Top Mayan Ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula
There is so much more to a Mexico trip than just an all-inclusive. While many just focus on a week of relaxing on the beach, adding in a day trip to one of a dozen Mayan sites within a few hours of the Mayan Riviera coast, can make for some of your favourite memories. The biggest question is not if you should go, but which one should you visit!
Before getting into which to visit, we should quickly touch on who the Mayans are, as it is key to the understanding of why you want to go see a partially crumbling pyramid. The Mayans were one of the single largest and most advanced civilizations in pre-Columbus Americas. They built an intricate web of stone and clay streets that connected cities whose populations were up to 200,000 people. The empire was vast covering most of modern Mexico and Central America and was split up into small kingdoms. While they had a unified script which led to great advancements in astronomy, mathematics, art, and architecture, each kingdom was run separately and developed its own unique identity. This is why you see so many different architectural styles and city layouts when visiting the ancient cities today.
Spending even an hour at each one would take you months to visit them all and you would still see only a fraction of what the former powerhouses had to offer. From Cancun or the Mayan Riviera, there are more than a dozen ruins within a few hours but we are going to focus on 3 of the most famous in this article; Chichen Itza, Coba, and Ek Balam. Tulum could be added to this list thanks to its proximity but these three had more of an impact on the culture of the area and thus from our perspective should be focused on.
Chichen Itza is the most famous Mayan city on the Yucatan Peninsula and one of the most visited attractions in Mexico as a whole. Over 2.5 million people explore the massive city per year attracted to its central pyramid, ball stadium, and hundreds of other ruins. Chichen Itza is roughly 2:30 hours from Cancun and 2:15 from Playa Del Carmen so it is a trek to get out there but it is quite worth it. The central pyramid, El Castillo or the Temple of Kukulcan, is amazingly well-preserved and built in multiple stages between the 8th and 11th Centuries. It is dedicated to Kukulcan, the feathered serpent god of the rain, and has 91 steps on each side which when added to the top-level make 365 representing the 365 days of the year. The temple is also special as it is aligned with the spring and fall equinoxes which illuminates the side into a slithering snake.
The easiest way to get to Chichen Itza is on a scheduled tour which runs about CAD$150 for a public one or CAD$250 for a private one. This will give you most of the day at the site with another stop at a cenote along the way. The biggest downside of these tours is the time you will arrive at Chichen Itza. As it is such a massively visited site, starting at around 10 AM, the place gets quite crowded with hundreds of busses arriving from Cancun. If you have the option, it is best to stay the night in Valladolid, or at one of the hotels on the edge of ruins. We highly suggest Mayaland Bungalows as it is not only beautiful but has a private entrance which allows for easy access with almost no line. Waking up early allows you to get almost 2 full hours at the site before any tour bus from the coast has arrived! There is also an amazing nightly laser light show that depicts the history of Chichen Itza which should not be missed.
Quite a bit closer to the beach, Coba was another major Mayan city. Coba was occupied as far back as the 1st century AD and quickly became a major city. By the mid 1 millennium, the city had grown in power and became the nexus of many of the roads on the Yucatan. With a population of over 50,000 people, the city was spread out into sectors for the working class, royalty, and farmers which were all connected through the web of sacbes. These roads allowed modern archeologists to uncover the site in a way unlike most other Mayan cities allowing for more understanding in a shorter time. The main reason most people explore Coba is to climb to the top of the main temple. At 140 feet tall, it is one of the tallest Mayan ruins and offers incredible views of the surroundings from a perspective that is tough to come by.
Once again the easiest way to get to Coba is on a private or public tour. Coba is 1:30 hours from Playa del Carmen and 2 hours from Cancun so taking a public bus can get a bit tricky and tiresome. If you are a tad more adventurous, you can rent a car and drive to Coba. The highway is very easy to drive and people are not nearly as crazy on the road as most North American major cities. This will allow you to spend your time exploring the ruins and not rush around on someone else's schedule.
By far the least visited of the three, Ek Balam is a hidden gem. Only a fraction of the city has been excavated, but what has been revealed places it in a world of its own. At the centre of the excavations is the huge 30M tall pyramid, El Trono, which is decorated in carved and plastered stone. Surrounding the pyramid is an assortment of buildings dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries including a ball court, the royal palace, and the ornate entrance arch. What sets the city apart from others is that El Trono, is actually a burial temple and holds one of the most important kings of the region. Climbing to the top of the pyramid gives you a great view towards the sea and the numerous cenotes that surround the city.
Like the others, the easiest way to get to Ek Balam is on a tour. You can book a private one for more time at the ruins or a public one if the price is the biggest concern. With either option, the guide will be a great resource to help understand the structure and layout of the great city. It is not on a convenient bus route so it will be a challenge to get to using public transportation. The best option though is to rent a car and explore the site on your own. There is a lot to do close by so having a car allows for flexibility. Rio Lagartos is just 45 minutes north and is covered in tens of thousands of flamingos, while Valladolid just to the south is one of the best colonial cities on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Personally, Ek Balam is our suggestion especially if you have previously been to Chichen Itza. It is heavily underrated and thus only visited by a select few tourists offering almost exclusive access. As such, it is also not nearly as excavated as some other sites which means it doesn't have the breath of buildings that some of the other cities have. If you have previously been to a Mayan city, Ek Balam is perfect but if it is your first time, your best option would to to visit one of the more popular and excavated ruins as you will learn more and have a better understanding of what you are seeing.