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They built elaborate cities and temples. Invented a calendar. 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 Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Mayan ruins in the Yucatan
Preferred places to stay in the Yucatan are the three resort areas of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. And you can easily do a Mayan ruins tour as a half- or full-day excursion from all these places. For more culture and history, a Yucatan road trip will allow you to visit several ruins, for example, Chichen Itza, Tulum and Ek Balam.
The best part of a Riviera Maya holiday is that you won’t get “ruined out” – especially if you mix up Yucatan ruins with beaches and cenotes.
Let’s now check out in more detail the 7 most popular Mayan ruins to explore in Mexico’s Yucatan region.
1) Chichen Itza ruins
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the spectacular ruins at Chichen Itza are the most famous of the Mayan sites.
The ruins can be explored on a day tour from Cancun.
El Castillo pyramid:
You’ve likely seen pictures of the towering El Castillo pyramid (also known as the Temple of Kukulcan). The pyramid is Chichen Itza’s most striking monument.
Count the steps. There are 365 steps, one for each day of the year.
Pok ta pok:
Also 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!
2) 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 more remote than other Mayan ruins in Mexico, Coba perhaps offers a greater sense of discovery. 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) that radiate 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 the tallest Mayan pyramid 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).
Because Coba sees fewer tourists than the ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum, you can actually climb the temple if you wish. Be forewarned though – the 120 stone steps are steep! Be safe, and hang on to the thick rope in the middle.
Coba ruins tour:
The 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.
All-day tours from Cancun or Playa del Carmen (like this great tour) often 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.
Check out these wondrous Riviera Maya cenotes – read next! Riviera Maya Cenotes are Dreamlike Underground Cathedrals
3) Xcaret ruins
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 and a coral reef aquarium – more than 53 attractions and activities.
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.
4) 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 peak, some 25,000 people lived in the city.
The most impressive structure is the Pyramid of Magician, a 114-foot-tall structure built between the 6th and 10th centuries. 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.
5) 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 (housed in a modern white building) 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 her remains have 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 if visiting Cancun with young children, this Mayan site may be easier for wee ones to experience.
6) 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.
What’s particularly great about these Yucatan Mayan ruins is that you can climb the main temple (95 feet high) and other ruins.
7) Tulum ruins
Bring your swimsuit when you visit Tulum!
The ruins, which date back to the 13th century, are 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 protecting 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.
What else to do in Cancun?
From snorkeling in the Cancun Underwater Museum to boat cruises to Isla Contoy, there are many more things to do in Cancun.
Where to stay near Cancun? Read our review of this luxury all-inclusive: Grand Velas Riviera Maya Restaurants: Aka the 9-Step Foodie Diet
More Mexico inspiration
Check out these other places to visit in Mexico that we’ve also written about…
Photo credits: 22 and 23 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase