The Yucatan Peninsula has been populated for a long, long time. Back in 2500 B.C., the ancient Mayans migrated into the peninsula. Over the centuries they began to build thriving community and worship centers. These ancient settlements have survived the ups and downs of many tribal conflicts, civil wars, and property disputes, and somehow they remain standing. A visit to this storied region in Mexico isn’t complete without exploring and understanding the first advanced culture to populate the area. Fortunately, there is no shortage of sites to do this. Here is a Guide to the Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula.
A Guide to the Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula
The crown jewel of ancient Mayan settlements, Chichen Itza is by far the most popular and well-kept historic site in the area. Its dramatic El Castillo is Instagram-famous, and the grounds are meticulously kept. It gets crowded, but it shouldn’t be missed. For an in-depth guide to Chichen Itza, click here.
When to Go
Your best bet is to arrive right when the the park opens or before it closes. The crowds are a little thinner, and you might actually get a photo of El Castillo without a stranger blocking the shot. Morning is better if you can’t stand the heat — it gets steamy in the interior of the peninsula. No matter what, you’ll never have this place all to yourself.
Cost to Visit
$232 MXP (Mexican Pesos) to enter — You pay this in two separate installments, one to the federal government and one to the state government. The total cost is $232 MXP.
Parking is $30 MXP.
There are crowds, even if you get there first thing in the morning. With the crowds come hordes of vendors who will do everything in their power to get you to one of their tables to inspect the wares. Be prepared to be shouted at constantly.
There is a hidden cenote just a few miles from Chichen Itza, and it is the best way to cool off after a hot morning exploring the ruins. It’s called Yokdoznot Cenote, in the small village of the same name. Go there for a relaxed midday swim; you won’t be disappointed.
I recommend hiring a guide — the listed price is $750 MXP. Tell them that Lonely Planet says it’s only $600 MXP, they’ll lower the price. However, be sure you tip your guide for their time and knowledge!
Tulum is the new darling of fashion-travel bloggers and luxury travelers, much to the dismay of the backpacker crowd who loved it ‘before it was trendy.’ It’s no longer a “string your hammock between the trees and chill” destination, but it does boast some of the most picturesque ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula.
When to Go
Right when it opens — it’s the only way to get a semblance of peace in the park. As the sum climbs, so does the number of visitors.
Cost to Visit
$65 MXP for entry, $45 MXP for a camera (including a GoPro). They don’t inspect your bags, so you can claim you don’t have a camera unless it’s totally obvious. But honesty is the best policy!
The tourists — I hate to say this because I strive to avoid disdain for fellow travelers, whatever their travel style may be. But Tulum is unfortunately packed with “Spring Breakers” of all ages — loud people in loud clothing who have zero respect for the place they’re visiting. I couldn’t count on both hands the number of people walking around with plastic cups full of booze. I get that Mexico can be a party destination, but maybe not while you’re visiting an ancient holy site? Just me?
The small cave beneath Casa Cenote is a respite in an otherwise busy park. For some reason, it usually seems to be deserted, and it makes for a great photo!
“Official” parking is a steep $140 MXP in the main lot you see when you turn into the archaeological center, but there is parking at the businesses and restaurants further up the road that you can negotiate to $60-$70 MXP. Nab one of these spots instead.
Ah Cobá… my favorite and least-developed of the major Mayan sites in the Yucatan Peninsula. If you time it right, Coba can be all yours for a precious half-hour. It’s a place where you’re free to get involved in the ruins, climbing and exploring without being hassled by vendors, other visitors, or even park rangers. Visit Chichen Itza first, then come here.
When to Go
Timing is crucial to have the best experience here… and it involves waking up very early. But you must get here about five minutes before the park opens. You may be able to purchase a ticket and gain entrance a little early, and that makes all the difference. Once you’re in, beeline straight to Nohoc Mul, the tallest (and climbable!) pyramid, so you can get up there before the crowds come in.
Cost to Visit
$65 MXP for entry, $50 MXP to park.
If you prefer a well-manicured or well-paved experience, you won’t find it here. Very young kids, elderly visitors, or those will mobility issues may struggle here more than the other sites. There are pedi-cabs and bicycles for rent if walking isn’t for you.
Climbing Nohoc Mul! You’ll sweat it out getting to the top, but once you’re there the view is unlike anything you’ve experienced. Acres of uninterrupted jungle stretches out all around. You’ll truly feel like one of the ancient Mayans for a few moments. Soak it up.
The price of a guide is $600 MXP at the gate, but if you wait until you’re inside you can hire a pedi-cab driver for $200 MXP. As long as you know some basic Spanish, you’ll find your pedi-cab driver more than eager to explain the park to you. Plus you’ll have the added bonus of speeding toward Nohoc Mul before the crowds can arrive! Our pedi-cab driver, Orlando, was ethnically Mayan. He taught us Mayan words, explained various trees and plants, and explained the sites as we arrived. It was the best travel hack I found, all because I didn’t have enough cash on me!
The Yucatan Peninsula really has it all — and one of the highlights of a visit is the ancient and rich history of the native people. What is your favorite ancient historical site that you’ve seen on your travels? Let me know in the comments!
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