Are you dreaming about traveling to Mexico? To discover the history of the Maya, Aztecs and other ancient civilizations? Mexico is famous for its ancient 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 and at the beach. Nowadays you can visit these archaeological places, stroll through the ancient cities, climb temples, observe glyphs and decorations and learn about the fascinating history. This is a list with the best ruins you want to visit during your trip through Mexico.
The best ruins to visit in Mexico!
The pyramids of Teotihuacan are just impressive and one of the best ruins to visit when you are visiting Mexico for the first time. 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, the city, included 200,000 inhabitants and 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 by taking countless steep steps. Upstairs you will be rewarded with a wide view of the surroundings. Keep in mind that this place is always busy. It is best to visit the site early in the morning or at the end of the day. Teotihuacan can be visited from Mexico City within 1.5 / 2 hours, by private transportation or an organized tour.
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 of Chiapas, is one of the most visited archaeological sites and an absolute highlight. The temples that rise above the jungle and the mysterious haze that hangs above the ruins make a visit unforgettable.
The construction of the city started in 100 BC. Together with Tikal (present Guatemala), Copán (present Honduras) and Calakmul, Palenque were among the most important Mayan cities. The city has a number of characteristic structures, such as The Temple of the Inscriptions, built as a mausoleum for the king. El palacio, a large temple complex, consists of several buildings, corridors and squares for you to explore. The Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Cross and Temple of the Leaf Cross are also worth a visit. But walking around and visiting the smaller temples in the jungle is just as special! Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds. Or at the end of the day to enjoy the sunset from one of the temples. The ruins of Palenque are a 30-minute drive from the city of Palenque.
Monte Albán | The best ruins to visit in Mexico!
Lots of people have heard about the Maya and the Aztecs. But there are many more ancient civilizations in Mexico, such as the Mixtecs and the Zapotecs. 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 impressive 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. The site is half an hour away from Oaxaca. Do you want to know more about Monte Albán and the Zapotecs? Then read on here.
Chichen Itza is one of the seven Wonders of the World and for sure one of the best ruins you should visit in Mexico. The old Maya 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. The largest ball playing field in the Mayan Empire, the fascinating colonnaded galleries, the observatory and the cenote, a sacred spring of water 20 meters deep.
As with many wonders of the world, you will find many tourists here. To get from one place to another, you walk through a market with stalls and sellers. I personally think this completely takes away the magic of the ancient Maya complex. It would be a pity to not visit this place, but it’s good to be aware of it. If you want to visit Chichen Itza, it is important to go very early in the morning. Chichen Itza can be visited, 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 known for the Puuc style, for me one of the most beautiful Mayan decorations. The relief and the mosaic work are 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 locations. The Cuadrangulo de las Monjas (the nunnery) and Palacio del Gobernador (the Governor’s Palace) are known for the countless decorations. Uxmal is located on the Yucatán peninsula and is best visited, when you are on the way to or from Mérida. Uxmal is a 85 km drive from Mérida.
Yaxchilán is the most remote Maya complex in Mexico and my personal favorite of this list with best ruins. It is located along the Usumacinta River, on the border of Mexico and Guatemala, and is only accessible by boat. Due to the 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 feel the magical vibes of the former Maya empire. A highlight is the Palacio del Rey. Here you can see the beautiful ornaments that Yaxchilán is so famous for. Yaxchilán can be visited from the town of Corozal. Read here more about the history of this beautiful Mayan site and how you can reach this place.
Tulum, along with Chichen Itza, is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the country. Not much is left of the city. What makes Tulum special, is its unique location on the Caribbean Sea. It is the only Maya complex with a seafront location. The complex was one of the last Maya structures to be built before the Spaniards arrived. It was built as a political and religious center. But in addition, it probably played an important role in sea trade and served as a port city. Tulum was therefore surrounded by a large wall to protect the city from raids. Tulum, is located on the Riviera Maya, with Playa del Carmen and Cancún in the vicinity.
Mitla is a pre-Columbian city that is visited less often. But it is definitely worth it, if you are in the state of Oaxaca. The site is located in a nice quiet area between the cactuses and the agave plants. Especially the beautiful mosaic work on the buildings make the ruins special. 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. Mitla is located in the state of Oaxaca. It is best to visit the site on the way to or from Oaxaca (1 hour drive).
Is Cholula worth visiting?
The ruins of Cholula are not 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. This 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.
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 places to visit? In the next articles I’m taking you on a tour to the archaeological site of Yaxchilan and Monte Alban.
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