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Chichen Itza vs Tulum Mayan Ruins in Mexico

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.  

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This post was last updated on 16th December 2021.

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 are excellent choices.  To help make your decision, these are some factors you should consider:

Beautiful Beach in Cancun Mexico
Beautiful Beach in Cancun Mexico

Where Are You Staying?

One of the major factors in your decision could well be where you are staying while you are 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.  

Cancun

If you are staying in Cancun, there isn’t much difference in distance.  Tulum is about 2 hours away from Cancun by car, and Chichen Itza is about 2 and a half hours from Cancun by car.  Both sites are also connected to Cancun with regular bus services, although the journey does longer travelling by public transport.  There are also plenty of tours from Cancun to Chichen Itza, as well as tours from Cancun to Tulum.

 

Playa del Carmen

If your accommodation is in Playa del Carmen, a trip to Tulum ruins would be much easier, 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.

Tulum

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!  That said, if you would also like to visit Chichen Itza 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, although it would take quite a bit longer by bus.

There are tours running from Tulum to Chichen Itza too – some which run from Cancun 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.

 

Merida or Valladolid

The closest major town to Chichen Itza is Valladolid, so if you are staying or visiting Valladolid, Chichen Itza would certainly be easier for you.  Chichen Itza is about 40 minutes away from Valladolid and can be reached easily by car, bus or colectivo.  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.  

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.

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.

El Castillo Pyramid at Chichen Itza - Chichen Itza vs Tulum Mayan Ruins in Mexico
El Castillo Pyramid at Chichen Itza – Chichen Itza vs Tulum Mayan Ruins in Mexico

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.  

READ MORE: Top Chichen Itza Tips – Everything I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Chichen Itza

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.

Souvenir Stalls are everywhere in Chichen Itza!
Souvenir Stalls are everywhere in Chichen Itza!

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.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Backpacking Mexico Travel Guide

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 cost $510 pesos per person but check the website for details of dates of available shows.

Exploring other temples at Chichen Itza - Chichen Itza vs Tulum Mayan Ruins in Mexico
Exploring other temples at Chichen Itza – Chichen Itza vs Tulum Mayan Ruins in Mexico

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 $80 pesos and $417 pesos, so the total price $497 pesos, which is about $24 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.

One of the temples at Chichen Itza - Which is Better, Chichen Itza Or Tulum?
One of the temples at Chichen Itza – Which is Better, Chichen Itza Or Tulum?

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.

The Cenote Sagrado at Chichen Itza - Should you Visit Tulum or Chichen Itza?
The Cenote Sagrado at Chichen Itza – Should you Visit Tulum or 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.

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 at Chichen Itza, although there are plenty in the closest city Valladolid, and a couple of shared dorm options advertised on Airbnb in the town of Pisté like Casa Chichen Host (see below for more Airbnb options).

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.  Before spending the night closer to Chichen Itza, I stayed at Hostel Candelaria in Valladolid which was fab.

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Hotels at Chichen Itza

If you prefer to stay actually at Chichen Itza, there is the Mayaland Hotel onsite, with a private entrance to Chichen Itza.  There are other hotels close by, but that is the only one where you have private access to Chichen Itza.

I’ve read reviews from other hotels where you may be able to pay to walk through Mayaland to get to Chichen Itza, but that seems to be an old practise so you may need to get a taxi or walk quite a long way if you stay in a hotel near Chichen Itza. 

Staying in a hotel in Pisté gives you more choice of evening restaurants and activities, and maybe easier to find taxis in the morning.  I stayed at the lovely Casa de las Lunas which has bright, clean rooms and a swimming pool. 

>>>Check all hotels in Chichen Itza on HotelsCombined 

>>>Check all hotels in Pisté on HotelsCombined

Airbnb at Chichen Itza

There are lots of options for Airbnbs near Chichen Itza, especially in the nearby town of Pisté.  This hotel next to Chichen Itza also advertises on Airbnb and is one of the closest hotels to the entrance. 

Most of the other Airbnbs listed are also hotels or guesthouses, but this entire home is great value if you are travelling in a group.  This bedroom in a family home seems like a more authentic place to stay, or you can check all of the options on Airbnb here

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.

Picturesque Tulum Ruins and the Blue Ocean
Picturesque Tulum Ruins and the Blue Ocean

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.

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.

A Temple at Tulum - Chichen Itza vs Tulum Mayan Ruins in Mexico
A Temple at Tulum – Chichen Itza vs Tulum Mayan Ruins in Mexico

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.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: What to do in Tulum Mexico

Tulum Entrance Fee

The Tulum entrance fee is much cheaper than Chichen Itza, as you just pay the standard $80 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.

This is really what you come to Tulum for - the view! - Tulum Archaeological Site
This is really what you come to Tulum for – the view! – Tulum Archaeological Site

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.

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Cenote Diving in Tulum Mexico

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 | tripadvisor | hotelscombined

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Airbnb in Tulum

There are some great options for Airbnb in Tulum.  You can find some great deals on apartments and rooms in Tulum, like this gorgeous apartment with a roof-top pool in the centre of Tulum.  There are also some fabulous Airbnbs on the beach too like this beachfront room with a terrace.

The Mayan ruins at Tulum aren't that impressive - Chichen Itza vs Tulum Mayan Ruins in Mexico
The Mayan ruins at Tulum aren’t that impressive – Chichen Itza vs Tulum Mayan Ruins in Mexico

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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Chichen Itza vs Tulum Mayan Ruins

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Last updated: December 16, 2021

22 thoughts on “Chichen Itza vs Tulum Mayan Ruins in Mexico

  1. Catherine @ To & Fro Fam says:

    This is PRECISELY what I was wondering, so thank you for this great post. I’m traveling to Tulum next month with my two kids and was trying to figure out if driving all the way to Chichen Itza would be a good use of our time… and I think the answer is yes. It’ll be hard to drive that long and leave early, but I think it’ll be worth it.

  2. Mia says:

    Mexico is absolutely on my list! I love those ancient historic places-
    Lovely post, really enjoyed reading this! The history behind chichen itza is so fascinating. Thanks for sharing this post

  3. Tara says:

    Knowing this may be our only chance to visit…we chose Chichen Itsa…we will go with our hats and sunglasses! Thanks for the tips! We visit in December!

  4. J says:

    Been to both. Chichen-Itza was very spectacular and the ocean at Tulum was beautiful, but the shore was washed away and there was a lot of debris, we could not go down there.

  5. Burcu Basar says:

    Thank you for this very helpful post as Mexico is definitely among the places I want to visit soon. Tulum has somehow picked up an immense popularity here in Turkey and many people travel there for beach vacations. While Chichen Itza looks even more interesting – I hear you about the crowds, which can be very discouraging.

  6. Vicky and Buddy says:

    I’ve been to the Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala so I’ve always been curious about the ones in Mexico. They both look great, but the ones in Tulum get my vote simply because of their location. That water looks beautiful!

  7. Ryan Biddulph says:

    I feel I would pick Tulum Claire for the beach views alone. One of my doctor buddies who barely travels raved about the place. This says something; dude is more of a homebody who really needs to see something rocking to get excited about places on the road. But Chichen Itza is amazing too; definitely on my travel list. Thanks for sharing the review 🙂

    Ryan

  8. Kate says:

    I love all the temples, ruins and pyramids. It sounds like such a fascinating history! But the light show at Chichen Itza sold me on that location!

  9. Vasu Devan says:

    A wealth of information and tips on Chichen Itza and Tulum. I guess each has its charm. I love the blue seas next to Tulum. I am also a big fan of Light Show. Well, for me I choose both 🙂 🙂

  10. Sandy N Vyjay says:

    Given our fascination for Mayan ruins, it would be actually difficult for us to choose between Chichen Itza and Tulum. We would love to visit both. But this is a good look at the pros and cons of each place. I can see that Tulum has a spectacular location and is also less crowded as people head to look at the more hyped Chichen Itza. So if we had to choose we would head to Tulum first with the promise to ourselves that the next stop would be Chichen Itza.

  11. Shweta says:

    Nice post! Detailed, helpful info on both the sites. I admit that on my first trip to Mexico, I would prefer to tick off Chichen Itza. Having been to 4 of the 7 New Wonders, I might as well see them all 🙂

  12. Shruti Prabhu says:

    I haven’t visited either but have heard good things about both. Only yesterday, one of my friends asked me if I can recommend ruins in Mexico. I will definitely forward this article to her. Personally I might enjoy the Tulum ruins more, since I don’t like crowds. But I get the seventh wonder attraction.

  13. Janine Thomas says:

    Gosh, what a choice! I would have great difficulty making a decision, but I think the fact that there is a light show at Chichen Itza would probably tip the scales in its favour for me. Thanks for a wonderfully detailed post.

  14. Ami Bhat says:

    I see that both are amazing.I will take your tips and visit Chichen itza when it is least crowded. And Tulum anyway sounds amazing with that snorkeling that you threw in. I don’t want to miss either!

  15. Janiel says:

    I had no idea the tripods were not allowed in Tulum. The last time I went there I had a camera but no one said anything to me, likely because I was in a group and didn’t have a tripod. This was such a great article! As someone who is been there several times there was so much information that I have never heard of or didn’t know, so thank you so much for sharing this I sincerely appreciate it. I am planning to go back there and this is Truly fantastic information thank you.

  16. LaiAriel Samangka says:

    Truly, Mayan ruins is naturally interesting and would love to visit as many as I can If I get the chance to visit Mexico soon. I love the fact that you get to compare both Chichen Itza and Tulum fairly enough. I find them both stunning and interesting, but the view of Tulum ruins is sounds like the kind of adventure I would love to experience because of its panoramic view. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.is

  17. Lisa says:

    I’ve been to both Tulum and Chichen Itza, and agree that you need to arrive early, especially Chichen Itza. It get super hot very quickly and busy too. I have to say, however, that I actually preferred Tulum. It was nearer to where I was staying, and the site is big enough, with the beach nearby, that you don’t feel like it’s overcrowded. Still, Chichen Itza is incredible in magnitude and worth seeing for sure!

  18. Brooke says:

    Have not yet had the chance to visit any ruins in Mexico but Palanque been on my list forever (not a big fan of the top 10 most crowded sites like Chichen-Itza)! Ironically-being from California I could fly to Mexico so easily but I always end up going further abroad because the prices are only a few hundred more to go to Europe.

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