Mexico’s Mayan Ruins (feat: Rocks, Iguanas and a Seriously Cute Frog)

For someone with a history degree, I really didn’t know much about the Mayans before I arrived in Mexico. I mean, it’s not like they’d exactly had a huge impact on my home country of New Zealand – but you could say the same about the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, and god knows I spent enough time studying the minutiae of what they got up to.

I was vaguely aware of a few stereotypes – ball games, fondness for animal and human sacrifice, a well-known calendar – but knew little detail. The few pictures I’d seen of Mayan pyramids didn’t seem that impressive compared to those that housed the pharaohs, and all in all, I just didn’t expect to be particularly wowed by the historical sites on the Yucatan peninsula.

And then, well, I went to them.

Tulum

 

Tulum iguana

First up was Tulum, a relatively small site that sees a lot of visitors. Its proximity to tourist hotspots like Cancun and Playa del Carmen certainly helps with that, as does the fact that it was one of only a small number of few Mayan coastal trading towns. Being able to sunbathe on a pristine beach and swim in the sparkling blue ocean is exactly how I like to experience my ancient ruins, thanks…

Tulum beach

As with every other Mayan site I visited on the Yucatan peninsula, getting there early is vital. Tulum opens at 8am, and you should really aim to be at the ticket window when it does, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, in case you weren’t aware, the sun often shines in Mexico. Wandering around for hours in the middle of the day is an awesome recipe for heatstroke.

Apparently heatstroke is preferable to getting out of bed early for many people, however. There wasn’t a tour bus to be seen when we arrived, and we pretty much had the entire site to ourselves.

Tulum overview

Tulum view

By the time we left at around lunchtime, however… well, let’s just say it was a bit of a different story.

Tulum crowds

Even with the crowds, though, Tulum’s well worth a visit. The buildings themselves are relatively well-preserved, you can’t beat the setting, and if you’re an iguana freak like me, having them running around everywhere is just the icing on the cake.

Tulum - single building

 

  • Colectivos (shared mini-vans) run up and down the highway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum every few minutes throughout the day, at around 30 pesos per trip. In Playa, just head to Calle Norte 2 between 15 and 20 Ave and look out for the row of white vans. The driver will call out when you’re approaching the Zona Arqueológica – it’s a few kilometers before the town itself, so keep an eye out for the pedestrian overpass that crosses the highway.

    On the way back, you’ll probably find a colectivo waiting on the access road — but if not, just head out to the highway and flag one down. If the driver doesn’t flash his lights on approach, it means the van is already full, so just wait for the next one.

 

Coba

 

A couple of weeks later I headed to Coba, a sprawling Mayan site that was largely lost to the jungle up until the 1970’s. Even now much excavation remains to be done, although it’s far from undiscovered these days. The three main areas are connected by dirt tracks, with a mile or so between each one.

You’ve got the option of hiring a bicycle or pedal-powered rickshaw and driver near the entrance if you want to, but we opted to walk instead — it’s perfectly possible if you’re even vaguely fit and (again) arrive early to avoid the heat. Just like at Tulum, the tour buses roll in around lunchtime, and because the excavated areas are quite small, they get crowded quickly. Turn up at opening time for a far more enjoyable, contemplative experience.

The main highlight of Coba is the Ixmoja pyramid, which unlike its more famous cousin at Chichen Itza, is still open to the public for climbing. At 40+ metres, it’s the tallest in the Yucatan and — despite the warning signs — is relatively easy to scale. I sweated a lot but hey, that’s all part of the fun… right?

Coba - climb at own risk

After collapsing into a breathless heap gracefully arriving at the top, the view of almost-unbroken jungle to the horizon in every direction more than made up for any minor heart palpitations.

Coba - view from the top

If anything, it’s harder to come down than go up. The rope helps a lot, but some people chose to descend on their butts rather than trust their sense of balance. Probably a smart choice, really.

Coba - coming down

Heading away from the increasingly-busy pyramid, I found time to get entangled in vines…

Coba - vines

… admire some moss…

Coba - moss

… and hang out with my new best friend, this tiny little frog.

Tiny frog at Coba

Oh, and there were a few other ruined buildings as well.

Overall, Coba was the least impressive of the three Mayan sites I visited in Mexico. Being immersed in the jungle and climbing the pyramid were definite highlights, but there wasn’t a great deal else to see beyond that. Even with that, though, it was worth making the effort to get to.

How I got there: While there are buses that run to Coba, I opted to rent a car from Playa del Carmen with some friends. The price was similar between four people, and it gave more flexibility for visiting the cenotes along the route (as well as a side-trip to the beach in Tulum and a stop at a random chicken stall for lunch).

 

Chichen Itza

 

Easily the most well-known Mayan site in Mexico, I expected vast numbers of tourist at Chichen Itza. The hordes in the entry hall seemed to bear that out, but once inside, I was surprised at how uncrowded it felt for the first couple of hours. In contrast to Coba most of the site has been cleared, leaving much more room for wandering, taking photos or finding a quiet spot under a tree.

We arrived relatively early, and given that many of the souvenir vendors hadn’t even started setting up yet, I can only imagine that the site gets much busier once the tour buses from Cancun start to turn up later in the day.

Sitting alone in the middle of a manicured lawn lay El Castillo, the pyramid that spawned a million postcards. It dominated the entire central section of Chichen Itza, and I found myself being drawn back towards it every time I walked anywhere near it. It really is that impressive.

El Castilo

Even for a novice like me, the difference in architectural styles across the site was obvious. Chichen Itza was one of the largest and most culturally diverse Mayan cities, and it still shows.

Chichen Itza columns

Just in case you were sick of square or rectangular buildings, the Mayans thoughtfully included a round one to break things up. Nicknamed El Caracol (“The Snail”) by the Spanish, it’s thought to be an early observatory.

Obsevatory

I spent a lot of time standing in the sun getting heatstroke admiring the La Iglesia (“The Church”), a highly-decorated building nearby. For some reason this crumbling temple particularly impressed me. Lauren, being far more sensible, opted to go and sit in the shade at this point, while I took four hundred photos from slightly-different angles. And then passed out.

La Iglesia

And oh, did I mention there were iguanas?

Chichen Itza - uphill iguana

And the biggest Mayan ball court in the world?

Ball court at Chichen Itza

And giant stone animal heads?

Chichen Itza - closeup head

But really, with me, it’s always about the iguanas.

Oh look, another iguana

 

  • We stayed in Valladolid, the nearest city to Chichen Itza. Our hotel, La Aurora Hotel Colonial, was pretty great — a clean, spacious room, air conditioning, swimming pool and included breakfast, a few minutes walk from the bus station and several restaurants. The staff were friendly, although they didn’t speak much English, and the WiFi was fast.

    We paid around $40/night.

  • Buses run a few times per day from Valladolid to Chichen Itza from the main station, taking less than an hour and costing 74 pesos each way. Tickets can be purchased at the bus station in Valladolid, and the gift shop in Chichen Itza.

    Colectivos also leave from nearby, if the bus timetables don’t work for you or you want to save a bit of money, or there’s always the taxi option if you have a larger group.

    The cost to enter Chichen Itza is relatively high by Mexican standards due to a local tax being charged on top of the site fee, for a total of around 200 pesos. These two fees need to be paid separately, just to add to the confusion, so don’t try to go through the turnstiles without having both tickets.

 

For someone who knew so little about Mayan history a few months ago, I have to say that I loved my time exploring the ruins in Mexico. That’s fortunate, really, given that there was plenty more still to come in Belize and Guatemala just a few weeks later…

 

Have you been to any of the Mayan sites in Mexico? Which was your favorite?

9 Responses to “Mexico’s Mayan Ruins (feat: Rocks, Iguanas and a Seriously Cute Frog)

  • Your take on the Yukatan Peninula was similar to mine – I was shocked that I knew so little about the Mayan culture. Gorgeous photos. Did you go to the cenotes? We loved them. Did you go to X-Caret? We love the Mayan culture and music there, and it was less touristy than Xel-Ha.

    • We’d planned to visit a few cenotes, but just ran out of time. 🙁 Although we went past the signs for both of the sites you mentioned, we never went in — theme parks based around archaeological sites don’t sit particularly well with me, although Wikipedia suggests that you can at least ask for admittance to just the ruins at Xel-ha for a few dollars.

  • I would honestly love to know more about the Mayan culture and history. All of these blog posts on Mexico really make me want to visit. Its such a shame Mexico gets such bad media!

    • It really is — especially since for most tourist destinations in the country, it’s completely undeserved.

  • Beautiful pictures, as always. Central American history and culture is such a blank in my mind, I’ll definitely need to visit one day!

  • I didn’t know much about the Mayans either before visiting Mexico. It is incredible how many ruins there are! We went to Teotihuacan, Palenque and Tulum in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala. Palenque was my favourite with Tikal a close second.

    • Tikal really was something special, hey? There’ll definitely be an upcoming post on it. 🙂

  • Wow, getting to Tulum from PDL is pretty cheap … makes up for the high price of admission to Chichen. Awesome photos at Tulum by the way!

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