We just got back from our most recent adventure, exploring the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the colonial city of Valladolid. There are a lot of world-class attractions nearby; the best way to experience this incredible area is by spending a few days in Valladolid, using it as a home base to explore the surroundings. One of the most famous of these attractions is Chichen Itza, which was recently named as one of the new 7 wonders of the world. The Temple of Kukulkan, which is the most prominent buildings at the Mayan City, is known around the world.
Most places nearby are easily accessible on a day trip, especially if you have a car, you can easily explore 2 or 3 things on the same day. We suggest you could do all 7 things in 3-4 days, which will allow you more time to explore the city as well (which we did not do). There are three amazing Mayan Ruins in the area – Chichen Itza, Coba, and Ek Balam – and so many great spots to experience nature north of Valladolid, such as Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas, where you can see pink lakes, crocodiles and flamingos.
The Yucatan Peninsula is known for beaches and resorts on the Caribbean Coast, but traveling inland west of Cancun you find a different type of Mexico. There are many other things to do in and around Valladolid and we look forward to returning someday to explore more!
The two of us are both fans of exploring archeological sites, and there are many on the Yucatan Peninsula worth exploring. The three Mayan Ruins located around Valladolid are all worth exploring for different reasons. Most people will choose only one, and it is hard to argue with choosing Chichen Itza, as it is the most famous and draws in the most tourists. Coba and Ek Balam are much less busy and will allow you to feel like you’re exploring. You can also climb both of these pyramids, something you can’t at Chichen Itza.
Some of the natural settings in the city are amazing, including several cenotes you can go for a swim in the city limits, such as Cenote Zaci. Located just outside of the city core there are two we are featuring on this list – Samula and Xkeken – which are situated side by side. Another famous cenote is Sacred Cenote at the Chichen Itza ruins, which would have provided fresh water for the inhabitants of the city.
Lastly, a bit of a drive north towards the Gulf Coast is Rio Lagartos and nearby Las Coloradas, where the beauty of nature is on full display. We took a boat tour into the Nature Reserve at Ria Lagartos – where we saw flamingos, crocodiles, and many other birds species- and visited the pink lakes of Las Coloradas.
One thing we wanted to do on our most recent trip was a visit to Chichen Itza at night, where they do a light show projected onto the Kukulkan pyramid, but the night we wanted to go was sold out. So we will have to save it for next time! We hope you enjoy the 7 incredible things we did in Valladolid.
7 Incredible things we did in Valladolid
1 Chichen Itza
One of the 7 wonders of the modern world, Chichen Itza (and the famous pyramid of Kukclan) is something you can’t miss during a trip anywhere on the Yucatan. Yes, you will have to fight through crowds to see this incredible place, but there’s a reason it has been named as one of the 7 wonders.
It is best known for the Temple of Kukulkan – or El Castillo – a 30-meter tall step pyramid with 7 platforms that rise above all the other temples and structures in the complex. The symmetry of this step pyramid is amazing, casting perfect shadows onto itself when the sun is just right. It is one of the most recognizable archeological landmarks in the world. The complex is well maintained and the grass is cut short, so it feels as if the city had been abandoned 5 years ago not 500.
Its importance was recognized during the Mayan period, as it was known as one of their greatest cities. During its peak (sometime between 600-1200 AD) the city would have been one of the most important in the region, a central hub of culture that influenced others around it.
While everyone comes to see the main temple, there is much more to Chichen Itza than a single pyramid. This complex is home to many other really well-preserved temples and buildings, including the observatory, the great ball court and the temple of the warriors.
If you’re going to see only one thing on this list, it sort of has to be Chichen Itza; there is a reason this place is so popular. Thousands of people a day travel here from as far away as Merida or Cancun just to see this Mayan City before returning to their all-inclusive hotels along the beach. It is one of top three most visited ruins in Mexico – alongside Tulum and Teotihuacan in Mexico City – for a good reason.
2 Rio Lagartos
One of the most incredible places we have visited in Mexico, a trip into the lagoon at Rio Lagartos is an unforgettable experience. We took a boat trip through the Ria Lagartos Nature Reserve and were very lucky to see an abundance of wildlife during our visit.
Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Lagartos has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site 2004, protecting the important Biosphere. It is the perfect place to escape the hustle of the city, and experience a place unlike any other.
Located on the northern shore of the Yucatan Peninsula, along the Gulf of Mexico, Rio Lagartos is known as being a sanctuary for birds and other wildlife – such as crocodiles and flamingos – and an amazing place to get in touch with nature. The mangroves and freshwater lagoon is connected to the Gulf of Mexico.
Neither a river (Rio) or full of alligators (Lagartos) this nature reserve was misnamed by Francisco Hernandez, the Spanish explorer who “discovered” this place in 1517, noting that it was full of “many large alligators”. It is almost 2 hours from Valladolid, but if you have a car you can easily visit Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas in the same day, returning to Valladolid to your hotel for the night.
We were smart (or lucky) and planned our adventure late in the day, which allowed us to return to Rio Lagartos as the sun set over the water. After an afternoon of watching crocodiles, flamingos and watching the birds of the biosphere. The sunset over the lagoon was spectacular and the perfect way to end the day.
3 Colonial Valladolid
Surrounded by colourful colonial buildings, churches, and a beautiful central town square, Valladolid is a perfect place to spend a few days while you explore the area.
The city is full of great colonial architecture, many buildings painted in vibrant colours, and an incredible central town square. Valladolid blew our expectations out of the water and the city has a great buzz to it. The city is one of the oldest in the Yucatan, with over 450 years of history, as it was a major city built during the Spanish “discovery” and conquering of the Yucatan Peninsula.
It is designated as a Puebla Magico, a promotional initiative led by the Mexican tourism department promoting unique and varied cities of importance. We had a lot of really good meals, including local Yucatan cuisine in the town square. The city drew us in, and we can’t wait to go back for another visit. Next time we are here we will definitely allow ourselves more time to explore the city.
We didn’t allow ourselves much time to explore much of the attractions inside the city, as we were focused on exploring more of the attractions surrounding Valladolid.
Inside the city is the cenote Zaci – which we saw from the outside – but what makes the city feel special is the simple colonial vibe. There is the main square – Francisco Cantón Rosado – as well as the temple and former Convent of San Bernardino of Siena and Cathedral of “San Servacio o Gervasio” are great places to explore.
4 Ek Balam Ruins
Ek Balam is located a short drive from Valladolid, and while it might not get the same attention of its more famous neighbours – Coba and Chichen Itza – it holds a special charm. While a lot of this Mayan ruin is still under dirt awaiting excavation, the main plaza is well preserved, and most days you will have this place mostly to yourself.
We visited here on our first morning in Valladolid after breakfast on the main square. Ek Balam was an important trading city during the Mayan period, with a close proximity to Chichen Itza and Coba.
Ek Balam is one of the best examples of the Mayan world found in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
There is still much of this location that has yet to be excavated, as only the main plaza has been uncovered, and there are at least two pyramid structures covered by dirt visible during our visit. It was once the seat of an important Mayan Kingdom and the site has many well-preserved examples of Mayan architecture, especially the tomb of Ukit Kan Lek Tok, the tallest pyramid on the site.
Much like Coba, it is still possible to climb to the top of the tallest pyramid, and apparently on a really clear day its possible to see the Chichen Itza and Coba. The main pyramid of Ukit Kan Lek Tok is noted for the preservation of the plaster on the side of the tomb.
It was once the seat of an important Mayan Kingdom and the site has many well-preserved examples of Mayan architecture, especially the tomb of Ukit Kan Lek Tok, the tallest pyramid on the site.
There are some impressive buildings here aside from the main pyramid, including the Entrance Arch, the Oval Palace, and ball-court, and includes a defensive wall surrounding the complex. Because of its small size its possible to see the whole complex in around 2 hours.
5 Cenotes Samula & Xkeken
The Yucatan has no above ground rivers, and instead, fresh water is found in sinkholes, known locally as Cenotes. While most cenotes are open air, the two cenotes of Samula and Xkeken are still completely enclosed (with a small hole in the ceiling to let in daylight) are two great places to experience these natural phenomena.
Cenotes were important to the Mayan world, as they believed they connected them to the underworld. The cenotes would have provided fresh water for the inhabitants of Chichen Itza and other Mayan cities in the region.
While it is not possible to swim in the cenote at Chichen Itza, there are many nearby cenotes if you want to take a dip in the fresh water.
The two cenotes of Samula and Xkeken are usually considered some of the most impressive, because they are still enclosed, with a small hole in the ceiling that lets in light. With a tripod or the right time of day, you can capture the light coming directly through to the water below. These types of pictures can be found regularly on great Instagram posts.
If you have been exploring Mayan Ruins throughout the day, its the perfect place to cool off and inside the cenotes, you can swim with the fish that live here.
These two cenotes are located just outside of town, easy to access by renting a bike ride or taxi, and easy to visit if you have a car on your way back from visiting other places. One thing to keep your eyes open for shells and other fossilized bits on the ceiling when you enter Samula.
There is a long list of smaller and more off the beaten track cenotes nearby Valladolid (and throughout the Yucatan) but if you only have time to visit one (or in this case two) definitely consider putting Samula and Xkeken on your list.
6 Las Coloradas
One of those places you see pictures of and always want to visit, Las Coloradas is one of those places. The town of Los Coloradas is home to these amazing pink lakes, located in salt evaporation ponds, and caused by microorganisms (algae, plankton, and brine shrimp) in the water that change the colours.
Being surrounded by blue skies, flamingos and pink lakes was definitely something we had to do once we learned how close they were to Valladolid.
The pink lakes are a natural process but have been harnessed by people in the collection of salt. The process is now controlled by man, and the lakes are periodically drained and re-filled with fresh salt water every 6 months in order to harvest the salt. While it is definitely “romanticized” by the abundance of Instagram worthy shots that can be obtained here it is still a very cool destination to discover.
We visited on a perfect day, as the lake was extra pink and the sky was blue. We were very lucky to see flamingos, as they begin migrating to the other side of the Yucatan through the winter, so we arrived just in time.
While maybe not worth visiting on its own – it is a full 2 hours north of Valladolid by car – but it is only 30 minutes from Rio Lagartos, and when the two are combined into a day trip, it makes for a perfect day.
On the same road that takes you to Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas you can stop by at the Ek Balam ruins in the morning if you want to kill 3 birds with 1 stone. It was one of the most unique places to visit on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.
7 Coba Ruins
Located between Tulum and Valladolid, the ruins of Coba are a short drive from either side, located about an hour from the towns. It is one of the tallest pyramids that you can climb in Mexico.
The Riviera Maya (and Yucatan Peninsula) is more than just sunshine, margaritas and beaches. There are hundreds of big and small Mayan ruins scattered across Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and even into northern Honduras.
It was a big influential city during the Mayan Period, and was once home to as many as 50,000 people! At Coba, you can rent a bike (or hire someone to do the peddling for you) and have a good chance of seeing a large portion of the ruins.
It is fairly large and worthy of a few hours to spend exploring the complex. In the height of the Mayan period, this was one of the most important cities in the region and likely had a close relationship with the smaller nearby Mayan cities of Muyil and Tulum. Try to get there early in the day in order to beat the crowds, as around mid-day there are some tour buses that arrive.
What separates Coba from most of the other Mayan cities, is that there is a staircase that you can still climb up, which gets you high above the jungle canopy below.
It is one of the last pyramids you can climb in Mexico, and there are rumors that they will soon close this staircase as well, so get there while you can! It is one of our favourite spots to visit on the Riviera Maya.