Mayan sites that are accessible to all
Touring the ancient Mayan ruins in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is one of those things that seems to make it onto everyone’s bucket list.
Roaming the grounds at one of these sites, you may notice a lot of ramps next to or in place of steps. Or you may not notice because they are subtle and made to blend in with their surroundings.
The Mexican government has gone to great lengths to make the 1,500 year old Mayan ruins (at least at the largest and most popular sites) easy for tourists of all abilities to visit. And they managed to do it all without detracting from the archeological significance or sheer beauty of any of the sites.
Obviously, Mayan ruins are such that some places are more accessible than others but it’s truly impressive how easy much of it is to get to and see, even for those who get around with the aid of a wheelchair or walker.
The most popular sites have guides available for hire who will escort visitors and explain the history and significance of the structures. At the larger sites you can even rent a bicycle or hire someone to chauffeur you around on a three-wheeled bike with a padded bench on the front.
Hiring a guide is inexpensive. For instance, a bicycle chauffeur at Cobá will cost MXN$120 pesos (about US$7).
You might think that, like modern cities, all are more or less the same. However many Mayan sites are very different from one another. For instance:
- Tulúm is on the beach and feels like a tropical resort; almost surreal in its beauty.
- Cobá is already being reclaimed by jungle and feels very wild.
- Uxmal gets very few tourists so you feel like you have the place all to yourself.
- Chichén Itzá is most famous, largest and most impressive in terms of size and scale.
If You Go
Tulúm is the site closest to Cancun so it’s a prime stop on the tour bus circuit. The park opens at 8am. Crowds triple in the hour between 9am – 10am so it pays to get there as early as possible. Being a small site, you can see it in an hour if you breeze through. Two hours is generally plenty of time to see it all at a more relaxed pace since there are no large pyramids at Tulúm like at the other prime Mayan sites.
Chichén Itzá is the most famous of all the Mayan sites. As such it’s also on the tour bus circuit and draws large crowds. Fortunately, the grounds are so vast that it only feels crowded at the very busiest times of year. At less busy times, getting around should be quite easy.
The site is a 90 minute drive from either Cancun or Mérida and it can take two hours or more to see everything there. Plan for an all day trip.
Cobá is slightly off the beaten path, essentially about midway between Tulúm and Chichén Itzá, but still draws some tour buses. This site is also quite vast, with some 14km (~6mi) of trails. Hiring a bicycle guide or renting a bicycle (both are available on site and are inexpensive) is a good idea. Cobá is very spread out. Allow at least a couple of hours if using a bike, more if staying on foot.
Tourists can climb the giant pyramid at Cobá. There is a large rope running the height of the stairs for those who desire a bit more stability or something to grab onto. One hour is enough time for most people to see all the major structures and even climb the great pyramid, if they choose. (The largest central structures are closed to climbing at the more popular sites like Tulúm and Chichén Itzá but still open at some of the less visited sites like Cobá and Uxmal.)
Uxmal is the farthest from Cancun but is only 30 minutes from Mérida. Very few tour buses go there so it will feel like you have the place to yourself. There are many interesting structures to explore so allow at least two hours.
Tourists can’t climb the large central Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal but can climb the even larger Great Pyramid behind it. Tourists can also climb and even enter the Governor’s Palace as well as many other parts of the site.
While exchange rates can fluctuate daily, as of Spring 2016 it hovered around MXN$17 = US$1. Some vendors may be as generous as 19:1 and a few may only offer 16:1 but the vast majority stick with the official published rate.
The souvenir shops at Uxmal are a relatively stately, dignified bunch with no vendors lining the sidewalks trying to pressure tourists into buying their wares. Uxmal also has the most upscale souvenirs.
While you’ll find similar souvenirs at the other three sites, there is some variability in design and considerable variability in price. An obsidian necklace at Cobá might cost MXN$350 pesos. A similar necklace at Tulúm (though perhaps with a slightly different design), might sell for MXN$1,500 pesos.
Similarly, vendors at both Tulúm and Chichén Itzá are happy to take either pesos or dollars but the ones at Cobá take only pesos. Tulúm, Chichén Itzá and Uxmal all have the option of paying with credit or debit card but those at Cobá are cash only.
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