chichen itza

Tulum Ruins and Chichen Itza

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While visiting Tulum, located in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, we stopped in at the Tulum Ruins.  The ancient Mayan city may be explored with a tour guide or on your own by reading the many posted signs or trying to work the app.  Since we planned on having a tour guide at Chichen Itza, we walked the Tulum Ruins on our own.  We likely missed out on some interesting facts that tour guides provide, but we managed with the signs.

How to Visit

The tour costs $50 (I believe that is what they quoted for the two of us), and the entrance fee is about $6.  The parking costs $6 which may be paid in single dollars as well as pesos at the machine by the vendors.  The walk from the parking to the entrance is short and passes by many vendors before continuing along a partially shaded road which is also used by a shuttle.  At the end of the walk or shuttle drop off point, is the ticket window.

About the Tulum Ruins

The ancient city of Tulum’s Mayan name was Zama which means place of the dawning sun.  One of the only Mayan cities built on the coast, it had a lovely view of the sun.  Being on the coast, the city was important to the Mayans for trading, especially turquoise and jade.

The ruins are some of the best-preserved of Mayan sites and feature many important structures including the Castillo, Temple of the Frescoes, House of the Columns, and House of the Halach Uinich. While the narrow path between many of the ruins were rather crowded with tours that come from Cancun and Playa del Carmen, walking up on the hill provides more space and an overview of the complex.

Personally, I liked seeing the sunning iguanas, the temple perched on the cliff, and the architecture of the different buildings.  While I could go on and on about each structure, I will leave that to the guidebooks, otherwise this post will get too long!

Beach Tip

The Tulum Ruins may be toured in about one hour, though there is a path down to the beach.  Thus, with careful planning, visitors could make a day of it.  We found this out upon our arrival and had already planned to snorkel in some cenotes later. Not to mention, with our late start, it would have been hot to drag our beach gear around the ruins on this warm afternoon.

Overall, we enjoyed a nice visit to the Tulum Ruins, and they are worth a guided tour if you are not visiting Chichen Itza or really love historic sites.

Chichen Itza

I’m not sure why I was so set on visiting Chichen Itza, given it is a 2+ hour drive inland from Tulum, and we already saw the Tulum Ruins.  Perhaps it was because Chichen Itza was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.

How to Visit Chichen Itza

While Tulum and Cancun offer all day excursions to Chichen Itza via giant tour buses, Tina and I preferred arriving prior to the masses that show up around 10am.  As a result, we set out from the hotel in our rental car by 7am on a weekday.  With the 2.5 hour drive helped by an hour time change from the coast, we arrived within 30 minutes of the opening at 8:30.  We paid $5 for parking at the guard booth and proceeded to the car parking area which was already half-full. 

At the entrance, we could buy a ticket with cash or a credit card or pay an official guide in cash only to purchase our tickets for us and then take us on a 1.5 hour guided tour.  This time, we selected the guided tour for approximately $60 US per person.  It is a better price if you have pesos. 

While we went to the restroom, our guide of Mayan decent purchased our tickets and took us to the entrance line which was rather long, but moved relatively quickly.  Our guide, whose name I can’t remember because I didn’t write it down, had 25 years of experience.  He was a wealth of knowledge, spoke English well, and provided an excellent tour with great enthusiasm.

The Guided Tour

If I tried repeating all he said, I’d fail both in the amount of information and the accuracy, so I am not going to try.  That said, below are just a few interesting things about Chichen Itza and the Mayans.

Chichen Itza, means at the mouth of the well of the Itza. It was so named because the city was constructed by the Itza group of the Mayans near some cenotes, the only water source in an arid climate.  The city was built over varied time periods, but grew to its height around 600 AD.  With approximately 35,000 people, it was one of the largest Mayan cities. 

Temple of Kukulkan

One of the most imposing and newest structures at Chichen Itza is the Temple of Kukulkan also known as the El Castillo.  The temple, designed in a mathematical and scientific way, is an excellent example of the Mayan’s astronomical knowledge.

Each of its four sides has 91 steps equaling 364 plus the top features a large step creating the 365 days of the Mayan agricultural calendar.   The Mayan calendar includes 18 months of 20 days plus 5 unlucky days.  It’s nine rows are split by the steps representing the 18 months.

If I kept going with all the numbers it would take a while, so I will leave it with the Mayans built a new temple over an old one, and they did this every 52 years.  They believed the cycle of life was 52 years because that is when the milky way was directly over the temple.

They also constructed the temple so that on the spring and fall equinox, a shadow of a serpent appears down the corners of the structure.  Other buildings in the complex such as the Temple of Warriors and the Caracol (the observatory) are positioned with sight lines to the summer and winter solstice.


Before leaving the temple to see other structures at Chichen Itza, clap your hands.  You’ll hear an acoustic noise which sounds like the Quetzal, a bird which the Mayans considered sacred.

The Ball Court

Another highlight in the complex is the ball court used to play tlachtli.  It is the largest court in the Americas.  The game was used for ceremonial purposes.  Each team of seven players dressed in leather and used only the body parts covered in leather to hit a ball up through a stone carved ring overhead.  The ball hitting the players’ skin (and thus the wrong body part) would create a 7-beat echo which may also be heard with a clap!

According to our guide, reliefs sculpted along the ball court wall depict the warriors with the severed head of the captain from the winning team.  While in Guatemala, I learned the captain of the losing team lost his head because the game was used to settle disputes.  In this case, the winning captain was sacrificed.  I’ll let you decide.  Regardless, the game sounded hard!

Before leaving the ball court, try visualizing the game and all the people watching it.  Also remember, that all of these buildings were once vibrant colors.  It really brings Chichen Itza to life.

Other Tips

While we spent most of our time at the aforementioned structures, there are others, and it is best to allow two hours to tour the site. I also recommend arriving in the morning before the heat of the day and then enjoying lunch at Loncheria Fabiola in the nearby town of Piste.  Upon your return to Tulum, visit some cenotes or stop in Valladolid at Mayapan Agave Distillery for a tequila tasting.  Find out more with my next post.

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

6 thoughts on “Tulum Ruins and Chichen Itza

  1. There is a live reenactment of the games including ceremonies with fabulous costumed actors who interact with the seated spectators during the game. Can’t recall if it was in Tulum , or Ixtapa, but it was near these ruins and a great experience. It’s about 2+ hours in duration. There are also underground caves to swim nearby.

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