With over 200 open Mayan ruins in Mexico, going back to explore further is certainly a must! Their mystery of the Mayan people and their architecture never ceases to inspire awe, and there’s always something new to learn. There are various towns and cities in Mexico to explore. But perhaps stray off of the beaten path this time, or rent a bike so that you can cover more of the Mayan map. From archeological sites to experiencing local ancient culture, there’s plenty to see and do.
With that in mind, here are 20 of the best Mayan Ruins you should visit when traveling to Mexico.
1. Palenque – Chiapas, Mexico
Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico is one of the most popular Mayan ruins in Mexico. The grand complex will give you an idea of the immense scale the Mayan civilization once held, from architectural wonders to its colorful history. This popular UNESCO Heritage site is also well-known for being one of the most documented ruins in the country. This mid-sized settlement covers roughly 1,780 hectares of land. At present, only 10% has been excavated but 1,400 buildings can be found within it.
Some of the Mayan temples you’ll find at the Palenque Chiapas ruins include the Temple of the Cross, the Temple of the Sun, and the Temple of the Foliated Cross. However, it’s the Temple of Inscriptions that will leave you in awe. This monument contains a 180-year record of the city’s history and is also where the burial chamber of King Pakal, Palenque’s most revered ruler, can be found. Given its grand size and the fact that there are many jungle trails that weave in and out of the city to explore, it makes for the perfect day trip.
2. Calakmul – Campeche, Mexico
Located 22 miles from the Guatemalan border, in the city of Campeche in Mexico, is the Mayan ruins of Calakmul. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is home to some 6,750 ancient structures that include 117 stelae sets representative of its past rulers and their wives. This Mayan city was once home to 1.5 million people and was one of the most powerful in the empire.
Currently, only its main core of 2 square kilometers is open to the public. Besides boasting many excellent Mayan architectures, such as its network of sacbes or ancient roads, Calakmul is also where you’ll find The Great Pyramid. This ancient structure stands at over 148 feet or 45 meters and is one of the tallest Mayan pyramids in Mexico. For travelers who would dare make the climb up, they might even spot the El Mirador ruins, which are located nearby.
3. Bonampak – Chiapas, Mexico
Though one of the smaller Mayan sites on our list, Bonampak Chiapas holds plenty of value for archeologists. The Bonampak murals are among the best-preserved examples of classic Mayan frescoes. In fact, the name Bonampak means “painted wall” in the modern Mayan language, highlighting how significant the treasures that can be found in the Main Plaza’s Structure 1 are.
This archeological site is divided into three different chambers. Each one has different Mayan murals painted upon its surface, covering both wall and ceiling! Displayed are portrayals of daily life such as trade and even famous battles fought with other tribes such as the Yaxchilan. There are also frescoes that portray rituals of the royal court like the Mayan human sacrifice. Only four people are allowed at a time in each room so you’ll be able to really take in each depicted scene. The colors may have since faded, but these masterpieces remain impactful. Truly a must-see if you ever visit!
4. Uxmal Ruins – Yucatan, Mexico
The Uxmal ruins are located south of Merida in Mexico’s Yucatan state. It is most notable for its sheer size and decoration. In fact, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site given its value as representative of the region’s particular Puuc architecture style. Unlike other Mayan buildings, the ancient structures at Uxmal have smooth low walls with ornate friezes. Think traditional Maya huts, but built in stone. Uxmal was once the most powerful complex in western Yucatan and it shows in their urban design. Aside from the grand structures, there are also many ancient roads or sacbes that connect the different buildings.
You can also visit noteworthy ancient structures such as The Governor’s Palace, where Venus can be observed at nighttime. This building is also one of the most decorated, with over 400 glyphs covering its façade! Another must-see is the Adivino or the Pyramid of the Magician. This stepped pyramid is unique among Mayan buildings given its elliptical shape. While you’re at the Uxmal Mayan ruins, ask your guide about “El Enano de Uxmal” and they’ll tell you the role this structure plays in the popular Yucatec folk tale.
5. Temple of Ixchel – Isla Mujeres, Mexico
Northeast of Cancun, Mexico, and located by the Caribbean Sea is Isla Mujeres. The island’s mystery and allure have drawn visitors to its shores throughout the years. It isn’t just its blue water and gorgeous views that will leave you mesmerized, however. The island is home to the Temple of Ixchel, erected in honor of the Mayan moon goddess. The temple was used by the ancient Mayans for worship, but it also served as a lighthouse for many seafarers making their way home. In fact, it is located at the highest point of the Yucatan Peninsula.
6. Xel-Ha – Tulum, Mexico
Most people tend to overlook the Xel-Ha ruins in favor of the gorgeous beach and other amenities many Tulum resorts have on offer. However, you’ll be missing out on a really fun adventure if you don’t stop by this hidden gem! First off, the Xel-Ha Park overlooks the Caribbean Sea providing gorgeous views and plenty of water activities to do. At the site, multiple stone temples, as well as murals, illustrate various details of their daily lives. The murals were done in red and blue paint, which were spiritual colors for the Maya. This is also why many archeologists believe that Xel-Ha played an important role in the spiritual lives of the Maya, alongside the Temple of Ixchel.
There are many buildings you can still explore on the site, including El Palacio. Though not as big as others, it has two rooms and connected hallways that you’ll have plenty of fun trying to navigate. There’s also the House of Birds, where colorful murals depict various species indigenous to the land. If you have extra time, following the sacbes that leads from El Palacio will take you through the Mexico jungle and to one of the cenotes in the area.
7. Tulum Mayan Ruins – Tulum, Mexico
If you’re visiting the Xel Ha ruins, make sure you include a trip to the Tulum ruins as well. Located south of Playa del Carmen, this mysterious archeological site remains an imposing figure set against the blue Caribbean Sea. The Tulum ruins functioned as a trading post and were one of the most powerful city-states during its peak. The name “Tulum” means wall in the Yucatec language, though it was originally called Zama or “Dawn” in Mayan.
Aside from the beach, there are many interesting structures here as well, such as the El Castillo, the tallest building within the complex. There’s also the Temple of the Descending God and its ornate façade that depicts a figure with its head bowing down. Tulum used to be the center of worship for this god’s cult and many other carvings depicting him can be found around the site. You’ll also find Templo del Viento or the Temple of the Wind, which is dedicated to the Mayan god Ehecatl. If this is your first visit to the Mayan ruins in Mexico, staying overnight at one of the many Tulum hotels will help maximize your trip!
8. El Rey – Cancun, Mexico
The El Rey ruins is unique in the sense that it is located right in the city center. It can be found in the Cancun Hotel Zone and is only a few minutes away from the Cancun Mayan Museum. During ancient times, El Rey served many different functions. This Cancun ruins was an important site in the Mayan civilization map and was also used as an astronomy education center. Later on, it also became a burial ground for Mayan royalty. You may not find Cancun pyramids here, but there are a number of structures of interest that will make the trip worth it. The most popular structure that used to be in El Rey is “The King”, a stone sculpture that has since been moved to the Cancun Mayan Museum.
9. Yaxchilan – Chiapas, Mexico
Visiting the Yaxchilan ruins in Chiapas will take you down the Usumacinta River, which is already an adventure by itself. As one of the bigger archeological sites, it comprises three different complexes, including the Great Plaza, the Grand Acropolis, and the Small Acropolis. One of the first things you might notice is the way these areas were all skillfully set against the shape of the low limestone hills they were built upon. It really shows how advanced the pre-Columbian Mayan people were considering they designed this city with the same degree of complexity we do in modern times. You’ll find stairways, platforms, and terraces that connect different sections to each other.
For many who have visited these Mayan ruins, the highlights would have to be all the different carvings and paintings that decorate the buildings. Take your time at Yaxchilan to observe all of the stelae, altars, lintels, and doorways that feature bas-relief stucco carvings. Each one tells a story and gives you a small peek into this ancient world.
10. Kohunlich – Quintana Roo, Mexico
If you’re looking for an adventure a la Indiana Jones, then Kohunlich might be the right destination for you. Because of its location, in the lush jungles south of Quintana Roo, expect to be greeted by Howler monkeys as you enter this site. There are eight different sites within the 21-acre Kohunlich Mayan ruins. You’ll find administrative buildings, palaces, and areas meant for ritual practices. Another unique structure in this ancient city is its enormous reservoir, which is a testament to Mayan history and excellence in architecture.
Some buildings of interest at Kohunlich include the Temple of Masks, which is one of the oldest pyramids at the site. Eerie yet mesmerizing at the same time, each mask that decorates it is about eight feet in height and mostly in good condition. Sadly, only five out of the original eight remain. If you want an aerial view of the Mexico jungle, head over to 27 Steps. This platform is thought to have been a residential building for the Mayan Indian elite but now serves as a viewing area for tourists. Make sure you also check out the surrounding areas of Laguna Bacalar and Costa Maya during your day trip!
11. Chacchoben – Costa Maya, Mexico
Located south of Tulum are the Chacchoben ruins, the most popular Mayan ruins in Mexico. If you ever find yourself in the Costa Maya area, make sure you reserve half a day for your visit to this archeological site. The entire area covers 6 square kilometers, though only a few locations are open to the public. That said, there are many ancient structures to explore, including the temples found in the Gran Basamento located west of the site. Though you’re not allowed to climb any of the pyramids, the view from the ground is enough to leave you in awe of these architectural marvels.
12. Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins – Yucatan, Mexico
Considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most visited Mayan ruins in Mexico. This sacred city has had multiple functions during the course of its use, changing from agriculture to the arts and other religious practices as it grew in both wealth and power. Traces of these transitions can be found throughout Chichen Itza and in many of the well-preserved structures still standing in it.
The most imposing structure in Chichen Itza is its ball court, one of the largest in the Americas. For the Maya, these games were both sacred and brutal. Following this theme, you’ll also find what is known as the Platform of Skulls located on one side of the Temple of Jaguars. This is where heads of the Mayan human sacrifice victims were placed. Though not for the faint of heart, it does give visitors a peek into the darker side of ancient times. There are many mysterious buildings at Chichen Itza, but these two are unique to this ancient ruin.
13. Mayapan – Yucatan, Mexico
The Mayapan ruins are often overlooked for bigger nearby Mayan sites such as Chichen Itza and Uxmal, but with the wealth of history and exploration it offers, the complex is certainly worth a visit. It is thought that the city once had an alliance with Chichen Itza and many of its buildings have been influenced by it. In fact, Mayapan’s main building is a small replica of El Castillo Kukulcan.
Apart from government and administrative buildings, Mayapan also has a series of observatories and shrines that can be found within its 4-square mile city center. Mayan murals can be found within many of the buildings, which show scenes of war and details related to the death cult. Not all of these are accessible to the public, however, as many parts of the archeological site are still being studied. Those looking to cool off after a long day of walking around would be delighted to know that there are 26 cenotes that surround Mayapan. It is one of the best places in Mexico to experience these natural pools!
14. Ruta Puuc – Yucatan, Mexico
Ruta Puuc, also known as the Puuc Route, is a must when you visit Yucatan, Mexico. Located south of Merida, following this 30-kilometer stretch of road will bring you to various Maya sites, such as Labna, Sayil, Kabah, XLapak, and the Uxmal ruins. It may not be as popular as other Mayan ruins such as Chichen Itza, but there are a series of structures that can be explored in the area. In fact, many of the structures still standing date back to 600 to 1,100 A.D. This includes a number of Mayan temples where traces of Mayan religion are still present.
One of the highlights you will see while touring Ruta Puuc is the El Palacio, one of the longest structures in the area. It is challenging to photograph this building as it covers the extent of the entire Labna ruin! One of the smaller complexes in Puuc is Xlapak where there are three different palaces, one of which is adorned by numerous masks and dedicated to the Mayan rain god, Chaac.
15. Ek Balam Ruins – Valladolid, Mexico
The Ek Balam ruins, located close to Valladolid in Yucatan, Mexico, is best for those looking for an adventure off the beaten path. Its name means “the black jaguar” or “bright star jaguar”, but don’t expect to find the famous big cat at this site! Instead, you’ll be treated to a series of impressive ancient structures dotting the 12-square kilometer complex. At present, only 1 square mile of it can be explored but there’s plenty to see despite that. First off, you have the defense walls that embrace the entire site. This was built to protect its most important buildings in the Central and South Plazas.
The defense walls are formidable, but it’s the El Torre or “The Tower” that really impresses visitors. This structure is where the tomb of Ukit-Kan-Lek-Tok is hidden away. As with any powerful ruler’s resting place, the tomb is decorated with elaborately carved statues. From their hair braids to the skulls carved into their belts, you’ll find yourself mesmerized by the skill of the Maya tribe who worked on each piece.
16. Coba Ruins – Quintana Roo, Mexico
Among the Mayan ruins on our list, Coba Ruins remain largely unexcavated and mostly untouched. This is one of the reasons why it is considered a very important site in the Yucatan Peninsula, on top of its unique design and function. Its name means “ruffled waters”, perhaps pertaining to its location right on the Coba and Macamxoc Lagoons. You will be able to view both on your drive up to the entrance of the ruins.
On the site, there are two ball courts and various settlements spread throughout its 30 square miles. The ancient Mayan city also boasts of 50 sacbes, with 16 open for public use. All of these roads stem from the main pyramid, with one stretching for over 100 kilometers all the way to Yaxuna. There are three significant structures located within the Coba Ruins. The most popular is the Nohoch Mul, the tallest Mayan pyramids in Mexico. Tourists are allowed to ascend its steep steps, so make sure you’ve dressed appropriately for this activity!
17. Edzna – Campeche, Mexico
The Edzna ruins in Campeche, Mexico have quite an interesting story. Archeologists believe that the Itza family influenced the ancient Mayan city in some way before they went on to establish Chichen Itza. In fact, the word “Edzna” comes from “House of the Itzas”, which further adds water to this theory. Another interesting fact? Certain elements of Edzna’s structures and urban design mimic that of Teotihuacan pyramids and Aztec temples in Mexico. During its peak, the city is said to have been home to 25,000 inhabitants. However, it was later abandoned, and the reason for this continues to be a mystery.
Structures of interest located in Edzna include The Gran Acropolis, a massive platform that supports five other structures. The main castle on this site is the Cinco Pisos or “five levels”, which has a height of roughly 40 meters. It is believed to have been used to worship Mayan gods. Each step leading to the top has glyph carvings and stucco details that can still be seen today.
18. Becan – Campeche, Mexico
If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to scale one of the many ancient Mayan pyramids, head on over to the Becan ruins in Campeche, Mexico. This is where Rio Bec stelae, one of the most unique structures in the complex can be found. Unlike other Mexican pyramids, the Rio Bec is thought to have been built solely for the purpose of illusion instead of function. It does not come with interior rooms but does have misleading entrances and a series of false stairways. Furthermore, there are twin towers on either side of the pyramid, which makes it appear much grander in size than it actually is! It is one of the most unique places to visit in Mexico for this reason.
The city itself was once the political, military, and economic stronghold of the Rio Bec province. Other sites, including Xpuhil, Chicanna, Okulhuitz, Channa, Puerto Roci, and Ramonal all belong to this region. Traces of its importance and power can be seen in the expansive moat and wall that surrounds it, which were constructed to protect its leaders and the elite. The moat is about 16 feet deep and 32 feet wide. With the embankment, it creates an intimidating 40-foot high defensive barrier!
19. Teotihuacan – Teotihuacan, Mexico
Besides finding Mayan ruins in Mexico, you can also explore Aztec sites such as the Teotihuacan. The Teotihuacan ruins, also known as the City of the Gods, were once the biggest and most important city in the Aztec kingdom. The grand scale of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the reasons why it remains one of the most visited ancient ruins in Mexico.
There are many popular structures in the area, including the Avenue of the Dead, which stretches over 2.4 km across the ruins. Located at the southern part of the avenue is the Citadel where you’ll find the Temple of Quetzalcoatl or the Feathered Serpent. The Pyramid of the Sun, one of the largest ancient pyramids in the Western Hemisphere, can be found here. It dominates the Teotihuacan skyline, rising over 216 feet above ground level. Make sure you complete the trek up its steep steps to really experience the magic of Teotihuacan. It will be the highlight of your visit to these Aztec ruins in Mexico.
20. Monte Alban – Oaxaca, Mexico
Overlooking the Valley of Oaxaca are the ancient Mayan ruins of Monte Alban, which was once the Zapotec civilization’s capital. Here you’ll find beautifully preserved temples and palaces, a ball court, and even an observatory that offers stunning views of its surrounding areas. Monte Alban is also one of Mexico’s best-preserved archeological sites, giving guests a window into what life was like before the ancient Mayans and Aztecs ruled.
Start your journey at the museum displaying artifacts found at the site. Next, make your way to the Great Plaza or what was once the city center. Follow the ancient pathways and it will lead you to the ball court and a series of stepped structures. Finally, the trail leading up from the North Platform will lead you to the Tombs of Monte Alban. Note that these can only be viewed from afar, but are still worth the trek.
A Visit to the Mayan Ruins is A Must for the Curious Traveler
Are you interested in history and adventure? Mexico has a diverse collection of Mayan ruins for you to explore. In fact, Central America is the best place to go if you’re interested in ancient ruins and the stories surrounding each one. From the breathtaking Tikal ruins in Guatemala to the many Mayan ruins in Belize, you will never run out of things to see and do. While you’re at it, we suggest taking a peek at the different Belize resorts you can stay in to make sure that your visit is nourishing for both mind and body.