Updated: May 4
Dora the Explorer, Indiana Jones, Always Pack Tissues, and about 2.5 bajillion tourists have visited the Mayan and Aztec temples 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.
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Imagine stepping back in time to a overgrown, forested temple complex spanning several city blocks. With virtually nothing else but cenotes (sinkholes) around, Ek Balam is a hidden artifact of time known only to those who seek it.
Pathways lead past crumbling structures to a primary temple hundreds of narrow steps high. Thatched palapas shade the outcropped temple structures, which house incredibly well-preserved carvings of jaguars, glyphs, and the story of their people.
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.
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!
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.
If you drive:
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:
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.
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 it first hand in the dense forest of the Yucatan? SO cool. My daughter was excited to see where "Dora lives", so yes this one is also kid friendly.
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".
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.
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. Tickets for entry are purchased by the bathroom sign on the right side of the lot. Tons of souvenir shops and food stalls are available 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. Tours leave from Tulum!
Where Not to Go
Skip Tulum ruins and Chitzen 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 Chitzen Itza this 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 Chitzen 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.