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 that the Mexican beach town was specifically designed for sunbathers. Yet history buffs will also find plenty to keep them occupied because the town and surrounding area boast a range of important archaeological sites. Here’s our guide to the very best Mayan ruins to visit in and around Tulum.
History and Instagram enthusiasts unite at Playa Ruinas, Tulum’s most iconic attraction. Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful sites in the Americas, the beach combines white sand and azure waters with Mayan ruins dating to the 13th century. Tulum’s clifftop Castillo, originally built as a watchtower, is currently Mexico’s third-most popular archaeological site after Teotihuacan and Chichén Itzá.
Travelers looking to cross off one of the Seven Wonders from their list 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, or underwater sinkhole. The steep Castillo pyramid dominates the location and is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the world. 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. Most hotels run shuttle buses to the site, so ask about day trips at the hotel reception.
Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Mexico, +52 985 851 0137
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 its 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.
Cobá, Carretera Federal 307 Cancún-Chetumal, Cobá, Quintana Roo, Mexico, +52 553 033 5552
Not to be confused with the theme park that shares its name, Xel-Há is a Mayan archaeological ruin located 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 in the ruins, and follow up your visit with a trip to a cenote or the nearby aquatic theme park.
Xel-Há, Km 240 Carretera Chetumal Puerto Juárez, Solidaridad, Mexico, +52 800 009 3542
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 55 feet (17 meters). 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.
If you are truly 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 95 feet (29 meters). 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. Hidden from the crowds, Ek Balam will make you feel as if you have been transported back in time.
Ek Balam, Santa Rita, Yucatán State, Mexico, +52 999 944 0033