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The 7 Best Mayan Ruins in Mexico and How to Visit Them in 2024

Best Mayan Ruins in Mexico

What You Will Learn (Click to Expand)

Introduction

Understanding the Significance of Mayan Ruins

The Mayan Ruins of Mexico and Central America are a testament to a grand civilization that once thrived for thousands of years.

Home to complex architectural designs and symbols of historical significance, these ruins give us a unique look into the life and culture of the ancient Maya people.

No visit to Mexico is complete without exploring these fascinating ruins, a pilgrimage to the past.

And now, let’s explore the Best Mayan Ruins in Mexico.

Mexico Mayan Ruins Map

1. The Splendor of Chichen Itza

An Insight into the History of Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is more than just a relic; it’s a living testament to the grandeur of the Mayan civilization. Constructed over several centuries, starting from the 6th century AD, it was a thriving hub of Mayan culture.

At its peak, Chichen Itza was home to up to 50,000 people. The city’s iconic structures, like the majestic El Castillo pyramid and grand Temple of the Warriors, showcase the architectural genius and skilled craftsmanship of the Maya.

From the illusions on El Castillo during the equinoxes to the echo-inducing architecture, the city burgeoned with grandiosity and mystery.

Best Mayan Ruins in Mexico

Tips for Visiting Chichen Itza

Making the most out of your visit to Chichen Itza depends largely on timing and preparation.

Here are a few handy tips:

  • Arrive early or stay late: The site opens at 8 AM and closes at 5 PM, with the last entrance at 4 PM. Beat the crowd by getting there as the doors open or stay until closing time, saving popular spots like the pyramid and ball court for last.
  • Visit during the low season: May to September sees fewer tourists due to the hot and humid weather, but it’s also the best time to enjoy the site without overwhelming crowds.
  • Head directly to El Castillo: The iconic pyramid is often the starting point for most tourists. Getting there first will allow you to enjoy it at leisure.
  • Opt for a weekday visit: Chichen Itza can be extremely crowded on weekends and public holidays. Plan your visit on a weekday for a more peaceful experience.
  • Hire a private guide: They will provide a personalized tour, avoiding large tourist groups and showing you unique areas.

2. Scenic Tulum: Coastal Ruins with a View

A Glimpse of Tulum's Past

Tulum, formerly known as Zama or ‘sunrise’, held a significant position in the Mayan world as a coastal gateway for the Yucatan Peninsula’s trade with Honduras and other parts of Gulf Mexico.

Established around the 13th century, the city was an essential seaport, trading commodities like turquoise, jade, cotton, and food. Tulum’s fame also lies in its strategic location on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

El Castillo, the ruins’ largest structure, stands as a symbol of Tulum’s past majesty and the seat of its economic and cultural prowess. Today, it beckons visitors ranging in millions annually, with breathtaking sunrises and pristine sands framing the picturesque ruins.

Essential Information for Your Visit to the Tulum Ruins

Visiting the Tulum ruins requires some essential information to navigate the site effectively.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Entrance Fee: As of 2024, the entrance fee into the Tulum Ruins costs $80 pesos ($4USD/€3).
  • Opening Hours: The ruins are open daily from 8 am to 5 pm.
  • Touring the Structures: The Tulum Ruins tour features four key structures: the Wind Temple, the Temple of the Descending God, El Castillo, and the Frescoes Temple. Equipped with English-language signage, each of these structures provides a historical overview.
  • Swimming: After the tour, you can head to Playita Tortugas for a swim. A winding staircase will guide your way down to this famous swimming spot.
  • Accessibility: The site is wheelchair accessible, with wheelchair rental available at the entrance.

Pay attention to roped-off areas – these sections are strictly off-limits for the preservation of the site.

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3. Unfolding the Mysteries of Palenque

Brief History of Palenque

Palenque, also known as Lakamha or “The Place of Great Waters”, was a thriving Mayan kingdom that hit its zenith between 500 and 700 CE.

The city reached its peak under the reign of Kinich Janaab Pakal, widely known as King Pakal. One of its highlights is the Temple of Inscriptions, which was built by Pakal’s first son and cement records of over 180 years of the city’s history.

The tomb of King Pakal himself, with walls dripping with water due to intense humidity, lies deep within this temple. After its abandonment in the 9th century, Palenque lay ensconced within the dense jungles of Chiapas, shielded from heavy looting, which immensely aided in its preservation.

Today, it offers a profound insight into the early Mayan civilization and is believed to have only revealed 10% of its secrets, with 90% of the Late Classic Period city still lying undiscovered.

Guide for Palenque Visitors

Planning to visit the mesmerizing Palenque ruins? Here are some essential tips to make your visit memorable and hassle-free:

  • Choose the Right Guide: After parking your vehicle, you may be approached by numerous people offering guided tours. However, it’s advisable to opt for an official guide who will be wearing a badge. While unofficial guides may be knowledgeable, an official guide lends credence and accurate information.
  • Cost of Guided Tours: The cost of a guided tour depends on your preferred language. Generally, Spanish-speaking guides are cheaper.
  • Avoid the Busy Times: Unlike other Mayan sites, Palenque never gets overly crowded. You can enjoy a calm visit if you arrive early in the morning or later in the afternoon, avoiding peak hours.
  • Pack Essentials: Bring a hat, sunscreen, and water, as you’ll be exploring outdoors most of the time. The site is in a jungle, so insect repellent is also a good idea.
  • Allow Time: Although Palenque is smaller than some other sites, it can still take a couple of hours to explore fully.
  • Stay Near: Consider basing yourself in the town of Palenque, which is just a short drive away from the ruins. There are numerous accommodation options, from budget to luxury, to cater to different types of travelers.

4. Journey through Uxmal

Uxmal’s Historical Magnificence

Uxmal, meaning ‘thrice-built’ in Mayan, was a proud and majestic city built in the Puuc architectural style unique to the region. Sprawling across 150 acres, it was once the seat of religious and societal ceremonies, boasting astounding buildings adorned with intricate Mayan geometric designs.

The Pyramid of the Magician, the city’s crowning glory, is embedded in a fantastical legend of a dwarf who, at the king’s challenge, is believed to have conjured the pyramid overnight. Other notable structures include the climbable Great Pyramid, the Nunnery Quadrangle, and the Palace of the Governor.

The city’s architectural grandeur reflects the ancient Mayans’ astronomical prowess, with the structures built to track the cycles of the moon and stars. As night blankets the city, Uxmal lights up, adding another layer of splendor to its already stunning structures.

The site’s accessibility makes it a popular destination, just an hour’s drive from Merida, either by bus, tour, or car.

Things to Note when Touring Uxmal

Touring Uxmal is a captivating journey; here are a few things to note to get the best experience:

  • Opening Hours: Uxmal opens its gates to visitors from 8:00 am until 5:00 pm every day.
  • Tour Time: Plan for around 2-2.5 hours to sufficiently appreciate the beauty and grandeur of Uxmal. If you’re in a rush, it’s possible to explore in 2 hours, but a relaxed exploration is encouraged.
  • Admission Pricing: To visit Uxmal, the first ticket costs 65 pesos, and a second ticket costs 148 pesos, totaling 213 pesos per person. Note that the parking, if required, costs an additional 30 pesos.
  • Off-the-Beaten-Path: Uxmal doesn’t see the crowds that other famous Mayan sites do. It’s relatively peaceful and less touristy, which makes for a calm and relaxed exploration experience. This makes it an alluring choice for those who prefer tranquil environments.
  • Location: Uxmal is situated in the Puuc region, rich in hills and dressed in natural settings that make your visit to the site more magical and mysterious.
  • Tip: The peace of Uxmal is its charm – try not to rush your visit. Instead, let its serene beauty take over.

5. Diving Deep into the Coba Ruins

The Historical Importance of Coba

Coba, once a powerhouse among Mayan cities, stands atop the Yucatan peninsula in the shadow of its more famous counterparts; its importance, however, cannot be overstated.

Historical evidence suggests that this city believed to date back to 50 BC, was once a settlement of over 50,000 inhabitants at its peak in the eighth century. This not only makes it older but depicts a denser population than most Mayan sites.

Coba was a dominant force on the Yucatan peninsula, controlling vast territories and flourishing thanks to two nearby large freshwater lakes, a rare commodity in the region. The city is significant for housing the largest pyramid in northern Yucatan – the Nohoch Mul pyramid.

At a towering height of 140 feet, it overshadows the famous El Castillo at Chichen Itza. Additionally, the city presents an ancient gallery of stelae, though heavily damaged.

Sadly, the rise of Chichen Itza triggered Coba’s decline, embroiling it in wars that ultimately led to its downfall. Nonetheless, Coba remains an important historical and archaeological site, infrequently visited but offering an intimate and unadulterated glimpse into the Mayan world.

Points to Remember When Visiting the Maya Ruins of Coba

Visiting Coba provides an adventurous exploration of the ancient Mayan culture. Keeping these details in mind will ensure a memorable journey.

  • Arrival Time: It’s wise to get there early, around the opening time (8 AM), to avoid larger crowds and to comfortably explore before the heat intensifies.
  • Climbing the Pyramid: If you want an adrenaline rush, climb the Nohoch Mul pyramid. But remember, the steps are steep, and be careful during descent.
  • Cycling & Bike Rentals: Due to the vast area of the ruins (around two square kilometers), renting a bike or a bicycle taxi is a good idea.
  • Transportation: Coba is about 45 minutes from Tulum. You can either hire a car, take a bus, or book a tour.
  • Entrance Fee: The entrance fee is relatively modest, making it an affordable excursion.
  • Food & Water: There are several eateries available outside the ruins, but carrying your own food and plenty of water is advisable, given the tropical weather.
  • Exceptional Experience: Don’t forget to admire the jungle setting while exploring the ruined sites. The blend of nature and archaeological beauty makes Coba incredibly special.

6. Ek Balam – The Black Jaguar City

Intriguing History of Ek Balam

Ek Balam, translating to the “Black Jaguar” or “Starry Jaguar”, is a fascinating Mayan site situated in the Yucatan Peninsula. Although only the central area has been excavated, over 45 temples and structures have already been discovered, hinting at the city’s prosperous past.

The most remarkable building is El Torre (The Tower), a vertical monument reaching 100 feet high, making it one of the tallest Mayan structures in the Yucatan. The tower serves as a watchful sentinel, enclosing within it the tomb of King Ukit Kan Lek Tok, the city’s most valued ruler.

What truly sets Ek Balam apart from other Mayan ruins are its artistic details strewn all over the city, particularly evident as you ascend El Torre, revealing panoramic views of the entire site.

Despite being rich in history and artistry, Ek Balam remains less renowned than the other Mayan ruins, offering a more intimate experience with less crowd to the explorers.

Navigating your Ek Balam Visit

If you’re making plans to visit Ek Balam, the following tips will make your journey smoother and more enjoyable.

  • Opening Hours & Pricing: Ek Balam opens at 8 AM and stays open until 5 PM every day. The admission fee is 413 pesos (about $21 USD).
  • Climbing the Pyramid: Unlike other Mayan sites, Ek Balam allows visitors to climb its pyramid, offering an uninterrupted view of the surrounding jungle landscape.
  • Reaching Ek Balam: Located about two hours from both Cancun and Tulum and just 30 minutes from Valladolid, Ek Balam is easily accessible.
  • Parking: On-site parking at Ek Balam is free.
  • Touring the Site: Make sure to visit the carved stone statues tucked beneath the thatched overhangs in the interiors of the buildings.
  • Remembering the Name: Ek Balam means “Black Jaguar” in Maya, one of the noble creatures highly revered in the Mayan civilization.
  • Photography: The site is rich with unique features and contrasts, ensuring you’ll want to take many photos. So make sure your phone or camera is fully charged.

With these pointers in mind, you’re sure to experience the best of what Ek Balam has to offer.

7. Deciphering Calakmul: Exploring Mexico's Hidden Gem

Insights into Calakmul's Ancient Glory

Tucked deep within the dense jungle of Campeche near the Guatemalan border lay the sprawling ruins of Calakmul. Once a flourishing metropolis of the Mayan civilization, the city’s existence dates back to the late Preclassic period around 300 B.C.

It was a dominant force in Central America for several centuries, rivaling and occasionally overpowering Tikal, another powerful Mayan city.

At the heart of Calakmul is one of the largest pyramids in the ancient Mayan world, standing a whopping 180 feet high and teeming with a broad spectrum of flora and fauna due to its remote location. A hike up the Great Pyramid offers a panoramic bird’s-eye view of the endless sea of trees.

However, this grandeur fell into decline with the Mayan collapse and was almost entirely swallowed by the surrounding jungle until its re-discovery in the 1930s.

Calakmul presents a true adventure for intrepid travelers with its remoteness and isolation, a trek into the wilderness leading to the echoes of a bygone civilization waiting to be unmasked once more.

Recommendations for an Enriching Calakmul Experience

Venturing into Calakmul takes more planning, but the payoff is truly worth it. Here are a few pointers for an enriching expedition:

  • Early Start: A long drive is required to reach Calakmul, so starting exceptionally early is essential. Rather than rushing, consider staying overnight at one of the nearby jungle cabins.
  • Prepare for the Trek: Calakmul is engulfed in a tropical forest, attracting an abundance of mosquitoes. Make sure to wear long sleeves and pants and carry a potent bug spray to keep insects at bay.
  • Bring Supplies: There will be no amenities once you’re at the site. Pack plenty of food and water, as well as sunscreen and a hat to tackle the tropical sun.
  • Connect with Nature: One of the unique features of Calakmul is its setting within a biosphere reserve that’s home to over 230 bird species, monkeys, turkeys, and more. Make sure to carry a pair of binoculars for some bird or wildlife watching.
  • Guided Tour: Hire a professional guide to understand the rich history and significance of Calakmul. It provides a deeper understanding of the cultural and historical context of the ruins.
  • Extended Visit: Due to its remoteness, visiting Calakmul is a full-day commitment at least. Hence, plan to spend the entire day exploring the ruins mixed in with some wildlife spotting.
  • Climb the Pyramids: Unlike some other ruins, you can climb the pyramids at Calakmul. The views from the top are breathtaking, providing vistas of the never-ending jungle canopy garnished with the tops of ancient Mayan temples and pyramids.

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FAQ - Visiting Mayan Ruins in Mexico

Which is the best Mayan ruin to visit?

The best Mayan ruin to visit is Chichen Itza. Often acclaimed as one of the best due to its iconic structures, especially El Castillo (or The Pyramid of Kukulkan).

Another strong contender is Tulum, which combines stunning archaeological sites with exceptional beach-side views. 

Yet, for those seeking off-the-beaten-path experiences, Ek Balam and Coba offer less crowded yet fascinating tours of Mayan history and craftsmanship.

What is the largest Mayan ruin in Mexico?

The largest Mayan city and archaeological site in Mexico is Calakmul, located deep in the jungles of Campeche.

The city once stretched over an extensive area, with an estimated population of 50,000 people at its peak.

The Great Pyramid (or Structure II) at the heart of Calakmul is one of the tallest Mayan structures, standing 180 feet high and offering an unrivaled view across the jungle.

However, note that Calakmul remains a largely unexplored Mayan city, with a significant portion still ensconced within the forest.

What is the most important Mayan site?

The most important Mayan site is usually recognized to be Chichen Itza, owing to its iconic structures and status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its emblematic pyramid, El Castillo, is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Other significant sites include Tikal and Copan due to their extensive structures and historical significance. Calakmul, due to its expanse and impressive pyramid, also holds paramount significance amongst Mayan sites.

Yet, it’s important to remember that each ruin carries its own unique significance within the vast panorama of Mayan civilization.

Is it safe to visit the Mayan ruins in Mexico?

Yes, it’s generally safe to visit the Mayan ruins in Mexico.

The major archaeological sites located in the Yucatan Peninsula, where most of the ruins are, are considered one of Mexico’s safest regions.

When visiting, ensure you follow safety tips common to any international travel, such as staying hydrated, using sun protection, and being cautious of your surroundings.

However, it’s always recommended to stay updated on travel advisories, get travel insurance, and take guided tours where possible for the best experience.

What is the difference between Chichen Itza and Mayapan?

Chichen Itza and Mayapan are two notable sites of Mayan ruins, but they have distinct features.

  • Chichen Itza is larger, older, and more popular among visitors, boasting the iconic El Castillo. The site beautifully marries Mayan and Toltec architectural styles.
  • Mayapan, often referred to as the “Flag of the Mayans,” is smaller and less popular, but it’s also less crowded, providing a more intimate experience. The architectural precision of its buildings is remarkable, resembling a miniaturized replica of Chichen Itza.

Both sites hold considerable historical importance, offering unique insights into the ancient Mayan civilization.

What are some famous Mayan ruins near Cozumel?

If you’re staying in Cozumel, Tulum and Coba are the nearest Mayan ruins.

Tulum is unique, boasting stunning coastal views with a cliffside location overlooking the turquoise Caribbean Sea. 

Coba, on the other hand, is nestled in the jungle and is home to Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula that you can actually climb.

Additionally, to the north lies the site of Ek Balam with its impressively preserved plaster statues. Although a further distance away, a trip to Chichen Itza, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, is well worth the journey.

Here are all the Amazing Things to Do in Cozumel.

Why can't you climb some Mayan ruins?

Climbing is prohibited on some Mayan ruins due to preservation concerns.

These ancient structures have withstood time and elements for centuries, and continuous traffic from tourists can lead to irreversible damage. Additionally, safety can also be a concern owing to their steepness and height.

For example, climbing is strictly prohibited at Chichen Itza to protect both the site’s integrity and visitors’ safety. 

Always respect signage and barriers at these historic sites to preserve these phenomenal reminders of history for future generations.

What are the best places to see Mayan ruins?

The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is dense with numerous Mayan sites, making it a rich destination for those interested in Mayan civilization.

Some of the best places to see Mayan ruins include:

  • Chichen Itza: As one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it’s widely considered the most famous Mayan site.
  • Tulum: This coastal city offers the unique experience of ancient ruins with a breathtaking view of the Caribbean Sea.
  • Coba: Nestled deep within the jungle, Coba offers visitors an adventurous exploration and the chance to climb the Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid in Yucatan.
  • Ek Balam: Not as crowded as other sites, Ek Balam allows for a more private exploration of beautiful Mayan sculptures and structures.
  • Calakmul: An off-the-beaten-path location, Calakmul represents the raw, less-touched side of Mayan civilization.
  • Uxmal: Known for its classic Puuc architecture, Uxmal is widely acclaimed for its impressive Governor’s Palace and the Pyramid of the Magician.

From sprawling ancient cities to coastal gems, the ideal site depends on your preference for locale, crowding, exploration level, and architectural interest.

You will also enjoy the Best Things to Do in Valladolid, Mexico.

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Conclusion: Best Mayan Ruins in Mexico

A journey through the Mayan ruins in Mexico is a voyage through time and civilization, providing a powerful connection to a culture and people that have shaped our world’s history.

From the grandeur of Chichen Itza and the scenic beauty of Tulum to the hidden gem of Calakmul and the towering pyramid of Coba, each site offers unique insights and mesmerizing architectural designs that continue to captivate us.

So whether you’re a history buff, an adventure junkie, a library enthusiast, or simply a curious traveler, exploring the Mayan ruins promises an enriching educational journey and an unforgettable experience etched in the annals of time.

Your visit to these places contributes to the preservation and recognition of these sites, safeguarding the eloquent echoes of Mayan history for future generations. 

So pack your bags and set off to unmask the mysteries shrouded within these ancient cities.

And if I missed anything, let me know in the comments below!

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