Hidden Gems – Exploring Mayan Ruins
While you’re visiting the gorgeous Mayan Riviera, you have a chance to see some pretty cool Mayan ruins. Some are nestled in the jungle, others on the coast. Some are right in town, surrounded by vacation homes and villas! Here are our recommendations for what’s worth checking out:
We must start with the most beautiful spot (in our opinion) – Tulum! Situated on a limestone bluff overlooking the turquoise Caribbean Sea, this small Mayan site is visually stunning. And it doesn’t take long to see; less than 2 hours. But yes, it is very popular and gets crowded.
Enjoy the views from the cliffside path that winds around El Castillo (the castle). In the distance, waves crash on the coral reef beyond, creating a natural barrier and a protected beach below. There are so many gorgeous views here, it’s worth visiting just for the photos you’ll get.
Tip for Tulum: We like to take friends as early as possible to beat the heat and the crowds (the site opens at 8am).
Our favorite lesser-known site? It’s definitely Ek Balam. Here, the well-preserved state of the sculptures and frescoes on the temples is impressive. Every building is open to public access, so you can really explore.
On site there’s a Mayan ball court, temple pyramid and observatories. Plus a beautiful cenote is a short bike ride away. Splash into it by rappelling down from the cliff edge or using the rope swing at the foot of the stairs.
Tip for Ek Balam: Plan a full day for this excursion. It’s in the jungle, about 156kms/97 miles from Playa del Carmen.
For more climbing, visit the highest pyramid in the Yucatan, visit Coba. It’s still fully accessible, but that could change, so don’t miss out. Coba is about 62 miles/110 kms from Playa del Carmen, beside a lagoon. The ruins are spread out over a lush jungle plain, so be prepared to walk a lot. Bicycles are for rent, or for an extra fee you can hop aboard a tricycle wagon and be chauffeured between sites.
Don’t miss the opportunity to climb the steep stairs to the top of the 42m-high pyramid for breezy, panoramic jungle views. There are restaurants and gift shops around the entrance.While you’re in the area, visit one of the nearby cenotes for a cool swim after.
Tip for larger sites: When visiting Chichen Itza & Coba, consider hiring a guide. You’ll get much more out of the experience and you’ll be supporting the local economy too.
Likely the most famous of Mayan archaeological sites (1 of the “New 7 Wonders of the World”), is Chichen Itza. Keen observers of the night sky, the Mayans showed off their astronomical knowledge in their architecture. At the Spring Equinox, thousands gather to watch El Castillo (the castle pyramid) where the shadows make a great serpent appear on the steps.
Word to the wise, you can’t climb on anything here, and the whole place is very commercialized. This is not for you if you prefer a more organic, authentic experience.
When you want to break away from the beach and see something unique, visit a Mayan site and a cenote for an adventurous day!
By Brad & Kelly Storhaug