What are the best Mayan Ruins in Mexico to Visit?
With such a wealth of astonishing places to discover, Mexico's Mayan sites remain a hugely popular draw. Among the top ancient ruins that people usually visit are Tulum, Chichen Itza and Uxmal. While first-time visitors may just want to hit the highlights, for those who wish to delve deeper into Mexico's Maya sites other unique places to explore shouldn't be missed, such as such as Cobá, Chacchoben and Palenque. Wherever your travels take you, we've compiled a fantastic selection of breathtaking Mayan ruins with our editor's picks followed by a few hidden gems you won't want to miss.
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.
2. Chichen Itza
Stunningly well-preserved and imposingly beautiful, Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most impressive historical sites and includes the world famous, looming Mesoamerican step-pyramid known as El Castillo. 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.
Uxmal might not be as well-known as other Mayan tourist attractions in Mexico, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. This Maya town was thought to have been inhabited as early as 800 BC and would once have been a thriving city and important religious centre. At its peak as many as 25,000 people lived here. Amongst its most striking structures is the “House of the Magician”, a looming one-hundred-foot high monument. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately?) visitors are banned from climbing to its top. With its location in the hilly and immensely scenic Puuc region, Uxmal easily ranks as amongst the top 10 sights in Mexico.
Calakmul is a remote and incredible Maya site in Campeche, Mexico, containing the remains of a vast and once-powerful ancient city. Extremely remote, the site has few if any tourists and offers an incredible experience to those willing to make the journey to explore its ancient remains.
A major rival to the city of Tikal, the two powers fought for control throughout the sixth and seventh centuries AD. At its height it was thought to have had estimated to have a population of 50,000. However, as with many cities in the region, Calakmul was slowly abandoned with the collapse of Maya power.
Once comprising of thousands of buildings and other structures, even today Calakmul is only partially excavated. However, these ruins contain huge pyramids, temples and other structures which are truly awe-inspiring to behold.
Cobá 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 the city originally spanned a massive 60 square kilometres, the current archaeological site has yet to uncover all its remains. Among the sites to explore are a large holy pyramid called the Temple of the Church, a playing field used to play ball games and of course the 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. Climbing the steep stairs of this pyramid can be daunting, but the views are great.
Chacchoben is a Maya site in Mexico housing some impressive pyramid temples. A popular tourist site, several tour companies operate here.The exact history of Chacchoben is unclear. Most sources date its pyramids to around 700AD, although the Maya are said to have been present at Chacchoben long before this, perhaps as early as 200BC.
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. Some of the most fascinating sites in Palenque include the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Palace and several other temples, such as the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Cross. 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.
Hidden away far from the husstle and busstle of the main tourist track is the archeaological site of Yaxchilan, containing the ruins of this once-powerful Maya city. The ruins are found along the Usumasinta River and a selection of local tour operators offer boat trips to the site.
Today the ruins contain an incredible set of palaces and temples as well as an array of smaller remains which spread out over a wide area. Not a place for the faint hearted, Yaxchilan is nevertheless a fascinating place to explore.
9. Ek Balam
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. 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. The site’s vast main pyramid rises to a height of almost 100 feet, making it a remarkable example of Maya engineering.
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.
Full list of Maya Sites and Cities in Mexico
While it’s fair to say that world-famous ancient cities of Mexico such as Chichen Itza and Tulum usually grab the limelight, the less prominent Maya sites have a wealth of things to see and do and are often underrated in comparison. Our advice? Don’t ignore them, because the full list of Mexico's Mayan sites can be among the very best to visit! That's why we've gone beyond the top ten and brought you a selection of these hidden gems below.
Although we’ve tried our hardest to list all the ancient Mayan cities of Mexico, it’s possible that a few slipped through the net… If you’ve noticed a site that we’ve missed, you can submit them to us by dropping us a note via our contact us page.