Unique life forms evolved here, including 8,000 species of plants and 600 varieties of birds. Astounding archaeological sites and beautiful colonial cities dot the region. Just as stunning are the cenotes (say-no-tays) that were formed as fresh water seeped through limestone into underground rivers and collected in caverns and pools. In some places, limestone has weakened and collapsed, revealing the water underneath. These cenotes are amazing places to swim and dive, and are often teeming with fish.
You can explore the Yucatán Peninsula in an RV individually or as part of a tour organized by an RV caravan company. Most tours follow a similar route, departing from southern Texas, following the Gulf Coast, and circling the Yucatán—a round trip of approximately 3,600 miles. Among other stops you’ll have a chance to discover Villahermosa, Campeche, Mérida, Cancún, Paamul and Chetumal, and you can opt for guided tours of ancient Maya cities such as Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, Tulúm and Palenque.
Lots to Explore
There are three states on the peninsula—Campeche on the west, Yucatán in the north and Quintana Roo on the eastern or Caribbean side.
The northern part of Campeche is arid while the southern section is covered with rivers, lakes, and thick rainforests. The State of Yucatán is a huge plain covered with jungle and bushes, lagoons near the coast, and underground rivers and cenotes. The interior of Quintana Roo is dominated by low, semi-dry jungle, with over 40 lagoons and countless cenotes scattered about the region feeding stands of tropical forests. Many towns along the coastline have become major tourist destinations thanks to some of the most magnificent white-sand beaches in the Caribbean.
Capital of its namesake state, Campeche is the oldest city on the peninsula. Founded on the Gulf Coast site of an ancient Maya village, it became an important and wealthy port whose magnetism for pirate raids inspired the Spanish to build a 24-foot-high wall around the city. At Club Nautico RV & Trailer Park, situated on the gulf, you’ll find full hookups, a pool and rec room, tennis courts and a boat ramp. On the outskirts of town, Kin-Ha has water and electric hookups, a pool and restaurant.
Research points to Uxmal as having been one of the largest ancient Maya cities of the peninsula, holding economic and political power over a vast area. Nearby Sacbé, a small but well-maintained camping park, offers limited hookups, some bungalows, and convenient access to the many nearby archaeological sites.
Mérida, the state capital of Yucatán and largest city on the peninsula, was founded on the ruins of a Maya ceremonial center and became one of the conquistadores’ first strongholds in New Spain. It’s a charming and elegant city of white colonial mansions, palm-lined plazas, and lively markets. Barebones Rainbow Trailer Park, on the outskirts of town, has 100 full hookups. Wildlife lovers should head 22 miles northeast to camp at the bird sanctuary of Komchen de los Pajaros, an 840-acre former sisal ranch whose tropical dry forest is home to an enormous diversity of fauna and flora.
Undoubtedly the most famous and most visited of all Maya sites, Chichén Itzá is a must-see even if history isn’t your passion. As big and extensively restored as it is, several hundred structures still await excavation. The beautifully landscaped Piramide Inn Resort and its pool and restaurant welcome RVers. The Stardust Hotel also has a pool and restaurant as well as full hookups.
Valladolid was founded on the site of the first city in the Yucatán to be conquered by the Spanish. It is strategically placed and perfect for getting away from the hustle and experiencing an authentic and typical small Mexican town with many little markets and beautiful Colonial architecture. Just 16 miles north is Ek Balam, which the Maya inhabited for some 2,000 years, one of the longest occupations in the northern peninsula.
First settled by Maya royalty in 250 AD, Cancún was a small fishing village of 120 inhabitants before blossoming into a major tourist destination developed by the Mexican government. If you can do it over, on, in or under water, you can do it here. The nicely landscaped Rainbow Maya Cancún Trailer Park is situated convenient to major attractions. Mecoloco RV & Trailer Park, across from the beach, offers full hookups, laundry facilities and a small store.
South of Cancún is the Riviera Maya, a 100-mile stretch of coastline with fishing villages, tropical parks, intermittent resorts, beautiful grottos and unspoiled beaches. Puerto Morelos, one of the oldest seaports in the Yucatán, is still an active commercial port and a dock for the Cozumel ferry. Nearby Acamaya Reef Motel/Cabañas/RV Park, with its hammock-dotted white-sand beach, provides easy access to some good snorkeling. Camping is allowed on many of the excellent and deserted beaches stretching south of town.
Paamul sits on an intimate and romantic sheltered cove with a rocky beach on which turtles nest during warm summer nights. Beachfront Paa Mul RV Resort provides full hookups, laundry facilities, and a store. Many RVers return each year for extended stays under thatched-roof palapa shelters.
There are two sides to Tulúm: the small pueblo where tourists can dine and shop, and the ruins of an ancient Maya port city that was once an important commercial center. When the Spanish first saw Tulúm poised atop a 40-foot bluff above the sapphire Caribbean, they considered it as large and beautiful as Seville. Its easy accessibility and stunning location justifiy a visit.
Located along the shores of Chetumal Bay just north of the Belizean border, Chetumal has also been an important port since Maya times. Capital of Quintana Roo, the city is a mixture of Mayan, Mexican and Caribbean influence. You’ll find full hookups, a pool and boat ramp at Yax Ha, situated in the midst of a nearby vacation community.
Bacalar is home to Bacalar Lagoon, second largest in Mexico. Named for the nearby cenote, Trailer Park Cenote Azul has campsites situated in a large field with lots of shade trees. There is a dump station and a handful of electrical hookups.
Camping in Mexico is different in many respects. Many RV parks were built as add-ons to existing businesses such as resorts, hotels and farms. While most of Mexico is safe, boondocking is not recommended. Your RV and its contents are probably worth more than many folks make in a dozen years, and might present a big temptation to a few unscrupulous people.
Most main roads in Mexico are well-maintained, and it’s not difficult to find your way from town to town, although some side trips can test your patience for finding routes and obtaining (and understanding) directions. An alternative to the do-it-yourself method is signing up for an RV caravan.
Joining a caravan has some definite advantages: it resolves navigation issues, adds safety and offers the services of experienced guides. Most companies provide a tail gunner who helps tackle minor repairs. Disadvan-tages may include touring on someone else’s time schedule and sometimes a feeling of being herded like cattle. A less-than personable wagon master can be another detraction. Most caravan participants, though, say they enjoy sharing their experiences with like-minded travelers, and some develop lifelong friendships.
When choosing a caravan outfitter, be sure to ask: Do you use a tail gunner? What happens if someone has minor or major mechanical problems? Are there any hidden fees or additional charges? Will I receive clear and specific directions in case I get lost? How many nights will we have hookups and how many will be dry-camps? And most importantly, ask for references!
Some companies that offer caravan tours of the Yucatán Peninsula, from 44-day trips to 54-day adventures, include Adventure Caravans (www.AdventureCaravans.com/Mexico), Tracks RV Tours (www.TracksToAdventure.com), Fantasy RV Tours (www.FantasyTours.com) and Amigos Rodantes (www.Amigos-Rodante.com).
In timing your trip, keep in mind the proximity to the coast determines the temperature and humidity you’ll encounter. In summer, the Gulf Coast and Caribbean areas stay cooler due to trade winds, while interior jungles are humid and hot. November through March are generally very pleasant with blue skies, cool northern winds, less rainfall, and more moderate temperatures.
Driving an RV in Mexico needn’t be intimidating. Verify requirements for insurance coverage and vehicle documents before you leave. All gas stations are run by Pemex, a government monopoly, and are full-serve and cash-only. Blue pumps contain leaded fuel (Nova) and green pumps contain unleaded (Magna Sin); be sure the attendant resets the pump to zero before filling your tank.
If you’re on your own traveling a main road during daylight hours and have a problem or emergency, pull off the road, lift your hood, and watch for the Tourism Department’s Green Angels. These green pickup trucks are driven by bilingual mechanics and patrol from dawn to dusk, ready to lend assistance (protection, medical first aid, vehicle mechanical aid, basic supplies) to motorists in distress at no charge except for parts, gas and oil. If you require their assistance, please tip your Angel.
Mexico uses international road signs and although the words are in Spanish, the symbols are familiar. A few words important to your journey include: alto (stop), area de descanso (rest area), camino cerrado (road closed), disminuya su velocidad (slow down), no de frente (no entry), no rebase (no passing), peligroso (dangerous), prohibido estacionarse (no parking), and se usara grua (tow-away zone). One thing to definitely keep an eye out for are Mexico’s speed bumps. Called topes, also known as “sleeping policemen,” they are sometimes indicated by a yellow sign with small “mountains” on it, but sometimes not. They are rather tall, nearly invisible, and very effective.
But don’t let road signs or topes put you off. If you use common sense, Mexico is a safe country in which to travel. You’ll see a countless variety of animals and birds roaming the jungles and rainforests, and explore historic cities of the ancient and modern Maya, and colonial wonders built by the Spanish. You’ll bask on the white sands and frolic in the warm waters of the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean. You will return with a new appreciation and understanding of our southern neighbor, and memories to share and savor the rest of your life.
Vicki Andersen is a freelance travel writer who lives in Portland, Oregon