You don’t need to go on a big bus tour or hire a personal guide to see the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. You can be a (f)ree (i)ndepednent (t)raveler and do it all on your own. I’ll show you how!
Chichen Itza or Tulum?
People go to Tulum because of its proximity to Cancun and Playa del Carmen and because you can swim there next to Mayan ruins. Instead, I strongly recommend that you go to Chichen Itza instead because it’s a full-sized Mayan city with many more archaeological remains and much larger pyramids. I’m a historian and history teacher; trust me 🙂 Although it’s a two hour ride each way, you most definitely won’t be disappointed! All my pictures in this post are of Chichen Itza, so if you like what you see, then what are you waiting for?!
Renting a Car in Mexico
Despite what you read online, renting a car in Mexico is absolutely nothing to worry about. Here are some things that you’ll need to know:
- Before you leave, check with your credit company to make sure they cover Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) in Mexico. Most good credit companies do, so you shouldn’t have to pay for that. Print out a copy of the policy, bring it with you, and leave it in the rental car. The credit card company can email it to you or explain to you where it’s located on their website.
- Mexico requires you to buy liability insurance. They do not accept liability insurance from credit card companies. You can purchase it online when you reserve a car.
- In countries outside the U.S., most cars are standard, so be sure to rent an automatic if you don’t know how to drive standard. You’ll pay more but having the freedom to explore Chichen Itza on your own before the crowds get there is well worth it!
The Best Car Rental Company in Cancun/Playa Del Carmen
The easiest way to get to Chichen Itza is by car, and if you’re flying into Cancun airport, the best place to rent a car is from Easy Way Rent A Car. Many companies will play games with their rates and be deceptive about insurance, but that’s not the case with Easy Way. They guarantee their quotes and don’t charge an airport rental fee. They’ll also honor your credit card’s collision damage waiver insurance. Finally, they’ll pick you up at Cancun airport and even bring you back to the airport at the end of your trip! My partner and I did the research, and we used Easy Way.
Yes, Easy Way will pick you up at Cancun Airport. The directions will be on your confirmation email. Follow the directions carefully, and you’ll find that a representative will be waiting for you and holding a sign with your last name on it. They’ll take you in an air-conditioned van to their rental car center. It looks a little strange because it’s behind a gas station, but the company and its employees are incredibly professional and helpful. You’ll also return the car at this location, and they’ll take you back to the airport in their van. So convenient!
Driving in Mexico is Easy
No matter what you read online, driving in Mexico is almost exactly like driving in the U.S. or Europe. Here are some things you should know:
- Obey the speed limit. You’ll see countless Mexican cars fly by you, but don’t be tempted to speed. If you do, you run the risk of getting pulled over.
- If you do get pulled over, which is very unlikely, be polite and ask for the ticket. Do not give any money to the police officer. Just ask for the ticket.
- You might read online that Mexican gas stations will try to scam you. That’s also extremely unlikely. All gas stations, called Pemex, are run by the national government, and they have cracked down on and monitor stations. Here are some common sense things to be mindful of:
- Make sure the pump starts at zero.
- Watch the attendant pump your gas. You may want to get out of the car and watch. Confirm the cost.
- Pay in cash because most gas stations won’t accept a credit card.
- Be sure you receive the correct change.
- Be polite.
- Speaking of cash, when you’re in another country, always take money out of an ATM. Never use a cash exchange place because they’ll charge you a commission. Take out enough money for two or three days because your bank will likely charge you an ATM fee each time that you withdraw money. Hint: some credit unions and small banks (like mine) don’t charge for international ATMs. Ask your bank before you leave.
- Mexican roads have speed bumps called topes. Signs will warn you that you’re approaching speed bumps. Just slow down and go over them like you would any speed bump.
- If you’re entering or exiting a Mexican city or town, you’ll usually see a police checkpoint booth with officers inside. They’re just monitoring for safety.
Driving to Chichen Itza
Getting to Chichen Itza by car is simple. If you’re leaving from Cancun or Playa del Carmen, you’ll take highway 180D. Check out the map. However, it’s not like any highway that I’ve seen. There are no exits and absolutely nothing on it. Be sure that you have a full tank of gas before you get on the highway. There’s no place to get gasoline until you get to Chichen Itza. There’s only one rest stop with bathrooms but no gas. So fill up before you leave. It’s also a toll road, so bring cash to pay the toll. Click on the map for directions.
Tips About Seeing Chichen Itza
- The site gets extremely crowded, so I highly recommend getting there when it opens. We arrived at 8:00AM and had the place basically to ourselves. It was an incredible experience to be there with so few people. However, by 10/11:00AM, the tour buses began to arrive, and the site became packed.
- Bring water and wear sunscreen! This is no joke. We were there in February, and it over 90 degrees! There’s also very little shade at the site.
- Hire a guide. The site is not labeled at all, so unless you’re an expert in Mayan history and archaeology, you’ll need a guide to know what you’re looking at. I’m a history teacher, and even after reading an entire book about the Maya before I left for Mexico, I still needed a guide! You can hire a licensed guide on site, after you purchase your admission ticket. If you’re traveling in a small group, you can split the cost among yourselves, after the tour. If you’re only a couple, before going to the counter, find another couple (anyone will do!) and ask them if they would like to form a group to hire a guide together. Agree on who’s going to pay before approaching the counter, or else the guide will know you’re not a real group. There’s an ATM machine nearby, so you take out cash, if necessary. My partner and I were solo. We spent the $50 and were very happy that we did. Our guide was a local of Mayan descent. He spoke excellent English and was extremely friendly and knowledgeable. The tour took about two hours. Without our guide, the experience would not have been the same.
- Tour first and shop after. Bargain with vendors and be careful what you buy. There are vendors literally everywhere at Chichen Itza. They’re all local people, and selling items to tourists is their only income. If you see something you like, don’t buy it right away. Inquire about the price and about where and how it’s made, particularly if it’s a handcrafted item. Make note of where you are, in case you want to come back to that stand. Then, walk around and compare similar items from other vendors. Once you’ve made your decision, bargain! I was very interested in a Mayan ceremonial dagger made of obsidian to show my history students. After talking with several vendors, I found that the prices varied quite a bit and not all of the handles were made from precious stone. So I wandered back to the first vendor that I talked to (who had the best prices and actual malachite handles) and bargained with him. He was to bargain and even offered me a discount on other items. Haggling is expected but politeness (and a little Spanish) will get you even further.
Want to Break Up Your Ride Back?
If you don’t want to the entire two hours straight back to your hotel, consider a stop at the colonial town of Valladolid. The city was built by the Spanish in 1545, and many of its buildings are painted in pastel colors, making the setting picture perfect. As you can see from the map at the bottom of the page, it’s right off the highway.
Enjoyable sites in Valladolid include:
- A Mexican chocolate shop and museum – Located on a corner of the main park (Park Francisco Cantón Rosado – see map below), Tienda Chocolate Shop has a wide variety of chocolates, with some incredible add-ins. I found out the the darker the chocolate, the less easily it melts, so I brought some home for my chocoholic mother. You can also tour the small chocolate museum, but we chose not to. Visiting the shop is worth it for the smell alone!
- The main park (see map below), in the center of town, has famous “love seats” which make for a great photo-op.
- Stroll around just to see the wonderful Spanish colonial architecture. I would recommend a walk down Calzada de los Frailes (see the map below), which is the most picturesque street in town. Consider a stop at Coqui Coqui, a perfume shop that uses traditional Maya ingredients to make fragrances.
- Continue down Calazada de los Fralies, and at the end (see the map below), you’ll find the former Convent of San Bernadino de Siena. The structure was used by the Spanish both as a convent and fortress. Explore the convent/fort and be sure to stop in the courtyard to see the peacock who likes to strut his stuff!