This article has been updated on August 31, 2021
This post is yet another part of Quaint Planet‘s series about the Yucatán peninsula. While the other texts in the series look closer at the peninsula’s natural attractions, interesting towns and villages, as well as general tourism tips and itinerary suggestions, in this article, we’re going to explore the Mayan Ruins to visit in Yucatán.
In particular, we’ll start with the most popular sites, such as Chichén Itzá, Tulum, Coba or Uxmal and then we gradually venture into less and less visited Mayan ruins, like Calakmul, Edzna, Mayapán, Becán and more. We’ll go through brief descriptions and travel tips about each site. In addition, the summary section comes with numerous links, in case you were interested in further details.
Few words about Maya past
Mayans were one of the most advanced ancient civilisations in the Americas. Their empire covered what is now Guatemala, northern Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador as well as southern Mexico. At its peak at around 600CE, the Mayan civilization consisted of more than 40 cities, each with a population between 5,000 and 50,000.
The major cities from this “Classic Period” (250-900 CE) were Tikal, Uaxactún, Dos Pilas (all located in present-day Guatemala), Copán (Honduras), Bonampak, Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico), Río Bec and Calakmul (Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico).
After 900 CE, the Classic Maya civilization in the southern territories however declined and during their “Post-Classic Period” (900–1519 CE), the remaining Mayan influence shifted north towards the Yucatán Peninsula, where their cities and settlements flourished for another few centuries.
Most visited Mayan Ruins to visit in Yucatán
Tip: the links highlighted in red are Google Maps locations to give you an idea about WHERE we're talking about. If you save the locations that catch your eye into: "want to go", once in place, it should be easier to find your way around the region, not to mention some possibly usefull reviews Google Maps sometimes offer.
Tulum was an important trading and religious centre of the Mayan part of the Mesoamerican World located on the eastern shores of the Yucatán peninsula. From the tourism point of view, this relatively well-preserved site stands out mainly because of its spectacular seaside location, however, except for taking few Insta-friendly pics of the iconic Templo Dios del Viento by the ever-picturesque Caribbean sea, there’s much more to explore on this site.
The city was built between the 13th and 15th centuries in a strategic location to become a centre of trade centre of great importance for numerous contemporary Mexican and Central American tribes. The site, originally called Zana earned its modern name because of the great wall that surrounds the site (“Tulum” means wall in Mayan), which was most likely built to protect the old city from pirates.
Although the site itself is of relatively modest size, it contains few rathe well-preserved structures, after all, Tulum is the third most-visited archaeological site in Mexico, receiving over 2.2 million visitors in the pre-Corona travel days (2017). The most remarkable structures on the site are the former observatory that used to track the movements of the sun Temple of the Frescoes or the small-ish pyramid El Castillo.
Tulum travel tips
Get there early. Prepare yourself to face large crowds when visiting this attractive archaeological site. If you however wake up early, ideally in the midweek, you can beat the masses. Speaking for myself, I was delighted to have the place nearly for myself for a while, furthermore, I’ve also avoided the heat that was about to beat on the site’s visitors when I was leaving the site. So wakey-wakey – it’s 7 am – grab a coffee and a croissant from the local bakery and get moving 😉
Where to stay in Tulum? You could stay in either the Tulum Pueblo or Tulum Playa areas of the town, with both locations offering a wide range of accommodation and additional attractions, such as numerous cenotes, adventure parks and so on. The residential Pueblo is a bit cheaper with few nightlife options, while Playa is a bit steeper in prices but offers some great beach boutique hotels and numerous dining options.
How to get to Tulum? From the Cancún International airport, take a bus to Tulum Pueblo. You might have to break this 131km (81ml) journey in two and change at Playa del Carmen. Once in Tulum Pueblo, on the main street, there are numerous buses, colectivos and taxis that run the 15-20 minutes/$3 journey between the city of Tulum and the eponymous ruins. From Playa, the 1-3 miles journey is also doable on a rented pushbike.
How much? You can explore the site independently or with a tour. The entrance fee is 80 pesos (about $4), as for the tours, it depends on what is included as many of them offer a combination of the ruins and snorkelling.
A tip: If you were only visiting any of the Mayan ruins mentioned in this post, make sure to be ready to tackle the hardcore sun. So gear-wise, a hat, sunscreen and good walking shoes are rather essential things to have.
Chichén Itzá is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located about 44km (27 mi) west of Valladolid or 120 km (75 mi) southeast of the regional capital Mérida. The site’s 10 km2 (4 sq mi) is divided into Old Chichen with 6 Mayan ruins and Chichen Itzá with about 20 Mayan ruins.
Chichén Itzá is believed to have been one of the most important religious, military and commercial centres in the region, that reached up to 35 thousand inhabitants at its peak, 9th and 13th centuries, although the site dates back to about 550 CE.
Except for the iconic and most photographed El Castillo pyramid (see below), there are also other equally important ruins on the site, such as El Caracol, AKA Observatory, The Temple of The Warriors, the Ball Court (for playing the old Mayan game tlachtli) and many more.
Chichén Itzá travel tips
Crowds. In the pre-Corona days, the site received about 2,5 million visitors annually, which makes it the second most visited Mayan archaeological site in Mexico (FYI, an undisputed number one is the Aztec Teotihuacán nearby Mexico City). So it does get busy here. The good news is that the site is rather spacious so it’s not as bad as in for example Tulum. BTW, getting there early helps a bit in here as well, plus you’ll avoid the heat as well.
Where to stay nearby Chichén Itzá? While the booking websites will offer you some alternatives to stay nearby the site, I’d personally recommend staying in Valladolid, which is a cheaper and rather flexible place to stay, when it comes to other possible activities and attractions, including the exploration of a pretty colonial town or visiting some of the spectacular cenotes nearby, before or after your tour to Chichén Itzá.
How to get to Chichén Itzá? International airport-wise, it would be either Cancún or Mérida, from where, just as well as from pretty much anywhere else in Yucatán, you can book a tour. Another obvious option is hiring a car. From Valladolid, there are few options, out of which, the simplest appears to be taking an ADO bus that would drop you off right in front of the site’s entrance for an equivalent of $5,-USD for the 45 min journey.
How much? At present, the entrance fee for a foreign adult would pay 533MXN (just over €22). Tours from Valladolid are often combined with another attraction, mostly with one of the spectacular cenotes in the area. The full-day ones go from about $50USD, depending on what extras they include in their tour.
Curiosity fact. An interesting and very popular thing about the El Castillo pyramid is to visit the site during the equinox. This is due to the sunset that creates a particular shadow that appears like a snake that gradually moves down the pyramid’s stairway in a wavy motion. Unfortunately and understandably, the site however gets extremely packed during the equinoxes, which takes most of the magic away but at the same time, the event adds a certain social element to the mix as it feels like a little festival.
Cobá ruins are located about 43 km (27mi) northwest of Tulum in the Mexican federal state Quintana Roo. There are four structural groups in the core area of the site. Although the site you’ll visit could be explored in 2-3 hours, the ancient city’s total area extends to 26 km2 (10 sq mi), containing multiple, mostly residential structures.
Even though the city of Cobá lasted up to about the 14th century, we’re talking about a site that’s considerably older than its above-mentioned fellows. Cobá dates back to the Pre Classic period, as far as 300 BCE. The ancient city reached its peak as an economic and political power in 600-900 CE, a century after Chichén Itzá was founded. These days, Cobá was a considerably large city, with an estimated population of more than 50 thousand people.
From the tourism point of view, the site contains several large pyramids in several areas: Nohoch Mul complex, with the popular climbable* 42m (138 ft) tall pyramid Ixmoja; Conjunto Pinturas, AKA the ceremonial area; the crossroads area Xaibé; Macanxoc structures with Macanxoc Stela that depicts a scene from the Maya creation legend and the oldest Cobá Group with about 50 structures, most notable of which are Structure 4 and La Iglesia.
Cobá ruins travel tips
Crowds. While some tourists might consider Cobá to be a “remote location”, a traveller with an explorer’s soul would still call it a popular tourist attraction. Although considerably less busy than the 2+ million visitors of the sites mentioned above, with nearly 3/4 million visitors per year, Cobá is still the 4th most visited archaeological site in Mexico. Like with the sites mentioned above, it’s a good idea to get there early to beat the crowds, not to mention the heat.
Where to stay? There are several hostels and boutique hotels nearby the site. I would however recommend staying in the nearby Tulum, where you’d have more options when it comes to social life or checking out other attractions in the area. In case you have decided to stay nearby the site, then consider visiting the neighbouring cenotes Choo-Ha, Tankach-Ha or Multun-Ha to cool down after a hot day.
How to get to Cobá ruins and how to get around? Except for the $20/35min taxi or own transportation, there are also the so-called second-class Mayab buses, leaving from the ADO bus terminal in Tulum at 7:20 AM. As for getting around the site, consider hiring a $3 pushbike at the site.
How much? At present, the entrance fee is 80,-MXN, which is about €3,50.
* unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 restrictions, visitors are currently not allowed to climb the Ixmoja pyramid
Uxmal and Ruta Puuc
Uxmal is yet another popular Mayan ruins and UNESCO World Heritage site in the Mexican federal state of Yucatán, located about 62 km (38 ml) south of the regional capital Mérida. Apart from being one of the most impressive sites in the region, Uxmal is also one of the best-preserved abandoned Mayan cites.
Uxmal belonged to the group of the Mayan cities that survived the 900 CE collapse of the southern parts of the Mayan empire. In fact, at about 850 CE, as opposed to the fate of its southern fellows, Uxmal has expanded its influence by becoming a regional centre in the Puuc region. Although not as influential as in its prime days, the city was still inhabited in the mid 16th century, even after the Spanish conquest of Yucatán.
The most dominant structure at the site is undeniably the Pyramid of the Magician. However, other structures at Uxmal, such as Governor’s Palace, the Nunnery, the Ball Court or the climbable Grand Pyramid don’t stay far behind, when it comes to impressing the visitor with its well preserved Puuc architecture of the late classical period between 6th and 10th centuries CE.
Ruta Puuc is about a 50km network of roads in connect 5 Mayan sites explorable by a hired vehicle or with a tour. Except for Uxmal, Ruta Puuc includes also the ruins of Sayil and Labná, both rather impressive sites, which are btw also part of the same UNESCO World Heritage site as Uxmal. The other two remaining sites on Ruta Puuc are Xlapak and Kabah.
FYI, in case you like to visit less crowded attractions, some of these sites do not get that many visitors and there’s a chance that you could have the sites all for yourselves. Taking the Ruta Puuc could therefore partially feel like an off the beaten path-ish treat, especially if you had your own transport.
Although exploring Uxmal takes few hours, if you were thinking about the whole Ruta Puuc, technically you could probably rush through all five sites in one speedy/sweaty/frantic day, I’d however recommend taking it easy and do it in pleasant 2 days.
Uxmal travel tips
Crowds. While Uxmal closes up the top five visited archaeological sites in Mexico, if compared to the top 3, the numbers drop even more significantly than with Coba ruins. In this case, we’re talking about less than 300 thousand visitors, which makes the site far less busy than all of the above-mentioned locations.
Where to stay nearby Uxmal? While there are some luxurious options to stay nearby the park entrance, I would personally recommend staying in the cheaper and more diverse regional capital Mérida, where there are plenty of things to check out, including the city’s famous cultural life.
How to get to Uxmal? I strongly recommend taking the first bus from Mérida that goes at 6 am. The $4,-USD/90min journey should get you to Uxmal about 30 minutes before the gate opens so you could have the place almost for yourself, plus the heat is not as bad in the early hours. Your other options of reaching Uxmal are either hiring a car or taking an organized tour that would pick you up from your hotel.
How much? The 2021 entrance fee is 461,-MXN (€20) for foreign adults.
Less busy Mayan Ruins to visit in Yucatán
Calakmul is a third UNESCO World Heritage site on our list. The ruins are located in a bit of a remote location, in the south-central part of the Yucatán peninsula, in the federal Mexican state Campeche, only about 22 miles north of the Guatemalan border. The site sits in the tropical forest of the Tierras Bajas in a massive, 7 231 km² (2 792 sq mi) large UNESCO-protected biosphere.
We’re therefore talking about a rather unique, “double-UNESCO” settings. Furthermore, Calakmul is also one of the biggest Mayan sites ever discovered, matching its former rival city Tikal, which is btw only 90 km south of here, across the lush jungle and Guatemalan border. Although the site’s core is only about 2 km2, the extended site contains nearly 7 thousand structures scattered in an area of 70 km2 (27 sq mi).
Calakmul belongs to that group of the southern, “Classic Period” Mayan cities that got abandoned in 900 CE, however in its heyday, it is estimated that between 500 and 900 CE, the kingdom also included many rural settlements, with as many as 1,5 million people in total.
The most dominant building of the site is the 45 m (148 ft) tall Structure II, which makes it the tallest pyramid in the Mayan World. And you are allowed to get up there to enjoy stunning views over the endless jungle. The central plaza also holds a group of platforms and buildings, simply named structures IV, V, VI and VII. North of the Central Plaza, there’s also a Chiik Nahb (Place of the Water Lilly) complex that’s known for its murals.
To be fair, it does require a wee bit of effort to reach the site, but if you’re into off the beaten path destinations, the experience pays that off several times over, because we’re talking about a spectacular combination of jungle and an abandoned ancient city, which makes the experience more real, or Indiana Jones-like if you will.
Calakmul travel tips
Crowds. Well, let me put it this way: while the most visited Mayan site Chichén Itzá welcomes nearly 4 thousand people per day, Calakmul usually gets less than a hundred per day.
How to get ot Calakmul? The site is located off Highway 186 between Chetumal-Campeche highway, just outside the town of Conhuas. First, you need to get to the town of Xpujil, which is reachable by public transport, about 3,5 hours drive from the regional capital Campeche or 1,5 hrs from the border town of Chetumal.
If you do not have your own transportation, which would be btw very useful here, from Xpujil, which is still about 2 hours from the site, you gonna have to either get a shared van, taxi or take a tour bus for the remaining part of the journey. Count on 800-1200,-MXN (€35-50) per person for a tour, depending on what’s included.
Where to stay? Although you can reach the site by taking a tour from as far as Campeche, I’d recommend getting to Xpujil or, even better right to the park’s entrance nearby to Conhuas and stay overnight. This is where you can also check out the museum dedicated to the site and the biosphere.
How much? Except for the expenses with your journey to the site, count on an entrance fee of 240,-MXN per person that is divided into three payments: at the entrance to the biosphere, at the gates into the National Park and at the entrance fee to the ruins. Tours are obviously more expensive, depending on where you’re taking it from and what’s included. However, the advantage of taking a tour is that you’ll see also other highlights of the national park, such as the bat cave, where you’ll watch thousands of them flying out at sundown.
What to bring. Consider the fact that you’ll be in a proper jungle. Do not forget to protect yourself from the sun, bring water and if you were exploring the site independently, it might be a good idea to bring a map or at least take a photo of a map by the entrance and wear a comfy walking shoes 😉
Becán and Ruta Rio Bec
If you are in the region, and if you didn’t have enough of the off the beaten path Mayan ruins, then this is a perfect region for you. It is because, here you are right in the middle of Ruta Rio Bec, which is a Mayan ruins-rich region with numerous lost cities that are often still covered by trees, accompanied by the sounds of a real jungle.
Except for Calakmul, the most significant site on Ruta Rio Bec is an impressive site called Becán. Being located only about an 8 km drive from Xpujil, Becán is somewhat easier to reach than Calakmul. Its history goes as far as 550 BCE and archaeologists believe that Becán was also a rather important Mayan settlement. From the tourism point of view, there are about 20 structures the visitors can visit, which would take about a couple of hours.
Other sites on Ruta Rio Bec are for example Dzibanche; Kinichna, Chicanna, Balamku, Xpuhil or Kohunlich, with its famous distinctive Pyramid of the Masks. Due to the fact that the tourism in Yucatán concentrates closer to the Caribbean shore, you can expect to meet very few fellow visitors (in any), in case you have decided to check out some of these sites.
Few practical things to consider when exploring Ruta Rio Bec: Please be aware that the tourism infrastructure around here is also a bit thinner if compared to the busy seaside resorts so make sure to keep that in mind if you were planning some random hotel late night check-ins or super-frequent bus connections. Furthermore, as mentioned above, bear in mind that you’ll be in a sparsely populated region that’s surrounded by a jungle, with real wildlife, often a hardcore sun and so on, so make sure that you are ready to face such conditions…
If you didn’t fancy making such a long trip to visit Calakmul and Becán, but still wanted to check out one of the less-visited Mayan ruins, you could opt for an easy day trip to reach Ek Balam, which is an easy day trip (only 32km / 20 mi) from Valladolid. Ek Balam is still one of the lesser-known sites, but do not get fooled by the popularity rankings because Ek Balam is believed to have been a larger city than Chichén Itzá.
The site that contains about 40 structures is known for its carved stucco friezes on the Templo de los Frisos. Furthermore, you could also climb the 30 m (98 ft) El Torre pyramid to get amazing jungle views, not to mention the presence of the nearby cenote X’Canche, where you can cool down after your explorations.
How to get to Ek Balam and how much. You can reach the site by taking a colectivo from here for about 40,- MXN per person. The only downside of Ek Balam is its rather steep entrance fee, which goes up to 413,-MXN, which is about €18 or $21,-USD.
Another relatively easy to reach and less-visited site is Edzna, that’s located about 65 km (40 ml) southeast of Campeche. Its core holds five pyramids, out of which, the largest and most famous is the Pyramid of Five Stories that combines the palace-like chambers with the pyramidal platforms but there’s obviously more structures to admire at this site, plus you’ll get an evening light show.
How to get to Edzna and how much. From this spot in Campeche, you simply take a 1hr/40,-MXN colectivo right to the ruins’ entrance, where you pay 65,-MXN only (€3) to enter the site.
Other Mayan ruins to consider visiting
Except for the numerous smaller ruins nearby the cities, among which, the most significant is the former powerful Mayan capital Mayapán nearby the lively city of Mérida, you could also opt for light/lazy trips to visit even smaller sites, such as Muyil nearby Tulum, Dzibilchaltún or Ake nearby Mérida or Temple of Ixchel on Isla Mujeres; San Gervasio on Isla Cozumel.
There are still many more ruins to check out outside of the Yucatán peninsula. For instance, in Chiapas, there are quite a few popular sites, such as Palenque, Bonampak or Yaxchilane. Then we can forget to mention the fact are quite a few Mayan ruins just outside of Mexico, like for example Copán in Honduras and the above-mentioned Tikal.
Sort of conclusion
Unless you are an archaeologist or an obsessive fan of Indiana Jones, I’m positive that you won’t be visiting all of the above-mentioned ruins. I don’t mean to sound cynical but after seeing half a dozen of them, the excitement wears off a bit. For that reason, I’d advise you to chose the sites you’d like to visit carefully.
So which Mayan Ruins should you visit in Yucatán? If I were you, I’d pick a few and go for a mix of spectacular, jungle-located, off the beaten path for a less touristy experience and last but not least, I’d consider what other options you have in the locality, depending on your area of interests.
Obviously, most visitors pick the two most popular ruins from this list, which are Chichén Itzá and Tulum, both easy to access and both not far from many other attractions in the region. Then there is the popular and accessible Cobá, which is the middle of the road of the choices between mega busy and off the beaten path or the spectacular wild card Uxmal.
But how about the remote, jungly and almost off the beaten path Calakmul or Becán? It might be hard to pick few sites to visit but at the end of the day, your choices could be very likely determined by your Yucatán itinerary, which will take more things than Mayan ruins into consideration, right?
Whatever you decide, for most sides, I recommend going in with a certified guide, who will enrich your experience with knowledge of the place’s history as well as the best spots to explore. Well, perhaps skip the guide on one of the off the beaten path sites like Calakmul for instance, to feel like an explorer, rather than a tourist.
And the last piece of advice I’d give you regarding visiting Mayan Ruins in Yucatán is: if you can, try not to get overdosed by the ruins too soon before you visit the site that speaks to you the most 😉
There’s plenty of things to see in this beautiful and attraction-rich peninsula and although Mayan ruins are among the region’s highlights, it would be wise to balance them with some of the Yucatán‘s natural attractions as well as by visiting some of the towns and cities that are worth checking out in the peninsula, for their pretty colonial architecture and local culture.
FYI, Quaint Planet also prepared its own Cancún-free guide to Yucatán peninsula, which combines the information from all of these above-mentioned posts, plus it also delivers various practical travel tips, such as safety, transport options, culture or nightlife, in order to help you to create your own personalised, balanced itinerary.
Here’s a little summary about all Mayan Ruins to visit in Yucatán mentioned above, with links to a possible further reading, whether it comes to history or tourism-related topics.
- Mayan history: World History‘s article about Mayan civilisation, culture and empire
- Tulum: popular and busy ruins on the Caribbean shore. An early start could help you to beat the crowds. For more tourism-related info about Tulum and the closeby attractions, please click here. More details about the site’s history are here, in Mark Cartwright‘s article at World History website
- Chichén Itzá: popular, large and rather busy UNESCO-rated ruins with the iconic El Castillo pyramid. The site’s website of the archaeological site with tours, info and blog
- Cobá: A large site not far from Tulum, where you can climb the 42m tall Ixmoja pyramid. Also less busy than Chichén Itzá, but you need an early start to beat the crowds. For more history and tourism-related info about the site, please click here to read The Mayan Ruins Website‘s post
- Uxmal: Equally impressive to Chichén Itzá but significantly less busy. The site’s UNESCO page could be found here. For more history, significance and tourism-related info about the site, please click here to read The Mayan Ruins Website‘s post
- Ruta Puuc: Five Mayan sites (incl Uxmal) on a 50 km stretch of the road. For more info, check out this piece of Greg Benchwick for the BBC or this newer and up-to-date piece in The Yucatán Times
- Calakmul: Amazing, remote and off the beaten path UNESCO World Heritage site in the middle of huge UNESCO-protected jungle. A little harder to get to but very Indiana Jones-like. Read more about the site and the protected reserve here on its UNESCO’s page or read Amanda Strickland‘s piece in Yucatán Today about a sustainable eco-tourism at Calakmul here
- Becán: No far from Calakmul, a little easier to reach, also impressive and also off the beaten path. Read more about the site here on the Mexico Archelology website
- Ruta Rio Bec: More smaller less visited ruins in the area not far from Calakmul and Becán. Read more about Ruta Rio Bec here, on the website of a popular hotel located in the area
- Ek Balam: An impressive and also less visited site to check out near Valladolid, where you can also still climb the pyramids. An early start could help you to reduce crowds even further. For more history, significance and tourism-related info about the site, please click here to read The Mayan Ruins Website‘s post
- Edzna: Another less visited site, this time nearby Campeche, with the impressive Five Storeys Temple. More details about Edzna could be found here in the article by Thilini Wijesinhe for Mexico News Daily
- Palenque: Read more about the popular site in Chiapas region here on Encyclopedia Britannica
- Bonampak: Read more about this medium-sized site in Chiapas region here on Encyclopedia Britannica
- Yaxchilane: Read more about yet another incredible site in Chiapas region here on the Mayan ruins website
- Copán: A well known UNESCO World Heritage site in northern Honduras. Read more about the site here on its UNESCO’s page
- Tikal: Famous Guatemalan ruins in the UNESCO reserve surroundings nearby the lake-island city of Flores, only 90 miles south of its former rival city of Calakmul. More details and plenty of travel tips about Tikal could be fund here, in case you were interested.
Featured image by Walkerssk from Pixabay