Written byMeagan Drillinger
Updated January 31, 2022
With thousands of years of history in its rearview mirror, Mexico has some spectacular ancient ruins. The country has been home to dozens of indigenous tribes over the centuries, but few are as well known as the Maya.
The Maya civilization was a Mesoamerican culture whose empire stretched from present-day southern Mexico through Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. They built hundreds of stunning cities along an intricate network of roads and ruled the region for hundreds of years. They were masters of mathematics, astronomers, artists and farmers.
Today, their culture still thrives in many of Mexico's remote communities. In fact, the Mayan language is still alive and well in this part of the country.
Most of their cities were abandoned around the year 900, but what they left behind were remarkable clues to unraveling the details of their history. Many travelers have probably heard of their major cities, such asChichen ItzaandTulum. But believe it or not, there are dozens of Mayan ruins scattered across Mexico's southern states, from Quintana Roo and the state of Yucatan to Campeche, Chiapas and even Tabasco.
To understand Mayan culture, you really have to put yourself in their shoes and walk their ancient streets. Discover the best places to do this with our list of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico.
1. Chichen Itza
It's impossible to talk about Mexico's Mayan ruins and skip Chichen Itza. As one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza is known around the world and its image is one of Mexico's most recognizable.
Located in the state of Yucatan, part of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza was a thriving Mayan city whose origins date back to the 5th century. It was one of the largest cities in the Maya world, covering about two square miles. It was a bustling center of commerce, had residences, religious monuments, and even its own suburbs.
One ofHighlights of Chichen Itzais El Castillo, a mathematically and scientifically designed step pyramid that is the finest manifestation of the Mayan understanding of astronomy. There are 365 steps (one for each day of the year), and twice a year, on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, a shadow appears on the pyramid that takes the form of a snake - a tribute to the most important Mayan god, Kukulcan . a feathered serpent.
- Continue reading:From Cancun to Chichen Itza: The best ways to get there
Almost as recognizable as Chichen Itza are the coastal ruins of Tulum. The image of its tallest structure, El Castillo, is iconic to the destination: perched on a cliff overlooking the magnetic turquoise Caribbean Sea.
It is one of the most visited sites in Mexico with more than two million visitors a year. The original name of the place was Zama, which means sunrise. No wonder, as the sunrises here are spectacular and definitely worth an early wake-up call to experience them.
At its peak around the 13th century, the city was a gateway to connect the Yucatan Peninsula with the people of Honduras and other places in the Gulf of Mexico.
Be sure to bring a bathing suit when visiting this site. The sugar-colored sand beneath the ruins is a popular place to take a dip after touring the ancient city.
Accomodation:The best resorts in Tulum
3. Try it
Unlike its neighbors Chichen Itsa and Tulum, Coba has stayed relatively under the radar in terms of popularity. That's because it wasn't open to the public until the 1970s because the surrounding jungle was too dense to penetrate.
Only a small percentage of the site has been excavated today, but it is one of the largest Maya cities, covering approximately 30 square miles. Bikes can be rented to explore the four square miles that are open to the public.
The cool thing about Coba is that it isone of the last remaining archaeological sites in Mexico that visitors can still climb. The pyramid to scale is Nohoch Mul, the main structure climbed via steep, slippery stone steps. However, it's worth it for the views that stretch for miles in all directions over the dense, verdant jungle.
Address: Carretera Federal Tulum 307, 77793 Coba, QR, Mexiko
Deep in the misty jungle of the state of Chiapas lies one of Mexico's most impressive Mayan cities. The first written account of Palenque dates back to the 16th century, but its history dates back to around the 3rd century.
It's not the largest Maya city, but one of the most important for the sheer volume of inscriptions - a recorded history that has helped researchers truly understand the details of Maya history and culture.
The site is dotted with hundreds of ruins that, though now stone gray, were once hued vivid reds, blues, and yellows. The most impressive structure is the Temple of Inscriptions, which contains hundreds of hieroglyphs. The entire site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Address: Carr. Zona Arqueológica „Palenque“ Km. 6.5, 29960 Palenque, Chis., Mexiko
For over 1,200 years, the city of Calakmul was an integral part of the Maya world. Today the site is located in the state of Campeche on more than 7,000 hectares of World Heritage land in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.
The entire site is surrounded by dense tropical forest - the second largest tropical forest in America after the Amazon. In fact, the jungle is so dense that Calakmul has remained unexplored and untouched for centuries. Only in 1993 was it declared a World Heritage Site.
At its peak around the 6th century, around 65,000 people lived in the city. His biggest rival was Tikal, just across the border in Guatemala. The most important structure at the site is the Great Pyramid, which spans five acres at its base and rises 174 feet at its apex. It's the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan and yes, you can still climb it.
Fun fact: On a clear day, climbers can see the neighboring town of El Mirador in Guatemala.
The name "Bonampak" translates to "painted walls," which could not be a more appropriate title for this Mayan site in Chiapas. The main structure of the archeological site is literally covered in vibrant, colorful murals. In fact, these are the best-preserved murals in the entire Maya world.
Founded around AD 580, the city used the Usumacinta River to trade with other famous Maya cities such as Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras.
Bonampak stays a bit off the tourist trail as it's a bit of a trek to get there. The site is about 2.5 hours from Palenque on a narrow road through the jungle. But visitors are rewarded with a relatively intimate experience surrounded by stunning imagery. The murals tell stories of Mayan customs, from celebration and sacrifice to music and war.
The paintings themselves are more than 1,000 years old and heavily protected, but visitors can still view them from a ramp in the entrance.
Ek' Balam is a city that was mysteriously banned right after its peak in the 8th century. Still very hidden from the jungle, the beautiful site features pyramids, a ball court and most importantly, an acropolis.
At the top of the Acropolis is the main pyramid of Ek' Balam, which features a massive jaguar mouth (Ek Balam means "the black jaguar"), stucco skulls, winged shaman figures, and other decorations. Known as El Torre, it is one of the largest Mayan structures in the Yucatan, measuring more than 500 feet long by 200 feet wide and 100 feet high.
The tower houses the tomb of the ruler Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok, who reigned at the height of the city in 800 AD.
The city functioned for more than 1,000 years and today only the city center has been excavated. The entire settlement covered about 4.6 square miles.
Just outside the city of Merida in the state of Yucatan is this ancient Mayan city that was once home to 20,000 people. The city's name means "thrice built", referring to the tallest structure, the Pyramid of the Magician, which was built on top of existing pyramids.
The city is an important stop on the Ruta Puuc, a driveway connecting neighboring Maya cities. Three related cities are Kabah, Labna and Sayil. Puuc refers to both a region and an architectural style.
Uxmal was at its peak around the 10th century. In the 15th century it was abandoned.
Today Uxmal is aUNESCO World Heritage SiteIt covers about 150 hectares and includes many structures that visitors can climb.
If you thought Chichen Itza was impressive, just wait until you set your eyes on Becan. Located in the state of Campeche, Becan is one of several Mayan sites near Calakmul. It is one of the most impressive, yet thoroughly under-visited.
The site covers approximately seven acres where 20 buildings are open to the public. The massive pyramids are what make this place stand out, although they are said to have been built more for show than function. Case in point: the presence of many fake stairs and false entrances.
During its heyday, Becan was a major capital of Rio Bec province and one of the many cities that fought against Tikal in Guatemala. A moat surrounds the town and there is evidence of walls and tunnels.
Located in the northern part of Campeche state, Edzna is a remarkable Mayan site that is far less visited than other sites in the region.
It is characterized by its main temple sitting on a 130 foot platform known as the Gran Acropolis. It also has a ball court that is beautifully preserved. The city was abandoned around the year 1500, but historians believe it was founded as early as 600 BC. BC could have been inhabited. It is another example of Puuc style architecture.
Another important structure is the Temple of the Masks, which was only uncovered in 1988. The building has two masks at its base: one represents the god of sunrise and the other the god of sunset.
The city was at its peak between 400 and 1000 AD when it had a population of around 25,000.
11. Get better
A trip to Yaxchilan is truly like stepping into an Indiana Jones adventure. Reaching the site on the Usumacinta River in Chiapas requires a colectivo or bus to Frontera Corozal, where travelers can take a boat to the ruins. You can DIY, but most visitors opt to take a tour to take the stress out of negotiating boat prices.
But the more adventurous will be rewarded with a truly unforgettable experience. The jungle city was once a large settlement, often at war with nearby Palenque. There are more than 120 buildings forming three complexes: the Great Plaza, the Great Acropolis and the Small Acropolis.
What makes Yaxchilan unforgettable are the vast amounts of steles, carvings and murals. In fact, it has some of the best carvings of any Mayan city. Visiting Yaxchilan means truly embarking on an adventure that will stay with you for a long, long time.
A journey into the depths of the state of Quintana Roo rewards travelers with so much, from the sparkling waters of Laguna Bacalar to the pristine shores of the Costa Maya. Hidden in the jungle lies another secret: the ruins of Kohunlich.
Surrounded by dense jungle that echoes with the screams of howler monkeys, the ruins are covered in moss and grass and seem to blend in with nature around them. It really is a fascinating piece of Mayan history.
The 21 hectare site remains largely unexcavated. It was not a major capital, but is believed to have been an intermediate trading town between capitals. The most impressive structure here is the Temple of the Masks, a structure lined with massive stucco masks. There is also the building known as 27 Steps, a climbable structure with a wonderful view over the jungle from above.
Address: Federal Highway 186 (Chetumal-Escárcega, 77981 Chetumal, QR, Mexiko
13. The King
Let's say you're traveling to Cancun but don't want to take a whole day to see ruins. That is absolutely doable. Cancun's resort-strewn Hotel Zone actually has an archaeological site right there, so travelers never have to go very far from their resorts to enjoy some Mayan heritage.
At the southern end of the Hotel Zone, the ruins of El Rey were once part of a temple complex more than 1,000 years old. Today the site has 47 buildings and it takes no more than half an hour to explore the complex. Most people take a taxi to get to the ruins, but you can also sign up for a tour.
The great thing about El Rey is that you will hardly ever find the site crowded. Most tourists sit on the buses going to destinations like Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Coba. A visit to El Rey doesn't take long, and you can soak up some culture while still sunbathing by the pool—all before the other hotel guests return from their longer day trips.
Address: Hotel Zone, 77500 Cancun, Quintana Roo
What is the best Mayan ruins? ›
- Tulum, Mexico. Tulum, Mexico. ...
- Copan, Honduras. Copan, Honduras. ...
- Tikal, Guatemala. Tikal, Guatemala. ...
- Xunantunich, Belize. Xunantunich, Belize. ...
- Palenque, Mexico. Palenque, Mexico.
1- Chichen Itza, Yucatan
Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most famous Mayan ruin in Mexico.
Mexico was a significant part of the Mayan civilisation and there are around 200 different Mayan ruins in Mexico that we know of. Many were large cities or religious sites. Below, we have selected some of the largest and most impressive of these sites.What is the most popular ruins in Mexico? ›
Chichen Itza is the most popular of the Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula and the most visited in all of Mexico. Its striking architecture and unique history earned it a spot on the list of the new 7 Wonders of the World back in 2001.What are the 3 main Mayan areas? ›
The Maya area is generally divided into three loosely defined zones: the southern Maya highlands, the central lowlands, and the northern lowlands.