5 Mistakes to Avoid: Seeing Mayan Ruins

5 Mistakes to Avoid: Seeing Mayan Ruins - trust me, you don't want to make the same mistakes I did!

[Part of the Travel Month Series here on The Wanderlust Kitchen!]

Today, I’m sharing a story that is more “wanderlust” than “kitchen.” This post is all about the experience my husband and I had when we traveled to see the Mayan Ruins in Riviera Maya, Mexico.

You can read straight through if you want to hear the whole story, or skip down to the bottom to see the story summarized into the 5 key mistakes we made on our trip.


I’ve also included a two-day itinerary at the bottom for seeing the ancient sites of Chichen Itza, Coba, and Tulum.

I’ve also included a stop at a beautiful Cenote on the way back into Playa del Carmen, and my own personal recommendations for grabbing some dinner and drinks once you’re back in town!

The Story

When the husband and I traveled to Riviera Maya last year, we wanted to stay somewhere a little off the beaten path, but also wanted to explore some of the incredible Mayan ruins and natural features found on the peninsula.

We decided to stay in Playa del Carmen, which is about an hour outside of Cancun and is considered by some to have the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Staying in Playa del Carmen was definitely not a mistake; the beaches were as beautiful as we could imagine, the people were friendly, and the nightlife was hopping. Sounds like we had it made, right?

Well, the trouble we had started when we decided to take a day-long road trip to see the ruins at Chichen Itza, Coba, and Tulum.

Truth be told, the trouble started before that, almost as soon as we were off the plane and found our way to the car rental agency.

It’s a terrible idea to rent a car. Wait, let me rephrase that. It’s a terrible idea to rent a car the way the husband and I did it.


We were stupid and got suckered into purchasing extra insurance on the rental car. I found out later than one of the credit cards we use for international travel actually comes with free rental car insurance. Urgh, waste of money!


We reserved a standard car but when we got to the rental agency they had sold out of the one we reserved so they gave us a free upgrade to a brand new white BMW. Sounds awesome, right?

Oh, except that it pretty much made us a target everywhere we went because we stuck out like a sore, rich, American thumb.


We forgot to carry the rental paperwork with us in the vehicle, resulting in us getting detained by police at a checkpoint on a back road in the middle of SERIOUSLY nowhere.

As we really had no idea if that was actually a law or not down there, but the police officers were telling us that they were going to ticket us and we would need to go up to Mexico City to deal with the whole thing.

I was sitting in the passenger seat pretty much freaking out, but lucky for me, the husband kept his cool and made an executive decision to get us out of the situation.

I’m a bit hesitant to admit this on the interwebs for the whole wide world to read, but let’s just say that the husband was able to negotiate with the police by means of financial persuasion.

I hadn’t anticipated passing any checkpoints on this route, but there were probably two or three we passed through and each one also has a toll you’ll need to pay

This resulted in us departing the checkpoint with the equivalent of about 7 U.S. Dollars worth of Pesos and a near-empty gas tank.

We were headed toward the ruins at Chichen Itza, and also knew that we would need cash to enter the site. We were almost three hours outside of Playa del Carmen with no conception of how long it would be until we passed another town or gas station.

Oh, and I was really hungry, which is never a good thing.

After quite a bit of freaking out and bickering, we decided there was nothing left to do but keep driving towards our destination and pray that we would find a gas station and an ATM.

Lucky for us, we happened upon a gas station that accepted our credit card just a few miles from our destination. We were able to use our card to pay for entrance to Chichen Itza as well, which was incredibly fortunate because otherwise we would have driven three hours all for nothing.

Chichen Itza was incredible. The entire site is stunning and full of things to look at. We putted around for a few hours, then continued on our journey.

Seeing Mayan Ruins: Chichen Itza, Riveria Maya, Mexico
Seeing Mayan Ruins: Chichen Itza, Riveria Maya, Mexico

We stopped in the town of Vallalodid and had lunch at a little restaurant next to a beautiful cathedral. I was absolutely famished by this point, and quickly ordered the first thing on the menu.

Lucky for me, this was how I got introduced to the miracle of Chilaquiles, which are now one of my all-time favorite things to eat.

San Servacio Cathedral - Vallalodid, Rivieria Maya, Mexico
San Servacio Cathedral – Vallalodid, Rivieria Maya, Mexico

Of course, we had also planned to see Coba and Tulum on our way back, but had wasted so much time at the checkpoint that by the time we arrived at Coba, they were closing the site for the day.

We go to see a tiny bit of Coba from the parking lot, then decided to cut our losses and just go back to Playa and start drinking.

The next day, we drove over to the ruins at Tulum, which was just about a 45 minute drive from Playa. It was hot as all hell and required quite a bit of time standing in line to get in, but the site itself was gorgeous and totally worth the effort.

The ruins overlook the ocean, which makes for some great photo opportunities. Every once in a while the breeze hits the water and provides a little cooling spray.

Since we were so hot from walking around and exploring Tulum, we decided to stop at a Cenote on the way back into town to cool off.

Seeing Mayan Ruins: Tulum, Rivieria Maya, Mexico
Seeing Mayan Ruins: Tulum, Rivieria Maya, Mexico

Cenotes (pronounced like suh-no-tays) are these incredible water-filled caverns that the ancient Mayans believed to be passageways into the underworld.

They are filled with ancient stalactites and stalagmites; once you visit one, you’ll understand why the Mayans found them to be such an important part of their belief system.

Cenote (Underground Cavern), Riviera Maya, Mexico
Cenote (Underground Cavern), Riviera Maya, Mexico

5 Key Mistakes

If we were to do it all over again, here are the changes I would make so we could have avoided our mistakes and made the experience more enjoyable:

Continued on Page 2 –>

About the Author


Hi, I'm Anetta! Welcome to The Wanderlust Kitchen, where I share recipes and travel stories from all around the world. Here you'll find a world of recipes you can have confidence in. These recipes celebrate authentic food heritage as well as modern techniques and ingredients. I believe that food brings us together as much as it sets us apart. Be brave, try something new!

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  1. If you really want the best experience seeing Tulum, go before sunrise! it costs a bit more, but the sunrise from Tulum is breathtaking…. also, it gives you more time to explore the site before the tourist busses arrive… Also, in addition to Coba and Chichen Itza, they and carve out a chunk of a day to visit Muyil, just a few miles south of Tulum City… It’s a small pyramid temple but quite impressive…. then hike down to the beach through the jungle…. it’s swamp basically, with boardwalks…. there’s Mayans you’ll run into along the way charging admission, but do it and hire a boat to take you on the canals that cut through the marshes to the ocean… They take you to an old Mayan trade outpost, where you jump in and float down these canals for about a mile…. amazing!.

  2. We had a similar interaction with police when doing a very similar day trip. The only difference was the police officer suggested that we were travelling faster than the speed limit…in a wee rented Hyundai Atos that couldn’t even get to speed limit!

    Fast forward a couple of years and when we were in Cuba (Canadians – so no laws broken) we hired a driver for the day and a fellow from our resort acted as our interpreter. Including generous tips, the price was less than a car rental for the 24-day.

    We fed two families that day, visited places not as often gotten to by tourists, and whizzed by police check-points because our driver had paid the tolls, fines, lunch fees , or whatever you want to call them. Especially in emerging nations, this will be the way I get away from the tourist track. Oh, and a fellow traveler who rented a car to drive into Havana — he got stopped by police for a ticket that approached the price of our entire day… so much further behind than us.

    Just an alternate point of view on the whole rental car vs. taxi driver for the day scenarios.

    Happy trails!

    1. What a great piece of advice, Keith! I likely won’t be renting cars while traveling in the near future. Even in places where it’s safe, it’s still so expensive!

  3. I’ve also been to the Mayan ruins but I took a bus tour planned by a Canadian travel company. I enjoyed it hugely. For some reason or other, the Mayans really caught my attention and that’s why I went. In a foreign country I’d definitely recommend a tour like this.

  4. Try to come to my country Honduras and visit the MayanRuins in Copan they are spectacular, if you are I’d because they say that is not safe, it’s not true, or if you like the beach , you can take a cruise to the Bay Islands, there are three islands, Roatan, Utila and Guanaja, Roatan has beautiful hotels and the best coral reef.

    1. Sounds amazing, Patty! We’ve been thinking about doing a two-week trip to Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Roatan looks so beautiful!

  5. I’m am new to your blog, this is the first email I have received. Perfect timing, we are going to Playa Del Carmen in June. Great advice, and great photos. Looking forward to seeing all the sights in person!

  6. I visted the ruins back when disposible cameras were ever so popular, therefore I don’ t have any awesome pictures. Perhaps I will return again for super photos… oh and good food.

    1. That’s how my first trip to Europe was – the pictures are TERRIBLE. Plus, I had no idea how to take pictures, ha! I only took my iPhone with me to see the ruins, so my pictures are less than stellar. I’m really excited to sort through my Greece photos!