The Most Impressive Mayan Ruins In Mexico

There are countless Mayan ruins in Mexico – more than 4,400 are spread across North and Central America, all the way into El Salvador. While the Maya civilization started falling around the 9th century, with the most important cities being abandoned, the Maya people have not disappeared. In fact, more than 6 million Maya people live between Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize today, making up the largest indigenous group north of Peru and still speaking a variety of Mayan languages.

Traditionally, Mayan people were agricultural – they mostly harvested maize and beans. They worshipped more than 150 gods. While many of the traditions of the Maya civilization have not made it to contemporary times, some still survive and can be seen in the interesting mix of cultures and rituals that can be observed in places such as Chichicastenango, in Guatemala, or in San Juan Chamula, in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

The legacy of the Maya survives not only in the indigenous communities of Mexico, but also in the many archeological sites.

Visiting all the Mayan ruins in Mexico is impossible, but you can certainly select the most interesting ones and make a plan to see them. In this post, I select the best Mayan ruins in Mexico. Some of them are world famous and hardly need an introduction; others are a bit more off the beaten path. All of them worth visiting.

The Most Interesting Mayan Ruins In Mexico

Chichen Itza

Famous the world over, Chichen Itza is the unmistakable icon of the Yucatan Peninsula. Considered a Wonder of the World and deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this much visited ancient city is incredibly well preserved and provides a portal to a time before the colonization of Mexico.

The site is home to an array of architectural styles proving Chichen Itza was a multicultural city with migrants from across the Mayan world. It’s the largest of all the Mayan cities in Mexico and is thought to be one of the great mythical cities mentioned in ancient Mesoamerican literature (called tollans).

Chichen Itza – meaning “At the Mouth of the Well of the Itza” (the Itza being a prominent ethnic group of area) – is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico. Here you’ll find a slew of impressive architectural gems, not least the crowning glory that is the Temple of Kukulcan. There’s also the Temple of Warriors, the Great Ball Court, sacbeob (raised paved roads), and residential buildings too.

Many of the buildings here would have originally been painted in bold colors – blue, green, and purple. It’s important to try and imagine what it would have looked like when painted in its full regalia.

For a guided tour of Chichen Itza, click here.

Ek Balam

Ek’ Balam

Located in the Northern Maya lowlands, close to Valladolid, Ek’ Balam is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved Mayan ruins in Mexico. Dating from 700-300 BC to 900-1100 AD, Ek’ Balam is notable not only for its long history of occupation, but also its impressive and well-preserved plaster on the King’s Tomb.

Interestingly, the city is edged by defensive walls, with many other walls – thought to be for defense – running through the city as well. Inside the walls much of Ek’ Balam has been excavated, revealing platforms, plazas, and sacbeob. There are also murals that depict texts (written in Mayan glyphs) and mythological scenes thought to depict the origin of death.

Ek’ Balam is considered to be more like a village than a fully-fledged city, but there are still impressive structures here including a very tall pyramid.

For guided tours of Ek Balam, click here.

Izamal

Izamal

The archaeological sites at Izamal are scattered both within and on the outskirts of the city. By far the most impressive of these is the Kinich Kakmoo pyramid, located along Calle 27.

Kinich Kakmoo – literally “Sun-eyed Fire Macaw” – was an important deity for the ancient Mayan civilization. The base of the huge pyramid platform remains, and can today be found at the north side of the grand plaza. Built between 400 and 600 AD, the structure measures nearly 600 square feet. It was actually discovered to have been built over the entrance to a cave.

The platform, though obviously not a step pyramid in its entirety, is still impressive. You can climb the steps to the bare platform and get a very good panoramic view of the yellow city and the surrounding jungle from the top. It’s a quiet spot that’s never usually too crowded with other visitors.

Uxmal

Uxmal

Uxmal, meaning “Thrice Built,” is considered one of the most important Mayan cities in terms of understanding ancient Mayan culture. The name is thought to refer to the number of times the city had to be rebuild in antiquity. Situated in the Puuc region (it’s one of the sites along the Ruta Pu’uc), the ruins of this city are situated in eastern Yucatan, around 90 miles south of Chichen Itza.

Excitingly, much of this fascinating site is yet to be excavated, and the city’s dates of occupation are still unknown, but most major construction occurred around 850-950 AD, after which the Toltec invaded and took over. It was during its heyday that Uxmal is estimated to have been home to around 15,000 people (but it could have been more).

Even before restoration work took place here, the buildings were in excellent condition. The Governor’s Palace, for example, sitting atop a huge platform, is noted for its elaborate, well-preserved freizes. Meanwhile, the Pyramid of the Magician features an unusually elliptical base, and depictions of rain god, Chaac.

For a guided tour of Uxmal from Merida, click here.

Kabah

The Ruta Pu’uc

Puuc means “hills” in Mayan, an obvious reference to the environment in which the sites are located, which then became a word used to describe the architectural style of the area. The sites, which comprise the famous Uxmal and the lesser visited Labna, Xlapak and Sayil, Kabah, date back to 600-1100 AD. All ruins along the Ruta Puuc are connected by sacbeob – ancient raised pathways.

For a guided tour of Uxmal and Kabah from Merida, click here.

Palenque

Palenque is the name given to an ancient city located in Chiapas that declined in the 7th century AD. Thought to have been called Lakamha, “Big Water”, the dates of occupation for the ruins at Palenque run from 226 BC to 799 AD. Once the city fell into decline, the city was practically swallowed by the jungle and was only recently rediscovered. It’s been estimated that only around 10% of the site has been explored leaving multiple hundreds of ancient structures still yet to be uncovered in the jungle.

Although the current site is smaller in size than other Mayan ruins in Mexico, it boasts some of the finest architecture in the region. Multiple buildings and monuments are adorned with bas-relief carvings, roof combs, and hieroglyphic inscriptions. These remnants tell the story of Lakamha during its fifth-century heyday as well as the lives of the people and rulers of that time period.

Notable structures include the Palace – an interconnected complex of buildings and courtyards, thought to have housed several generations of aristocracy, and the Temple of Inscriptions noted for its glyphs.

To make the most of the site, consider joining a guided tour such as this one.

Make sure to read my full guide to Palenque Ruins.

Tonina

Tonina is a large archaeological site in Chiapas close to Ocosingo and easy to visit from San Cristobal. Significantly lesser known compared to other Mayan ruins in Mexico, it was actually a very aggressive state during the classic period (700-900 AD), and Palenque’s main opponent!

The site is actually a stunning place to visit and if you make the effort to get all the way there you will be rewarded with an impressive site that has none of the crowds of Chichen Itza or Palenque.

Once known as Po or Popo, the city is situated in a valley—now completely surrounded by jungle. You will find large complexes of pyramids—some of which are 230 feet (70 meters) tall—set on terraces; carved monuments and stucco sculptures.

Getting to Tonina from San Cristobal is a bit of an ordeal if you don’t have your own car. The best way to visit is on a guided tour such as this one.

Yaxchilan

Yaxchilan

Situated on the banks of the Usumacinta River in Chiapas, Yaxchilan was once an important Maya city. It was one of the most powerful states in the region and was, in its heyday, a large, urban center that garnered rivalries with multiple Mayan cities including Tikal and Palenque.

The ruins here date between 350 and 850 AD with its height of power peaking around 650. Visiting this archaeological site feels particularly adventurous – many of the structures have been left in ruins, with grass and trees often finding homes among the ancient stones with jungle all around.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any impressive, well-preserved buildings to be in awe of. Here you’ll find palaces, temples, and a large plaza with architectural structures dotted around higher terraces in the surrounding hills overlooking the river. Particularly interesting are the sculptured stone lintels that adorn the doorways of the main buildings. These, together with stelae (carved standing stones), tell the story of the dynastic rulers of Yaxchilan.

The best way to visit Yaxchilan is on guided tours departing from Palenque, such as this one. It also goes to Bonampak.

Bonampak

Bonampak

Located 19 miles to the south of the larger Yaxchilan, Bonampak is set along a tributary of the Usumacinta River. This small city flourished in the mid-eighth century AD. While it’s not the most impressive of all the Mayan ruins in Mexico, it does have some noteworthy structures and sculptures that have helped to tell the tale of the Mayans.

In particular, Bonampak is home to many engraved stelae and murals which depict and document rituals as well as war practices and political dynamics of Mesoamerican civilization. Interestingly, it was these stelae that changed the perception of Mayan culture altogether.

Once viewed as a peaceful culture of mystics, the stelae debunked old assumptions of the Maya with imagery of war and clear illustrations of human sacrifice. The murals, still visible to this day, are some of the best preserved of any murals in the Mayan world.

The best way to visit Bonampak is on guided tours departing from Palenque, such as this one. It also goes to Yaxchilan.

Calakmul

Calakmul

Situated in the state of Campeche, close to the Guatemalan border, Calakmul was a hugely important Mayan power in the Peten Basin region. It oversaw a large portion of the area, which was marked by glyphs that depicted a snakehead giving them their name “Kingdom of the Snake” or “Snake Kingdom”. The city had a rivalry with Tikal to the south (present day Guatemala) and waged war against what is now known as Palenque.

This now UNESCO-recognized ancient city is thought to have played host to 50,000 people, and governed places as far away as 150 kilometers (93 miles). Today you can see evidence of its importance in the 6,750 ancient structures surrounded by the jungle. The largest of these, by far, is the pyramid. Reaching over 147 feet (45 meters) high, this is the tallest of all the surviving pyramids of the Mayan world.

Inside the pyramid there are tombs while elsewhere on the site you can find residential structures to explore, some still linked by roads called sacbeob (ancient raised causeways).

Edzna

Edzna

You’ll find Edzna in the north of Campeche state. Inhabited from 400 BC all the way to its abandonment in 1500, Edzna is a remarkable Mayan site. Built high on a 131 feet (40 meters) platform, the city is surrounded by wide sweeping views out across the jungle. Declining before the arrival of the Spanish invaders, its abandonment remains a mystery to this day.

The name Edzna is thought to mean “House of the Itzaes” or possible “House of the Echo” as there is an acoustic phenomenon that occurs around the main buildings of the city. The main structures on the site include the Nohochna, or “Big House”, thought to be either an administrative center or a grandstand to watch events take place in the main square.

Particularly interesting is the fact that the inhabitants of Edzna were able to develop advanced systems to counteract their environment. For example, the valley below floods in the rainy season, and there was high humidity throughout the year. To deal with this, the city developed a network of canals that created first a lagoon and then a dam. The canals provided fish and communication routes and even worked as defense.

For a day trip to Edzna and Campeche departing from Merida, click here.

Chicanna

Chicanna

Located in the state of Campeche, Chicanná dates back to the Classic period. The entire city takes its name from the most important structure, Structure II. In the Mayan language it means “House of the Serpent Mouth” – a name evidently referring to the massive Chenes-style mouth doorway

Chicanna is a beautiful mixture of various architectural styles which include the Chenes and the Puuc ones.

Coba

Coba is situated in Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula, 27 miles (43.4 km) northwest of Tulum. As well as its interesting buildings and monuments, Coba is of particular importance because of its enormous network of sacbeob, the largest in the ancient Maya world.

Also called “white roads” thanks to the belief that they were once plastered with lime, these sacbeob are raised causeways that enabled trade between different cities, connected settlements with water sources, and linked residential areas with the city center. Coba was home to an estimated 50,000 or more inhabitants at its peak with much of the construction taking place around 500 to 900 AD.

Coba is thought to have had close contact and alliances with other large city states in Guatemala and elsewhere in the south of Mexico such as Tikal and Calakmul. It’s also noted that Teotihuacan architecture is also present at Coba, pointing to a link with the central Mexican cultures, too.

For a guided tour of Coba departing from Tulum, click here. If you are departing from Cancun, check out this tour.

Tulum

Tulum

Possibly one of the easiest of all the Mayan ruins to visit, the ruins at Tulum are not located in the middle of a jungle, but in fact on the Caribbean coast just steps away from the beach.

This 13th-century archaeological site is all that remains of a walled Mayan city that served as the main port for the nearby city of Coba. The ancient city of Tulum was well defended from potential attack, thanks not only to the city walls and watchtowers but also the steep cliff along the coast.

Ancient Tulum, called Zama (or “City of Dawn” because of its position facing the rising sun) was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and was incredibly able to survive 70 years into the Spanish occupation of Mexico. Sadly, the city was eventually abandoned due to the colonization, but it’s one of the best preserved coastal sites in Mexico.

For a guided tour of Tulum and Coba ruins departing from Playa del Carmen, click here. If you are departing from Cancun, check out this tour.

El Rey

Not nearly as impressive as other Mayan ruins in Mexico, El Rey should nevertheless not be dismissed as it is super easy to visit. Located in the heart of the Zona Hotelera of Cancun, the site has none of the pyramids the Maya were famous for, but a small temple and a few ceremonial platforms and much like Tulum is populated by iguanas.

Not far from the site, the Museo Maya is an interesting place to visit to get some context about this and many other Mayan sites.

Chacchoben

Chacchoben

Close to Mahahual, in the Costa Maya (state of Quintana Roo), Chacchoben is home to one of the most interesting – as well as most visited – Mayan ruins in Mexico.

Back in 360 AD this was home to one of the largest communities of the Yucatan peninsula, this was an active ceremonial center, with rituals happening in the Gran Basamento.

At the moment, only a portion of the site is open to the public, while most of it is in the same conditions in which it was found, waiting to be properly restored. You will find three pyramids, the largest of which has a large Mayan hieroglyphic inscription. At the base of the restored buildings, you can still spot some of the red paint that once covered the entire site.

The jungle that surrounds the site is home to a great variety of animals – spider monkeys and armadillos are easy to spot, whereas the jaguar is definitely more elusive.

El Meco

Among the smallest Mayan ruins in Mexico, El Meco is very close to Cancun and an easy place to visit from there. Once a port in the Yucatan Peninsula, the city maintained close relationships with the inhabitants of Isla Mujeres. The most notable sight is the 41-foot high pyramid.

For a guided tour that goes to El Meco, click here.

Other Great Non-Mayan Ruins In Mexico

Other than the beautiful Mayan ruins mentioned above, Mexico has a number of other stunning sites belonging to other civilizations. Here are the ones you may want to consider visiting.

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan is an enormous archaeological complex. Situated just northeast of Mexico City, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was built by the Maya, but it was given its current name by the Aztecs.

The city reached its zenith sometime between around 100 BC and 650 AD. It was home to a sizable population of an estimated 100,000. Before the 1400s, it was actually the largest city anywhere in the western hemisphere, covering 8 square miles. It was a combination of residential compounds and temples, some of which are easily comparable to those in Egypt.

One of the most striking things about Teotihuacan is its huge central “Avenue of the Dead” which slices down the center of the site. At one end is the Temple of the Sun, and at the other is the Temple of the Moon. Like many sites, only a portion of this incredibly large Mayan and Aztec site has been fully excavated.

You can book your guided tour of Teotihuacan here or here.

For more information, read my post The Complete Guide To Visiting Teotihuacan.

Monte Alban

You’ll find Monte Alban in Oaxaca. This pre-Columbian ceremonial center is thought to have been originally constructed sometime around the 8th century BC. It’s home to pyramids, ball courts, passageways, and great plazas with an impressive collection of 170 tombs to be found here, too.

Set at a high elevation (1,300 meters – or 4,265 feet – above sea level) and on a hill that juts 400 meters (1,312 feet) from the valley floor, it’s easy to see how this was a prominent position in terms of defense. Possibly thanks to this location, Monte Alban is considered to have been the home of Zapotec culture and religion for over 1,000 years. It later developed to become the capital of the Oaxacan highlands but fell into decline and was largely abandoned around 500 to 750 AD.

This archaeological site today is impressive not just for its monumental core but also for the panoramic views surrounding the area. Many of the excavated structures are open to the public with civic-ceremonial structures and residential buildings sitting alongside tombs and burial sites.

For guided tours of Monte Alban, click here or here.

day trips from Oaxaca

Mitla

Typically visited on day trips from Oaxaca, the ruins of Mitla are found just outside the town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla. This Zapotec site is known as the second most important in the state of Oaxaca. Construction started in 850 AD, when the Mixtec people became the majority in the area.

Mitla has five main groups, aligned with the cardinal directions and each having an important role in the life of the city. These are the Church or North Group, the South and the Adobe (which were used for ceremonies), the Arroyo, and the columns or Palace. Each group served a specific purpose for the city.

For information on day trips to Mitla departing from Oaxaca, click here.

Atlantes
Photo by RociH on Pixabay

Tula and Tepotzotlan

Located in Tula and easily visited on day trips from Mexico City is Tula, known for Tollán, the capital of the Toltec empire. This was a strong, militaristic empire that at its peak had a population of 60,000 people and which researcher have shown to be heavily influenced by the Maya of the Yucatán.

The most impressive sight in Tula is the Atlantes, massive statues assembled on the platform of the temple pyramid meant to support the (now collapsed) roof of the temple. The Temple of the five-story-high stepped pyramid is another must see – that’s where the Temple of the Morning Star once stood. Finally, observe the Palacio Quemado (Burnt-down Palace), once a series of large courtyards and beautiful rooms.

For information on guided tours of Tula click here.

Mexico City Itinerary

Templo Mayor

Back when Mexico City was known as Tenochtitlan, the Templo Mayor (Greater Temple in Spanish) was the main temple in the area. This Atzec site is packed with symbols of the then-religion, with particular emphasis on god Huitzilopochtil, said to have given his followers the sign – an eagle with a snake in its beak atop a nopal cactus – that they had arrived to their promised land.

For guided visits of Templo Mayor, click here.

El Tajin
Photo by gabrimen on Pixabay

El Tajin

Located in the state of Veracruz, albeit being lesser known to most travelers, El Tajín is actually one of the best-preserved sites of the Classic era. The name El Tajin name means “thunder” in the Toltec language (though its etymology also shows that it may mean “place of the dead.”

This site, built by a tribe related to the Maya, was a ceremonial and administrative center which reached its peak between 600 and 1200 AD. While some buildings are yet to be fully excavated, the 60-feet high Piramide de los Nichoes (Pyramid of Niches), with its 365 niches remains the most impressive sites. Archeologists believe the pyramid was used to measure the passing of time. Another interesting spot is the Plaza Menor (Small Plaza) and the Southern Ball Court, where carvings reveal that players to the game usually got sacrificed.

For guided tours of El Tajin, click here.

Further Readings

Make sure to read my other posts about Mexico:

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