The Best Ruins to Visit Near Tulum

The beachside ruins at Tulum are among the most visited archaeological ruins in Mexico
The beachside ruins at Tulum are among the most visited archaeological ruins in Mexico | © Radek Hofman / Alamy
Photo of Stephen Woodman
24 June 2021

Blessed with white-sand beaches and a lush green jungle, Tulum has been grabbing the international spotlight for more than a decade now. Given the press, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Mexican beach town was specifically designed for sunbathers. Yet history buffs will also find plenty to keep them occupied – the town and surrounding area have a range of important archaeological sites. Here’s our guide to the best Mayan ruins to visit in and around Tulum.

Tulum ruins

Ruins
Map View
Ruins in the grounds of the Mayan sites of Tulum, Quintana Roo, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
© mauritius images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
History buffs and Instagram enthusiasts unite at Playa Ruinas, the most iconic attraction in Tulum. The beach combines white sand and azure waters with Mayan ruins dating to the 13th century. The clifftop Castillo, originally built as a watchtower, is currently the third-most popular archaeological site in Mexico, after Teotihuacan and Chichén Itzá.

Chichén Itzá

Archaeological site
Map View
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
Travelers looking to cross off the New Seven Wonders should head to Chichén Itzá, the splendidly preserved Mayan city that was once a major economic and religious hub for the Mayans. The complex contains numerous temples, ball game courts, and a sacred cenote. The steep El Castillo pyramid dominates the location. At certain times of the year, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of shadows that create the appearance of a snake descending the staircase. Many hotels run shuttle buses to the site, so ask about day trips at the hotel reception.

Cobá

Ruins, Historical Landmark
Map View
Coba, Mayan Ruins, Mexico_2DCD2KK
© Radek Hofman / Alamy
Set deep in the Mayan jungle, Cobá receives far fewer visitors than Chichén Itzá and feels like much more of an adventure. Just 45 minutes by car from Tulum center, the ancient city was once a thriving Mayan metropolis that engaged in a lengthy power struggle with Chichén Itzá. Located around two lagoons, Cobá is noted for having an extensive network of elevated stone roads, or sacbeob, that connect the main pyramid to various smaller sites. Many tours of the site also offer a trip to a local village. This visit will give you a glimpse of contemporary Mayan culture while providing an opportunity to support locals by buying the local handicrafts on offer.

Xel-Há

Park, Ruins, Archaeological site, Historical Landmark
Map View
El Palacio, Xel-Ha Archaeological Site, Quintana Roo, Mexico. B6RTM0
© John Mitchell / Alamy
Not to be confused with the theme park that shares its name, Xel-Há is a Mayan archaeological ruin less than 20 minutes by car from Tulum center. The site was once a major port for the nearby city of Cobá. Today, visitors can admire the jungle setting as they wander through the network of shaded trails – perfect for those who are dismayed by the crowds at the better known archaeological sites. Prepare for mosquitos, and follow up your visit with a trip to a cenote or the nearby aquatic theme park.

Muyil

Ruins
Map View
Ancient Mayan Pyramid at Muyil in Quintana Roo_TAMAXP
© Leonid Andronov / Alamy
Just 20 minutes by shuttle bus from central Tulum, Muyil is a fascinating complex that has somehow managed to stay off the tourist radar. One of the earliest and longest inhabited Mayan sites, the central pyramid rises to a height of 55ft (17m). Nestled on the edge of the Unesco-protected Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, the jungle surrounding Muyil offers excellent hiking opportunities. The ruins are gloriously photogenic and make a great alternative to the nearby sites of Tulum and Chichén Itzá.

Ek Balam

Ruins, Historical Landmark, Archaeological site
Map View
The Oval Palace as seen from atop the Acropolis at Ek Balam, Yucatan_E661NN
© Brian Overcast / Alamy
If you’re looking for a little-known archaeological site, then Ek Balam is the place for you. Restoration work on the ruins only began in 1997, and much of it is still closed to the public. The tallest and most impressive structure in the complex is the Acropolis Temple, which reaches a height of 95ft (29m). Ek Balam’s obscure status brings distinct advantages – visitors can avoid the souvenir hawkers and wander through the ruins without brushing shoulders with fellow tourists.

There’s still plenty to excite in this Mexican town once you’ve explored the ruins near Tulum. Wellness is big here, so book a slot in one of the top yoga studios before unwinding in one of the best bars in town. Looking for somewhere to stay? A villa stay is perfect for a big group, or there’s a hotel for every traveler type. Wherever you stay, make sure to visit one of the best restaurants in Tulum to try some of the tastiest cuisine in Mexico.

These recommendations were updated on June 24, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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