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There are some 4,400 Mayan ruins sites spread across Mexico’s Yucatan and Quintana Roo regions that have been identified. Countless more exist in the jungles, awaiting discovery and exploration. Our family, kids included, has visited all three of the major ruins in the Riviera Maya and we’ve found them amazing in different ways.
The three biggest Mayan sites are the world-famous city of Chichen Itza, the oceanfront structures at Tulum and the impressive ruins at Coba. All are fantastic for different reasons. Our kids were amazed at the sheer ingenuity of these civilizations and all they accomplished more than 2,500 years ago. We left with fascinating and sometimes gruesome stories to share back home, and tons of history that didn’t seem painful to learn and absorb.
Over the past couple of years, our family has fallen in love with Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the Quintana Roo region and, specifically, Playa del Carmen. We’ve now visited several times, and have explored the surrounding areas in between lounging at the beach and snorkeling in the crystal-blue waters.
Three tips from our family on visiting any of these ruins:
- Get a guide. It’s the only way to really understand the significance of what you are seeing.
- Plan for spending the entire day on excursion. None of these sites are close to Playa del Carmen or Cancun hotel regions.
- It’s usually hot. Bring water, hats, biodegradable sunscreen and snacks. Bring bathing suits too, because there are a lot of nearby cenotes (natural freshwater swimming holes) to dunk into.
Visit Chichen Itza for an Organized View
The Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza is much-photographed, and for good reason. Of the most impressive archeological sites across the Yucatan, this is also the most famous. In fact, Chichen Itza is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Most of the buildings have been discovered in reasonable condition and/or restored as they might have originally appeared. After all, 1,500 years of neglect and the elements can do some damage!
As our family walked down the path from the park entrance and entered the large clearing, the sights took our breath away. The temple looms in the center of an enormous field of green grass. With its stair-stepped architecture and distinctive pyramid shape, it’s mighty impressive. Huge stone-carved snakes mark the staircase entrances on all four sides, and many other symbols throughout the park are easily distinguished. The kids’ mouths dropped open in wonder, and that’s not easy to accomplish with teen girls.
Of course, the kids wanted to climb those temple stairs, but that is not allowed. They are extremely steep and appear unsafe, plus all those tourists tromping up and down would damage this important structure. The site is vast and we found plenty of other places to explore, climb, play around and ogle.
One cool thing: Our guide showed us that the temple has a built-in sound effect. If you stand near one of the staircases and clap loudly, the echo sounds like a bird chirping. This Mayan culture believed the Quetzal bird had special powers and revered its presence.
One gross thing: The temple was the site of many human sacrifices, and the severed heads were tossed from the top and rolled down the staircases to waiting crowds below. Not sure why they did this, but there are numerous places throughout the entire park that depict this. Both fascinated and grossed out, the kids loved learning about this and telling their friends.
If you visit Chichen Itza:
- Tickets are 232 pesos (about $12).
- Sundays are free for Mexican citizens, so that day is sometimes more crowded.
- Book a private guide for a fantastic experience — ours even picked us up at our hotel and transported us in an air-conditioned SUV. (Tours from $75.)
Visit Tulum for Its Gorgeous Oceanfront Views
Tulum was built in 564 as an oceanfront walled city and port to serve Coba. An important outpost for trade by sea, Tulum prospered. Today the area has been rediscovered by the Bohemian set and subsequently trendy boutique hotels and world-class restaurants have popped up in the nearby town.
Tulum is definitely the smallest site of the three. The ruins here are severe, and reminded us of visiting the Roman Forum or fallen sites in Greece. Buildings were built more on the scale of dwellings today and there are no structures as tall as those at either Chichen Itza or Coba. However, this development does have a well-preserved Temple of the God of the Wind, overlooking the azure blue ocean.
One thing here that delighted the kids was the large number of iguanas that inhabit it. And by large number, I mean they are EVERYWHERE. Big ones, small ones, tame ones, skittish ones — they all came out to gawk at the tourists and bask in the sun. Perching on stone walls of the ruins or lying straight across a walkway, the iguanas were a huge game for the kids. They chased them, tried to feed them, never caught them and finally just accepted them as the rightful residents of the Tulum ruins.
When you visit Tulum, make sure you find the path and staircase down to the beach. Not only is it great for photographing the ocean, sand and clifftop ruins, but the water is also deliciously refreshing in that hot sun. The kids had worn their swimsuits under their shorts and tops, so they went right into the calm waters. We parents waded in up to our shins and dug our toes into the wet sand. It was heaven.
If you visit Tulum:
- Tickets are 65 pesos (roughly $4).
- Save some pesos for the Popsicle vendor near the park exit. She had exotic flavors and colorful choices to please the entire family.
- Drive south when you leave and stop at one of the town’s roadside restaurants for lunch. These places don’t look like much, but they offer seafood tacos that are fresh, delicious and inexpensive.
- You may not need a tour guide here. We didn’t have one and still enjoyed our visit.
Visit Coba for Hands-On Action and Adventure
Of the three sites, Coba is the most accessible. And by accessible, I mean you can climb to the top of the temple. With more than 170 steep steps in various stages of disrepair, this 140-foot climb is an adventure for the strong and brave. Let’s just say I would not let kids climb until they were well into their teen years. But eventually we climbed and it was worth the effort.
The top of Coba’s Ixmoja (ish-mo-hah) Temple offers spectacular and unobstructed vistas of the entire Yucatan jungle. In the not-so-distant perimeter, I saw several green-covered “mountains” sticking up out of the jungle growth. Our guide informed us these are not mountains, but yet-to-be-restored Mayan ruins. This is what Coba, Chichen Itza and Tulum must have looked like when the original archaeologists discovered them and began to uncover their mysteries.
To reach the temple, we walked along a gravel path from the park entrance well into the site. Several stone structures are viewed along the way, including a smaller temple pyramid and a ceremonial ball court. Past these buildings, we came upon a choice: Walk the rest of the way to the temple (about 30 minutes), rent a bike and ride (approximately $1 for the duration and a 5- to 7-minute ride) or rent a cycle/rickshaw contraption where a nice man peddles you there ($5 and a 7- to 10-minute ride). We opted for the bikes, and loved the experience of riding along the jungle path.
The experience of visiting the ruins at Coba is an active one. Walking, riding, climbing, exploring and learning are all part of the agenda here.
Again, a tour guide will be a great resource for this visit in order to understand the significance and history of what you are seeing at Coba. There is so much about this ancient Mayan civilization to know, and so much more yet to be learned. One thing that struck us deeply: They had no animals to help them build. Pyramids built in other lands had camels, elephants or even horses to help haul the heavy stones. The Mayans used human labor, meaning every stone had to be excavated, carved, carried and placed by hand.
If you visit Coba:
- Tickets are 70 pesos (about $3).
- Food is limited at the entrance and a little sketchy. Bring snacks.
- Don’t rush the experience. This is a spiritual place and meant to be experienced with peace and respect.
- Get a guide — we used Alltournative Adventures and our guide Rebecca was full of knowledge and infectious interest in Coba and its history. She made the whole tour 10 times better. (Tours from $139.)
How to Get to Riviera Maya
Our family lives in San Diego, and we have traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula and Playa del Carmen area from both San Diego International Airport (SAN) and Tijuana International Airport (TIJ). Most recently, we flew from Tijuana to Cancun International Airport (CUN) by using the Cross Border Xpress (CBX). This is a bridge that connects an airport terminal in the US directly into the Tijuana Airport’s gate area. We love the convenience of CBX and the cost savings of flying from Tijuana.
Cancun Airport is served by direct flights on most major carriers, including Delta, United, American, JetBlue and Frontier. From Tijuana, several Mexican airlines offer direct flights daily including Volaris, which we took on our last visit and found extremely convenient, well run and on time.
If you’re a points and miles junkie, you will no doubt one day bring your family to Mexico’s Yucatan and Quintana Roo regions. Flights on major carriers are plentiful as are resorts that are points-friendly. When you do arrive in the area, make it a point to visit one or more of these ancient Mayan sites.
If you’re planning a trip to this region, here are some related stories:
- Redeem Points at These 9 Family-Friendly Resorts in Cancun
- 7 Top Family-Friendly Resorts in Mexico’s Riviera Maya
- 5 Fun Activities That Made Me Fall in Love With Riviera Maya
- 7 Amazing Spots in Mexico’s Riviera Maya That Aren’t Tulum
Know before you go.
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