For Spring Break, we decided to fly to Cancun, Mexico. My husband originally wanted to go to an all-inclusive resort. I checked the prices and they seemed really high (spoiler alert: many all-inclusive resorts in Cancun are actually reasonably priced because the restaurants in Cancun are very expensive). I started trying to figure out an option that was better for the budget AND included seeing Chichen Itza. We decided to take a sightseeing road trip around the Yucatan Peninsula, which included spending a lot of time in Tulum.
That all being said, this is NOT a budget trip. Though in the end, it was pretty close to equal the cost of staying in an all-inclusive resort with one or two excursions for four. I am, however, extremely satisfied with the flexibility our choices offered us during the trip.
Well, I was satisfied once I got over feeling guilty about blowing our travel budget, of course.
We Blew Our Budget Because of These Two Things
I failed on the budget part due two reasons. Renting a car cost us a lot. I recommend full coverage insurance in Mexico due to the fact that I often encounter crazy drivers and pot-hole-filled roads. Buying full coverage more than doubled the cost of the car rental. In the USA, some insurance plans will have options to add a rental car for a week for no (or low) additional cost. Since we don’t have any cars and insurance in the US, we didn’t have this option. Obviously, that would save a considerable sum of money.
Second, the cost of food in all of the spots we visited was far higher than we expected. It wasn’t just US-prices, it was a pretty fancy meal in Columbus, Ohio prices. Or maybe closer to that of a popular US tourist destination. Dinner in Tulum was around $60 USD for four (with drinks and dessert). Lunch at La Isla Mall in Cancun was around $96 USD for four (with dessert). We did offset this some by purchasing food and preparing it ourselves while in Tulum. Even so, grocery store prices there were also high. I did not check grocery prices in Cancun.
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Yucatan Peninsula and Tulum Itinerary (Includes Rest Days)
Even with those things being considerably higher than we expected, we loved the freedom that having a car gave to us for this trip. It is also a good idea to have a car in Tulum if you will not be staying right on the beach. We actually wouldn’t have needed one if we stayed in Cancun all week, even without being at an all-inclusive resort.
Day 1: Fly into Cancun, Rent a Car, and Drive to Piste, Mexico
We opted to drive the most miles on day 1 by driving from Cancun to Piste. Piste is in the state of Yucatan and also the home of Chichen Itza. This guide to doing Chichen Itza on your own has all the information from our trip along with my suggestions of the easiest way to see this amazing place with a private tour or on your own. Since we have young children (ages 4 and 5 at the time of our visit), this is the only way that our family could handle it. A long day tour from Cancun would likely have been a miserable and expensive experience for us.
Day 2: See Chichen Itza, then Head to Tulum
We spent the morning at Chichen Itza. Our hotel had a private entrance to the site, which saved so much time and was so incredibly easy. We had a leisurely breakfast at our hotel and then met our tour guide in the lobby.
Our original plan was to head to Ek Balam, spend the night, and the see the ruins the next day. We did drive there from Chichen Itza and it took roughly an hour. Due to a weird and rare incident in Valladolid, we changed our plans and headed straight to Tulum. In retrospect, since we only spent the morning at Chichen Itza, we could’ve driven to Ek Balam ruins and visited them in the afternoon. They aren’t as popular as Chichen Itza and by all reports, the site isn’t very busy. There would be plenty of time to visit and then drive to Tulum.
Day 3: The Mayan Ruins of Tulum
Since we woke up in Tulum, we decided to head to the Mayan Ruins on the sea. Go early in the morning and bring your mosquito repellent. In the dry season, the mosquitoes aren’t terrible, but in the wet season, tourists get eaten up.
The private tour here is only about 45 minutes. You do get to skip the line if you decide to purchase it. We did, because due to poor planning, we arrived at midday. It was fairly busy and the line was a little long for our little niños.
After visiting the ruins, you can stay on the property and head down to the beach and swim (we did not do this) or you can head out and go to the shops nearby.
Day 4: Coba Ruins
The ruins at Coba are outside of town by about 45 minutes. The drive is straightforward and easy enough that we didn’t have any problems with finding it.
I could’ve spent all day at Coba. Again, we arrived pretty close to opening time. We used the restrooms outside the entrance (I didn’t see any inside), then bought our tickets, and went right on inside. We were asked if we wanted to purchase a private tour, but I knew about the pedicabs and bicycles for rent inside and that’s what we wanted. I don’t know if we could combine the the two (having a tour guide along with a pedicab). The pedicab drivers aren’t tour guides.
We opted for the shorter tour. When you do that, you only see a really small amount of the grounds. You do get to see the big and climbable pyramid that Coba offers. Since we visited ruins three days in a row, this is how it worked for us.
Days 5 – 6: Hanging Out in Tulum
There are more activities I wanted to do while in Tulum, like visit some cenotes, see the Si’an Kaan Bioreserve, and go to the beach. We visited the public beach twice during our trip (be aware, there are no changing facilities or bathrooms that I could find) and we spent a lot of time in the pool at our condo. If you’re the adventurous type, you can easily fill these two days with additional activities.
Day 6: Drive from Tulum to Cancun
It’s barely two hours to get from Tulum to Cancun and you’ll see a myriad of resorts along the way. We had no trouble finding our condo building in Cancun. In fact, this is one of the few trips where we didn’t get lost at all.
We stayed in another Airbnb offering, again with a pool on premises. This one also had direct access to the beach. However, in the area where our condo was located, the beach wasn’t as fun and the majority of it was covered in red flags. There was one area with yellow and that’s where we could get into the water.
My kids, husband, and I unanimously agree that the seaweed covered beach in Tulum was a lot better for families. However, we still enjoyed our time in Cancun!
Day 7: Ride the Bus to the Mall Or Other Activity
Okay, we did this on the day we arrived to Cancun, but it can be done multiple times per visit! There is only one street in the hotel zone and there are a few malls to see (and more hotels). We went to La Isla Mall and it is now even easier to find because there is a giant Ferris wheel in front of it.
We ate a restaurant that overlooked the dolphin pool. I didn’t realize this when we sat down. We watched the dolphins swim and then we watched them swim with humans. I don’t recommend spending your tourist dollars doing this activity, as the dolphins in these places aren’t treated well. Read more about ethical animal tourism and why I don’t support swimming with dolphins.
Day 8: Pack Up and Head Home
We picked a mid-day flight home, so we could spend as much time in Cancun as possible. We had enough time for only a few minutes in the pool before we needed to get ourselves packed up and return the rental car to the airport.
Why We Chose to Rent a Car for This Trip
While not a budget trip, the convenience of being able to do things at our best times (mornings) and at our leisure was great. If I’d stayed at an all-inclusive resort, I wouldn’t have been able to see all of the things I wanted to see. The other reason that we rented a car was for the safety of our children. Car seat safety is so important to me. By renting a car, I can ensure that they will be properly buckled during every minute they are riding in it.
Additionally, with a car, you can pack in as many or as few activities that work for you and your family!
If You Want to Have a Tulum Vacation
You can still do everything on this itinerary, being based in Tulum, especially if you have a car already. I chose to stay in Piste on our first night because of the convenience of being right next to Chichen Itza. You could easily drive there early in the morning, see the site, and return to Tulum the same day.
What I Wish I’d Done Differently
I wish I’d planned to go from Cancun to the Pink Lakes of Las Coloradas (just under 4 hours of driving and 307 km, depending on the route you take), then over to Chichen Itza, and as proceed as indicated in the information above. Also, I’d only spend the last day in Cancun, to make catching our flight that much easier.
However, with all of the available options, I had to limit it some or we’d have been changing locations every day. If I had planned to see the Pink Lakes, then we could’ve gone to Holbox Island, too. I also want to swim with the Whale Sharks (one of the few animal activities that I currently believe is ethical) and that activity is available seasonally on Holbox.
What I Did Right
We tried to pack in as many Mayan ruins as we felt our young kids could manage; my husband and I believe it’s the only time we’ll visit them (though, I’ll try to convince him to go back to Coba!) Our next trip to the Yucatan peninsula we might only see the beach. Since I’ve gotten to do several thing in the area, I’ll be just fine relaxing next time!
You know, other than seeing a few things I missed this time around!
Have you visited the Yucatan peninsula? What site or activity was on your wishlist? Did it live up to your expectations?