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Beautifully preserved pyramids, sacred Mayan sites, colorful murals and ancient temples amid thick jungle: Mexico is Mesoamerican culture at its best. One of the richest and most diverse cultural heritages in the world, Mexico has the archaeological ruins to prove it.
Location: Located 108 miles southwest of Cancun.
Transportation options: Cobá is a 35-minute drive northwest of Tulum and accessible via a rough road that leads through a jungle. You can also reach the area by bus. Buses depart from Cobá for Playa del Carmen and Tulum at least twice a day. Taxis are about $16.
Amenities: El Bacadito restaurant is closest to the ruin and located half a kilometer from the ruin site entrance. Run by a Mayan family, the restaurant serves traditional cuisine including a three-course fixed-price lunch for about $6. The restaurant does not serve dinner or accept credit cards.
Why you should go: Often overlooked by visitors, Cobá is less crowded than some of the other ruin sites, offering visitors the ability to explore the area without interruption by large tour groups.
These partially unexcavated ruins can be reached from Cancun in a day trip. Located in the middle of thick, dense jungle are several spectacular pyramids and temples. When you climb them, you will be rewarded with unparalleled views over the treetops. There are an estimated 6,500 structures located at this site but only a few of them have been uncovered.
Cobá is a quiet, serene place, with relatively few tourists, and it is popular with serious bird watchers. It’s a great place to rent a bicycle or a guide who will also transport you. Don’t try to walk, as it is quite far. Getting lost here is very possible, as sites and paths are not always clearly marked. If you decide to venture out on your own, which is perfectly safe, simply resist the temptation to wander off into the jungle. Also, be sure to bring mosquito repellent, sturdy walking shoes or hiking boots, and plenty of water.
Cobá is divided into several areas called groups, including the Cobá Group, which is home to the 79-foot temple. If you get here early enough in the morning, you might have the temple all to yourself. This group also includes a restored ball court, where the Maya played a sacred ball game. The Chumuc Mul Group is only partially excavated. Nochob Mul Group is fully excavated and includes the tallest pyramid in Cobá. After climbing 120 steps, you will enjoy the well-preserved temple on top and the breathtaking views.
As Cobá is located inland from the ocean, it’s hotter and more humid, so visit as early in the day as you can.
Location: Located 80 miles south of Cancun
Transportation options: Day trips are easily arranged from all major hotels. You can also rent a car and drive down Highway 307 south until you see the signs to Tulum, which is close to the road. It’s an easy drive.
Guides: Guided tours are available from Cancun. You can also hire a guide at the entrance of the site for about $35 for one to four people. You can see the ruins in about two hours but you may want to allot some extra time for enjoying the beach.
Amenities: Bottled water is available for purchase at the park entrance. There are also several restaurants at the site that serve lunch. The park is located along the highway and about two-and-a-half miles south of the ruins is a present-day village where you can find restaurants, shops and other services. Some recommended restaurants are: Charlie’s and Taqueria el Mariachi. Charlie’s is hip spot where many local artists display their work. There is a garden in the back of the restaurant with a stage for live entertainment. Chicken tacos and black bean soup are especially good here. Taqueria el Mariachi features a variety of Mexican dishes including chicken and pork fajitas and their speciality, arracheras (grilled beef and pork with onions, bell peppers and tomatoes). There are no drinks available close to the beach but you can purchase them at a nearby gift shop. It’s recommended that you bring a bottled water to stay hydrated while enjoying the sun.
Why you should go: This is one of the only Mayan sites that overlooks a beach. After you’re done exploring the site you can enjoy the white sand and beautiful turquoise ocean.
This visually stunning site is unparalleled in its beauty, as it sits on rocky cliffs overlooking the turquoise waters of the Mexican Caribbean. This former Mayan trading port had a population of around 600 people in its busiest time, protected by a defensive wall on three sides. Structures at Tulum date back between the 12th and 16th century A.D. in the Postclassic period.
Tulum was mainly a place of worship and a trading port, but was also used as a residence for the upper classes. The area is well marked and surrounded by lush vegetation. While the insides of the Temple of the Frescoes are off-limits for visitors (as is climbing on most structures), you can have a look at some of the barely-visible wall paintings and diving god sculptures from the outside. Visit the Temple of the Descending God, the Castle, House of the Cenote and the Palace.
The Castle (Castillo) is the largest and most famous building at this site. It is located on the edge of a 40-foot limestone cliff. Take advantage of the fantastic photographic opportunities here. The ideal time to visit is early in the morning. The ancient name for Tulum was Zama, from the Mayan word for morning, and the sunrises here are quite spectacular.
An extra bonus in Tulum is the beautiful beach (Tulum Cove, the former Mayan port) below the Temple of the Wind. Bring a towel and a beach bag – you will have to carry it while exploring the site, but it will be worth it. There are no drinks available close to the beach (but drinks are sold in the small gift shop), so don’t forget your water.
Location: About a 15 minute drive south of Tulum and 90 miles south of Cancun
Transportation options: Accessible via car or bus.
Guides: There are no services at the site.
Amenities: There are no services at the site.
Why you should go: Surrounded by lush jungle, this site was once home to a thriving population. Ancient walkways called sacbe can also be found on the site. One of them leads to the lagoon and what was most likely an entrance for visitors more than 800 years ago.
This site goes by two names, Muyil and Chanyaxche, derived from the lagoons located on the outskirts of the area. It is located on the 1.5-million-acre Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and is the largest Mayan site on the reserve. Muyil was once a populated settlement that dates back to the Pre-Hispanic era. Now it’s an often missed site that’s perfect for those who like to explore without crowds of tour groups rushing them along. You can take your time walking through the jungle and experience a real taste of Mayan culture.
This site is divided into two sections, Muyil A and Muyil B. Only the first one is open to the public, and it extends across 93 acres of dense vegetation.
Located close to Muyil lagoon, it’s thought that Muyil A was once a stop on the Pre-Hispanic Maya’s maritime trade route along the coast. Research states that the area was used by the Maya until the Spanish conquest of the Yucantan occurred during the first decades of the 16th century. It has numerous civic-religious and residential constructions, some of which have yet to be uncovered by archeologists. Of the structures that have been found many of them have been restored, but they are still incredible to see including El Castillo (The Castle) and The Pink Palace.
Standing 56 feet high, The Castle is taller than any other building in Tulum and along the coast. It’s shaped like a pyramid and has at least four different layers that were each added by the Maya over time, probably in celebration of a new ruler or era.
The Pink Palace is another reconstructed building but evidence of the original stucco and paint used by the Maya can still be seen. Many more structures can be found amidst the dense jungle. Ancient paved roads called sacbe can also be found on the site.
Muyil is open daily. You can see all of the main structures in less than two hours. The site is about a 15 minute drive south of Tulum.
Location: In the southern part of Cancun’s Hotel Zone, at about Km 17 on Boulevard Kukulcán near the Hilton Golf Course.
Transportation options: El Rey can easily be reached via the public transportation system in Cancun, taxi or car.
Guides: This site can be self-toured in about an hour.
Amenities: There are numerous nearby shops, restaurants, hotels and other services.
Why you should go: El Rey is located in the southern part of Cancun’s Hotel Zone. With its convenient location it allows visitors to experience some of the area’s history without having to venture out of Cancun. It can be toured in about an hour, and it a good option for guests who want to spend most of their vacation relaxing on the beach.
Located in Punta Nizuc at the southern end of Cancun’s main hotel zone, Ruinas El Rey is a rare archeological find. Practically in the shadow of many major hotels, there are more than a dozen restored temple platforms waiting to be explored.
El Rey was a significant Mayan trading post during the late Postclassic period (1250 -1530 A.D.) although limited archeological work has been performed, making it difficult to determine exact timelines. It is estimated that the site was settled at the end of the classic era, around 900 A.D.
The ruins of this small area center on three main plazas and are bordered by the Nichupté lagoon to the west. Lots of friendly iguanas like to rest on the warm stones, so don’t be surprised if you come upon one of these creatures. You might also see a few peacocks who frequent the site. The middle plaza is the place to see the best preserved ruins. You can see numerous platforms and small temples by strolling up and down the main walkway.
El Rey is not as impressive as some of the other larger Mayan ruin sites in the region, but it allows visitors to experience some of the area’s history without having to venture out of Cancun. It can be toured in about an hour, and it a good option for those who want to spend most of their vacation relaxing on the beach.
Location: In Cancun’s Hotel Zone on the grounds of resort Park Royal Cancun, at about Km 12.5 on Boulevard Kukulcán. The site is situated on Cancun’s highest point.
Transportation options: The site can easily be reached via the public transportation system in Cancun, taxi or car.
Guides: With only two structures, this site can be enjoyed without a guide.
Amenities: The site is located in Cancun’s Hotel Zone with many shops, restaurants, hotels and other services located nearby.
Why you should go: Yamil Lu’um is located in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, giving visitors easy access to the site without having to venture far from their hotel.
Yamil Lu’um, whose name means hilly land, is situated on Cancun’s highest point. This site is located on the grounds of the resort Park Royal Cancun. Visitors who are not guests of the hotel can only access it from the beach side. It was discovered in 1842 by John Lloyd Stephens and dates back to the late 13th or early 14th century. The site is comprised of two structures that are thought to have been used as temple and a lighthouse. It is the smallest of Cancun’s ruins.
Santuario Maya a la Diosa Ixchel (On Isla Mujeres)
Location: Isla Mujeres is a 20-minute boat ride from Cancun. The site is inside El Garrafon National Park located on the island.
Transportation options: “Miss Valentina” and “Caribbean Lady” are two small air-conditioned cruisers that run from a main dock on the island to Puerto Juarez just outside of Cancun. The trip to the island takes about 20 minutes depending on the weather. A one-way ticket costs about $3.50 and the boats depart throughout the day. There is also an open-air ferry that travels to the island. The trip takes about 45 minutes and a one-way ticket costs about $1.60. Other faster and more expensive ferries can be booked that leave from docks in Cancun’s Hotel Zone. There is very small airport that is for private planes and military aircraft. There is a car ferry that travels between the mainland and the island, but having a car isn’t necessary. Once you’re on the island the main modes of transportation are scooters, bikes and golf carts, all of which can be easily rented. There aren’t any car rental agencies on the island. Taxis are another transportation option.
Guides: Tours can be booked from Cancun or Isla Mujeres.
Amenities: Various shops, restaurants, hotels and other services are located on the island.
Why you should go: Visiting this site also takes you to Isla Mujeres, an idyllic paradise much different from the fast-paced city life in Cancun.
Santuario Maya a la Diosa Ixchel is the remains of a Mayan temple once dedicated to the goddess Ixchel. Located on a cliff, the site offers incredible views of the ocean, Bahia de Mujeres (Bay of Women) and Cancun. There is a nice walkway around the ruin site. On your way to the site you’ll pass a village and sculpture park with large, abstract iron sculptures. There is an old lighthouse inside the village. Visitors are encouraged to climb to the top for the views. At the village you’ll also find jewelry and other souvenirs.
Location: 109 miles west of Cancun.
Transportation options: You can drive there or take a tour bus from Cancun.
Guides: Authorized guides are available at the site. There are also plaques in English, Spanish and Mayan located in front of most of the structures that offer additional explanations. You need about an hour or two to see the entire site.
Amenities: There is one restroom on the site. Refreshments are not available, but can be purchased at Temozon, a small village you pass on your way there.
Why you should go: This site features the Acropolis, one of the tallest structures in the Yucatán. You can climb to the top of it to see an incredible view and the intricate sculptures located two-thirds of the way to the top.
Ek Balam is an ancient Mayan city first inhabited as early as 100 B.C. One of the outstanding qualities of this site is the huge stature of the structures located on it. There is also a wall-enclosed section located in the middle of the site, an uncommon quality found among Mayan ruins. The site's most important structures are located within the enclosed walls.
Most of the structures were built around 800 A.D. or later. During that time the city was ruled by a man named Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok. Guests can visit his tomb, called Acropolis, located on the site. The tomb has incredible sculptures and is one of the tallest buildings in the Yucatán. It measures 480 feet across, 180 feet wide and 96 feet tall. It has six levels believed to be built at different times. Guests can make the climb to the top for an incredible view. The sculptures are located two-thirds of the way to the top.
Some of the other structures on the site include the Palacio Oval (Oval Palace), El Juego de Pelota (Ball Court) and Las Gemelas (The Twins). There are water reservoirs in the back of the site that were also built by the Mayans.
Along with featuring large structures, the site also demonstrates a noticeable change in building design, indicating the area experienced its most important cultural period during the Late Classic era from 700 to 1000 A.D. The site was first excavated in 1886, but it was left almost untouched until 1987. There are still a couple structures that remain buried.
The Ek Balm archeological zone is about a two-hour drive from Riviera Maya and located just north of Valladolid. Visitors can reach the site by taking the Coba road west and getting off at Coba ruins exit. Attracting fewer crowds, this site is much less crowded and a lot quieter than some of the other more popular sites including Chichén Itzá. It also offers fewer amenities for travelers. There is only one restroom on the site and no refreshments. Visitors can buy food and drinks in Temozon, a small village you pass from the cuota road. Located in the small village of Ek Balam visitors will be surprised to find an Italian hotel and restaurant called Dolce Mente. The restaurant features an extensive menu including homemade pasta.
Location: 125 miles from Cancun and 72 miles from Mérida
Transportation options: Driving is an option but the narrow one-way roads and heavy traffic can make it a bit frustrating. Your best bet is a tour bus. However, be prepared for a long day.
Guides: There are many guided tours of Chichen Itza that leave from Cancun and Mérida.
Amenities: Accommodations include two hotels - Mayaland and Hacienda Chichen. Mayaland is located in a large garden and close enough to the ruins to have its own entrance. It attracts a large number of tour groups and may not be appealing to those seeking a quiet getaway. Hacienda Chichen is a converted 16th-Century hacienda that once served as home to the Carnegie expedition to Chichén Itzá. It features beautifully appointed cottages.
Why you should go: Encompassing two-and-a-half square miles, Chichén Itzá is known as one of the most well-preserved Mayan sites in the world. During the spring and fall equinoxes the afternoon light hits the sides of the trapezoidal pyramid making it look like the shadow of the snake god is making its way down the pyramid. Thousands of visitors flock to the site during this time each year to see this incredible site.
The region’s best-known ruins are located in Chichén Itzá, roughly 125 miles from Cancun. Chichén’s Castillo (also known as the Pyramid) has long been an icon of ancient Mexico. This enormous Mayan site sits on four square miles, and is truly breathtaking in its size, natural surroundings, and the integrity of its structures. Come during the day to climb the pyramid, and stay in the evening for a memorable light show.
While Chichén Itzá has been carefully restored by archeologists for almost a century, the site’s exact history is fairly unknown and is the subject of much debate. Chichén Itzá was probably built around 900 A.D. and abandoned after 1200 A.D.
The spectacular stone platforms, pyramids and ball courts make it possible to visualize what this site might have felt like a millennium ago, when the plazas were filled with thousands of people. Today, thousands of visitors flock to the site, but thanks to its massive size, Chichén Itzá rarely feels crowded.
The Temple of the Warriors, decorated with stone heads and long-snouted masks, is an elaborate representation of Mesoamerican architecture. The climb to the top of the Castillo with its three room temples on top is worth every exhausting step, but if you are afraid of heights, you might want to skip this one. The Group of 1,000 Columns, lined up like soldiers, is a great picture spot. Don’t miss the famous Great Ball Court, the largest in Mesoamerica. The Sacred Cenote, the Venus Platform, Caracol and the Temple of the Tables are also highlights at Chichén Itzá.
Location: Located 248 miles from Cancun.
Transportation options: There are two routes to Uxmal from Mérida, Highway 261 and State Highway 18 that you can take if traveling by car. Travelers should note that gas is not available at Uxmal. Tour buses do travel to Uxmal from Cancun to Uxmal.
Guides: Tours are available from Cancun. If you want to see the sound and light show it’s highly recommended that you sign up for a guided tour.
Why you should go: Uxmal is regarded as one of the most elegant ancient Mayan sites. It’s also home to Pyramid of the Magician, an incredible structure standing at an impressive 115 feet tall.
Located 248 miles from Cancun, Uxmal (pronounced oosh-MAHL) can be visited in a single (long) day trip. This site, with its impressive Pyramid of the Magician, surrounded by lush vegetation, represents one of the high points of Mayan Puuc architecture. Built during the Late Classical period of the 7th through 10th centuries, Uxmal is perhaps the most elegant of all ancient Mayan sites.
The main structures in Uxmal are aligned to the positions of the sun. At 115 feet high, the easily recognizable Pyramid of the Magician is an incredible site. With a staircase that ascends the pyramid at an angle of 60 degrees, it boasts one of the steepest staircases in Mesoamerica. This pyramid was rebuilt a total of five times during the course of several centuries, resulting in five temples located within the pyramid. In an effort to preserve the pyramid, visitors are no longer allowed to make the climb to the top.
Along with the immaculate pyramid there are many other structures in Uxmal, including the Nunnery Quadrangle, which is considered by many to be one of the site’s finest structures. The magnificent House of the Governor faces east, possibly to allow the observation of the planet Venus. The Quadrangle of the Birds is comprised of a number of chambers and was named for its bird decorations.
One of the unique things about this site is that there are no cenotes (natural wells). Instead water is collected in made-made cisterns (chulunes) that collect rain water. One of the main cisterns can be seen near the entrance.