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Why does our Chichen Itza tour take two days? To beat the crowds and see the hidden highlights of the Yucatan, including the best cenotes. It’s all about timing and opportunity. You have to be at the park (or cenotes) when the buses aren’t. That means you’re getting a rental car and staying a night or two in the interior of the Yucatan.

How long should you stay? What are the must-see attractions and hidden gems? We think the perfect Chichen Itza trip is two days, one night (possibly two) itinerary. We’ll take you step-by-step on where to stay, what to eat, and what to do around Chichen Itza.  As an added bonus, we have included step-by-step directions to get to some of the best secret cenotes in the region.

Cenote Agua Dulce

Day 1:

Pick up a Car at the Cancun Airport

The best place to pick up a rental car in Cancun is at the airport. There are plenty of options, and it’s far enough out of town that you’ll not have to navigate through the city of Cancun. Here’s a couple of hints to make your rental car pick up stress-free and save some money in the process:

  • Use a VPN to give yourself a local IP address or book a car online once you arrive. We got a car for $2/day (that’s right, it was $2 USD!!) when we booked in country.
  • Check to see if your credit card provides international car insurance. If it does, you may decline the coverage through the car rental agency.
  • If you get in late, book a hotel near the airport with a free airport shuttle, and you can rent a car the next day.
    The counter agents usually speak fluent English, so don’t be worried about the language barrier.
  • If the shuttle bus to the car rental is delayed, or you’re taking a bus to the airport. Go to Terminal 2, and you can walk to the rental agencies.
  • There is money changing at the airport. Make sure you have paper money with you for tolls, tips, and trinkets as well as entrance fees for the cenotes.
  • One more tip, there is a gas station right at the airport to top off the tank. It’s convenient, but be alert for petty theft like money changing scams (including switching your credit card out with another), and not resetting the gauge before filling.

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Chichen Itza observatory - El Caracol

Drive to the Mayaland Hotel

180D is a wonderful toll road that takes you from Cancun to Chichen Itza. You will have to stop at two toll booths. The first one, near the beginning of the toll road, charges 305 pesos according to recent reports. The second one in by the  Chichen Itza exit, and it costs 75 pesos. Make sure you have pesos with you.

It’s about a 200 km trip and takes around two hours. However, be aware of the time zone change that occurs when you leave the state of Quinta Roo and enter Yucatan. Quinta Roo is on Eastern Time, and Yucatan is on Central Time. The airport is in Quinta Roo, and Valladolid and Chichen Itza are in Yucatan.

180D bypasses Valladolid and takes you right into Chichen Itza. You’ll be exiting at YUC 79, but all the signs say Chichen Itza. Stay in the right lane going through the toll plaza and take the Chichen Itza exit on the right past the toll booth. Go 3.5 km to the town of Pisté. YUC79 will come to a T-end at 180 (the old road, not the toll road). Follow the signs left to Chichen Itza. Go 4.8 km, which takes you by the gates to Chichen Itza, and you’ll see the right turn into the very long Mayaland driveway.

There are a couple of things to note for this leg:

  • Google Maps navigation works in Mexico, but make sure you load the maps while you’re on wifi or data just in case.
  • The cell towers are intermittent and switching towers through off our GPS track. If you find this happening, try turning off your phone’s enhanced positioning mode.
  • If you’re looking to save a little money, or just love authentic Mexican food, stop in Pisté for lunch. Options include:
    • Pollería Los Pájaros – hot and fresh grilled chicken (budget)
    • Las Redes – All you can eat Mexican buffet (budget)
    • Las Mestizas Comida Yucateca – Table service Mexican and Yucatan dishes (vegan options available)
    • Pueblo Maya – Table service Mexican and Yucatan dishes in a bazaar and art gallery setting featuring Mayan culture (vegan options available)
    • Otherwise, there is an upscale restaurant nestled in the gardens at Mayaland

The choice is yours.

Spend the Afternoon at Mayaland

Mayaland Hotel Lobby
Pool at Mayaland Hotel

To be fair, there are several hotel options you can choose at the gates of Chichen Itza. Mayaland is a lovely, middle option with expansive grounds and private bungalows. The Lodge at Chichen Itza is a higher-end option, while the Hotel Villas Arqueologicas Chichen Itza is a budget option. We loved the amenities at the Mayaland price point, so we’re recommending it for this itinerary.

Mayaland was the first hotel built in Chichén Itzá in 1923. It’s the first resort within an ancient site in the world and still operated by its original owners and their descendants. The grounds are lush, tropical, and filled with remnants of the old city that surrounded Chichen Itza.

No matter if you choose to lounge by the pool or mountain bike through the extensive property, you’ll treasure your time there. Only, I wouldn’t rush into the madness of Chichen Itza while the day tours are still running. Relax, enjoy your stay, and wait for the crowds to go home on their buses.

Discover the Chichen Itza Sound and Light Show

El-Castillo-at-night
Chichen-Itza-Laser-light-show

By day, the Yucatan is hot and sweaty, but the nights are absolutely magical. Start your evening with an authentic Mexican dish. We’ve already covered the quality and price point of dining at Mayaland, which isn’t a bad option. Another good choice is Oxtun Restaurant at the main entrance to Chichen Itza. They have a full bar and delicious Mexican food. You can relax, sipping your drinks, and wait for the sound and light show to start.

Chichen Itza has several evening options, which confused us a bit, so we’ll clear it up for you. The park closes in the early evening, about 5:00. After the park closes, they open up a special sunset tour. Then, after the sunset tour, there is the sound and light show tour.  It is a good idea to get your tickets ahead of time online or from your hotel. Pro-trip – it’s easy to get a free parking space close to the gates since you are arriving as the park is closing for the evening tours.

On the Sound and Light Show Tour, you walk as a group through the major buildings, all lit with colored exterior lights. Then you sit down in the placita and watch the main attraction, a laser light show on the grand pyramid, El Castillo. It’s about a 20-minute show with a synchronized audio track that explains the mythology and history of Chichen Itza.

Make sure you get your cell phone set up for the English simulcast if you don’t speak Spanish. If you don’t get the instructions at the start of the tour, then talk to one of your guides before the show starts. We missed that memo, so we watched and listened in Spanish. Even though we didn’t fully understand, we still enjoyed the show thoroughly.

Day 2:

Wake Up Early and Take a Sunrise Tour of Chichen Itza

El Castillo at Sunrise
Chichen Itza guide

This next section is what makes staying at Mayaland exceptional. You can call the Concierge desk and arrange for a dawn tour of Chichen Itza! We paid around $80 / person for a private guided tour (tip not included). We recommend booking at least four days ahead (a week or more is optimal) to ensure availability. Our guide was top rate, and we had the park basically to ourselves. Watching the sunrise on El Castillo was INCREDIBLE, especially with the celestial alignment of all the temples in the complex. After sunrise, we finished up a full tour before any of the tour buses arrived.

The only drawback is we had to meet our guide at 5:20 in the morning, which was dang early when you’re on vacation. At least we got to use the private entrance to Chichen Itza at Mayaland. If you don’t want to do the sunrise tour, make sure you head in as early as possible before the tour buses arrive.

Enjoy the Breakfast Buffet at Mayaland

Bird at Breakfast Mayaland Hotel
Mayaland Hotel

How much can you say about a breakfast buffet? The food was delicious with lots of fresh, tropical fruit and lots of coffee to wake you up from your pre-dawn tour. It is everything you’d expect for the price point. You might even ask your hostess if you can take a little something for a mid-day snack. The lunch options for day 2 are limited.

What makes it special is the setting. You are dining in the gardens at Mayaland with birds fluttering in and out amongst the flowers carrying on their morning rituals. It’s so tranquil and beautiful — the perfect ending to an outstanding morning.

Take an Opening Tour of Ik Kil Cenote

Ed at Ik-Kil Cenote

I’m saying this for the record. You don’t have to go to Ik Kil. If you slept in, or took the morning tour instead of the sunrise tour of Chichen Itza or are even just enthralled with the breakfast buffet at Mayaland, skip Ik Kil. There is a narrow window where Ik Kil is a memorable (good) experience. That’s from about 9:00 in the morning until 9:30 when the first wave of tourists get off the buses. If you make it for opening, then Ik Kil will amaze you. If not, then you were warned.

The entrance to Ik Kil is about 90 pesos ($20). After paying, make a bee-line for the water. Ik Kil is an open cenote in a 40′ sinkhole with vines growing down the walls of the pit. If you’re the first person at the water, the vision of the plants reflecting off the pool is epic. However, it’s gone after the first swimmer jumps in. Once the pool is ‘opened,’ jump in and swim until the hordes of tourists arrive. You’ll know it’s time to leave when you hear the clamor of the visitors echoing off the walls of the cavern.

Getting to Ik Kil from Mayaland is super easy. It’s only 3 km away and right on 180. Undoubtedly that’s why there are so many tour buses and combo tours of Chichen Itza and Ik Kil. There are legitimately nicer cenotes farther away and further off the highway that cost half as much. We’ll be directing you there next.

Spend the Day Exploring the Hidden Cenotes of the Yucatan

Yalcobá reference point

Our favorites cenotes are around the little town of Yalcobá. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it. We hadn’t either before discovering these cenotes and now we can’t wait to go back. Yalcobá has less than 3,000 inhabitants, so you’re heading into authentic Mexico. Remember to enjoy the journey.

To reach Yalcobá, you’ll have to head through (or around) the region city of Valladolid on 180. Your navigator might try to direct you around town, but it’s ok if you miss the turn because it’s only about 10 minutes longer to head through town and a lot more interesting.

Also, if you’re hungry at all, you should stop for lunch in Valladolid. There’s an incredible little food court right off the main square at Calle 39(180) and Calle 40. If you’re not quite hungry yet, you could visit the chocolate museum (Choco-Story) to build up an appetite. If you miss Vallodolid on the way in, don’t worry, we’re directing you there for dinner in a little bit.

It’s about 60 km to the turn off for Yalcobá from the Mayaland Hotel, just past the town of Tikuch and Cenote Suytun. Besides the signs, you know when you reach a village in Mexico because of the speed bumps. After passing through Tikuch, you’ll see big signs for Maya Cenote and little signs for Yalcobá, that’s your left turn. Continue for 12 km into town.

Agua Dulce Adventures

Cenote-Palomita

The following directions to Agua Dulce Cenote get a little tricky, so we’ll take a moment to define the starting point in Yalcobá explicitly. You came in on Calle 10 and are at the intersection with Calle 11, but of course, you can’t find any street signs to tell you this. It looks like the road jogs left here with a sign indicating X’Tut pointing right. Yalcoba Yucatan Park is on your left, and the municipal building is on your right. Another small park with a gate is directly in front of you. This intersection is where you’ll start counting mileage.

Go forward 50 meters and then turn left and follow the road that forks to the right toward Dzalbay. You’ll reach Agua Dulce Adventures in 3.5 km. Remember, this is an adventure you’re taking to find a beautiful cenote that isn’t swarmed with bus tours.

Agua Dulce Adventures has five cenotes on the property as well as a buffet lunch. They can sell you multiple packages with some combinations of these included. We did the five cenote package with lunch included, but we would only recommend going to Agua Dulce and Palomitas Cenotes. The rest, including the lunch, was just ok.

Agua Dulce and Palomitas are both closed cenotes, meaning there is a cave ceiling with stalactites overhead. The water inside is incredibly blue, and they have installed electric lights to illuminate the cavern. It’s an absolutely stunning sight to behold. Palomitas has an intricate staircase leading down to the water, and Agua Dolce has a spiral, metal staircase leading out of the middle of the cenote and up through a natural skylight in the ceiling.

Take your time to swim and explore each of these beautiful cenotes. We went between Christmas and New Years and had the place to ourselves for the majority of the day. When you’ve had your fill of the cenotes, head back into Yalcobá for your next adventure.

Cenote Xcanahaltun

Man-gazing-at-Cenote-Xcanahaltun
Man-in-Cenote-Xcanahaltun

The directions to Cenote Xcanahaltun start from the corner of Calle 10 and Calle 11, as we explained in the Auga Dulce section above. You take the jog right towards X’Tut and make a left at the next block. You’ll know you’re on the correct road because you’ll pass the town water tower on your left. It’s 5.7 km from Yalcobá to Cenote Xcanahaltun.

Cenote Xcanahaltun is smaller than either Agua Dulce or Palomitas, but every bit as beautiful. After we entered the complex, we parked in a gravel parking lot and began looking for where to pay. We were greeted by two children who spoke little English. They ushered us into a small office to pay and rent life-jackets if we were not good swimmers. We were able to convince them we did not need the life-jackets. It was adorable and made us happy to be supporting a small family operation.

The cenote entrance is through a small spiral staircase that reaches a wooden swimming platform on the edge of the water. The ceiling is entirely closed, except for a small beam of light streaming in through a skylight. To say it’s stunning would be a massive understatement. Swim, photograph, or meditate on the platform as you enjoy one of the least visited cenotes in the Yucatan.

Your day could be complete visiting Agua Dulce, Palomitas, Xcanahaltun, and maybe Ik Kil. However, if you are looking for more area cenotes here are some options:

  • Zazil Tunich: A beautiful cenote just down the road from Xcanahaltun.
  • Cenote SAC-AUA: A cenote near Agua Dulce that looks similar to Ik Kil but significantly less crowded.
  • Cenote Maya Native Park: A well-developed cenote complex south and east of Yalcobá that offers rappelling, slacklines, and zip-lines.

Spend the Evening in Valladolid

Valladolid church
Valladolid square

Valladolid is way too cute to pass up. Trace your steps back from Yalcobá to 180. Turn right and head through Tikuch and continue into the center of Valladolid. You should be able to find street parking near the town square. You’ll be getting into town in the late afternoon, early evening. There will be a craft market set up in the town square catering to the bus tours returning from Chichen Itza. Take a little time to wander the square and feel the energy of this authentic Mexican town. Be sure to check out the Iglesia de San Servacio, a Catholic Church on the south side of the plaza, and the unique courting benches set up around the park. The seats are places separated from each other, so a young couple in love could talk in public while maintaining a socially acceptable distance apart.

After taking a lap or two of the square and snapping your fill of sunset photos, go for dinner at one of the fantastic restaurants around the square. Choices include Las Campanas, Restaurante El Atrio del Mayab, Hostería del Marqués, to name a few. They are all remarkably good and feature authentic regional cuisine. The highest-rated restaurant at the square is Marquesitas El Tio Batman, which roughly translates to the crepe shop of uncle Batman. They didn’t make for an entire meal, but the crepes were delicious as we made one final pass through the quaint town square of Valladolid.

Chichen Itza ball field

Wrapping up your 2 Day Chichen Itza and Cenote Tour

You might notice that we left the Chichen Itza and cenote tour with dinner in Valladolid. You’re going to have to sleep somewhere, but what you choose depends on both budget and plans. If you’re flying out the next day, you should head back into Cancun and stay by the airport.

If you’re continuing your trip with more Riviera Maya adventures, you can either stay in Valladolid or return to Mayaland. Staying in Valladolid will save about $100 in lodging and about $20 on breakfast the next day. There are several hotels around the main square in the $30-$80 price range. Returning to Mayaland keeps you at a higher luxury level and lets you enjoy the grounds and gardens the next morning.

No matter where you choose to spend the night, this two day tour of Chichen Itza and best cenotes in Yucatan will let you see the best of the interior while avoiding the pitfalls and crowds of other packaged tours.

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Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza photos

Chichen Itza

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