8 Best Mayan Ruins and Tips for Visiting Them

| Kaan Kosemen @kaankosemen / Unsplash
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.

1. Chichén Itzá

Archaeological site

Chichén-Itzá, Yucatan, Mexico
Mario La Pergola @mlapergolaphoto / Unsplash

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. See our Top Tips for visiting Mexico’s Most Famous Mayan Ruins below.

2. Cobá

Archaeological site, Ruins, Historical Landmark, Architectural Landmark

Coba, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Mila Rut @mila_rut / Unsplash

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.

3. Tulum Ruins


Tulum Temple near the sea, Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Nathan Cima @nathan_cima / Unsplash
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.

4. 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.

5. El Meco Archaeological Site, Cancún

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.

6. 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.

7. Xel-Há

Park, Ruins, Archaeological site, Historical Landmark

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.

8. 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.

Who built Chichén Itzá?

Chichén Itzá (meaning mouth of the well of the Itza) was settled around 450CE, likely due to the abundance of fresh water from nearby cenotes, or underground sinkholes. Most of the iconic buildings date between 700CE and 900CE when the city became one of the most powerful in the Maya region with an estimated population of 50,000.

Inside Chichén Itzá

You’ll no doubt recognize the pyramid at Chichén Itzá – entitled El Castillo or the Temple of Kukulkan – which demonstrates the incredible knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, acoustics and geometry that the Mayan civilization had upon construction. It has 365 steps to represent the Mayan year.

On the spring and fall equinox, a solar projection on the north stairway makes snake-like undulations appear, leading to the stone head at the bottom of the pyramid, completing the feathered serpent. Look out for the reclining chacmool figures that hold a plate – historians believe human hearts were placed here during ritual sacrifices. Other highlights at Chichén Itzá include the largest ballcourt in Mesoamerica, where Mayan men were said to play a game that involved shooting a ball through a ring fixed to the wall.

Opening hours are 8am to 5pm with last entry at 3pm. The Chichén Itzá admission cost for foreign visitors is 533 Mexican pesos ($27). If you bring a fancy camera or GoPro, there is an extra 45 ($2) Mexico peso charge, plus microphones and tripods are banned. Guides at the entrance charge around 600 Mexican pesos ($30) for an hour-long tour (1,200 Mexican pesos for two hours). There is a free museum at the entrance and basic information plaques at each monument. If you come armed with a good book about the Maya, you can enjoy the site without a guide.

What to wear while visiting Mayan ruins

With little shade and blistering midday temperatures, slap on plenty of sunscreen and bring a hat and light clothes. Wondering what shoes to wear? Plump for comfortable sneakers while rambling around the ruins. You can bring in water – essential – but food is not often allowed. Pack some bug spray.

Best time to visit Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá is packed with visitors and souvenir sellers by 11am when tour buses arrive from Merida and Cancún. Come early or late if you want to beat the crowds and the heat. Sundays are best avoided as local residents get free entry. Most visitors come during the cooler November to May dry season rather than the June to October rainy season. Thousands come to see the serpent appear during the spring and fall equinoxes in March and September respectively.

How to travel to Chichén Itzá

Located off the main highway between Merida and Cancún, visiting Chichén Itzá is fairly easy. It is 122mi (196km) from Cancún, 112mi (181km) from Playa del Carmen, and 116km (72mi) from Merida. Taking a group tour from these towns can work out cheaper than going independently, but you will have limited time at the site. Otherwise, rent a car to get to Chichén Itzá when it opens. Many travelers stay overnight in Valladolid, 45 minutes away from the Chichén Itzá ruins, with morning and evening buses leaving from the ADO terminal and colectivo taxis that run all day.

Things to do near Chichén Itzá

Head to Valladolid, a city steeped in history. Here you can try authentic Yucatecan dishes such as sopa de lima (a turkey soup flavored with limes) at El Atrio del Mayab. Just 3mi (5km) outside of Valladolid on the highway to Chichén Itzá is Hacienda Selva Maya, a restored colonial hacienda that offers a Yucatecan buffet and also has a beautiful cenote where you can swim in cool, clear waters. Closer to Chichén Itzá is Ik Kil cenote, one of the most photographed cenotes in Mexico. If you’re staying in Valladolid, check out the nearby Balankanche Caves – filled with sacred offerings to the rain god Chac – for a glimpse into the spooky Mayan underworld. Recommended by Russell Maddicks

Alex Robinson contributed additional reporting to this article.

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