A lot of people might say, "Really, wander around a bunch of old stone buildings in the hot sun and you think the kids will enjoy it? Sounds like torture for the parents!"
I'm here to tell you it's totally doable! Our kids really enjoyed visiting both Chichen Itza and Coba. Here are our top 10 tips for having fun with kids at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and Coba.
1. Go on a holiday...New Years Eve was great!
Whatever holiday where people will be home with their families is a GREAT time to visit these ruins. The lines are short and there is more room to move about and enjoy the sights. We visited Chichen Itza on New Year's Eve. We had seen the lines of cars going in the day before and were shocked at how short the lines we the next day. We asked our taxi driver and he said the day before the wait to get into the parking lot was over a hour. We got in in 10 minutes on NYE. Our driver also mentioned that the day NYE was really slow as local visitors were all home celebrating the holiday with their families. The day before and New Year's Day people are on vacation from work and out visiting the ruins. Wow, good to know!!
2. Try to go on an overcast day.
The grounds at Chichen Itza are very open and full sun will definitely make it feel more uncomfortable. We happened to land on an overcast day which was wonderful! Obviously, the earlier in the day you get there the better for lower temps (which is always great for kids), but an overcast day really made the time spent there even more relaxing. If you do hit a full sun day (easy to do here), bring umbrellas and maybe a small misting spray bottle.
The grounds at Coba are well shaded (see the pic with #8) but It's still very humid and an overcast day just really helps keep the temp lower!
3. Use the guides.
Directly inside the gate when you enter you will encounter some men who offer to be a guide through the ruins. ACCEPT!!! These guides were so informative and helpful. We had heard ahead of time to use the guides and then whenever you want to just go off and explore on your own they are completely unoffended. So we decided to give them a try. So glad we did!! At both locations our guide was easy going and willing to go only as far as we wanted to be guided. They went at the kids pace and if we stopped to answer a kid's question the guide was happy to wait. The kids stopped asking us and began directing all their questions to the guides! They directed their explanations toward the kids and really engaged them! Our kids remember more from their time them in part because of the guides. Totally worth the $30-$60 USD (depending on location) for the in-depth information. The tour at Chichen Itza was 1.5 hours and Coba had two to choose from--the 1.5 hr full tour or the 45 minute short tour. We chose the shorter one at Coba since the kids had already learned a lot at Chichen Itza and it was a sunnier day. Either way, at both we still had plenty of time to go look at things again or explore on our own after each tour.
4. Prepare and get excited beforehand.
Use library books or YouTube to learn more about the location you are visiting. Find something that interests each child and then make sure to see it in real life. We watched vids of the history behind Chichen Itza before visiting and each kid had something different that they wanted to see. My 10-yr-old daughter wanted to see the sacrificial centoe where they tossed women to their deaths. My 9-yr-old son was enthralled how the echoing chamber of the temple alters the clapping sound to that of a Quetzal bird song. The 6-yr-old loved learning about the smaller pyramids hidden below the large one. And the 4 yr-old loved recognizing and pointing out things he had seen on the videos! My daughter also created El Castillo on a Minecraft world the evening before we went to see it. Anything that helps them build excitement for and interest in the visit.
5. Note what your kids are most interested in.
We made a point to the sacrificial cenote because my daughter really wanted to see it. We returned to the large pyramid a second time so my first son could clap and listen to the changed sound some more. Once we learned about a certain shape often built in certain locations we kept pointing them out to the little boys and they were excited because they knew what they meant. If you take note of what interests them you will hold their attention longer and they will have a more positive experience.
6. Get ice cream at the cenote in Chichen Itza.
Walking out to the sacrificial cenote was about a 15-20 minute walk (with kids--downhill on the way there and uphill heading back). Lots of vendors along the sides of the path with all kinds of souvenirs. There is a little shop nearby the cenote where we got everyone a paleta (ice cream popcycle) for the walk back to the main grounds. Definitely do this! It totally distracts from the uphill walk back!
7. Use the pedi cabs at Coba.
We chose the shorter of the two offered tours at Coba since the kids had already learned a lot at Chichen Itza. So the 45 minute tour gave us a really nice overview of the similarities and more importantly the differences between Chichen Itza and Coba. Then you can walk or rent bikes or pedi-cabs to travel the 2 kilometers out to Nohuch Mul--the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan that you can climb to the top. We would suggest the pedi cabs since you will appreciate the rest and breezy ride back after you come down from your climb. The kids loved riding in the pedi-cabs and we made a point to find out our driver's name and the kids had fun taking selfies on the ride back with our driver in them!
8. Snack/drink at the top of Nohuch Mul.
Climbing to the top of Nohuch Mul at Coba was definitely a highlight but it went over even better since we had a snack and drink in our backpack. It was lovely to sit at the top and have a little mini picnic and a rest. We took a bunch of pics and swapped taking family photos with another family at the top. The snack really gave everyone the burst of energy they needed in the hot sun to make it back to the bottom where the shade and pedi-cab ride gave us another boost.
9. Evening light show at Chichen Itza...12 thumbs up!
WARNING: It's pricey. It's late at night. You have to leave Chichen Itza and then return later in the evening. BUT, it's AMAZING!!! Best light show any of us had ever seen! All six of us said it was worth it! It's a repeat of a lot of the things you learned from your guide earlier in the but it's good repetition for the kids. They got all excited when it talked about things they remembered from our tour. It was projected right on the side of El Castillo. It is in Spanish but you can get a free iPod/earbuds (leave them your ID) that has the program translated into numerous other languages. You just open the program app and when the show begins your translator starts as well.
10. Let go.
Don't try to see everything! When your kids start running out of steam or their interest wanes, call it a day! If the kids have good memories of the time spent there chances are you will too. Forcing them to keep going will only cause you all to end with discouragement. Let go of your need to see everything and relish in the experience you are having with your kids in an amazing place. Better to leave happy than frustrated. We didn't see everything there and we didn't stop and read every plaque. It was much more fun to get to be there and take it all in AND have the kids enjoy it with no whining or complaining. Are my hubby and I upset about not getting to see everything there?...Nope, not at all! It was a wonderful experience.
I hope that this list helps you to prepare well for your trip to Chichen Itza and/or Coba. They are wonderful places to visit with kids. I have to admit that before we went I was thinking that they were "no fun for them" locations that maybe we should just skip. I am so glad we didn't!
Let me know in the comment below if you have traveled to these or other ruins with kids and have any other tips for traveling families!