The only Mayan ruin that is listed as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Chichén Itzá is a fantastically well-preserved Mayan city that was once a major spiritual and economic center for the Mayans. The complex contains various temples and a sacred cenote, or underwater sinkhole. The steep Castillo pyramid is the largest structure in the site and boasts extraordinary details. During the afternoon in the spring and autumn equinoxes, the northwest corner of the structure casts a shadow that creates the appearance of a snake slithering down the pyramid.
Just 30 minutes from central Mérida, Dzibilchaltún has somehow managed to stay off the tourist radar. The site boasts a famous structure known the Temple of the Seven Dolls, because seven effigies were found at the pyramid during its excavation. Alongside the ruins is an impressive cenote that was once the site of a Mayan religious cult and is today a popular spot for swimming. The closest major ruin to Mérida, Dzibilchaltún is a great place for those who are dismayed by the crowds at the better known archaeological sites.
One of the key Mayan sites in Mexico, Uxmal is gloriously photogenic and is a great option for tourists looking beyond the nearby tourist hubs of Tulum and Chichén Itzá. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the site is dominated by the Pirámide del adivino (Pyramid of the Magician) an impressive step pyramid that rises to a height of 131 feet (40 meters). It only takes a little over an hour to reach Uxmal from Mérida, so this glorious, uncrowded site should be on every visitor’s itinerary.
Uxmal, Yucatán, Mexico +52 01 999 944 0033
Located 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, located around 130 miles (215 kilometers) to the east. Situated around 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 tourists can support the local community by purchasing food or handicrafts.
Cobá, Carretera Federal 307 Cancún-Chetumal, Cobá, Quintana Roo, Mexico +52 01 55 3033 5552
Two hours from Mérida, Ek Balam is one of the region’s least visited archaeological sites, but also one of its most fascinating. The most iconic structure at the site is the Acropolis Temple, which looms at a height of 95 feet (29 meters). Much of the site is still closed to the public as restoration work on the ruins only began in 1997. Yet this seeming disadvantage also brings benefits – you can admire the ruins and jungle without being interrupted by souvenir vendors.
Ek Balam, Yucatán, Mexico +52 01 999 944 0033