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Riding the buses » Mexico, Planning your trip, Road trips, Travel itinerary, Travel tips » How I travelled around the Yucatan by bus

How I travelled around the Yucatan by bus

Thinking about riding the buses in Mexico and don’t know the language? Here’s how an “older” female, travelling solo, with no Spanish, did it last month. I hadn’t planned to go there. In fact, I had just come back from Asia and my travel fund was low. But winter was lingering here in Canada so I impulsively decided to wait it out someplace warm.

Yucatan bus

I do know some Spanish and here it is.
–       Hello. Hola. (o-la)
–       Goodbye.  Adiós.  (a-dyos)
–       Good day.  Buenos dias.  (bwe-nos dee-as)
–       Good afternoon.  Buenas tardes.  (bwe-nas tar-des)
–       Good evening.  Buenas noches.   (bwe-nas no-ches)
–       Coffee with milk.  Café con leche.  (ka-fe kon le-che)
–       Red wine.  Vino tinto  (vee-no teen-to)
–       The bill please.  La cuenta por favor.  (la kwen-ta por fa-vor)
–       How much is it?  Cuándo cuesta?  (kwan-to kwes-ta)
–       Thank you.   Gracias  (gra-syas)
–       Sorry.  Perdón.  (per-don)

These few words and lots of gestures worked just fine.

I’ve travelled around Mexico but never to Merida and that city has been on my travel list for some time. There is a TV show here in Canada called House Hunters International where house hunters buy real estate in foreign countries. Two episodes were based in Merida and I really liked what I saw.

The cheapest way for me to get there would be to take a West Jet flight from Ottawa to Cancun (CDN $535 return) and then a bus to Merida. I would arrive in Cancun around noon Mexican time so would travel overland during daylight hours. I googled buses and sure enough I could catch one right from the airport to the downtown Cancun station and on to Merida.

Yucatan Peninsula

I decided to stay a week in Merida followed by time in Isla Mujeres, an island north of Cancun that I visited a decade ago and really liked. Using Trip Advisor and Agoda I found a charming place in historic Merida at 35% off the regular rate and an inexpensive room in one of the original hotels in Isla. And off I went.

Cancun airport

I landed at terminal 2 in the Cancun airport and found an ATM when I went through customs. I was told to turn right when I left the terminal  and keep walking until I saw the “ADO” red/grey bus ticket booth and buses, and there they were. I understand it’s a similar setup at terminal 3.

The bus to Cancun’s downtown bus station is non-stop, takes 35 minutes and costs 56 pesos (USA$4.59). You can also catch a bus from the airport to Playa del Carmen (65 minutes).

Downtown Cancun terminal

Cancun bus station

The bus terminal is very clean and well organized. They put your name on the ticket and you choose your seat. Your suitcase is tagged and stored in a compartment under the bus. The cost to travel to Merida on a first-class bus going along the toll road was 312 pesos (US$25.58).

Bus to Merida

The bus made a short stop in Valladolid, which is half way between Cancun and Merida. It’s known as the “Sultan of the East” because of its colonial buildings. Valladolid is only 40km (28 miles) from Chichen Itza, which is perhaps the best-known Mayan archeological sites and recently named one of the “New 7 wonders of the world”. I’ve visited Chichen Itza but I would be interested in seeing more of Valladolid on a return visit.

The trip took almost 4 hours. The bus wasn’t fancy but adequate and the loud movies they play drove me crazy but others seemed to enjoy them.


Merida hotel

There is a taxi stand inside the Merida bus station and in a matter of minutes I was at my hotel, in time to have a swim in the small pool before heading out for supper.

Merida is a gorgeous colonial city that surpassed all expectations (more about that in May). Both the state and the city do an admirable job assisting tourists with advice, maps, brochures and a free walking tour. I took the hop-on hop-off bus that leaves from the central plaza and even though the commentary was only offered in Spanish it was well worth the price for a ‘high’ view of the city.

Hop-on hop-off bus, Merida

Renting a car to explore the area is certainly an attractive option and something I would have done if I were travelling with others. The Yucatan Today tourist publication provides helpful suggestions for day trips, from caves and haciendas to Mayan villages and colonial churches. There are over 6,000 sinkholes or cenotes in the Yucatan and some near Merida are ideal for swimming.

I took a tour bus to the Celestun Biosphere Reserve, 96 km from Merida, and another to Uxmal, the “thrice built city” and the most “manicured” of the Mayan sites.

Bus and ferry to Isla Mujeres

Ferries to the islands

You can buy a  return ticket to Cancun at the bus office in Merida’s central plaza. My bus was direct, not stopping in Valladolid. From the Cancun bus station it’s a short taxi ride (60 pesos) to Puerto Juarez where you catch the ferry to Isla Mujeres.

The ferry terminal and ferries have changed a great deal since I was there 10 years ago. Ferries leave about every half hour and cost 140 pesos round trip. When you arrive on the island, there are lots of taxis but if you’re staying in El Centro you can probably just walk to your hotel for the area is so compact.

Along the Mayan coast

Playa del Carmen ferry terminal

A young Danish woman I met in Merida told me she had just spent a month on Holbox Island and really liked the place, camping most of the time she was there. She described it as the sort of place where you can still have a piece of beach all to yourself. I have been to Holbox, which is north of Isla Mujeres, and I would have gone again based on what she told me but it would have been necessary to stay there overnight  and I didn’t have enough time to do that. So it is another “next time” destination.

Cozumal ferry terminal

On a previous visit I had also been down the coast as far as Tulum, where there is a rather modest Mayan ruin in a spectacular setting. So my day trip from Isla Mujeres was to Cozumel, an island I had never been to that is 19km (12 miles) from Playa del Carmen. Cozumel was once a pilgrimage site for the moon and the fertility goddess. Today it’s a diver’s paradise because of the coral reefs. People also go there to snorkel and deep-sea fish. A taxi driver wanted $70 to take me around the island and based on the beach, restaurants and stores near the terminal I decided it was not my sort of place so after a quick lunch I returned to Playa.

Playa del Carmen

Playa was another fishing village that exploded into a big-time resort. It’s not like the Cancun hotel zone, though, and I would consider staying there for a few days and getting to know it better.

There are frequent shuttle vans that run between Cancun and Playa. The trip takes less than an hour, costs 30 pesos, and the vans are air-conditioned. What more can you ask for! The shuttle station in Playa is at Calle 2 Norte around Av. 15.

Next time I will travel further south to Mahahual, still a fishing village that is described in Yucatan Today as being one of the last frontiers of the Mexican Caribbean. They say that if you visited Cancun 35 years ago or Playa del Carmen 20 years ago, then that is what Mahahual looks like today. Appeals to me!

You may also be interested in:
How I travelled to colonial towns south of Mexico City by bus

By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2013

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15 Responses to "How I travelled around the Yucatan by bus"

  1. Liz Butikofer says:

    Sylvia – what was your take on Isla Mujeres? Was Cancun worth the trip? Traveling next summer with my husband and 18 yo son. Fishing is ‘their’ thing. My goal is a few ruins, cenotes and hopefully Merida – we can even skip the beaches on the Gulf side – Holbox looks wonderful, but … again, looking at Isla Mujeres as well. I thought we would rent a car, but if the buses are so well organized, I’d rather save the money! I look hearing back from you.

    1. Sylvia Fanjoy says:

      Sorry to take so long to respond, Liz. When I first visited Isla Mujeres I really liked it; the island still has lots of charm but it’s getting very touristy. But your family could have a great time for a few days and the fish restaurants are some of the best.

      I am not a Cancun person. The whole place just seems fake to me (but many love it).

      Buses are excellent in Mexico and it’s fun to do at least one trip that way. Since there will be 3 of you, I’d be inclined to rent a car (after visiting Isla) and see as much of the Yucatan as possible because it’s an exceptional destination.

  2. Zhanyi says:

    How long did it take you to go through customs at Cancun airport? I’m taking the bus to Vallalolid from downtown Cancun right after I arrive and would like to gauge which bus I’ll be taking.

    1. Sylvia Fanjoy says:

      The last time I flew into both Cancun and Mexico City airports there were LONG lineups BEFORE reaching the customs agent so I assume several planes arrived at about the same time. All to say that it is best to be flexible or you could feel very frustrated. Once you reach the agent it should be fast. And after you pick up your luggage, if you press a green light you walk right through. Even if you press a red one they check your bags on a table right there so there is not much of a delay.

  3. Bill & Diane says:

    Hello Sylvia: Although we have traveled for a number of years in Mexico we have not yet traveled the Yucatan, but will in the next month. Thank You for an informative piece that will make our bus travel easier.

    Could we trouble you to tell us the name of the Hotel you stayed at in Merida (That would be the one with the pool you pictured in your piece).

    Kindest Regards;
    Bill & Diane

    1. Sylvia Fanjoy says:

      Hi Bill & Diane. I went back and checked my notes and the hotel is La Mision De Fray Diego ( I stayed there for 7 nights for a total cost of $591. USD. I loved the location, the courtyard and jumping into the little pool at the end of the day. As I remember, the staff was very nice too.

      I think you will really enjoy the Yucatan. Charming.

      Thanks for writing and have a great trip.

      – Sylvia

      1. Bill & Diane says:

        Thanks Sylvia…..we are going to try it.

        Bill & Diane

  4. Gordon says:

    Thanks for the information! Densely packed with useful tips!

    1. Sylvia Fanjoy says:

      Thanks Gordon. I often find it reassuring to know about the “small stuff”, like what it’s going to be like buying a bus ticket when I don’t speak the language. I’m now planning a trip to Nicaragua and a very young grandson will be coming so carseats and buying diapers are upper most on my mind!

      Thanks for writing.

      – Sylvia Fanjoy

  5. Dave Taube says:

    Very good and well written article. Thanks for the info. Are there any nice beaches near Merida?

    1. Sylvia Fanjoy says:

      There is a beach not far north called Progreso. I have seen it from the shore but have not been in the water there. It is a resort sort of place.

      – Sylvia

    2. Wendy King says:

      Dave – You might try Casa de Celeste Vida on the outskirts of the town of Celestun for a lovely stay at the unspoiled beach. You can take a boat trip from the bridge at Celestun to see many thousands of Flamingos. There are regular buses from Merida to Celestun – it is 90 kms from Merida, so a two or three day stay would give you a real sense of being on a very wonderful beach. The beach at Celestun is much better than Progresso for a swim. Other places to stay are Playa Maya, and Xixim, as well as other hotels right in the town of Celestun.

      1. Sylvia Fanjoy says:

        I just did a return visit to Celestun and took friends with me (we were staying in Merida) and all were impressed.Lovely spot.

  6. Anthony Roggero says:

    I had to smile when I read the reason you wanted to go to Merida was from the episodes of House Hunters International. That is the same reason my wife and I headed off on our adventure to Merida. I must say, we were not disappointed. We loved it so much, we already have our vacation for this year booked there.

    1. Sylvia Fanjoy says:

      Yes, Merida is a great place. I think I’ll return to the Yucatan next year and visit a couple of towns that I missed last time. There is so much to see and experience. I’m now travelling to colonial towns north of Mexico City and fell in love with the decor at a B&B where I was staying and am determined to have a Mexican bathroom at home. The tiles are so cheerful (if only they weren’t so heavy)!

      – Sylvia

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