Playa del Carmen is growing at an incredibly fast rate. Every day I hear about a new hotel, new restaurant, new condo building being put up. Being confronted with so much construction and newness everyday, it’s sometimes easy to forget just how old Mexico really is. The Mayans were in this area more than 1,000 years ago. 1,000 years. That’s crazy talk.

We decided to get away from the newness (and to be honest, a bit of the construction sounds) and check out some of the famous ruins that aren’t too far away.  With Tulum only 45 minutes away we had been with friends  to visit the ruins there several times so initially I was thinking, eh, more ruins. Once you’ve seen one….I get it now. What a cultural and historical dunce I am. My history buff husband is very ashamed.

First stop? The World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza. The pre-Hispanic city is located in the state of Yucatan about 2.5 hours away from Playa del Carmen. We made the drive, parked the car and paid our entrance fee, around $200 pesos (a heads up that you have to buy two different tickets – best guess is that one is a federal fee and the other is a state fee) and headed into the park and first thing we saw was this.

Chichen Itza
Famous for a reason. The Temple of Kukulkan. There are a total of 365 steps (91 on each side and one at the top). Thank you Mayans for the modern day calendar!

Whoa. Just whoa. The ruins of Tulum were pretty darn cool, but this? Well this is on a whole other level. I get why this is the second most visited archaeological site in all of Mexico.

Chichen side view
Rumor has it people abandoned this city in the 1400s, no one really knows why. Unsolved mysteries indeed.

This platform was used to exhibit the skulls of enemies and sacrificed prisoners. It also was supposed to intimidate and frighten neighbors and potentially rebellious subjects.

Skull Platform
Mission accomplished.

It wasn’t all skulls and fighting though. There was a popular ballgame played at the time throughout the region. Here in the city of Chichen Itza. they had the largest ball court in Mesoamerica. Although now that I think about it there was some mention of the losers possibly being put to death so maybe we weren’t too far from the skulls after all.

Juego de Pelota
They used their hips to hit hard rubber balls through rings halfway up the wall on each side of the court. Ouch. And, how on earth?

Before a pickup game got started we figured it was time to leave. Next up? We headed deeper into the jungle, or at least it felt more out of the way, to Ek’ Balam which means ‘black jaguar’ in Mayan. Only a short 1 hour drive, it felt worlds away from Chichen Itza. For one, there were no crowds. We had to wake the guy up to buy our tickets (two tickets again). I’m really not kidding, he was enjoying a nice little siesta. We hated to do it, but there were more ruins to be seen. Once we bought our tickets we walked deep into the jungle. There weren’t any other people on the path, but we made sure to pay attention to the signs.

We had to park our donkey before continuing on.

It’s a pity that more people don’t visit here because besides the crowds the big difference between Chichen Itza. and Ek’ Balam? You can climb up these architectural wonders. That’s right, no fence, no hands off. If you have the lung capacity and stamina up, in and around you can go.

Ek Balam
The Acropolis Tower. A pretty imposing site and an awful lot of steps.

So up we went.

Top of the Acropolis
Top o’ the world ma! And what breathtaking views there are from the top. But I have no idea how they ever found this place because there is nothing – I mean nothing – around for miles.
Top of tower at Ek Balam
For someone who’s got a fear of heights he sure did pretty well.
Ek Balam Stairs
Only problem with going up? You have to navigate these ‘stairs’ back down. Considering there was mention of human sacrifices at the top we really didn’t have a choice.

One of the reasons it might not be so crowded here is that Ek’ Balam is only partially excavated, there’s still a lot of work to be done and as you walk around your mind wanders to what lies beneath.  But we enjoyed exploring the parts that were uncovered.

Carvings at Ek Balam
The statues and carvings are impressive, imagine what hasn’t yet been found!
Deidre in arch at Ek Balam
I kept getting the sense that the residents of Ek’ Balam were not a particularly tall group of people.

So much history, so much cultural significance, so much amazing feats of engineering, so much mystery. What’s amazing to me to think about is that there are likely many more places like this throughout Mesoamerica that have yet to be discovered. Considering how many times we’ve gotten lost driving around Mexico there’s a very good chance that one day we’ll stumble upon one of these yet to be rediscovered cities.

Tulum is very cool and something to see because the ruins are situated right along the coast, but for more impressive buildings and structures I’d suggest you head inland and marvel and what once was at Chichén Itzá and Ek’ Balam.

We paid $184 pesos apiece to enter Chichen Itza and $131 pesos apiece at Ek’ Balam (there are cheaper prices for residents of Mexico). There was a paid parking lot at Chichen Itza but we pulled over on the side of the road before the entrance and parked for free. There was no charge to park at Ek’ Balam although we paid $50 pesos for a very nice young man to wash our car while we toured the site. He did a great job – the bat poop was all gone.