The Best Mayan Sites to Visit Near Mérida, Mexico

The Pyramid of the Magician, in Uxmal, is striking
The Pyramid of the Magician, in Uxmal, is striking | © Jui-Chi Chan / Alamy Stock Photo

Marvel at the ancient Mayan pyramids and temples, bathe in adjoining cenotes and walk through scenic jungle-trailed settings on day trips from the Yucatán state capital.

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As the capital of Mexico’s Yucatán state, Mérida is a city forged from Spanish colonial riches with a history deeply rooted in the Mayan people who still inhabit it. It was their ancestors, after all, who built one of the most impressive societies of ancient times, and testimony to their advanced civilization can still be found scattered around the surrounding landscape. Mérida aptly makes the perfect base for exploring these fascinating sites. Whether lingering at one or squeezing several into a day, here’s a rundown of the best.

Chichén Itzá

Archaeological site

Famous Pyramid of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza, the largest archaeological cities of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico 2ARM53P
© Ronnie Chua / Alamy Stock Photo

An hour and half from Mérida, the mighty pyramid-shaped Temple of Kukulcán, also known as El Castillo, at Chichén Itzá is the most recognizable of all Mayan structures, thanks to its impressive size, extraordinary details and painstaking restoration. This sophisticated spiritual and urban center also boasts a particularly fine Mayan ball court, as well as a series of plazas and an observatory. During spring and fall equinoxes, the northwest corner of El Castillo casts a shadow that mimics a snake slithering down the pyramid. Nightly light and sound shows also tell the story of the ancient Maya.

Dzibilchaltún

Ruins, Historical Landmark

Structure 36, Mayan Ruins, Dzibilchaltun Archaeological Site, 700 to 800 AD, near Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, North America
© robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
This under-the-radar site is the closest to Mérida at just under a half-hour drive away. Its most famous structure is known as the Temple of the Seven Dolls due to the seven effigies found here during its excavation. Just a fraction of the 8,000 structures identified here have actually been excavated. Alongside the ruins is an impressive clear-water cenote that was once used in Mayan rituals, but today makes for a lovely spot for a cooling dip – don’t forget your swimsuit.

Uxmal

Historical Landmark

Governors Palace, Mayan Site, Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico
© imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo
There’s little doubt that the star of the show at this site is the Temple of the Magician, a relatively smooth and unnervingly steep pyramid that soars to 115ft (35m). The complex also stands out for some of the finest architectural carvings ever uncovered in the Maya world, best displayed in the strikingly detailed Palace of the Governor. It takes little over an hour to get here from Mérida and doesn’t suffer from the same crowds as Chichén Itzá.

Cobá

Ruins, Historical Landmark

Coba, Mayan Ruins, Mexico_2DCD2KK
© Radek Hofman / Alamy Stock Photo
Deep in the Mayan jungle, Cobá is the best Mayan destination for travelers looking to feel like Indiana Jones for the day. Once a thriving Mayan metropolis, Cobá was a rival to Chichén Itzá, around 130mi (215km) to the east. Surrounding two lagoons, Cobá is famed for its network of elevated paved roads, or sacbeob, that connect the main temple to its smaller sites. Some tours of Cobá include a visit to a contemporary Mayan village, where you can support the local community by purchasing food or handicrafts.

Ek Balam

Ruins, Historical Landmark

The Oval Palace as seen from atop the Acropolis at Ek Balam, Yucatan_E661NN
© Brian Overcast / Alamy Stock Photo
Once the seat of the Mayan kingdom, today Ek Balam is one of the least visited sites – all the more reason to go. Only the center of this previously extensive Maya metropolis has been excavated, revealing some real archeological gems. Climb the main Acropolis Temple and you’ll be treated to wonderfully elaborate restored stone carvings, not to mention fabulous views across the jungle surroundings. It’s a couple hours’ drive from Mérida, but in off season there’s a chance you’ll get the place practically to yourself.

Labna

Archaeological site, Ruins, Historical Landmark

Visitors near the Labna Arch in the Labna Archaeological site, Puuc Route, Merida, Yucatan State, Mexico, Central America.
© agefotostock / Alamy

The once-ceremonial center of Labna can be found in the Puuc Hills and is one of several smaller sites you can fit into a day-trip dubbed the Puuc Route. It’s still certainly worth a visit on its own merits, however, with its intimate and uncrowded (sometimes empty) setting that really helps you to step back in time. The site is best known for the Labna Arch, a handsomely symmetrical structure with an ornately carved frieze. The El Mirador pyramid, topped with a precarious-looking temple structure, has also miraculously defied the passing centuries.

Xlapak

Ruins, Historical Landmark

El Palacio (Palace), Grupo 1, Mayan ruins at Xlapak archaelogical site, Ruta Puuc, Yucatan state, Mexico. 2B6X3CB
© Witold Skrypczak / Alamy

Close to Labna and another stop on the Puuc Route, Xlapak is a modest-sized archeological site set among a pretty sylvan setting. Meaning “old walls”, the complex features wonderful examples of carved stone facades and stacked representations of Chaac, the Mayan god of rain. It’s more a lovely walk dotted with impressive, though low-key, Mayan ruins, so most won’t do the four-hour round trip for this site alone. Better to tag it on to a visit to Uxmal or Labna – both a 40-minute hop from here.

Kabah

Ruins, Historical Landmark

Close up of the wall at the Mayan ruins at El Palacio de los Mascarones (Palace of Masks), Kabah, Yucatan, Mexico, North America
© robertharding / Alamy

The second-largest site in the Puuc region after Uxmal, Kabah is most remarkable for its 11mi (18km) ceremonial causeway with stone arches at either end. Also mightily impressive is the Palace of the Masks, with a long lengthy façade decorated with hundreds of ornate stone masks referencing rain god, Chaac. Incense has even been discovered in some of the long stone noses of the rain god’s masks.

Sayil

Historical Landmark, Ruins

El Palacio, Grand Palace, historic Mayan city Sayil, Yucatan State, Mexico
© imageBROKER / Alamy

To complete the Puuc Route, a trip to the ruins of Sayil is a must. This Classic Maya site peaked in the 10th century, and left behind up to 10,000 structures over several square miles. The Great Palace is its most complete and impressive, stretching almost 300ft (85m) across three levels. Jungle trails connect the various areas, and an absence of crowds means you can really lose yourself in it all.

Find the perfect base for exploring Mérida by booking your hotel via Culture Trip. For more things to do in the Yucatán’s cultural capital, browse the best restaurants in the city. Explore the rest of the Yucatán by checking out the most beautiful destinations on the peninsula. Book your stay in nearby Campeche for a taste of what else the area has to offer, or venture further out to Cancún and stop by the city’s best markets.

This article is an update of one originally by Stephen Woodward.

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