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How to Visit the Best Mayan Ruins

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is famous for its sun and white sand beaches, but it is also home to some of the world’s best Mayan ruins. You can easily visit the Mayan ruins of Tulum, Coba and Chichen Itza, which was recently named a “New Modern Wonder of the World”. Each of the best Mayan ruins is easily visited as a day trip from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. 

Visiting Mayan Ruins with Kids
Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins

Most people go to Cancun, Mexico for a week and don’t want to leave the beach for more than a day or two. Factor in a trip to Xcaret and you probably only have time to visit one set of Mayan ruins, but how do you decide?

In each of the sections below, we’ll help you decide and plan your trip to the best Mayan ruins.

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Visiting the Chichen Itza Ruins

Chichen Itza is truly one of the best Mayan ruins to visit while in Mexico. Recently named a “New Modern Wonder of the World”, Chichen Itza is truly spectacular. If you like to be wowed or simply can’t decide which Mayan ruin to visit, Chichen Itza is the one for you; it won’t disappoint.

When visiting Chichen Itza arrive early to get good pictures of the El Castillo pyramid

Tips to Visit the Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins

  • Arrive at Chichen Itza as early as you possibly can. With its rock star status as one of the “New 7 Wonders of the World”, Chichen Itza is one of the busiest ruins in Mexico, with nearly 3 million visitors a year (that’s over 8,000 people a day!).

  • Chichen Itza is not a very big Mayan ruin and can be visited quite quickly. There are not many structures in Chichen Itza outside of El Castillo (the famous pyramid you see in all the pictures). We visited Chichen Itza with our kids (aged 2 & 4), and were done our visit in under 2 hours. The land around the Chichen Itza ruins is mostly flat and our kids were able to walk most of the way.

  • Chichen Itza is in a different time zone than Cancun and Playa del Carmen. If you visit these amazing Mayan ruins between the last Sunday in October and the first Sunday in April, Chichen Itza will be one hour behind Cancun. This is important to know if you are planning on getting there right when it opens – you may need to leave one hour earlier than you thought!

  • The town of Pisté is the closest town to the Chichen Itza ruins and is a great place to buy water, sunscreen, grab a bite to eat, etc. 

  • If you are driving to Chichen Itza yourself, be aware there are hordes of touts lining the road on the way to the Mayan ruins. They will try to convince you that you need to buy your Chichen Itza tickets from them – some are very convincing. Just ignore them and keep driving until you reach the parking lot. 

  • If you want to buy Chichen Itza souvenirs, you will be amazed at the sheer number of stalls selling Mexican trinkets inside the ruins. We so many souvenir vendors at Chichen Itza, there should be a lot of room to negotiate.

  • There is a lot of wide, open lawn space around the main Chichen Itza pyramid El Castillo, which is nice as it helps make it feel less crowded than it really is. Having this extra space can also help you get a picture of the main Chichen Itza pyramid without too many people in it.

  • If you don’t like crowds, perhaps avoid visiting Chichen Itza on Sunday’s, when locals get in for free. 
Amazing carvings are one of the many reasons Chichen Itza is one of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico

This coloring booklet on Mexico is the perfect way to teach young kids about ancient Mexico!

Side Trips from Chichen Itza Ruins

  • Ik-Kil cenote: This cenote is a popular stop on Chichen Itza tours and when you see it, you will know why – it’s open to the sky, but the cenote water is 85 feet below the surface. Taking a combo tour to Chichen Itza and Ik-Kil cenote is a very popular way to visit these Mayan ruins.
A visit to the incredible Ik-Kil cenote is a popular stop on Chichen Itza day trips
Ik-Kil Cenote
  • X-keken eco-park: If you want to enjoy a swim in a cenote during your visit to the Chichen Itza ruins, but wish to avoid this crowds, this eco-park is a good alternative.

    We visited X-keken after visiting Chichen Itza and swam in Dzitnup, a cavern cenote which is one of two cenotes in the park. A fun benefit of the Dzitnup cenote is the toe cleaning fish – they hang out by the stairs and will give you a very ticklish foot cleaning!

  • If you have the chance, a stop in Valladolid on your way back from Chichen Itza is worth it. The main street in Valladolid is quite striking with lines of pastel colored buildings filled with interesting shops and restaurants. We enjoyed a few light snacks in a garden atrium inside Restaurante El Atrio del Mayab.
When visiting Chichen Itza try to stop to explore nearby the colorful town of Valladolid, Mexico
Colorful Valladolid

How to Visit Chichen Itza, Mexico

Chichen Itza Tours

If you don’t have a rental car, joining a Chichen Itza tour is the way to go. Here are a few to consider:

  • This very popular Chichen Itza tour includes a swim at the stunning Il-Kik cenote and a visit to the charming & colorful town of Valladolid.

  • If you don’t like group tours, hire a private driver to Chichen Itza for the day. Once there, you can hire your own tour guide at the gate if you’d like or explore the grounds on your own.

  • Looking for something different? There are tons of excellent Chichen Itza tours to choose from – there’s one for every need.
Self Driving to Chichen Itza

The drive from Cancun to Chichen Itza is approximately 2.5 hours, while the drive from Playa del Carmen to Chichen Itza is only 2 hours. The Mexican highways were in good condition and were not too crowded when we drove. We encountered two toll booths each way, paying a total of 616 pesos (~$33USD) for the round trip. 

If you getting a rental car in Mexico to drive to Chichen Itza, we recommend you do the following:

Advertisement for a Deluxe Chichen Itza tour by Xcaret

This post also has some great info on purchasing a private tour of Chichen Itza with kids.

Visiting the Tulum Ruins

It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a set of Mayan ruins. The Tulum ruins are perched up high on a cliff, overlooking the world-famous turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. If you like beautiful scenery, a visit to the Tulum ruins is a good choice for you.

With its amazing seaside location, Tulum is one of the best ruins in mexico

Tips to Visit the Tulum Mayan Ruins

  • You can park near the Tulum ruins in this parking lot. Tulum parking costs 160 pesos (~$9USD).

    You’ll be forced to walk through a large mall full of souvenir and food vendors. I grumbled about being forced to walk through the stores on my way to the Tulum ruins, but to be fair I was glad to buy some ice cream from them after our visit!

  • The walk from the parking lot to the Tulum ruins is about 10 minutes. A tractor pulled wagon is available as an alternative for those who don’t wish to walk. The tractor ride to the Tulum Mayan ruins costs approximately 20 pesos.

  • You’ll find very little shade at the Tulum ruins. Bring lots of water, sun hats and sunscreen.

  • Once you enter the Tulum Mayan ruins complex, you walk to the ruins through a nice, short walk through the jungle. We saw some wildlife on this walk, including a coati, iguanas and a ‘highway’ of ants crossing the path. The kids really enjoyed the wildlife encounters.

  • Like the Chichen Itza ruins, there are not many buildings within the Tulum ruins. If you don’t linger for too long at each building, it will take about an hour to see the Tulum ruins..

  • Get there early! The Tulum ruins are the third most visited site in Mexico, but unlike Chichen Itza, Tulum is quite compact and you feel the crowds a lot more. While visiting Tulum, you must stay on designated paths during most of your visit and don’t have the freedom to roam. Tulum Tour buses start showing up right at opening time and just keep on coming. It’s hard to get a good picture of the Tulum ruins with all these people around.

  • There are free bathrooms in the Tulum shopping complex, but they are hard to find. They are in the building with the Subway.

  • You can access a beach from within the ruins, so bring your swim gear if you want a chance to swim at Tulum. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to swim in such an incredible setting.

  • Tulum is located very near the tourist town of the same name, where you will find lots of good shopping and restaurants.
The Tulum mayan ruins are an easy day trip from Cancun or Playa del Carmen

Side Trips from the Tulum Ruins

  • The Coba Mayan ruins are the furthest afield of all the ruins, but if you’ve made it all the way to Tulum, Coba is only 45 minutes further. Thankfully, there’s no need to choose as you can visit both Mayan ruins on this Tulum & Coba combo tour.

  • The Xel-ha eco-park is on the way from Cancun to Tulum and makes for a good side trip. Xel-ha is a water-based theme park and is one of the best eco-parks in Mexico.

    We recommend visiting the Tulum ruins first (as early as you can!!) to avoid the crowds, then stop at the Xel-ha eco-park on the way home to enjoy a fun afternoon splashing in the water. After a morning of exploring the Tulum ruins, you’ll love the all-inclusive food and drink offering at Xel-Ha!

    You can visit both on this Tulum- Xel-Ha combo tour by the Xcaret Group.

How to Visit Tulum, Mexico

Tulum Tours

There are many different combinations available for Tulum tours. You easily visit Tulum from Cancun on a half-day express tour. A popular option is to make a day of it and visit another top Mexican attraction, such as the Coba Mayan ruins or the Xel-ha eco-park.

If you had a different combination in mind, chances are very good you’ll find your perfect Tulum tour on GetYourGuide.

Self Driving to the Tulum Ruins

The drive from Cancun to Tulum is approximately 2 hours, while the drive from Playa del Carmen to Tulum is only 1 hour along the main, divided 307 highway. Traffic is quite heavy between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, but thins out as you go further south. There are no toll booths on the drive from Cancun to Tulum.

Like Chichen Itza, if you are driving, do yourself a favor and buy your Tulum admission ticket ahead of time and avoid the huge lineups at the ticket counter.

Advertisement for a Tulum & Xel-Ha tour by Xcaret

Visiting the Coba Ruins

A visit to the Coba Mayan ruins is for the wild, adventurous type. Set deep in the Mayan jungle, the Coba ruins has an aura of mystery about it. Unlike Chichen Itza and Tulum, you can actually climb the pyramid at Coba, so if you like adventure then these Mayan ruins are for you. 

Climbing the Coba pyramid is a fun adventure

Tips to Visit the Coba Mayan Ruins

  • If you arrive at the Coba ruins early, you will be rewarded with few crowds. We arrived at Coba by rental car at 9am and we had the Nohoch Mul Pyramid (the main pyramid at Coba) all to ourselves.

  • The Nohoch Mul Pyramid is a 1 mile walk from the entrance to the Coba ruins. It’s an enjoyable walk through the jungle with 3-4 minor ruins along the way.

    A fun alternative is to rent a bike at Coba to ride to the Nohoch Mul Pyramid. We visited Coba with our kids (aged 2 & 4), but they didn’t have bike rentals small enough for them, nor did they have any child seats.

    To get to the main Coba pyramid as fast as possible, we hired a cycle rickshaws. We took the rickshaw one-way to the Coba pyramid to help beat the crowds and it worked! After the pyramid, we enjoyed a fun walk through the Mexican jungle on the way back.

  • Unlike Chichen Itza and Tulum, you can actually climb the Coba pyramid. The 130 steps to the top of the Nohoch Mul Pyramid vary in height, but each are approximately 1 foot tall. There is a rope running up the middle of the stairs for those who need a little extra security. If you are visiting Coba with kids, they should be able to make the climb to the top with a little supervision.

  • The view from the top of the Coba pyramid is amazing and is well worth the effort. The platform at the top is not very big and can get crowded quickly, so that’s another reason to get to the Coba ruins as early as possible.

  • Near the main entrance to the Coba ruins, there is another path you can follow to some distant buildings. One is pretty close at 0.1 miles, but the second is 0.6 miles away.

    After the long walk back from Nohoch Mul, our kids were beat (and we didn’t feel like carrying them), so we only visited the closer one. It turned out to be another very tall pyramid, but it wasn’t in as good of condition, so climbing wasn’t allowed. It made it feel more ancient though, which is kinda cool.

  • You drive through a small town on the way to the Coba ruins. There are small shops with supplies you may need and several restaurants. After our visit to the Coba ruins, we enjoyed an excellent meal at El Cocodrilo, which had outdoor seats in the shade of a large tree with a view of a nearby laguna.

  • Free bathrooms are located outside the Coba ruins complex, just outside the main ticket office.
Coba is the only one of the best Mayan ruins where you can climb the pyramid - kids can climb too!

Side Trips from the Coba Ruins

  • As discussed earlier, the Tulum Mayan ruins are nice and close to Coba. A visit to both Mayan ruins is a popular day trip from Cancun.

  • After our visit to Coba with our kids, we stopped at a fun family-friendly cenote nearby called Choo-ha.

    The Choo-ha cenote has good facilities, with a row of change rooms, showers and baños. This cenote is a cavern style one, with a long, steep set of stairs to get down. Along the way you can see the impressive limestone formations within the cavern. At the bottom there are several staircases leading into the amazingly clear cenote water.

    You can easily visit the Choo-ha cenote on this popular Coba day trip.

How to Visit Coba, Mexico

Coba Tours

There are many different combinations available for Coba tours. You easily visit Coba from Cancun on a half-day express tour. A popular option is to make a day of it and visit another top Mexican attraction, such as the Tulum Mayan ruins or the Xel-ha eco-park.

If you had a different combination in mind, chances are very good you’ll find your perfect Coba tour on GetYourGuide.

Self Driving to the Coba Ruins

The drive from Cancun to Coba is approximately 2.5 hours, while the drive from Playa del Carmen to Coba is only 1.5 hours along the main, divided 307 highway. From Cancun you have the choice of taking highway 180 through Valladolid or highway 307 through Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

Like Chichen Itza, if you are driving, do yourself a favor and buy your Tulum admission ticket ahead of time and avoid the huge lineups at the ticket counter.

Advertisement for a Tulum & Coba tour by Xcaret

Visit all Three of the Best Mayan Ruins

It’s so hard to choose between these amazing Mayan ruins. We were fortunate to have a month in Playa del Carmen with our kids, so we got to see all the best Mayan ruins near Cancun. It’s possible to visit all threein one day on this private full-day tour of the best Mayan ruins.

DON’T MISS: If you are currently in the Mayan Riviera or are planning a trip there, don’t miss our blog post, Plan the Best Family Trip to the Mayan Riviera. It’s packed full of planning tips, exciting family activities and links to all of our Mayan Riviera blog posts. It’s sure to help make your family trip a memorable one!

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