Exploring the Mayan Yucatan (Part 1)

El Castillo, Chichen Itza

With 2012 finally here, and all the “end of the world” folks looking to the Mayan calendar for their predictions, there will likely enhanced interest in the Maya Lands on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.  I have been fortunate enough to have spent a week each of the past 4 years exploring the peninsula, and in that time have happened on some unique sites and photographic opportunities.  The Mayan Yucatan area is large enough to get lost in but fortunately small enough to discover with some depth in a well-planned week.  Below I list some suggestions to make the best use of your time if you travel for 3, 4, or 7 days to this amazing region.

In part one of this blog I will outline the strategies for getting to the best locations and using your time wisely based on my past travels.  In part two I will go unto greater detail about each site I’ve visited, along with what I’ve discovered from an artistic perspective available to photographers.

First, a general word about safety.  While Mexico has a very bad reputation these days in terms of overall safety, especially for tourists, I have had no major difficulties traveling through the Yucatan.  Looking at the map, one will quickly see that this area is physically isolated from Mexico City, the US/Mexico border, and other “hot spots.”  Now, I am not guaranteeing your safety, but I have not felt uncomfortable at any time during my travels, and last year took my teenage daughters with me without any issues.  Hopefully if you make the trip you will have the same experience I have.

Getting to the Yucatan:

The two primary entrance points are through Cancun and Merida.  I have only travelled through Cancun, so I cannot tell you directly about Merida; however, my recommendation is still Cancun based on the geography and ideal travel route regardless of your overall timing and itinerary, unless you only plan to visit Uxmal and the surrounding area.  For all other plans, Cancun provides the best access.

For historical and photographic significance, I would rate the region’s offering in the following order:

  1. Chichen Itza
  2. Uxmal
  3. Tulum
  4. Aktun Chen Caves
  5. Loltun Caves
  6. Puuc Cities near Uxmal
    1. Kabah
    2. Sayil
    3. Labna
  7. Cenote Ditznup
  8. Coba

The following are popular sites that I have not visited and therefore cannot make recommendations about:Ek-Balam


Balankanche caves

With that information, here’s what I would recommend for 3, 4, and 7-day excursions into the Yucatan.  Note that for each of these itineraries I am assuming renting a car – you can certainly visit many sites without one, but I would strongly recommend having a car to make the most out of your adventure and being able to get to the best locations at the best times, not being at the mercy of a tour bus!


7 Days in the Yucatan

Day 1 & 2:  Arrive to Cancun, rent car, drive to Uxmal, and explore the Puuc Cities

The Nunnery Quadrangle at Uxmal

This itinerary makes for a long, not highly scenic first day, but it gets you into position for the rest of the trip, and for that reason I recommend spending the time up front to facilitate the rest of your visit.  The drive is about 5-6 hours from Cancun to Uxmal.

Depending on your arrival that evening, you may have time for a short drive around the surrounding areas – I would not recommend going to Uxmal at that late hour as you will not make it through the ruins and will need to buy an additional ticket for the next day.

Uxmal can easily be fully experienced in 1/2 day, as can the other surrounding Puuc cities Kabah, Sayil, and Labna.  If you want to see Uxmal in the widest range of lighting conditions, you may choose to pay two admissions and spend one morning and one afternoon there on consecutive days.  Using Uxmal as your base, and there are at least two nice places to stay there, including the Hacienda Uxmal (www.mayaland.com) the Loltun caves are the farthest local attraction. I personally found the hacienda very relaxing and the nearby Lodge at Uxmal (across the street near the ruins) the best place to eat.  I have no interests in either of these locations, other than the hope to be able to stay here again :)

the pool and peaceful common grounds at the Hacienda Uxmal

One nice strategy is to drive to Loltun for the first morning tour and then make your way back through Labna, Sayil, and Kabah in that order on your way back to Uxmal.  So, all of these sites, as well as the interesting local village of Santa Elena, can easily be fully explored with a two night stay in Uxmal.

Overview of the grounds at Uxmal, showing the Ball Court (center/left) and the Magician's temple (Upper right)

The grandeur of the Loltun cave

The "restricted" are that every guide take you to see in Loltun :)

Chaac masks (rain god)


Day 3 & 4: Chichen Itza and Surrounding Area.

Chichen Itza

El Castillo, Chichen Itza

The drive from Uxmal to Chichen Itza takes 2-3 hours.  Chichen is by far the most extensive and populated ruin site, so timing is critical to get the most out of your visit here.  As opposed to Uxmal, where I don’t believe two visits are necessary, I would recommend planning for two days in Chichen if possible, one for the morning through early mid-day and the other for mid-day through closing around 5pm.  There is simply so much to see here and it gets very warm if you try to concentrate it into one day.  You must also be aware of the tourist traffic patterns – most individuals visit the site via tours from Cancun and the Riviera Maya, arriving around 10am and departing around 2pm, so the more you can accomplish within the grounds before and after these times, the better!

Iconic columns at the Temple of a Thousand Warriors

Nearby Chichen Itza, you should visit the interesting Ditznup cenote!  Trust the map to get there – at some point you’ll be convinced that you’ve missed it, and you won’t really believe you are there until you actually climb down the walkway into the cenote’s opening.

Cenote Ditznup

Also nearby are the Balanchanche caves, which I have not visited but would recommend considering during your time there, as well as the recently discovered ruins at Ek-Balam.  Caves, cenotes, and swimming or relaxing in your villa are nice afternoon activities, as this area is quite warm all year round.


Day 5: The Road to Tulum

Leaving early from Chichen Itza, you travel through the first Spanish Colony in the region, Valladolid, to the ruins in Coba.  This extensive site is quite different from the others in that it is still predominantly forestland, with only small clearings around the major structures.  The very best way to see this area is on bike – rentals are cheap and right at the entrance.  you can ride to within short walking distance of all the major sites, and it really is the only way to really see all of the sites – the grounds are otherwise too spread out for a reasonable walk.  While the sties are of historical interest, photographic opportunities are more challenging here due to the heavy overgrowth, and the ruins are in a greater state of disrepair here than the other locations.  I have found 2 hours about right for visiting Coba.

Ball Court at Coba


From Coba it is on to Tulum.  The total travel time from Chichen to Tulum is less than 3 hours of driving, with Coba less than one hour from Tulum.  From Coba you will arrive in teh “city” of Tulum, and the ruins will be to the north a short distance.  Tulum has a completely different feel from the other locations, being on the water and without any jungle surrounding it.  It is also quite compact, and 1/2 afternoon is more than adequate.  Further, due to Tulum’s location, afternoon light appears better than morning light, so if you are not too tired, this same afternoon is the best for your time in Tulum.

El Castillo at Tulum


The beach at Tulum

I have not visited the Sian Ka’an Nature reserve, but depending on your interests, this might be a great excursion for day 6.  Otherwise, begin heading up the coast

Day 6: Aktun Chen Caves and the Riviera Maya

Aktun Chen Cave

Aktun Chen caves are relatively recently discovered, and opposed to all other sties I’ve mentioned, they are privately owned and commercially operated.  Therefore, photographic opportunities are harder to come by here, but if you get the right “conditions” they are spectacular!

I recommend getting there first thing in the morning, or possibly as the last customer of the day, when the number of customers will be the smallest, and with any luck you may be able to get your own private tour with a guide and your own small group.  Tours are with guide only in the caves.  A tripod is absolutely essential in the caves but allegedly not allowed “by law” – however, this can usually be overcome if you ask nicely and tip your private guide.  The rock formations here are incredible and the cenote at the end of the cave tour is a photographic gem if the guide turns on the appropriate lights and you have enough time.  I have had good luck here, and found not only guides allowing me to use my tripod but also guides amenable to allowing me to direct the lighting scenarios in the cenote.  I absolutely recommend generously tipping any guide that allows you to use a tripod, not only because your personal photos will be well worth it, but also because it is likely to reinforce the behavior for the guides in the future!

Cenote in Aktun Chen

The cave tour will take less than two hours.  After that, the rest of your trip will consist of a leisurely drive up the Riviera Maya and outside the reaches of the Mayan ruins.  Between you and Cancun lie Playa del Carmen, the island of Cozumel, and aquatic theme parks such as Xcaret and Xel-Ha.  You could easily spend up to ten days in the region of you choose to add these sites to your visit, but these are outside the realm of the Mayan ruins and the scope of this blog. For this photographic adventure, day 6 concludes in Cancun.

Day 7: Depart for Home


Four Days in The Yucatan:

Three and Four day itineraries are based on the above-mentioned sites.

For the four-day whirlwind tour, you could conceivably drive from Cancun to Uxmal on day one, see Uxmal on the morning of day 2 and then drive to Chichen Itza for the afternoon.  The morning of Day 3 you could revisit Chichen Itza before the tour busses arrive and then drive to Tulum for the afternoon.  Day four would begin in Aktun Chen Caves and then the less than 2-hour drive to Cancun where you would depart home.  While possible, this would make for a very busy itinerary!

A more reasonable approach would be to exclude Uxmal from your travels, instead arriving in Cancun and traveling to Chichen Itza on day one.  This would allow for an afternoon in the ruins.  Day 2 could then include morning at Chichen and the rest of the day at any of the other local sites.   Day three would include the drive to Tulum, passing through Coba and ending in Tulum for the afternoon light.  Day four begins in the Aktun Chen caves and ends in Cancun for the flight home.

Three Days in the Yucatan:

In three days, Uxmal must be excluded from your itinerary, and all other locations must be more condensed.  Day one would include arrival in Cancun and travel to Chichen Itza, ideally seeing the ruins in the afternoon.  Day two would begin in Chichen Itza, likely taking another look at these ruins (you do not want to miss Chichen in any travel plan to the Yucatan) and then traveling to Coba, seeing what is available to you while being mindful to leave 3 hours for Tulum in the afternoon.  Day three would then begin with Aktun Chen caves and end in Cancun for your travels home.

So, armed with this information, enjoy your travels, plan your time appropriately, and good shooting!

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