More than just a tranquil destination full of great beaches and jungle adventures, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is home to some pretty fabulous Mayan ruins. But naturally, when organizing your Mexico itinerary the question will arise — which ancient Mayan ruins should you visit?
Lucky for you I’ve visited the three most popular archaeological sites in the area — Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Coba, and am ready to spill the tea on what makes each of them unique.
While visiting Chichen Itza is great if you want to cross a new wonder of the world off your list, Tulum brings great ocean and beach views, and Coba holds its own on the adventure scale.
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Let’s dive in!
Chichen Itza or Coba or Tulum Ruins?
Trying to decide between visiting Chichen Itza or Coba or the Tulum Mayan ruins? While of course you could just visit all three, I’ll assume you’re here because you’re trying to choose between Coba and Chichen Itza, Coba and the Tulum ruins, or Chichen Itza and Tulum.
Honestly, the three ruins are similar in some respect but very different in others. You can have a great experience at any of the three, depending upon what you are looking for. So, to help you out, here is the case for each of the ruins on this list, start with Chichen Itza:
The Case for Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza Characteristics
- One of the “New 7 Wonders of the World”
- Is believed to have been founded between 600 – 750AD
- Located on the northern side of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula
- Was once the most bustling city in the Yucatan with a population in the tens of thousands
- Consists of the Chichen Itza pyramid, El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcan), and dozens of other structures (including the Great Ball Court, Temple of the Warriors, and Temple of the Skulls)
- Climbing the structures is not allowed
- Features a robust visitors center by the entrance and family-friendly amenities
- Offers a 30-minute nighttime light show projected onto El Castillo
Chichen Itza is better vs Coba or Tulum for:
Chichen Itza is better than Coba or the Tulum ruins for travelers who want to check a new wonder of the world off their list, photograph one of the most magnificent Mayan structures, have an entertaining experience, and get an interesting history lesson all in one fell swoop.
🚌 How to Get to Chichen Itza: There is so much to learn at the site that I recommend booking a Chichen Itza tour. We have a full guide to the best tours to Chichen Itza or you can browse top rated tours on Viator. Many tours stop at the gorgeous Ik Kil Cenote, which is worth a visit as well.
👉 Pro Tip – Or Overnight in Valladolid! If you have an extra night, you can tack on an adventure the day before to Travel Lemming’s favorite Mexico Hidden gem: Valladolid. We suggest renting a car through Discover Cars (it’s the best site we’ve found – by far – for renting in Mexico). Visiting Valladolid means you’ll get a taste of a truly authentic Mexican town, plus you’ll be able to get to Chichen Itza in the morning before all the tour buses arrive!
The Case for Coba
- Coba is believed to have been founded between 100 BC and 100 AD
- At its peak was home to an estimated 50,000 people
- Was a trading hub and had access to freshwater sources
- The main pyramid is called Nohoch Mul — other notable structures include Sacbe, the Pyramid of the Painted Lintel, and ball courts
- Archaeologists believe that more than 5000 structures exist at Coba, many of which have yet to be excavated
- The Nohoch Mul pyramid is 137 feet fall (although you currently can not climb the pyramid)
- Though the site has restaurants and bathrooms near the entrance, there aren’t robust facilities at Coba (when compared to Chichen Itza and Tulum)
👉 Note: Though climbing to the top of Nohoch Mul was once the main attraction, climbing was closed in March 2020 at the start of the health crisis. It is unknown if and when the Coba pyramid will once again be open to climbers.
Coba is better vs Chichen Itza or Tulum for:
Coba is better than Chichen Itza or the Tulum Mayan ruins for history buffs who want to avoid the crowds, explore ruins in a shaded, jungle environment, and have a relatively off-the-beaten-track adventure.
🚌 How to Get to Coba: The easiest way is through one of the many popular Coba tours on Viator from Tulum, Cancun, or Playa del Carmen. If you’re in Tulum, you can also take an ADO bus (buy tickets at the station in advance) or hire a taxi.
The Case for the Tulum Mayan Ruins
Tulum Mayan Ruins Characteristics
- The Tulum Mayan ruins are located just 20 minutes from Tulum town on the coast
- The ruins are one of the only walled fortresses built by the Maya (in fact, the word Tulum means “wall” in the Mayan language)
- Believed to have been constructed between 1200 and 1450 AD
- Situated on 39ft cliffs overlooking the sea and beach
- Once had a population between 1,000 and 1,600 inhabitants
- Was a major hub that managed trades from Central and South America
- Climbing the structures is not allowed
- Includes a visitors area and family-friendly amenities
- Is the 3rd most visited site in Mexico after Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan
- Has easy access to Tulum’s beaches
Tulum Mayan Ruins are better vs Chichen Itza or Coba for:
The Tulum Mayan Ruins are better than Chichen Itza or Coba for exploring an ancient site while taking in breathtaking views of the Caribbean Sea. The proximity to the ocean is easily the most unique characteristic of the Tulum ruins, and being able to take a dip in the water or lounge on the beach is icing on the cake.
🚌 How to Get to the Tulum Ruins: Browse popular Tulum Ruins tours on Viator. If you’re already staying in Tulum, you can just hire a taxi or bike to the ruins from your hotel. If you’re in Cancun, read our article on how to get to Tulum from Cancun.
Key Differences Between Chichen Itza vs Tulum vs Coba
- Tulum Mayan Ruins – $75 pesos per person, free for Mexican residents on Sundays
- Chichen Itza – $539 pesos, free for Yucatan state residents on Sundays
- Coba – $75 pesos, free for Mexican residents on Sundays
- Tulum – The archaeological zone is 381 by 164 meters (1250 by 540 feet.)
- Chichen Itza – Chichen Itza is 10 square km (4 square miles).
- Coba – The total settled area at Coba is roughly 80 square kilometers (50 miles), much of which has not been excavated.
- Tulum – The archeological site was explored by 2.19 million people in 2018.
- Chichen Itza – Over 2.6 million tourists toured Chichen Itza in 2017.
- Coba – Roughly 747 610 people visited Coba in 2018 (it’s way less crowded than Tulum or Chichen Itza)
- Tulum Ruins – The ruins are in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, just outside of Tulum town — 64km (40 miles) from Playa del Carmen, or 129km (80 miles) from Cancun.
- Chichen Itza – Chichen Itza is in the Mexican state of Yucatan — 181km (112 miles) from Playa del Carmen and 200km (124 miles) from Cancun
- Coba – Situated in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, Coba is 43km (27 miles) from Tulum, the nearest hub.
👉 Pro Tip: When you visit Chichen Itza, one of my top travel tips is to go early in the morning. Not only will this help you avoid the crowds, but it’ll also save you from that intense mid-day heat (there’s not a lot of shade). Again, it helps to get a start on the day if you overnight in nearby Valladolid the night before. Valladolid is a pretty easy drive from Cancun or from Tulum, and there are plenty of affordable boutique hotels in Valladolid to choose from.
- Tulum – The best activities near the ruins include swimming with sea turtles, relaxing on the beach, exploring Tulum town, visiting a beach club, exploring a cenote (Gran, Calavera, and Escondido are close by), or checking out the nearby caves at Rio Secreto.
- Chichen Itza – The best activities by Chichen Itza include exploring the town of Valladolid, visiting Ik Kil Cenote, checking out the Ek Balam site, or exploring the Balankanche Caves.
- Coba – The best activities by Coba include swimming in cenotes — Choo-Ha, Tamcach-Ha, and Multun-Ha.
- Tulum – Open every day from 8 AM – 5 PM
- Chichen Itza – Open every day from 8 AM – 4:30 PM
- Coba – Open every day from 8 AM – 5 PM
How to Get to Tulum, Chichen Itza, and Coba
#1 – Driving: If you’ll be staying in Cancun or along the hotel zone then Chichen Itza is 2.5 hours, Tulum is two hours, and Coba is 2 hours. The road is an easy drive. Use Discover Cars to compare reviews of local agencies. Not all are equal, as many agencies will advertise a low fare and then try to charge you for expensive “mandatory” insurance.
#2 – Bus: If you’ll be taking the bus from Cancun, then you’ll be stoked to hear there are direct routes to both Tulum and Chichen Itza — the Mexican bus brand ADO makes these journeys daily. However, taking the bus to Coba means changing buses in Tulum, which will make your journey a bit longer.
👉 If you’ll be staying (or transferring buses) in Valladolid, then check out these best ways to get from Cancun to Valladolid (it includes prices).
From Playa del Carmen
#1 – Driving: From Playa del Carmen, Chichen Itza is a 2.5-hour drive, Tulum is a 45-minute drive, and Coba is a 1 hour and 45-minute drive. Rent a car through Discover Cars to compare the best prices and agency reviews.
#2 – Bus: There are direct ADO bus routes from Playa del Carmen to Chichen Itza and the Tulum Ruins, although to get to Coba you’ll have to first go to Tulum town, and then change buses.
#3 – Colectivo: From Playa del Carmen, you have the option of taking a Colectivo (shared minibus) to Tulum’s ruins. You can catch the Colectivo downtown and the journey will be both your cheapest and most adventurous option. Colectivo’s are not available to Chichen Itza or Coba.
👉 Staying in Playa? This Playa del Carmen travel guide includes things to do, where to take a day trip, the best beaches, and so much more!
#1 – Driving: From Tulum town or the hotel zone, the Tulum Ruins are a 15-20 minute drive, Chichen Itza is a 2-hour drive, and Coba is a 45-minute drive. You can find several rental agencies in Tulum through Discover Cars.
#2 – Bus: There are ADO buses from Tulum town to both Chichen Itza and Coba, although the bus to Chichen Itza will take about 3.5 hours (so plan accordingly).
#3 – Colectivo: Taking a Colectivo is an easy way to get from Tulum town to the Mayan site. Colectivos can be caught right downtown and at the side of the road near the ruins. Other options are biking or taking a taxi.
Should you visit Tulum, Chichen Itza, and Coba?
During my stay, I had the opportunity to visit all three of these excellent Mayan ruins in Mexico. If you have the time and fancy yourself a history buff, then I highly recommend visiting all three — they each bring something unique to the table!
That’s it for my Chichen Itza vs Tulum vs Coba comparison!
I hope this helped you decide which are the best Mayan ruins for your trip to Mexico, as all three truly are great options.
For more information on Mexico travel, visit:
- Tulum vs Playa del Carmen – Which is Better?
- 15 Day Trips from Playa del Carmen
- Mexico Packing List | 33 Things People Forget
Have fun in Mexico!