Skip Cancun and Take This Epic Road Trip Across Southern Mexico
Two weeks, 2,000 miles, five states—southern Mexico is calling you.
You can’t truly get to know a country by merely visiting its largest or most popular cities. In the case of Mexico, places like Mexico City, Cancun, or Cabo San Lucas—a few of the locales most frequented by foreigners—might provide a bite-sized taste of what the country has to offer, but certainly not the whole enchilada. To enjoy the full feast, you have to go to the in-between places that are most easily reached by automobile. This is especially true when you’re traveling through the (hopefully) dwindling days of COVID, during which public transport is still best avoided.
Mexico’s borders have remained open through the duration of the pandemic, and as a result thousands of Americans and other foreigners have flocked to the likes of Tulum and Playa del Carmen where they could party like reality didn’t exist. I’m not recommending that course of action, but rather that you road-trip your way primarily through the rurals of southern Mexico, where adventure, culture, and beauty loom large but the impact of COVID (both in terms of spreading and contracting it) can be relatively well mitigated.
And this isn’t an itinerary that is suited solely to our pandemic-stricken times. Fauxpocalypse or no, you need no excuse to visit the stunning landscapes of Mexico’s great southern nub.
This route begins and ends on the coast of Oaxaca, and while I followed a specific route, it’s easy to tailor yours to suit your timeframe, interests, and desired level of cultural immersion—your comfort with the language or lack thereof, in other words. All told, the circuit can be completed in as few as nine days, but I’d recommend giving yourself at least 12 to 15 so that you have some breathing room to enjoy prolonged stays here and there.
Essentially you can fly into any of the airports along the route and launch wherever you please, but I started off in Puerto Escondido, the increasingly popular surfing mecca on the coast of Oaxaca where I’ve been hiding out for the duration of the pandemic. If you decide to start in the same place, Los Tres Reyes is the only car rental you should consider. The others are notorious for overcharging and bad service in general. At Reyes they’re pretty straightforward, and there’s usually a deal for renting by the week.
While you can make the trip in just about any car, I can attest from personal experience that it’s worth shelling out for something with a relatively reliable engine and comfortable seats. You will be driving uphill, you will need the oomph for passing slow trucks, and you will be behind the wheel for long periods of time. Of the options available a Jeep is your best bet, though the Nissan Sentra, VW Golf, or Dodge Journey will all get the job done. Avoid the Fiat at all costs.
Puerto Escondido is a fine place to begin and end as it provides ample beach relaxation before you get behind the wheel. Stay in the bohemian la Punta district if you want to walk around barefoot and do a bit of barhopping (they are open for business), or in the Rinconada neighborhood if you prefer tranquility and a more upscale atmosphere.
From there you’ll head southeast on the highway with the intention of reaching the state of Chiapas where you should aim for either Tuxtla Gutierrez or San Cristobal. It’s a full day’s drive along the idyllic coves of the lower-Oaxacan coast, then the landscapes as you pull into the mountains of Chiapas are nothing short of marvelous—all rolling hills, dramatic vistas, and vibrant hues of yellow and blue like some Mixtec painting in the style of Van Gogh.
Tuxtla and San Cris both offer completely different experiences. The former is a sizeable city of half a million with a strong indigenous vibe derived from colorful aesthetic touches drawn from the Zoque and Aztec cultures that once ruled the region, while the latter is much smaller and looks like it could have been transported directly out of 16th century Spain. Go to Tuxtla if you want a good jumping-off point for outdoor exploration—perhaps the most renowned opportunity being a boat ride down the epic Sumidero Canyon—and go to San Cristobal if you’re more interested in shopping for handcrafts and trying the hip restaurants.
Next you’ll be heading for the Mayan ruins of Palenque, and you essentially have two options for getting there: the long way, which takes seven hours over mostly smooth, high-speed roads; or the short-cut, which takes five hours through winding mountain roads dotted by many, many speed bumps. Many.
For those of a somewhat more adventurous disposition, I suggest taking the latter. It’s a pain to have to change speeds constantly due to the bumps (called topes in Spanish—a common feature throughout the region), and those with a weak stomach may find the twists and turns to be too much, but this route offers an abundance of lush beauty and takes you through a series of remote indigenous villages, among which are several that are still managed by the anti-imperialist revolutionary group the Zapatistas.
Now it’s important that we discuss etiquette for visiting such a region. These villages are, for all practical purposes, detached from the outside world, meaning the impact of COVID has been relatively small. While it’s rare to see people wearing masks, you should take all possible precautions to keep from potentially infecting the local population. By all means get out of your car and buy things (they want your money), but do what you can to limit the risk of transmission: washing hands, wearing masks—you know the drill.
It’s also important that you understand how, in some ways, when you’re on this road you’re no longer in Mexico. It is Mexico in theory, but in practice these are the Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities. You’ll see signs warning off the police and military. You will more than likely be stopped at a checkpoint of young men who are gathering “donations” from passers-through, usually around fifty pesos ($2.50). While this is certainly strange to the average outsider, it is not dangerous. They’re nice people trying to eke out a living and keep an eye on who is coming and going. Be polite, give them their money, and enjoy the view.
Once you reach the town of Palenque there are numerous accommodations ranging from Airbnbs and hostels to luxury resorts, but I recommend staying at Hotel la Aldea or one of the other options located closer to the ruins. Not only will this immerse you in the rich jungle foliage, but it places you within walking distance of the ruins which you’ll reach via a delightful roadside path. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to the bizarre, only-somewhat terrifying bellows of the howler monkeys that frequent the trees above your bungalow.
The ruins themselves are spectacular. Nestled in the jungle, some of these pyramids and other structures date back more than 2,000 years to the height of the Mayan civilization. And as it turns out, perusing a place like Palenque during a pandemic is highly enjoyable thanks to the distinct lack of crowds. While there were others scattered about during my visit, there were times when it felt like I had the site all to myself.
Next you’ll be blasting seven hours on some of the best roads I’ve seen in southern Mexico to the Yucatan capital of Merida. This will take you through the pastoral ranchlands of the state of Campeche. At some point you’ll pass through the actual city of Campeche where you’re more than welcome to stop, but you’ll be coming back this way later, so you might as well save it. Instead, break for lunch about an hour earlier in Champoton, where you can have a tasty meal at Pelicanos which is situated right along the highway that carries you up the coast.
Merida is a pleasant city of just under a million. Considered one of the safest cities not only in Mexico but in the entirety of the Americas, it’s got a low-key coastal vibe and a 16th century Spanish aesthetic, though the local culture is more influenced by its large Maya population. In the city itself I recommend checking out the contemporary art museum, which—during my pandemic-stricken visit—was completely empty of people but full of great art from regional and national artists. In the same square you can cool off with ice cream from Dulceria and Sorbeteria Colon, a 114-year-old shop that offers an assortment of tasty, unique flavors like cantaloupe, corn, watermelon, and dragonfruit. And while there are plenty of quality restaurants in the city, if you want a true Yucatecan experience check out El Panucho de Kanasin, where the poc chuc (marinated and grilled pork) had me ordering fourths.
Merida provides easy access to two must-sees: the pyramid of Chichen Itza, and the region’s many cenotes.
Located about 90 minutes outside Merida, Chichen Itza is one of the largest of the ancient Mayan cities and its central structure is astoundingly well preserved. Once again the crowd size is diminished at present, though during my visit there were more people than at Palenque.
The reduction in crowds is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you get to enjoy the site free of the typical tourist hordes. But on the other, less visitors means less business for the souvenir hawkers, driving them to be relentless in their propositioning. Along one path that brings visitors to a pit where human sacrifices were once performed, the sellers were so insistent that I could only imagine how—had these entrepreneurs of the trinket been there some 1,700 years ago—an intended sacrifice, having passed through their transactional gauntlet, would have reached the expiatory hole more than ready to be taken out of their misery.
But the peddlers can’t be blamed. These are hard times for anyone attempting to make a living off tourism, so help them out and buy some cool stuff for next to nothing.
Speaking of the pit—cenotes. These are sinkholes of exposed groundwater that are scattered throughout the region, many of which functioned as water supplies, bathing spas, or sacrificial locations for the ancient Maya and other indigenous groups. While today they range in popularity and development, they are practically one and all the ideal place to cool off from the hot Yucatan sun.
There are plenty of them to choose from, but for the purposes of our itinerary I recommend Cenotes Hacienda Mucuyche, which you can catch on the way out of Merida when you head back toward Campeche. Sunk into the remains of an 18th century hacienda and plantation, the pools and caves through which you’ll be swimming as part of a guided group are nothing short of wondrous. And the hacienda boasts a swimming pool, restaurant, and bar where you can relax before you return to the road.
Said road will backtrack you two-hours to Campeche, the downtown of which is one massive UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surrounded by a wall and fortresses constructed some 400 years ago to protect against pirates, its perfectly preserved buildings offer a charming explosion of color. Barhop along the outdoor seating of Calle 59 to enjoy tacos, cervezas, and so on.
From here you’ll continue through the state of Campeche, this time taking a coastal highway that provides a dazzling view of the Gulf of Mexico on the way to Villahermosa in the heart of the state of Tabasco. Villahermosa is a lively if somewhat rough-around-the-edges city where you’ll get a decidedly off-the-beaten-path look at urban Mexico.
Your primary goal in coming here is for its proximity to the archeological site la Venta some 90 minutes away. Boasting the oldest pyramid in the country as well as a collection of massive head sculptures—all of which date back as far as 3,000 years to the early Olmec civilization—it’s supposed to be an astounding glimpse into the past. Unfortunately during my visit the site turned out to be closed due to COVID, but it is expected to reopen soon.
Finally, you’ll be heading south along the 187, which will wind you deep into Tabasco through a number of villages (some quiet and bucolic, others vibrant and bustling) before carrying you back into Chiapas. This leg of the journey will bring you past some truly mind-blowing vistas, and there are plenty of pull-offs where you can stop and take photos. Eventually you’ll reach the bridge over Lake Malpaso where you’ll find two restaurants that provide an outstanding opportunity to stretch your legs, have a bite, and take in the view.
At this point you’re still some 14 hours from returning to Puerto Escondido thereby completing the great loop. If you have it in you to reach Salina Cruz you’ll find it to be an agreeable town where you can rest for the night then breakfast at a hip spot called 7:15 Brunch, but I personally had to pull off at the halfway point in Arriaga, right on the border between Chiapas and Oaxaca.
As far as I can tell, there is no good reason to go to Arriaga. It seems like the sort of place you move away from. I can make this determination because I am from such a place. In any case, there is no reason for its intentional inclusion on your itinerary.
But sometimes in life thanks to the quixotic nature of travel there arises unexpected value in knowing a cheap, clean, reliable hotel along whatever random highway. If you find yourself run aground along the lower Mexican coast—finally exhausted with driving a mere seven hours shy of Puerto Escondido after some 2,000 miles of road tripping around Mexico’s spicy southern boot, for example—Hotel Don Quixote on the outer edge of Arriaga will do the trick. For 350 pesos (about $17) you get a clean room and a safe place to park your car, and just down the street you’ll find a smattering of taquerias. The perfect place to stable Rosinante for the night and find repose.
The following day you’ll be back in Puerto Escondido, where you can relax on the beach until flying home.
All in all it’s not a difficult journey, nor a dangerous one, but it is most certainly diverse in what it has to offer. You’ll drive along gorgeous coastlines and through majestic mountains and tranquil farmlands. You’ll encounter friendly Chiapaneco fruit sellers, shy Oaxaqueño artisans, laid back Campechanos and Yucatecos, and tough-looking vaqueros from Tabasco. You’ll experience villages that look as if they haven’t changed in 100 years, modern cities, and historic sites centuries and even thousands of years old. And you’ll enjoy delicious food every step of the way.
Suffice to say that while many go to Mexico, few experience such a variety of what it has to offer. If you speak Spanish or can mumble your way through a few sentences, great, but it isn’t a prerequisite. No matter what state you’re in, the people of southern Mexico tend to be amicable and helpful. They’re proud of the beautiful place they live, and they’re more than happy to tell you about it—and to point you in the right direction.