If you are traveling to Mexico, then visiting Mayan ruins and learning about this ancient civilization is a must.
Here is a list of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico to help you plan your next trip.
A Brief Histroy of the Mayan Civilization
The Maya are probably the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica. They originated in the Yucatan around 2600 B.C., and rose to prominence around A.D. 250 in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras.
The Maya excelled at agriculture, pottery, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and mathematics, and left behind an astonishing amount of impressive architecture and symbolic artwork.
What Happened to the Mayan Civilization?
Contrary to popular belief the Maya civilization did not vanish. Starting from the late 8th century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization. Many cities, including Tikal, Copan, and Palenque, became abandoned about 1000 years ago. Drought, deforestation, war, and climate change have all been suggested as potential causes.
Mayan Civilization Today
Descendants of the Maya still live in Central America in what is now Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and parts of Mexico. The majority, however, live in Guatemala, which is home to Tikal National Park, the site of the ancient city of Tikal.
The Best Mayan Ruins in Mexico
Now that we have a brief history of the Mayan Civilization let’s look at some of the Mayan ruins in Mexico. There are over 4,400 Mayan sites spread across Central America with over 200 in Mexico!
Now, let’s start exploring. Here are some of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico with tips and tricks on how to visit each one.
Chichen Itza, located on southern Mexico’s beautiful Yucatán Peninsula, is a focal point of Mayan civilization. The city covers a vast area and contains traditional Mayan temples and buildings.
Chichen Itza is one of the most visited Mayan ruins in Mexico. And the Kukulkan Pyramid, shown in the picture above, is the most impressive structure. This magnificent piece of architecture was named after a Mesoamerican serpent deity. It mainly was used for astronomical/sacrificial purposes.
Tips for Visiting Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is easily reached by bus from Cancun. Buses depart hourly. Because of its popularity, it can get very crowded. It is best to get there early at the opening to avoid the crowds.
Uxmal is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture. Interestingly, the meaning of Uxmal is currently unknown. One theory suggests that the name is derived from Oxmal, meaning “three times built.” A second suggests the name comes from Uchmal which means “what is to come, the future.”
Legend has it that Uxmal was once an “invisible city” built by the magic of the dwarf king! In fact, the main pyramid, Adivino, refers to the Pyramid of the Dwarf. You can see in the photo that this particular structure is unusual among Maya structures. Its outlines are oval in shape, instead of the more common rectangular plan like Chichen Itza. The reasons behind this remain unknown.
Tips for Visiting Uxmal
The nearest town to Uxmal is Merida, and it can be easily reached by bus. Uxmal is less crowded than Chichen Itza, so if you arrive in the morning you will have the site to yourself. Once at Uxmal, the gift shop sells bus tickets onward to surrounding cities, if you don’t plan on returning to Merida.
Palenque is a medium-sized site in southern Mexico. This Mayan city flourished in the 7th century, but, after its decline, it was absorbed in the jungle. It has since been excavated and restored, making it one of the more popular sites to visit.
Palenque is much smaller than some of the other Mayan sites, such as Chichen Itza. But this doesn’t mean it has less to see. It actually contains some of the finest architecture and carvings of the Mayas. And it’s these carvings that gave archeologists the information needed to reconstruct the history of Palenque!
Tips for Visting Palenque
This Mayan site is located next to the town of Palenque. There are several minibusses and vans that depart from the center of the city throughout the day. While this site is popular, it does not get overcrowded.
Tulum is the site of a Mayan walled city south of Cancun. The ruins are situated on tall cliffs along the east coast of the Caribbean Sea. Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya. It was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and survived nearly 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico.
Tips for Visiting Tulum
Tulum is more compact compared to other Mayan sites. And it’s the 3rd most popular Mayan site, which means it can be overcrowded. I was there at the opening and it was packed. Given its popularity, Tulum is easy to access and can be reached by bus from Cancun.
Coba is an ancient Mayan city located 43km northwest of Tulum. And, given its remote location, Coba does not see as many tourists as other Mayan sites in Mexico. I, unfortunately, did not have the chance to visit this hidden wonder, but fellow travel blogger Matthew Kessi from Kessi World has.
He’s written two helpful articles so you can get the most out of your visit:
- What it’s like to explore the ancient Mayan ruins of Coba
- What I wish I would’ve known about the ancient Mayan city of Coba
Other Cool Mayan Ruins
A majority of the Mayan ruins can be found in Mexico, but there are many other sites spread across Central American in other countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize.
I have not yet had the opportunity to visit them all, but here are some others that I would definitely recommend. These are especially convenient if you are planning on making a loop that covers Mexico and Guatemala.
Tikal is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the Mayan civilization. This ancient city is hidden in the rainforest of northern Guatemala and is part of the Tikal National Park.
Here you can find not only amazing ruins but also a wide variety of animals such as toucans, monkeys, etc. The park is so large that you could spend hours wandering through the jungle without coming across a single person.
The Copan Ruins are spectacularly well preserved, and tell a unique story of the Mayan civilization. Copan is known for its large open plazas, as well as many altars and monoliths. It’s also home to the Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza, with the longest known Mayan inscription (over 1800 glyphs)!
I, personally, have not had the chance to visit this one, but I spoke with other travelers who raved about these ruins.
Uncovering the Mysteries of an Ancient Civilization
Learning about ancient civilizations by visiting archaeological sites, like those in this post, is truly fascinating. It allows us to step back in time and uncover the history and culture of impressive civilizations, such as the Maya. If you are traveling in Mexico or Central America, I hope I have convinced you to visit some of these ruins.
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