top of page

Riviera Maya: Day Trip to Chichen Itza & Ek Balam

Photo: Chichen Itza, Temple of Kukulcan

For spring break this year, we had the opportunity to travel as a family of four to Riviera Maya for a week. While there, we took an incredible day trip to Chichen Itza, Cenote Ik Kil, Valladolid, and Ek Balam. It was the absolute highlight of our trip, and I wanted to share how we managed to fit this action-packed itinerary into one spectacular day!

It's bright and early on our first morning in Mexico, but we're already up and showered. As always, we're jumping right into things. I have a whirlwind day planned for our family of four. A little after 6am, we meet up with our Tours by Locals guide, Cesar Ortega Rivera, in front of our hotel, and soon, we're on our way to our first stop of the day, Chichen Itza.

Last night, we slept in downtown Playa del Carmen at the Aloft Playa del Carmen. For the rest of our trip, though, we're staying at Iberostar Selection Paraiso Maya Suites, which is about 20 minutes north of the city. The Iberostar was fully booked for last night; so, we took the opportunity to check out Playa del Carmen, selecting an affordable hotel in a central location for the night.

Every hiccup is an opportunity. After arriving in the early evening, we were able to easily explore downtown on foot and have dinner at a local restaurant. It also gave us a slightly closer jumping off point to get to Chichen Itza from this morning. We've arrange to take our luggage along with us today; so Cesar will drop us (and our stuff) off at our other hotel at the end of our day together.

Photo: Arrival at Chichen Itza, Temple of Kukulcan (El Castillo)

Today, we are going to be quite busy. We will begin by exploring Chichen Itza, one of the largest Mayan cities between approximately 600-1200 A.D. Then, we will take a cooling swim in Cenote Ik Kil, an open-air, freshwater sinkhole known for its beautiful hanging vines. After, the plan is to head to the Colonial town of Valladolid for lunch at a local restaurant and a little exploring. Finally, we will finish up at the Ek Balam Archaeological Site, where we'll get the chance to climb its Mayan pyramids and take in the views from above.

Today's Planned Itinerary

6am (EST)

Hotel Pickup at Aloft Playa Del Carmen (2:30 drive)

8am (CST)

Enter Chichen Itza at Opening

10am (CST)

Depart Chichen Itza

10:15am (CST)

Arrive/Swim at Cenote Ik Kil

11am (CST)

Depart Cenote Ik Kil

11:45am (CST)

Arrive at Valladolid, Lunch at El Meson del Marques

See Cathedral, Calz. de Los Frailes & Convent/Sign

1pm (CST)

Depart Valladolid

1:30pm (CST)

Arrive at Ek Balam Archaeological Site

3pm (CST)

Depart Ek Balam for Riviera Maya

6pm (EST)

Arrive at Iberostar Selection Paraiso Maya Suites

Our goal is to arrive at Chichen Itza a few minutes before the site's 8am opening time. Chichen Itza can become overrun with tourists as the day goes on, and we want to be able to explore the ancient site in relative peace before the crowds descend. From Playa del Carmen, it's about a 2 hour and 15 minute drive if you take the toll road. At first glance, this would imply that we're going to be late, but not to worry, Chichen Itza is in the Central Standard Time (CST) zone, whereas Playa del Carmen runs on Eastern Standard Time (EST).* We have plenty of time. In fact, we even have a few minutes to detour along the way at a rest-stop to grab some breakfast pastries and caffeine--a must for me at this hour!

*Note: Neither location observes Daylight Savings Time (DST). The entire country of Mexico has not observed DST since 2022.

Photo: Map of Chichen Itza; Source -

As we drive, Cesar shares some historical infomation about the Mayan sites we plan to visit today and gets to know my girls (ages 8 and 9). He even has a five minute Tim and Moby (kid's educational cartoon) video downloaded on his tablet for them to watch about the Mayan civilization during the drive. They know Tim and Moby from school; so they love seeing familiar characters teaching them about something brand new. It's a great way to introduce them to the Mayan culture.

We arrive at Chichen Itza at about 8:45am CST. This gives us enough time to use the restroom while Cesar waits in line for our tickets. Cesar has helpfully provided me with an estimated list of costs for each of the activities we plan to do today; so I've ordered local currency from my bank ahead of time and brought it with me to Mexico. After reading various stories about issues with using credit cards in Mexico (stolen card numbers, incorrect charges from merchants, and down credit card machines), we plan to simply use cash for our miscellaneous trip expenses to keep things stress-free.

Photos: Temple of Kukulcan (El Castillo), Chichen Itza

There is an orderly line set up for ticket-holders to gain entrance into the site. We are near the front, and soon, we are scanning our tickets. Once past the ticket checkpoint, we're off to see the most famous structure at Chichen Itza--and quite possibly the most recognizable monument in all of Mexico--the Temple of Kukulcan.

The Temple of Kukulcan, or as it is more commonly referred, El Castillo, is the central focal point of the Chichen Itza archaeological site. The four-sided step-pyramid sits in the center of a flat field, with Chichen Itza's other buildings spaced around it. Seeing El Castillo, sometimes referred to as part of the new 'Seven Wonders of the World,' is the sole reason for many people's pilgrimage to Chichen Itza.

Considering its intense popularity, it's unbelievable that we practically have the place to ourselves at the moment. It was more than worth getting up early today! We slowly circle the pyramid, taking it in from all sides. We're really able to savor the experience; even my girls are uncharacteristically quiet as they absorb the massive monument. I'm able to get some great photos, completely void of people--better than I'd imagined. Even the weather is cooperating this morning. If nothing else goes according to plan today, this has certainly exceeded expectations!

Photos: Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itza

After we've experienced El Castillo, we head over to the nearby Temple of the Warriors. The rising sun is just perched above it, giving us a unique perspective. Cesar points out some of the impressive decorations adorning this 40 foot tall temple and its hundreds of columns. Using a laser pointer, he shows us a warrior carved into a nearby column, even pointing out some remnants of color from where it was once vibrantly painted. It's incredible that these details are still visible nearly a thousand years later, and Cesar's narration really brings the place to life.

Photos: Group of the One Thousand Columns, Chichen Itza

As we continue to circle the temple, we head toward the Group of the One Thousand Columns. I find it hard to imagine just how impressive this structure was in its original design, each column covered in painted stucco, supporting a roof structure overhead. It is thought that this place once served as a gathering place for the local Mayans. It must have been incredible.

Photos: Columns and Carvings, Chichen Itza

During our explorations, we come across what looks like an early game of tic-tac-toe. Cesar even points it out to us. It is not, in fact, tic-tac-toe--the significance of the symbols in this context is somewhat unknown--but it is startlingly similar. It certainly catches the attention of my girls, who love to play that game!

After we're done exploring this section of the complex, we head back across the center of the site to get to the Temple of the Jaguars. The interior is filled with intricate carvings of warriors, and we stop to check them out. Then, we head around the corner to the Great Ball Court behind the temple.

Photos: Temple of the Jaguars, Chichen Itza

The Great Ball Court is an open field with stone walls adorned with warrior carvings, some set with stone rings near the top. There are conflicting interpretations as to exactly how the game was played by the Mayans. What most historians can agree on is that it was played with a rubber ball with two teams of various sizes facing off. Most also conclude that while the activity resembled a sport, playing wasn't so much a game as a religious exercise.

Where historians more widely diverge, is on their opinion of how human sacrifice may have been integrated into the activity. Interpretations vary as to which individuals were chosen and how often the sacrifices occurred. Opinions range from belief that the losing team, some captives/political prisoners, or even the winners were sacrificed. The winners being sacrificed seems like the craziest scenario to me. However, Cesar explains that it could have been considered an honor. It definitely serves as a reminder that while some thing remain the same across cultures and centuries, others can vary rather dramatically.

Photos: Great Ball Court, Chichen Itza

After walking the Great Ball Court, we move over to the nearby Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars and the Tzompantli (Platform of the Skulls). These platformed sites were likely used for religious or other Mayan ceremonies. Of note, the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars features four sets of stairs (one per side), each topped with a serpent, along with carved reliefs on its walls featuring humans, eagles and jaguars. The Tzompantli platform, on the other hand, mainly features carvings of skulls--over 500 of them adorn its face.

Photos: Tzompantli or Platform of the Skulls (left) and Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars (right)

Next, we head back across the main field and past El Castillo to check out the South Group area of Chichen Itza and the Observatory. The Observatory, or El Caracol, is massive, standing at 75 feet tall. The circular tower dominating its center is thought to have been used for astronomy (thus the name). The Mayans were impressive astronomers, accurately tracking the movement of planets, stars, and the sun. It's an impressive structure and definitely my second-favorite site in the complex after El Castillo.

Photos: The South Group Area; The Observatory (El Caracol) (left), Chichen Itza

Rounding out or exploration of the South Group, we take it in turn to check out the Ossuary, Church and Nunnery. No, we haven't entered the Catholic section of Chichen Itza. Many of the names simply came from Spanish explorers, who identified the sites by matching them with religious characteristics they were familiar with from home.

El Osario, or the Ossuary in English, is sometimes referred to as the Great Priests Tomb. In design, El Osario is designed similarly to El Castillo. While El Osario is smaller and has a bit more ornamentation, its general structure is identical to El Castillo--a four-sided pyramid with stairs on each side. El Osario's most striking features are the serpent heads you are greeted with at the bottom of the pyramid's staircase. When painted, I'm sure they were quite the frightening sight!

Photos: The South Group Area; El Osario (center/right), Chichen Itza

The Church and Nunnery are our last stops. Spanish "identified" the sites due to their resemblance in layout to Catholic churches and cloisters. They postulated that the "Church," had a shape similar to that of a chapel and that the Nunnery was utilized for priestess training due to its layout and the large number of rooms in the complex. While the buildings in this area are smaller than many others we have explored at Chichen Itza, they are among the most impressive as a result of the preservation of their ornate exterior carvings.

Photos: The South Group Area, The Church and Nunnery, Chichen Itza

Our time at Chichen Itza drawing to a close, and the heat of the day already picking up, we make our way back to the car with Cesar. When planning out our day, Cesar's recommendation for time alotment was 2-3 hours to explore Chichen Itza. Given my girls' attention spans and the fact that we tend not to dally, I had asked that we keep it on the shorter side of that range, and he's done very well. We've explored all of the spots I had wanted to see at Chichen Itza, and it's about 9:45am CST.

The parking area has dramatically transformed over the past two hours. There are cars everywhere, and the road into Chichen Itza is backed up for quite a long way down with cars waiting to look for parking. We are departing at the perfect time. I hope we continue to stay ahead of the crowd at our next stop. We'll find out soon; it's only about a 5 minute (2 mile) drive away.

Photo: Cenote Ik Kil

Our next stop is for a swim in Cenote Ik Kil. Cenotes (pronounced "see-note-tays") are freshwater sinkholes formed when limestone bedrock collapses, making ground water below visible. Some cenotes are closed (i.e. caves) and some are open (i.e. open to the sky), like this one. The Yucatan Peninsula is predominantly formed from limestone, so cenotes are a prevalent occurrence here, with some estimates putting the count of cenotes on the peninsula at upwards of 10,000. There is no shortage from which to choose, but the combination of location, accessibility and photogenic characteristics definitely make some more well known than others.

Cenote Ik Kil is among the most beautiful and accessible on the Yucatan Peninsula. However, with that beauty and ideal location comes crowds. By afternoon, the site can be overrun with tourists. In fact, knowing that I wanted to avoid the tourist rush as much as possible, Cesar recommended several other less visited cenotes as options when we were planning the trip together. However, ultimately, I decided that if we only had time for one cenote today, Cenote Ik Kil would have to be it. There's a reason everyone wants to visit this one--it's incredible.

My reasearch has told me that Cenote Ik Kil tends to be the tour bus stop after Chichen Itza. Being in such close proximity, along with offering a buffet lunch, makes it's a natural spot to add into major itineraries. The site opens at 9am CST, but it doesn't typically begin to see large groups until around 11:30am. The plan is to be headed toward Valladolid for lunch around 11am anyway; so--fingers crossed--we should miss the worst of the crowds. That gives us about an hour to check out the site; so, after paying*, we quickly change into our swim suits and shower off (mandatory to help preserve the pristine cenote water and its aquatic life). With that, we're ready to see for ourselves what all the fuss is about.

*Note: You have the option to pay for just access to the cenote or get a combo ticket with a buffet lunch. We have lunch plans at a restaurant in Valladolid; so we get the cenote only ticket. Either ticket includes access to changing rooms, lockers, showers, and (mandatory) life vests. The cenote is open from 9am-5pm, and tickets include "unlimited" swimming time within that window for the day.

Photos: Cenote Ik Kil from the Surface

Cenote Ik Kil is famous for its photogenic curtain of hanging vines draped over the water. From the surface level, 90 feet above, we get our first glimpse down into the swimming hole. It is truly spectacular. Photos don't do it justice. From here, we can see that there are several swimmers already in the water, but it is not yet crowded--mission accomplished!

To get to the cenote, we have to walk down steps carved into the stone leading to water level. I spot a few bats hanging in the corners of the stairway tunnel along the way. With the cave-like atmosphere engulfing us as we descend, it feels as if we are heading down into the earth--which I guess technically iswhat we are doing.

The Mayans believed that cenotes were sacred, using them for both a water source and religious purposes. Various artifacts have been recovered from cenote floors--to include human bones. To the Mayans, Cenote Ik Kil must have appeared bottomless. Life vests are included with entry tickets and are mandatory to wear. Given that the cenote measures approximately 150 feet deep, this seems like a reasonable requirement!

Photos: Cenote Ik Kil from Above and Below

When we get to the bottom, there is a raised stone platform along the side of the cenote, and two wooden ladders set up for entering and exiting the water. There is also a carved staircase running up to a platform along one side for jumping, staffed with a lifeguard. While jumping from high above the cenote is prohibited, jumping from this raised platform level is permitted.

As we climb down the wooden ladder into the cenote, the water is much cooler than I expected given the air temperature. Fed by an underground river, the cenote is kept chilled year-round. After the heat of the sun at Chichen Itza, the water temperature feels refreshing once we're fully submerged. Floating along, buoyed by our life vests, we begin to relax. Taking our time, we swim out to the center, beyond the hanging vines* and into the sunlight. The scenery towering around us is so incredible that it feels fake.

Note: To maintain the beauty of this fragile ecosystem, touching the cenote's hanging vines or flora-draped walls is strictly prohibited.

Photos: Catfish Swimming and Us Floating in Cenote Ik Kil

There appears to only be one small-ish tour group at the cenote when we arrive. Soon after we get in, though, they exit the water, presumably onto their next destination of the day. After their departure, we pretty much have the place to ourselved--a seemingly impossible dream.

We float along, watching the prevalent catfish swim by through the clear water. When we stop for too long, they begin to curously nibble at our toes. It more tickles than anything, but it's slightly unnerving. Once we move our feet a little, though, they're off again.

After a few minutes, we take it in turn to jump from the side from whatever height we're comfortable jumping (there are a few options). It's fun, and the time quickly flies by. We take another float, and explore along the perimeter. I could easily spend several hours here, and my husband expresses the same. We've all found swimming in the cenote to be one of the most unique experience we've had together as a family. However, we have a schedule to keep to; so after about an hour, we exit the water. It's a little after 11am CST, and we need to get changed and moving to Valladolid. We've lingered a few minutes past schedule, lulled by how surprisingly peaceful our time has been.

Photo: Cenote Ik Kil

As we are walking to the parking lot, we can see that our peaceful bubble would have been soon burst. Afternoon tourists are beginning to arrive, and people are lining up to purchase entry tickets. I'm glad we're leaving now, with the perfect memories we have of this special place.

We pull out of the parking area at around 11:15am CST; we are running about 15 minutes behind how I have timed out our day to fit everything in, but we're still keeping relatively to plan. Cesar doesn't seem concerned. He's very easy-going and assures me that we are doing fine.

It's about a 45 minute drive to the colonial city of Valladolid. Valladolid was founded by the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth century. However, it's been occupied for significantly longer than that; it was a Mayan settlement before the colonists arrived. The Spanish simply built their new town over the old one.

The colorful colonial architecture makes it a popular stop among tourists in the area. It is quite a photogenice place. There is even a cenote located directly in the city, but we only have time for one swimming stop today. This afternoon, our goal for Valladolid is to quickly see a few of the city's top sights and have a delicious local lunch. Since everyone is hungry, we head straight to lunch first upon arrival.

Photos: El Meson del Marques, Valladolid

For lunch today, Cesar has recommended El Meson del Marques. It has an ideal location in the city center, very close to the Iglesia de San Servacio, which we plan to visit after lunch. We are seated in an airy, covered courtyard next to a fountain. The restaurant definitely has a Spanish colonial atmosphere, which enhances the authentic feeling of being in Valladolid.

We ask Cesar to join us for lunch. My girls are excited, happy to ask him a barage of questions. My younger one is also eager to practice the Spanish words she's been trying to learn with him. I hope he doesn't regret his decision--he could have had a much more peaceful meal by himself!

The menu is fairly extensive; so we ask Cesar for some recommendations. We decide to start with a table-side guacamole--a must do when in Mexico. I'm very tempted to order one of the table-side flamed shrimp dishes, which sound amazing, but Cesar mentions those take a bit longer. Given our tight timeline, I refrain. Instead, I settle on the Rosemary Salmon dish I've been eyeing on the menu. My husband gets a regional pork dish that Cesar highly recommends, and Cesar orders the same. To round out the meal, my youngest selects steak fajitas (minus some veggies), and my oldest (who has some allergies) asks for pasta with tomato sauce. They are extremely accomodating with all of our requests.

Photos: Strawberry Margarita (left), Fruit Juice (center), Table-side Guacamole (right); El Meson del Marques

To drink, I decide that now that we've successfully completed over half of the day's itinerary, vacation has officially begun. I order a strawberry margarita with a sugar rim. My husband follows my lead and asks for a traditional margarita with salt. Our girls each choose one of the fresh fruit juice mixes on the menu which sound--and are--amazing.

Soon, we are enjoying fresh guacamole with warm corn tortilla chips, along with our drinks. We get a chance to relax a bit, but our food doesn't take too long to be prepared. The restaurant is busy, but not crowded with the lunch rush quite yet. Each dish is delicious, and after an early start to our day, we do a good job in clearing our plates fairly quickly. We do pause to share a few tastes with one another, though, in between bites.

Photos: Salmon and Pork Lunch Dishes, El Meson Del Marques, Valladolid

Once our meals are complete, we ask for the check. We decide against ordering dessert since we want to have a few minutes to explore Valladolid a bit before we need to head to Ek Balam. Plus, we're all quite full after our ample lunch. A little walk will do us good!

We head across the street from the restaurant and through the plaza, Parque Principal Francisco Cantón Rosado. It's pretty, lined with white benches and sporting a fountain in the center. Our goal is the church we can see on the far side, the Iglesia de San Servacio (Church of Saint Servatius)--more commonly referred to as simply the Cathedral. The Cathedral has a striking white facade with two bell towers. The interior is fairly austere in terms of Catholic Church decor, but the outside is postcard perfect, complete with palm trees.

Photos: Parque Principal Francisco Cantón Rosado and The Cathedral, Valladolid

After a quick look inside, we backtrack across the plaza. Along the way, I stop to admire some unique benches. Sometimes referred to as love seats--a way for those courting to get to know one another without getting 'too close'--they have two seats that are separated but face one another. My girls get a kick out of them and decide to try one out before we move on.

Next door to El Meson del Marques, we pass a colorful food court serving up a variety of lunch options to its patrons. Beyond that, we find a Chocolate Shop--a perfect stop for something light and sweet after a savory meal. The Mayans believed that chocolate came from the gods. If it did, they have certainly bestowed plenty of options on us. We peruse our many choices and Cesar helps us pick out something to share.

Photos: Food Court (left/center) and Chocolate Shop (right), Valladolid

After the chocolate shop, we hop back in the car for a quick ride down the Calzada de los Frailes. Calzada de los Frailes is arguably the most colorful street in Valladolid. It is certainly popular amongst Instagrammers. The photogenic, cobblestone street is perfect for strolling, lined with a plentiful selection of shops and restaurants. Cesar obligingly pulls over for a moment so I can get out to take a closer look at the historic pastel buildings. I walk down a bit while he slowly follows, taking in just a little piece of this historic street up close.

Photos: Calzada de Los Frailes & The City Sign/Convent, Valladolid

Once I've hopped back in the car, we continue down to the end of the street to check out the Valladolid sign perched in front of the Convento de San Bernardino de Siena. The Convent was constructed in the sixteenth century, a part of the city's early Spanish colonial history. I'd love to have a bit more time to explore it, but that will have to wait for another day. It's already 1:35pm CST, and we're about a half hour behind schedule. For now, we settle for a quick look at this historic landmark and a commemorative photo at the Valladolid sign. Then, we're back in the car, headed the 30 minutes to our last stop of the day, the Ek Balam Archaeological Zone.

Photos: Ek Balam Entrance (left) & Ek Balam Map (right)

Ek Balam is another Mayan archaeological site in the area that is much less frequently visited than Chichen Itza. What's really appealing to me about Ek Balam--besides the lack of crowds--is that you can climb the pyramids here. Whereas at Chichen Itza, everything is well roped off to preserve the site from the hordes of visitors, here you can explore the site in relative peace, traversing the pyramid steps in the same way the Mayans once did.

Photos: Entering Ek Balam Archaeological Site

Ek Balam has a long history, some of the site dates back to as early as 300 B.C., and it is thought that it was possibly occupied until the Spanish invaded in the sixteenth century. In its heyday, it sprawled significantly farther beyond the 45 structures that have been uncovered to date. What we are exploring now is essentially the excavated portion of the city center.

Photo: Ek Balam, South Plaza (Looking Toward El Torre)

The temples, palaces, and large central pyramid (El Torre) are surrounded by the jungle, providing some welcomed shade from the heat of the day as we explore. However, we're here to climb, So, after a few minutes, we head to the top of our first structure. From above, we have a magnificent view over Ek Balam's South Plaza toward El Torre, the large pyramid dominating the skyline to the north.

Photos: Ek Balam Archaeological Site

The ancient stone steps of the structures at Ek Balam are significantly narrower and steeper than what we are used to today, and we have to navigate our footfall very carefully. In certain spots, it's actually easier to walk up and down the flights sideways so that our feet better fit on each step. My youngest has no problem exploring up and down the buildings beside us, but my oldest is a bit more fearful of the climbs. In some spots, she's willing to do the climb seated, and in others, she asks to remain below. My husband and I, along with Cesar, take turns waiting with her at spots that she's not comfortable hiking up. Cesar, ever the problem solver, even still finds a fun way to incorporate her into some of the family photos.

Photos: Climbing the Structures at Ek Balam

Ek Balam definitely has many similarities to Chichen Itza. The underlying architecture of the stone structures is strikingly similar, to include the step design. Additionally, at Ek Balam, we find another Mayan ball court, though the one here is significantly smaller/narrower when compared to the one at Chichen Itza. We also find a similar prevalence of iguanas enjoying the sun-heated rocks of the buildings. It's interesting to have the unique opportunity to compare the two sites back-to-back.

Photos: Ball Court (left) and Iguana (right), Ek Balam

Unlike Chichen Itza, though, much of the exterior decor on Ek Balam's structures was designed using malleable stucco or limestone mortar rather than directly carved into the stone. As a result, the majority of the original exterior decor is now erased, eroded away over the centuries. However, we can still get a glimpse of what El Balam once looked like as we climb El Torre.

Photo: El Torre ("The Tower" or The Acropolis) of Ek Balam

El Torre, which translates to "The Tower" in English, is immense. Sometimes also referred to as The Acropolis, it reaches 100 feet high and measures approximately 500 feet long and 200 feet wide. It's hard to capture in a photograph the immensity of this structure! The huge flight of stone steps climbing straight up to the top is a bit unnerving. However, Cesar assures us that the climb is worth it to see one of the most gorgeous examples of Mayan artistry in all of the Yucatan Peninsula located near the top.

Photo: Tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k To’k’, Ek Balam

We slowly and very carefully begin our climb up El Torre. Cesar, meanwhile, easily bounds up and down the steps, helping us where needed. It appears that he may have done this a few times before! Along the way, we stop off the admire the palapa covered areas of El Torre. To preserve the delicate stucco designs beneath for generations to come, palapa roofs have been constucted over the portions of The Tower that still sport these gorgeous facades. Finally, at a palapa-draped area about three quarters of the way to the top, we find the spectacularly preserved Tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k To’k’.

Photos: Tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k To’k’, Ek Balam

The white stucco facade of the tomb is intricately carved with a monster's jaws and warrior figures, among other symbols. Stepping into its presence is like being transported back in time. It looks as if someone just finished designing it yesterday. Experiencing this little piece of perfectly preserved Mayan architecture gives us an idea of just how impressive Ek Balam must have been in its heyday.

Photos: Climbing Up and View From El Torre (The Tower), Ek Balam

From up here, we peek over the safety rail at the end of the tomb and look down. I'm surprised to find another whole section of El Torre below. The immense size of this pyramid cannot be overstated! It simply needs to be seen to be believed.

We decide against continuing to the very top of El Torre. My youngest has been fairly adventurous up until this point, but she doesn't feel comfortable climbing any farther up. My husband, who is no particular lover of heights himself, is fine turning back at this point, as well. I have no objections to carefully making our way back down from here--we've seen what we came to see.

Photo: Arco de Entrada (Entrance Arch), Ek Balam

After descending El Torre, we make our way back to the Ek Balam entrance/exit. We've spent about an hour touring this amazing place, which has been great, but the midday heat is starting to get to the kids. Despite Cesar ensuring they remain well hydrated, they're definitely ready for some air conditioning. On our way out, we stop off for one last photo at a shady spot Cesar points out to us, referred to as the Entrance Arch* (Arco de Entrada). It's one final souvenier of an amazing day exploring a little piece of the Yucatan Peninsula.

*Note: The "No Climbing" sign below us is to keep people from climbing up the Entrance Arch's ramp-like walls. There are stairs located to the side of the arch that can be used to access the top. Please practice responsible tourism, and always follow posted signs. This is especially necessary at archaeological sites--for both your own safety and the future preservation of these fragile structures.

Photo: Snakes at Ek Balam

As we make our way back down the pathway toward the car-park area, we pass two large snakes on the side of the trail. I personally much prefer the stationary ones carved into the temples we've explored today to live ones. However, while I am not a huge fan of snakes, they're at a safe distance and don't appear bothered by our presence. So, we pause to check them out and snap a quick photo.

Once we're all buckled up back in the car for our return trip, I glance at the clock. It's about 3:30pm CST. We will lose the hour we gained this morning on our return, so that puts at 4:30pm EST currently. My plan for today had us departing Ek Balam no later than 3pm, so we're about 30 minutes behind, but overall, we didn't do too bad given how much we've managed to fit into our one day. It should take around two hours to travel to our resort in Riviera Maya, as long as we don't enc