Beyond Chichen Itza: Exploring the Yucatan's Hidden Gems at Ek Balam and Coba Mayan Ruins
Updated: 6 days ago
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 these two off the beaten path temple complexes versus their better known (and super crowded) counterparts. These hidden gems of the Yucatan offer travelers a break from the crowds, a glimpse into the area's ancient past, and let's be honest - some really cool "Apocalypto" vibes.
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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. 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.
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. 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.
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?