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Coba and Ek Balam Mayan Ruins: Tours and How To Visit

Updated: Apr 3

Dora the Explorer, Indiana Jones, Always Pack Tissues, and about 2.5 bajillion tourists have visited the Mayan and Aztec temples and archaeological zones of Mexico, and for good reason. These relics of the past are really, really cool. Put on a sun hat and a lot of UV protection and experience two off the beaten path temple complexes at Coba and Ek Balam. These hidden gems of the Yucatan offer a glimpse into the area's ancient past without the crowds of Chichen Itza.

Even better - with the emergence of the Tren Maya line traveling through the Yucatan and Quintana Roo in 2024, tourists can get around the Colonial towns of Valladolid, Izamal, Merida and more without the need of a car for longer distances.

Note: Always Pack Tissues represents many tried and tested travel sites as what is called an 'affiliate' partner. That means if you click on my ads I may get a commission from a resulting sale.

Visiting Ek Balam, Mexico

What to expect:

This ancient Mayan archaeological site is one of the most impressive in Mexico that I have seen. The architectural style alone with all of the palapa roofs lining the path to the top of the main pyramid are surely unlike anything I've seen elsewhere. It makes the whole idea of this civilization come to life, as if they'd all just migrated away from home for a bit.

Imagine stepping back in time to an overgrown, forested temple complex spanning several city blocks. With virtually nothing else but cenotes (sinkholes) around, the Mayan settlement of Ek Balam, Mexico is hiding artifacts of time known only to those who seek it.

Stone sign that says Ek Balam

Pathways lead past crumbling structures to a primary temple hundreds of narrow steps high. Thatched palapas shade the outcropped temple structures of the old Mayan city, which house incredibly well-preserved carved stone walls depicting jaguars, glyphs, and the story of the Mayan civilization who settled there.

Palapa roofs and mayan temple

The truly impressive Ek Balam ruins showcase carvings beyond comprehension, including that of the black jaguar, where Ek Balam gets its name. The black jaguar was a diety in its own right among the people of Peru, Guatemala and Mexico, to name a few, and was revered and worshiped throughout by the indigenous peoples of the United States and Central America.

We learned more about the jaguar as a diety in our travels to the alebrije workshops in Oaxaca, and more plainly, at the local zoo's Jaguar exhibit in Florida. In any case, very cool.

stone jaguar teeth carving in a mayan temple

Are the Ek Balam Ruins Kid Friendly?

This temple complex is kid friendly. My 2.5 year old loved climbing the super steep stairs and only cried when we didn't allow her to walk down on her own. I never climb these ruins (I don't see the point - bragging rights for getting to the top?) but this one is totally worth the terrifying trek up towards the gods.

Mayan temple carvings

Are There Facilities At Ek Balam?

The carvings are incredible, and the shade of the palapas offers respite to bring your heart rate down to acceptable levels, and also to enjoy a snack from your backpack.

Outside the temple gates is a nice shopping area for souvenirs and you can't leave without getting one of their delicious and refreshing homemade popsicles before you leave!

There are plenty of clean bathroom stalls and credit cards are accepted.

Carvings at a mayan temple

If You Go:

Ek Balam is a 2 hour drive from Cancun. Spend the night before visiting these temples in the colonial town of Valladolid, located just 30 minutes south so that you can get here by early morning before the midday sun hits.

stunning stone carvings from ancient mexico

If you drive:

The drive in is fine. Be aware of the many tope (toe-pay) signs indicating large speedbumps. There will be tolls too, have cash and coins handy. There are convenient rest areas in a couple of places on the route from Cancun and Valladolid.

Parking is easy, but beware the children offering to 'watch your car' for a couple bucks. You don't owe these kids anything, they are just trying to hustle you before you get to a very organized credit card accepting ticket booth further up the path.

If you take a tour:

From Cancun

Visit Ek Balam, swim in a cenote and enjoy lunch before exploring Uayma town - a hidden gem!

Tour Cost: From $72

Tour Length: 12 hours

Enjoy a visit to Ek Balam and a swim in a cenote, followed by a buffet lunch

Tour Cost: From $159

Tour Length: 10 hours

From Playa Del Carmen

This trip includes all of the above plus a visit to Chichen Itza

Tour Cost: From $169

Tour Length: 12 hours

From Valladolid

See the flamingos and pink lakes at Rio Lagartos on a boat ride (included) plus Ek Balam and lunch

Tour Cost: From $179

Tour Length: 10 hours

From Riviera Maya (flexible)

This private tour visits Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, a cenote for swimming, and lunch in Valladolid

Tour Cost: From $320

Tour Length: 12 hours

Coba, Mexico

What You Will See:

Pok a Tok Ball Court: A Mayan Ball Game to the Death

Have you ever heard of the Mayan ball game with the circular hoop that ends in death? Called pok a tok, Dora the Explorer had a cool episode about it, and in her version no one dies.

In the version I learned from our temple guide, two players were honorably chosen to play this ball game to the death, the loser, obviously being the one to bite the dust. Archaic, but interesting.

Mayan Ball game court for Pok-a-Tok
Stone hoop for Pok-a-Tok Mayan ball game

They had to use their elbows, knees and other extremities to get this ball into the stone hoop without using their feet or hands.

Imagine, after seeing this only from a children's show to have found this ancient ball court first hand in the dense forest of the Yucatan? SO cool.

Mayan Calendar

Here you can also see a full Mayan calendar and also symbols of a skull and a parrot, which reminded me of the old Nickelodeon Show team logos on "Legends of the Hidden Temple".

Is Coba Kid Friendly?:

Absolutely. My daugher was excited to see where "Dora lives", so every turn we used as an opportunity to play into that.

Is It a Lot of Walking?:

The coolest part about this place (besides the remnants of death ball) is that you have

three modes of transportation to choose from once inside. You can walk (don't, it's a long hot path), bike (my husband loved it) or take a pedicab bike, operated by a driver.

bike and pedicab bike in front of ruins
Transportation options at Coba Ruins

The bike options are just inside the entrance on the left, with a ticket booth and clear prices listed. All the pedicab drivers are paid per ride by the government, so it's all above board and no haggling needed. A tip is appreciated, as they will show you cool things like Mayan bees and their honey along the route.

Expect zero English as these guys are Mayan first and Mexican second. They speak Mayan and have deep Mayan roots. They will take you around to the main areas of the temple complex so that you don't miss anything.

If You Go:

Coba is 2 hours from Cancun Airport or about 45 minutes from Tulum, so this is an easy day trip from Tulum or on the way to Valladolid.

If you drive:

There is a large parking lot - pay to park at the gate.

Are There Facilities Available?

Tickets for entry are purchased by the bathroom sign on the right side of the lot. The parking lot serves as a plaza full of tons of souvenir shops and food stalls. There are options both within and outside the parking lot gates. Pick one overlooking the random lake outside the gates.

If you take a tour:

Consider an easy, private half day tour. Tour groups leave from Tulum!

Visit the archaeological wonders at Coba and Tulum, swim in a cenote, have a nice lunch and participate in a Mayan ceremony with a shaman

Tour Cost: From $59

Tour Length: 13 hours

An action packed day includes ATV ride, ziplining, biking through Coba, a Mayan ceremony, private cenote entrance and lunch

Tour Cost: From $130

Tour Length: 8 hours

See Coba, Chichen Itza, Valladolid and swim in a cenote. Lunch is included.

Tour Cost: From $67

Tour Length: 12 hours

From Tulum: This private tour provides transportation and a guide through Coba ruins

Tour Cost: From $154

Tour Length: 5 hours

Skip Tulum and Chichen Itza

Skip Tulum ruins and Chichen Itza. They're overpriced, overrun by tourism, and offer no shade. Tulum may have sweet Insta-worthy beachside ruins photos, but if you have a choice pick the others above.

My parents just went to Chichen Itza last spring (against my warnings!) and had nothing but unpleasant things to say. They felt hustled, hot and underwhelmed. At best, it's like visiting Disney World. Try something a little off the beaten path, eh?

Coba Vs Ek Balam

So you've decided not to go to Chichen Itza (good for you), but now it's Coba vs Ek Balam in an ultimate showdown for your time on your precious itinerary. Which to choose?

In my opinion, having the pedicab ride at Coba was more memorable of an experience, and I really enjoyed the shopping vendors and dining options at the Coba parking area. The Pok a tok court was so cool and something I'd never seen before, so it added bonus points for sure.

Ek Balam hands down had the cooler carvings and the palapa overhangs on the main temple was a for sure highlight for photo ops. The complex is quieter than Coba, so expect that you may enjoy more serenity at Ek balam, however Ek Balam offers a more strenuous climb than anything we encountered at Coba, so you're definitely earning that post-pyramid popsicle that I mentioned.

So all in all - obviously try to make time for both, but for convenience of location and family-friendly offerings and surrounds, prioritize Coba over Ek Balam if your itinerary only allows time for one.


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