One car. Seven days. 900 miles. No itinerary.

Those were the only constraints -- those and no command of Spanish -- during a trip to the Yucatan peninsula last February with my wife and another couple. Our goal was to land in Cancun, get a car and drive far from the tourist masses.

We knew that in the Yucatan, you could round the corner in a city and get smacked in the nose by the sweet citrus scent of fresh oranges. Or listen to the rhythmic chop, chop, chop of vendors butchering chickens and fish in a crowded market. Or marvel at the intricate carvings and engineerings of Mayan ruins. To experience that, we also knew, it was best to leave the popular beaches behind.

We rented a Nissan Tsuru sedan with four good tires, air conditioning and little else in the way of amenities. The plan: Book a room outside of Cancun for the first night, then head west the next day. The towns we discovered along the way, with languid old squares and lumbering donkeys, made us feel like we'd truly arrived in Mexico.

Getting out

Mérida: The largest city in the Yucatan, Mérida has culture, art and no shortage of events. All you need do is walk through the streets, poke your head into the many artisan shops and museums or grab a drink at a bar overlooking the main square. Get outside of the bustling central city and try the chilibul and pork belly tacos at Wayan'e, a world-class taco stand.

Izamal: We followed the sun to the "Yellow City" of Izamal, about 40 miles east of Mérida, and found the place awash in goldenrod paint. The Convento de San Antonio de Padua, built atop a Mayan temple in the mid-1500s, looms over the city center. You can stroll the grounds and building anytime, but at night, a light and sound show lends drama. A few Mayan archaeological sites are in the city and easily explored. The Hotel Macan Che, a few blocks from downtown, is a relaxing oasis, with manicured tropical gardens, stone-bottom pool and clean rooms.

Santa Elena: The rusty sign stopped us in our tracks: Visite El Museo de las Momias. A mummy museum? Indeed. Instead of passing through town, we chugged up a hill toward a towering church and paid 30 pesos each to walk through the small museum next door. We didn't understand most of what was on display, but the few mostly intact skeletons made a ghostly impression.

Campeche: Remains of fortified walls built to keep out pirates ring Campeche, a gem of a 16th-century city on the Gulf Coast. Though it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a working city, and we came across few tourists. Judging from the construction near the waterfront, the powers-that-be are looking to change that. The old city is a patchwork of pastel facades and colonial architecture. Explore the remaining portions of the old walls (one has a pirate museum), tour one of the two forts on the outskirts of town, and get lost in the maze of the main market. A nighttime water fountain show set to lights and music near the main square is surreal.

Getting practical

Despite the headlines about violence in other parts of Mexico, we found the Yucatan to be safe. Most of the roads, especially the main highways, were in great shape and clearly marked.

We rented a car for about $380 for the week, and almost half of that was for insurance. You need it, so buy the best policy you can.

The common advice to avoid driving at night is sound and should be followed. We were far less concerned with bandits than with hard-to-see potholes and aggressive speed bumps called topes. Topes are all over the roadways, especially near small towns, or pueblas. Slow down to inch over them.

Gas stations are government-owned, and you aren't allowed to pump your own. It's a good idea to get out of the car and make sure the attendant shows you that everything has been reset to zero before pumping.

Police checkpoints are common. It's best to be straightforward and have your car rental paperwork and driver's license within reach.

If you should be in an accident in Mexico, you could be held by the police until it is determined who is at fault and whether you have the ability to pay any penalty.

Chris Havens • 612-673-4148