Exploring the ancient cities in Mexico can be like stepping back in time through a myriad of cultures and civilisations. Though many of the most famous ancient cities of Mexico date back to the Maya period, there are in fact archaeological sites and ancient ruins which trace their routes to a number of other societies, including the Aztecs, Totonac, Zapotec and Mixtecs.
Indeed, some of the historical cities in Mexico remain as yet a mystery as to who originally built them and the enigmatic nature of these strange cities makes them all the more enjoyable to explore.
For visitors today, some of Mexico’s ancient cities remain in staggeringly good condition while others give a mere hint of their former grandeur. The range of archaeological sites in Mexico also helps to cater for all kinds of traveller – the more famous ancient cities in Mexico are now well set up for the general tourist, while the more hidden historical cities of Mexico require grit and determination to explore.
You can explore our Mexico ancient cities map or browse the list of Mexico’s historic cities below. Click on each ancient city for more information.
An ancient Aztec city near Toluca, Calixtlahuaca was originally home to the Matlatzinca people and is one of the lesser known Mexican ancient cities.
Calixtlahuaca near Toluca in Mexico is a well-preserved Aztec archaeological site which was once a thriving city originally home to the Matlatzinca people – the people of the Toluca Valley. The Calixtlahuaca site has a series of fascinating and impressive structures, not least of which are its vast pyramid-like temples.
Home to a number of impressive pyramid temples, Chacchoben is an historical city of the Maya in Mexico.
Chacchoben is a Maya site in Mexico housing some impressive pyramid temples.
The exact history of Chacchoben is unclear. Most sources date its pyramids to around 700AD (some say 300AD), although the Mayas are said to have been present at Chacchoben long before this, perhaps as early as 200BC.
Chacchoben is quite a popular tourist site, with several tour companies operating here.
Probably the most famous of all ancient cities in Mexico, Chichen Itza is an amazing archaeological site built by the Mayas and the Toltecs.
Stunningly well-preserved and imposingly beautiful, Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most impressive historical sites.
A UNESCO World Heritage site based in the forests of the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza is actually made up of two cities built by two peoples, the Mayas and the Toltecs.
The site is made up of several surviving buildings including a circular observatory known as El Caracol, the Warriors’ Temple and El Castillo. Accounts vary as to the date of the first settlement at Chichen Itza, placing it between the 6th and 9th century AD when the Mayas built the original city including “The Building of the Nuns” and a church.
Chichen Itza was conquered by the Toltec King of Tula in the 10th century AD, accounting for the fusion in Maya and Toltec influences.
Chichen Itza also features as one of our Top 10 Tourist Attractions in Mexico.
One of the biggest archaeological sites on the Mexico ancient cities list, Cobá is a Maya city in the Quintana Roo region.
Cobá in Quintana Roo in Mexico houses the remains of a once vast city that developed in around 632 AD and peaked between 800 and 1100 AD. Whilst it is thought that Cobá originally spanned a massive 60 square kilometres, the current archaeological site has yet to uncover all its remains. What can be viewed is spread into four sections, named Grupo Cobá, Chumuc Mul, Macanxoc and Nohoch Mul.
Grupo Cobá contains a large holy pyramid called the Temple of the Church, translated as “La Iglesia”. Nearby, along a worn path is a playing field used to play ball games, signposted as “juego de pelota”.
The most impressive site at Cobá is its Great Pyramid, also known as the Nohoch Mul Pyramid. Rising to a height of 138 feet, the Great Pyramid is the second tallest of all Maya pyramids in the region after Estructura II at Calakmul. Climbing the steep stairs of this pyramid can be daunting, but the views are great.
One of the lesser known historical cities of Mexico, Dzibilchaltun is an archaeological site containing the remains of a Maya settlement.
Dzibilchaltun in Yucatan, Mexico is one of the earliest of the series of Maya settlements along the Puuc Route - a trail of the Maya sites in the Puuc region in Yucatan.
Thought to have been inhabited from around 500 BC, Dzibilchaltun – which is translated as “the site of stone writing” - is not as big as its counterpart, Uxmal, but does house several interesting buildings. In fact, in its heyday, Dzibilchaltun may have been vast and have even rivalled Uxmal in terms of its size, although comparatively little is left now.
One of the main sites at Dzibilchaltun is the Temple of the Seven Dolls. This holy building is also known as the Temple of the Sun, as it is perfectly located for viewing the equinox – this was almost certainly purposefully achieved by design and demonstrates the advanced nature of the Maya understanding of astronomy.
One great aspect which Dzibilchaltun has and which other Maya sites do not is its natural pool or “Cenote”. Excavations of this pool have uncovered many archaeological finds, but today it is most well-known for being a popular swimming venue.
A must for any list of Mexico’s ancient cities and boasting a number of impressive Maya temples and other buildings, Ek Balam is a Maya site on the Yucatan Peninsula. The amazing central pyramid rises to almost 100 ft.
Ek Balam or Ek’ Balam is a Maya site on the Yucatan Peninsula with some impressive ruins. Translated either as Black Jaguar or Star Jaguar, Ek Balam is surrounded by a low, stone wall, an unusual feature in Mayan cities. Within this area are several restored pyramids and large temples as well as a ball court.
Ek Balam also features five sacbe, white roads or causeways, leading from the central area. El Torre, the tower, is one of the largest of Mayan buildings. The site’s vast main pyramid rises to a height of almost 100 feet, making it a remarkable example of Maya engineering.
A very impressive historic site, El Tajin was a city of the Totonac people and is one of several of the ancient cities in Mexico to be UNESCO listed.
El Tajin in the state of Veracruz in Mexico is an impressive archaeological site which originally formed the capital city of the Totonac state. In fact, the name “Tajin” refers to the Totonac deity of thunder, lighting and rain. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is open to the public, although much of it is yet to be excavated.
El Tajin was founded following the abandonment of the city of Teotihuacan. Built and inhabited from 800AD to 1200 AD, El Tajin was a thriving city of major ceremonial importance, a fact illustrated by the numerous Mesoamerican pyramids and other ceremonial structures still seen there today.
Despite the fact that it is thought to have been greatly damaged and subsequently abandoned following an attack by the Chichimecs in the thirteenth century, much of El Tajin is extremely well-preserved offering a great many things to see. Amongst the most famous attractions at El Tajin is the Pyramid of the Niches, an incredibly impressive six-stepped pyramid which would once have been crowned with a temple. Stone reliefs and friezes around the site offer an insight into the lives of those who lived in El Tajin.
A particular pastime for which the city was renowned in its time was ball games, as depicted in numerous reliefs. In an ominous twist, the reliefs also seem to show that these ball games were related to human sacrifices which took place at El Tajin.
El Tajin has an interesting, albeit small museum with explanations in English, Spanish and also – fittingly – in the Totonac language. A visit to the whole site lasts around 2 hours.
A smaller but nonetheless interesting entry on the list of ancient cities in Mexico, the Mayan ruins of Kabah are located in Yucatan.
Kabah was a Maya settlement and is now an archaeological site in Mexico’s Yucatan state. Inhabited from the third century BC and, like nearby Uxmal, abandoned in circa 1200 AD, Kabah was mostly constructed from the seventh century and added to in the ninth century.
It is thought that Kabah was linked to the site of Uxmal – indeed the two are connected by a road - and, whilst it does not boast the grandeur of this larger settlement, Kabah’s ruins are interesting in their own right.
One of Kabah’s most impressive sites is its Temple of the Masks, so called for its many depictions of the rain g-d, Chaac, who is also a central figure in Uxmal. Note that it is best to ask before considering climbing any of the monuments as many of the sites may not be walked on.
Part of the Puuc Trail, which includes a number of ancient cities in the Yucatan region, Labna is a Maya archaeological site which includes the remains of a beautifully ornate palace.
Labna is one of a series of former Maya settlements in Mexico’s Yucatan region and part of what is known as the Puuc Trail.
Like the city of Uxmal, with which it is linked, Labna’s structures, such as its palace and its archway, are beautifully ornate. However, unlike its counterpart, Labna is quite small and most people visit it as part as an overall tour of the sites in the area.
The ruins of this ancient Zapotec and Mixtec city are dotted around the modern town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla in Oaxaca.
Mitla was a Zapotec and later a Mixtec settlement in what is now the modern town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla in Oaxaca in Mexico.
Thought to have first been inhabited by the Zapotecs in around 600 BC, Mitla evolved into an important ceremonial centre. It was later taken over by the Mixtecs in approximately 1000 AD and was still a thriving city at the time the Spanish arrived.
Mitla’s archaeological ruins are dotted around the modern town and divided into five units. The Church Group, which is the one pinpointed on the map, is near the main entrance to the site and close to the sixteenth century Church of San Pedro. This is one of the better excavated parts of Mitla.
Beyond this group of sites are four others, namely the Adobe Group, the Arroyo Group, the South Group and the Columns group. The Columns Group is often called the Palace group for its series of palace buildings.
One of the most impressive aspects of Mitla is the way in which its structures are decorated. Each adorned with elaborate carvings, these works of art distinguish Mitla from other Zapotec and Mixtec sites. It is also unusual that most of the carvings at Mitla are abstract rather than of people or animals.
There is a small museum at Mitla which exhibits several finds from the site.
Carved out of a mountain at an elevation of over 1,600 ft., Monte Alban is a seriously impressive and popular ancient city and Mexican tourist destination which is UNESCO listed.
Monte Alban in Oaxaca in Mexico is an impressive ancient site created by an incredible feat which involved carving a flat space out of a mountain rising to an elevation of over 1,600 feet above the valley below it.
Monte Alban was inhabited for approximately 1,500 years by a succession of civilisations, including the Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs and, at its peak, had a population of around 25,000 people.
The earliest inhabitants of Monte Alban were the Olmecs, who are credited with the over 140 carved stones known as the monument of Los Danzantes, depicting mutilated figures. There has been much debate over what these figures represent. ‘Los Danzantes’ means dancers, but it has since been posited that these were actually war prisoners.
However, whilst Olmec contributions remain, most of the structures found at Monte Alban today were built by the Zapotecs, who are thought to have arrived between 800 BC and 500 BC. Construction continued over the centuries and was later influenced by the culture of Teotihuacan.
Monte Alban is characterised by over 2,200 terraces as well as numerous pyramid structures, large staircases, ornate palaces, elaborate tombs and even a ball court known as Juego de Pelota, mostly arranged on its “Grand Plaza”. The ball court is very well-preserved, made up of two facing stepped platforms with the playing field in the centre. The ball games played were ritualistic and often ended in the death of the losers.
In approximately 800 AD, the Zapotecs were threatened by the Mixtecs and fortified Monte Alban before being driven out. The Mixtecs took over the site and, in around 1400 AD, started burying their leaders in the Zapotec tombs. Whilst many of these ornately decorated tombs were looted, vast riches were found in one particular tomb – Tomb 7 – which can now been seen at Museo Regional de Oaxaca. Some tombs are open to visitors, although this is sporadic.
Today, Monte Alban is a popular tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has a small on-site museum showing some of the finds from excavations of Monte Alban. Monte Alban features as one of our Top Tourist Attractions in Mexico.
In the heart of the jungle and containing some fascinating sites, the Maya settlement of Palenque ranks amongst the most impressive historic cities in Mexico.
Palenque in Mexico is an important Maya archaeological site located just outside the modern city by the same name. It is thought that Palenque was first inhabited in around 100BC and excavations have uncovered writings about a king who ruled there in the fifth century AD, however the city was attacked several times by the inhabitants of neighbouring cities.
Pakal the Great
It was from the seventh century AD that Palenque began to develop once more under the rule of Pakal the Great (sometimes spelt “Pacal”). During his reign between 615 and 683 AD, Pakal built many of Palenque’s most impressive structures and they are often considered to be some of the most important pieces of Maya architecture. Pakal’s works were continued by his son, Kan B’alam.
Abandonment of Palenque
In approximately 711 AD, Palenque was attacked once more and, by 900 AD it was deserted. Having been discovered in the sixteenth century, Palenque is now a popular tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has a small, but interesting museum, exhibiting finds from the excavation of Palenque and giving an overview of its history.
Some of the most fascinating sites in Palenque include Pakal’s tomb, known as the Temple of the Inscriptions or “Templo de las Inscripciones”, the Palace (El Palacio) and several other temples, such as the Temple of the Sun (Los Templo del Sol) and the Temple of the Cross (Los Templo de la Cruz). Many of these temples centre off Palenque’s central plaza, a marvel in its own right as it was built over the river, requiring advanced engineering mechanisms.
Each of the structures in Palenque is ornate and lavishly decorated, bearing inscriptions chronicling the history of the city, which was probably the capital of the region. In fact, Palenque has the honour of having one of the best Maya inscriptions ever found, located in the Temple of the Inscriptions and telling the story of Palenque.
Palenque features as one of our Top Ten Mexican Tourist Attractions.
Perhaps dating back as far as 800BC, the remains of Cuicuilco are amongst the oldest of any ancient city in Mexico and include the looming circular Piramide de Cuicuilco.
Cuicuilco is an ancient archeological site and museum next to Mexico City’s Lake Texcoco which includes the striking Piramide de Cuicuilco.
Dating back to the Mesoamerican era perhaps as far as 800 BC, Cuicuilco is thought to be one of Mexico’s oldest sites. At its peak, Cuicuilco is believed to have had a population of between 20,000 and 40,000 people.
Cuicuilco is comprised of numerous ruins, including a 23 metre high, five-level, circular pyramid (the Piramide de Cuicuilco) thought to be of religious and cosmic significance. Whilst originally built as a farming community, Cuicuilco later developed into a ceremonial city, maybe even the predecessor of Teotihuacan, as evidenced by its relatively well-preserved remains, which include both residential and religious structures.
The ruins of an old water drainage system are also present, demonstrating the relative sophistication of Cuicuilco’s inhabitants.
Cuicuilco was finally abandoned sometime between 150 and 200 AD, after the eruption of the nearby Xitle volcano. Some archaeologists think that the residents of Cuicuilco and other surrounding areas all later moved to Teotihuacan.
Quieter than the larger sites in the area such as Uxmal, Sayil contains the remains of a small Maya city built in the Puuc style.
Sayil in Yucatan in Mexico is a small archaeological site of Maya ruins built in the traditional Puuc style.
Quieter than the larger sites in the area such as Uxmal, Sayil offers a good place to see Maya structures such as its impressive palace and El Mirador temple, although there is less to see here than at some of the more famous sites.
One of the most famous ancient cities of Mexico, Tenochtitlan was the Aztec capital destroyed by the Spanish in the 16th century. Largely engulfed by modern Mexico City, a few remains of this renowned city can still be seen.
Tenochtitlan in Mexico was established on an island in Lake Texcoco in 1325 AD as the capital city of the Aztecs and, in its final and most prosperous days, was ruled by Motecuhzoma II, also known as Montezuma.
At its peak, Tenochtitlan was a thriving and imposing city with around 200,000 inhabitants. It was characterised by its enormous pyramids and clear street grids, dividing Tenochtitlan into four zones.
In 1519 AD, during Montezuma’s rule, Spanish invaders led by Hernán Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan and by 1521 the city was conquered. Much of Tenochtitlan was subsequently razed to the ground, leaving little behind.
Today, remnants of Tenochtitlan are hard to find as they have been consumed by the development of modern Mexico City. Those Tenochtitlan sites which have been excavated, including five temples of which Templo Mayor is one, are protected on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, however there is no single Aztec site to visit.
One of the most popular Tenochtitlan sites is Xochimilco. This is more of a beautiful park rather than an archaeological ruin, but features waterways that ran from the Aztec era as well as some Chinampas (flower gardens) from that time. Alternatively, see the Templo Mayor entry for a more traditional site.
One of the most striking and imposing ancient cities in Mexico, Teotihuacan is characterised by looming stepped pyramids, some rising as much as 75m high.
Teotihuacan was a holy Mesoamerican city built in around 400 BC in what is now Mexico and forms one of the country’s oldest archeological sites.
Whilst the founders of Teotihuacan have never been definitively identified, it is thought that the city was inhabited by the Toltecs and was also an important Aztec site.
Literally translated as the place “where gods are created”, Teotihuacan was clearly a city of significant religious importance to its inhabitants, as illustrated by the wealth of monuments at the site.
Characterised by looming stepped pyramids, indeed one of the most impressive aspects of Teotihuacan is the sheer size of these monuments, including the Pyramid of the Sun, which measures 225 by 222 metres at its base, rising 75 metres high.
Incredibly well-preserved, despite a fire which tore through Teotihuacan in the 7th century, Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
However, it is not just Teotihuacan’s religious monuments which make it such an important and popular site. In fact, it is estimated that these make up a mere 10% of the total excavated site and the rest includes castles, such as the Palace of Quetzalcoatl and the Palace of the Citadel, residential buildings and communal buildings.
Visitors to Teotihuacan can maneuver their way through the city via its original streets, such as Avenue of the Dead, which divided the city into quarters, although take note that the site is absolutely enormous.
Today, Teotihuacan is one of the most popular tourist sites in Mexico and includes numerous museums, including the Museo del Sitio, just south of the Pyramid of the Sun where visitors can see various artefacts from the site. It also features as one of our Top Ten Tourist Attractions in Mexico.
Once a thriving walled city, Tulum is a cliff-top Maya archaeological site in the Quintana Roo region which looms above picturesque beaches and the clear blue coastal waters of Mexico.
Tulum is a Maya site in Mexico’s Quintana Roo region dating back to between the 13th and 16th centuries. At its peak, Tulum was quite a thriving walled city.
Whilst relatively modest in comparison to, say Chichen Itza, Tulum does feature some interesting and quite well preserved ruins, including its castle, city walls and temples. One of the highlights at Tulum is its Temple of the Frescoes, with some original frescoes inside it. However, the real beauty of Tulum is its shimmering beachside location.
Tulum features as one of our Top Ten Tourist Attractions in Mexico.
Definitely ranking among the very best historical cities of Mexico, Uxmal was a Maya city in Yucatan which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Uxmal is an archaeological site in Mexico which houses the ruins of a Maya town thought to have been inhabited as early as 800BC. Having said this, most of the buildings and structures seen at Uxmal today were constructed in between around 700AD to 1000AD.
A thriving city and a religious centre with great ceremonial significance, at its peak Uxmal had a population of around 25,000 people. Uxmal was abandoned in 1200AD and then inhabited by the Yiu, who would later join the Mayapan League with Chichen Itza.
The layout of the town of Uxmal is one of its most interesting aspects, having been carefully aligned to fit with concepts of astronomy, offering an insight into the beliefs and culture of the Mayas who lived there. Uxmal was also quite advanced in its use of hydraulic systems to gather water up to the hill or “Puuc” on which it was set. Like other ancient cities in Mexico, Uxmal has a series of ceremonial pyramids the most celebrated of which is the Pyramid of the Soothsayer.
Translated as ‘Pyramide el Adivino’ and sometimes known as the “House of the Magician”, the Pyramid of the Soothsayer is an impressive 100-foot high monument dating back to the Late Classic Period. It is flanked by several temples, which were built over time, although legend has it that this pyramid took just one night to complete. Sadly, the pyramid cannot be climbed by tourists.
Beyond this well-known monument, Uxmal has several other impressive structures. The Governor's Palace (Palacio del Gobernador) is one such example, it being completely symmetrical and ornately decorated with depictions of astronomy symbols as well as of the rain god, Chaac. This is near the Casa de las Tortugas or “The House of the Tortoises” which is a simple yet pretty building.
Also at Uxmal is the Quadrangle of the Nuns, also called The Nunnery or “Cuadrangulo de las Monjas” which is comprised of four stone buildings neatly surrounding a courtyard and, like the Governor's Palace, is resplendent with religious artwork. Built at a similar time to the Nunnery and like the one in the city of El Tajin, Uxmal has a ball court, where its citizens would have participated in games.
Uxmal is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and also has a small museum. Organised tours from Merida can last a whole day and include sites such as Kabah. Audio guides are available in several languages for an added fee.
Uxmal features as one of our Top 10 Tourist Attractions in Mexico.
Said to have been of great ceremonial importance, the remains of the Maya city of Xcaret are part of a larger eco and amusement park in the Quintana Roo region of Mexico.
Xcaret houses the ruins of a Maya city which reached its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Located in Mexico’s Quintana Roo region, Xcaret was then known as Ppole and is said to have been of great ceremonial importance, as evidenced by its wealth of temples, homes and monuments.
The Xcaret ruins are actually part of a much larger eco and amusement park, with a range of activities.
One of the more hidden of Mexico’s ancient cities, Xlapak is a small archaeological site in Yucatan.
Xlapak is one of the smaller of the archaeological sites along the Puuc Trail in the Yucatan State in Mexico, a trail of Maya sites in the hilly part of this otherwise flat state.
The main structure at Xlapak is a small palace which is adorned with carvings of the rain god, Chaac.
Listed by UNESCO for its well-preserved ruins, Xochicalco ranks among the most important pre-Columbian cities of Mexico.
Xochicalco is an important pre-Columbian site in Mexico, listed by UNESCO for its well-preserved ruins dating from an important period in Mesoamerican history.
At Xochicalco’s peak between 650AD and 900AD - during the Epiclassic period - the Mesoamerican world was in great flux, with places like Tikal, Teotihuacan and Palenque being broken up. As such, this city’s ruins are seen to represent the coming together of several cultures.
Xochicalco’s impressive hierarchy of ruins includes a ball court, a palace, temples, monuments and homes, all carefully arranged amid terraces, plazas and ramps to great effect.
Xochicalco features as one of our Top Ten Visitor Attractions in Mexico.
Often overlooked by tourists, the historic city of Yagul was a fortified Zapotec settlement the ruins of which are located in Oaxaca.
Yagul is an archaeological site in Mexico’s Oaxaca region inhabited by the Pre-Columbian civilisation of the Zapotecs, although the exact time of their first occupation of this area is unknown (sometime between 500 and 100 BC). Yagul was still in use at the time of the Spanish Conquest.
Somewhat dwarfed by the grandeur of nearby Monte Alban, Yagul is smaller and has undergone less excavation than its famous counterpart yet it does have a series of interesting monuments. Amongst other things, Yagul has a ball court, similar to the one seen at Monte Alban and at other Zapotec sites and a large labyrinth of a palace, thought to have been built for its leaders.
It is clear from the remaining parts of its fortress wall that Yagul was heavily defended, helped by its position atop a hill. Lower down the hill, visitors can see what was once its central plaza, surrounded by several palaces and temples. Also in this section is a site known as the Triple Tomb or “Tumba Triple”, one of many tombs found in Yagul. Visitors can ask to view the Triple Tomb, as long as escorted by one of the guards.
Yagul is often overlooked by tourists, but is worth seeing if only for the peaceful nature of its setting which makes viewing its sites a calmer experience than many in the region.