This is the first part of our week-long trip around Riviera Maya and Eastern Yucatan, which summarises the itinerary and provides description about the archaeological sites in Eastern Yucatan. The second part is about the islands in Quintana Roo state – Cozumel and Holbox, and the third one is about the towns and natural wonders of Riviera Maya.
Riviera Maya and Eastern Yucatan has one of the nicest beaches in the world and some really significant historical sites to see for anyone interested in history (including one of the New Seven Wonders of the World – Chichen Itza). The area of Riviera Maya and Eastern Yucatan is quite large and it would be difficult to see many places in short time. Hence, we decided to take the whole of the last week of 2016 to do a tour and a road-trip around the area and try to see as much as we could, and indeed we saw a lot.
Riviera Maya usually refers to the eastern coast of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, between Cancun and Tulum, not to be confused with Costa Maya which begins south to Tulum and goes all the way to Chetumal on the border with Belize. By Eastern Yucatan I refer to the eastern part of the Mexican state of Yucatan, i.e. around the city of Valladolid. However, our whole trip was around the eastern part of the Yucatan peninsula, the confusion here is that the state of Yucatan is only one part of the whole Yucatan peninsula that also encompasses the states of Quintana Roo and Campeche.
Our flight to Cancun was on a Saturday morning and our return flight was on the next Sunday evening, which gave us 9 days / 8 nights to arrange a trip around the area. We stayed in 4 different hotels, visited 7 towns, 2 islands, 4 archaeological sites, 3 natural attractions and drove 950 km.
This was out day-by-day itinerary:
- Day 1: Flight to Cancun, taxi to Playa del Carmen and ferry to Cozumel
- Day 2: Exploring Cozumel island and relaxing on the beach
- Day 3: Ferry to Playa del Carmen, rent a car, drive to Chiquilá and ferry to Holbox
- Day 4: Exploring Holbox
- Day 5: Ferry to Chiquilá, drive to Chichen Itzá and back to Valladolid
- Day 6: Drive to Ek Balam, Cobá and Akumal
- Day 7: Exploring Tulum, Muyil and cenote Calavera
- Day 8: Exploring Tulum ruins and relaxing on the beach
- Day 9: Akumal beach, Cenote Edén and drive to Cancun
To facilitate the understanding of our trip, I prepared a special google map, which shows all the places, hotels and restaurants we visited:
Blog posts is parts
I realised that there is so much material and only one blog post about the whole trip would be too long, so I decided to split it into three parts according to themes:
- Part 1 (this post together with the summary): Archaeological sites of the Eastern Yucatan (Chichen Itzá, Ek Balam and Cobá) and Valladolid
- Part 2: Cozumel and Holbox islands
- Part 3: towns and natural wonders of the Riviera Maya
Archaeological sites of Eastern Yucatan
Since 2007, Chichen Itza has been on the list of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It is an impressive feat of human engineering and ingenuity. The site is centred around the main pyramid (El Castillo), which is impressive and very well preserved.
The ball game court and the Caracol are also very impressive and well preserved, in addition to many other smaller temples and other structures. We fortunately had a map and some explanations in our guide book, because the site is not well signed.
It’s not only full of tourists but also full of vendors. Really too many of them selling the same stuff everywhere. The entrance fee is quite steep as well (around 300 pesos). Just before exiting the highway there is a stand of the main hotel complex – Mayaland, and it’s not an official stand of the site itself. They sell entrance through their private gate, parking and a lunch for 525 pesos (340 for Mexicans). Maybe a bit pricey, but I think it was worth it.
We parked really close to the gate and didn’t have to queue up for the tickets, since they have their own entrance. The canteen style buffet lunch had a large selection of dishes, from Mexican to international and salads, but didn’t include any drinks. The food wasn’t good but it was decent and the restaurant was very crowded and noisy. We arrived to Chichen Itza in the afternoon only, so I think it was a good option to save time and not having to look for a lunch restaurant. I would recommend taking this option if you only have several hours to maximise your time.
Initially we were not very keen to see this site, but we went at the end since it was only 30 min north of Valladolid. It ended up being a really pleasant surprise. Ek Balam is a small archaeological area. They charge a somewhat steep entrance fee (193 foreigners / 132 nationals) and as Chichen Itza it’s not well arranged or signed.
The main structure is impressive though. It has very long external stairs that you can climb up. Some thatched huts are reconstructed on the structure so you can see how it originally looked.
It’s a steep climb, but once up the view is magnificent. You can see the other structures around and an endless jungle on the horizon. Quite impressive.
Another significant archaeological site in the middle of the jungle on the way between Valladolid and Tulum. After parking (50 pesos) and paying the entrance fee (65 pesos) a long walk starts. The ruins are completely hidden in the jungle and quite far from the official entrance. There are the options to walk, rent a bike or a ‘taxi’ (a manual rickshaw) that takes you for an hour tour, but we decided to walk. It was a pleasant walk as the whole path is in the shade of the trees, but on the other side the bikes rushing by are quite annoying.
We first walked to the main temple Mohoch Mul. Similarly to the main structure in Ek Balam there are many stairs and the hike up under the sun was quite tough (also higher than Ek Balam).
The views from atop are stunning and definitely worth the hike. All other structures at Cobá are covered by jungle, so you can only see endless jungle all around.
Then we walked to the other area of structures – Macanxoc. It was a very long walk and almost no one goes there. There were bunch of ruins completely covered by the jungle, maybe not quite worth all the way there.
In total, we stayed at the site for about 2.5 hours. It was a very pleasant experience as you are all the time in the middle of a jungle. After coming back we were very hungry so we just ate at the restaurant in the parking lot – Ki Hamal. They serve basic Mexican and Yucatan food as well as some international dishes. Both the Yucatan style fish and cochinita pibil were very nice and tasty. It was a very nice lunch and worth the visit after the ruins. On the downside, they often host tour bus groups and it can get quite noisy. So if there is a group, I suggest avoiding it. Alternatively, we of the restaurants along the road as you come into Coba village, there’s plenty of them and I’m sure they offer some decent food.
Valladolid is a nice little town. It’s not worth a separate visit, but if you’re in the region it makes sense to stay there overnight. There’s not much to see, but walking around the zócalo in the evening is very atmospheric. Many locals meet and pass time in the park on the square. Around the square there are several nice shops with local arts and products. There is a famous cenote Zaci, but we didn’t really visit it.
Restaurant Conato 1910, Valladolid
This restaurant has somewhat unusual decoration with lots of things hanging on the walls, but a very pleasant and relaxed atmosphere. There is a small terrace on top and we really enjoyed eating there. The menu was a bit unusual, lots of pasta and sandwiches. It seems though that they specialise on ‘burros’ which are rolled tortillas filled with stuff and a salsa on top (something like a burrito). They have many different fillings for the burros, from all sorts of meat, fish, shrimp and some vegetarian ones as well. I had one fulled with hibiscus flower and it was delicious. The burros are also quite large and more than enough for dinner for one person. All in all, we really enjoyed dinner at Conato and I would recommend it as an interesting experience.
Hotel Real las Haciendas, Valladolid
The hotel looked very nice at first sight. The interior patio is very well arranged and pleasant for an evening drink. However, when we arrived (around 6pm) our rooms were not ready yet. The staff were very apologetic and trying to resolve the situation. They offered a margarita while we waited, which calmed us down right away. They said it will take only 15 minutes for the rooms to be ready, but after 15 minutes only one room was ready, it took another hour to give us the second one.
They explained that they were very busy so they gave us the ‘suite’, which meant a slightly larger room with a huge bathtub and a ground-floor terrace. The room was nice, but it lacked many details, e.g. there was nowhere to hang the towels, and the bathroom was very small (in comparison to the room). At first they didn’t give us towels and when they did the towels were wet (I guess coming directly from the washing machine). There was no pressure in the shower and no hot water either, which they solved by the morning. It was not as bad as it sounds and I wish to believe it was the best day for them.
The breakfast was included in the room price. They presented us with a menu, but explained that only some (an arbitrary selection) of the items were included. I wanted to try huevos motuleños, which weren’t included, but were priced only 5 pesos more than the items that were included. They wanted to charge me 45 pesos extra, which may not be a lot in absolute terms, but I think so unnecessary. Overall it left us quite disappointed.
Summary of the whole trip
Maybe a bit weird that the overall summary is coming at the end of the first part, but I decided to leave this one to be posted at the end. A general conclusion is that the whole trip was AMAZING!
In one week we saw a lot of different things, from islands and beaches, to archaeological sites and natural wanders. It was quite rushed and every day was carefully planned, but we enjoyed the combination of seeing things, getting to know new places and also relaxing.