Guides to Playa Del Carmen

Day Trips to Mayan Ruins from Playa del Carmen & Cancun

If your looking to explore the fascinating culture and history of the Mayan's the good news is that there are 5 great sites to visit within a stones throw of Playa del Carmen. Here we give you a run down of the sites and what you can expect to find when you visit them.  

Getting a guide or doing the research....

Its worth mentioning upfront that as with any site of historical interest, its worth getting clued up on the history of the site before you go as this can really bring the place alive in terms of understanding what it is all about.  Most places have have option of taking a guided tour which can be split between the cost of the group (up to $50 per group).  If you can afford it then we would definitely recommend this option as its easy to miss many of the highlights otherwise, much of what makes the Mayan culture interesting is in the detail after all!

We suggest visiting one or more of the following 5 sites:


 

1. CHITCHEN ITZA - 

When you think of Chichen Itza you may imagine a giant stepped pyramid and perhaps the famous ancient ball-court. But it is even more impressive up close. The ruins stretch through the jungle. And it is a truly sprawling city complex. The pyramid temple Kukulcan (El Castillo) is an astrological marvel. It has 365 steps total around its four sides. Chichen Itza also has the largest known ancient Mayan ball court, which is a staggering 225 feet wide by 545 feet long. Its acoustics are famous: if you whisper on one end of the court, the sound carries to the other side. You can spend a whole day exploring this site and its secrets. Its diverse styles of architecture cover almost a millennium of Mayan urban industry. Many of the ruins: pyramid, ball court, and sacred cenote have gruesome histories of human sacrifice. The stone skull carvings around Chichen are no less grisly.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHITCHEN ITZA 

Chichen Itza, sometimes called the Chichen Ruins, was an important site in Mayan civilization from the 7th to 13th centuries AD. The Mayan name Chichen Itza can be translated as ‘source of the enchanted waters’. The ‘Itza’ refers to the sacred cenote water source near the pyramid. Many of the ruins were originally painted in blue, black, red, green, and ochre. Most of its buildings date from the 11th-13th centuries. The pyramid (86 feet high) was built so that the sun would shine through the tip of the pyramid at both the spring (18-22 March) and autumn equinox (21-23 September). (Yes, both!) When this happens, the sunlight lights up stone triangles on the main stairway of the pyramid: forming the shape of a serpent - the god Kukulcan - snaking his way up the steps, his stone head at the bottom. And that sacred cenote? Mayans believed that if you were thrown into the cenote and survived, you were granted the gift of prophecy. According to Mayan records, Chichen Itza was conquered by a ruler called Hunac Ceel in the 13th century. He was said to have survived this cenote, and had prophesied his own conquest of the city. The site went into decline by the mid-13th century, but was still inhabited by the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. 

CHITCHEN ITZA AT A GLANCE 

Approximate time to drive from Playa del Carmen: 2.5 hours by car
Size of ruin site/number of ruins: Large ~ many ruins
Recommended visiting time: Full day
Local guides available: Yes
Features of special interest:  Kukulcan pyramid/temple (El Castillo), largest Mayan ball court in Mexico, observatory (el Caracol), the Red House (el Chichanchob), sacred cenote, tombs, chac mool altar inside the pyramid Getting there and away by public transport (probably ADO buses): 4 hours by ADO bus, CAME, Calle 70 or 69 – all go directly to Chichen Itza
Getting there and away by public transport: 4 hours by ADO bus, CAME, Calle 70 or 69 – all go directly to Chichen Itza Driving directions (n.b. leave this for now)
Entry fees: 182 pesos (split between two ticket booths)
Open and closing times: Open every day 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Recommended times to visit: Morning

Find out more information about these ruins here


 

2. SAN GERVASIO - COZUMEL

Cozumel is the largest island in the Caribbean, and contains the remains of at least forty Mayan temples. The largest surviving ruins are called San Gervasio. Dedicated to a Mayan fertility and medicine goddess of the moon, Ix Chel, it was a very important site of pilgrimage for Mayan women. Cozumel is popular today for its seaside resorts, golf, and scuba diving in the off-shore coral reef around the island. Spelunking is also possible in the island’s numerous cenotes and an underwater cave system. By contrast to Chichen Itza, which lies in the jungle, San Gervasio is surrounded by Mexican villages and a large town, San Miguel de Cozumel. The ruins are part of Chankanaab State Park, and remain un-restored. Today there are two local Cozumel festivals El Cedral (end of April) and Carnaval Cozumel (week before Mardi Gras).

History of San Gervasio

The San Gervasio ruins on the island Cozumel were inhabited for an unusually long period: from about 100 BC to the 16th century AD. Covered in temples, pilgrims would consult oracles and leave offerings for Ix Chel. Each and every Mayan woman tried to make a pilgrimage to this island temple complex in her lifetime. Small red handprints decorate the walls of the Temple of the Hands. Another structure worth seeing is a Mayan ‘rainbow’ archway and the remains of an altar underneath. Pilgrims left offerings there for Ix Chel, who was also known as ‘She of the Rainbow’. The Spanish conquistador Cortés landed here on his voyage to Mexico. Though he destroyed some of the religious art on the site, the Cozumel Mayans helped re-supply Cortes’ ships with food and water. Unfortunately, later Spanish ships brought smallpox, which completely decimated the island population within a generation. The name Cozumel means ‘Place of the Swallows’ in Mayan. The ruins of San Gervasio themselves were known as Tantun Cozumel, ‘Flat Rock of Cozumel’. The island is known for its indigenous birds unique to the island. Among the ruins is Nohoch Nah, ‘Big House’, a temple for the serpent god Kukulcan. Its roof is intact and the original paint is still visible.

San Gervasio at a glance

Approximate time to drive from Playa del Carmen: 45 minutes by ferry; tour, taxi, or rental vehicle recommended on island
Size of ruin site/number of ruins: Small/Medium ~ 34 ruins
Recommended visiting time: Few hours / Half day
Local guides available: Yes
Features of special interest: Temple of the Hands, Mayan arch (El Arco), Chi Chan Nah chapel, Nohoch Nah, Los Murcielagos (The Bats)
Getting there and away by public transport (probably ADO buses): 4 hours by ADO bus, CAME, Calle 70 or 69 – all go directly to Chichen Itza
Entry fees: 100 pesos (split between two ticket booths)
Open and closing times: Open every day 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM
Recommended times to visit: Morning

Find out more information about these ruins here



Introduction to Tulum

Unlike other Mayan ruins such as Cozumel and Chichen Itza, the coastal city of Tulum was a powerfully fortified city and once a vital trade port for the Mayans. Among its impressive ruins are: the pyramid El Castillo – the largest building at Tulum, a massive fortified wall, and the so-called Temple of the Frescoes which was also an observatory. Tulum is impressive, and not your unusual temple complex visit in the jungle. Tulum’s economic and military imprint on the coastal landscape make it dramatic and unique. The Temple of the God of the Winds rests atop a large cliff. The site is also very compact. It remains one of the best preserved coastal Mayan cities in Central America. You may also see the voladores: costumed men recreating a Totonac pole-gliding ritual. If you are in the area, you might want to check out nearby Coba as well on the same day.

Brief History of Tulum

Tulum was inhabited from the 12th century AD, and most of its buildings date from the 12th to mid-15th centuries, though an inscription dates from the 6th century AD. The word ‘Tulum’ in Mayan means ‘wall’ or ‘trench’, and is a hint to its fortifications. Tulum is defended naturally by steep cliffs on the coast. On the land side, just to emphasize the name of the area, was a wall that was originally gargantuan: 16 feet high, 26 feet thick, and over 1,300 feet long. Tulum worship was focused on the Diving God (or Descending God), who is depicted on a mural in the Temple of the Diving God. Murals and frescos survive in this site. Also present are many cenotes water sources which allowed the city of Tulum to prosper along the coast of the Caribbean. Land and sea trade routes all met at Tulum. Like Cozumel, its population was also wiped out by smallpox and other European diseases. Today its beach is protected as a sanctuary for sea turtles. There is evidence that obsidian was important to the trade economy of Tulum.

Tulum at a glance 

Approximate time to drive from Playa del Carmen: 1 hour by car
Size of ruin site/number of ruins: Medium ~ around 2 dozen ruins
Recommended visiting time: Few hours / Half day
Local guides available: Yes
Features of special interest: fortified wall, El Castillo, Dance Platform, tombs, Temple of the Frescos, Temple of the God of the Wind, Temple of the Diving God, Voladores show
Getting there and away by public transport (probably ADO buses): 1 hour by ADO bus, straight to Tulum Zona Arqueologica
Entry fees: 38 pesos
Open and closing times: Open every day 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Recommended times to visit: Early Morning

Find out more information about these ruins here


 

Introduction to Ek Balam

Ek Balam is much less visited than Chichen Itza, but its pyramid complex is arguably better and more exciting. It’s even bigger! The Acropolis pyramid, Ek Balam’s tallest structure, is 96 feet high - over ten feet taller than the one at Chichen. And unlike the pyramid of Chichen Itza, you can even climb the Acropolis pyramid. Ek Balam has three stepped pyramids in total, which served as temples and tombs for the rulers of this city. You can also view the Mural of the 96 Glyphs, carvings and wall paintings, and some very unusual sculptures of winged beings. Ek Balam is special: it is untouched by time and much less crowded than some of the more popular ruins in Mexico.

Brief history of Ek Balam

The city of Ek Balam was settled by Mayans from the 7th to 10th centuries AD, with some evidence of settlement as far back as 300 BC. It began its urban decline by the 11th century AD, though was still inhabited until the 15th century with the arrival of the Spanish. After its abandonment it was slowly consumed by the jungle, until in the late 19th century it was re-discovered by some lucky archaeologists. Its name means ‘Black Jaguar’. The doorway of the central stepped pyramid, called ‘The Throne’ (El Trono), is shaped like a jaguar’s open jaw. It is about half an hour from Chichen Itza. During the Mayan period, Ek Balam was connected by roads to many other Mayan cities including Chichen Itza. Ek Balam was protected by a single defensive wall, probably built late in the city’s history. Blood sacrifice was part of its history. As with much Mayan art, many of its sculpture and murals bear death motifs: grinning skulls, belts made of skulls, hunted animals, and deities. Another unique feature of Ek Balam is that its water source as a city was not provided by cenotes, but by storing rain water in underground reservoirs. The carvings and wall paintings of its tombs are exceptionally well preserved. It is a remarkable site for the budding archaeologist.

 Ek Balam at a glance

Approximate time to drive from Playa del Carmen: 2.5 hour by car
Size of ruin site/number of ruins: Large ~ many ruins
Recommended visiting time: Half day or Full Day
Local guides available: Yes
Features of special interest: Acropolis pyramid, temple complex, ball court, Oval Palace, steam bath, carvings, murals
Getting there and away by public transport (probably ADO buses): 2.5 to 3 hours ADO bus to Valladolid only: plus taxi to Ek Balam
Entry fees: 98 pesos
Open and closing times: Open every day 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Recommended times to visit: Early Morning or late Afternoon

Find out more information about these ruins here


 

Introduction to Coba

Coba was one of the biggest metropolises of the ancient Mayans. One of the main features of the ruins is its largest pyramid Nohoch Mul, which you can climb. This pyramid stands at an incredible 138 feet, higher than the pyramids at both Ek Balam and Chichen Itza. Another remarkable feature about Coba are its white paved roads, or ‘sacbes’, part of the incredibly-straight road network which once connected the cities of the Maya through jungle and hill, and allowed its civilization to flourish and expand. These roads crisscross the site, and are beautiful to wander. Coba has not one but two ball courts, the setting to an ancient game whose winner was sacrificed to the gods. It also has some beautiful stone carvings, and as it is surrounded by jungle wildlife such as birds (toucans!) and lizards are also part of the experience.

Brief history of Coba

As its name suggests, Coba is surrounded by water: lakes surround the city and allowed its population to reaching a booming 70,000 at its peak. It was a strong political hub among the Mayan cities. Coba was one of the largest Mayan cities in its time (3rd to 9th centuries AD), though some evidence of settlement remains from about 100 BC. It was eventually outmatched in size by Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza’s rise in the 10th century – as well as the rise of some other nearby urban sites – may be the reason why Coba went into major decline in the 10th century. Like other sites which declined in the 10th-13th centuries, it was not until the arrival of the Spanish that the city was completely abandoned by slavery and disease. Coba’s name means ‘water moisture’ or possibly ‘abundant water’, though there are a variety of other water-related suggestions. There are countless ruins, only some of which have been restored. Coba was well-connected by road to other vital Mayan cities, and an important trading site. Coba has several pyramids besides Nohoch Mul.

Approximate time to drive from Playa del Carmen: 1.5 hour by car
Size of ruin site/number of ruins: Large ~ many ruins
Recommended visiting time: Half day or Full Day
Local guides available: Yes
Features of special interest: two ball courts, Nohoch Mul pyramid, ancient roads, lakes, Templo del St Thompson (pyramid), Templo Las Pinturas (pyramid)
Getting there and away by public transport (probably ADO buses): 1 hour from Tulum City
Entry fees: 57 pesos
Open and closing times: Open every day 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Recommended times to visit: Early Morning or late Afternoon

Find out more information about these ruins here

Mayan Ruins (4)

ARTICLE TITLE:

 

5 MUST SEE MAYAN RUIN SITES FROM PLAYA DEL CARMEN AND CANCUN

 

    Chichen Itza

    Cozumel – San Gervasio

    Tulum

    Ek Balam

    Coba

 

 

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