Exploring Maya Ruins on a Road Trip through Mexico

After decades of exploring Maya ruins, we found that there is no better way to explore them during a short vacation than through a road trip through Mexico. Visiting ancient Maya sites is the main reason we kept returning to the Yucatan Peninsula and its touristy Riviera, but we were ready for a longer trip.

Once upon a time, we enjoyed other things, there, too, like the beaches and cenotes. Nowadays it’s harder and harder to find any of them not overrun by tourists. On the other hand, we can still visit Maya ruins where we can be alone with the ancient stones. And we see many of them during one week or ten days, if we plan a road trip through Mexico.

We Flew into Cancun on the First Day of the Year

Since we flew into Cancun the previous year, at the same time, and had the plane almost all to ourselves, we thought we should repeat the trip. But we booked for January 1st, instead of December 31st.

The difference between traveling on December 31st and January 1st was like night and day. As we found out – the hard way – everyone seems to travel on the first day of the year. As opposed to no one on the last day. The plane was fully booked- probably overbooked – and delayed a few hours…

But we made it, and it wasn’t dark yet when we arrived to Cancun. More crowded than we liked it, we still got through the car rental in a relatively decent time, and we were ready for adventures on our longest road trip through Mexico.

Leaving the coast and the touristy Maya Riviera was our plan for the long run, as we meant to visit Maya ruins from Xel-Ha in Quintana Roo all the way to Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas. For the first night though, we couldn’t get farther than Playa del Carmen.

By the time we got there, we haven’t eaten a meal all day, gotten through crowds in airports, waiting for the rental car, and none of us had any desire to search for a place to eat dinner at. Instead, we looked for the hotel we booked. When we noticed a grocery store on our way, we stopped to stock up on food for the week.

Then stocked up for the road trip in the Super Che store

The Super Che, the best-known Mexican major grocery store, was right by the hotel, but we had to drive around in circles to get there. Like everything else in Playa,it was crowded. Tired, hungry and annoyed, we tried to navigate the crowds and narrow aisles to find things we needed – or wanted.

By the time we got to the bakery, we started piling everything on our tray. Baked goods look like heaven when you’re hungry.

But I am trying to keep my family healthy, even on the road. When I noticed a section where you could order cooked food and sit down for a meal, I walked over with the girls. Few people were there; It was a tiny island of quiet in a huge and busy store. We ordered what they still had, chicken tacos Yucatecan style (that just means Pollo pibil and tortillas). Four of us ate dinner for 3USD, and it was a good meal. And enough. When done, we all felt better.

Now shopping didn’t seem like such a terrible chore, though getting late and the crowds thinning might have had something to do with it, too. But I still found something to worry about. Naturally.

This time, I worried about plastic bags. They still had the usual single-use plastic bags, like in the US. Though we had our own backpack to carry our groceries, I worried about making myself understood with my minimal Spanish. I have a tendency to stress when I don’t have the right words to communicate.

I worried for nothing. The lady who was bagging understood me and we walked out of there with no plastic bags. Little things like this make me happy. We also had groceries for the week and we only spent about 40USD. I was starting to feel like I always do in Mexico. Happy. Relaxed. Ready for adventure, for our longest (so far) road trip through Mexico.

The first stretch of our road trip through Mexico was a long one

In the morning we set off on our road trip through Mexico. We didn’t know how far we would go and had plans to stop in many places along the way. But things never work as planned in Mexico – that’s why our plans are so loose, they can change at a drop of a hat.

We planned to stop in Tulum, then revisit the Maya ruins of Muyil.

We Skipped a stop at both Tulum and Muyil

Tulum was so crowded, we drove through without stopping. We thought we would stop in Muyil and revisit the ruins instead.

But even that site was full. Since we didn’t find a parking lot, we drove on. To be fair, the parking lot at Muyil is not that big, but we’ve never seen it full before.

Our plan for the next stop was Bacalar. I love this town on the shore of the lagoon of seven colors (Laguna de Siete Colores). Not only beautiful but quiet, with few tourists. At least that’s how I remembered it.

Bacalar was no longer a quiet spot

Filled with tourists, Bacalar was annoying. We planned to spend a night there, but we didn’t even feel like stopping, so we drove on. Since it was lunch-time, we thought we would eat at the Cenote Azul and take a break, then drive on and stay the night at Escarcega. We all had fond memories of Cenote Azul, just outside of Bacalar.

Once again, we couldn’t find a parking spot. Tour buses, cars of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and people constantly walking in-and-out made it difficult for us to even drive into the parking lot. And then we found no spots at all. We waited for someone to leave, but after a few minutes, it was clear that no one was walking out. Disappointed, we turned around and left without even getting out of the car, and kept driving.

We bypassed Síiyil Noh-Ha

Though we love Síiyil Noh-Ha, we decided against going down the dirt road leading to it. We’ve been there recently, and we wanted to get to Palenque on this trip. So we drove on, past Chan Santa Cruz, to Escarcega. We made it there by early afternoon, just after 2 pm.

But took a short break in Escarcega

We stopped for a bathroom break at a stall of a street vendor. Since we were hungry and didn’t know when we would stop again, we also ate there. Well, at least some of us did.

I can say now I ate street food in a local town, where no tourists go, in Campeche. Maybe it wouldn’t have passed US sanitary standards, but it was tasty good food. We got two meals for one US dollar, we enjoyed it and none of us got sick from it.

Sitting there, with the lady who did not understand a word of English, looking at us like we dropped from outer space, I felt at home. This was the Mexico I remembered and loved.

But we had no reason to stay in Escarcega. Considering how early it was in the day, we realized that we could make it to Palenque by dinnertime.

Then we were off to Palenque

We drove on. By the time we stopped, we covered about 830 km (570 miles) in one day. It didn’t even seem so long; the roads were better than I remembered.

The modern town of Palenque surprised me

The town of Palenque was nothing I imagined. Crowded and noisy, with traffic everywhere, I couldn’t wait to leave it. Still, it is a beautiful town, one of the Mexican “magical” towns.

We turned on the road towards the ruins. Since it was late in the day, after the ruins closed, this part of the town was quieter. Hotels flanked the road on both sides, one promising to be a bigger resort than the other. We had to choose one but kept driving.

Finally, we noticed one restaurant on the side of the road, that looked quiet, with no one there. We stopped, just to get out of the car, eat dinner, and decide where we would stay.

When we looked around, we realized that behind the restaurant they also had a small hotel. It was empty, with no guests, so we rented a room. Though it had a pool we didn’t it since it was late in the day and winter. But as the stars came out, we walked around it and enjoyed the view of the Milky Way, the Celestial Monster of the Maya World.

In the morning the sound of scarlet macaws woke me up. I noticed many of them flying around, and a pair of them were perched in the tree in front of our room.

Scarlet macaws in Palenque
Scarlet macaws in front of our hotel in Palenque

The archaeological site of Palenque was the highlight of the trip so far

We were some of the first people to enter the Classic Maya ruins of Palenque.

A UNESCO World Heritage Place, the ancient city was as spectacular as I imagined it. I’ve been reading about Palenque since I first got interested in the ancient Maya civilization, over two decades ago. To be there, in the middle of it was a dream come true.

Though we couldn’t enter the pyramid where they discovered Pacal’s tomb, we stopped in front of it. With the girls as our audience, we talked about the stories we knew about one of the greatest known rulers of the ancient Maya world.

We walked through jungle paths leading to smaller buildings, filled with ancient artwork in stone. The site itself is not as large as I imagined; It’s not the size, but the artwork and architecture that makes Palenque famous.

The Temple of the Inscriptions, the tomb-monument of the famous Maya ruler, Pacal.
The Temple of the Inscriptions, the tomb-monument of the famous Maya ruler, Pacal.

We spent most of our time exploring the Palace, the focus point of the site. Its rooms surround a few internal courtyards, decorated with low-relief carvings and sculptures.

We walked down to the Queen’s bath, a beautiful waterfall in the jungle, and explored every structure at the site.

On the way out we stopped at the museum on site. Though Pacal’s tomb is a replica, it is still impressive to see, and the jade mask of the Red Queen is the original and looks like the one they found on Pacal.

Visiting Bonampak was an adventure

Since we made it to Palenque, we also felt we had to seeBonampak. Ever since I first read about the Maya, this small site has always fascinated me, because of the frescoes, found intact, in some of its rooms.

Bonampak mural
One of the famous Bonampak frescoes.

Though it is not far from Palenque, the road to Bonampak was much longer than we expected. Driving through a narrow, twisty-turny road through the Lacandon forest and small settlements with multiple topes, the road was tiring.

Thanks to a speedy taxi-driver, who drove us from the spot we had to leave our cars, we made it to the ruins an hour before closing time.

That hour was enough to visit the site and look into the famous rooms with the paintings. They were as amazing as I imagined them.

We even spent a night in a Lacandon cabana

When we returned to the taxi, we asked our driver if he could recommend any hotels in the area. Though we planned to spend the night at Frontera Corozal, where we would take a boat to Yaxchilan the next day, it was getting late and we didn’t know what to expect on the road. He told us about some cabanas about one km from the crossroads.

We ended up in a Lacandon Maya family’s backyard, where they had a few rooms in their own separate buildings set up. They called them “Cabanas de Jaguares”, and we reached them by driving on a dirt track in the forest.

Our cabana in a Lacandon family's backyard.
Our cabana in a Lacandon family’s backyard.

Though rustic, the cabin had two rooms with beds each and a bathroom with shower. They even made us dinner, and we slept surrounded by their chickens and a rooster who kept thinking it was morning every two hours through the night, a kitten and a dog, besides the natural environment of the jungle.

The best part of the trip was the boat ride to Yaxchilan

Early the next morning we were on the road to the town of Frontera Corozal, on the shores of the Usumacinta River, where we took a boat to another Classic Maya ruin, Yaxchilan.

We rode on the Usumacinta river on a narrow boat that could accommodate up to ten people, but since we were there before they even opened the stalls, we hired the first one ready to go over to the ruins. A mother with her child was waiting on the shore for the first boat that would go over to the ruins. They got in with us, bringing in food and drinks to sell at the ruins.

Boatride on the Usumacinta River, to Yaxchilan
Boatride on the Usumacinta River, to Yaxchilan

The boat-ride on the Usumacinta, the longest river of Central America, lasted about 40 minutes. It was a quiet and misty morning on the river that separates Chiapas, Mexico, from Guatemala. On both sides of the river, in both countries, all we passed was the jungle.

When we arrived at Yaxchilan, we still only saw the jungle from the river. The boat waited two hours for us, enough time to explore the ruins.

Exploring the ruins of Yaxchilan was unforgettable

The farthest point on our itinerary, Yaxchilan was also the highlight of our trip. During the Classic Period of the Maya civilization, this city was one of the most important centers in the Usumacinta region.

As beautiful and impressive as it is, the site’s main attraction for us was its remoteness.

Yaxchilan, still hidden in the lush jungle of Chiapas.
Yaxchilan, still hidden in the lush jungle of Chiapas.

In the early morning, we were the only visitors to the site. Exotic birds flew above our heads, bats and huge spiders watched us as we crossed through their territory in the buildings, and howler monkeys screamed at us from the canopy above.

Mesmerized, I was watching them, listening to their howls, until my daughter told me I should move, unless I wanted them to pee on me. I didn’t believe they would, but just in case, and to prove to them I didn’t want to take over their territory, I moved on.

The two hours were just enough time to get through all the structures. On the way out, I bought fresh coconut pieces from the Maya woman coming on the boat with us on the way in. No vendors with tourist junk showed up at the site.

A small group was entering the site as we were leaving, but still, no other tourists. Though while we were riding the boat back, we met up with a few others, who were just taking visitors to the site.

Then we drove back to Palenque

We drove back to Palenque for the night. After all our adventures, we felt we deserved a stay in a resort-style hotel, and we found one where only locals seemed to go. We relaxed in the pool, and walked through a small jungle path, following a few agoutis.

Relaxing by the pool in Palenque during our road trip through Mexico
Relaxing by the pool in Palenque

Scarlet macaws and other parrots were flying above our heads while we sat by the pool, enjoying a few hours of quiet.

Balamkú was the next stop on our road trip through Mexico

After a brief stop in Escarcega, at the Super Che, we already knew from a previous trip, to stack up on provisions, we drove on until we reached the Maya ruins of Balamkú.

Stucco facade inside a building in Balamkú
Stucco facade inside a building in Balamkú

It wasn’t our first time here, but we still enjoyed the visit.

A relatively small site, Balamkú features one of the most beautiful ancient Mayan stucco facades. Discovered as recently as 1990, it is enclosed in one of the ancient buildings. Locked, the site caregiver was happy to unlock it and show us in. It was our second time at these Rio Bec style ruins, but it was different this time. The late afternoon sun illuminated the stucco frieze from another angle than the early morning last time we visited, on our way out from Calakmul.

Then explored Becán

Leaving Balamkú, we skipped Calakmul, and we drove on to Becán. Here, we could even climb a tall pyramid, and walk through a few other structures.

On the tallest pyramid in Becán
On the tallest pyramid in Becán

The stucco-frieze I like most here, at this site is behind a window, covered with a large picture of the same frieze. Even looking under the photo, the strong afternoon sun was shining right on it, so I couldn’t see much.

We even found the hidden Hormiguero

Late in the day, we drove over to the little-known site, hidden in the jungle, Hormiguero. After driving through a few small Mayan towns, we got to a dirt track leading to the ruins. When we encountered another small van coming out, we had to drive backward to a wider area, to let them pass, or we could not fit the two cars on the narrow track.

Hormiguero structure.
Hormiguero structure.

We got there before closing time, and once again, we were the only visitors. Spider monkeys watched us as we explored this site, another one built in Rio Bec style. The gate was closed when we were leaving; we had to wait for the site caretaker to open it for us so we could leave.

Spending the night in Xpujil offered an unexpected opportunity

We stopped for the night in the town of Xpujil, the only town in the area with all these ruins. While there, my husband asked around to see if anyone would take us to the Rio Bec ruins. We knew they were still in the middle of the jungle, inaccessible by car.

We were lucky, by next morning we found a guide who even spoke English, a Maya, a direct descendant of one of the ancient families of the region.

Our jungle adventure visiting the Maya Ruins of Rio Bec

By the time we finished breakfast the next morning and were ready to go, our guide showed up at the hotel. He told us he could take us in if we had about four or five hours and would drive in the jungle on quads.

Exploring ruins in the jungle. Rio Bec and other, unexcavated ones.
Exploring ruins in the jungle. Rio Bec and other, unexcavated ones.

We couldn’t say no to that offer, so we set off to his village, a small Maya settlement on the outskirts of the jungle, and after he got gas in the quads, and made arrangements to bring his nephew for help, we set off on our jungle adventure, that turned out one of the best times we ever had in Mexico. We visited not only Rio Bec, but a few other sites buried in the jungle, not yet excavated while learning about plants and animals of the forest.

For the night, we stopped at a roadside hotel

By the time we got out of the jungle, it was already dinner time. We ate in Xpujil and drove. We planned to make it to Bacalar for the night.

But it was getting late, and when we noticed a small hotel on the side of the road, we stopped.

In the family’s yard, it had three rooms completed, though it looked like they were building a few more. The old Maya lady who lived there opened them all for me, and let me choose the one I liked best.

They all had two beds with crisp clean sheets and a bathroom, with shower and hot water. The 600 pesos she charged translated to $20 USD. After I paid her, and we settled in, she came over and knocked on our door. She gave me back 100 pesos, telling me we overpaid. Maya honesty and hospitality.

Chickens In the yard of a small road side hotel
In the yard of the little hotel, with the chickens

We spent time with her chickens and the two roosters and watched them settle for the night, as it was getting dark. No one has to tell the chickens to go to bed; when the sun sets, they quiet down and walk into their coop. Though next to the highway, we still had a quiet night and good sleep.

Couldn’t skip the ruins of Kohunlich with its stucco masks

Since we stayed in the area, we decided that we had time for one more site, and drove back to Kohunlich, a site we haven’t seen in years.

This site is larger than some others in the area, but it still doesn’t get crowded, at least in the mornings. We were the only visitors when we entered, early in the morning. They were just opening it, and told us to go in, and pay on the way out…

Kohunlich. The Temple of the Masks
Kohunlich. The Temple of the Masks

An impressive site all around, with tall and elaborate buildings, its highlight is the Temple of the Masks, where the main stairway is flanked by masks on both sides. Covered by a palapa roof, they are protected, but you can walk up to the top of the pyramid-temple and look at them while you climb.

Back on the Maya Riviera

Again, the closer we got to the stretch designated as Maya Riviera, the more crowds we encountered. But we planned to stop at the beach in Si’an Ka’an. We always set aside a few days for the beach when we go to Yucatan.

But to reach Si’an Ka’an we had to drive through Tulum. This once small town, one of my old favorites, is no place for people like us anymore. Overcrowded, overrun by tourists, it is a nightmare to even drive through. I can’t imagine how the locals feel – those who lived there for more than a decade. I know it’s a major destination, and everyone’s favorite, so those who enjoy it, don’t let me talk you out. But for me, I feel like crying when I have to drive through it.

Still, all we had to do is to drive through, and once we reached the preserve, we could always find a deserted beach to get in the water and sit on the white, powdery sand you can only find on this coast.

Driving through Tulum was a nightmare

This time we couldn’t do it. After spending over an hour driving less than a few miles through the hotel-resort area of Tulum, we gave up and turned around. We were sitting in traffic, in the narrow road, between the boutique hotels, resorts, restaurants, filled with people who looked like movie-stars, not one local other than the workers.

We drove a few feet, stopped, waited, drove another few feet, then repeated this process, over and over again. All we could see around us were hotels, stalls selling beach ware that looked like it belonged in LA, not Mexico, and tourist junk made in China. Cars, and people. People on foot, people on bicycles, people on their phones, blond people burned to lobster-red. Angry people, annoyed people, shouting to each other and to the drivers, and arguing with the vendors. Is this the Paradise of the Maya Riviera?

We drove through the narrow ledge by the ocean. Even this view was not what I expected. Close to the shore, the ocean was brown with sargassum, the seaweed that has become a problem on the coast in the past few years. How do people even swim in the water anymore? Though far from our destination, we gave up and turned around.

By the time we were out of Tulum, we were more stressed than ever. So we headed to our home away from home on this peninsula, the Maya ruins, and the town around it, Cobá.

Cobá always feels like home

Driving towards Cobá always feels like we are going home. Though we’ve seen this town grow as the Maya Riviera got closer to it, it still kept its character, its tranquility. We got in after the last tour buses left and the town was quiet.

The hotel we always stay at had a room for us; the meal at the restaurant next door was as tasty as we remembered. After we settled in, we walked through the town, as usual, and felt relaxed on the shore of the lake.

Empty ruins in Cobá
Empty ruins in Cobá

In the morning, we were at the site as soon as it opened. We found the paths through the site empty, like in the old days. I didn’t remember the last time we were alone here. Enjoying the morning mist, we strolled towards Nohuch Mul, the tallest pyramid.

It surprised me to see more wildlife than before; even a few ocellated turkeys I’ve only seen at Calakmul before.

As usual, we visited every structure and spent most of our time in the area with the largest concentration of stelae. We noticed that they opened the area that even a year ago was still closed, and we noticed archaeologists still working on. We visited the new area and spent quiet time there.

Couldn’t skip Xel-Há Ruins, the last stop on our road trip through Mexico

We couldn’t leave the peninsula without stopping at Xel-Ha Ruins, on the highway to Cancun. Once again, we were alone at the site, and after walking through the familiar places, we sat at the side of the cenote, for a tranquil moment before heading to the busy stretch of the road, and the airport.

Quiet time at the cenote at Xel-Ha Ruins at the end of our road trip through Mexico
Quiet time at the cenote at Xel-Ha Ruins
Sites along a road trip through Mexico
Maya sites along a road trip through Mexico

About the author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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