So you only have a few days in Cancun? Or maybe Tulum? There are literally hundreds of archaeological sites in Mexico and you can’t see them all, or can you? We spent six weeks traveling around the Yucatan, and still didn’t see everything. However, we did get a pretty good feel for what to see, what to skip, and what to save for later.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is typically first place everyone wants to see when they visit Mexico. It’s not hard to get there, either by car or by bus. Just walk down any shopping area in Tulum, Cancun, or Playa Del Carmen to find a guide selling tours to Chichen Itza. It’s also very easy to rent a car drive to the ruins. Renting a car in Tulum was easier than renting a car in the U.S., and it’s a two-hour drive to Chichen Itza. We arrived early, but not early enough to avoid the crowds. The archaeological park opens at 8am, but by the time we arrived at 8:30, the hordes were already waiting. Chichen Itza is one of the most disappointing trips of our visit to. My advice is if you’re short on time, skip it completely. If you want to read more check out my post on Chichen Itza.

What: Chichen Itza
How: 2 hours from Tulum by QROO 109 and México 180
When & How Much: Hours 8am – 4:30pm Cost: 232 Pesos (about $12 USD)

Muyil

Muyil is probably my favorite archaeological site in Mexico. It’s the first place I’m going to see again when we return. Muyil is really something special because if you’re lucky you’ll have the entire park to yourself. Muyil is the perfect place to meditate with the sounds of the jungle, or just quietly contemplate civilizations long gone. If you’re primary goal is solitude and nature Muyil can’t be beat. I don’t understand why no one visits this place. We stayed for hours listening to the birds and looking at the ruins. Muyil is surprisingly close to Tulum. You could rent a car, but it’s really not necessary, just hop on a collectivo for a 15-minute ride. For more information see my guide to the Muyil ruins.

WHAT: Muyil Mayan Ruins
BEST TIME TO GO: May – September
COST: About $4
WHERE: 12 miles west of Tulum

 

Coba

While Muyil is teh best place for solitude, Coba is the place to go to climb a pyramid. Mexico has pretty much prohibited climbing the ruins at all archaeological sites after a tourist fell to her death at Chichen Itza. It probably won’t be long before climbing is prohibited at Coba as well. Climbing the pyramid alone at Coba is one of my all-time most memorable travel experiences. My advice is rent a bicycle in the park and head straight for the pyramid. If you arrive early and do this you should have at least a half-hour alone at the pyramid. If I rated all the ruins that we visited, Coba is definitely #1. For a more information see my guide to Coba.

WHAT: Coba Mayan Ruins
BEST TIME TO GO: May – September
COST: About $4
WHERE: 30 Miles West of Tulum

Ek Balam

Ek Balam is a nice side trip if you’re driving to Chichen Itza. The turn-off to Ek-Balam is at Valladolid, about half-way between Tulum and Chichen Itza. The detour is sixty miles round-trip and it’s well worth it. At Ek Balam you can still climb the pyramid (or what’s left of it). It’s also not very crowded. We arrived in the afternoon and had no problem finding a quiet spot in the jungle to ourselves. The jungle, and a lot of it is what you’re going to find a lot of at Muyil and Ek Balam. If you’re looking to experience nature and get away from the crowds and commercialization, go to Ek Balam or Muyil. Only a few of the ruins are cleared, allowing the visitor to truly experience the Mayan jungle.

WHAT: Ek Balam Ruins
BEST TIME TO GO: May – September
COST: 193 pesos (total to two different agencies) About $10 USD
WHERE: 30 miles north of Valladolid on Mexico 295

El Meco

Want to have a close encounter with wildlife? El Mecco is the place to go. Located at the extreme northern end of Cancun, El Mecco is an excellent place to get away from it all when you’re sick of Cancun. El Mecco wasn’t even on our radar until our Air BnB host told us about it. We were staying in Puerto Juarez and walked a little over a mile to the ruins. When we arrived about an hour after opening, it was empty. I wouldn’t return to Cancun, but if you have to stay there, El Meco is the star attraction. The best part of El Meco is not the ruins, but the family of Coati that live in the surrounding jungle. El Meco was a completely unplanned trip, but I’l never forget watching the Coati play in the jungle. The Best Adventures are the Most Unexpected 

WHAT: El Meco Ruins
BEST TIME TO GO: May – September
COST: About $14 USD
WHERE: 6 Miles N. of Cancun or walking distance from Puerto Juarez beach

Tulum Ruins

The Tulum ruins are beautiful, but I probably wouldn’t return. Much like Chichen Itza, it was terribly overcrowded, even in the off-season in July. If you absolutely have nothing else to do, and arrive very early, Tulum is a decent excursion. An hour after opening though, Tulum is so crowded you might get bumped off the sidewalk by day-trippers on a bus from Cancun. My advice is to arrive early, decide if you want to see the ruins or the beach first, and head straight there. You can find more information in my guide to the Tulum ruins.

WHAT: Tulum Ruins
BEST TIME TO GO: May – September
COST: About $4 USD
WHERE: In Tulum

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the ruins in the Yucatan or Quintana Roo, just a few that we visited during our six weeks in Tulum. Although Chichen Itza is the place you always hear about, it’s the one place I would definitely skip. The crowds, commercialization, and over-restoration are too extreme. If you’re looking for solitude and a chance to experience the ruins and the jungle alone, Muyil and Ek Balam are the best bets. If you’re just in Cancun or Tulum for the day, and want to see famous Mayan ruins, Tulum is the best place. I intentionally left out the long and interesting history of these sites (which you can find on my individual guides), because I wanted to give you an overview of our experiences at each set of ruins. Are you planning a trip to Mexico? We’d love to hear from you.

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