This post is also available in: Dutch

Latest update: 13 March 2023

In Yucatán and Quintana Roo, four major Mayan ruins are within a maximum two-hour drive of each other. I visit the big four: Chichén Itzá, Ek’ Balam, Cobá and Tulum.

World Wonder Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá has been one of the world’s new wonders since 2007. Even those with zero interest in Mayan history can’t help but be impressed by the enormous structures. The biggest eye-catcher is the El Castillo pyramid. Unfortunately, you can only admire it from the ground because climbing has been prohibited since 2006. That’s when a woman fell off and died.

Twice a year, on March 20 and September 20, you can discover a snake with feathers on the structure in the morning and at the end of the day (thanks to the shadows). The rest of the year, in the evenings, there is a light show where this snake is also projected, along with many other images. Unfortunately, it comes with a hefty price tag.

Regular admission is around 26 dollars (2023 prices). For this amount, you can visit Chichén Itzá during the day until 4 pm, or you can enter after 5 pm. Because the sunset starts then, your visit is a lot shorter, but it is wonderfully quiet. You can buy skip-the-line tickets online, although experiences vary – some say it isn’t worth it, while others think it saves time.

Almost all Mayan ruins have a large playing field. Chichén Itzá has the largest. It is a game with rings on the wall and a large rubber ball. A kind of combination of football and handball. Depending on who tells the story, the losing side or the winners were sacrificed after the match. Fun game, right?

The cross-eyed children of Ek’ Balam

At Ek’ Balam, my travel buddies and I decide to explore the ruins with a guide (2018: 600 pesos). We are a bit of cultural barbarians as far as the Maya are concerned, so we could use some background information. I recommend that, at least at one of the Mayan ruins, you get a guide too. It is very informative, and the ruins really come to life.

I am most surprised by the story that parents went out of their way to give their children a minor disability. For example, they placed jade between babies’ eyes so that they squinted, or they tied a band around the skull to deform it. Disabled people were held in high esteem. Even if you were born outside the city walls (where the poorest people lived), you were welcomed with open arms in the rich center if you had a disability. Disability was seen as an ideal of beauty, probably because of incestuous practices among the upper class.

Tip! You can best climb up a temple in a zigzag manner. That is the fastest and less tiring.

A visit to Ek’ Balam costs 494 pesos (2023). You’ll pay some extra pesos if you also want to visit the X’Canché cenote. The walk there is about 2 kilometers long. The reward is big! There is hardly anyone at the cenote. I like this cenote even more than the Gran Cenote in Tulum. It’s bigger, rougher, and simply impressive.

Sunset at the Cobá ruins

Our plan to watch the sunset at the Cobá ruins (2023: 100 pesos entrance) fell apart due to an oil leak and a flat tire. That is why we arrive in the morning before the tour buses get there. The site is quite large, so expect a bit of a walk. Or rent a bicycle if you prefer.

If you watch the sunset from the great pyramid (Grupo Nohoch Mul), take a flashlight or make sure your phone is charged on the way back. It gets pitch dark, and the pyramid is very steep: 42 meters high and 120 steps.

Got hungry after your visit? Then don’t go to the restaurants in the parking lot, but walk along the lake to the ‘main street’. Here are cheaper restaurants where you can get a plate of rice with chicken for little money.

Tulum ruins, facing the ocean

The ruins of Tulum are impressively built on a high cliff directly on the Caribbean Sea. I definitely understand that the Mayans settled here! The Tulum ruins were formerly called Zama, meaning the city of dawn. The sun rises here. There is a small piece of beach to relax. Because you can easily get to the ruins by bike from Tulum, I advise you to go early in the morning. That’s how you avoid the biggest crowds, and the temperature is still pleasant. You pay 90 pesos (2023) for the entrance.

More Mexico inspiration?

blog overview Mexico
  • Accommodation. All-time favorite: Booking.com. Find hostels via Hostelworld.
  • Activities. You book the best tours and activities with GetYourGuide and Viator. You could also try WithLocals. ‘Free’ walking tours are available at GuruWalk. And for bike tours, try Baja Bikes.
  • Attractions and museums. Get a 5% discount on museums and attractions at Tiqets with the coupon code KIMOPREIS22.
  • Bus. Book bus trips in Mexico with Busbud or 12Go.
  • Car rental. My go-to car rental companies are EasyTerra and Sunny Cars as they have all-inclusive / worry-free offers. If you want more options, compare prices at Discover Cars.
  • Flights. Compare all your options! Definitely check out Momondo, Skyscanner, and Kiwi.
  • Money. Your debit and credit cards may not get accepted everywhere. You could opt for a Revolut card as an additional card when you travel. 
  • Package deals. Rather go on a catered trip? You have many options! For the Dutch, try ANWB vakanties, Tui or Sawadee, or maybe you can find a sweet deal at Vakantie Discounter or D-reizen?
  • SIM card. Beware of unexpectedly high calling and internet costs. Buy a local SIM card when you arrive, or arrange one online via Airalo.
  • Travel gear. Buy your gear at Bever or Decathlon, or simply at Bol.com.
  • Travel guides. I love the practical travel guides from Lonely Planet, buy them at Bol.com or Amazon.
  • Visum. Make sure you have the right documentation to travel to Mexico. iVisa can help you out.
  • Yoga retreat. Or: try a yoga retreat in Mexico!

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First published: February 2018 The article has been updated since.

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