Are you dreaming about traveling to Mexico? To discover the history of the Maya, Aztecs and other ancient civilizations? Mexico is famous for its impressive temples and pyramids, each of them located in a different part of the country. In the jungle, the savanna, on a hilltop, in the rainforest or at the beach. Nowadays you can visit these archaeological places, stroll through the ancient cities, climb temples, observe glyphs and learn about the fascinating history. Discover the best ruins to visit, including tips for the famous Yucatan Mayan ruins in Mexico in the next article.
Discover the best Mayan ruins to visit in Mexico!
With over 100 archaeological sites, the State of Chiapas is the heart of Mayan culture. However, only part of these ancient cities have been excavated. Palenque, located in the jungle, is one of the most visited archaeological sites and an absolute highlight during your trip. The temples that rise above the jungle and the mysterious haze that appears above the Mayan ruins make a visit unforgettable.
The construction of the city started in 100 BC. Together with Tikal (located in Guatemala), Copán (present Honduras) and Calakmul, Palenque used to be one of the most important Mayan cities. The city has a number of characteristic structures to discover. The Temple of the Inscriptions, built as a mausoleum for the king is probably one of the most photographed ones. El palacio, a large temple complex, consists of several buildings, corridors and squares to explore. And the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Cross and Temple of the Leaf Cross are also worth a visit. But to just walk around and visit the smaller temples, located deep in the jungle, is just as special!
Tip: Go early in the morning, to avoid the heat and crowds. Or visit at the end of the day, to enjoy a beautiful sunset from one of the temples. The Mayan ruins of Palenque are a 30-minute drive from the city of Palenque, located in Chiapas province.
Yaxchilán is the most remote Maya complex in Mexico and one of my favorite archaeological sites. It is located along the Usumacinta River, on the border of Mexico and Guatemala, and only accessible by boat, wich adds on to the experience. Due to its difficult accessibility, you will not find many tourists here. The site is located deep in the rainforest, surrounded by a mysterious fog, several monkeys, toucans and Ceiba trees. Because of its isolated location, you are really able to experience the magic of the former Maya empire.
One of the highlights is the Palacio del Rey. Here you can observe the beautiful ornaments that Yaxchilán is so famous for. Yaxchilán can best be visited from the town of Corozal. In the next article you will find everythng you want to know about a visit to the Yaxchilan Mayan ruins in Mexico.
Yucatan Mayan ruins
Chichen Itza, one of the most famous Yucatan Mayan ruins
Chichen Itza is one of the seven Wonders of the World. It is located in the Yucatan state and one of the top Mayan ruins to visit in Mexico. The city was built over a period of 600 years, and is divided into two parts; the old and the new city. Highlights include the world-famous Castillo or Temple of Kukulcán, consisting of 4 steps and 91 steps, representing the number of days of the solar year.
Other structures to explore include the ball playing field, the largest one in the Mayan Empire, the fascinating colonnaded galleries, the observatory and the cenote, a sacred spring with water and 20 meters deep. As with many wonders of the world, you will find many tourists at Chichen Itza. To get from one section to another, you walk on a boulevard with hundreds of marketstalls. I personally think this takes away the magic of the ancient Maya complex. But Chichen Itza is a place not to miss, just make sure you are prepared.
Tip: If you want to visit Chichen Itza, it is important to go very early in the morning. Chichen Itza can best be visited from Valladolid (45 minutes). But it is also easily accesible from cities such as Cancún (2.5 to 3 hours) Playa del Carmen (2.5 to 3 hours) and Tulum (2 to 2.5 hours).
Uxmal is one of the Yucatan Mayan ruins near Merida, known for its Puuc style. For me one of the most beautiful Mayan decorations. The mosaic work is truly impressive. The city was built in different periods, hence the name Uxmal, which means “built three times”. Uxmal had its flourishing period between 800 and 1000 AD. with probably around 300,000 inhabitants.
Highlights are the 40 meter high Pyramid del Adivino (pyramid of the fortuneteller) and the 32 meter high Gran Pyramid (large pyramid). You can climb both pyramids, by taking up many steps. Once at the top, you can enjoy a great view and wonder how the Maya chose these incredible locations. The Cuadrangulo de las Monjas (the nunnery) and Palacio del Gobernador (the Governor’s Palace) are known for its countless decorations as well.
Tulum, along with Chichen Itza, is one of the most visited Yucatan Mayan ruins in Mexico. What makes Tulum special, is its unique location on the Caribbean Sea. It is also the only Maya archaeological site with a seafront. It was built as a political and religious center, and one of the last Maya structures before the Spaniards arrived. Tulum played an important role in sea trade and served as a port city. It was surrouded by a large wall to protect the city from raids. Not much is left of the city nowadays but because of its beautiful location, it is a true picture heaven. Tulum, is located on the Riviera Maya, with Playa del Carmen and Cancún in the vicinity.
Coba Mayan Ruins Mexico
Coba is an archaeological site, located in the jungle, on the shores of the lakes Lago Cobá and Lago Macanxoc. It used to be an important trade and transportation city, in the time of the Maya. The city was connected to other cities in the area by a unique road system, called sachbe’s.
The jungle enviroment makes Coba a beautiful place to visit. Coba consists of 80 km2 but only a small part has been excavated. You can admire the 42 meters high pyramid, Nohoch-Mu, or Castillo, the second largest pyramid in Yucatan (the largest one is located in Chichen Itza). There is a ball playing field, observatory and there are different stelea and remnants of murals to discover. The Yucatan Mayan Ruins of Coba are visited by fewer people than Chichen Itza, wich is nice. Still, it is recommended to go as early as possible. Then there is a good chance that you will be walking here with only a few people, many birds and other animals. The Yucatan Mayan ruins of Coba in Mexico can be explored by foot. But the site is large and distances between archaeological excavations are long, therefore it is also possible to rent a bike or a bike taxi at the entrance.
Hotel Tip: One of the most beautiful hotels to spend the night near the Cobá ruins is Coqui Coqui Papholchac Coba Residence & Spa. This place is a true paradise, located in a beautiful environment and inspired by the rich Mayan culture and history. There are a few exclusive suites, of which the top suites even have their own terrace and swimming pool. Check the latest rates and availability for Coqui Coqui here.
Other beautiful ruins in Mexico
Lots of people have heard about the Maya. But there are many more ancient civilizations in Mexico, such as the Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Aztecs. These are my favorite ruins, temples and pyramids to visit during your trip to Mexico.
Teotihuacan – Aztec ruins of Mexico
The pyramids of Teotihuacan are just impressive! And one of the best ruins to visit when you are in and around Mexico City. Teoticuacan means “the place where one becomes god”, in Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs). The city was built by the Toltecs and later used as an important ceremonial center by the Aztecs. Between 300-700 AD, 200,000 inhabitants must have lived in Teotihuacan and the city had about the same size as Rome.
The temple of the sun and the moon are the most spectacular. You can get all the way to the top of these Aztecs ruins of Mexico, by taking countless steep steps. At the top, you will be rewarded with a wide view of the surroundings.
Tip: Keep in mind that this place is always busy with locals and tourists. It is best to visit the site early in the morning or late afternoon. Try to avoid weekends or holidays. Teotihuacan can be visited from Mexico City within 1.5 / 2 hours, by private transportation or an organized tour.
Monte Albán – Oaxaca ruins
Monte Albán was built around 200 BC and was the religious, political and economic center of the Zapotec empire for 2000 years. The city is located on a hill, and the view is beautiful! If you look out over the complex, you want to go back in time and know how it must have looked. The complex contains several parts, including the central plaza, a ball playing field, the buildings of the elite, tombs and the frescoes of Danzantes. Do you want to learn more about this archaeological site? Find everything you want to know about Monte Albán and the Zapotecs in the next article.
Monte Alban is just half an hour away from Oaxaca. Oaxaca is one of the best cities to visit in Mexico with a pieceful and nice bohemian atmosphere. While walking through Oaxaca city center, you will pass museums, markets, art galleries and countless coffeeshops and restaurants. You can stroll around for hours and enjoy squares, churches, colonial buildings, botanical gardens and colorful street art. Check out my article with the best things to do in Oaxaca city, Mexico.
Mitla is a pre-Columbian city that is visited less often. But it is definitely worth it, if you are in Oaxaca state. The site is located in a nice quiet area between cactuses and agave plants. Especially the beautiful mosaic work on the buildings make the ruins woth visiting. The city was built by the Zapotecs, then conquered by the Mixtecs and inhabited by the Aztecs. Mitla, meaning “the resting place of the dead”, was a city for ceremonial activities. The city later served as a burial site for important priests.
In particular, the Palacio de las Columnas & Grupo de las Columnas are beautiful. The adjacent church, built by the Spaniards, was partly built with Mitla stones, something to pay special attention to.
Is Cholula worth visiting?
The ruins of Cholula are not specifically part of the list with the best ruins to visit in Mexico. However, if you are interested in pre-Columbian cultures, a visit can be worth it. The Pyramid of Cholula is the largest pyramid in the world with dimensions of 450 × 450 m. Cholula is also one of the oldest settlements in Mexico.
Unfortunately, the size of the pyramid is difficult to realize, as very little remains. Nowadays you can only walk along the old foundations and visit the tunnels. Cholula is 15 kilometers away from the Mexican city of Puebla. If you are driving around in the area, you could definitely include a short visit.
More about Mexico
Interested in reading more about Mexico? Read more about what to do in San Cristobal de las Casas and the best things to do in Oaxaca. Interested in learning more about archaeology and hitsory? In the next articles I’m taking you on a tour to the archaeological site of Yaxchilan and Monte Alban.