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:

  1. I should have done my research ahead of time to know that we didn’t need extra car insurance or a BMW which would attract police attention, and to keep all the paperwork with us in the vehicle. Even after all that trouble, I would still rent a car rather than rely on taxis and tour buses to get around. Everyone has their own travel preferences, but one thing the husband and I agree on is we hate group tours. We would almost always prefer to explore something at our own pace and not be shuttled around like sheep surrounded by a million other tourists. Yes, it’s a bit scary to drive around in a foreign country, but it was worth it for us to have the freedom to come and go when we pleased.
  2. I should have exchanged money before we left so we had a solid supply of Pesos for our trip. This was the only trip we’d ever taken where I hadn’t brought local currency with us from home. I always make the jaunt down to the bank tower downtown to exchange money before we go, but for some reason I just didn’t really prepare for this trip like I usually do. I think it was because I’ve been to Mexico a few times before and felt really comfortable travelling there. I figured we’d just grab cash at the airport or an ATM, but luck was not on our side on this trip.
  3. When I planned out our route from Playa to Chichen Itza, Valladolid, Coba, and Tulum, I should have made sure I knew were gas stations were along the route. We had a full tank when we left Playa, but the gas tank in the BMW was rather depleted after three hours on the road.
  4. We should have left earlier in the day to make sure we had enough time to see the ruins at Coba before they closed. Tulum is a quick jaunt from Playa, but Coba is about an hour and forty minutes away, so it wasn’t easy for us to take up another day on our trip to drive all the way back there to see the ruins. It’s totally feasible to see Chichen Itza and Coba all in one day, as long as you leave early enough!
  5. I shouldn’t have tried to see all three major sites all in one day. That was just plain stupid. If I had known that Coba and Tulum close at 5:00pm, I never would have tried to do it all in one day. Again, a perfect example of how I didn’t really take this trip seriously. I should have done my research!

Bonus Itinerary!

I’ve split the adventure into two days. The first day you’ll see Chichen Itza, have lunch in the historical town of Vallalodid, and explore the ruins at Coba. The second day you’ll see Tulum and stop at a Cenote on your way home.

I have also included links for Google Maps so you can check out the routes I’ve laid out below!

Just make sure to leave very early in the morning, wear comfortable shoes, and don’t pass up any gas stations along the way!

Day 1:

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

Leave Playa del Carmen at 7:00am.

Drive towards Chichen Itza, stopping in Cancun to refill your gas tank.

Arrive at Chichen Itza at about 10:00am. Spend two hours exploring the ruins and admiring some of the folk art sold along the pathways between sites.

Leave at about noon to drive to Vallalodid.

Have lunch in Vallalodid when you arrive about 12:45pm. There are a few little restaurants right near the square in the center of town. After lunch, take some time to explore the town and see the beautiful San Servacio Cathedral.

Depart Vallalodid by 2:15pm, and drive on toward Coba. You’ll arrive at about 3:30pm.

Spend about 90 minutes exploring the site, then depart at 5:00pm.

You’ll arrive back in Playa del Carmen about 6:45pm. Grab some dinner at Ay Chebala in the heart of town. Seventy-five pesos will buy you three tacos and a beer. Try the octopus (pulpo) tacos if you’re feeling adventurous. Pick up a six pack of Pacifico to take back to your hotel. Rest your tired feet and get ready for day two.

Here’s the route!

Day 2:

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

Leave Playa at 9:00am.

Drive towards Tulum, arriving by 10:00am. Explore the ruins early in the day before it gets too hot. You’ll need a little over an hour to see everything.

After you see the ruins, spend and hour looking through the shops near the site. Grab a fresh young coconut from a street vendor to rehydrate yourself; the vendor will lop off the top with a knife and hand you a straw to drink up the refreshing coconut water inside. Have a quick lunch of tacos al pastor, then try to find where you parked the car in the gigantic parking lot.

Depart Tulum about 1:00pm, when the heat of the day starts to get overwhelming. Get back on the highway towards Playa, and watch for the signs for “Indiana Joe’s” adventure park (you can’t miss them, they’re huge!). Pull off the highway at the adventure park and drive through the jungle to get back to the Atkun Chen Cenote.

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

Pay the extra few pesos to have the guide show you some of the strange and exotic animals they have on site before you go down into the Cenote. The guides speak excellent English and are happy to answer questions. Descend into the Cenote and soak up the natural beauty and ancient stories told by your guide. You may get a little chilly, but it feels amazing compared to the blazing afternoon heat above ground.

After your tour, drive back through the jungle to the highway and follow the signs for Playa. Head over to Aldea Corazon for a top-notch dinner in a beautiful setting.

Here’s the route!


If you’re interested in learning more about traveling in Riviera Maya, check out this guide book.

Want more inspiration?

More Travel Ideas You'll Love

About the Author


Hi, I'm Linda! Welcome to The Wanderlust Kitchen, where I share recipes and travel adventures 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. Be adventurous and try a new recipe and travel somewhere you have never been before.  Bon Appétit! Bon Voyage!  

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  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!.