Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan
The Yucatan Peninsula has a lot to offer; beaches, cities, colonial towns, adventure tours, and of course the Mayan ruins. There are numerous different sites preserved all over the Yucatan, stretching from Mexico and into Belize and Guatemala as well. This guide will introduce you to the major sites that most travelers visit, including tips that we heard, and some we wish we had heard, before visiting.
We will discuss the 5 major Mayan ruins of the Yucatan which we visited, beginning with our least favorite and working down to our top recommendation.
#5 Tulum, Mexico
The ruins of Tulum can be found along the eastern shoreline of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. About a two hour drive from Cancun, passing through Playa del Carmen, you will arrive at at the city of Tulum. Tulum National Park is the major attraction here, so only a day or two is really necessary for visiting this town. There are two major areas – the Hotel Zone and the Town. Most backpackers will probably opt for the town as it is by far the better budget option. Tulum town has a 10 block street with bars, restaurants and souveneir shops and several side roads with more bars and small guesthouses. There are a good mix of cheap local restaurants, especially on the side streets. It is about a 5 minute drive or 15 minute bike ride to the ruins. The hotel zone is full of upscale beach resorts, new age shops and restaurants and trendy people – it is expensive and we didn’t care much for it. There are many nice cenotes located nearby Tulum as well.
Tulum is one of the relatively newer Mayan ruins, being built in the 13th century and occupied right until the Spanish conquest. Walking around these sites are much easier and more relaxed that other ruins throughout the Yucatan, and most of the structures are quite compact. Thus it is good for elderly visitors or people who have trouble walking. Views of the Caribbean are unparalleled, and if you want to bring your bathing suit you will find beach access just below the ruins. Swimming in the azure waters just and looking up at the temples is definitely the highlight of this site.
The best way to visit Tulum National Park is with a private car. Many hotels will offer shuttles to and from the site, but they run at specific times, or with many hours in between each shuttle. Buses can be found running from Playa del Carmen and even Cancun, but once again their times are not optimal for visiting Tulum. If you have a private car there are two parking options. The first option is to park in front of the main entrance where you have to pay between $100-160 pesos. Do not fall for the signs that say ‘free parking for customers’ as you will have to book a tour to park in this lot. Option B is to park along the beach access road in front of the ‘Hotel Zone’ which is completely free, just make sure not to park in the taxi parking area. Just follow the beach road toward the ruins until you can’t drive any further. Get completely off the road and tuck in your mirrors. From either parking lot there is a bit of walking to the ticket gates, although the walk from the beach access road is significantly shorter than the main parking lot, which offers a shuttle service ($25 pesos each way) to the main entrance.
The best time to visit Tulum is first thing in the morning when it opens, at 8:00am. At this time you are guaranteed to beat the crowds of people that begin to pour in around 9:30-10:00am, which makes Tulum almost unbearable. The entry cost is $70 pesos (in 2017) and if you want to have a tour guide the prices range from $20 USD on up. If you want to see sunset from Tulum, the price jumps up to $225 pesos per person. Visiting the ruins on a clear. sunny day is optimal (although there is very little shade), a cloudy day offers some relief from the sun, but the slightest sprinkle of rain or downpour puts a damper on your visit.
You can see the whole complex in about an hour if you don’t spend too much time examining each structure, although if you have two hours to spare that would be ideal, especially if you want to swim. To be honest, other than the nice shots of the temple on the coast, and the swimming, we do not really recommend this site.
The ruins of Coba are about a 45 minute drive from Tulum, an hour and a half from Playa del Carmen, or two hours from Cancun. We had begun our trip in Playa del Carmen, spent a few days in Tulum, and visited Coba on our way to Valladolid. If you follow a similar path, once you finish at the Coba ruins it will be less than an hour to arrive at Valladolid.
Coba was a Mayan city of the Late Classical Period, rising to power between 600 AD and 900 AD, and eventually losing influence to the regional rival city state of Chichén Itzá. Although marginal construction continued from the 1200-1500s, the city was abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived.
The Coba ruins are situated near a large lagoon where crocodiles can be spotted, with a few interesting cave Cenotes near by. There are also some great restaurants nearby, including our personal favorite Restaurante Chile Picante where I ordered the pork pibil which was by far the best meal we had tasted in Mexico.
The ruins at Coba are in a far more natural state of disrepair than other Mayan sites you will visit, and many temples are simply mounds of dirt covered in trees. It is surrounded by vast jungles and the mosquitos are furious. We strongly recommend arriving at 8:00 am and heading straight for the main pyramid of Nohoch Mul (the one you can climb). Bikes are available but are not really necessary as the entire site can be walked in only a few kilometers. Having arrived early and heading straight for the main pyramid, we were the only ones there for about 20 minutes and it was unbelievable to take in the view. Climbing the pyramid is not difficult if you are in average shape – as there are steps and a rope, but you will want to have good sneakers. From the top, the view of the surrounding jungles is unbelievable and the cool morning air and lack of mosquitos is a welcome respite.
Coba contains a nice ball court and another giant pyramid right as you enter the park, and a few other interesting buildings, but climbing the Nohoch Mul pyramid is definitely the highlight. Buy or study a map before you arrive as the trails are poorly labeled. By 10:30 as we exited the site was becoming a mob scene and we were very happy to be leaving.
# 3 Chichén Itzá
Although this site is the most iconic and certainly has the most well preserved buildings and carvings of the sites we visited, Chichén Itzá was a bit of a disappointment as well. The site can be accessed as a 45 minute ride from Valladolid, or an hour and a half from Merida, but we actually found it fairly cheap to stay in lodging right near the park. We stayed at Hotel Dolores Alba Chichen right across from Ik Kil cenote, which will still require a 5 minute car ride to the park, but is walking distance to the cenote. The rooms are about $30 a night which was expensive for us, but it has a nice pool, hammocks and a ‘natural pool’ which the owners claim offers health benefits. They also say that the hotel is built on the exact site where cosmic energy enters the temples so take that as you will.
Chichén Itzá came to power in the Terminal Classic Period (800-900 AD) and maintained its power until around the 1200s. The most notable sites are the main pyramid (known as El Castille) the observatory, a deep cenote, and several buildings with very well preserved carvings. There is also a massive ball court (the largest of any sites) and we were kicking ourselves that we did not get to it sooner. If we did it again, we would have gone from the pyramid and immediately proceeded to the ball court – it is truly a spectacle to behold. The site is quite well manicured, and there are no areas where you truly feel you are in the jungle. Even arriving at 8:00 in the morning there were quite substantial lines, about 30-40 people in front of the pyramid and several tour groups organizing at the entrance. If we were to do it again, we would have arrived at 7:30. It is good to note that admission is not $232 pesos and you actually have to pay at two different windows for two different tickets (they go to two different organizations, and it is not a scam). Not knowing this, I paid at the first window and lingered for a bit and a lot of people who would otherwise not have been in front of me beat me to the second window, forcing us to wait longer.
Upon entering you will almost immediately see the main pyramid – it has one side which has been completely redone, while the others are in various states of disrepair. It is certainly possible to get a clear shot of the temple, although we had to wait for a girl to finish doing yoga poses in front while her boyfriend photographed. The trails fill up fast with vendors and you will be harassed throughout – one of their favorites is to hold out little carvings and say ‘almost free.’
While we were amazed at some of the interesting carvings and the sheer beauty of the temple, and feeling of magic is lost on this site. By 11:00 as we were leaving the tour groups had become so numerous that they were walking around with colored flags. It is fun sometimes to crash their stories though – one interesting one was at the carvings of a jaguar and eagle consuming a human heart. According to the guide, this motif of cat and eagle can be seen in Classical ruins throughout the world from Egypt to China. Coincidence, he thinks not!
Overall, if we had to do it again we would visit Chichén Itzá for sure, just don’t expect it to be a ‘lost world’ sort of experience. However even more than Chichén Itzá, we would recommend the Ik Kil cenote nearby, and if we had to choose one or the other, might choose it over the temples. It opens at 9:00 am and costs about $70 pesos. We arrived at 8:45 and they let us in and we were the only ones there until about 9:30 and even then it was a small number of people. Ik Kil is a cenote with deep waters completely surrounded by cliff walls and lots of jungle plants and vines with an open roof. Floating on your back and staring up at the sky is truly magical. The local lifeguard on hand plays traditional Mayan ruins which echo throughout. It is truly a magical experience that shouldn’t be missed. However as we were leaving, right on cue at about 10:30 the first tour busses showed up with about 30-40 people per group. I imagine the site loses it’s charm quite quickly, and therefore, I would not recommend trying to squeeze both Chichén Itzá and Ik Kil into one day.
While the structures at Chichén Itzá might be slightly more impressive, overall we enjoyed our visit to Uxmal more. The best base for visiting Uxmal is from Merida, from which you can arrive at the site in just over an hour on good roads. If you are staying at Chichén Itzá, you can also make it to Uxmal in about an hour. Habitation of the site began around 500 AD, which most of the building took place from 850 – 950 AD, and all construction seeming to end by the 1200s. The site is relatively compact and everything seems to be worth visiting. The buildings are among the most well preserved of any of the major Mayan sites.
Upon entering, you will immediately lay eyes on the mighty ‘Temple of the Magician’ and behind it there is a huge court yard with some well preserved architecture. Off to the left you can pass through a large ball court before climbing up to the Governor’s Palace. The long building, impressive in it’s own right with lots of beautiful carvings offers a beautiful view of the Pyramid of the Magician surrounded by jungle. Just beyond it is another large pyramid which you can climb, offering an even greater view, including looking down at the Dovecote ruins, a series of giant arches which resemble a gateway.
At most of the Mayan sites we visited we tended to avoid the guided tours. The primary reason is that the tour guides mostly move slowly on predetermined paths, and we like to visit the most high volume sites first to beat the crowds, and visit the lesser areas later. However this is one site where it might have been interesting to book a guide. Despite the site being fairly compact, it never became overcrowded. Even leaving around 10:30 we did not see the tour busses or massive crowds moving in. For us, Uxmal was definitely a Mayan site which is not to be missed, even with the high entrance fee of about $180 pesos.
#1 Tikal (Guatemala)
Granted, if you are visiting Mexico, this one is a bit out of the way. Still, for us it was so far and away above the other sites that we would trade all of the others for just a single visit to Tikal. If you are coming from Mexico, there are only two ways to do it – fly to Guatemala city or take a bus from Chetumal in Southern Mexico. As the flights were very expensive, bussing from Chetumal was the only options. Chetumal is a pretty bleak place, but you can take a day trip to the awesome 7 color lagoon in nearby Bacalar. From Chetumal, you will likely want to book a ticket to Flores, Guatemala – which is itself an awesome little town before making your way to Tikal. In our opinion, the bus ride to Flores was actually pretty cool. Although it takes nearly 10 hours, it is a bit of an adventure tour in it’s own right. For more information on the trip, see our guide Chetumal Mexico to Flores Guatemala by Bus.
Once you arrive in Flores your will have several options. The first major decision you will have to make it guide or no guide. If you choose to use a guide, everyone we met strongly recommends Los Amigos, which we also checked out and it has a super-cool vibe. We kind of wished we had stayed there instead of our AirB&B! Their tours are 100Q each, including transportation to and from, but not including admission. If you want to book just transportation to and from but with no tour it costs 60Q and is available from any of the tour agencies in Flores. Admission to the site is 150Q but if you choose to do sunrise or sunset that price rises to 250Q. An important note is that if you plan to go for sunrise, you need to buy a ticket at the bank the day before (the ticket vendors will not be there when you arrive). If you stop by Los Amigos they can explain the process to you. You should also note that the local bank closes at noon on Saturdays but the one at the mall is open all day. Both are closed on Sundays.
Regardless of whether you are booking a tour or not the bus times are as follows: 3:00 am (sunrise), 4:30 am, 8:00 am, 12:00 noon (sunset). The trip to the site takes about one and a half hours. We had been told that the sunrise is usually cloudy, but also that arriving at 8:00 is a risk because there are only two vendors and the lines can get long. One couple we met waited in line over an hour after arriving at 8:00. We opted for 4:30 and the van picked us up outside of our hotel room with no problems – the drivers and guides are all really fun guys and most of them speak good English. We had finished at the site by 11:00 am and caught the van back then. The next one left at 12:30 which was too much time in the heat and mosquitos for us.
Tikal is a truly magical site, right up there with Angkor Wat and Bagan (Myanmar) for us. The paths feel more like walking through a nature preserve than a historical site, and we saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys toucans and other colorful birds in abundance. When we arrived at the main plaza we were awestruck. The courtyard between temple 1 and 2 was full of a huge family of Coatis grazing in the grass, with the powerful temples towering over us and impressive ruins to the side. It was a truly magical feeling that we hadn’t been struck by at any of the Mexican sights. In the 20 minutes we spent there we saw only about 10 other people. Temple #2 has wooden stairs behind it which you can climb and take it a splendid view. The best photos we have from Tikal were taken from this spot. Walking in a straight line back you will pass Temple #3, also towering and impressive, before arriving at Temple 4, which you can also climb and take in the spectacular view made famous in Star Wars a New Hope as the site of Yavin 4. From the peak, the tops of the other temples peak out over the sea of green. Sitting there and listening to the howler monkeys screaming in the distance and the sound of the tropical birds was truly an out of this world experience. When facing Temple 4, you will see signs that say it is under construction and you will not see the stairs. We actually left without climbing and had to ask a guide where was the temple you could climb, then walk all the way back. Learn from our mistake and walk around the left side. If you follow the path to the right you will travel a long way to view the ‘northern’ zone – don’t bother. Finally, make sure you loop back to see Temple #5, which is probably the most well preserved. There was a family of howler monkeys sleeping in the trees nearby as well.
Between the early wake up, the heat and the long walks Tikal really drained our energy, but it is so worth it. The site never seemed crowded, has bathrooms and drink vendors throughout. We truly felt like we were exploring a lost world in the middle of the jungle, and we have no doubt the spirit and the energy of the place will captivate you. Make sure to put it on your list!