Plunging into the Past at Dzibilchaltún


“We get to wear our bathing suits to the ruins? Cool!” Visiting Mayan ruins in the summer can be a hot and sun-drenched experience, but we (particularly the Younger Fives) were excited to learn about a Mayan site where visitors can take a swim right inside the historical site. And we were even happier to learn it is the closest ruins to our home for the next three months, Mérida.

While the Mayan ruins of Dzibilchaltún get overshadowed by more famous sites such as Palenque and Chichen Itza, it is well worth the visit. Like other ancient Mayan cities in the Yucatan, the site was built around a cenote, a limestone sinkhole that provides freshwater in a hot landscape with no above-ground rivers. What makes Dzibilchaltún special is that visitors are allowed to swim during their visit. While we had conflicting feelings about swimming in water that was and still is considered sacred by the Mayans and their descendants, the lure of the clear, cool water was too much to resist. Dzibilchaltún is also well known for its showcase of Mayan architectural and astronomical know-how. During the spring and fall equinoxes, the rising sun shines directly through the front and rear entrances of the Temple of the Seven Dolls and seems to pause within the temple before continuing on its journey.

Fives’ Facts about Dzibilchaltún

* Getting ThereDzibilchaltún is about 10 km from the northern edge of Mérida. The cheapest option is taking a collectivo from Parque San Juan (Calle 69 between 62 and 64), but none were running the Tuesday we went (maybe just on weekends?). There is also a new city-run bus route that leaves twice a day from the main plaza and large hotels. With five of us though, we ended up hiring a cab from the day (the taxi stand on the west side of Parque San Juan was wonderful) and made out better than we would have on the bus. We would guess that getting back to Mérida without previously arranged transportation would be tricky; most visitors come on arranged tours, and the site is not near any large town that has bus service.
* Hours and Admission:
The site is open everyday from 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM. Adults pay $122 pesos, but children under 12 are free.
The Crowds: 
Dzibilchaltún is a relatively small site, and even with smaller crowds compared to Chichen Itza, it can still feel like the ruins are packed. Even on a week day, visitors from cruise ships docked at nearby Progreso visit on bus tours. To avoid the crowds, try arriving right at 8:00 before the crowds arrive at 10:00, or visit outside of the summer season or holidays.
* Swimming at the Cenote: The site provides changing rooms and a bag check (large backpacks are not allowed past the Visitor’s Center). We wore our bathing suits and found we were perfectly dry after continuing to explore the ruins after swimming. There is a shallower part of the cenote perfect for wading, and also a deeper part that is great for jumping into.
* Museum: We’ve heard great things about the onsite Museum of the Mayan People, but we were too tired out after swimming and exploring to take a look. The museum is free with entry to the ruins.




Palenque Fever


We knew that the Younger Fives were hot to visit their first Mayan ruins, but we didn’t actually think they would get a fever. In fact that is just what happened. By the time that we boarded the bus to Palenque from San Cristóbal de las Casas all three kids were running fevers. Of course stepping off the bus into 90 degree temperatures with super high humidity didn’t help. Coming from the much cooler highland climate of San Cristóbal de las Casas, our bodies were given quite the shock as we emerged into the jungle. Luckily the allure of scrambling over the Palenque ruins was enough to induce the kids into taking some fever reduction medicine and hopping on a Collectivo (small passenger vans that run throughout town) to go explore the remains of the ancient Mayan city.


Considering they were all pretty sick, the kids did an amazing job of site seeing. In fact most of the tourists that we saw walking around Palenque looked pretty miserable (hot, sweaty, and sometimes bored) so the kids in their condition didn’t stand out. We had already planned on breaking up our visit into multiple days so we weren’t worried about rushing through the site, which worked out wonderfully. Instead each day we let the kids choose what they wanted to explore and in between we lounged, picnicked, and even napped under the huge trees that dot the landscape. One day just outside of the Temple of the Cross we found ourselves in the company of a group of howler monkeys hanging above our heads. So, for the next hour we sat in the shade of the jungle trees and watched the monkeys swing and eat.

After spending the last month reading books and watching documentaries about Palenque, it was really a trip to actually be standing at the base of these amazing structures. Five Ball was especially surprised to find out how small the ball court actually was. We found the following documentary to be particularly useful in getting a sense of what Palenque looked like in its heyday, and it really helped us appreciate even more all the structures we saw.

The Fives 5 tips for visiting Palenque with kids:

Visit early in the morning before the mid-day heat becomes too oppressive.

– Dress in very cool and comfortable clothing (tank tops, thin shorts, and sandals).

Drink lots of water (vendors sell cold water near all of the entrances).

– Plan to move slowly and take lots of breaks under shade trees or along the jungle paths

– Break your visit to this massive archaeological site into two days. We visited the south section the first day and the north section of the site the next day.