The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is full of incredible Mayan ruins. This was the centre of the Maya empire, which stretched all over the Peninsula, and into what is now Belize and northern Guatemala. Each of the Mayan ruins in Mexico has something special about it, and as no two are alike I would highly recommend visiting as many as you can while you are in the area. However, if you are short on time, and can only choose one or two Mayan sites you may well wonder which is the best Mayan ruin to visit. To help you narrow down your choices, let’s compare Chichen Itza vs Tulum so you can decide whether you should visit Tulum or Chichen Itza.
Chichen Itza vs Tulum
Chichen Itza was named as one of the new seven wonders of the world and is one of the most popular destinations in the whole of Mexico. El Castillo pyramid at Chichen Itza is the most famous Mayan pyramid and one that you will no doubt have seen in photographs when doing research for your trip to Mexico. However, due to its popularity, and relative closeness to the resorts of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, Chichen Itza can get horrendously busy.
Tulum, on the other hand, does not have world wonder status, but the location of the Tulum ruins on a cliff overlooking the sea is absolutely stunning. Tulum is gaining in popularity, and what was once a sleepy fishing village has grown into one of the most sought-after destinations on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins
How to Visit Chichen Itza Mexico
The majority of visitors to the Yucatan will visit Chichen Itza either on a tour or independently. You can arrange Chichen Itza tours from basically anywhere in the Yucatan, the most popular being Chichen Itza tours from Playa del Carmen, Cancun, Tulum, Merida and Valladolid.
How to Get to Chichen Itza
If you prefer to visit Chichen Itza without a tour and go independently, the bus network around the Yucatan is really good, and you can take a bus from Cancun to Chichen Itza, or from Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Valladolid or Merida. Check the ADO bus website, as they have timetables available online even though you can’t buy bus tickets online without a Mexican credit card, you will need to go to one of the ADO bus stations to buy your ticket. There are also second-class buses which go to Chichen Itza from Valladolid, and are cheaper, although they take longer as they stop along the way to pick people up.
When to go to Chichen Itza
As Chichen Itza is such a popular attraction in Mexico, I highly recommend to go there as early as you can, so you are waiting in the queue at 8am when the ticket booths open. It gets very crowded, so early birds can get photographs of the magnificent temples without other people in the shots, and you beat the heat too, as there is very little shade around the main pyramid in Chichen Itza. The souvenir sellers also arrive at 8am, so if you can get in early you can have some peace and quiet without being constantly hassled to buy something.
On Sundays, Mexican nationals get free entry to Chichen Itza, so the site will be even busier than on other days of the week. Similarly, national holidays and peak times such as Christmas and Easter will be busier too, so try to plan your visit to avoid peak times, otherwise, you will have to battle through the crowds.
The most popular day of the year to visit Chichen Itza is during the spring and autumn equinox when thousands of people gather to see the snake slithering down the steps of El Castillo Pyramid. This would be an incredible sight to behold, but it is incredibly busy.
Chichen Itza Light Show
Instead of the early morning, you may want to visit Chichen Itza in the afternoon, once all the tour groups leave around 3pm. However, the park closes at 5pm so you may not have a chance to see everything before it closes. Certain nights of the week you can buy an additional ticket to go back to Chichen Itza in the evening from 7pm for a night show, where lights are projected onto the El Castillo pyramid, accompanied by music and explanations in Spanish. Also included is a 45-minute tour around the site (with a multi-lingual audio guide), followed by the light show. You can buy your tickets in advance online for the night show, but not the regular entrance. Chichen Itza light show tickets currently cost $483 pesos per person.
Chichen Itza Entrance Fee
The Chichen Itza entrance fee is more expensive than Tulum, as you have to pay for two tickets. One is for the federal government agency that co-administers the sites (INAH) and the other is for the state agency (CULTUR) and they cost $70 pesos and $172 pesos, so the total price $242 pesos in total. When you arrive at the Chichen Itza ticket office, there are two separate windows next to each other, and you buy one ticket at each window. Keep both of your tickets as they will each be stamped on the way in. You can’t buy daytime Chichen Itza tickets in advance.
Bring cash with you to buy your ticket as the card machine often doesn’t work. There is a cash machine at Chichen Itza, but I wouldn’t rely on it working.
Also, for professional photographers, film permits cost extra, and tripods are not allowed without a special permit arranged with INAH in advance, which is extremely difficult to get.
What to Take to Chichen Itza
There isn’t much shade around the main temples in Chichen Itza, and the sun beats down mercilessly making it very hot indeed. Bring plenty of water with you, sunscreen, and a hat or umbrella to protect yourself from the sun. There is a shop at the entrance where you can buy drinks and snacks, but once you are inside there is nowhere to buy refreshments during your visit. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes too as you’ll want to walk around and explore everywhere. If you decide not to take a Chichen Itza tour, a guidebook is useful too to explain more about the ruins, there is very little signage to explain what is what.
What to See in Chichen Itza
The main ‘attraction’ at Chichen Itza is the spectacular Kukulkán or El Castillo Pyramid. If you arrive early, visit this first to get photographs while it’s still quiet. Then, take time to explore all of the areas, including the ball court, El Caracol observatory, the Bonehouse, sacred cenote, and Temple of the Warriors.
What really makes Chichen Itza so special is the architectural design, and attention to detail. The design of the main pyramid, El Castillo, is so perfect that on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun casts a shadow on the pyramid in such a way that a snake appears to slither up or down the huge steps. The Mayans clearly knew a lot about astronomy and they planned every detail of Chichen Itza.
Beneath the pyramid, an underground cenote has recently been discovered, and hidden passageways remain unexplored. At its peak, Chichen Itza was home to an estimated 90,000 inhabitants, a thriving city that has only partially been excavated. Take time to appreciate all this, and you will realise why Chichen Itza earned its title of one of the seven new wonders of the world.
Can You Climb Chichen Itza Pyramid?
Unfortunately, no. Climbing Chichen Itza is forbidden, in part to protect the intricate carvings at the top, and in part for our safety, after a tourist died when they tripped and fell down the pyramid. You also can’t swim in the cenotes here as the water is a murky green colour, and they were used as a site for religious ceremonies and human sacrifices. However, if you bring your swimsuit, you can make use of it at the Ik Kil cenote nearby.
Hotels at Chichen Itza
If you prefer to stay in the area overnight, there is the Mayaland Hotel actually onsite, with a private entrance to Chichen Itza. There are other hotels closeby, and the nearby town of Piste also has some hotels and Airbnbs available.
Tulum Mayan Ruins
How to Visit the Mayan Ruins near Tulum
The Mayan Ruins in Tulum are quite spectacular, but for a completely different reason to Chichen Itza. Although the ruins themselves are nowhere near as impressive as other Maya sites, the location perched on top of a cliff overlooking the crystalline waters of the Caribbean, no one can deny the beauty of Tulum
How to Get to Tulum
If you are staying in Tulum overnight, it is easy to hire a bike from your hostel or hotel and cycle to the ruins. In the early morning, it isn’t too hot, and there is a separate cycle path to follow for most of the way. If you are driving to Tulum there is parking available, although it may fill up if you arrive at the peak time during mid-morning.
You can also arrange day tours to Tulum from Cancun and Playa del Carmen, either half day tours of the ruins, or full day tours to include other activities such as cenote diving or snorkelling.
If you come to Tulum by bus or collectivo from Cancun or Playa del Carmen, they usually drop you off on the main road going through Tulum, which is a 10-15 minute walk from the entrance to the ruins.
When to go to Tulum
Like Chichen Itza, Tulum is very popular with tour groups, who tend to arrive around 10am. If you can arrive early you will beat the crowds and the oppressive heat.
Again, like Chichen Itza, Mexican nationals get free entry to the ruins on Sundays, so the site will be even busier than on other days of the week. Similarly, national holidays and peak times such as Christmas and Easter will be busier too.
Tulum Entrance Fee
The Tulum entrance fee is cheaper than Chichen Itza, as you just pay the standard $70 pesos for museums in Mexico. There is a cash machine at the entrance, but it can be unreliable or have a long queued, so bring cash with you to buy your ticket if you can.
What to Take to Tulum
There is a definite theme with Mayan ruins in Mexico, they get hot! Bring plenty of water with you, sunscreen, and a hat or umbrella to protect yourself from the sun. You will also want to bring your swimsuit so you can hit the beach which is inside the park and has great views of the ruins.
What to See in Tulum Mayan Ruins
The ruins at Tulum are surrounded by a large protective wall, which you will walk along to get to the entrance. The Mayans knew that if anyone were to attack them, it would be from the land, so they built the wall to prevent unwanted guests. Once inside the walls, you can see Casa del Cenote, which has a small pool where you can spot some little fishes, and the Temple of the Wind God perched on the cliff. In the boringly-named Structure 25, there is a beautiful stucco frieze of the Descending or Diving God, an up-side-down part human figure which could be a reference to bees and honey, which the Mayans loved. El Castillo watchtower is at the heart of the complex, and on the far side, you can find steps leading down to the beach. The Lonely Planet Mexico Guide has a decent explanation of the other structures here, which I’ll be honest probably play second fiddle to the views.
Where to Stay in Tulum
One of the best hostels in Tulum is Hostel Che Tulum, which gets excellent reviews. I stayed at Amorcito Hostel when I was on my own, and at Joy Tulum when I shared a twin cabana with my friend, which was a lovely place to chill out if you have a little more to spend. The best value hostels and hotels in Tulum are in the ‘town’ centre, but on the beach you will find plenty of amazing hotels and cabanas with beachfront views if you fancy a splurge. Check prices & availability for hotels and hostels in Tulum on hostelworld | booking | hotelscombined
Final Answer for Chichen Itza vs Tulum: Which is Better?
Well, the seventh wonder of the world clinches it for most people. Chichen Itza is utterly incredible, there is no doubt about that, but you will have to battle through the hoards of visitors to be able to appreciate the spiritual side of Chichen Itza. Tulum is absolutely gorgeous, but for me, held little interest apart from the views. Tulum town is still a nice place to hang out for a day or two, so I would suggest spending the night here, and taking the time to dive in the cenotes, or enjoying a slower pace of life here than in the larger resort towns.
If you like:
– Ticking off your bucket list items and wonders of the world then go to Chichen Itza
– Stunning views of the turquoise Caribbean sea and the chance to go to the beach then go to Tulum
If you have more time though, you should definitely visit both!
What do you think? Should people visit Tulum or Chichen Itza? I’d love to hear your comments below!
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