Mexico Travel Guide
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14 Must-See Mayan Ruins in Mexico

Even if you don’t have a penchant for the past, it’s worth a trip just to see these impressive feats of architecture and engineering in person.

The Maya civilization thrived during the Classic Period (A.D. 250 to 900). Elaborate stone cities were constructed—and later abandoned. Today, these well-preserved archaeological sites across Mexico offer insight into this mysterious ancient culture.

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Chichen Itza

WHERE: Yucatán, Mexico

Undeniably the most famous and popular ruin, Chichen Itza was a major political and economic hub for the Mayans dating back to the 5th century. Its star attraction is El Castillo, a 79-foot pyramid dedicated to Kukulcán, the mighty snake god. This masterpiece has 365 steps — the number of days in the solar calendar. But that’s far from the only draw. Be sure to check out the ball court (the largest tlachtli field in Mesoamerica) and the Temple of the Warriors.

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Ek’ Balam

WHERE: Yucatán, Mexico

Ek’ Balam (“black jaguar”) offers a distinctive blend of art and architecture. Rising above the trees is the Acropolis. From the winged stucco figures that decorate the burial tomb of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok to the hieroglyphic inscriptions, there’s beauty at every turn. And did we mention the spectacular panoramas at the top? Even more eye-popping is the temple with the monster mouth, where bloodletting rituals were practiced.

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Cobá

WHERE: Quintana Roo, Mexico

Nestled in the jungle of Quintana Roo, Cobá is prized for its pyramids. The tallest, Nohoch Mul, is 138 feet high. Wear comfortable shoes for the steep trek to the top, where you’ll be rewarded with views of the pre-Columbian village and surrounding landscape. Also noteworthy is the astronomical observatory and network of 50 sacbeob (“white ways”), raised paved roads, that unite in the center of Cobá.

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Tulum

WHERE: Quintana Roo, Mexico

With its stunning seaside setting and manicured grounds, the Tulum ruins look like a postcard come to life. Perched on a cliff overlooking the turquoise waters and white sand, the former port for trade in jade and turquoise impresses with its remarkably intact structures from the post-Classic Mayan period. Spend time admiring the Temple of the Frescoes, El Castillo, and the well-preserved limestone fortification.

INSIDER TIPBring your swimsuit for a dip at the beach below.

 

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PHOTO: BBravePhoto / Shutterstock
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Muyil

WHERE: Quintana Roo, Mexico

Tucked away in the seclusion and natural splendor of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, Muyil, or Chunyaxché, is one of the oldest Mayan communities in Mexico. Dating back to 300 B.C., it was an inland seaport, trading in jade, salt, obsidian, chocolate, and honey. The ruins display common characteristics of Petén-style architecture with graceful curved corners and steep staircases. While there, climb the observation tower and take a boat ride along the ancient canals.

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PHOTO: doromonic / Shutterstock
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Mayapan

WHERE: Yucatán, Mexico

Mayapan is located 30 minutes from the Yucatan capital of Merida. The last flourishing Mayan settlement before the Spanish invasions, it makes an intriguing trip. The walled city contains a whopping 4,000 structures, ranging from large pyramids and sacred temples to shrines and limestone homes. It’s estimated that 17,000 people lived in Mayapan at its peak. Now, it’s delightfully uncrowded — a welcome change from the hordes of tourists in Chichen Itza.

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Dzibilchaltún

WHERE: Yucatán, Mexico

It’s believed that the Mayans selected the site of Dzibilchaltún based on its proximity to the coast, fertile soil, and access to clean drinking water. Indigenous peoples continuously lived here from 300 B.C. until the arrival of the Spanish. Today, visitors can tour the ruins — notably the Temple of the Seven Dolls, named for the small effigies discovered during excavation — swim in Cenote Xlacah and see ancient artifacts at the museum.

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Uxmal

WHERE: Yucatán, Mexico

Uxmal was erected in what’s known as Puuc style. The Temple of the Magician is distinguished both by its height and intricately carved stonework. A triumph of pre-Columbian architecture, it was reconstructed three times. There are several other structures of interest, including the Nunnery Quadrangle, Governor’s Palace, and Temple of the Macaws. With no water to be found in the area, inhabitants relied on rain collection systems. Not surprisingly, the Mayan rain god Chaac has a strong presence here.

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Kabah

WHERE: Yucatán, Mexico

The second largest ruin in the Puuc region, Kabah (“strong hand”) is connected to Uxmal by an 11-mile-long sacbe. The raised walkway measures 16-feet wide and is capped by imposing arches. Evidence suggests that the two cities were adversaries and eventually allied. While comparatively small in size, it’s a treasure trove of Mayan artistry. The most famous building, the Palace of the Masks, is decorated with depictions of the rain deity Chaac.

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PHOTO: ahau1969 / Shutterstock
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Calakmul

WHERE: Campeche, Mexico

Calakmul, the capital of the Snake Kingdom, was once the most powerful city-state in the Maya world, with a population of 50,000 and wide-reaching political control. Due to its isolated location, in the depths of the Tierras Bajas, much of this vast kingdom remains a mystery. Here’s what we do know: Calakmul is a beacon of biodiversity and shining example of Rio Bec-style architecture. Its crown jewel is an immense north-facing pyramid. Standing 148 feet tall, it ranks among the largest in Mesoamerica—and you can climb it!

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Becán

WHERE: Campeche, Mexico

First occupied in 550 B.C., Becán (“ravine formed by water”) was the political, religious, and economic seat of Rio Bec. Archaeologists Karl Ruppert and John Denison discovered the ruins in 1934, naming them after the unusual moat—the only one found in a Mayan settlement. False stairways and tunnels support the belief that Becán served as a military stronghold, while massive pyramids and temples reflect its significance as a ceremonial center.

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Yaxchilán

WHERE: Chiapas, Mexico

Situated on the banks of the Usumacinta River, in the southern state of Chiapas, near the Guatemala border, Yaxchilán was the primary power in the region through the Classic Period. The site is renowned for its roof combs as well as hieroglyphic inscriptions on lintels, stelae tablets, altars, and stairways that depict the history of the city. Getting there: Yaxchilan is remote—only accessible by boat or small plane.

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Bonampak

WHERE: Chiapas, Mexico

What Bonampak (“painted wall”) lacks in size, it more than makes up for in color and creativity. Hidden deep in the Lacandón Jungle, 20 miles south of Yaxchilan, this secluded spot wasn’t seen by “outsiders” until 1946 when Mayan descendants led two Americans to the ruins. Buildings date to the Late Classic Period. The iconic Temple of the Murals contains three magnificent ancient frescoes (painted directly on wet plaster) illustrating the consecration of life, warfare, and celebration.

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Palenque

WHERE: Chiapas, Mexico

An awe-inspiring forest backdrop and exquisite architecture make Palenque one of the most mythical Mayan sites in all of Mexico. It houses beautiful buildings, relief carvings, sculptures, as well as the tombs of revered rulers. While soaking in the heritage and culture, you might even catch a glimpse toucans and monkeys. Palenque, like many ruins, is still being excavated. It’s estimated that 95% of the city is still waiting to be uncovered.