Best nature and ruins in Yucatán, Mexico

Best nature and ruins in Yucatán, Mexico

Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula is a perfect destination if you like ancient Mayan ruins and aquatic activities. Some of the Mayan pyramid ruins you can still climb! We spent 7 days in Yucatán Peninsula during our central America trip and we got into water everyday.  The white beaches, crystal clear cenotes (water filled sinkholes) and blue lagoons totally blew our minds. Below is some of the best places we visited:

The nature around Holbox Island

Holbox island
On the beach of Holbox island

Holbox island is just a stone’s throw from Cancun, but the town is much slower and quieter. There are no cars on the island and all the houses are painted in vivid colors. A visit to the island requires leaving your car at Chiquilá and taking the ferry. There are dozens of parking areas for a couple of MXD$100 per day. The town is pretty and cute. Nowhere is more than 15 min walk from the beach. You can relax on the pure white sandy beach that seems to go on forever. There are several tours available from the islands including a Bioluminescent tour in the sea (on moon-less nights), swimming with whale sharks (seasonal) and the three island boat tour which takes you to see wild birds, flamingos and the incredible coast line nearby. Renting a bike cycling around the island is also a pretty journey. We stayed two days there which we felt could be a bit longer. 

View of the bird island during our three islands tour
  • Car park in Chiquilá MXD$100/day
  • Ferry between Chiquilá-Holbox MXD$300 each way
  • Three island boat tour MXD$400
  • Double room in hotel MXD$760/per night

Boat tour in Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve

On our lagoon tour boat

This wonderful nature reserve is a bit out of the main tourist route, but totally worth the trip! It consists of a small Mayan ruin, a protected forest area with tree top watch tower and two big lagoons connected by a Mayan canal. The highlight is the lagoon boat tour (~1000MXD) which we got to float in the turquoise water of the canal lined by mangrove trees. It was an incredible experience to just relax, watch the beautiful landscape and let water carry you across.

The Mayan Canal that we floated in

The reserve is usually visited via organised tours from Tulum and it is quite expensive. But with a car you can DIY it for less than half price. We drove to the reserve ‘s entrance and join the boat tour from the lake pier for MXD$1000, a premium but much less an organised tour which can cost easily US$100+. We went in November and it is not busy there, do check ahead for the boat tour schedule if you go during peak seasons like Christmas. 

  • Sian Ka’an entrance fee: MXD$45 for the ruins + MXD$45 for the nature reserve
  • Boat tour for lagoons and Mayan canal MXD$1000/pp 

Swimming in crystal clear water of cenotes

Inside Cenotes X’kekén in the evening

There are so many cenotes in Yucatán. Everyday we drove by at least a dozen. We didn’t manage to visit many but really enjoyed our visit to Cenotes X’kekén y Samula near Valladolid.  Cenotes X’kekén is an underground cenote with incredible limestone formation and a dramatic ‘Oculus’ at the top.The water is so beautiful with a lot of small fish that nibbles your dead skin off when it is quiet.  We visited in late afternoon and almost had the cenote to ourselves towards the end.

Entrance fee for Cenotes X’kekén y Samula:  MXD$80 each or MXD$125 for both cenotes

Chichen – Itza’s Mayan pyramid

Chichen – Itza is the most impressive and best restored Maya ruin complex in the area. The big pyramid is super impressive with an interesting sound effect when you clap hands. On the spring and autumn equinoxes the shadows of the step would form the shape of a serpent. On the side there are many other structures like the El Castillo, Temple of the Warriors…. The ground is quite big. It needs a good 2-3 hours to walk around. I would recommend arriving early in the morning before 10am to avoid big day tour buses from Cancun. We arrived at 9 am just when the ruins opened, and there were a lot less people. It is also a lot cooler in the morning. 

Entrance fee: MXD$480 for foreigners

Climbing up the Mayan pyramid of Coba ruins

Todd climbing down the Mayan pyramid

Coba ruin is less restored, and the pyramid is not as impressive as Chichen-Itza. But it sits in a natural jungle setting so you can have a feel of the surroundings when these ruins were discovered. The ruins  are divided into different groups, connected by forest paths. One can still climb up the big pyramid there. Remember to go to the pyramid first if you arrive early in the morning, because you will have a much less crowded view when you reach the top.  Renting a bike to travel in between the groups is an efficient way as the groups are around a kilometer apart from each other. The signages are quite poor there, read about the ruins before you go. Allow at least two hours to go around. 

Entrance fee: MXD$75

Paranoma view on top of Ek- Balam’s Acropolis

In front of Ek Balam’s Acropolis

Entrance fee: MXD$412 for foreigners

Ek-Balam is a compact site of an ancient Mayan city. Unlike Chichen-Itza and Coba, the ruins are pretty close to each other. The highlight is the Acropolis with some well preserved sculptures and wonderful view from the top. This is another Mayan structure that you can climb.  Allow two hours to see the site.

Swimming under the cliff of Tulum ruins

Can you spot the camouflaged iguana in the picture?

Tulum is very much a tourist hub. The city itself doesn’t have much to see but the Tulum ruins are just outside the city. The Tulum ruins are quite small and least restored compared to Chichen-Itza, Corba and Ek-balam in the area, but its setting is quite dramatic. It is located on a cliff, with the the turquoise Caribbean sea as background. If you go inside the ruin,  a path that leads to a patch white sandy beach provides a swimming spot to cool off. The entrance is quite far from the parking lot. If you arrive by car, make sure you ask the prices among the various car parks and choose wisely. We were quoted a wide range from MXD$200 to MXD$80. 

Entrance fee: MXD$65

The quintessential Yucatán city Izamal

Izamal central plaza

Izamal surprised us by its undisturbed rural ambience and several Mayan pyramids that one can still climb(for free!) . Originally we just wanted to spend the time after visiting Chichen Itza, but it became our favorite spot during the entire Yucatan trip. Izamal is a small town on the way from Chichen-Itza to Merida. Most of the walls in the town are painted in golden yellow. It used to have 12 pyramids. Sadly many of them were destroyed by the Spaniard to build the huge Convento de San Antonio in the middle of the town. 

Walking up to Kinich Kakmó Pyramid in Izamal

The partially restored Kinich Kakmó Pyramid has a wonderful view over the town and convent. We also climbed up the nearby Piramide De Itzamatul, and we were the only visitors around.

Izamal is very much off the tourist radar, so there aren’t many vendors and touts. The only time we could feel relaxed there. If we would visit again, we would definitely spend a night there. 

Go for an evening food stroll in Valladolid

Our pre-dinner drink in Valladolid: Chaya con Pina and Pina Colada

We choose Valladolid as our base to visit the cenotes and ruins nearby because it is much less touristy than Tulum and still has a relaxed feel of a traditional town.  It is a good place to try Yuncatan cuisine like lime soup, tacos, chaya drink… All our Airbnb places in Valladolid offer good value and come with hammocks to retire on in the evening. 

Our full itinerary in Yucatan

D1 Arrive in Cancun from London in the evening. Overnight  in Cancun

D2 Drive to Chiquilá, park the car in one of the off road private car parks and take the ferry to Holbox. Cycling attempt to Punta Cocos for bioluminescence(We failed due to heavy rain and flood and being devoured by mosquitoes… ) Overnight in Holbox

D3 Three island tour in Holbox. Ferry back to Chiquilá and drive to Valladolid.  Overnight in Valladolid.

D4 Drive to Chichen-Itza in the morning. Visit Izamal in the afternoon. Overnight in Valladolid.

D5 Visit Coba ruins. Overnight in Valladolid.

D6  Visit Ek-Balam in the morning, and Cenote Cenotes X’kekén y Samula. Overnight in Valladolid.

D7 Drive to Tulum in the morning. Visit Tulum ruins. Overnight in Tulum.

D8 Visit Sian Ka’an nature reserve. Drive to Cancun for our flight to Havana in the evening.

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