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Last summer I took a short road trip through the Mexican states of Yucatán and Quintana Roo. I started my adventure in Cancun and traveled southeast to Chichen Itza and then west to Tulum, before returning to Cancun. I spent a total of six days in the area and had the opportunity to explore some of the more popular Mayan ruins in Mexico. The Mayans were one of the most sophisticated of ancient civilizations and the ruins are fascinating. There is so much beauty and history and visiting them is truly a journey into the past.
Chichen Itza is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico and for good reason. It was the largest of the Mayan cities and has differing styles of architecture, leading historians to believe it was also one of the most diverse. The settlement thrived during A.D. 750 to 1200 and really has some amazing history. It has definitely earned its place as one of the new seven wonders of the world. The Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza are located in the eastern portion of the Yucatán state and can be easily reached from either Mérida or Cancún, depending on where you are flying into.
One of the more popular ways of visiting is to take a tour from Cancún. This is also the more expensive and time-consuming option. I would recommend renting a car and although it can be done as a day trip, I suggest spending some time in the area and surrounding towns. Once I left the Cancún area, I found the roads easy to navigate. Chichen Itza is located right off the main highway and the drive took me a little over two hours. Just remember to being some cash (pesos) to pay any toll roads you might encounter on the way. Other benefits of driving yourself are arriving before the huge groups on the tour buses and being able to get there early enough to avoid the heat.
It becomes quite crowded as the day goes on and the sun gets extremely hot, especially in the summer. There is very little shade and lots of walking. Make sure you wear comfortable shoes and bring a hat. In addition to all the tourists, there are also vendors lining the walkways, making it feel even more crowded. I would try to arrive upon opening at 9 AM. Admission to the site is around $15 USD and guides are available at the gate for an additional charge. If you don’t have the time or money for a guided tour, definitely read up on some of its history beforehand.
Be sure not to miss El Castillo, the Great Ball Court, and the Sacred Cenote. I found them to be the most interesting as far as both appearance and history goes. El Castillo, the giant pyramid, is the most recognizable of the structures. I was fascinated to learn that it is actually a giant Mayan calendar. The temple has 365 steps, one for each day of the year and everything within the structure represents part of the calendar.
The Great Ball Court is one of the largest in the Americas and is where often violent games were once played and resulted in the loser being put to death. The Sacred Cenote, unlike most cenotes, wasn’t used for its underground water, but for religious purposes and served as a location where people were sacrificed to the rain gods.
I couldn’t leave the area without making a stop at the cenote, Ik Kil. It is conveniently located down the highway and only about ten minutes away from Chichen Itza. It is one of the most photographed cenotes in Mexico and really is as beautiful, if not more so than it is in pictures. It was the perfect way to cool off after hours of exploring the ruins in the hot sun. A cenote is a natural swimming hole where the water is below ground level. Stairs take you down to this particular one and the vines hang down from the open top.
Most choose to jump in, but if that’s not for you, there are stairs that make climbing in easy. There’s a small entrance fee and it is open until 5 PM. I would suggest coming here early or arriving the last hour or so before closing. Both Chichen Itza and Il Kil are overcrowded and quite touristy, but nonetheless impressive and definitely worth the visit. I spent the majority of the day exploring between the two before continuing west toward Tulum.
Coba is another set of ancient Mayan ruins that can be found between Chichen Itza and Tulum in the state of Quintana Roo. It’s about an hour and a half west of Chichen Itza and about fifty minutes east of Tulum. I chose to make it a day trip from Tulum. At its height of civilization, Coba had some 50,000 inhabitants who formed various settlements around Nohoch Mul, a large central pyramid. These residential settlements were connected by stone walking paths that wound through the jungle, eventually leading to the pyramid. Much of the site still remains unexcavated, which goes to show how large the settlement actually was because there is still more than plenty to see.
The pyramid stands at 42 meters or 137 feet tall, making it the tallest of the pyramids in the Yucatán Peninsula. It is open for the public to climb and it one of the last two of the Mayan ruins in Mexico where this is still allowed. It’s 120 steep steps to the top. It’s not the easiest climb and I definitely don’t recommend it for anyone afraid of heights, but the view from the top makes it worth it. You can see the jungle for miles as well as the surrounding lagoons.
Cobá was hands down my favorite of the Mayan ruins I visited. The jungle is gorgeous and provides some shade and there’s nothing like climbing a giant pyramid! It was unreal. Expect to spend about three hours round trip to walk to the pyramid and some additional time if you wish to see the other surrounding ruins. You can also opt for a bike rental or pedicab. The entrance to the ruins is around $5 USD plus a small charge for parking. Make sure to check out some of the roadside shops on the way back to Tulum. You’ll find some beautiful dream catchers, pottery, and delicious tacos for sale.
Tulum is a beautiful coastal town facing the Caribbean Sea. It was a once an enclosed Mayan city that served as a major trade hub. Today, its Mayan ruins remain a popular tourist destination and the nearby town is host to some amazing restaurants and hotels. The Mayans used the site as a lookout since it is situated high above the ocean on the cliff-side, as well as a major port for Cobá. It was built like a fort and the 16 ft (4.9 m) walls served as protection against invasion. It became an important trade hub due to its easy accessibility from land or water.
The entrance fee is under $5 USD and the site is open from 8 AM-5 PM. Visitors can find their way through the ruins on a series of dirt pathways. El Castillo, or the castle, is the largest of the structures. It sits closest to the beautiful turquoise waters. You’ll find gorgeous lookout points along the paths as well as some iguanas. The ruins here at Tulum are definitely the most beautiful of the three due to their picturesque setting.
Tulum is also great because there is so much more to it besides the ruins. I recommend stopping at Paradise Beach which is only a short walk away and spending some time relaxing there. There are also a bunch of excellent bars and restaurants a short drive south. I visited Gitano and The Real Coconut, which I both really enjoyed.
Gitano is mezcaleria and is known for its amazing cocktails. Power often goes out in the jungle so Gitano is completely lit by candlelight. It is really stunning and I would go back for the atmosphere alone. The Real Coconut is a restaurant located in the Sanará, a gorgeous oceanfront hotel. The hotel also offers sunrise yoga in addition to its gorgeous views. I stopped by for breakfast but they are also open for lunch in dinner. Everything is organic, locally sourced, and amazingly good. I had an incredible meal and it was a refreshing break from all the tacos I had been consuming.
I really enjoyed visiting the Mayan ruins in Mexico. They are all really interesting in their own way and I was able to learn a lot about their history. Looking for a hotel in the area? Check out Casa Malca. It’s a bit of a splurge, but it has a pretty cool claim to fame. It was once the hideaway of drug lord Pablo Escobar before being converted into a hotel.
If you wish to do some more traveling in the area, I suggest a few days in Cozumel. For more information on the amazing snorkeling in Cozumel, read my post, “A Guide to Snorkeling in Cozumel.”