The magnificent Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza on the Yucatan Peninsula were named one of the new 7 wonders of the world in 2007. When my family’s travels took us to Cancun, Mexico – just 2 hours away – visiting these ruins seemed like a can’t-miss.
Would a historic archaeological site in the tropical heat be a good fit for our 6 year old and 2 year old travel companions? Like I always do, I did my research. And we took the leap of faith.
I’m pleased to report back that I’d definitely recommend Chichen Itza for other family travelers as well, even for those with babies and toddlers. The wide open spaces to explore and roam were kid-friendly. Even little ones could appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the ruins.
That said, there are a few things to know if you plan to visit Chichen Itza with kids in tow. Here’s what we learned that will help you make the most of your visit.
Tips for a Successful Visit to Chichen Itza with Kids
1. Hire a Private Guide
My family usually likes to travel independently, and we always like to save money. So hiring a private tour guide is almost never in the cards. Doing something differently really worked this time and at this destination. Here’s why.
Most visitors from Chichen Itza come from the Cancun area – either from the resorts or from the cruise ship port at Cozumel. The drive is at least two hours, so the bulk of visitors come on motorcoach group tours to avoid the cost of a rental car and risk of driving in Mexico. Many of those tours are $100 per person and make you a slave to the schedule of a large group of people of varying interests and mobility levels. We needed more flexibility with a 2 year old and 6 year old. When we realized a private tour could be had for $450 for our family of four, the choice was easy.
After reading some extensive Trip Advisor reviews, we decided to hire a private guide from Make Your Own Tour in Cancun. Make Your Own Tour is a largely one-man operation run by owner and third-generation tour guide Nefi Petlacalco. The stellar reviews for his guide services could not have been more on-point. Nefi’s English was impeccable, and he also studied archaeology during his time at university, so he was extremely knowledgeable about the ruins we saw. He’s a trained master diver, so he’s also the guy you want to hire if you want to do serious scuba diving anywhere in the area. Best of all, he’s a dad of young kids himself so he was exceptionally patient with our children’s limitations and occasional bad moods on a long day’s journey. He even brought along a car seat for our 2 year old. (In case you are wondering if I’m raving about his tour because Nefi gave me any sort of professional courtesy, don’t. We paid full price for this tour, and I never mentioned my gig as a travel blogger!)
The tour gave us the flexibility we needed at a nearly comparable price of a motorcoach tour. The personal attention, of course, made it all the better.
2. Go Early
The early birds always get the worm at crowded tourist destinations, and Chichen Itza is no exception. Because we hired a private guide in a smaller van, we were able to make a speedier trip to the site and beat the motorcoach tours arriving for the morning. Crowds were light and we were able to easily make our way through many different sections of the ruins without being overwhelmed by other tour groups.
3. Be Prepared for the Climate
There’s another reason you want to go early – to beat the heat. The weather at Chichen Itza can be super-hot and you want to get out of there before the heat of the day. The tropical sun is definitely a risk for everyone no matter what time of day, but young kids are exceptionally vulnerable. I strongly recommend packing hats, sunglasses, and lots of sunscreen or sun-protective clothing. Bring water as well.
We were lucky to visit on an overcast day so it never got unbearably hot. But the humidity and heat can be oppressive certain times of year.
Bugs weren’t exceptionally numerous, but a little bug spray in tropical destinations is never a bad idea either (dengue fever has been found in Mexico).
4. Skip the Stroller
If you have little ones of stroller age, I’d suggest you go without. Most of the paths are dirt and you’ll likely want to walk across open fields covered in grass to best tour the site. Put younger babies in a carrier and let toddlers old enough to walk roam free.
The complex is definitely spread out, but it is the kind of place that most visitors stroll through casually. Even a toddler can keep pace – our barely two year old son had no problem walking 95% of the time. We just gave him a piggyback ride when he was tired.
5. Be Prepared for the Vendors
Local vendors are all over Chichen Itza and they can be a tad aggressive. If you have the kind of kids who beg for souvenirs, be prepared. We told our 6 year old she could select one item after we had finished all our touring for the day, and that seemed to limit the damage.
If you are inclined to make a few purchases, our guide rightly pointed out that the deals are actually pretty good when compared to Cancun shop prices. The vendors don’t have the overhead of Cancun real estate when selling at Chichen Itza and items are priced accordingly.
6. Schedule a Stop at a Cenote
Many Chichen Itza tours include a stop at a cenote at the end. I strongly recommend making this part of your itinerary, especially with kids. Cenotes are large naturally-occurring underground sinkholes found all over the Yucatan Peninsula. The views and the swimming experience is like no other.
Cenote Ik Kil is the closest to Chichen Itza and we included a visit there on our tour. It is a common stop because it has plenty of infrastructure to handle visitors, including a restaurant and changing room facilities. It gets crowded at Ik Kil in the afternoons after everyone leaves Chichen Itza, but don’t let the crowds deter you. It’s definitely a little touristy, but having the infrastructure of a real tourist stop with young kids was helpful.
The water was a bit chilly but both kids adjusted quickly. We brought along our son’s Puddle Jumper life jacket so he could come in with us. It turns out that Ik Kil had life jackets of all sizes to rent so you have options if you don’t bring your own. The highlight of our visit was watching our fearless 6 year old climb the stairs along the wall of the cenote and jump into the water from about 15 feet up. She did the jump over and over and over again, shaming all the adults who were hesitating when they got to the top and looked down! The cenote visit was such a hit that we plan to visit several more the next time we visit the Yucatan peninsula (these Cancun area cenote recommendations from family travel bloggers 2 Travel Dads are next!).
One word of warning – you’ll likely need to rent a locker to store your gear while you swim, so I recommend bringing as little as possible with you. We had trouble getting all our gear (a diaper bag and backpack) into the biggest locker available. Finally, don’t forget the underwater camera! You’ll want pictures and even video of this destination.
Have you been to the Chichen Itza or the Yucatan with kids? Share your tips and experiences in the comments.
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