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.
Which is Best, Chichen Itza or Tulum?
As I said, in an ideal world I would recommend visiting both Chichen Itza and Tulum if you can. However, if you only have time in your schedule to visit one of the Mayan Ruins, then either one of these is an excellent choice.
To help make your decision, these are some factors you should consider, and I’ve gone into more detail below about each of the archaeological sites and what is so special about them. However, before we get into that, it is important to consider the location of the ruins in relation to where you are staying.
Where Are You Staying in Mexico?
Perhaps visiting the closest ruin to your hotel or accommodation would make the most sense, especially if you don’t have much time here.
If you are staying in Cancun, there isn’t much difference in distance or time to get to either Chichen Itza or Tulum.
Cancun to Chichen Itza
A day trip to Cancun from Chichen Itza is one of the most popular things to do in Cancun, and there are lots of tours to Chichen Itza from Tulum. I’d suggest getting an early start as it gets very busy in Chichen Itza, and if you can get there as it opens you can enjoy exploring without crowds of people.
Some Chichen Itza tours like this one offer early access to Chichen Itza (which means a very early start from Cancun or wherever you’re staying), so you can enjoy Chichen Itza when it is a little quieter. However, most of the tours to Chichen Itza from Cancun won’t arrive until mid-morning.
That said, a big benefit of taking a tour means that you don’t need to hire a car, and most tours also include visits to a cenote and other places like Valladolid or Coba Ruins. For example, this highly-rated tour from Cancun includes Chichen Itza, Valladolid, a cenote and a buffet lunch.
If you want to go alone without a tour Chichen Itza is about 2 and a half hours from Cancun by car, again I’d suggest setting off early. There is parking available at Chichen Itza, and then you could drive to some of the other attractions nearby such as the town of Valladolid or some cenotes.
There are regular buses from Cancun to Chichen Itza, although it takes longer and due to timings of the buses, you wouldn’t arrive at Chichen Itza until late morning when the site is at its busiest. If you plan to travel by bus I would highly recommend spending a night in or near Chichen Itza or Valladolid before going to Chichen Itza so you have more control over timings. Check the ADO bus website for timetables.
Cancun to Tulum
Tulum is an easy day trip from Cancun and a popular tour option for tours, with several choices for joining a tour to Tulum from Cancun. This highly-rated tour also includes a visit to Coba ruins and some cenotes as well as a buffet lunch which seems like excellent value.
If you prefer to travel independently, Tulum is about 2 hours drive from Cancun by car and it is a straightforward route right along the coast – passing through Playa del Carmen and Akumal which could be good stop-offs on the way back.
There are regular buses to Tulum from Cancun, and it’s about a 10-minute walk from the bus stop in Tulum to the ruins. Buses take around 2.5 to 3 hours to get to Tulum, so it’s best to leave early to make the most of the day.
Cancun to Chichen Itza AND Tulum
You can even find a private tour from Cancun which includes a visit to Chichen Itza and Tulum in one day. They are private tours so are relatively expensive, but if you only have one day in Cancun or are looking for an excursion from Cancun to see as much as possible then it could be a good option for you.
Playa del Carmen
If your accommodation is in Playa del Carmen, a trip to Tulum ruins would be easier than Chichen Itza, as it is only about an hour’s drive away. There are regular tours offered to Tulum from Playa del Carmen and plenty of buses and colectivos running between the two as well to give you easy access.
To get to Chichen Itza from Playa del Carmen would take around 2 and a half hours by car, and longer by bus, however, there are also plenty of tours from Playa del Carmen to Chichen Itza. Most tours that are available from Cancun also offer hotel pick-ups from Playa del Carmen and other coastal resorts, just check the details before you book.
If you are staying in Tulum, obviously Tulum ruins are much closer than Chichen Itza so I presume you would certainly visit Tulum archaeological site! There are plenty of other things to do in Tulum so I’d recommend staying in Tulum for at least a couple of days while you explore.
Tulum to Chichen Itza
That said, if you would also like to visit Chichen Itza while staying in Tulum you could travel from Tulum to Chichen Itza quite easily if you have your own transport. Driving to Chichen Itza from Tulum takes just over two hours, about two and a half hours by bus, although you wouldn’t arrive until late morning.
Tours from Tulum to Chichen Itza
There are tours running from Tulum to Chichen Itza too – some which run from Cancun and Playa del Carmen also offer pick-up from Tulum but ask them about the route the tour will take. If they pick you up in Tulum and then go to Cancun before going to Chichen Itza it adds a lot of time to your journey.
This tour departs from Tulum, and heads straight to Chichen Itza so you should get there relatively early if the tour leaves on time and there isn’t any traffic. Pick-up is only available from Tulum, so that should cut down on travel time. The tour also includes a visit to a cenote, lunch and a trip to Valladolid, and gets excellent reviews for the knowledgeable guides. → READ MORE
This tour offers a separate pick-up in Tulum, but stops at Coba before going to Chichen Itza, so you arrive at Chichen Itza when it is very busy, so while it is a cheaper tour, if Chichen Itza is your main priority (over Coba) then it may not be for you.
Merida or Valladolid
Valladolid is the closest major town to Chichen Itza and is an ideal place to stay to visit Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza is about 40 minutes away from Valladolid and can be reached easily by car, bus or collectivo.
Tulum, on the other hand, is about an hour and a half from Valladolid and isn’t too far away if you are driving yourself, but if you go by bus it would take around two and a half hours to get from Valladolid to Tulum.
Chichen Itza is a little further from Merida, about an hour and a half’s drive away, whereas the drive to Tulum from Merida takes over 3 hours, which I wouldn’t recommend just for a day trip. If you are staying in Merida, you may want to consider visiting other Mayan Ruins closer to Merida such as Uxmal, Ek Balam or Campeche, then spending a couple of days in Tulum.
TOP TIP: TIMING IS EVERYTHING
The coastal state of Quintana Roo, which includes Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, doesn’t observe daylight savings time. During the winter, Quintana Roo is one hour ahead from the rest of Mexico – including Chichen Itza – so if you visit Mexico in winter then take that into account when planning your travel to Chichen Itza. When daylight savings time begins in April, most of Mexico moves forward an hour, and Quintana Roo stays the time, so it will be the same time in Chichen Itza as it is in Cancun and Tulum.
Want More Mexico Travel Ideas?Check out these blog posts for your Mexico vacation inspiration, or click here to read all my Mexico blog posts.
What is Special about Chichen Itza and 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.
Let’s discuss the archaeological sites in detail so you can decide which are the best Mayan ruins for you to visit. I’ll start with Chichen Itza, then move to Tulum.
Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins
Chichen Itza Tours
The majority of visitors to the Yucatan Peninsula will visit Chichen Itza on an organized tour. You can arrange Chichen Itza tours from basically anywhere in the Yucatan, the most popular being tours from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Merida and Valladolid.
How to Get to Chichen Itza by Bus
If you prefer to visit Chichen Itza without a tour and go independently, the bus network around the Yucatan is really good. Buses run regularly from from Cancun to Chichen Itza, Valladolid and Merida. Buses to Chichen Itza from Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos may involve a change of bus at Cancun.
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. If the ADO website isn’t working (which happens frequently!) Busbud is a good alternative. Due to COVID travel restrictions, some services aren’t running or aren’t as frequent, so check timetables before you go.
There are also second-class Mayab buses that go to Chichen Itza from Valladolid, and are cheaper, although they take longer as they stop along the way to pick people up. If you are staying in Valladolid, you can also get collectivos (shared taxis) to Chichen Itza.
When to go to Chichen Itza
As Chichen Itza is such a popular attraction in Mexico, I highly recommend going 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.
Arriving early also means you beat the heat, 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.
On certain nights of the week (currently Tuesday to Sunday) 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.
Chichen Itza light show tickets cost $630 pesos per person but check the website for details of dates of available shows and seats.
Chichen Itza Entrance Fee
The entrance fee to Chichen Itza 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 $85 pesos and $486 pesos, so the total price is $571 pesos, which is about $27 USD.
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 online, you can only buy them at the ticket office when you arrive (unless you are joining a tour that provides entry tickets for you).
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, the office won’t accept dollars, so make sure you have enough pesos with you to cover the entry fee, food and anything else you might need.
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.
People over 60 years of age, retirees and pensioners, active teachers and students, disabled get free entry into Chichen Itza.
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.
Can You Swim in Chichen Itza Cenote?
You can’t swim in the cenotes in Chichen Itza as the water is a murky green colour, and they were used as a site for religious ceremonies and human sacrifices. The Sacred Cenote and other cenotes inside the complex are off-limits to swimmers. However, if you bring your swimsuit, you can visit other cenotes near Chichen Itza such as Ik Kil cenote nearby.
Where to Stay at Chichen Itza
The closer you stay to Chichen Itza, the earlier you are likely to arrive and the more you can enjoy Chichen Itza in peace before the big tour groups arrive.
Hostels at Chichen Itza
There are no hostels actually at Chichen Itza but you can stay at Hostal y temazcal Guemez in the nearby town of Piste. There are plenty of hostels to choose from in the closest city Valladolid, like the fabulous Hostel Candelaria.
If you stay in Valladolid, you could arrange a tour from there or take a collectivo to Chichen Itza first thing in the morning. Buses from Valladolid to Chichen Itza won’t get you there for opening time so you could take the bus in the afternoon in preparation for the following day.
Hotels at Chichen Itza
If you prefer to stay actually at Chichen Itza, there is the Mayaland Hotel onsite, which has a private entrance to Chichen Itza, although that is currently closed due to COVID. Mayaland has some rooms with views of the Observatory inside Chichen Itza, and there is a shuttle to take you to the main entrance of Chichen Itza.
Other hotels in this area include Hacienda Chichen Resort and Yaxkin Spa and the cheaper Villas Arqueologicas Chichen Itza which both get decent reviews. While they are physically close to the ruins, you’ll have to walk or order a taxi from the hotel to take you the 3km or so to the main entrance of Chichen Itza.
Alternatively, staying in a hotel in Pisté gives you more choice of evening restaurants and activities, and maybe easier to find taxis or transport to Chichen Itza in the morning. I stayed at the lovely Casa de las Lunas which has bright, clean rooms and a swimming pool.
Apartments and Airbnbs at Chichen Itza
There are lots of options for Airbnbs near Chichen Itza, especially in the nearby towns of Pisté and Valladolid. For families, this holiday home in Pisté can sleep up to 10 people and has a gated parking space outside the property.
I hope that’s covered everything you need to know about Chichen Itza. You can also read my dedicated post with all of my tips about Chichen Itza. Now, let’s talk about Tulum!
Tulum Mayan Ruins
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 Visit Tulum Ruins with a Tour
You can easily arrange day tours to Tulum from Cancun and Playa del Carmen, and other places in the Yucatan Peninsula. Tours tend to be either half-day tours just of the ruins, or full-day tours to include other activities such as cenote diving or snorkelling, or a visit to Coba, another Maya site nearby.
How to Get to Tulum Independently
If you are staying in Tulum overnight, it is easy to hire a bike from your hostel or hotel and cycle to the ruins. The best time to go is in the early morning when 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. There’s about a 10 minute walk from the carpark to the entrance of the ruins.
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 much cheaper than Chichen Itza, as you just pay the standard $85 pesos for museums in Mexico. There is a cash machine at the entrance, but it can be unreliable or have a long queue, 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 guidebook 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
Hostels in Tulum
One of the best hostels in Tulum is Hostel Che Tulum, which gets excellent reviews, and is the only hostel in Tulum with a hot tub! Mama’s Hostel also gest fabulous reviews, and is conveniently located close to the bus station. I stayed at Amorcito Hostel when I was on my own, which was clean and cosy but lacked a little atmosphere – although it did have a rooftop pool!
All of these hostels are in the town of Tulum, closer to restaurants and transport to other places in Mexico. However, if you prefer to be right by the beach then Selina Tulum is the only beachfront hostel in Tulum. It’s more expensive than most of the other hostels but that’s what you pay for being on the beach!
Hotels in Tulum
The best value 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.
I stayed at the adults only Joy Tulum when I shared a twin cabana with my friend, which is a short walk or bike ride from the centre of Tulum, and was a lovely place to chill out. Bike hire is included and there is a pool to cool off after a day’s exploring.
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 Mayan ruins are absolutely gorgeous, but for me, held little interest apart from the views and the beach. 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 instead of visiting just on a day trip.
If you like:
– Ticking off your bucket list items and wonders of the world then go to Chichen Itza. If you hate crowds, avoid going to Chichen Itza mid-morning.
– Stunning views of the turquoise Caribbean sea and the chance to go to the beach then go to Tulum. If you can, spend more time in Tulum and enjoy some of the other things to do in Tulum while you are there.
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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