Want to know what to do in Chichen Itza? 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?!
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.
What to Do in Chichen Itza: Important Tips
- 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.
What to Do at Chichen Itza: How to Get There
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!