It had been 18 years since I had last been to the Yucatan. A growing family and family obligations in general had tried to erase my memories of “home.” It’s so odd to me that as a white girl (can I say that?) from the United States, I have never felt more at home than I did and do in Mexico. The ancient history, the flavorful food, music and vibrant colors of both the people and the landscape felt oddly familiar even after my first visit long ago. My first few trips to the Yucatan Peninsula included the water havens of Xcaret and Xel-ha. Albeit they were just opening twenty some years ago and they have evolved into something more like Disney on water now. If you have never been, I would suggest that you go especially if you have young children or teens. That being said this last trip we were craving a real adventure. An authentic Mexico. Less touristy with more off the beaten path locations. We would be traveling in August so we knew that being around the ocean, cenotes or a pool would be very important. We tried to keep this in mind as we planned our various outings to the different ancient Mayan Pyramid sites that we planned to visit.
If visiting Mayan Pyramids in the Yucatan is on your bucket list too, you may want to consider the 5 that I have listed below. They are not listed in order of my preference but rather in the order of their popularity and/or size of the site. If you are more of the adventurous type you may prefer #4 and #5 on my list. They are far from famous but I guarantee they are mystical you will be awestruck.
#4 EK BALAM
After 9 trips to Mayan Riviera and the surrounding jungles I have come up with a list of the following tips that will make your adventure more pleasurable.
First, while it is not necessary to rent a vehicle (many will warn you NOT to) I find that we much prefer being in control of our schedule. We always choose to rent a car. Tour excursions are about 100.00 pp U.S. Last trip we had 6 people going. So, that amounts to 600.00 $ for every tour ( OUCH!) A van on the other hand cost 1100.00 for 14 days. The last time we used ISIS based in Cancun. It is family operated and Edgar is who you would need to contact. He truly bent over backwards to accommodate us. I always make sure I arrange this before I leave for our trip. He will meet you at the airport so you can sign the agreement right there. Not only does a rental car save money but it allows you to arrive at all of the sites as they open, thus avoiding the crowded tour buses. Many people will discourage you from renting as they feel it can be dangerous. You will hear stories of “La Mordida.” I personally have never, ever been pulled over and have rented numerous times. I will be honest to tell you that I have feared it in the past. I mean, who wants to be pulled over by a federale sporting a machine gun? For this reason, I highly suggest doing your research before you arrive in Mexico. I spent endless hours on trip advisor reading stories and tips from those that have rented successfully.
If you are taking in a camera, remember that some sites do charge extra.
Paying for tour guides: We chose not to but only because we have been to many sites in the past and are quite familiar with the history. If you have never been and are unfamiliar, I would definitely pay extra for a tour guide.
Because the exchange rate is ever changing, the prices in US are approximate.
When traveling through the Yucatan you will find (especially in the smaller more remote villages) that Spanish is spoken as a second language. Many of the Mayan villages still speak Mayan as their first language and only learn Spanish if and when they enter a formal education.
Public bathrooms cost 5 pesos to use
List of Must Have Items for Your Excursion
PESOS!! – That is truly stating the obvious. You are in Mexico. Some of these lesser known sites are far away from Cancun. Some may actually take dollars but expect your change to be given in pesos. Expect also that the exchange rate they give you will not be to your benefit. To make things easy, pesos should be used.
- Biodegradable sunscreen (protect the cenotes and reefs)
- Bug repellent
- Bathing suit if stopping at a cenote
- 1-2 Liters of water per person
- Hat or visor
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Camera, fully charged and disk
- Fully charge phone
- Old fashioned map. There are many places in the Yucatan that are not connected to WIFI.
- Cash (pesos) many places do not take credit cards
- Sack lunch or snack if no on-site facilities are available
- First aid kit (we left ours in the car the whole trip)
- Snorkeling gear (some cenotes have them available for rent but we prefer our own)
- Sport towel
While we prefer to stay in Tankah or Akumal. I realize many tourists are coming from Cancun or Playa Del Carmen. For this reason, the time/distance is gauged from Cancun.
Chichen Itza – (Mouth of the Well)
Occupied: 500-1550 AD
Admittance fee: 242 pesosor 13 US
Night show fee: 220 pesos or 11 US
Hours: M-S 8:00 a.m.
Lunch: Available on or near site
Distance from Cancun: 2 ¼ hours
El Castillo, the main pyramid or temple has 365 steps. One for each day of the year. It is decorated with magnificent serpents that run down each side. During the fall and spring equinox the shadow of the serpent can be seen descending or ascending down the height of the pyramid. This temple is an astonishing example of the ancient Mayans knowledge and understanding of astronomy. Even though we did not visit Chichen Itza on my last trip, I have been many times in the past. In fact, the last time that we were there, climbing the main Castillo was still allowed. The only reason we chose not to go on this last trip was because we had other sites that we had not seen yet. We do plan to return someday for the equinox and I would love to see the night show. If you have never been to Chichen Itza, it is a must see as it is the 7thwonder of the world and truly amazing. Again, arriving early is key. I would not want to be there when all of the tours buses arrive. This site is quite large and it is my guess that you will be in search of a cenote to cool off in after. There is a cenote at this site however in Pre-Columbian days it was used for human sacrifice and swimming is not allowed. I would suggest Ik Kil which is near- by and a gorgeous setting. The cost is 70 pesos or 5 U.S. per adult and 35 pesos or 2.50 U.S. per child
Occupied: 600-900 AD
Admittance fee: 114 pesos or 6 US
Hours: M-S 8:00 a.m.
Lunch: Available on or near site
Distance from Cancun: 2 hours
Bike Rental: 60 pesos or 3 US
Upon entering the park, you will have an option to rent a bike. I highly recommend this as a means of seeing the park. The site is huge with many ruins to see, plus the breeze when riding the bike is a great way to cool off in the heat and humidity of the jungle. Coba is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan. It reaches 137 feet high with 120 (steep) steps to the top. Don’t laugh but seeing pictures of this pyramid while planning our trip prompted us to start a workout regimen a few months before our trip. We are in our early 50’s and in decent shape but I did not want to miss what may be my last opportunity to climb this magnificent pyramid. The incline is very steep but the view from the top is truly surreal. From the top, you can see another pyramid reaching to the sky, fully surrounded and seemingly eaten by the jungle below. You really get a sense of what the Mayans felt in Pre-Columbian times. You will want to plan a few hours for this site and since it is inland it will get hot and humid. There are many cenotes in close proximity to Coba to stop and cool off at. We decided on the much-famed Gran Cenote (see my blog on cenotes.) Cenotes of the Yucatan El Gran Cenote is only ½ hour from Coba and it is on the way back to HWY 307. The admission is a bit pricey (25 US.) If we were to go again, I would skip El Gran and stop at Cristalino. El Gran is gorgeous but expensive and crowded. In my opinion, Cristalino is just as gorgeous and only 150 pesos or about 8 US. Cristalino is off of 307 to the west and just north of Akumal.
Tulum (Trench or Wall)
Occupied: 1200-1400 AD
Admittance fee: 40 pesos or 2 US, parking 30 pesos, camera extra
Hours: M-S 8:00 a.m.
Lunch: Available near site
Distance from Cancun: 2 hours
Boat / Snorkel Tour: 25 US, arrange in Tulum
You will find what is unique about Tulum is exactly what it is renowned for. It is a fairly small but lovely site perched on the cliffs overlooking the beautiful Caribbean Sea. After taking a walking tour, head down to the beach below to take a quick dip. You may also decide to take the snorkeling and boat tour in order to view the ancient Mayan ruins from the sea. The cost was only 25 US. We will definitely take the boat tour again when we go back. While the snorkeling does not offer the variety of fish as Akumal, you will still see quite a few fish. There is a small outcropping of coral that was quite impressive. What shocked and thrilled me the most was that it was here, in Tulum, that I had my first encounter with a giant turtle. Little did this turtle know that he was on my bucket list!
Ek Balam (Black or Star Jaguar)
Occupied: 100 BC – Spanish Occupation (longest known occupied site known)
Admittance fee: 193 pesos or 8 US
Rickshaw fee to cenote: 150 pesos or 7.50 US
Cenote entrance: 50 pesos or 2.50 US
Hours: M-S 8:00 a.m.
Lunch: pack or stop in Valladolid
Distance from Cancun: 3 hours
While Ek Balam is becoming a little more well known, it is still visited far less than Chichen Itza, Coba or Tulum. I personally prefer Ek Balam for a few reasons. First, the village that it is located in has been occupied by the same Mayan families for generations. Quite possibly the descendants of the original people who first occupied Ek Balam. These families all contribute to the tours, upkeep and running of the ruins and cenote that are located on the same site. Second, Ek Balam has an odd mystical feeling, more so than the other sites. It is something that I can’t quite explain. I just remember feeling a peaceful awe and reference. The day my family and I arrived we were there as they opened and one of very few others there. We really had the place to ourselves. What is oddly unique to Ek Balam is that near the top of the main pyramid there is a carving of what appeared to be a winged creature. This would not seem odd or out of place if it were at a location in Egypt but this is in the middle of the Yucatan. It makes one wonder if there had been outside influence or contact from other parts of the ancient world. We did not pay for a tour here for reasons previously stated however on our next visit I would hire a guide. It would be amazing to have some local insight as to why some of the carvings seem middle eastern in style. It was interesting to walk around alone and at one point we got a little lost as we wandered down a small side trail. The foliage and trees were quite dense and we noticed that we were walking by huge mounds of jungle covered unexcavated pyramids. We then came upon a small area that appeared to be a mini-village within the site. There were a few “houses” in the traditional Mayan style along with domesticated turkeys, dogs and chickens. Thinking that we had taken a wrong turn and probably shouldn’t be there, we decided to turn back. At this site, you will see many sac be, or ancient white stone roads and pathways. It is said that these roads lead to Coba and other ancient sites in the Yucatan, good thing we turned around! As you are leaving you will pass a “gift shop” area. Keep in mind it is very rural and consists of a few Mayan shelters that display their hand made goods. If you are seeking authentic handmade Mayan products at very reasonable prices (please have pesos), I would urge you to buy here. It is a way of helping to support this village and honestly the prices were the best we had seen on our trip. By this time, we were all feeling the heat and humidity. Thankfully there is a cenote right on site, X’Canche. We hired a rickshaw to transport us and my teenage girls loved the ride back! If you are trying to save your pesos, you can definitely walk back but keep in mind it’s hot, humid and about 1 mile.
Dzibanche: (Writing on Wood)
I guarantee, if you pronounce it Diz-bon-eetch, no one will know what you are talking about!
Occupied: 200 BC – 900 AD
Admittance fee: 46 pesos or 2 US
Hours: M-S 8:00 a.m.
Lunch: pack – nothing for miles…. and miles
Distance from Cancun: 5 1/2 hours
Most days I will tell you that Dzibanche is by far my favorite. Ek Balam does run a close second. I have been to Mexico many times but never ventured this far south. The topography changes to what seems to be more like a rain forest. The jungle is quite dense here. Considering it is so far south, I think that most tours are arranged through cruise ships that come in to port at Majahual. Other than that, I believe you are on your own to find and or arrange transportation (why I like to rent a car.) If a visit to Bacalar is included in your travel plans you should definitely plan to take a morning drive to Dzibanche. What had intrigued me most (okay I was obsessed) about seeing this particular site was my desire to not only see but to hear howler monkeys in their natural habitat. Warning: If you plan to go and have never heard a howler I suggest you google their vocals. Their screeches can be quite scary and intimidating. They sound like what I would imagine to be a charging jaguar. Another surprise is the ride there. MapQuest will tell you that it is about 60 miles or an hour from Bacalar. When we went it was a bit over two hours. Through the small villages you will encounter multiple topes or speed bumps. Also, the road back off of 187 isn’t really a road like you may be used to. It has pot holes so big that I swear some of the wandering cows could get lost in. No, I’m not kidding. When you pay the entrance fee it also includes the fee to its “sister site”, Kohunlich which is right down the “road”. Unfortunately, we had an overheated child and we were unable to make it that far. We arrived at Dzibanche at about 9 a.m. and we were the only tourists there. There was one other person, the man at the entrance collecting the entrance fee. It was very exciting if not a bit intimidating to be this deep in the overgrown jungle and to be the only other living (human) souls around. I do believe that we were far outnumbered by the howler monkeys. Because Mayan is the native tongue of the guide working and English is mine, we had to meet in the middle with both his and my broken Spanish. He was very friendly and just looked happy to have people to talk to. He offered us a tour at no additional fee (we did tip him well however.) Because we were the only other people there he was able to take us through the site showing us different plants and vegetation, including some of which we used immediately to ward off mosquitos! He took us back through roped off areas that are still in the process of being excavated. All the while we were being watched by a family of lazy howlers. At one point my husband was trying the fruit that the guide told us the monkeys ate, evidently the howlers thought it would be funny to start throwing pits at my husband. We both tried the fruit but the howlers seemed more intent on pegging him and not me (a testosterone thing?) The whole experience was quite amazing. Here we were interacting with a family of wild howler monkeys! The other mammal that we became fond of was Papashay, the resident canine. This pup followed us everywhere even up to the top of the pyramids. He followed us into the roped off areas that from what I could understand were Pre-Columbian living quarters for the sites original residents. This was by far my favorite site and we will definitely visit again.
With so many sites in Mexico and Central America and more being discovered daily, there are so many sites I would like to see. My next trip I would like to add Palenque, Uxmal, Tikal in Guatemala and many more.
My last bit of advice would be to research first and then to go with the heart of an explorer taking in as much of this magical region as possible.
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