Road tripping through the Yucatan

After a depressing, watered-down stay at a Dominican Republic all-inclusive last Thanksgiving (excuse: my cousin got married), I was eager to plan a no-frills, culture-heavy trip early this year. Mexico was at the top of my list – I’d never been and it was cheap enough to justify an 11-day vacation financially. After some soft planning, my boyfriend and I boarded a short flight – seemingly, thanks to JetBlue’s never-ending TV options – and picked up our reserved rental car at Cancun’s airport.

Tip No.1: Fill said rental car with gas if you get the vehicle with a nearly empty tank. Assured by a Europcar staffer that a gas station was a few miles down Route 180, we were off. Thirty minutes – and an explanation from a farmer on the side of the road that no, we would not find gas for another two hours – later, we turned around.

Valladolid ... home to lots of VW Bugs

After our delayed start, we made it to Valladolid, an enchanting town two hours (if you start with a full tank) inland from Cancun. We wandered for two days around the one-storied city, practicing our Spanish and sampling street food. On day two we motored just outside of the city to Valladolid’s famous cenotes – basically underground sinkholes – to take a dip. They were at one point sacred grounds for Mayans; now they exist more as relief from the Yucatan’s high temps for tourists and locals alike.

An inspiration swim ... at Cenote Sambula

We then drove to Merida (and stopped en route at Chichen Itza; I highly recommend getting there early, before the crowds and in-your-face merchants arrive) and had our first glimpse of Mexican urban life. The weekend market was in full swing when we arrived Saturday afternoon and hammocks, the area’s specialty, were on sale in bulk. I bargained at a few stalls, then realized indoor hammocks in the Northeast are only appropriate – well, never.

Chichen Itza ... before the crowds

Like many cities, Merida was mostly about the food for us. A regular at Chi Chi’s for the first 13 years of my life, I realize I may not be a connoisseur of Mexican food. But I can say with certainty that Yucatan’s specialties – panuchos, papadzules, cochinita pibil, ceviche – put Chi Chi’s seafood enchiladas to shame. Maybe my favorite taste of the visit was a michelada (and no, imitations at SXSW do not count) at El Trapiche. The libation’s flavor profile – spicy, salty, refreshing – was fantastic.

Micheladas for all! ... in Merida

We woke early after a couple of days in Merida to make the long haul to Chetumal. A six-or-so-hour drive, it offered beautiful views of farms and unsullied landscapes, making the lack of air conditioning in our 90s-era rental somewhat bearable. Chetumal lacks real character – it has a Sam’s Club and other Wal-Mart-owned companies, to give you an idea – but it’s a typical border town and convenient for expats looking to stock up. We only spent enough time there to return our car, find the bus station and down a quick quesadilla before crossing the border into Belize.

After a couple days in Belize City and Caye Caulker, an island off Belize’s coast that boasts world-renowned snorkeling and a laid-back vibe, we returned to Mexico and headed straight for Tulum, our final destination of the trip.

Sunrise in Tulum ... unreal

The eco-friendly beach retreat provided exactly the undiluted escape we needed. Sometimes bopping from one town to the next gets exhausting – especially when your time at each town is spent on foot for hours each day. We spent our last four days indulging: beachfront dinners – think lobster rubbed with roasted garlic, melt-in-your-mouth ceviche and pollo con mole – bike rides to Tulum’s coastal ruins, and uninterrupted hours catching up on must-reads that had queued in our Kindles.

Our hut ... at Coco Tulum

On our way home, we spent a night in Cancun – our flight left early the next morning – and contemplated exploring the party town on foot. Instead we ordered a pizza from our comparatively plush hotel room and watched Law & Order, exhausted at the notion of body shots and undergrads after a week-plus of authentic Mexico.

Budget accommodation recommendations: Valladolid, Hostel La Candelaria; Merida, Nomadas; Tulum, Coco Tulum

(Images: Lauren Sullivan)