Guide to Renting a Car in the Yucatan Peninsula
Of all the places in Mexico where I’d most recommend renting a car, the Yucatan Peninsula is on top of the list. Why?? Because there are sooo many adventures to be had here ~ from swimming in gorgeous underground cenotes, to visiting World Wonder Chichen Itza, or even traveling further off-the-beaten path to places like the Pink Sea…which is pictured below. In this “Guide to Renting a Car in the Yucatan Peninsula,” I’ll give you my best tips for staying safe, getting the best deals, & having amazing adventures in one of Mexico’s most beautiful regions.
My favorite company for finding great rental car deals is Discover Cars ~ check their site for your trip & you may be able to save 70% off regular price. I’ve found it’s ALWAYS cheaper to book ahead for car rentals. I’ve paid as little as $5 for ONE WEEK of car rental in Playa del Carmen!!!
FAQ on Renting a Car in the Yucatan Peninsula
Q: Do we NEED to rent a car in the Yucatan Peninsula?
A: If you’re just in Cancun for a few days, & don’t really want to do much exploring: then no, you don’t need to rent a car. Particularly if you’re staying in one of Cancun’s beachfront all-inclusives, & you just want to hit the beach every day ~ simply grab a taxi from the airport to your hotel, & then you can pretty much stay put. However, if you’ll be in the Yucatan for longer than 3 days, & you DO want to swim in cenotes, visit ruins like Chichen Itza or Ek Balam, or swim with turtles in Akumal: then yes, I would 100% recommend renting a car in Cancun, or whichever town is your main base.
Q: Is it SAFE to rent a car in the Yucatan ~ or even just Mexico in general?
A: The Yucatan Peninsula has long been one of Mexico’s safest regions, as you can see on the U.S. State Department’s website. Because this area is so popular with tourists, it’s in the government’s best interest to keep them safe here. Also, the Yucatan is not one of Mexico’s primary drug or cartel states, the way that Sinaloa or Michoacan is.
Speaking from personal experience as a female traveler, I’ve rented a car more than three times in the Yucatan: first with friends at Cancun International Airport, after which we drive to Chichen Itza, up to the Pink Sea, then down to Tulum. Next, I rented a car by myself in Playa del Carmen, at the whopping rate of $5 for ONE WEEK!! I got this screaming deal by renting ahead with Avis. From Playa, I drove all the way across the peninsula to the beautiful town of Merida, which is near the Uxmal Ruins. And finally, I also rented a car on the island of Cozumel, one of my favorite spots in the Yucatan.
The main problem you’ll encounter when driving in the Yucatan is SPEED BUMPS!! I’ve never seen worse speed bumps than in the Yucatan: they’re typically not painted, so sometimes you hit them without warning & absolutely fly over them. They are MASSIVE!! You typically won’t find them on the main highway, but if you’re driving through any small town along the way ~ you can pretty much count on hitting some.
Otherwise, in terms of safety: I felt completely comfortable driving on all the major highways in the Yucatan. The toll road that connects Cancun with Valladolid, Chichen Itza, & eventually Merida is a fast, well-paved road with very little traffic. And the highway that takes you from Cancun south to Playa & Tulum is a fine road, albeit with more speed bumps than the toll road ~ & you will find more traffic here, as this corridor holds the Yucatan’s most popular hotels. But if you run into any problems: there are plenty of people around, as well as a strong police presence, particularly around Playa del Carmen.
Still, anywhere in Mexico I’d recommend driving during the day only, & avoid driving at night.
Q: Have you ever gotten pulled over while driving in Mexico, & did they make you pay a fine?
A: The only time I’ve ever gotten pulled over in Mexico is when I mistakenly went the wrong way down a one-way street in Cozumel; there was a cop sitting right there, & he confiscated my driver’s license until I was able to pay the (cash) fine. I eventually went to the police station to pay it. But in all my travels in the Yucatan, which covered nearly the whole peninsula, I’ve never been pulled over ~ nor were my friends.
Q: What’s the drive like between Cancun & Playa del Carmen? Or between Cancun & Tulum?
A: It’s a straight-shot south from Cancun to either Playa del Carmen OR Tulum. From Cancun International Airport, it’s only 32 miles south to Playa del Carmen ~ but the drive on Hwy 307 can take over an hour, due to traffic, speed bumps, etc. But there’s NO toll on Hwy 307, aka no toll is due between Cancun & Playa del Carmen. Tulum is 72 miles south of Cancun’s airport, & this drive can take up to two hours. But, as Tulum is the region’s current darling, with a bevy of beautiful beachfront hotels ~ like the Azulik Tulum pictured below, most will say that it is definitely worth the drive.
My friends & I drove Hwy 307 from Tulum all the way up to Cancun early one morning, to catch our flight to Cuba, & the drive was quite uneventful ~ except for the massive speed bumps we hit!
Q: How much is the toll between Cancun & Chichen Itza? What about between Cancun & Merida? Do I need to bring cash?
A: If you’re driving from Cancun to Chichen Itza, the easiest route to take is 180D west for 124 miles, which takes about two & a half hours. There is a toll on this road of 380 pesos, which is almost $20 US dollars!! So it’s not a cheap road. You DO need to bring Mexican pesos to pay the toll, as they don’t accept credit cards. Make sure you hit the ATM in Cancun or wherever you’re starting your trip from.
The toll from Cancun all the way to Merida is 609 pesos, which is $32 US!! Again: BRING PESOS.
Though this is really expensive for a toll road, it does make the drive so easy ~ because there’s almost never traffic on the highway. I don’t recommend taking an alternate route, as A) It would take forever, & B) The toll road is extremely safe to travel on, particularly if you’re traveling solo or with young kids.
Q: What were your favorite Yucatan adventures that required having a car?
A: My #1 most memorable Yucatan adventure was definitely visiting the Pink Sea with friends Eileen & Nina; our photos & the whole day was just iconic. What made it so special was that, right across from the Pink Sea are some of the most stunning turquoise waters that we ended up skinny-dipping in ~ there was NO ONE on the beach, & the water was so warm…it was just a heavenly experience. Though I loved Chichen Itza & think it’s definitely worth a trip ~ just as memorable were two cenotes nearby in Valladolid. And I LOVED the ruins of Ek Balam (north of Chichen Itza) & Uxmal even more, mainly because they’re less crowded, & because you can actually climb some of these ruins, which you’re forbidden to do at Chichen Itza.
Q: Is Merida worth visiting?
A: Visiting Merida from Cancun requires commitment: it’s a 200-mile, four-hour drive (with that $32 toll). If you’re staying in the Yucatan for a week or less, than it’s probably not worth it. But if you’re visiting for several weeks, then a stop in Merida is well worth it. Compared to Cancun & Playa del Carmen, it’s a MUCH more authentic & appealing Mexican town, with amazing food & gorgeous boutique hotels. I spent over a week in Merida, got a bunch of high-quality dental work done (out of necessity), visited the gorgeous Uxmal Ruins, & hotel-hopped through many of the town’s fabulous boutique hotels.
I’m SO glad I went to Merida, as it shows a whole different side to the Yucatan’s more “touristy” eastern corridor.
Tips for Renting a Car in the Yucatan
If you’re renting a car at Cancun International Airport, you’ve got a plethora of choices: Hertz, Avis, National, Thrifty, Enterprise, & Budget Car Rental are all located here. When you exit your plane, you might be accosted by “touts” for these rental companies ~ but if you’ve booked ahead, you can breeze right by them & head straight for your rental agency.
Top Tips for Renting a Car in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, & Tulum
- My #1 tip for renting cars pretty much anywhere in Mexico, including the Yucatan, is: ALWAYS rent your car in advance!!! This ensures that you’ll get the best rate (companies are far more competitive online than they are in person, especially the day you need the rental), but it will also ensure that there is a car for you to rent! I’ll never forget an awful experience I had in Playa del Carmen with a very cheap “friend.” We wanted to swim with sea turtles in Akumal, & thus needed a rental car: so we walked to three different rental agencies. He argued with them about pricing at each, & by 2PM ~ we had wasted so much time, we missed swimming with sea turtles!!
In my book: EPIC FAIL. Save time: just book ahead!
- When you’re searching for rental cars online, prices will look really reasonable. But just know, once you check-in at the rental place, they will MAKE YOU choose an insurance package. Mexico does NOT recognize U.S. insurance policies; so they won’t cover you in terms of liability. Even if you have a credit card that covers rental car damage (as most travel cards do), this still doesn’t meet Mexico’s strict requirements, because credit cards typically only cover collision damage.
Bottom Line: Expect your rate to double or triple, once you’ve chosen your insurance package. Hertz & Avis, for example, offered three different insurance packages: low, medium, & basically full coverage. I chose the “medium” package, with a mid-sized deductible ~ & in Playa del Carmen, with my crazy $5/week rate, I ended up paying $100 for a week’s worth of liability insurance. Which, in my book, is still a screaming deal. And just FYI, it was cheaper to rent a car in Playa than in Cancun, which ended up being about $35/day.
- Once you’ve chosen your insurance package & received your car, take photos and/or video while you walk around the car with the agent. Assess the car for any damage, & make sure they note it on the form. I always take photos of any big damages to ensure that I won’t be blamed for it upon returning the car. It also lets the agent know that you’re paying attention & have documentation, should anything go wrong at check-out.
- If you’re staying in Playa del Carmen or Tulum & plan to explore the town(s) for your first few days: save renting a car for the end of your trip. This will save you money, & it will also save you from having to drive in their hectic downtowns (Playa’s is worse than Tulum’s). It’s very easy to walk or taxi around both Playa & Tulum, so I’d plan your bigger adventures for the beginning or end of your trip. Then you also won’t need to worry about parking the car at night, etc.
- Finally, be aware of potential “Gas Station Scams” in the Yucatan. Similar to my home state of Oregon, attendants fill up your gas for you ~ meaning, you don’t need to get out of the car. BE SURE your gas meter is set to “zeroes” before the attendant starts pumping; this scam lets the attendant collect more money from you than necessary. And if you’re paying with cash, note the denomination of bill you provide; sometimes, they’ll pretend you gave them a smaller note (i.e. 50 pesos instead of 500), & will demand more money from you. If this happens, BE FIRM & stand your ground; typically, they’ll back down.
Guide to Renting a Car in the Yucatan Peninsula
Bottom Line: Don’t be afraid to rent a car in Cancun!!! The driving is much easier than you might think (minus the speed bumps), & is very similar to driving in the States. Please reach out to me in the comments if you have any questions, as I’ve driven in nearly every major city in the Yucatan….