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Cancun to CDMX: road-trip along the Gulf of Mexico

Helen Alexander

Senior Contributor

While the route from Cancun south along the Caribbean Sea is very well-travelled, not so many people explore Mexico’s north coast, which takes in Mayan ruins and breath-taking archaeological sites, as well as underground lagoons, mouth-watering regional cuisine and rows of pretty, pastel-coloured houses. But to see more of what Mexico has to offer, you are going to want to get behind the wheel and set off on an authentic adventure.

Valladolid’s underwater lagoons

With its pastel-coloured colonial houses and buzzing main square, it’s easy to while away a few days wandering Valladolid’s picture-perfect streets. However, one of the main attractions here are the cenotes that dot the landscape. Formed millions of years ago when a meteor stuck the Yucatan Peninsula, these water-filled limestone sinkholes are the perfect place to cool off on a hot day. The stalactites that hang above Dzitnup make for an atmospheric dip, while nearby the sunlight that streams through a small hole in Samula’s roof is simply beautiful. Follow up your swim with some shopping along Calle 41A, where you will find perfumes and a serene spa at Coqui Coqui and chic swimwear and sundresses at La Troupe. This stylish stretch is also known as Calzada de los Frailes, or Walkway of the friars, and fittingly leads to the old monastery of San Bernardino de Siena, where a breath-taking light show explaining the area’s history is projected on the rugged stones walls each evening. 

Mayan heartlands in Mérida

Head east towards the coast and you will hit the extraordinary Mayan complex of Chichén Itzá while, about 50km south of Mérida, the archaeological attractions continue at Ruta Puuc – a collection of ruins that rise majestically from the jungle. The city itself is home to the colonial-era Plaza Grande and plenty of grand Spanish-style mansions, but there’s nothing old-school about its culinary scene. Grab a gelato at Pola, which specialises in artisan ice creams and sorbets featuring local ingredients – like the refreshing banana with hibiscus flower or the experimental blue cheese with apple compote. Then, for a choice of 18 inventive kitchens, head to Mercado 60 to enjoy food at one of the communal tables against a backdrop of live bands. More music and killer cocktails can be found at the renowned La Negrita Cantina. For something a little more traditional, ask a local where to eat conchita pibil – everyone has a favourite place where they tuck into these delicious tacos stuffed with citrus-marinated, slow-cooked pork. 

Campeche’s coastal chill-out spots

Head towards the coast and you’ll be met by a string of the sleepy fishing villages that lead to Campeche. Along the way, spot see flamingos as they wade through the sparkling waters of Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Celestun. Watch the sunset as you wander along Campeche’s beautiful 7km boardwalk and, when you reach the northern tip, you will be rewarded with some of the freshest seafood you’ve ever eaten at a collection of over-the-water restaurants. The following day, grab a spicy-sour cocktel de camarones (seafood cocktail) for lunch in Champotón before continuing to the beaches and beer shacks around Sabancuy and nearby Isla Aguada, where you can head out in a boat to watch dolphins ride the waves and delve into the wildlife-filled mangroves. 

Vibrant Veracruz

It’s a busy port, but Veracruz certainly has its charming spots. Like the waterfront promenade, which is dotted with sand beaches and palapa restaurants, vibrant Zócalo that’s the scene of live music performances come evening, and the Barrio De La Huaca neighbourhood that has a Caribbean feel thanks to its colourful wooden houses. Start the day right with a coffee lechero at the historic Gran Café de la Parroquia. This huge all-day eatery has been in business since 1808, and its milky coffees – served at the table from large metal kettles – are renowned. Unsurprisingly, the fish and seafood offerings here are seriously good – like the traditional dish of Huachinango a la Veracruzana (Veracruz-style red snapper). As you start to head inland towards Mexico City, be sure to stop at Xalapa for stunning views of the country’s highest mountain, Pico de Orizaba, the pre-Columbian archaeological site of nearby El Tajín and the fascinating Museo de Antropología.

Myriad cuisines in Mexico City

By now, you’ll have passed through several of the country’s most flavourful states, but to keep experiencing everything this melting pot of a capital city has to offer it’s worth refuelling at the acclaimed restaurant Carmela y Sal, where Gabriela Ruiz Lugo – named best chef by Mexico Gastronomic Guide 2019 – serves dishes inspired by her home state of Tabasco. Having studied gastronomy in Mérida, the menu also features ingredients and dishes from the Yucatán Peninsula and Veracruz. Think of dinner here as a refined whistle-stop tour through the food you have encountered along the way.  

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