Day Tripping From Playa del Carmen: An Ultimate Mayan Encounter
There are infinite reasons why I am infatuated with life in the Rivera Maya. The top being that quite often, an ordinary day turns into something extraordinary. One does not have to travel far to come face to face with natural beauty so riveting that it’s impossible to capture in a photo. There is so much to see and do in Playa del Carmen’s backyard, that for everyone adventure that is crossed off my bucket list, ten others are added. The more I discover, the more I am compelled to share with others, the hundreds of marvelous encounters to be had in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Whether you are traveling with friends, family or as a couple, I highly recommend this incredible, full-day trip. The journey begins at Playa del Carmen, continues on to the ancient Mayan city of Ek’ Balam, then through the Hubiku cenote park, with a final stop at the colonial town of Valladolid. Aim to start out early in the day because time flies when you’re having fun! You will be so hooked after the first stop that you will not want to miss any of the ensuing attractions on this intriguing cultural adventure.
Who will love this day trip?
Throughout the magical day, you will have the opportunity to climb the 115 steps of the well-preserved remains of a Mayan temple, swim in the intense turquoise waters of a cenote sinkhole, and tour a centuries-old convent and colonial cathedral in the Pueblo Magico, Valladolid.
Hiking a lofty temple might sound daunting, however, we were joined by fellow climbers of every age. A father held the hand of his two-year-old son and retired seniors did well to make it to the top and enjoy the breathtaking views. Life jackets are available at the cenote swimming hole so the cool waters can be tested at any age, regardless if you know how to swim or not.
That being said, the experience lasts from eight to ten hours, which may be long for young children. The hiking portion might not be suitable for parents traveling with infants. As for the rest of the day trip, people of all ages will appreciate the historical and cultural aspects of this special Mexican expedition.
The best scenario is to rent a vehicle if you are temporarily visiting the Mayan Riviera. If you prefer not to drive yourself, there are a few ways to get from Playa del Carmen to the Temozon/Valladolid area.
Driving through the Yucatan Peninsula is very safe and enjoyable. Before the construction of the 305-toll highway, you could tack on an extra hour to get from Playa del Carmen to Valladolid or Merida. Believe me, the toll fees are welcomed as it means you can avoid driving through some of the small towns and their endless string of ‘Topes.’ These dreadful speed bumps pop up every 100 meters within a pueblito and increase your drive time (not to mention scatter parts of your vehicle across the road if you’re not paying attention!)
Having a car rental is an ideal way to explore the Riviera Maya and area. Personally, we have had good experiences with Hertz on the south end of 10th Avenue in Playa del Carmen or booking through Orbitz.com.
There are also several reputable private van services that allow you to customize an itinerary. If you have a group of four or more, a private van tour is the way to go. You can split the cost and have a personal chauffeur willing to stop whenever and wherever you like along the route. A flat rate is determined at the time of the booking and usually beverages and sometimes snorkel gear are included.
A third option is to take the ADO bus to Valladolid from Playa del Carmen, which costs roughly $10 USD one-way. From Valladolid, you will need to take a taxi to Ek Balam and Cenote Hubiku. The current bus schedule shows the final bus from Valladolid to Playa del Carmen leaving at 8:40 pm.
This ancient city, meaning ‘Black Jaguar’ is the least visited of its neighboring Mayan cities of Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Coba. We arrived at 10 am and found the impressive site very tranquil with just a few other explorers amongst us.
One of the things we appreciated was that many of the native trees we hear about in this region, but do not easily recognize, bore a sign with their name on them. The fascinating duo of good versus evil, known as the Chechem and Chaka trees, grow side by side in the Central American jungle. The Chechem releases a toxic sap that when in contact with human skin, produces a flaming rash. However, the bark of the nearby Chaka provides the antidote.
Another marked tree was the Baalche, from which Mayans, still to this day, make the ceremonial (and mildly intoxicating) balche wine.
The first interesting structure on the site is a pointed archway erected next to the remnants of a sac-be (elevated Mayan road) that was once connected to Coba and Chichen Itza.
We learned that Ek’ Balam was inhabited for approximately 1000 years and may have been occupied as early as 100-300 BC. The initial major excavation work only began in 1985 and uncovered, not the highest, but certainly one of the Mayan civilization’s most splendid works – The Acropolis. The notable temple is 160 meters long, 70 meters wide and has a height of 31 meters. Archaeologists discovered 72 rooms within the structure, one containing the tomb of the city’s former ruler Ukit Kan Le’k Tok.
Intricate carvings two-thirds of the way up The Acropolis have revealed what is said to be a monstrous jaguar standing guard at the entrance. In the middle of the site are The Twins. The structures showcase carved pillars, which the Maya used to erect to commemorate important dates or events. The hieroglyphics on one of the pillars depict Ukit Kan Le’k Tok with his massive headdress.
Although 12 square kilometers of this ancient city have been mapped, only the central ceremonial square, about 1 square mile, can be viewed. A kilometer and a half from the site is the beautiful X’Canche cenote. You can rent a bicycle or get a ride on a tricycle, also referred to as a ‘Mayan limousine.’
There is a separate fee for X’Canche, but the cool waters are inviting after trekking the grounds of Ek’ Balam. You can enjoy the scenic view of the lush jungle and the mystical atmosphere from a bridge that is suspended above the cenote. If you dare, summon the courage of your inner child, and swing from the rope or zip line into the natural pool.
What to know:
- Parking is free.
- General admission is $211.00 MXN pesos for adults, $70.00 for children 4-12, $144.00 for Mexican residents and $70.00 for locals. The ticket office accepts cash only and is open from 8 am – 4 pm daily.
- Visitors are allowed to climb the structures. Bring your camera and good walking shoes. The steps are steep and can be smooth and slippery in some places.
- There is a modest Mayan souvenir area. The people are friendly and not aggressive with their sales pitches. Also on the premises is a convenience store selling snacks and beverages.
- You can find plenty of shade on the grounds under one of the many giant Ceiba trees, or sacred ‘Trees of Life’ in the Mayan belief system.
- Guides are available for $500-$600 pesos, but there is a chance that price is up for negotiation. Don’t be afraid to ask if there is a promotion on that day.
If you choose a rental, take Luis Donaldo Colasio, which passes the green superstore Bodega Aurrera heading west out of Playa del Carmen. This road turns into the 305 Federal Highway. It is well maintained and turns into 2 lanes in each direction not long after you have exited Playa. The road is lined with thick jungle brush. Pay close attention because often you will see a tarantula or maybe even a spider monkey attempt to cross the highway.
Follow the Merida Cuota sign, which veers to the right. You will come upon the tollbooth where you will be required to pay a fee of $250 – $270 pesos ($15USD) for a small to mid-size vehicle. From here, you will take the Tizimin exit to Highway 295. Just before the town of Temozon is an agave field, the spiky plants that tequila comes from. On the main road in town, you can grab a delicious empanada or stop at a taco stand to try some authentic Mexican food.
Continue on this principal road and at the outskirts of the town, you will see Cenote Hubiku on the right. We chose to go on to the archaeological site of Ek’ Balam first before it got too hot in the day. It is about a 5-minute drive further, down an unpaved road, but there is good signage. Go straight until the dead end, which is Ek’ Balam parking lot.
Hubiku Cenote and Park
Next on the itinerary: Hubiku, a picturesque tropical oasis 5 kilometers before Ek’ Balam. Within this delightful treasure is Mayan village exhibiting gardens bursting with vibrant, native blooms. Also, on the colorful and serene property, are a mostly enclosed cenote, a tequila museum, hammocks, a beverage station, a gift shop, and a buffet hall.
This is not your basic cenote visit. The Mayan welcome you receive is exceptionally warm, the grounds are expansive and in impeccable condition. An entrance fee of $250 MXN pesos for foreign visitors, $200 for locals and 50% off for children 10 and under includes a buffet lunch, a tequila tasting, a dip in the cenote and lifejackets.
The buffet features a variety of tender meat options, including a traditional Yucatecan slow-cooked, pulled pork dish called cochinita pibil. For sides, there is rice, pasta, baby potatoes, mashed potatoes with gravy and steamed vegetables. The salad bar presents delicious cold pasta and green salads, coleslaw, as well as sliced fresh fruit, baguettes and dinner rolls. At the end of the plentiful buffet table, desserts such as typical Mexican Tres Leche cakes, cookies and jellos are on display for lunch guests to sample.
The wait staff, in fact, the entire league of park employees we met, was more than personable and willing to share their knowledge, which made our visit a highly pleasurable experience. In the middle of our meal, a couple came out to do a cultural Mexican dance. All of a sudden, the music played louder over the speakers and in waltzed a woman in a white dress with flowers in her hair, balancing a tray of drinks on her head. A man joined her with a beer bottle positioned carefully on his, and they proceeded to dance gracefully around the entire banquet room.
Lunch was followed by a tequila tour where we were given a brief introduction to the history of tequila and how it is produced. Inside the store, the adults in our group had a chance to try at least 10 varieties of tequila including such flavors as coffee, peanut, coconut, and the most common types white, añejo and reposado. The white was strong enough to ignite a campfire, while the café was my favorite.
We then proceeded eagerly to the second cenote of the day. Following a winding gravel path to a staircase heading underground, we came upon one of the top three most incredible cenotes I have seen in the Yucatan Peninsula. As I descended the stairs to Hubiku, my jaw dropped when I reached the main platform. Out of the roof of the immense cave was a small opening that allowed just enough sunlight through to illuminate the breathtaking swimming hole, highlighting its clear, almost emerald-colored, waters.
Lifejackets and lockers are available, but you must bring your own lock. We set our beach bags in a corner and dove in. Floating on my back and looking up towards the natural light filtering in against the limestone formations left me with feelings of complete peace and utter awe. The exhilarating swim within this thousand-year-old cavern was definitely a high point of a day packed with memorable moments.
But the magical encounters did not end there. The grand finale of our day trip was a visit to Valladolid, about 12 kilometers from Temozon. This small colonial city, with its rich history and natural beauty, was given the status of one of the country’s 112 Pueblos Magicos, or Magical Towns, in 2012.
Valladolid was constructed in 1545 on the Mayan village of Zaci. This town is said to be where the spark of the revolution that ignited the Caste War took place. A monument just outside the downtown core is dedicated to the six, young, local heroes who bravely fought off the US Army at the Castle of Chapultepec in Mexico City, to their death.
In the center of Valladolid, is a picturesque square with park benches and a fountain at its heart. The bustling Parque Francisco Canton presents the perfect chance to get a taste of the Mexican life. There are vendors selling ice cream and marquesitas (crispy nutella and cheese crepes typical in the Yucatan.) Residents catch a break from the piercing sun under the shade of the massive trees throughout the scenic plaza. On the streets surrounding the park, are multi-hued hotels, shops as well as the towering Cathedral de San Gervasio.
There is a story circulating of the church’s dark past. During the 19th century revolt of Mayan natives against the Spanish hacienda owners, Mayan landowners and their families, who had taken refuge inside of the cathedral, were found and massacred. The church is said to have a curse on it because of the bloodied bodies that covered the floor all the way to the altar.
Valladolid is a very small, walkable city with many charming artisan shops and restored mansions that have been converted into hotels and restaurants. There is also a museum with the largest collection of privately owned Mexican folk art called La Casa de Los Venados.
Before leaving one of Mexico’s most friendly cities, a visit to the Convent de San Bernardino de Siena is a must. Construction of the building was completed in 1560 and features finely carved altarpieces as well as a long row of exterior archways in its frontal façade. In addition to housing the evangelical Franciscan Friars, the convent also once contained the cell that held the famous pirate Lorencillos.
What you should know about the Convent de San Bernardino:
- There is an entrance fee to the former convent of $50 pesos
- A free, historical video mapping show takes place each night, in Spanish at 9 pm and in English at 9:30 pm on the outside wall of the convent
- Opens daily from 8 am – 7 pm
- The most advanced water wheel of its time sits in the well in the garden at the back of the property
This easy day trip from Playa del Carmen is an experience you and your travel companions will not soon forget. With historical and cultural components and a perfect mix of adventure, this unique, mini getaway is an ideal way to spend a day in the Riviera Maya.