When you think of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico, the first place that is likely to spring to the forefront of your mind is probably Chichen Itza. While Chichen Itza is very worthy of your time and is absolutely as breathtaking as the guidebooks would have you believe (it is one of the 7 world wonders after all!), it is not the only important Mayan ruin.
There are actually more than 200 Mayan ruins scattered throughout Mexico alone. When you include the entirety of Latin America, there are more than 4,400! That is a lot of Mayan ruins!
Best Mayan Ruins in Mexico
Few international travelers have heard of the Mayan city of Mayapan. However, this is one of the most important Mayan sites in Mexico.
Mayapan means flag/banner of the Mayans in the Mayan language. The settlement here is considered as being the last great Mayan city.
Mayapan became of significant importance after the downfall of Chichen Itza and its rise to power essentially marked the beginning of the end of their civilization. The Mayapan ruins are located just a few miles south of the town of Telchaquillo. They are about 40km south of Mérida and 100km west of Chichen Itza, respectively.
The precise date that the city was built is the subject of debate among a lot of archaeologists and historians. However, it is widely believed to have been around 1000AD.
Following the downfall of Chichen Itza, King Kukulkan II of Chichen Itza and his people moved to Mayapan. There are several interesting structures, temples, and shrines to see here.
Arguably the most notable of all is the Pyramid of Kukulcan. If the Mayapan pyramid looks almost exactly like the pyramid of Chichen Itza, it is because the Mayans created it to be a replica of the Chichen Itza site.
Sadly, many of the structures at the Mayapan site (including the Pyramid of Kukulcan) are considered inferior to those found in other Mayan cities. Mayapan marked the beginning of the end of the demise of the Mayans.
Admission to the Mayapan ruins is 65 pesos ($3) for foreign visitors. Entrance is free for Mexicans.
The site is open from 8 am to 4 pm daily. Yes, you can climb on the ruins.
Chacchoben (pronounced cha-cho-ben) is an ancient Mayan city in the southern part of the state of Quintana Roo. Its name means ¨the place of red corn¨.
The city is 51km away from the gorgeous lake town of Bacalar and is a great place to stop while in the area visiting Bacalar and Mahahual. It is believed that this land has been inhabited since as early as 1000 BC.
Currently, Chacchoben is the largest pre-Colombian city found in the Los Lagos region. It thrived around 360AD and likely had associations with Dzibanche and other smaller nearby sites.
From a visitor’s perspective, one of the most incredible things about Chacchoben is just how jungly the site is. Nestled in the jungle of Quintana Roo, the ancient city is massively overgrown.
Giant palm trees block you from being able to see the sky overhead. Not all of the pyramids and platforms have been excavated and the tops of some of them are only just peeping out of the ground, covered in moss and overgrowth.
Various wildlife calls the site home and if you stop by early in the morning, you may be lucky enough to spot peccaries dashing through the foliage. Other small animals call the area home, including deer, spider monkeys, gray foxes, and armadillos. Deeper into the jungle, you will find Yucatan wild cats like ocelots, pumas, and jaguars.
The site was initially discovered in the 1940s by a local Mayan family. However, feeling quite at home among the pyramids, the locals decided to set up a house here! It wasn’t until 1972 that an American archeologist came across the site and reported it to INAH.
Kabah is one of several Ancient Mayan cities that sit along the lesser-visited Ruta Puuc in the southern part of the Yucatan state. Kabáh, in Ancient Mayan, translates to mean “lord of the powerful hand”.
It is 22km away from the important city of Uxmal and has only been partially excavated. Centuries ago, the two settlements had a strong relationship based on politics and trade.
It’s believed that Kabáh was one of similar size and importance to Uxmal and that the city thrived around 800AD. Just across the road from the main archeological site, unmarked on the map, you will find a sacbe (old, white ceremonial Mayan road) that once connected Uxmal and Kabah.
As you approach the sacbe, you will note a grand stone ceremonial arch. This is believed to be the largest freestanding arch built by the Ancient Maya.
The city of Kabah has been built in the Puuc style. Its most famous structure is the Codz Poop, also known as the Temple of the Masks.
This grand building is on your right-hand side after entering the site. Its facade has been decorated with hundreds of stone masks representing Chaac, the long-nosed rain god. There is also a small ceremonial platform here, with inscriptions that have never been deciphered.
The Mayan city of Xiol was discovered on the outskirts of the Yucatan capital of Merida in May 2022, when construction workers were working on an industrial site. The original name of the settlement has been lost in time, so ¨Xiol¨ is the new name that has been awarded by INAH.
Xiol is believed to have been built between 600 and 900 AD and to have thrived during the Late Classic period. The site consists of several plazas, palaces, and public buildings.
A number of artifacts and burials were also uncovered during the excavations and were transported to a Yucatan museum for safekeeping. After around 900AD, the city of Xiol, like many other Mayan cities, was abandoned for apparently no reason.
Despite the historical and cultural significance of Xiol, the industrial premises being constructed in the area are still going to be open. Some of the ruins sit within the industrial complex, though the landowners have assured that they will be protected and preserved. Others are set just outside its gates.
Xiol is currently not open to the public. However, you can see it from the roadside, and the construction workers are generally open to people stopping by to take photos if that interests you. It is believed that the site will be opened to the public in late 2022.
Pirámide Kinich Kakmó
The Pirámide Kinich Kakmó in the center of the little Yucatan city of Izamal is an artificial limestone pyramid dedicated to the Mayan God Kinich. The name Kinich Kakmo is Mayan for “the fire macaw with the sun face”.
This is one of only a small handful of remaining pyramids in the Yucatan peninsula as the majority were destroyed by the Spanish during their conquest of Mexico. It is believed to date back to 400-600 BCE, in the midst of the Maya classic period.
Sacrifices were made here daily in honor of Kinich and it is believed that the entire pyramid was covered with a layer of stucco. Today, the atmosphere is much calmer.
The pyramid is free to enter and exists in a small green space in the center of town, beside the internationally-known Kinich restaurant, and a short walk away from the Convento de San Antonio and the city’s zocalo (central plaza). You can climb to the top of the pyramid, and the spot is a great place to watch the sunset.
As you meander around Izamal, you will note that all of the houses and buildings here have been painted in the same uniform shade of yellow. This is believed to be in honor of the Mayan Sun God Kinich Ahau. It is not known for certain whether Kinich Ahau and Kinich were the same deities appearing in different forms.
The archaeological site of Calakmul sits in the southern part of the state of Campeche, hours away from any settlement or civilization. Nestled deep in the jungle of the greater Petén Basin region, it dates back to the 6th century and housed more than 50,000 people at one point.
The city was abandoned during the 9th century, for reasons unknown, during a period known as ¨the great Mayan collapse¨. Since it was hidden away so deep in the jungle, it went completely unnoticed during the colonial era.
The ancient Mayan city is a UNESCO-protected site, while the jungle around it is part of a protected UNESCO Biosphere. Jaguars, tapirs, various species of monkeys, agoutis, snakes, deer, ocelots, and countless bird species live in and around Calakmul.
In its heyday, Calakmul was the rival of Tikal in Guatemala. Today, only a portion of the site is open to the public. You can climb the pyramids of Calakmul, and you can experience fantastic views over the jungle canopy from the top of the structures.
Since Calakmul is so remote, it requires a little effort to get to. This is absolutely worth it, particularly if you have an interest in Mayan history and off-the-beaten-path adventures.
First of all, you need to get to the village of Xpujil. From there, you are 2 hours and 11 minutes, or 115km away from Calakmul.
Expect to travel through large sections of jungle and nothingness before reaching Calakmul. Some travelers have even reported seeing jaguars wandering down the road. It is a good idea to invest in a Mexican sim card as there is no data signal in this area.
The Mayan city of Edzna is an expansive, spectacular Mayan city in the state of Campeche. It is very frequently overlooked – perhaps because it takes a bit of effort to get to.
Campeche is the least visited part of the Yucatan peninsula and although the Edzna ruins are among the best Mayan ruins in Mexico, they are also among the least visited. Indeed, you can often stop by here and find that you have the site entirely to yourself!
Edzna is Mayan for ¨House of the Itzas¨. The site was occupied as early as 700BC and quickly developed into a major commercial and political hub for the Mayans.
Edzna was eventually abandoned in 1500AD for reasons unknown and it was not discovered again until 1907. The site is vast and is just as interesting as the better-known ruins at Chichen Itza or Uxmal.
More than 25,000 people called Edzna home during the city’s heyday. There are several structures here that are more impressive than the last.
In particular, look out for the Great Pyramid and the Grand Acropolis. The ¨Temple of the Masks¨ is also fascinating and contains two extremely well-preserved stucco masks of the god Kinich Ahau.
These were not discovered until 1988. Considering how old they are, the condition that they are in is amazing!
Ek Balam is one of the best Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. The name Ek Balam translates to meaning black jaguar or dark jaguar in Ancient Maya.
This site is located conveniently close to Chichen Itza. There is a distance of just 71km between the two sites making it easy to conquer them both in one day. Then, you can stop for a spot of lunch and some traditional Yucatecan food in nearby Valladolid.
Ek Balam was a major political hub for the Ancient Maya and thrived between 770 and 840 AD. After it was abandoned, it was reclaimed by the jungle and became massively overgrown.
Fascinatingly, it was not discovered until as recently as the 1980s! It is also only partially excavated so who knows how this site will change and develop in the years to come.
El Torre is the name of the grand pyramid at Ek Balam. It boasts a height of 95 feet and offers unparalleled views over the jungle canopy.
On a clear day, you can see the pointed pyramid roofs of Chichen Itza and Coba from up here! Partway up, you will also notice an incredibly ornate, carved structure. This is the tomb of Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok, a former ruler of Ek Balam.
Ek Balam is well worth visiting for the opportunity to climb its pyramid and enjoy the jungle views it offers. However, the site has increased in popularity and price in recent years and is certainly not the off-the-beaten-path destination that it once was.
Recommended Ek Balam Tours
Admission to Ek Balam is now a whopping 498 (£19.50/$25) pesos for foreign travelers and 198 pesos (£8/$10) for Mexicans. This makes it substantially more expensive than other sites.
Whether you want to spend that and visit is up to you and arguably depends on how many other Mayan cities you will be visiting during your trip.
- Ek Balam & Cenote Maya: Full day tour
- Chichen Itza, Hubiku and Ek Balam tour from Cancun/Playa Del Carmen
- Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Cenote and lunch – excursion from Cancun
- Ek Balam self-guided tour audio app
- Yucatan: Self-guided Mayan ruins walking tour bundle
- Ek Balam, Cenote Hibiku and Rio Lagartos tour from Cancun
- From Merida: Farming, cenote and Ek Balam pyramids tour
Uxmal is, without hesitation, one of the best Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. It is located 83.4km south of Merida and makes a great day trip from the Yucatan capital.
Uxmal (pronounced ¨Uss-mal¨) means thrice built in Ancient Mayan. It was actually constructed five times!
Although many ruins in Mexico are impressive, Uxmal is one of the most historically important – perhaps second only to Chichen Itza. The journey from Merida to Uxmal should take a little over an hour depending on your transport method.
The site dates back to 700 AD and was once home to 25,000 people. It was eventually abandoned in 1200AD and was first excavated in 1929.
Uxmal was recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1996. Many local tour companies offer excursions to Uxmal.
If you choose to visit the site independently, it is worth paying an additional 200 pesos to hire a guide at the entrance. They can provide you with a lot more information and context about the history of the various structures here. If you are traveling solo, they can also help you take some photos!
Today, much of Uxmal has still not been excavated. However, the part of the site that is visible is very expansive.
You could easily spend an entire afternoon exploring the site. Nearby, you can also visit the Choco-story museum which tells the history of chocolate and how it was invented in Mexico.
Recommended Uxmal Tours
- From Mérida: Uxmal and Kabah guided tour with lunch
- Uxmal light and sound night experience tour from Merida
- From Merida: Uxmal, Hacienda Yaxcopoil and Cenote with lunch
- Uxmal with private guide and transportation from Merida
- Uxmal: vintage land rover expedition to Uxmal cenotes
Of course, no list of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico would be complete without Chichen Itza. This is one of the ¨new¨ seven wonders of the world and one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Mexico.
Regardless of how many times you have seen the famous site photographed in travel publications and on social media, nothing can compare to arriving here and seeing it firsthand for yourself.
The term Chichen Itza means ‘the mouth at the well of Itza’. It is believed Itza means ‘water magicians’.
The precise construction date of Chichen Itza is unknown. However, archaeologists believe that it dates back to around 600-750 A.D.
Fun Mexico fact: The temple that always appears in photos of the site is the Temple of Kukulcán.
Its name is not Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza is the name of city.
Unfortunately, whatever time of day you stop by, Chichen Itza is always crowded. It is a good idea to be outside the site for 8 am when it opens but even so, you will often be met with other tourists waiting to get in!
Still, this is one of the must-visit places in the Yucatan. Look out for the sacred Cenote Sagrado. The Ancient Maya would make human sacrifices here.
Recommended Chichen Itza Tours
- Cancun/Riviera Maya: Chichen Itza, Valladolid and Cenote tour
- Skip-the-line entrance to Chichen Itza
- From Cancun: Chichen Itza, Ik Kil cenote, and Valladolid tour
- Riviera Maya: Coba and Chichen Itza tour with cenote and lunch
- Chichen Itza: Exclusive early access with cenote and lunch
- Tour of Chichen Itza, Valladolid, tequila tasting, cenote and lunch
- Self-guided audio tour of Chichen Itza with map
The Dzibiltcaltun ruins are located on the northern outskirts of Merida, just 10 minutes or so from the center of town. The name Dzibiltcaltun means ¨writing on flat stones¨ in Mayan.
This is with reference to the inscribed stone tablets that were found at the site. The precise date that the settlement was built is unknown, but it is believed that the site was constructed around 300BC.
After the colonization, the Spanish continued to occupy Dzibilchaltun. This is interesting as today, there is a mishmash of Spanish and Ancient Mayan sites, including a Franciscan chapel in the center of the ruins.
Look out for the Temple of the Seven Dolls, perhaps the most interesting structure that has been excavated. This was once a place of worship and when it was found, there were seven clay structures in the shape of humans found inside.
Over 8,000 structures have been identified here but only a small portion has been excavated. An international team of archeologists continue to work on the site to uncover more of the ruins.
Although Dzibiltcaltun is significantly smaller than sites like Uxmal and Chichen Itza, it is still worth your attention. This is particularly the case if you are already spending a few days in Merida.
You can get an Uber from the city center to take you to the ruins. Carve time out of your schedule to visit the adjacent Museo del Pueblo Maya de Dzibilchaltún and the on-site Cenote Xlacah.
Stop by the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya de Mérida on your way back to the city. Then, stop for a traditional Mexican breakfast at La Casa De Los Abuelos.
Dzibilchaltún reopened to tourists in July 2022 after a period of extended closure. This was due to an ongoing dispute between the Mexican Government and the Landowners.
Since this seems to be an ongoing issue, double-check in advance if the site is open during the period that you plan to visit. Admission is 282 pesos ($14) per person.
Mexicans can enjoy free entry on Sundays. However, you need to be prepared to show proof of nationality/identification.
The Xcambo ruins are located in the Telchac Puerto region of the Northern Yucatan. Xcambo was once an important port for commerce and trade.
The locals placed a lot of dependence on the harvesting and sale of salt in the area. This still remains an important aspect of local trade in this region to this day and you will find a lot of salt farmers working in the nearby pink lakes (Laguna Rosa).
Sadly, very little is known about Xcambo and this is reflected by the scarcity of information at the site here. There are no information plaques and nobody knows who ruled over the city.
It is believed that Xcambo dates back to 250-600 A.D. It was eventually abandoned 600-900 A.D.
You will note a small catholic church with a small, carved stone statue of Jesus right in the middle of the ruins. This was built by locals around 50 years ago before the ruins here were fully excavated.
Without realizing that an important Mayan city awaited beneath the surface, they used some of the stones from the temples and shrines at Xcambo to build the church. You can tie a visit here in with a trip to the nearby Yucatecan beaches of San Benito and Telchac Puerto.
Palenque, also known as Lakamha in Mayan, was an ancient Mayan city in the northern part of Chiapas state. The site dates back to the Early Classic period (A.D. 200-600) and flourished during the 7th century under the rule of Pakal.
Visiting Palenque is one of the best things to do in Chiapas. The namesake town of Palenque nearby is a pueblo magico. The ruins were recognized as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1987 and declared an Archaeological Monument by the Mexican Federal Government in 1993.
The pyramids and ancient temples here tower above the jungle canopy, against the backdrop of the Tumbalá mountains. You can climb to the top of them to enjoy incredible birdseye views of the settlement.
Among the various temples and structures here, there are a few in particular, that you should look out for. The first temple that you will find immediately on your right after entering the complex is the Templo de la Calavera (temple of the skull), aptly named after the animal skull carving on the base of one of its pillars.
Nearby, the Tumba de la Reina Roja, is dedicated to a female dignitary whose remains were found here and had been colored red with cinnabar. The Templo de las Inscripciones is the tallest and most notable of Palenque structures.
The Mayan city of Yaxchilán (pronounced ¨Yax-chee-lan¨) is arguably one of the least visited Mayan ruins in Southern Mexico. This is owing, in part, to the fact that it is so remote and tricky to get to. Once upon a time, Yaxchilán was one of the most powerful Maya states along the Usumacinta River.
Today, it sits very close to the Guatemala border. Getting here requires a journey through rural Chiapas, a short trek through the jungle, and a boat ride from the rural town of Frontera Corozal.
For that, you are rewarded with a mysterious temple hidden away in the depths of the jungle, that makes you feel like a modern-day explorer. The city´s name means ¨Place of Green Stones” in Mayan.
Yaxchilán thrived between 800 and 1000 AD. More than 120 structures make up the complex and they have been grouped into three areas. Notably: the Great Plaza, the Grand Acropolis, and the Small Acropolis.
Bonampak makes a nice travel pairing with Yaxchilán and most Chiapas tours visit the two sites together. The ancient city is only small but its importance in aiding us to understand Mayan culture and history is phenomenal.
Bonampak is best known for its murals that depict war and sacrifice among the Maya, as well as other scenes of daily life. Prior to their discovery, historians had thought that the Mayans were a peaceful civilization.
All of that changed when Bonampak was discovered. The frescoes are contained within one small building within the Acropolis complex of the city.
They are bold, and colorful, and extend from floor to ceiling. Archeologists consider them to be the very best preserved Mayan murals in existence in the world today.
The city is believed to date back to around 580 to 800 A.D, until it was finally abandoned around 900 A.D, like many other of the best Mayan cities in Mexico. The name ¨Bonampak¨ means ¨painted wall¨ in modern Mayan.
Archaeological Zone of Becán
The Becán ruins are a small archeological site close to Xpujil and the Calakmul ruins in Southern Campeche state. They were found by archaeologists Karl Ruppert and John Denison in 1934 and are worth stopping by while in the area.
Becán, meaning ¨serpent roadway¨ in Mayan, is the name that archeologists awarded to the site. The real name of the settlement is unknown, lost in time like that of Xiol and other Mayan settlements.
20 structures within the complex have been excavated, with more lurking beneath the surface, waiting to be awarded time and funding. Becáns buildings have been constructed in the Río Bec architectural style.
This is a style of building temples, houses, and shrines that were notably different from the Puuc style seen in the likes of Kabah and Uxmal. Becán, among other cities in the area, was a rival of Tikal in Guatemala.
Construction here was believed to have been started around 550 AD. The city was eventually abandoned around 1200 AD.
Have you visited any of the Mayan ruins on this list? Which ones were your favorites?
Are there any other historic sites that you would add to this list of best Mayan ruins in Mexico? Have a wonderful time traveling here! Hasta Luego!