They built elaborate cities, temples and roads.
Invented a calendar.
Studied the stars.
And sacrificed humans to the gods.
We’re talking about the ancient Mayans.
And if you travel to Cancun and the Riviera Maya in Mexico, you can learn more about the remarkable Mayan civilization at several fabulous Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Indeed, exploring these archaeological sites is one of the most enthralling things to do on your Mayan Riviera vacation!
Mayan ruins in the Yucatan
By way of background, the Yucatan Peninsula encompasses some 76,300 square miles in southern Mexico.
The eastern coast is lapped by the Caribbean Sea. The Gulf of Mexico is to the west and north.
Three Mexican states are found on the peninsula – Campeche on the west coast, Yucatan on the northwestern tip and Quintana Roo stretching along the east coast.
Popular Mexican beach destinations in the Yucatan for a sun-and-sand vacay are the four main resort areas in Quintana Roo: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and the island of Cozumel.
(If you’re stuck on trying to decide between two key competitors, check out our post on Cancun vs Cozumel – it should help get you unstuck.)
You can easily do a Mayan ruins tour as a half- or full-day excursion from all these places (except Cozumel, which requires a ferry trip to get to the Yucatan mainland).
It’s hard to know precisely how many Mayan sites in Mexico there are.
We know there are at least 200 ancient Mayan ruins – but there are probably hundreds more, many dating back 2,500 years. (Some estimates say there are 4,400+ Maya sites in Latin America.)
Most of the Mayan cities were abandoned by 900 A.D. (and we don’t really know the full story why their civilization collapsed).
What we do know is that the Maya people left behind grandiose monuments, mysterious inscriptions, beautiful art and symbolic artifacts like pottery, sports structures and jewelry.
They give us a fascinating glimpse into what life was like in the Maya world at the height of its civilization.
The best part of a holiday in this part of Mexico is that you won’t get “ruined out” – especially if you mix up Yucatan ruins with beaches and Riviera Maya cenotes!
Ready now to step back in time and explore in detail nine of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico’s Yucatan region?
1) Chichen Itza ruins
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the spectacular ruins at Chichen Itza are the most famous Mayan ruins in Mexico.
Indeed, gawking at the Chichen Itza Mayan ruins is one of the most awesome things to do in Mexico.
They’re so impressive that they made the 2007 list of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”
Sprawling over an area of more than four square miles, Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities and home to hundreds of buildings. At its peak, it’s believed as many as 50,000 people lived in the sacred city.
Today, you can visit the archaeological site on a day tour from Cancun.
There are many Mayan pyramids and unique structures to take in, so you’ll want to allow enough time to explore. On average, three hours is about right (four hours if you’re keen on history and culture).
El Castillo pyramid:
You’ve likely seen pictures of the towering El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan.
Dedicated to the feathered serpent god Kukulcan (or Quetzalcoatl), Chichen Itza’s main pyramid is almost 100 feet high.
Count the steps. There are 365 steps (91 steps on each of the pyramid’s four sides, with a final step at the top) – one step for each day of the year.
Built between the 9th and 12th centuries AD, El Castillo dominates the ruins of Chichen Itza.
Temple of the Warriors:
Another important structure is the Temple of the Warriors.
This large stepped pyramid is named after the columns carved with images of warriors. An imposing series of about 200 columns stand in front of the south wall.
At the top of the pyramid, there’s a Chac Mool statue of a reclining figure with a bowl on its stomach.
Pok ta pok:
Be sure to see Chichen Itza’s huge ball court.
Mayan men played a game called pok ta pok (similar to today’s basketball).
Using their hips, they’d try to hurl a heavy rubber ball through a stone ring mounted 21 feet high on a wall.
There’s some debate about what happened once a team got the ball in.
Some say the captain of the winning team was then decapitated as a sacrifice (ensuring his entrance into heaven).
Others say the losers were decapitated.
Either way, it was a game to the death!
Chichen Itza tours:
The easiest way to see Chichen Itza from Cancun is to join a guided tour.
You can book a Chichen Itza tour online before your trip (or at your hotel after you’ve arrived). Tours usually include lunch and a swim in a nearby cenote.
Here’s a great sunrise tour from Cancun that gives you exclusive early access. Beat the crowds (and heat!) and be the first to enter the archaeological site and take pictures, without other people mucking up your shot. A Mexican lunch is included afterwards, before driving back to Cancun.
For more culture and history, a Yucatan road trip will allow you to visit several ruins, for example, Chichen Itza, Tulum (#2 below) and Ek Balam (#7).
2) Tulum ruins
Bring your bathing suit when you visit the Tulum ruins!
Dating back to the 13th century, they’re set over a relatively small area and aren’t nearly as extensive as Chichen Itza.
But Tulum is the only Mayan city built on the coast (80 miles south of Cancun). And it boasts a drop-dead gorgeous beach.
You enter Tulum (which means “wall” in Mayan) through a high limestone wall that protected the city.
The most iconic structure is its cliff-top castle. Carved with plumed serpents, it overlooks the turquoise Caribbean sea.
Also peer inside the Temple of the Frescoes to see original Mayan frescoes (in blue, green and black), depicting Mayan gods and the world of the dead and the living.
On one of our visits to the ruins of Tulum, it was hot, hot, hot.
So the best part for us that day was making our way down to the sugar-white beach afterward.
We dove into the tequila-clear waters for a long refreshing swim.
Aaaahhh… The Mayans picked a good spot for their city of Tulum.
3) Coba ruins
Nestled deep in the thick jungle near two lakes, the once-great Mayan city of Coba flourished between 400 and 1100 AD.
Because it’s in a more remote location than other ancient Mexican ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula, Coba offers a greater sense of discovery.
It sees fewer tourists than the more famous ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum, and it feels very authentic.
Go early in the morning, and spider monkeys, birds and butterflies may be your only other companions.
An important trade center, Coba was the hub for a series of ancient white limestone roads. Called sacbe (which means “stone road” or “white road”) these elevated roads radiated out from the city, like spokes on a wheel.
The longest road extends over 60 miles, from Coba to Yaxuna.
Nohoch Mul pyramid:
The ruins of Coba are also home to one of the tallest Mayan pyramids on the Yucatan Peninsula – the 138-foot-high Ixmoja temple (part of the Nohoch Mul group of buildings and sometimes referred to as the Nohoch Mul pyramid).
Coba is one of the best Yucatan ruins to visit because you can actually climb the temple if you wish.
Be forewarned though – the 120 stone steps are steep! So be safe, and hang on to the thick rope in the middle.
Coba ruins tour:
These impressive ruins are vast, so if you don’t fancy walking, you can rent a bike or hire a rickshaw and driver to pedal you around.
Most all-day tours from Cancun or Playa del Carmen (like this highly-rated tour) combine Coba with a visit to the Tulum Mayan ruins, a swim at a cenote and a visit to a local Mayan village to see traditional Mayan ways of life, like weaving fabrics, sleeping in hammocks and making tortillas.
4) Xcaret ruins
Xcaret is a huge archaeological theme park, 45 miles south of Cancun.
It encompasses the Mayan ruins of Pole, believed to date back to the 15th century AD. (Xcaret was originally called Pole.)
Today, you’re likely to visit Xcaret for its other fun activities. (If you go just to see the Xcaret Mayan ruins, you might be disappointed.)
There’s a Mexican folk art museum, a marine turtle conservation sanctuary, an island with jaguars, a manatee lagoon, a butterfly pavilion, a coral reef aquarium – more than 53 attractions and activities in all.
One of the best Xcaret activities is snorkeling along the park’s underground river.
Part of a large and natural underground cave system, the river is five feet deep.
Centuries ago, when Xcaret was a trading port and ceremonial center, Mayan pilgrims bathed here on their way to Cozumel to worship Ixchel, the fertility goddess.
Donning a life jacket and snorkel gear, we swam through limestone passageways, occasionally popping out into sunshine when passing through a cenote (sinkhole).
We didn’t see many fish, but the whole 45-minute experience was unique and loads of fun.
5) Uxmal Mayan ruins
Located about 40 miles south of Merida, on the Ruta Puuc (Puuc Route), Uxmal was one of the largest cities in the Yucatan.
At its height, some 25,000 Mayan people lived in the city.
The most impressive structure is the Pyramid of the Magician.
Rising 114 feet high off the ground, the pyramid was built between the 6th and 10th centuries. Its rounded sides make it unique.
Around the corner is the Governor’s Palace, a long one-story high building adorned with stone carvings of flowers, masks, snakes and birds on the upper half.
Like Chichen Itza (#1 above), Uxmal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it receives fewer visitors.
Some people think these Yucatan Mayan ruins are even prettier than Chichen Itza.
6) Museo Maya de Cancun ruins
There are even Mayan ruins in Cancun, just outside the Museo Maya de Cancun (the Cancun Mayan Museum).
Located in the heart of the Cancun hotel zone, this Mayan museum is housed in a modern white building.
It opened in November, 2012. And it’s a hit with beach-goers who don’t have to travel far to gain a little insight into Mayan history and culture.
A highlight is the 14,000-year-old skeletal remains of “The Woman of the Palms,” discovered in a local cenote near Tulum. (You may or may not see her, depending on whether the skeleton has been removed for research purposes when you visit.)
But the ancient skeleton is just one of 3,500 pieces in the museum’s archaeological collection, of which some 350 are on display.
Other pieces include sculptures, weapons, pottery, burial masks, and tools and other artifacts the ancient Mayans used in daily life.
As for the 800-year-old Mayan ruins, they’re found outside in the San Miguelito archaeological site.
Stroll the paths winding through the lush landscaped grounds to see them. Five of the 40 structures are open to the public, including a 26-foot-high pyramid.
Granted, it’s not the same as Chichen Itza. But the Mayan site is still worth visiting. If you’re on a Cancun vacation with young children, it’s easier for wee ones to experience.
7) Ek Balam
Relatively new on the tourist radar, the Ek Balam ruins are found about 19 miles north of the city of Valladolid, in the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula. (The name “Ek Balam” means “the black jaguar.”)
Known as El Torre or the Tower, the main temple is 95 feet high.
Apart from the fact that Ek Balam is never crowded, what’s particularly great about these Yucatan Mayan ruins is that you can climb them.
They’re also very close to a beautiful cenote, Cenote X’canche or Ek Balam Cenote.
8) Calakmul ruins
Another one of the best Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula is a site you’ve probably not heard of before – Calakmul.
Yet Calakmul, located deep in the dense jungle in Campeche, was once a large and fiercely powerful Maya city. Like Chichen Itza, it’s thought to have been home to about 50,000 people.
Much of it still remains a mystery today, though, and many sections have never been excavated.
Among the structures that have been uncovered are two huge pyramids.
Structure I is 130 feet tall. Structure II or “the Great Pyramid” is 150 feet high – making it the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan. And you can climb these pyramids!
It’s a bit of a trek to visit Calakmul though. You may want to stay overnight in Xpujil or Chicanna (the two closest towns).
Or you can take this day tour to Calakmul from Chetumal, Bacalar or Xpujil.
But visitors who make the journey to this UNESCO-listed Maya ruin are rewarded with an unforgettable adventure.
Calakmul barely receives more than a couple of dozen visitors a day! Instead of tourists, you encounter howler and spider monkeys, birds, tapirs and perhaps a piglet or two.
And then you have the stars of the site – the Calakmul pyramids.
9) Mayapan ruins
More majestic Mayan temples in Mexico are found at Mayapan, a set of ruins near Merida.
Along with Chichen-Itza (#1) and Uxmal (#5), it’s considered to be one of the most important pre-Columbian cities in the Yucatan. Mayapan was also the last Mayan city built and inhabited before the Spanish invaded.
The walled city contains about 4,000 structures, though many haven’t been excavated.
Interestingly, its main building resembles Chichen Itza’s Kukulcan Temple. While it’s called the Castle of Kukulcan, at 50 feet high, it’s much smaller than Chichen Itza’s main pyramid. There’s also an interesting circular building called the Observatory.
Mayapan is more compact than Chichen Itza, and you can climb these Yucatan pyramids and buildings. It makes for a fun day trip from Merida.
Final words on visiting the Yucatan Peninsula Mayan ruins
For the most comfortable experience, plan your visit early – before the sun gets baking hot.
Be sure to slap on sunscreen, wear a sunhat and carry a small backpack with bottled water. And don’t wear flip-flops; running shoes or comfortable walking sandals are best for walking around the stony paths and ancient structures.
Also note that Mexicans enjoy free admission on Sundays to the archaeological sites. We suggest you avoid a Sunday visit as the ruins will be more crowded.
Now go and enjoy. No vacation in Cancun and/or the Mayan Riviera is complete without visiting at least one of these Mayan Yucatan ruins. They’ll leave you speechless, really!
What else is there to do near Cancun?
As well as visiting Mayan ruins, there are many more things to do in Cancun, from snorkeling at the Cancun Underwater Museum to Isla Contoy boat cruises.
Where to stay in the Riviera Maya? Read our review of the luxury all-inclusive Grand Velas Riviera Maya
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Photo credits: 10, 11, 16 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 23, 24, 26 Museo Maya de Cancun