Mind-Blowing Ancient Cities in Mexico

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Exploring the ancient cities of Mexico can be like stepping back in time through a myriad of cultures and civilisations and among the very best ruins to explore are Chichen Itza, Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan. Other popular sites tend to include Calixtlahuaca, El Tajin and Uxmal.

Though many of the most famous ancient cities 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.

We’ve put together an expert guide to lost cities and ancient ruins of Mexico, with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list of Mexico's ancient cities which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.

What are the best ancient cities in Mexico?

1. Tulum

Tulum has it all. With its idyllic beaches and clear blue coastal waters, Tulum has beaches that rival even the most majestic coastlines in the world. Once a thriving walled city, the ruins of Tulum lie alongside a popular and picturesque tourist resort. Whilst relatively modest in comparison to, say Chichen Itza, Tulum does feature some fascinating ruins, including its castle, city walls and temples. However, the real beauty of Tulum the perfect combination of its ancient ruins and shimmering beachside location. Now that's hard to beat.

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2. Chichen Itza

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. 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 the site, 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. The city was conquered by the Toltec King of Tula in the 10th century AD, accounting for the fusion in Maya and Toltec influences.

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3. Teotihuacan

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. Characterised by looming step 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. Visitors can manoeuvre their way through the city via its original streets which divided the city into quarters, although take note that the site is absolutely enormous.

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4. Monte Alban

Monte Alban is a hugely impressive ancient site created by an incredible feat which involved literally carving a flat space out of a mountain. The earliest inhabitants were the Olmecs, who are credited with the over 140 carved stones known as the monument of Los Danzantes, depicting mutilated figures. However, most of the structures found today were built by the Zapotecs, who are thought to have arrived between 800 BC and 500 BC. 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.

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5. Xochicalco

Listed by UNESCO for its well-preserved ruins, Xochicalco ranks among the most important pre-Columbian cities of Mexico. At its peak between 650AD and 900AD 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.

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6. Palenque

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.

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7. 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.

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8. Uxmal

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. A thriving city and a religious centre with great ceremonial significance, at its peak Uxmal had a population of around 25,000 people. Like other ancient cities in Mexico, Uxmal has a series of ceremonial pyramids the most celebrated of which is the Pyramid of the Soothsayer, an impressive 100-foot high monument dating back to the Late Classic Period. 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.

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9. Cobá

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.

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10. El Tajin

El Tajin is an impressive archaeological site which originally formed the capital city of the Totonac state. The city was founded following the abandonment of Teotihuacan and was inhabited from around 800AD to 1200 AD. Today, much of El Tajin is extremely well-preserved offering a great many things to see. Amongst the most famous attractions 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.

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Full list of lost cities in Mexico

Beyond the most famous lost cities and ancient ruins in Mexico, there are many similar places to visit, including Kabah, Labna and Dzibilchaltun to name but a few. We’re constantly expanding this list of Mexico's ancient cities and you can view the current selection below.

Calakmul

Calakmul is a remote and incredible Maya site in Campeche, Mexico, containing the remains of a vast and once-powerful ancient city. Read More

Calixtlahuaca

An ancient Aztec city near Toluca, Calixtlahuaca was originally home to the Matlatzinca people and is one of the lesser known Mexican ancient cities. Read More

Chacchoben

Home to a number of impressive pyramid temples, Chacchoben is an historical city of the Maya in Mexico. Read More

Cuicuilco

Perhaps dating back as far as 800BC, the remains of Cuicuilco are amongst the oldest of any ancient ruins in Mexico and include the looming circular Piramide de Cuicuilco. Read More

Dzibilchaltun

One of the lesser known historical cities of Mexico, Dzibilchaltun is an archaeological site containing the remains of a Maya settlement. Read More

Kabah

A smaller but nonetheless interesting entry on the list of ancient cities in Mexico, the Mayan ruins of Kabah are located in Yucatan. Read More

Labna

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. Read More

Mitla

The ruins of this ancient Zapotec and Mixtec city are dotted around the modern town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla in Oaxaca. Read More

Sayil

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. Read More

Templo Mayor

Templo Mayor was a holy temple in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now modern day Mexico City. Read More

Tenochtitlan

Tenochtitlan was the famous 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. Read More

Xcaret

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. Read More

Xlapak

Xlapak is a small archaeological site in Mexico’s Yucatan region. The main structure at Xlapak is a small palace which is adorned with carvings of the rain god, Chaac. Read More

Yagul

Often overlooked by tourists, the historic city of Yagul was a fortified Zapotec settlement the ruins of which are located in Oaxaca. Read More

Yaxchilan

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. Read More

Our database of ancient cities in Mexico is growing all the time but we may not cover them all. So, if you know of other ancient ruins in Mexico, you can always add them to Trip Historic now by contacting us today.