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8 Amazing Mayan Ruins In Mexico For You To Explore

Mexico is famous for its sandy beaches, incredible cuisine, stunning cathedrals and best chocolates, but did you know that millions of tourists visit Mexico every year to explore some of the many Mayan ruins. Mexico has been home to several indigenous tribes but none as famous as the Maya. The Mayan community was one of the biggest groups living in Mexico and Central America since 1800 BC. With over 4,400 Maya sites throughout Latin America and around 200 of them located in Mexico, it’s no surprise that Mayan heritage sites continue to draw tourists from around the world. A Mexican vacation package is incomplete without visiting these culturally enriching archaeological sites. Visit some of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico to unfold the story of the Mayan people who were as mysterious as their decline.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza Mexico is the most popular Mayan site with its well-preserved clusters of pyramids and Temples. Located in the state of Yucatan, Chichen Itza was one of the largest cities in the Mayan world. Spread over two square miles, it is located 90 miles northeast of Uxmal and 75 miles southeast of the modern city of Mérida. This buzzing city that dates back to the 5th century had residences, and religious monuments and was a hub of commerce. Today this place welcomes over 2,500,000 tourists every year.

One of the main highlights of Chichen Itza is its mathematically and scientifically designed step pyramid. In total there are 365 steps, one step for each day of the year. Twice a year (on the spring and autumn equinoxes) tourists visit to see the shadow on the pyramid that forms the shape of a snake which is one of the New Seven Wonders – click here to read about all the 7 wonders. This is like a tribute to the most powerful Mayan God, Kukulcan – depicted as a Feathered Serpent. An ancient Mayan ruin is the best manifestation of the Mayans ‘ understanding of astronomy; hence this is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico today. In 1988 Chichén Itzá has designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Kukulkan pyramid, Chichen Itza
Kukulkan pyramid, Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza opens from Monday to Sunday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm and tickets can be purchased at the site. Keep three hours aside just to explore this Heritage site. You can reach the archaeological site by car, bus or with the help of tour operators.

Tulum

Tulum is quite different from other Mayan sites as it’s situated on a 39 ft cliff. A few hours’ drives from Chichen Itza is the iconic city of Tulum in Quintana Roo overlooking the sea. From here one can have a perfect view of the rising sun. Along with the rich historical significance, you can also enjoy the Caribbean coastline as it is the only Mayan site built by the sea. Tulum’s architecture is similar to Chichen and it is believed to be built to expand the trade routes along the coastal lines. Between the 11th and 16th centuries, Tulum Mexico was a major trading centre for the Mayans. A major part of their trade was for food, cotton, copper bells, axes, turquoise and cacao beans.

Though not as grand as the other ruins, it’s definitely worth a visit for its impressive Caribbean coastline. The most preserved ruins in Mexico, the Tulum ruins overlook a stunning beach which you can enjoy right within the ruins. Because of Tulum’s prime location along with incredible views all around, it attracts a lot of visitors. The highlight of the Tulum ruins is the Temple of the Frescoes, where you can see an actual mural with colored paint still intact. Another important structure is Tulum’s main pyramid, El Castillo. It was used as a lighthouse to help sailors navigate the bay at dusk.

Tulum, Mexico
Tulum, Mexico

This place is around 3km from the city centre of Tulum. Come in early to see the sunrise, and then you can explore the place for an hour or two. The beach opens around 10:00 am and closes normally by 5:00 pm.

Ek’ Balam

Despite being a recently opened ruin, Ek’ Balam has quickly made its place to the top as one of the best ruins in Mexico. Ek Balam is a mix of Mayan and Yucatecan ruins located 56 Km northeast of Chichen Itza. It is quite off the tourist radar and here you can admire the Mayan architecture up close. Ek Balam has several temples, two palaces and a large pyramid which is in the centre of the city. After its peak in the 8th century, the Ek’ Balam city was banned for reasons unknown.

The walled city with 45 structures is still hidden by the jungle. Mayan structures include pyramids, a ball court, and an Acropolis. At the top of the Acropolis is the main pyramid of Ek’ Balam which holds the tomb of the ruler Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok, who was in power in AD 800. It got its name Ek’ Balam, “the black jaguar” because it features a massive jaguar mouth. This structure is more than 500 ft long and 200 ft wide, with a height of around 100 ft.

The intricate carving features Mayan gods and their stories. It serves as a quality resource to know about northern classic Mayan cities compared to other northern ruins including Coba, Izamal, and Edzna. Buildings were designed with stucco skulls, winged shaman figures, and other decorations in the northern Petén architectural style. This site is surrounded by two defence walls and a multitude of smaller walls. This ancient city functioned for more than 1,000 years, with only the centre of the city evacuated. Today you can still see the excavation process going on here.

Yucatec Maya archaeological site of Ek-Balam
Yucatec Maya archaeological site of Ek-Balam

Ek Balam archaeological site is a 2-hour drive from the Riviera Maya. The site is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. You’ll need to pay a split fee to enter the grounds, one for the site and one for the Yucatan state government.

Palenque

This seventh-century Maya city surrounded by a beautiful forest is located near the Usumacinta River in southern Mexico. It is a quintessential ruin of the Great Mayan civilization and one of the most mysterious archaeological sites in Mexico. If not for the Spanish Conquistadors, these Mayan ruins would have gone undiscovered as it was slowly getting absorbed by the jungle. Reconstructed and well-restored, it features the wonderful architecture and sculpture of the most advanced ancient civilization of America. Its beautiful jungle surroundings and impressive architecture make a visit to Palenque a truly unique experience.

Palenque is not the largest Mayan city, but definitely, the most important one as the written inscriptions have helped researchers truly understand the details of Mayan ruins’ history and culture. The Mayan history of Palenque dates back to about the 3rd century but the first written account dates back to the 16th century. This archaeological site has 1000’s ruins, pyramid tombs and temples to study but only around 10 per cent have been explored. The most impressive structure of the lot is the Temple of the Inscriptions, where the crypt of the ruler Pacal lies. In 1987 the entire place was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Over 1,400 buildings have been discovered here, yet only around 10 per cent have been explored.

Palenque Chiapas, Mexico
Palenque Chiapas, Mexico

November and March is the best time to visit Palenque as the weather is cooler during this time. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is about 7 kilometres from the town of Palenque. The entrance ticket to Palenque is relatively cheaper compared to other Mayan ruins sites.

Monte Alban

It is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a rich history dating back to 500 BC. This stunning Mayan site is located on the impressive mountain ranges in the valley of Oaxaca. You will need to spend about 2 hrs here as there are plenty of things to see. As it sits 400 meters above the valley floor, one can get a 360-degree view of the city, mountains, and valleys. Monte Alban was founded in 500 BC and is believed to have 35000 people living here. This was one of the most important and largest cities in Mesoamerica at that time. It lost all its powers somewhere in 800 AD and the site was abandoned. It was rediscovered by the Mixtec people later, who used it as a burial site.

After exploring Monte Alban you can see that there is a clear difference between how the upper class and lower class lived. The upper-class people lived on the top and the lower class lived on either side of the hill. Mayan people are known for producing the first fully defined written script. Mayan ruins definitely serve as a great resource to know how this mysterious culture used to live. Monte Alban features notable monuments including the Main Plaza, Los Danzantes, Ballcourt, Mayan temples, and elite residences. With palaces, temples, a ball court, and an observatory, Monte Albán is one of the most culturally rich Mayan ruins of the Zapotec civilization.

Monte Alban, Mexico
Monte Alban, Mexico

This archaeological complex is 10 kilometres from the city. You can take a shuttle bus or even drive down. The best option is to take a cab, but make sure you start early as it’s difficult to find a cab afternoon. The Monte Alban site is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. You need to take a ticket to enter.

Coba Ruins

Located in a dense jungle, the Mayan ruins of Coba are one of the largest cities of Mayan. The good news is that this is one of the last remaining archaeological sites where the visitors are still allowed to climb. Nohoch Mul pyramid, the tallest pyramid in Yucatan (137 feet tall) is the main highlight here. A steep climb to the top through the slippery 120 stone steps is tough but you won’t regret it when you reach the top. Miles of thick dense jungle spanning over 30 square miles is a sight to behold from the top.

Coba ruins are not as famous as their neighbours, Chichen Itza and Tulum because it wasn’t open to the public until the 1980s. Today, only a small portion of the site has been excavated and with not many tourists, one can get the actual forest feel here. According to archaeological evidence, the Mayan ruins of Coba are about 2,000 years old and are estimated to have had 50,000 in population. What makes Coba famous is the sacbes or white roads (the largest network of stone causeways).

The Coba Mayan ruins are only 47 km from Tulum in the Yucatan Peninsula. You can reach this place either by renting a car, taking a taxi or by bus. Once you are here you can rent a bike to explore the four square miles that are open to the public. If you want to just sit back and enjoy, hire the bike carts.

Bonampak

This archaeological zone was discovered by two American travellers in 1946. Unlike the other Mayan ruins, just getting to this place is itself a great experience. Founded around AD 580, Bonampak still remains off the tourist trail because it’s a bit of an adventure to reach there. Though this site is deep in the Lacandon rainforest, they are ideal for a day trip from Palenque. Firstly one has to take a boat ride along the Usumacinta River to get to Yaxchilan. This river was used to trade with other famous Mayan cities like Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras. Next, take a Lacandon transport to reach Bonampak right through the heart of the jungle. Getting to Bonampak in Chiapas, Mexico is a once in a lifetime adventure. Once you are here, the visitors are rewarded with stunning visuals. 

These relatively unknown Mayan ruins near Mexico City gives you a feel of history with every corner you visit. As the name suggests – Bonampak “Painted Walls” is the main highlight here. The Temple of the Murals is a fully painted three-quarters mural located within the main structure. The main structure is quite literally splashed with vibrant, colorful murals. These colorful murals tell stories of the Mayan customs that include celebrations, music, war and sacrifices. In fact, these are the most well-preserved murals in the entire Mayan ruins world. These 1,000 years old paintings are heavily protected and visitors are allowed to see them only from a ramp.

The archaeological site is about 2.5 hours from Palenque down a narrow road through the Lacandon jungle. The best way to reach here is to book with a tour operator.

El Rey

El Rey is an ideal Maya archaeological site for travellers who want to experience the ancient Maya civilization but don’t have the time to go to Chichen Itza or Tulum. You will be surprised to know that El Rey ruin is nestled at the southern end of the main hotel zone of Cancun. Thousands of years back this was part of a temple complex but today this site has 47 structures that include a small temple and several ceremonial platforms. This site is super accessible to tourists and it takes not more than a half-hour to explore. This site has a lot of platforms and bases where the buildings once stood, few structures and columns are still visible for us to explore.

The site is around 520m from north to south and 70m from east to west. Named after ‘The King’, this archaeological site is a historical location as well as a great botanical garden. Years back El Rey was a city centre and a village for trading goods between Maya cities. Besides being the trade centre it was also a burial site only for the Mayan royals. But today it is a beautiful garden where you roam around, can climb to the top of a pyramid or explore this small, intimate, ruin site. The beauty of this place is that you’ll hardly find this site crowded. It’s also believed that the early astronomers observed space and the stars from here.

As El Rey is located in the middle of the hotel zone it doesn’t take much time to reach here. You can either take a bus or a taxi. El Rey Mayan Ruins are open for exploration from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.

What to pack for A Mexico Mayan Ruins Tour?

  •         Carry your food and water as most of the Mayan sites do not have food stalls or restaurants.
  •         Wear some light-weight, long-sleeved shirts and long pants to avoid bug bites.
  •         Keep a flashlight handy as some of the passageways, and rooms in temples are dark and need light to explore them.
  •         Don’t forget to carry your camera as the photographic possibilities are endless.
  •         Don’t carry your tripod as they are not allowed inside the archaeological sites.
  •         Put on a good pair of sneakers as you are expected to do a lot of walking.
  •         It’s going to be very sunny out there, make sure that you protect your eyes with a pair of sunglasses.
  •         As Mayan ruins are located in the forested areas, smear your body with bug spray and mosquito repellents prior to your visit.
  •         Wear sweat licking socks to help you feel and stay refreshed all day long in the hot and humid weather.
  •         Get a guide as they will be able to explain the astronomical theories behind the Mayan ruins better.
  •         Ensure you have some currency handy as you will need them to cover your entrance fees and to tip your guides.
  •         Don’t carry valuables with you; leave them in the safety deposit box in your room.

There are numerous sites to visit, but the popular ones mentioned above continue to draw millions of tourists from across the globe. To understand the Mayan culture better you need to visit these archaeological sites and step into their shoes to walk through history. Come visit these stunning Mayan ruins in this magical country. Do share your thoughts and experiences in the comment box below.  

Is it safe to visit the Mayan ruins in Mexico?

Yes, the Mayan ruins of Mexico are safe, but be extra careful if you are planning to go on your own as some of the roads are quite treacherous and unpredictable.

What is the best Mayan ruin to visit in Mexico?

Chichen Itza is the most popular of them all because of the El Castillo pyramid which is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Where should I stay in Mexico to see the Mayan ruins?

Playa del Carmen in the Yucatan Peninsula is the best place to stay as everything is easily accessible from this place.

What is the Puuc Route or Ruta Puuc?

The Puuc Route (Ruta Puuc) is around 85km south of Merida which connects five ancient Maya sites in the Yucatan.

Chichen Itza or Uxmal?

Both are a must-visit. If you want to get away from the crowd, Uxmal is your best bet. But at the same time, one cannot miss Chichen Itza – the modern wonder of the world.

Who built Chichen Itza?

It’s believed that the people of the Mayan civilization of the Yucatán Peninsula built Chichen Itza.

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