Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen are all popular resort vacation spots in Mexico but I encourage you to take at least one of your days to see some of the sights outside of the resort areas. Planning a Cancun day trip to Chichen Itza and the surrounding area is easy. There are a variety of activities to choose from in addition to visiting archeological sites, including snorkeling tours, swimming in cenotes, and jungle tours. On a recent girls trip to Mexico, 3 of us decided to take a tour that included visiting Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, a cenote and lunch – it was our favorite day out of the whole trip. Check out how we spent our day in the Yucatan Peninsula and how you can experience these places too!
Cancun Day Trip to Chichen Itza Tour Options | Private vs Group
When you are staying at a resort and want to go exploring for a day, signing up for a tour is a good option. It eliminates some of the stress of having to navigate around unfamiliar areas as well as makes the day more relaxing. I don’t always chose a tour when visiting a new place, since it does limit some of your time that you spend doing each activity. Since it was a one day excursion and it was a pretty substantial drive in rural areas, we chose a tour. There are two different types of tours that you can take, one is with a group of people and the other is just your party and a guide.
A group tour is a less expensive option and is good if you don’t mind going with other people. The transportation is usually nice as well, a big motorcoach bus with a bathroom and air conditioning. These tours often include narration, history, and local information as you drive. I have been on big group tours and they are decent, the way to go if you want to save some money. Some reputable group tours can be booked through your resort or Viator also is a great company to work with.
A private tour is more expensive but it is a day with only your group and a guide. You are going at the pace that you choose. The transportation is a personal vehicle, which does include air conditioning and for us, some fun music, history and interesting conversation. A private tour allows you to explore the areas you are visiting longer, the guide usually takes you to a local restaurant to experience and you leave earlier than the big groups which means less crowds. We stood in front of the main structure at Chichen Itza without anyone else in our picture- just us! There is also a love of country that the local guide have and it is really awesome to learn about the things they love about their country.
There are a few companies that offer private tours for your Cancun day trip to Chichen Itza and Ek Balam, we went with My Quest Concierge Private Tours. The reviews are legit on Tripadvisor for this company – they are amazing and highly recommend them. The communication is great, their website is easy to understand and navigate and their guides are so great. We loved our whole experience with them. A couple of other companies that come highly rated are Boutique Tours Mexico and Living Dreams Mexico
The great thing about choosing a private tour is that you can customize the elements to be a tour focused on the things you want to do. We were spending the week in Cancun and had many options on the types of tours we could choose from anywhere from a full day of visiting cenotes, to archeological sites to snorkeling. Many of the tours included multiple different activities for the day. Check out some of the offerings to choose from:
Chichen Itza, lunch, & cenote – This tour leaves early and stops at Chichen Itza first and then you stop in Valladolid for delicious local lunch and then take a swim in a cenote.
Cenote Tour– snorkel, swim and enjoy the Yalku Lagoon and then stop for an optional lunch
Coba & Tulum Tour– Tour 2 archeological sites, enjoy a bike ride and swim in a cenote with an stop for an optional lunch if desired.
Whale Shark Tour– Beautiful boat ride, interaction with Whale Sharks and a ceviche experience.
Chichen Itza, Ek Balam & cenote – This tour leaves early and stops at Chichen Itza, then Ek Balam. After that it’s lunch and then a swim in a cenote. This is the tour that we chose and it was really great.
Our Tour to Chichen Itza, Ek Balam & a Cenote
We chose to do a tour that included 2 archeological sites, lunch and then a swim in a cenote. If you do choose this tour, be aware that it is a long day from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. We were out in the front of the resort at 6:45 am and didn’t return until around 6:45 pm. The drive to Chichen Itza is about 3 hours from the Cancun area. Since the drive is long, I figured that seeing 2 archeological sights is better than 1! If you only wanted to see Chichen Itza, the return time would be closer to around 3pm. Remember that you will be outside for most of the day and bringing a hat, reef safe sunscreen, and comfortable walking shoes are a must!
Stop 1 | Chichen Itza
The first stop on our tour was Chichen Itza, named one of the 7 modern wonders of the world. We arrived well before the crowds and there were just a few people there. Our guide picked us up around 6:45 in the lobby area of our resort, introducing himself and offering us water. We then were off to see Chichen Itza, about a 3 hour drive from Cancun. The guide offered some historical information about the archeological sites we were seeing, some quiet time, and some fun getting to know you conversation. The complex does have restrooms, a cafe, and souvenirs for purchase.
History of Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is 4 square miles and is comprised of 2 areas, Old Chichen and Chichen Itza. It has a total of 26 Mayan ruins. The city was founded by the Mayan people and it is believed that the city was built in that location because of the Xtoloc cenote that provided fresh water to the city. It was at one time the most populous city in the Yucatan Peninsula. It was also one of the most important religious centers in the area. The city quite large, with a multiple complexes, the 3 most well known being the Great Northern complex, which includes the iconic El Castillo, the Osairo group, which included the temple of Xtoloc, and the Central group, which includes the observatory called El Caracol.
Our Time at Chichen Itza
Visiting Chichen Itza is incredible, to be able to walk around and think about what this city must of been like at the height of it’s popularity. The carvings on all of the structures were really cool to see as well. Our guide was great at showing us the carvings and explaining the story that they were telling. The Great Ball court was one of my favorite parts, learning about the games that they played and that it was such a big event! The court is huge as well- way bigger than the one we saw at Ek Balam.
The science behind the structure is incredible as well, the way El Castillo casts shadows of a serpent at the changing of the seasons, that the stairs on all 4 sides point to a different cenote, as well as the sound that echoes back at the front of the structure sounds like the Quetzal when you clap. You should definitely see Chichen Itza at least once in your life. It’s easy to plan a Cancun day trip to Chichen Itza!
Stop 2 | Ek Balam
After we spent all the time we wanted at Chichen Itza, it was time to head to our next stop, Ek Balam. It is about an hour away from Chichen Itza, but the drive didn’t seem that long. It was nice to rest after walking around in the sun. During the ride our guide told us a little bit about the history of Ek Balam. He also warned us that we should be ready for some exercise. There is a restroom at this archeological site but not much else for purchase.
History of Ek Balam
Ek Balam has only been 30% excavated and they are still working on uncovering the rest of the site but it looks like there are 45 total structures. Something that our guide told us was that there aren’t any hills in the Yucatan area. So when you see hills, that’s were an archeological site must be. The site wasn’t mapped until the late 80’s and it will be exciting to see what additional finds they will make. This city was ruled by a king instead of a priest, making it different than the other cities around the Yucatan Peninsula. It was a city known for artisans and had a medical area with rooms to take care of the sick.
The main area of the site is called El Torre and it is one of the tallest Mayan structures. El Torre is where the tomb of Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok is located and the carvings are incredible to see. The archways at the entrance and the medicinal mortars built into the entrances of some of the rooms are cool features to check out as well.
Our Time at Ek Balam
I really loved visiting Ek Balam, this site is not as polished as Chichen Itza but it was cool to learn about this lesser known city, it was really different from some of the other Mayan ruin sites that I have visited. You can explore the whole area and can still climb the structures. Climbing El Torre was a little nerve racking but worth it for the amazing views at the top. If you want to see the tomb carvings, you have to climb about half of El Torre, so be prepared. There are no railings and the stairs are a little shallow, so wear good shoes and take your time. If you want to visit somewhere a little different and quiet, you should check out Ek Balam. It ended up being one of my favorite Mayan ruins visits.
Stop 3 | Lunch in Valladolid
After walking around and getting some great exercise walking up those steep steps, it was time for lunch! We headed over to Valladolid, about a 20 minute drive from Ek Balam. We had lunch at Paladar de Cura, a local restaurant, serving classic Yucatan dishes. Our guide picked for us and ordered before we got there so it was ready soon after we arrived. The city of Valladolid is beautiful and if you have time is a great place to shop and look around. We only had time for lunch and it was amazing!
We loved everything that was served to us, from the cochina pilbil to the fresh corn tortillas, everything was delicious. I always like to eat where the locals eat when visiting a foreign country and this place did not disappoint! Everyone we talked to in Cancun said that when they wanted delicious food they went to Valladolid to get it.
Stop 4 | Cenote Chukum
Our last stop on our Cancun day trip to Chichen Itza & Ek Balam was at the cenote Chukum for a swim. After that it was back to the hotel. There are tons of cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula and many to choose from to go swimming in. Our guide chose this one for us and it was a great way to end our tour. It wasn’t busy and was a refreshing way to end our day.
Cenotes are sinkholes or caves that are filled with water and were used as a water source for the Mayan culture. There are 4 types of cenotes:
Open Cenotes – these cenotes are the oldest and look like a natural swimming pool.
Semi – Open Cenotes – these cenotes have an opening at the top but are have walls of limestone all around them
Closed Cenotes – these are in a cave, usually having some light from above shining down but are accessed via a staircase.
Diving Cenotes – These are fully underwater and can only be accessed through scuba diving.
Cenote Chukum is a closed cenote with a couple of openings at the top to let in the sunlight. This cenote has a little shop, bathrooms and lockers that you have access to while you are visiting the cenote. All swimmers must use a life jacket. You can bring your own or they have some to rent on the premises. There is a set of stairs that takes you down to the water. There are 3 ways to enter the water – stairs, diving platform and zipline. We enjoyed swimming around in the clear, cool water before we headed back to the car. The water was a little chilly but was great after a day in the sun.
Return and Final Thoughts on our Cancun Day Trip to Chichen Itza & Ek Balam
It took about 2 hours to return to our hotel in Cancun. The drive wasn’t bad and it was nice to be able to just sit for a bit. It was a great time getting to know our guide as well as talking about we had learned during our tour. We were dropped off at the lobby of our hotel and said goodbye to our guide. We then went off to other adventures at the resort.
My first choice for seeing any archeological sites in the Yucatan Peninsula would be to go with a company that offers a private tour. From Cancun or Playa del Carmen, it is quite the drive and it is nice to be able to spend the day at the pace you want instead of having to go at the pace the tour company decides. You also can ask all the questions that you want. You can also hear all of the information – because I am petite I often get nudged out of the way and end up in the back of the group, so I miss some of the cool information that the guide is giving out. We have been on a couple of private tours and it’s worth the extra money to go that route.
Have any additional thoughts or questions? Have you been to other sites in the area such as Coba or Tulum? How would you plan your perfect Cancun Day trip to Chichen Itza? Let us know in the comments!
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