The most famous site you will see in the Yucatan Peninsula is the ancient Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza (cost is $210 pesos plus $22 peso parking fee, open daily). You’ll need 2-3 hours to see the ruins adequately. Night show is free but you must register in advance. Chichen Itza’s rise began a little after 600 AD. By 750 it was playing a role in regional politics and by 980 AD it has become the dominant power in the northern Yucatan. Chichen’s dominance was long lived by Yucatecan standards as the city didn’t collapse until around 1290.
Chichen Itza has two distinct architectural styles evident within its city limits. The first is the Puuc style originating from Uxmal. Centered around what is called “Chichen viejo” or “old Chichen,” this area houses the most ornate buildings, including the Akab Dzib, Caracol (observatory), and Las Monjas (the Nuns). The newer section of Chichen Itza was added after 980 AD (linked by some to an incursion by the Toltecs of Central Mexico). The dominant building of this period is the 32 meter tall Castillo pyramid (or temple of Kukulcan, the supreme Mayan deity), the famous symbol of Mexico. Also built in the same period are the largest ball court in Mesoamerica and the Tzompantli (skull rack), both additions from Central Mexico.
If you intend to take several days inland to visit Campeche, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza, you may well want to consider basing yourself in Merida, the capital of Yucatan State, and doing day trips from there. Merida is the cultural capital of Yucatan, the largest city, and one of the four gastronomical capitals or Mexico (along with Puebla, Oaxaca, and Mexico City). Merida doesn’t have much to offer regarding tourism except an excellent Mayan Museum, but has a plethora of quality hotels and excellent restaurants (my favorite being Chaya Maya).
Worth noting, about an hour from Merida and en route to Chichen Itza is the sleepy little colonial town of Izamal, where all the houses are colored a beautiful shade of yellow. Izamal is home to Mainland America’s first monastery, San Francisco de Padua, built over the ruins of what some claim was once the largest pyramid in Yucatan.
However, many of you will choose to use Cancun as your base and only have a day or two available to visit in land sites. If this is the case, I recommend renting a car and heading south early one morning to Tulum ($84 pesos, open daily). Tulum is one of the most gorgeous Mayan ruins. Set above a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea and perfectly landscaped with all types of tropical flowers, the backdrop is what sets this ruin apart (it was historically unimportant). After an hour or two at Tulum, head up Highway 109 to Coba.
Coba is a much larger, historically important ruin. Coba ($84 pesos, open daily), founded around 100 AD, was the major player in Northern Yucatan during the Classic Era of Mesoamerican History (200-800) with a population of over 50,000. Around 900 Coba entered in to a major conflict with Chichen Itza (Coba being allied with Uxmal and Chichen with Ek Balam) for dominance of the Northern Yucatan, eventually being defeated around 1000 AD.
Coba is home to the Nohoch Mul Pyramid, the tallest in Yucatan at 42 meters in height and awesomely climbable. The view from the top will allow you to see a few other pyramids poling out over the canopy and offers a decent view of the nearby lagoons. While Chichen may have the largest ball court, Coba may have the prettiest. The site is very spread out, but you can rent bicycles for $40 pesos inside the park to assist in a timely visit. After 2-3 hours in Coba, it is time to move on to Valladolid.
Valladolid, roughly 2 hours from Cancun, is a charming colonial town. A great place to stop for an early dinner, Yerbabuena de Sisal is the top recommendation in this market. After a quick stroll around the city, it is time to head to Chichen Itza to catch the night show.
The following morning, wake up early again and see the Chichen ruins. After 2-3 hours here, head back to Valladolid. Instead of continuing to Cancun, head north about 20 minutes to the ruins of Ek Balam. Ek Balam (Dark Jaguar, $184 pesos) is a decent sized sight, formerly an ally of Chichen Itza that aided in the defeating of Uxmal and Coba. Ek Balam Ruins will only take about an hour to see.
The highlight of Ek Balam, however, is a lovely cenote. The cenote is a collapsed cave that was created when the asteroid hit the Yucatan roughly 66 million years ago and forced groundwater to come shooting up. Yucatan has roughly 3,000 cenotes (all with cool, refreshing water after a long day of climbing pyramids). After your dip in the Cenote, head back to your beach resort in Cancun.
This culminates my top choices of things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula. I know you will enjoy resting on the beach in any of the Yucatan’s many resorts. I felt it was my duty to help you find the best activities to engage in when you feel like getting out and exploring. If it were up to me, I would spend as much time inland seeing these sights as possible. The beach will be there waiting for you.
By Allen Wise
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