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From Mérida, highways radiate in every direction. To the east, Carreteras 180 cuota and 180 libre are, respectively, the toll and free roads to Cancún. The toll road (which costs about $35 from Cancún to Mérida, www.sct.gob.mx) has exits for the famous Chichén Itzá ruins and the low-key colonial city of Valladolid; the free road passes these and many smaller towns. Unless you want to explore these little villages, and nearly double your travel time, it is not recommended to travel on the "free roads." Many are poorly marked, extremely dark at night, and dotted with potholes and speed bumps. The toll road however, is nicely paved and void of detours. Heading south from Mérida on Carretera 261 (Carretera 180 until the town of Umán), you come to Uxmal and the Ruta Puuc, a series of small ruins (most have at least one outstanding building) of relatively uniform style. Carretera 261 north from Mérida takes you to the port and beach resort of Progreso. To the west, the laid-back fishing village of Celestún—which borders on protected wetland—can be accessed by a separate highway from Mérida.
If you're independent and adventurous, hiring a rental car is a great way to explore. Be sure to check the lights, windshield wipers, and spare tire before taking off. Carry plenty of bottled water, fill up the gas tank whenever you see a station, and try to avoid driving at night.
Avis (Fiesta Americana, Calle 60 No. 319-C, near Av. Colón, Centro, Mérida, Yucatán, 97000. 999/925-2525 or 999/920-1101. www.avis.com.)
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