Category Archives: Mayan Ruins
How are you all doing out there in quarantine land? Staying safe? Not too bored or broke, I hope? Me, can’t complain. In case you don’t know—and why would you?—I don’t live in Mexico anymore. More on that another day.
Two months after Part 1, I’ve finally gotten back to some happy reminiscences about travels in Mexico in 2019. What a year. Despite serious problems and general craziness, Mexico is a wonderful country to travel in. I made the most of it during my ten years there.
In 2019 I went to the Mayan Riviera not once, but two times. The first was in February. I spent the entire time at the beach, at the Barcelo Resort watching three nights of Phish.
Phish is one of several U.S. bands that performs multi-night events at resorts on the Mayan Riviera. The great thing about Phish is that when you see three Phish shows, you’ll see three completely different concerts, without any songs repeated. And it’s always fun to do the all-inclusive thing, especially at a place as huge as the Barcelo. It was a quick mini-vacation with my wife, some friends from Oregon, and my favorite live band in the world.
My next trip to Mexico’s Caribbean coast was last October, when I traveled from Tulum to Chetumal with a stop at Bacalar in between. (Actually, I flew into Cancun, and spent an afternoon in Playa del Carmen on the way to Tulum, so technically I traveled all the way down.) I attended an academic conference in Chetumal, with some fun and adventure in Tulum and Bacalar before.
I’ve been to the Mayan Riviera many times, but that trip was the first time I never even went to the beach. Why? Cenotes!
Cenotes are freshwater sinkholes that lead to the underground system of flooded caverns throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. They are nice to swim and snorkel in, but the coolest thing of all is to scuba dive in them, which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, anywhere.
A year earlier, also near Tulum, I went scuba diving in cenotes for the first time. It blew my mind, so it was top priority this time around. I went to the same dive shop in Tulum, Space Dive (AKA Dive and Snorkel Tulum, about a block from the ADO bus station), for a day of diving with three tanks in two cenotes: Dos Ojos and The Pit.
The previous year I went to Angelita and Dreamgate. All four were phenomenal. I wrote a story about the experience, which I’ll publish on this blog soon.
The next day in Tulum I rode to Kaan Luum, a lake just south of Tulum with a cenote in the middle, on a cruiser bicycle provided by my beautiful, friendly and affordable hotel. You can see Kaan Luum’s cenote in the photo below; it’s the circle of darker water.
From there I biked on the shoulder of the hot highway farther south to the Muyil archeological site. It had some interesting structures and trails deep into the jungle. Exploring the area after swimming in Kaan Luum was a good way to spend the day, even if riding back on a bicycle under the hot sun was nothing easy.
The following day I took an easy three-hour bus ride to Bacalar, the small town on the huge lake of the same name.
Bacalar is also called the lake of seven colors, because the fresh water glows in different shades of blue and turquoise, depending on the depth of the water and the angle of sun. Wow, how gorgeous. I spent the first day swimming, and the second on a boat trip around the lake.
After Bacalar, I traveled to Chetumal for an academic conference at the large university there.
Many years ago, when I traveled from Cancun to Roatan, Honduras over several months, I passed Bacalar and Chetumal before crossing into Belize, but I didn’t spend any time in either place. I’m glad I did this time, especially for the seafood tacos! Below are fish, shrimp, octopus, and conch (caracol in Spanish.)
Thanks for reading. I will write at least one more post about traveling in Mexico in 2019.
As always, if you are interested in the Mayan Riviera (or Chiapas), please check out my books:
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Chichén Itzá shot to international fame in 2007 when it was chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, along with places like Machu Picchu, the Roman Colosseum, and the Great Wall of China.
About three hours from Cancun, this enormous ancient Mayan city with limestone pyramids, skull carvings, and two cenotes (freshwater sinkholes) will give you a taste of the history of the region that you’d never get if you only stayed on the beach, sipping margaritas and eating bland resort tacos.
But for many travelers in Mexico, Chichén Itzá is like a good rock band that cool people don’t like anymore. It got too popular—a wonder of the world, after all—and there are so many other great ruins to see nearby: Tulum, Cobá, Palenque, Toniná, Tikal in Guatemala, and hundreds more. Some travelers I’ve met, people who were really into ruins, said they wouldn’t even go to Chichén Itzá.
There are big crowds, an inflated price, and aggressive hawkers behind tables stacked with t-shirts, pyramid statuettes, and other kipple. And since a Canadian spent the night on top of the Kukulkan pyramid and then met security in the morning with a big smile, only to be promptly hauled off to jail, none of Chichén Itzá can be climbed or entered, unlike other Mayan ruins.
But, come on! It’s Chichén Itzá. I couldn’t care less about lists, but it appears on one for a reason. It has some of the largest structures and most detailed architecture in the excavated Mayan world. The site is extensive—there’s much more to it than the famous Kukulkan pyramid (aka El Castillo), the top photo opportunity and the place where, on the spring and fall solstices, the setting sun casts strange shadows on the pyramid that resemble a slithering snake. (Expect huge crowds then.)
So, although Chichén Itzá may not be the best Mayan site for a steamy, mystical, Indiana Jones experience (try Palenque for that), it’s not nearly at a tequila museum level of tourist trap gaudiness for you to justify skipping it. Here are some tips that will help you make the most of your experience.
1. Don’t take a tour
Most resorts and all travel agencies offer guided tours to Chichén Itzá. Avoid them no matter what.
A proper visit takes three or four hours, at least. Look at the tour schedule—how long do you actually stay at the ruins? Probably much less. And can you walk around and discover the less-visited, out-of-the-way areas in the jungle? It’s doubtful. You’ll spend your time following a guy holding a big umbrella with all the other sheep, going where he wants to go, listening to his recycled jokes and blatant requests for tips.
Yes, it’s good to have an explanation of what you’re looking at, but (as I’ll explain below), it’s easy to hire a guide once you enter the ruins, or you could buy a guidebook at the gift shop.
Next, what time does your tour arrive at the ruins? Because if it’s an hour or more after the 8 AM opening time, the crowds will have already formed by the time you get there, especially if you go in high season (around Christmas, the week before Easter, or late July).
Sure, it’s convenient that most tours pick you up at your hotel, but this doesn’t actually save time. To the contrary—unless you’re the last one to board, you’ll be waiting while the bus picks everyone else up.
And how much does that tour cost? Compare with these prices for doing it on your own:
- Entrance fee: 232 pesos (154 for Mexican nationals)
- Round trip, first class ADO bus tickets from Cancun direct to Chichén Itzá: 320-500 pesos (depending on the schedule and if you buy tickets online)
- Round trip ADO bus tickets from Cancun to Valladolid: 220-450 pesos (depending on the schedule and if you buy tickets online)
- Passenger van from Valladolid to Chichén Itzá: 80 pesos
- Lunch at the overpriced (but good) restaurant at the entrance to the ruins: 150-300 pesos
- Lunch in Valladolid at an excellent restaurant: 100-300 pesos
Check exchange rates for pesos to your currency of choice here: http://coinmill.com
2. Take public transport instead
It’s totally possible to take a public bus from Cancun to Chichén Itzá and still make the 8 AM opening time. You’ll have to transfer in Valladolid (more on this pretty small town below), or wait until later to take the direct bus to the ruins.
The first ADO bus leaves downtown Cancun at 5:30 AM and arrives in Valladolid at 6:30 AM. It’s a two-hour trip, but with the time change between the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan you’ll save an hour. The first bus from Playa del Carmen to Valladolid is similarly early, and with later departures all day.
Then in Valladolid, take a colectivo (passenger van for local travel) to get to the ruins. The colectivo lot is a block from the ADO bus station. They don’t have schedules; you just get on and wait, and once it’s full, it leaves.
Buses from Valladolid back to Cancun or Playa del Carmen leave regularly all afternoon, so perhaps the best plan (other than staying the night in Valladolid) would be to take the ADO bus direct to the ruins, then after your visit take a colectivo to Valladolid, have a late lunch, and then take the bus back to wherever you are staying (Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, etc.).
If you don’t want to deal with transfers, the only direct bus to Chichén Itzá leaves Cancun at 8:45 (thereby arriving around 10:45) and returns to Cancun at 4:30 p.m. (This is bound to change—for this an all other schedules, confirm on the website or at a bus station.)
The bus from Playa del Carmen direct to the ruins leaves at 8 AM and also arrives around 10:45.
Whatever you choose, visit the bus station to confirm schedules and buy your tickets the day before to avoid waiting in line in the morning.
You can also check the schedule on the ADO website, and if you buy tickets online you’ll get a discount. Then you can print them before your trip and just show up. The website is in Spanish but fairly straightforward.
ADO is the first-class public bus company, with buses as nice or better than a private tour bus. The ADO bus terminal is in downtown Cancun, not in the hotel zone by the beach. In Playa del Carmen the bus terminal is just a block from the beach, near the Cozumel dock.
3. Or rent a car
Even if you speak zero Spanish, there’s nothing to worry about when using ADO buses to get to Valladolid or Chichén Itzá. They are modern, clean and comfortable. Besides the cheaper price, the main difference between them and a guided tour is that you can choose your own schedule and visit both places at your own pace.
But if you don’t want to take an early-morning public bus, or if you have a large group of people (say, four or more), think about renting a car. You can rent cars everywhere in the Mayan Riviera, including the airport, which has Budget, Hertz, Enterprise, and all the rest. If you add up the bus tickets of all the people in your group, you may find that the car rental is cheaper.
The highways are good and relatively easy to follow, although be sure to look at a map before you go. After your visit, you can drive into Valladolid to have lunch and look around. It’s a direct drive from the ruins. Near Valladolid there are other ruins and some cenotes that are much easier to visit when you have a car.
Bring cash for the tolls coming from Cancun and Playa del Carmen, at least 300 pesos each way, and don’t forget about the time change between places on the Mayan Riviera and places in the state of Yucatan. When it’s 9:00 AM on the coast, for example, it’s 8:00 inland.
4. Stay in Valladolid the night before
If you have an extra day or two, the ideal way to visit Chichén Itzá is to stay in Valladolid the night before. You’ll have no problem making the 8 AM opening time at the ruins and you can come back whenever you’re ready. Plus, Valladolid is your best chance to get that authentic tourist experience you’ll never find in Cancun, no matter what the cheesy advertisements for restaurants or tourist attractions tell you.
Valladolid was founded in 1543 by Francisco de Montejo, the nephew of the conquerer of the Yucatán, Francisco de Montejo. Originally located elsewhere on the peninsula, it was moved to its present site in 1545, built over ruins of a Mayan city called Zací.
Like nearly every Mexican city, the exact center of Valladolid is the zócalo (central square or park), which is surrounded by hotels, restaurants, banks, government buildings, the cathedral, and the Bazar Municipal food court. And in all directions from the zócalo, Valladolid’s narrow streets have more parks, markets, museums, a cenote, a 16th-century convent—even a Buddhist temple. It’s a wonderful place to spend a few days and wander around.
5. Hire a guide inside the park
Maybe there is a downside to not taking a guided tour—you’ll be wandering around the ruins with no idea what you’re looking at. Don’t despair, guides are everywhere.
If you drive to Chichén Itzá, when you start getting close you’re bound to be stopped at some roadblock, where official looking guys with laminated badges will try to get you to hire them as guides. You don’t have to stop at all (unless it’s the police), but if you do, expect these guys to quote higher prices than ones you’ll see later.
The same goes for when you walk toward the entrance—guides galore. If you meet one who gives you a good vibe, by all means hire him, but you’ll find the best prices once you’ve already paid and entered the park. Also, these are the “official” guides, so they may have a better idea of what they are talking about.
Besides price, also establish how long he will stay with you. I can’t give estimates on prices, which seem to change depending on high or low season and your level of Spanish. But I’d guess that anything less than 400 pesos for a few hours is a good deal. In low season, you might get lucky with 200 or less.
6. Or buy a guidebook from the bookstore
For those who are cheap or tour guide averse (both apply to me), just buy a guidebook at the bookstore/souvenir shop at the entrance. Get one with maps (useful for finding the out-of-the-way sections) and concise explanations of each area.
Remember, all knowledge about Chichén Itzá and other Mayan sites is really just speculation by archeologists. No one knows exactly what went on there, just as no one is really sure why the civilization collapsed long before the Spanish conquistadors arrived.
7. Don’t go on Sunday
Mexican nationals get in free on Sunday, so unless you’re Mexican, avoid Sunday to avoid the crowds.
I mentioned the high travel seasons earlier—a week or two before Christmas and after New Year’s, the week before Easter (called Semana Santa, a big holiday in Mexico), and late July (another time when many Mexicans have time off). If at all possible, avoid traveling to the area during these times, as many hotels increase their prices and places like Chichén Itzá can be quite crowded.
But don’t skip Chichén Itzá because of these crowds. Just get there early. At busy times, tour or no tour, do NOT arrive in the afternoon.
I went once during high season with my family, a few days after Christmas. We rented cars and arrived early, and when we left around 2 PM, the line of tour buses waiting to enter the totally full parking area went on for miles. Because the site closed at 5 PM, these people would spend more time on the bus than they would at the ruins, if they made it in at all. Doesn’t sound like fun to me.
8. Buy my guidebook
All these tips and many more are detailed in my guidebook to the region, the Cancun and Mayan Riviera 5-Day Itinerary. It’s for the independent traveler who likes the beach but also wants some culture. Besides saving a lot of money, you:
- Have two full days on two gorgeous beaches: Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
- Explore two Mayan ruins: Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, and Tulum, a sunny fortress built on cliffs overlooking one of the most iconic beaches in Mexico.
- Dip your toe into local culture in Valladolid, a small colonial town in central Yucatán.
- Swim, snorkel, or scuba dive in the clear, freshwater Dos Ojos cenote.
- Eat what Mexicans eat: seafood, tacos, and Yucatán specialties like panuchos and salbutes.
- Shop, party, get tan, and learn some Spanish, history, and culture. And, if time permits, explore more places in the region, including Puerto Morelos, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, the Cobá ruins, Xpu-Ha beach, and many more.
This part of Mexico may be the most visited, but in some ways the least understood. I try to remedy this with my guide.