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The 7 most beautiful Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula

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The 7 most beautiful Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula

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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

The ruins at Chichen Itza are the most famous of the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan
Chichen Itza is the most renowned of the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan

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.

The Chichen Itza ruins sprawl over an area of 4 square miles
One of the new 7 wonders of the world, the Chichen Itza ruins sprawl over an area of 4 square miles

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.

The 100-foot-high El Castillo dominates the ruins of Chichen Itza
Built between the 9th and 12th centuries AD, the 100-foot-high El Castillo dominates the ruins of Chichen Itza

Can you climb Chichen Itza?

We first visited when you could still climb the pyramid – a real thigh burner! (But the views were worth it.)

Today, in an effort to preserve the ruins, you can no longer climb the ruins.

You may be just as happy to stay grounded, however. It’s usually so hot and humid at Chichen Itza that you probably won’t feel like much exercise anyway.

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.

A stone pok ta pok hoop at the Chichen Itza ruins
A stone pok ta pok hoop in Mexico (Credit: Flickr, Dennis Jarvis)

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!

Getting from Cancun to Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is located about 120 miles west of Cancun. The highway is a good paved road, and the trip takes about 2 ½ hours.

Chichen Itza tours

The easiest way to get to Chichen Itza from Cancun is to join a guided day 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.

Several different Chichen Itza tours are available through GetYourGuide, a global platform used by millions to find and book local tours. See, for example, this best-selling and affordable tour.

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.

Coba is one of the best Mayan ruins in the Yucatan to explore
Coba is one of the best Mayan ruins in the Yucatan to explore

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.

To travel between communities, the ancient Mayans built elevated white stone roads called sacbe
To travel between communities, the ancient Mayans built elevated white stone roads called sacbe (which means “stone road” or “white road”)

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's Nohoch Mul pyramid is one of the few Yucatan Mayan ruins you can still climb
Coba’s Nohoch Mul pyramid is one of the few Yucatan Mayan ruins you can still climb

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

Xcaret is a huge archaeological theme park, 45 miles south of Cancun. And it encompasses the Mayan ruins of Pole, believed to date back to the 15th century AD.

Be sure to check out the Mayan ruins when you visit Xcaret
Be sure to check out the Mayan ruins when you visit Xcaret

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.

Cultural shows at Xcaret pay homage to the Mayan culture
Cultural shows and demonstrations pay homage to the Mayan culture

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.

Swimming through Xcaret's underground river is lots of fun!
Swimming through Xcaret’s underground river is lots of fun!

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.

The Uxmal ruins aren't nearly as crowded as Chichen Itza
The Uxmal ruins aren’t nearly as crowded as Chichen Itza

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).

If staying in Cancun, be sure to visit the splendid Museo Maya de Cancun.
If staying in Cancun, be sure to visit the splendid Museo Maya de Cancun

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.)

Bones - Maya Museum

“The Woman of the Palms” is believe to have been between 44 and 50 years old when she died

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.

One of the 3,500 artifacts at the Cancun Mayan Museum
One of the interesting 3,500 exhibits at the Cancun Mayan Museum

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.

Perched overlooking the turquoise sea, Tulum is perhaps the prettiest of all the Mayan ruins in Mexico
Perched overlooking the turquoise sea, Tulum is perhaps the prettiest of all the Mayan ruins in Mexico (© Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase)

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.

An iguana hanging out at the Tulum ruins
Almost as captivating as the ruins are the many iguanas you see in Tulum

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.

Fancy a swim at the beach below the Tulum ruins? (Credit: Flickr, Ajc3)

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

Mexico guide

We’ve traveled to Mexico dozens of times and have written tons about the country. Best places to go? Most beautiful beaches? How to bargain like a pro?

See our free:
Ultimate Mexico Travel Guide

What to pack for your Mexico vacay?

1) Cute and comfy sandals | Do your tootsies a favor and check out these fab travel sandals for both men and women that we’ve sussed out!

2) Good camera | You won’t want to miss those great shots of Chichen Itza and other Mayan ruins. We love our Sony A600 mirrorless camera – it’s small enough to throw in your purse or backpack, but it takes awesome photos!

3) Beach gear | Flattering bathing suit? Big-brimmed sun hat? Good sunglasses? (We’re a fan of Ray-Bans). Roomy beach bag for your sunscreen, water bottles, books and perhaps a towel or two? You’ll need these for the beach and pool.

4) Light hiking shoes | These light, cool and breathable hiking shoes are perfect for exploring the ruins. They can do double-duty too on the streets of Cancun too.

As an Amazon associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

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 


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YADIRA E CAPACETE

Tuesday 2nd of May 2017

My dad is 80 years old and although very active he does get tired. would you recommend the Tulum tour for him? How much walking will he actually do and does he have the option of going to the beach or does he have to go through the Mayan Ruin to get to the beach? and is the only way down to the beach via stairs ?

Janice and George

Thursday 4th of May 2017

Hi Yadira, Your dad would love the Tulum ruins... There is a little bit of walking involved, although it is level and flat. (Be sure to take some water and wear a hat for sun protection.) Unfortunately, we believe the only way to get to the beach is going down the stairs, so perhaps it would be better if you all cool off with a swim back at your resort afterwards ??

Sophie

Monday 18th of November 2013

I climbed the pyramid at Chichen Itza many years ago - and remember it was even more challenging to climb back down. (But then I was wearing silly shoes.) Glad they're making an effort to better preserve these remarkable monuments. You've taken some really beautiful photos here.

Janice and George Mucalov

Monday 18th of November 2013

You're right - the steps are so narrow, that you couldn't just walk down. Side-stepping was the way to go. Looking back, it was actually quite precarious, and people were injured (believe one tourist fell and died). Safety is probably another reason for roping off these monuments.

Corinne

Friday 15th of November 2013

Oh how I love an underground river! It's getting very cold here in Germany. A trip to sunny Mexico sounds fantastic!

Janice and George Mucalov

Friday 15th of November 2013

The Xcaret river is quite unique. It was pouring rain when we went, so it was the perfect thing to do on a rainy day. We were getting wet anyway!

Tracy

Thursday 14th of November 2013

We've been to Mexico once and visited Coba. We loved it and climbed up to the top of the pyramid and were rewarded with amazing views. We'd love to return to check out Chichen Itza, although we heard that you can no longer climb to the top of it. Xcaret also sounds like a must-see! :)

Janice and George Mucalov

Thursday 14th of November 2013

When we visited Chichen Itza several years ago, tourists were still able to climb the pyramid. But the effects of thousands of tourists climbing the pyramids has taken its toll. It's good you managed to climb the pyramid in Coba! There's talk that within a few years, probably all the Mayan pyramids will be closed to the public for climbing.

Amanda Woods

Wednesday 13th of November 2013

I can't believe I still haven't made it to South America... it's been on the list forever and seeing this is making me slap myself for not having gone already.

But thank you for the inspiration... nothing like a little jealousy to kick the dream into action :)

Janice and George Mucalov

Thursday 14th of November 2013

Well, you can see these Mayan sites in Mexico (a little closer to home, if you're in the U.S.) than South America :-).

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