish colonial architecture and indigenous crafts. Locals dressed in traditional colourful clothes wrapped up from the cold, scour markets before returning to their homes.

But underlying this scene is political uncertainty. Much of the area is controlled by Zapatistas, a separatist movement with ambitions to secede from Mexico. They have a policy of civil resistance against Mexican control and law. It gives the whole area a bit of an edge. They are not as welcoming as the indigenous locals that we met in Vietnam, Peru or Thailand. In fact, many don’t want tourists there at all. Coming here is an education but not the friendliest experience we had in Mexico.

SAN CRISTÓBAL TO PALENQUE

After a couple of days exploring San Cristóbal (La Vinã de Bacco wine bar, breakfast at Frontera and our stay at Casa Vieja all standout), we headed east to Palenque. The good roads disappeared and we were back on the windy, hilly, jungle roads. Lots of speedbumps, lots of potholes. There had been flooding, and some of the surface of the road had been washed away. Road workers were trying to fix it, but progress was slow. We prepared ourselves for another long journey.

But then things took a turn for the worse. The Zapatistas had cut down a massive tree, blocking the road and giving us no choice but to backtrack. So, plan B was a drive back to San Cristóbal, then south-east to Comitán, before going north to Ocosingo, then Palenque. It was an extra 4 hours on top of the 5 we had planned for.

And it was not an easy 4 hours. We had to drive through the back roads of Zapatista territory. Young men roamed around carrying machetes, red Zapatista flags hung from buildings painted with separatist political slogans. It was clear Mexican law had little jurisdiction here.

ENJOYING THE JUNGLE SHROUDED RUINS OF PALENQUE AND YAXCHILÁN

The day after our extended trip from San Cristóbal, we explored the magnificent Palenque ruins and the waterfalls of Agua Azul and Misol Há (which we had planned to do the day before, but the diversion meant we didn’t have time). Both waterfalls are attractive and a great place for a relaxing swim.

The next day we went to the ancient ruins of Yaxchilán. It’s a 2-hour drive on a good fast highway (307) to the embarcadero in Frontera Corozal, where speedboats are available to whisk you upstream to the ruins. After Yaxchilán, we took a 30-minute detour for a fine refreshing swim at Las Golondrinas waterfall.

After 2 enjoyable days (stay at LA Aldea del Halach Huinic Hotel), we were dreading the 7-hour 45-minute drive to Mahahual on the Caribbean Coast. But, we were pleasantly surprised. While the first hour was a little slow, pushing our way through busy towns, the rest saw us speeding along good, straight roads. The speed bumps had mainly disappeared, the potholes were few and far between, the Zapatistas had been left behind and the rope holders were having a day off.

Arriving in the Yucatán peninsula felt like a completely different country. The rest of our time in Mexico was a breeze to drive.

FINDING THE BEST BEACHES ON THE CARIBBEAN SEA

We spent much of the next two weeks exploring the beaches of the Yucatán peninsula.

MAHAHUAL

Mahahual is an attractive small fishing village set on a lovely beach, At night, the relaxed restaurants (try Nohoch Kay) lining the front are full of locals enjoying the slow, easy pace of tranquil Mahahual. But during the day it’s a hell hole. Hundreds of tourists who appear to have just tasted alcohol for the first time, descend from massive cruise ships. By mid-afternoon, the streets of Mahahual are packed with people throwing up in the gutter, competing music and obnoxious behaviour. At around 6 pm the cruise ships depart, and Mahahual is back to normal. Locals creep out from their hiding places to survey the damage.

TULUM

Tulum (1 hour 30 minutes up the coast, stay at Elements Tulum Boutique Hotel) is excellent. The dusty roadside town, which looks uninspiring at first, comes alive at night. Bars and restaurants tucked into back streets serve good food and live music wafts about the town. But the real highlight is the beach, easily one of our favourites. The beach club at Playa El Paraiso was a highlight and the ruins on the cliff are set magnificently against the white sand beach and azure blue sea.

PLAYA DEL CARMEN

Whereas Tulum is quietly relaxing, Playa del Carmen (1 hour further up the coast) is party town. Beach clubs line the front, pumping out music and serving cocktails. But unlike Mahahual, Playa del Carman can handle it with ease. The real attraction for us was the snorkelling at Cozumel. Deep Blue Cozumel took us out with divers and we had a sensational day with the sharks, eagle rays, turtles, puffer fish and moray eels.

ISLA HOLBOX

Next, we made our way to Isla Holbox, an island off the north coast of Yucatán. Ferries leave regularly from Chiquilá (1-hour 45-minute drive from Playa del Carmen) where there are plenty of places that charge a small fee to lock up and look after your car. The beach at Isla Holbox is underwhelming, but with no cars allowed on the island, the town has a relaxed vibe with plenty of decent restaurants and quirky stores. Top end resorts are starting to appear bringing golf buggies that help ferry tourists and their baggage around. The whole place feels less like Mexico and more like a cute well-designed holiday resort. We had a good time, but it’s not necessarily somewhere we’d recommend.

ALTERNATIVE SWIMMING / WATERFALLS & CENTOES

REVELLING IN THE CENOTES AND RUINS AROUND CHICHÉN ITZÁ

Finally, we spent 3 days exploring the ruins and cenotes around Valladolid. An attractive friendly small colonial town, Valladolid (stay at Aurora Colonial) is a good base to explore all the nearby sights.

Chichén Itzá, while not as atmospheric as Palenque and Yaxchilán, is in excellent condition with fascinating carvings. It’s busy with tourists but definitely worth visiting. Cobá Pyramids offer great views over the jungle and their setting makes you feel like Indiana Jones.

There are many cenotes (sinkholes that are great for swimming) in the area. Ik Kil, X’kekén and San Lorenzo Oxman were some of our favourites but the guys over at 2 Travel Dads have an excellent round-up of the best cenotes in Yucatán.

REFLECTIONS ON OUR MEXICO ROAD TRIP

Was it worth it? Just about. Either end of the trip was a joy. The first week in Mexico City, Teotihuacán, Puebla and Oaxaca were all straight forward to get to and great to visit. Similarly, the two weeks in Palenque and Yucatán were fascinating and educational.

It was the middle where the driving was hard and the sights less impressive. Would we do it again? Yes, but I would be sorely tempted to bus and let someone else take the strain. Or drop the car and fly over the middle section.

You can see that our idealised 2 week Mexico itinerary does exactly that.

TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL MEXICO ROAD TRIP

  1. Read our article about the trials and tribulations of driving in Mexico.
  2. Pack a towel and snorkelling gear to take advantage of the beautiful cenotes and beaches while you’re on the road.
  3. A car gives you flexibility, so use it to get to the big sites at opening time to avoid the crowds and beat the Mexican heat.
  4. The police are often not a source of help and comfort. Ask a local rather than the police for help if you get lost or need some basic assistance.
  5. On a long road trip, don’t pick up your hire car from an airport if you can avoid it. They charge an additional fee as a percentage of your total rental cost which can push up the price significantly.
  6. Prices online often do not match the final price you will pay for your hire car. Expect to pay at least US $30 to $40 a day. More if you want to lower the insurance excess.
  7. Most firms charge for a different drop off location. Expect to pay about US $1 per 2 km distance between pick-up and drop-off. For us, this was a huge fee which was not explained when we booked. If this fee looks prohibitive change your route to end near where you started.
  8. Download maps of the area you intend to drive through in Google Maps before you set off. Your phone will track your location using GPS on your downloaded maps.
  9. Try to book hotels that have parking to make life a little easier. Although if parking isn’t possible, we could usually find a place just outside or around the corner.
  10. Fill up with petrol before long drives, especially before the Oaxaca – Puerto Escondido drive.
DRIVING TIPS
  1. Don’t underestimate how slowly you need to drive over speed bumps. Many are homemade by local residents and are particularly steep.
  2. Drive slowly on windy jungle roads as potholes can and will be around any corner.
  3. Don’t even consider driving on Mexico’s roads at night (except perhaps in Yucatán). Potholes, speed bumps and drug cartels are more of a hazard.
  4. Leave early for each day trip. Journeys can take much longer than expected with road blocks and/or road works common.

A QUICK NOTE ABOUT THE JOY OF GOOGLE

The big challenge of driving in large cities and countries with areas of poor infrastructure is usually navigation. But there has been a big change in the way we navigate on road trips: Google.

Google’s data-crunching superiority provides excellent (usually up to date) maps, journey durations, and alternative routes. You can also search for a specific attraction even if you don’t have the full address. Something that is often hard on a traditional car SatNav; an add-on car rental companies often charge extra for.

We downloaded all the maps we needed for Mexico before we travelled using off-line maps in the Google Maps app. Before we set off each day, we’d set the destination while still on the hotel WIFI and hit directions to calculate the route. The route is now stored in the phone.

Once in the car we pressed start and followed directions all the way to our destination. However, because you don’t have data it will not update the route if you make a wrong turn and it will not alter the route for any new traffic update. But as long as you are somewhere on the route it has selected it will give you directions to your destination. It is very helpful.

Note: You need data roaming turned on for GPS to work (but you don’t need to have purchased any data). Also, remember, if you close the app during the journey you will lose the route information.

HIRING A CAR IN MEXICO

Hiring a car In Mexico can be challenging. There are many different providers all providing different add-ons and levels of insurance making it difficult to compare prices and know what you have bought. When booking on-line it may appear you have hired a car for next to nothing, but when you actually reach your destination and go to the counter the price quickly starts to rise as compulsory add-ons seem to appear from nowhere.

AUTOEUROPE

The best portal we’ve found for booking hire cars is AutoEurope. They have access to cars from all the major companies which are compared on a grid format that clearly displays the prices for different car sizes across each provider.

They also display what is and isn’t included in the price and offer good value insurance options. With a great interface and 24-hour customer service, we highly recommend them.

Use the below links based on your home location to start planning that road trip today.

EUROPE CUSTOMERS / Check hire car prices
USA CUSTOMERS / Check hire car prices


WHERE NEXT?

Our 1 month Mexico road trip was rewarding yet challenging. You can read about the challenges in our driving in Mexico post and about the rewards in our top experiences post.

We have also put together itineraries for 3 days in Mexico City and 2 weeks in Mexico, to help you enjoy the country over a shorter timeframe. Or you could simply peruse all our other Mexico articles, including an insight into the Aztec and Mayan ruins that pepper the country.

If you have questions please leave them in the comments section below – we always reply. But before you go any further why not follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and sign up to our monthly newsletter.

LIKE THIS ARTICLE? PIN IT!

Are you thinking of a Mexico road trip? Here are our impressions from a month on the road in this incredibly varied but challenging country.

Are you thinking of a Mexico road trip? Here are our impressions from a month on the road in this incredibly varied but challenging country.

191 Shares