Published on February 10th, 2015 | by Mark Chesnut
Hit the Road: 5 Great Car Rental Road Trips in Mexico
One of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in Mexico was driving from Cancun to Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya. For many years, I’d been visiting Mexico for vacation and work, but always sticking to mass transportation, shuttles and rides from friends and associates. So the freedom of being able to explore some of the most beautiful Mexico beaches — and stop when and where I wanted to — was exciting (and also great for finding photo opps).
With that in mind, I began researching a variety of the other top car rental road trips in Mexico — places where touring on your own, by car, offers the most opportunities for fun and sightseeing in Mexico. Here are 5 of the best.
1. Cancun to the Riviera Maya
As the top vacation destination in Mexico, Cancun is the point of arrival for more visitors than any other city in the nation. Its easy-to-navigate highways and proximity to other attractions and activities on the Yucatan peninsula also make it a rewarding place to get behind the wheel. Head south along the coast, and it’s almost impossible to make a wrong turn, as it’s a straight shot to the Riviera Maya, which is home to eco-parks like Xcaret and Xel-Ha, both of which offer exciting outdoor adventures for all ages. Don’t miss the chance to swim in one of the cenotes, which are deep, water-filled natural sinkholes. At Xcaret, you can also watch lively cultural performances of song and dance, with roots that trace to pre-Hispanic culture. Xel-Ha is noteworthy for its snorkeling and and other water-based activities. You should also make time to wander the streets of Playa del Carmen, the popular tourist town on the Caribbean coast. Lots of restaurants and nightlife line the pedestrian-friendly passages here, and there are also good boutique hotels in town (you can also spend a few nights at one of the many all-inclusive resorts in the Riviera Maya, which pack in lots of amenities and easy access to the Riviera Maya’s gorgeous beaches. Further south is Tulum, the ruins of an ancient Mayan city that is one of the region’s most scenic archeological sites, thanks to its location along the shore.
2. Cancun to Chichén Itzá and Mérida
Heading west from Cancun brings you to a whole new array of possibilities. The legendary Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá, which date to the Late Classic period of 600-900 A.D., are a must-see for first-time travelers. You’ll want to take a guided tour to fully understand the majesty of the Mayan culture that once flourished here and built the impressive, much-photographed El Castillo pyramid. A bit further on, you’ll reach Mérida, the capital city of the state of Yucatan and a fascinatingly historic destination. It’s a great place to stroll and sample local Yucatecan cuisine; a handful of large hotel chains and small hotels dot the city landscape — or for a truly unique experience, you can choose to stay at one of the historic haciendas outside of the city, several of which have been converted into upscale hotel properties (Xcanatún is the closest to Mérida). From this area, it’s easy to plan excursions to even more Mayan ruins around the region, or perhaps a visit to the pristine, uncrowded coastline of Yucatan state.
3. Los Cabos to La Paz
A lot of celebrities and outdoor enthusiasts head to Los Cabos, and for good reason: This Mexico beach destination has a healthy array of upscale hotels, as well as dramatically beautiful scenery that ranges from scenic Pacific Ocean vistas to sprawling deserts that are filled with flora and fauna. A perfect rental car road trip from Los Cabos will take you to La Paz, a modern city graced with a pleasant malecón (waterfront promenade). Plan to spend at least a couple days in or around La Paz, as it’s an ideal gateway to the wonders that await in the Sea of Cortez. A number of local tour operators offer excursions out onto its waters, to see the whale sharks that visit seasonally, as well as the nearby island of Espiritu Santo, which is home to a colony of sea lions. Other popular rental car driving destinations in the region include the artist community of Todos Santos, where you can explore art galleries, go surfing, or view gray whales that migrate through the waters nearby between January and March every year.
4. Puerto Vallarta to San Sebastián de Oeste
Drive less than two hours from the Mexico beach resort of Puerto Vallarta and you may feel like you’ve gone back in time. The town of San Sebastián del Oeste (often called simply San Sebastián) offers much more than a run-of-the-mill Mexico tour experience; it’s a chance to bask in the ambiance of Mexico’s rich history. Tucked into the hills of the Sierra Madre mountains, San Sebastián is a picturesque village about 90 minutes from Puerto Vallarta. Originally settled in 1605, this settlement grew wealthy from mining, and peaked with a population of more than 30,000 residents. Since then, the town has shrunk to about 600 people, making it a tranquil place to admire historic architecture and learn about traditional ways of life that date to long before the arrival of the first tourists in Puerto Vallarta. Stop at Restaurante El Parral en route to sample raicilla, a spirit that dates to pre-Hispanic times, and have lunch in town at Los Arraganes, where the staff makes tortillas by hand right before your eyes. You’ll likely want to snap photos of the 18th-century church and cobblestone plaza; for a memorable overnight experience, consider a stay at Hacienda Jalisco, a beautifully rustic property in the countryside, with a cobblestone driveway, abundant fruit trees, colorful flowers and butterflies and lovely architecture.
5. San Miguel de Allende to Guanajuato
Mexico’s interior is chock full of historic towns and cities, with outstanding architecture and fascinating culture. Two of the most beautiful colonial cities — San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato — are conveniently close to each other, making it especially easy to plan a rental car driving tour that takes in the best of both destinations. In San Miguel de Allende, you can explore cobblestone streets, join cultural festivals and savor expertly prepared local cuisine. Hop in your rental car and in less than two hours, you’ll arrive at the city of Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage city where graceful colonial-era buildings and shady plazas create a postcard-perfect backdrop for wandering, with museums and theaters offering an array of cultural diversions.