Chichén Itzá is a wonder of the world and one of the main attractions in Mexico. After a few days in Cancún, a day trip to the ruins of this ancient city is one to remember. Tours abound, but there are ways to do a Chichén Itzá day trip on your own.
We did this without a resort, tour, or booking transportation. In this post, I’ll show you what worked for us and what to avoid.
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What is Chichén Itzá?
Chichén Itzá is an ancient city that the Mayans believed was the center of the universe. At its zenith, the Mayan civilization was the most powerful in the Americas. Their descendants live in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, in Belize, and in Guatemala. There are modern-day bilingual speakers of Maya and Spanish. Some of the more rural, insular communities only speak Maya.
Today, Chichén Itzá is still very well-preserved to be thousands of years old. Religion was at the center of Mayan culture when the city was built, so each building you see has religious significance to them. The main pyramid, El Castillo, was both a political and religious center. Its surroundings are mostly temples and altars. The center of Mayan entertainment was its ball court, where people watched sports games.
Out of all the areas we saw, the less-popular, smaller temples were my favorite.
Chichén Itzá Day Trip from Cancún
Our peaceful slumber in our Cancún Airbnb was interrupted by a 5am wake-up call. We packed our carry-ons, checked out, and hopped in our rental car, affectionately named The Blueberry. The map below shows our route:
If you’re going back to Cancún, you can either take the main highway or the local roads that go through all the adorable towns before getting back on the highway. I recommend the latter for your trip back, especially since you’ll have more time and won’t be trying to stay ahead of tour buses. That route would look like this:
Cancún is roughly 3 hours from Chichén Itzá, making this day trip doable, but long. You’ll want the full day cleared for this activity, plenty of water, a swimsuit, and at least some idea of food options.
Important note: There is a time change from Cancún to Chichén Itzá, so you’ll gain time when traveling west. This is great news, but you still want to get up early. It’s best to arrive at Chichén Itzá when it opens at 8:00am. Lines get long, but we barely waited.
Chichén Itzá Day Trip from Tulum
This same day trip can be done from Tulum if you’ve chosen to base yourself there instead of Cancún. It’s also a cheaper day trip, because you’ll avoid the tolls on the highway from Cancún. Here’s a map to help you out:
Tulum is just two hours from Chichén Itzá, so you’ll also save time being based there.
Starting your trip in Cancún
The only way this day trip could happen is by renting a car. Buses are an option if you’re going back to Cancún, but we were using this day trip as an opportunity to move to a new place. I don’t see how we could have used buses with our luggage, even though we were packing light. If you’ve done a Chichén Itzá day trip using buses, comment below on how it’s done.
We used Cancún mainly as a starting point to get into Mexico. The best priced Mexico flights from Nashville landed in Cancún, so off we went. The main thing we did that I highly recommend is going to Playa Delfines—it is easily the best public beach I’ve ever been to. We asked our waiter for his opinion on Cancún beaches at the vegan café where we had lunch after picking up The Blueberry, and he told us Delfines is the best. There’s free parking with security; tips are optional. Here’s the location on Google Maps for parking.
If you plant to be based in Cancún for your whole trip, here’s a blog post about things to do in Cancún.
Renting a Car in Mexico
Aside from that, our main task was to rent a car in Cancún. I do not recommend doing this in the airport, because the options are overwhelming and people will be trying to sell you on their service left and right. This overwhelms me, and I needed more time to do some Internet sleuthing before choosing a company. Instead, we took a nice bus for $5 each to Cancún city and walked 15 minutes to our Airbnb. The airport bus we used also offers service to the Hotel Zone. They’re cash-only, so use the Santander ATM next to the bathrooms to get pesos before walking outside.
The key thing to know about renting a car in Mexico is this: the cost is roughly $50 USD per day. Not $8 like the websites say.
You want to insure the car bumper to bumper, and rental car insurance from credit cards doesn’t work in Mexico. Assume when you get to the counter that you’ll pay for every single insurance supplement. America Car Rental takes pictures of the vehicle before you leave and fills out a form with its prior damage to compare when it’s returned. I took my own pictures and video footage, which I always recommend when renting a car.
When researching rental cars in Mexico, this blog post was especially helpful. She also covers driving in Mexico, which I didn’t have to worry about because Val is a professional driver. (No, really. She drives a semi.)
We rented a car from the America Car Rental office on the map below. The clerk was very kind and helpful. We did have to wait for about 30 minutes, but the time passed easily. Another person in line told us everything we must see in Mexico, so we were making mental notes of his advice for the entire wait.
Now, on to the good stuff! This is my advice about the day trip itself, once you have a rental car lined up.
Can you go to Chichén Itzá without a tour?
The majority of Chichén Itzá visitors come on massive tour buses from Cancún’s all-inclusive resorts. However, you can absolutely go to Chichén Itzá without a tour.
As a general rule of thumb, I personally stay away from all-inclusive resorts. They’re just not my preferred way to travel. If you love resorts, here’s an article on the best Cancún all-inclusive resorts, according to Travel and Leisure.
Before we left for Mexico, I knew we would take our Chichén Itzá day trip without a tour. I found this to be the best choice, because we got to see things at our own pace. I’ll explain how this is done in the next section.
How do you do Chichén Itzá on your own?
As I mentioned above, you need a rental car to take a Chichén Itzá day trip on your own. Once you have your car and your route (also above), you’re ready to hit the road.
The second most important tip for this day is to get up early. I know it’s painful for those of us that aren’t early birds, but our 5am wake-up call made all the difference. The Yucatán sun is unforgiving, and you need to have your self-guided tour of Chichén Itzá over before it’s the heat of the day.
Another perk of this is missing the crowds. We were finishing up our self-guided visit of Chichén Itzá when some groups were just starting. It was sweltering and crowded, but we were headed back to The Blueberry to sit in the A/C and head somewhere new.
Is Chichén Itzá expensive?
Yes. This day trip is relatively expensive, between Chichén Itzá tickets, Cancún highway tolls, a rental car, Ik Kil cenote tickets, and food.
In total, we spent:
- Chichén Itzá tickets: 571 MXN ($28)
- Chichén Itzá parking: 80 MXN ($4)
- Cancún highway tolls: 408 MXN ($20)
- Rental car: $50
- Ik Kil Cenote tickets: 150 MXN ($8)
After dividing the rental car, parking, and tolls in half, we have a grand total of $75 per person for this day. This doesn’t include food, gas, or water (none of which were very expensive).
Important: How to find the correct Cancún Highway Tolls
The Cancún highway, which is the fastest way to Chichén Itzá, has multiple tolls. You’ll need to take cash with you to pay them; to my knowledge, they don’t take credit card at the toll booths.
I’ve heard of people having to turn around and go back to Cancún for an ATM when they reached the first toll booth outside the city. No one wants to deal with that, especially early in the morning.
It is very difficult to get a straight answer on tolls in advance, because the website with this info is buried deep in search results. The government website at this link will show you the updated toll fees.
You have to choose Quintana Roo for state and Cancún for city on the left side, then Yucatán for state and Chichén Itzá for city on the right side.
Once your screen looks like my screenshot below, click “Consultar.”
The bottom of the next screen will show you each toll and the total. It will look something like this:
The bottom right number is the total in Mexican pesos. When I wrote this post, it was 408 pesos, divided between the Xcan point and Pisté.
Can you use a credit card at Chichén Itzá?
Yes, but you will still need cash. You can pay one of the entry fees via credit card, but the other is cash only. There are ATMs in the breezeway near the ticket counters if you need to withdraw cash. If you want to buy souvenirs to remember your Chichén Itzá day trip, you’ll need cash to pay for those as well.
Pro tip: To avoid fees, I use a Charles Schwab debit. When you withdraw cash from an ATM not owned by your bank, there are two fees involved: one from your bank, and another from the ATM. Schwab doesn’t charge a fee, and even refunds you the ATM’s fee. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars just from using this debit card. It’s also a Visa, the main credit/debit card accepted worldwide. You will find places that don’t take Mastercard, Amex, and Discover, but I have yet to run into a place that takes cards, but doesn’t take Visa.
How long do you need at Chichén Itzá?
I recommend 3 hours maximum at Chichén Itzá. Most of the photos you see are of a concentrated area of the complex. In reality, it is vast and time-consuming to see. However, it is not as big as other ancient cities, like Angkor in Cambodia.
After the first hour of seeing the inner area of temples and other key sites, we went on the path showing more of the outskirts of the city. Combined, we spent just over two hours. Along the way, we took lots of photos and stopped for water breaks.
Are you allowed to walk up Chichén Itzá?
No, you are not allowed to walk up Chichén Itzá. That is a thing of the past. There are barriers you must stay behind, but some temples have closer access. As a general rule, don’t try to climb on or touch any of the structures.
How to pack for a Chichén Itzá day trip
When visiting Chichén Itzá on a day trip, you’ll want to pack:
- Cash (at least for the tolls, but ideally for part of your Chichén Itzá entry and souvenirs)
- Snacks (there was a long span of time between breakfast in Cancún and lunch in Valladolid)
- Swimsuit (and a towel, if you have one with you in Mexico)
- Bug spray (I use these wipes so I don’t have to carry more liquids. Here’s a DEET-free version, too.)
- Camera (I used my phone, but you’ll want some way to remember this!)
Ik Kil Cenote
After Chichén Itzá, we drove five minutes down the street to Ik Kil Cenote. In Mayan, Ik Kil means “Place of the Winds.” The pictures show us why.
You can swim in that cool, turquoise water. It is absolutely decadent—such a relaxing way to cool off after walking in the hot sun all morning. There are tiny black catfish that live in Ik Kil Cenote, but they keep to themselves. I was fascinated at seeing catfish so tiny—in Tennessee, we have catfish that can weigh hundreds of pounds!
Ik Kil Cenote Directions
Below is Ik Kil Cenote’s location on Google Maps. It is literally down the street from Chichén Itzá at a hotel. You’ll see signs for Ik Kil Cenote parking to the left once you turn into the hotel’s parking.
Ik Kil Cenote Price and Tickets (updated 2022)
Ik Kil Cenote tickets can be bought at the window. We paid cash, so I recommend that; they may take card, but I don’t remember seeing a card reader.
Tickets cost 150 pesos per person, which is roughly $8 USD at the time of writing this post.
Your ticket includes a free locker for your belongings while you’re in the cenote. You also must wash off before getting in the water, and life jackets are required. I found the life jacket to be wonderful, even though I don’t normally wear them. We got to just relax and float on the water instead of exerting ourselves after a long morning of walking.
Ik Kil Cenote Hours (updated 2022)
Ik Kil Cenote is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm. However, I recommend arriving before the large tour groups. They will probably arrive in late afternoon. Ik Kil Cenote is roomy, but not roomy enough to enjoy your own space amidst crowds from tour buses. We got there around 11am and left around noon or 1pm for lunch.
Bonus: Stop in Valladolid
Next, we stopped for lunch in downtown Valladolid. This town is adorable, so I highly recommend a stop there. Even if you decide to eat in Pisté (another adorable Mexican town) or somewhere else close to Chichén Itzá, Valladolid is worth a stop and a stroll.
The downtown area has a giant monastery from colonial times, with beautiful architecture. We got there at a more relaxed time of day, so it was very peaceful.
After our lunch here, we hopped in The Blueberry and headed to Tulum. If you’re going back to Cancún, you can get back on the highway from Valladolid. If you’re heading to Tulum, follow Highway 180 to all the way to the Gulf. Good times await you.