Must-Visit Mayan Ruins Near Cancún, Mexico

The waterfront Mayan ruins at Tulum make a great day trip from Cancún
The waterfront Mayan ruins at Tulum make a great day trip from Cancún | © Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo
Perri J

The folklore, rituals and science of the ancient Mayan civilization are intriguing. Indigenous to parts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, the ancient Maya had prolific beliefs regarding life cycles, the cosmos and higher powers. And you can explore what’s left of their culture at different sites throughout the region. From Chichén Itzá to San Miguelito, here are the best Mayan ruins near Cancún.

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Chichén Itzá

The ancient city of Chichén Itzá is among the most iconic of all the Mayan ruins, receiving more than 2m visitors each year. You could spend an entire day admiring these Instagram-worthy structures, but some stand out above the rest. Among them is the Temple of Kukulkán (El Castillo), a stepped pyramid standing 98ft (30m) high; it’s part of the reason Chichén Itzá was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Cobá

Less accessible than Chichén Itzá, the Cobá ruins, which really merit a day trip, feel more like an Indiana Jones-style jungle adventure, with lush greenery creating an atmospheric setting for this ancient city. Cobá is most notable for having the largest amount of sacbes (white-stone roads) of any ancient Mayan site. You can follow these pathways from the main pyramid to small villages where ancient Mayans used to rest at night. The opportunity to stroll, cycle or be driven around these protected sites makes it the perfect outing from Cancún.

Tulum Ruins

Torn between history and lazing by the Caribbean Sea? Head to the magnificent Tulum site, where ruins stand on a cliff above the waves. This ancient city was once a seaport for traders in jade and turquoise – and with an abundance of theories and myths surrounding certain structures, it’s a fascinating place to explore at your leisure before throwing down your towel and taking a dip.

El Rey

Want to visit a historic Mayan site but be back in town for nightfall? El Rey, with abundant flora and fauna, is easily accessible from Cancún and makes for a lovely half-day getaway, ensuring you don’t miss valuable clubbing time. Not much information surrounding the various structures can be found on-site, but here’s our advice: hire a private tour guide who’ll be well-versed in spilling well-I-never stories about ancient Mayan customs and beliefs.

Xel-Há

Xel-Há is rich in history related to the Mayan people. Archaeologists have traced the importance of these ruins back to the civilization’s belief in the spiritual goddess of fertility. Xel-Há (which means “where water is born”) was used as a place of departure to other sites where rituals were performed. The stories of what happened here are moving, but also notable is the surrounding terrain, which is pockmarked with cenotes (sinkholes) and home to an ecopark. Visit Xel-Há and you could easily end up staying all day.

Ruins of Ixchel Temple

Isla Mujeres is a sliver of coral and sand in the Caribbean shallows just off Cancún. The name, which translates as the Island of Women, was bestowed by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who unearthed statues of the goddess Ixchel here while looting in 1517. Just a huddle of stone today, the ruins – thought to be from a lighthouse, not a temple – sit at the end of a trail overlooking the turquoise sea at Punta Sur, in the far south of the island.

El Meco Archaeological Site

You’ll find this cluster of Mayan pyramid ruins a few miles north of Cancún, overlooking the water just south of the Punta Sam boat pier for Isla Mujeres. Thought to have been the ritual center for a small fishing community, it was only cleared in the late 20th century and opened to the public in the 2000s. Immersed in scrubby woodland, it comprises a handful of platforms and one main pyramid, El Castillo, with views over the Caribbean from the summit.

San Miguelito Archeological Site

Opened to the public in 2012, San Miguelito is the northern extension of the partially unearthed Mayan city of El Rey – its ruins are located around (and under) Cancún’s hotels. The site gives a taste of what you can expect at the bigger specimens, with the main pyramid jutting over the bird-filled tropical forest. There’s also an excellent little museum crammed with artifacts.

Alex Robinson contributed additional reporting to this article.

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