Now there is plenty to do in Playa del Carmen itself, but you can’t come to Mexico without exploring at least one of the nearby Mayan ruins. There are three ruins easily accessible from Playa del Carmen: Chichen Itza, Coba and Tulum and, my advice? See them all! Each one offers a unique experience and atmosphere, almost a different filter through which you can look back in time.
Of course, you may not have time to see them all and so you’ll need to choose. I could tell you my favorite (it’s Coba, definitely Coba) but that may not be the best choice for you. So, let me describe the best way to see each of these magical places and I’ll do my best to capture the feel of each one amidst the details of transportation and logistics.
This one is the “must-see”. It’s the Eiffel tower of Mayan Ruins- famous, prestigious and very, very crowded.
If you’re coming from Playa del Carmen, I would suggest that the best way to get there is to rent a car. If you’re traveling alone or don’t want to rent a car, the next best option is to take the ADO bus. Air-conditioned, fast and comfortable- the ADO bus will take you straight to Chichen Itza for around 350 pesos (which, compared to a tour bus is an incredible deal.)
However, if you have even one other person, I’d say it’s definitely worth it to rent a car. There are plenty of deals you can find on the internet and walking around Playa that put it in a similar price range with the added benefit of comfort, independence, and fun road-trip vibes. It’s about a 2-2.5 hour drive to Chichen Itza on a straight and easy to navigate highway. You will be pressured to pay for private parking that will “save you hours of waiting in line” but I would advise against it. The public parking is very close and free and I’m not convinced the private parking saves you any time at all. So I recommend waiting and just buying the entrance tickets at the gate.
It’s a two-hour drive- so leave early. Or leave late. But if you land in between you’ll end up wandering around the ruins under the noon sun amidst a swarm of humans that leave you more breathless that you were expecting. Arriving early is the standard advice and honestly I do think early would be good. Personally, I left late and it worked out just as well. Maybe even better. You see, early you’ve got tour buses and morning people to contend with, and of course, all the people that heard that “the earlier the better” have also dragged their butts up there.
I think the best time to be in Chichen Itza is the end of the day. The tour buses have left, which frees up a significant amount of space. In fact, most people have had their fill by now of staring at well-kept old rocks with a side of heat exhaustion and you’ll find the closer to the end of the day you get the more you can have the place to yourself. The light softens, the merchants start to pack up their things and Chichen Itza starts to look more magical.
Tips and Tricks
If you need souvenirs from Mexico- here and now is the time. Counter-intuitive as it may seem the prices inside Chichen Itza are actually amazing. And if you’re there by the end of the day, they are sure to offer you a genuinely good price and they have some amazing things. If you really mill around to the end (like they start to shoo you away) you can get some great shots.
If you clap in front of the main pyramid, you hear the sound of a sacred bird echoing back to you. It’s actually very cool.
Also, if you hang around this area you can entertain yourself by watching the tourists clapping and giggling endlessly.
Remember that it’s big! If you want to see everything, you’re going to have to keep moving.
Tulum is small but beautiful. t’s picturesque location perched on a seaside cliff with the Caribbean shining in the background are its main selling point. It’s the place to go if you like photography or pretty things. Or if spending time away from the sea on your limited Caribbean vacation gives you a panic attack (I get you there), it’s perfect- you can access the beach straight from the ruins.
For this trip from Playa del Carmen, I would actually recommend an ADO bus. It takes about an hour and costs around 60 pesos. However, you will need to take a taxi from the bus station to the ruins as it is a long walk but that should be around 50 pesos.
Alternatively, if you’re feeling brave you could also take the colectivo. They leave from Playa del Carmen almost constantly from Calle 2 and Avenida 20. You’ll see countless vans milling about here, some of which will have Tulum written on it. Regardless of what you read, definitely ask “Tulum” to a few people and they will point you to the right van. Then just hop in and they’ll take you straight there for about 40 pesos.
Tulum is small, beautiful and also very, very hot. With fewer trees and sheltered areas than Chichen Itza, the heat can be unbearable. Go early or close to dusk. Honestly, it really is small and I can’t imagine it taking more than a couple hours to explore so you can fit it into a day of exploring Tulum, the beach and maybe some cenotes.
Tips and Tricks
Keep in mind that the beach and the ruins are not so close to main town area. So you will need to take a taxi/colectivo from one to the other.
Seriously, this is the hottest of the Mayan Ruins. You have been warned. You can access the beach, so if overheating is becoming a danger you do have that option.
Tulum really is quite small. It’s well-worth seeing but I wouldn’t make it your whole day. There’s plenty of other things to do around Tulum like spending time on the beach, exploring the town or visiting one or two of the numerous cenotes, so make sure you’ve got more planned for your day.
Intrepid explorers welcome! If you’ve ever dreamt of hacking through a jungle only to come across the ruins of an ancient civilization, this one’s for you. The Coba Ruins have a very different feel than the previous two.
Instead of manicured lawns, Coba has paths through an overgrown jungle. Unlike, the beautiful condition of the Chichen Itza “ruins”, the Coba Ruins are in a charmingly dilapidated state. Much less maintained, it has a wilder feel to it which gives you the feel of an explorer rather than the tourist you are. It is also one of the last ruins that you are allowed to climb, so it’s an interactive experience rather than an outdoor museum. I absolutely loved it.
You’ve got the same options here as before. Rent a car, colectivo or ADO bus. I chose to rent a car this time and I’m happy we did. Coba is just a bit further than Tulum and if you wanted to maximize your Mayan Ruin opportunities you could easily do Tulum and Coba in a day, especially with a rented car.
For Coba, the timing is not as important. It’s very large and not as popular as the others, so tends to be less affected by crowds of people. Also, instead of lawns, you’re much more in the jungle which means you have a lot more available shade. I do recommend going earlier but just to give yourself more time, because of all the ruins I stayed in Coba the longest. So, go whenever you want, and enjoy!
Tips and tricks
I think I mentioned Coba is large, but don’t worry. You can rent bikes! For a small fee of around 50 pesos you can rent a bike to explore the whole park. Also with the wind, this cools you down a lot.
I’ve already told you how cool it is that you can climb on these ruins right? Well, I feel like I should also warn you- these stairs haven’t been maintained much in a few hundred years or so and can seem a little… steep and slippery.
Embrace your inner child and let yourself feel like an explorer!
The cenotes nearby are definitely worth a visit after your exploration. There is one where you can jump from a fairly high platform, so if you feel like you’ve conquered your fear of heights by summiting the pyramid this is a good way to put it to the test.
Chichen Itza is large, iconic, and impressive. Tulum is easy, pretty and small. Coba is fun, interactive and also quite large. All are very cool to see, so you can’t really go wrong with any of them.
General Recommendations for all Mayan Ruins:
Try to learn as much as you can about the ruins before you go. Learning about Mexico and Mayan history will really make the experience come alive for you and is well worth the effort.
And bring a swimsuit. Near all the ruins you can find either a beach and/or a handful of cenotes and trust me, after a few hours you will be dying for a cool-down.
Go early, or go late. Not in-between.
See at least one and enjoy!