We have flights booked for the 8th January for 3 weeks, to Cancun, but we don't want to stay there. We want to see some of the Mayan sights, Chichén Itzá obviously but also some less well known and quieter ones in jungle and away from crowds. We would like to start the trip with a few days at a quiet beach (2/3 at the start & 4/5 at the end) and I'd really like to travel in a circuit, visiting Tulum, then if possible crossing into Belize & on to Guatemala and the Tikal site for a few days, before heading back into Mexico either via Palenque, or if that is too far, another route less traveled and head toward Merida and Chichén Itzá and finish at Holbox. Question is, is it possible as a self drive or can we get a car/driver? I don't want to be in a tour group and want some flexibility? Any suggestions would be appreciated. We have traveled a lot in India and Southeast Asia so I know you can pick up cars and drivers easily but not sure if it is possible in Mexico and indeed if we did a more formal tour in this trip with a view to going back again!
Three weeks is a lovely long time to spend in Central America, and you have some fantastic ideas of places to go. Regarding the rich Mayan history of the area, Chichén Itzá is of course a must-see, but in order to escape the crowds I would also recommend the rainforest-clad ruins of Palenque, as well as Tikal and perhaps even some of the smaller sites in Belize which had important trading relationships with Chichén Itzá.
When you fly into Cancun, you will be able to get to Tulum within a couple of hours so this is a great place to start. The quiet, laid-back beaches here feel like a world away from the high-rise resorts of Cancun! From there, you could travel to Chichén Itzá where we recommend spending a night — this way you can get into the ruins from 8am and enjoy having the temples mostly to yourself before the hordes of tourists arrive from the coast at about 11am. You can then travel up to Merida for a taste of Mexico’s colonial history and fantastic gastronomy. It sounds like you are particularly interested in the ancient history of the region, so we could also organize a day-trip to Uxmal and Kabah for you. Uxmal is almost as grandiose as Chichén Itzá but you will share it with far fewer tourists.
Kabah, meanwhile, is unique in that it has only been partially excavated so the site remains very much as it would have been when the explorers first discovered it in the mid 19th century. You can then take a short domestic flight to the jungles of Palenque, one of my favorite Mayan sites due to the fantastically preserved inscriptions at the top of the main temples. From Palenque you can travel by road to El Petén in the north of Guatemala where you will find the epic ruins of Tikal. This is a fairly long road journey, although it is incredibly scenic and can be turned into an interesting day trip by stopping to see the lesser-known ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak en route!
You mentioned you would like to see some of Belize too, so from here you can take a light aircraft flight across to Ambergris Caye to enjoy some Belizean-style beach relaxation at the end of the trip. Belize is a wonderful place to end your trip, especially if you are interested in snorkeling or diving as the reef here is much better preserved than its Mexican counterpart, and it is now connected to Cancun by a direct flight. Alternatively, if you did want to see Holbox then I would recommend switching the order and starting at Holbox so you can finish at Tulum. This is partly due to ferry times to Holbox and connecting with your international flights, and partly due to the quality of the beach — the beach at Tulum is better quality than Holbox so it would be lovely for you to finish on a high!
With regards to how you travel round — we are constantly researching self-drive options in Central America and thanks to a lot of investment the roads around Cancun and Tulum are now perfectly safe and convenient for self-drive, so this may be a good way to explore the area at the start of your trip. Elsewhere, the nature of the roads and length of journey means it is vital to have your own driver, and we have found some wonderful driver-guides in the area who will regale you with stories of the areas local history as you go. We agree that flexibility is an important ingredient to any vacation, so like you we err away from group tours and focus as much as we can on private guides and drivers. However, on your route there are a few places where we can organize small-group tours (usually 6-8 people maximum) which can be a more cost-effective way of visiting some of the more off-the-beaten track temples.
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