Historical adventures await beyond the coastlines of the Riviera Maya!
Mexico has a long and distinguished history of prehistoric art and archeology. A country that is rich in culture, and traditions, it’s also home to some of the most spectacular Mayan Ruins.
Beyond the infamous Mayan calendar filled with predictions, the ancient civilization was also sophisticated in math and astronomy. The calendars assisted them in determining the best seasons for agriculture and religious ceremonies. With wars and deconstruction over time, it’s difficult to uncover all the hidden secrets, but archeologists have solved many mysteries through the Maya hieroglyphics.
If you’re looking for a journey through time, here is a list that will help guide you to some of the best Maya Ruins throughout the Rivieria Maya today.
Now part of the New 7 Wonders of the world (UNESCO July 7th, 2007), Chichen Itza is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico today.
Located in the Yucatan Peninsula, just a few hours away from Cancun, many tourists flock to this location to learn about how the indigenous people of the ancient civilization once lived. The Maya translation of “Chichen Itza” is- “At the brim of the well where the Wise Men of the Water Live“.
Over the years, Chichen Itza has grown in popularity now seeing over 2.5M visitors yearly. This location is large with 26 ruins and it can take quite a few hours to see everything.
Upon entering, the first grand pyramid – El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcán, will catch your eye. Before 2006, visitors were allowed to climb up the stairs to reach the top (30 meters high) and enjoy the breathtaking views.
After you’ve taken in El Castillo, make your way to the Mayan Ball Ruin. Archeologists believe that at the beginning of the game, the ball was thrown into the court by hand and from then on, could only be touched with the hips and thighs. The number of players, the scoring system, and how the winner was decided are still unknown. The game is more of a ceremonial ritual than a sport.
Another interesting ruin is El Caracol (Observatory), which was used as an astronomical observation area through openings at the top of the tower. This building consists of three parts, most have now deteriorated.
If you don’t have much time, try to see The Sacred Cenote. It’s on the farther end of the site and can take quite a few minutes to walk over (especially in the humidity, make sure you have water and a good hat).
This fascinating cenote is naturally formed and was used for ceremonial offerings. In the beginning stages of practice, precious objects were offered to the water god, however, over time human sacrifices became the norm. Victims were warriors, children, and maidens thrown to the bottom of the cenote.
Open every day 8 am-5 pm, the last entrance is at 4 pm. Located in Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. The entrance fee is under $30 USD per person.
Some recommended tours of Chichen Itza:
- Explore Chichen Itza on your own after entering with a Skip the line ticket
- See Chichen Itza, Saamal Cenote, and Valladolid and enjoy a buffet lunch
- Enjoy a Mexican buffet and tequila tasting after visiting Chichen Itza, Valladolid, and a sacred cenote
- Visit Chichen Itza and Cenote Il Kik before enjoying an optional lunch
- See the beautiful town of Izamal, visit Chichén Itzá, Valladolid, and Cenote Chichikan before enjoying a buffet lunch
2. Tulum Ruins
A quick day trip, south of Cancun is the Tulum Ruins. The Maya translation of Tulum, previously known as “Zama”, means – City of Dawn.
Tulum was used as a seaport, trading turquoise and jade. It is the 3rd most visited site in Mexico and the only Maya city built on a coast. It was one of the few sites protected by a wall made of limestone and varies between 3-5 meters in height. This wall is believed to have helped preserve the seaport.
There are two main theories regarding the reason for the wall. One, it was used to keep the Mayas protected from invaders. Another suggests only Priests and nobility were housed within the walls, while peasants remained on the outside.
There are five doorways in the wall allowing visitors to enter, greeted by a field of gently-rolling hills. Once inside, you will see The Castillo (The castle), which sits on the edge of a limestone cliff, overlooking the gorgeous turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea.
One of the better-preserved buildings sits right in front – The Temple of the Frescoes. Look inside the temple to catch a glimpse of a mural painted in three sections. The first level represents the Mayan world of the dead, the middle is of the living, and the final highest piece is the creator and rain gods.
Carved above the doorway is a figure of a bird’s wing and tail- representing a Mayan deity who protected the people. The perfect ending to this smaller location is heading down to the beach. Just north of The Castillo is a path that leads down, where you will find secluded areas perfect for swimming or lounging.
Open every day 8 am-5 pm, final entry is at 3 pm. Always check the days off and hours which are subject to change. Located in Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
Some recommended tours of he Tulum Ruins:
- Skip the line at Tulum Ruins
- Tulum, Coba, and cenotes day trip
- Tulum ruins, underground cenotes, and swimming with sea turtles
- Skip the line at Tulum Ruins and see the Mystika Immersive exhibit
Passing through the jungle, 45 mins away from Tulum, this remote site sits in front of a beautiful lagoon.
Ko’ba translated means, “ruffled, uneven water”. Here, you will also find stone pathways known as “sacbe” meaning sacred roads. The sacbes connect the residential areas to the main pyramid as well as the small lakes that were used as a water supply.
They have uncovered over 50 of the pathways, with 16 of them open to visitors. La Iglesia, one of the more popular ruins in Coba, standing at 74 feet tall, is the second largest pyramid at the site.
Due to safety hazards, you can no longer climb up this structure since it has become far too eroded over the years.
Located in Coba, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
Recommended tours to Coba:
- Private tour of Coba, Chichen Itza and Ik-Kil Cenote
- Coba, Chichen Itza, Cenote Saamal and lunch
- Coba, Mariposa, Chen-Ha and Tulum, and a Mexican lunch
- Adrenaline-filled tour of Coba city and pyramids with ATV rides, ziplining, rappelling, and bike rides
Bonus: Chichen Itza vs Coba vs Tulum: Which Should you pick?
|Age of Construction||600 AD to 900 AD||100 BC to 100 AD||1200 AD|
|Crowds||2.5 million visitors a year||755.8 thousand a year||2 million visitors a year|
|Size||4 square miles||50 square miles||Smallest – around 500 feet|
|Other Points to Consider||New Wonder of the World||Off-beat forested area||Beachside|
|Distance From||Cancun (3 hours)|
Playa del Carmen (2.5 to 3 hours)
Tulum (2 hours)
Valladolid (less than an hour)
|Cancun (2 hours)|
Playa del Carmen (1.5 to 2 hours)
Tulum (40 to 50 minutes)
|Cancun (2.5 hours)|
Chichen Itza (2 hours)
Playa del Carmen (1 hour)
Tulum (20 minutes)
|Things to Do||Can’t climb any pyramids||Might be able to climb one pyramid & bike the jungle||Can’t climb any pyramids, but there’s beach access|
These are some factors that will help you to decide between visiting Chichen Itza, Coba, and Tulum. If you have time though, why not visit all of them? They’re all amazing in their own way!
4. Kinich Kak Moo
Back in Yucatan, Kinich Kak Moo is the largest Mayan ruin remaining in Izamal – the yellow Pueblo Magico. Located just a few blocks from the church, this area has few tourists during the winter months. It’s a great place to visit and explore peacefully, as it is not incredibly busy.
Walking beyond the gate, you will notice a beautiful grassy overgrown land before making it to the stone structure. Kinich Kak Moo translated means “fire macaw with the face of the burning sun” and was built for the Maya sun god. It sits tall at 35 meters and has 10 levels.
This structure is open to the public and allows for climbing steep steps to the top where you will be rewarded with 360-degree views of vast jungles.
The heat and humidity can become overwhelming depending on the season. It’s best to ensure you have cooling summer wear, sunblock, UPF protective hats, and plenty of water. Insulated water bottles are a great way to ensure you have some cold water to drink in the hot Mexican sun.
Located in Izamal, Yucatan, Mexico, Kinich Kak Moo is open Daily and free to enter.
Although Kinich Kak Moo is free to explore, you can join a tour to visit the nearby town of Izamal.
In between Valladolid and Rio Lagartos, you will discover Ek’Balam. Loosely translated to “jaguar star”. This hidden treasure is located off the beaten path and is rarely visited.
Practically devoid of tourists, entering this magic land will feel as if you’re Indiana Jones about to make a discovery. Temples sitting between lush jungle land, shaded by the canopy of trees.
If appropriately dressed, make your way up the steep steps to the sky. Even if you’ve done it before, every experience above a Maya Ruin is different. Take a moment to yourself and look out towards the landscape. The green tree tops are quite a site.
Located around Temazon, Yucatan, Mexico. Open daily, 8 am- 5 pm. The ticket office closes at 4 pm.
Recommended tours to Ek’Balam:
- Ek Balam and Chichikan Cenote Tour with Lunch
- Ek Balam and Cenote Maya Park for diving, rappelling or swinging on vines
- Ek Balam, Chichen Itza and Cenote Samaal
The ancient archeological site, Pole, is inside the ecological park – Xcaret. Pole, meaning “market” was used as a port for the departure and arrival of pilgrimages to Cozumel, where they worshipped the goddess Ixchel.
Findings of jade, obsidian, and rock crystal objects suggest Pole was used as a link to other important sites.
Located inside Xcaret Park in Xcaret, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Open daily from 830am-1030pm. The entrance fee is $110 USD for adults and $70 for children.
Recommended tour to Xcaret:
- Entrance to the entire Xcaret park as well as the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular
- Xcaret Park Full-Day Admission with Night Show & Lunch
- Two-day combo tour of Xcaret, Xel-Ha, Xplor, Xichén parks
Farther down south is Chiapas, home to the Palenque Ruins. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, Palenque translated in Yucatec Maya is “big water”.
It’s a medium-sized site, however, it is estimated only 10% of the total area of the city has been explored; leaving more than a thousand structures still covered in the jungle. Most popular structures to visit: The Temple of the Inscriptions, The Palace, and The Set of the Crosses.
The Temple of the Inscriptions is named after the numerous amount of hieroglyphic texts. It is a pyramid of eight levels and a temple representing the nine levels of the Mayan underworld.
The palace, in the center of the ancient city, has numerous buildings and courtyards. It was used by Mayan aristocrats for functions, entertainment, and ceremonies.
The Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun, and Temple of the Foliated Cross are a set of three. The figures carved into the stone are the two images of Kan B’ahlam. The smaller image shows Kan B’ahlam during a rite of passage ritual at the age of 6, and the larger is of his accession to kingship at the age of 48.
Located in Chiapas, Mexico inside Palenque National Park. Open daily 8 am – 4:30 pm. The entrance fee is in two parts. The first fee is to enter the Palenque National Park, less than $2. The second fee is to enter the ruins, less than $4.
Tours to Palenque and the surroundings:
Palenque’s rival is Yaxchilan, one of the most elegant examples of Maya architecture. Yaxhilan, meaning “green stones” is located on the riverbanks of the Usumacinta River and is only accessible by boat or small plane. Talk about an adventure! It’s not an easy feat, but worth the trek.
It’s famous for having over 130 stone monuments that include carved lintels and stelae showing signs of royal life. The site is made up of three main complexes- The Central Acropolis, the South Acropolis, and the West Acropolis.
It is built over a tall terrace facing the Usumacinta River extending beyond the hills of the Maya lowlands. The river played an important role, not only did it provide defense; it was also used for trading.
The site is still well-preserved and the highlight of the buildings are the stelae, lintels, alters, and mural paintings. Some Lacandon Maya still make pilgrimages to this site to continue the ritual practice of the Maya gods.
Practically every building has a doorway decorated with carved lintels that tell a story through history in the Maya world.
Located in Chiapas, Mexico. It is best to find a tour guide from Palenque, that will set up a trip since it does require multiple modes of transportation.
Or join one of these affordable group tours below:
One of the hidden gems of Mexico, Calakmul is truly off the beaten path. Deep in the Mayan jungles, the tropical forests of Tierra Bajas and the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve protect this ancient kingdom.
In the Mayan language, ca means two, lak means nearby, and mul means pyramid, so Calakmul is the ‘City of the Two Adjacent Pyramids’. Another ancient name was Chiik Naab which can either mean ‘waving hands’.
In his book, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature, Dennis Tedlock explains that the city was also called Ox Te’ Tuun, meaning ‘Three Stones’ because of the triadic shape of one of the pyramids. This triadic pyramid is the tallest in the Mayan world, standing over 45-metres (148 ft) high.
There are eight main structures, some of which (Structure 4 and Structure 6) guided the people in determining equinoxes and solstices.
Eight white stone roads or Sacbe can be seen linking Calakmul internally; and also linking to neighboring cities such as El Mirador, Nakbe, and El Tintal.
The area was ruled by what was called the Kingdom of the Snake from the 6th century AD, and there are many glyphs and murals throughout depicting their lordship.
With over 117 stelae and murals, Calakmul was richer than most others in the region. Archaeologists have also found many royal tombs filled with ornaments of jade, obsidian, and shells.
Located in Campeche, it’s open from 8 am to 5 pm. Entrance fees are taken in bits. First the Ejidatarios fees, $3 to $4, then the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve fees of about $4.5, and finally the INAH fees under $5. So a total of $10 to $12.
If you want to skip the trouble of planning, join these tours:
Even more elegant than Calakmul, the ruins at Uxmal are a UNESCO site on the Puuc Trail about 45 minutes drive from Merida or 4 hours from Cancun.
Centrally located in the Puuc mountain range, the city was founded by Hun Uitzil Chac Tutil Xiu around 569 AD.
Uxmal (pronounced oosh-mawl) translates to ‘thrice built’. Combined with the neighboring ruins of Sayil and Labna, they are some of the most magnificent in the Mayan world.
Most of the buildings at Uxmal can be climbed except for the Pyramid of the Dwarf or Adivino Pyramid, sometimes also referred to as the Magicians Pyramid. Legend has it that a dwarf who hatched from an egg built it in a day. At 35 metres (115 ft), it’s the tallest in Uxmal.
The Temple de los Falos, hiding in a secret garden nearby is dedicated to the dwarf’s mother.
With over 30 sites here, the Ball Court, the Nunnery Quadrangle, Governor’s Palace, Pillory Shrine, Temple of the Macaws, House of Pigeons, and Throne of the Jaguar, will all leave you awe-inspired.
Located in Yucatan, Mexico. Open daily 8 am – 4:30 pm. The entrance fee is in two parts. The first fee is to enter is less than $5. The second fee is the Yucatan Tax Agency fee, of aboout $21. So in total, $25 or $26 depending on the exchange rate.
The sun’s really hot here in Uxmal, so make sure you bring plenty of water and sunscreen while visiting classic example of Terminal architecture. Scarves and hats prove useful too!
These tours to Uxmal will make traveling less of a hassle:
- Uxmal and Sotuta Hacienda de Peon
- Private tour of Uxmal with visit to a Chocolate Museum
- Tour of Uxmal, Hacienda Yaxcopoil and Peba Cenote with lunch
11. Teotihuacan – Not Mayan but Impressive to Visit!
Just 30 miles North of Mexico City, these UNESCO World Heritage ruins still hold many hidden secrets. Teotihuacan meaning ‘The City of the Gods’ in Nahuatl, was one of the most important places in the pre-Aztec era.
Settled in 400 BC, it grew to prominence around 100 BC, and was an important center of trade and culture by 500 AD, covering an area of about 8 square miles (20 square kilometers). At its height, the city held a population of around 200,000, which was much more than Rome or Egypt from the same time period.
Teotihuacan burned to the ground in 750 AD, after which it was abandoned and left in ruins. But later generations of Aztec people still visited it as a place of pilgrimage and to perform ritual sacrifices.
If you visit, you can still walk along the Avenue of the Dead (Calzada de los Muertos) that’s lined on both sides with tombs, and serves to connect all the other attractions here. (Some archaeologists believe that the structures were not tombs, but palatial residences. )
The vast open Citadel (La Ciudadela) at the southern end is home to the Temple of Quetzalcóatl (the Feathered Serpent). The city’s ruler lived here and carried out administrative activities from this once red-colored building.
Standing 216 feet (66 metres) tall, the Pyramid of the Sun is one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere, while the Pyramid of the Moon rises 140 feet (43 metres) high.
Climbing the Pyramid of the Sun (Pirámide del Sol) and Pyramid of the Moon (La Pirámide de la Luna) is a feat you’ll want to save some time for. Carry adequate amounts of water. Hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen will come in handy too.
Many smaller structures surround these, from plazas and courtyards to temples and more. Make sure you visit the Palacio de Tepantitla, El Palacio de los Jaguares, and the Palacio de Quetzapapalotl.
Located near Mexico City, open from 9 am to 5 pm 365 days of the year. Fees are 80 pesos or $4.
Recommended Tours to Teotihuacan:
- Teotihuacan, Guadalupe Shrine & Tlatelolco Tour
- Fly over Teotihuacán Valley before visiting the ruins on foot
- Teotihuacan and Tlatelolco Day Trip
So that’s my list of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico to visit. How many have you been to? And which are you visiting next?