Thousands of Mayan archaeological sites exist throughout Latin America and there are a couple of hundred Mayan ruins in Mexico. Most are small and relatively unknown, which means they do not attract many visitors but some of the larger, well-known ruins like Chichen Itza can attract tens of thousands of visitors each year. Chichen Itza is not the only UNESCO World Heritage site of the Mayan world but it certainly holds its place in Mayan history along with Uxmal, Palenque and Calakmul.
The Mayans or Mesoamerican Indians occupied Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Before Spain occupied Central America and Mexico, the Mayan world was the centre of the universe in this region and ancient Mayan cities were centres of a great civilisation that built pyramids, temples and practised agriculture and had a form of hieroglyphic writing.
Visitors wishing to see the more famous ruins should plan a trip early in the morning to avoid the crush of people and take better pictures. Wear clothing to protect yourself from the sun, carry water, and use bug spray depending on where the ruins are located.
- Mayan Ruins in Mexico
- Mayan Ruins in Yucatan
- Mayan Ruins in Quintana Roo
- Mayan Ruins in Campeche
Mayan Ruins in Mexico
Mayan Ruins in Yucatan
1- Chichen Itza, Yucatan
Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most famous Mayan ruin in Mexico.
Its location near several resort towns makes it an easy day trip for international visitors and the ruin is a unique sight to see.
There are several pyramids and stone structures at Chichen Itza within the 10 square km (4 square miles) area, making it a large site and a significant one of the Mayan world.
The Mayans built their monuments according to astronomical principles and Chichen Itza’s round observatory, the El Caracol, was used to gauge the positions of planets and the sun.
The Pyramid of Kukulkan, which has 365 steps representing each day of the year, was used to work out the best times for agricultural activities like sowing seeds and harvesting crops.
Because this archaeological site is so popular, it is best to visit early in the morning.
Visitors will pay for parking and the entrance into the pyramid site.
For travellers who want to learn about Chichen Itza, look for a local guide at the entrance. It costs an additional amount of money, so be prepared to bring enough cash.
2- Ek’ Balam
Another Mayan ruin in Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula, the ruins of Ek’ Balam are further away from some of the popular resorts, making this archaeological site less popular than others.
This also means if you make the effort to visit Ek Balam, it’ll be minus the crowds.
Structures in this extensive site include defensive walls, the Oval Palace, which contains burial relics and the Acropolis, containing the tomb of Mayan king Ukit Kan Leʼk Tokʼ.
You can climb many of the structures at Ek Balam, including El Torre (the Tower), which has steep steps.
One of the features of the main pyramid is the mouth of a jaguar carved out of stone.
The ruins of Dzibilchaltún are close to Merida and were once an ancient city that was one of the largest Mayan cities in the region.
The fall and spring equinoxes are important days to visit this site as the morning sun passes through the opening of the main pyramid, the Temple of the Sun, on those days.
The temple is also known as the Temple of the Seven Dolls (Templo de las Siete Muñecas) named after grotesque dolls found there.
In addition to the pyramid and several stone structures, there is a small museum and a cenote.
All of the ruins can be climbed by visitors.
Uxmal, which means ‘three harvests’ is an ancient Mayan city near Merida dedicated to Chaac, the Mayan god of rain.
According to legend, Uxmal’s main building was built by a dwarf that was born in an egg and is known as the Pyramid of the Soothsayer.
While this site is considered by many to be the second most important Mayan site in Yucatán, Uxmal attracts smaller crowds and is a more relaxing experience.
Another advantage that Uxmal has over Chichén Itzá is that visitors can climb one of the pyramids and other stone structures at this archaeological site.
Uxmal is one of the pyramids on the Ruta Puuc, a collection of neighbouring Mayan cities with the same architectural style, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Kabah ruins, part of the Ruta Puuc, contain several Mayan temples and other stone structures.
Kabah is the second-largest site after Uxmal along the Ruta Puuc.
Visitors to this archaeological site are permitted to climb these structures.
The walls of one of the largest structures is known as the Palace of the Masks and contain an impressive display of stone masks that represent the Mayan god of rain, Chaac.
Many of the architectural elements and sculptures are well-preserved at this site.
Sayil was another important Mayan city on the Ruta Puuc and its name means ‘place of the ants’, so take a hint and wear closed shoes.
The impressive stone structure, the Great Palace, was likely a residence for members of the royal family.
In addition to the palace, there is a lookout structure but it is not well-preserved.
The site was an important agricultural centre and once supported around 10,000 people.
Visitors are not permitted to climb any of the structures at this archaeological site.
7- Labná and Xlapak
Labná is one of the smaller archaeological sites on the Ruta Puuc and the Labná Arch is an iconic stone structure at this site.
Besides the arch, there are other stone structures including a palace and a pyramid with a temple on top.
It is an ancient site, but extremely well-preserved.
Visitors to this Mayan city cannot climb any of the stone structures or pyramids located at this site.
The Xlapak ruins are the smallest archaeological site on the Ruta Puuc.
There are three main structures at this site, believed to be palaces or temples.
The sizes of these structures are not as impressive as the other Ruta Puuc archaeological sites.
Izamal was an important site for religious pilgrimages for the Mayan people, founded nearly 2,000 years ago and named after the ancient Mayan god Itzamná.
Kinich Kak Moo is the largest Mayan ruin in Izamal and some archaeologists suggest that the pyramid at this site is the largest pyramid structure by volume on the Yucatán Peninsula.
Even after the Spanish invaded Mexico, Izamal continued to be important.
The Spanish built their religious complex at this location, and even today, it remains an important pilgrimage site for modern Mexican Catholics.
Visitors can climb the ancient pyramids at Izamal.
For more adventures in Mexico, read:
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- 20 Tulum Day Trips
- Where To Stay In Tulum
- 20 National Parks In Mexico
- 20 Day Trips From Mexico City
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- 20 Things To Do In Cancun With Kids
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- 20 Things To Do In Puerto Vallarta
- 20 Famous Landmarks in Mexico
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- 20 Ways To Spend Christmas in Mexico
- 10 Things To Do In Baja California
- The Wonder of Chichen Itza
- When Is The Best Time To Visit Mexico?
- A Guide To Las Grutas De Tolantongo
- A Guide To Valle De Bravo
- 20 Best Cenotes In Mexico
- 20 Interesting Mexican Traditions
- 20 Mayan Ruins In Mexico
- 20 Things To Do In Veracruz
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Mayan Ruins in Quintana Roo
Although Tulum is not a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Tulum ruins are likely the second most famous Mayan ruins in Mexico.
It was once an astronomy academy for Aztec nobles and was one of the few Mayan cities that were inhabited during the Spanish conquests.
Because of Tulum’s popularity with tourists looking for a beautiful beach vacation and its proximity to Cancun, the ruins at Tulum are a popular destination.
The ruins sit on 12 m high cliffs in Tulum National Park, facing the Caribbean Sea.
This archaeological site is smaller than many other Mayan ruins in the region, but its beauty and the proximity to many resorts make this an accessible destination.
The Mayan ruins of Coba are not just pyramids.
Coba is an entire Mayan city hidden in the jungle on the Yucatán peninsula.
It’s one of the few Mayan archaeological sites where visitors can still climb the pyramids.
This site has one of the tallest pyramids on the Yucatán peninsula, which visitors can climb to admire the view above the jungle.
This site is less popular than the Chichén Itzá and the Tulum ruins, so it is not crowded.
While only a 10 square kilometre (4 square miles) portion of this city was excavated, archaeologists believe that the city may be more than eight times larger.
Coba is thought to be the ancient hub of Mayan commerce in the region as several roads lead to other archaeological sites.
There is a cost for both parking and admission to the site. Visitors can either walk or rent a bike for an extra fee to explore the entirety of Coba.
The ruins at Kohunlich are an hour’s drive from Lake Bacalar.
This archaeological site is hidden within a dense jungle, and visitors can hear the iconic noises of the jungle as they explore this site.
Several stone buildings and pyramids are located at this large site, but much of the site remains unexcavated.
Visitors to Kohunlich are permitted to climb and explore the excavated stone structures.
12- San Gervasio
The San Gervasio ruins are on the island of Cozumel and is a small archaeological site compared to the sites on the mainland.
It’s the best of the Mayan sites on the island and you can find a few small temples here.
This site was important for Mayan women who would travel to these temples to worship their goddess.
Visitors may not climb the structures at these ruins.
Because these ruins are in a tourist destination, the price of admission is much higher than that of most other Mayan ruins, especially those located off the beaten path.
The archaeological site of Muyil is south of Tulum, adjacent to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
The ruins at Muyil are similar to the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala and have a minimal resemblance to the nearby Tulum ruins.
Muyil was one of the first Mayan cities to be founded and covers a large area.
Only part of the archaeological site is open to visitors and you may not climb any of the pyramids at Muyil.
Mayan Ruins in Campeche
The Calakmul ruins are in the remote jungle of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, five hours from the nearest city, near the border of Guatemala.
The ancient city of Calakmul was the largest Mayan city in Campeche.
This archaeological site has two large pyramids that tourists can climb.
One of these pyramids is the tallest Mayan pyramid in Mexico, with a height of 45 m (148 ft).
Access to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve requires a two-hour drive from the main road.
This site is not suitable for a day trip and if you’re visiting these Mayan ruins, plan to stay at a hotel in Calakmul.
The Mayan ruins of Becán are closer to civilisation than those of Calakmul, so visitors to this archaeological site can see Becán on a day trip.
20 pyramids and other excavated structures are accessible to visitors who wish to climb and explore this large site.
Not many people make the trip to see these spectacular ruins, so you’ll be able to explore without the crowds.
The history of the Edzná ruins is a mystery for archaeologists.
Some believe that this city was where the Itzá family lived before the creation of Chichén Itzá.
At one time, around 200 AD, Edzná was a major Mayan city.
The main temple, called the Gran Acropolis, is an impressive structure featuring two carved masks honouring the sunrise and sunset gods.
Opposite the pyramid is a large residential palace.
All of the structures at this site can be climbed and explored except for the Gran Acropolis.
Every evening, a light show that lights up the ruins takes place.
The Chicanná ruins are a small archaeological site where elite residents lived.
Archaeologists believe this because the residential and temple structures were crafted with elaborate decorations.
Five groups of structures can be found here.
The most impressive structure is the House of the Serpent, where the doorway looks like the mouth of a snake.
The pyramids at this site cannot be climbed.
Mayan Ruins in Chiapas
Palenque is the archaeological site with the best Mayan ruins in Mexico.
Visitors to this remote site should probably plan on staying overnight in the Pueblo Magico, Palenque.
Hundreds of ruins are scattered around this ancient city, nestled within a dense jungle.
One of the most important features at this site is the Temple of Inscriptions which provides written records of over 180 years of this city’s history.
The tomb of a Mayan king, King Pakal, is also located at this site.
Visitors can climb the ruins of many pyramids at Palenque and explore this UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Yaxchilán ruins are a unique archaeological site because they are inaccessible by ground transportation.
Visitors can only reach this site by boating down the Usumacinta River on the Mexico-Guatemala border.
There are over 120 buildings in three different zones within this large city and some of the best Mayan carvings in existence.
It is best to book a tour to reach Yaxchilán to make this adventure easier.
Visitors cannot climb the pyramids at this site.
The Bonampak ruins are small but impressive and the murals at this site are the best-preserved Mayan murals in Mexico.
These murals are approximately 1,250 years old, but the bright colours of the paint used to create them remain vibrant today.
Because of the difficulty of reaching this site deep in the jungle, visitors do not often travel to it.
As such, we recommend visiting Bonampak by booking a tour.
Visitors are not permitted to climb the pyramids at Bonampak.