You might be interested in learning about the best Mayan ruins in the Yucatan if you are planning a trip to the Yucatan peninsula and you have a keen interest in learning about the region’s history. Chichen Itza, one of the new seven wonders of the world, is no doubt the most famous archeological site in the area but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only one worth adding to your radar.
There are dozens of fascinating Mayan ruins scattered across the Yucatan peninsula (the tri-state area consisting of the Yucatan state, Campeche state, and Quintana Roo). Tourists venture to well-known sites like Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and Coba, but many other fascinating historical sites are overlooked entirely.
Head to Oxkintok, Ake, or Edzna for example and you might find that you are one of the only people there. Many of these lesser-known archeological sites are just as large and impressive as Chichen Itza, and many were extremely important political or trade hubs during the days of the Mayan Empire. However, people simply don’t know about them.
This guide has been written by a British Travel Writer living in the Yucatan capital of Merida. (Me!) You are in good hands here because not only do I live in the Yucatan, but I have visited every single Mayan ruin in the peninsula. (Yes. Every. Single. One! That’s no small feat!)
Best Mayan Ruins in the Yucatan to Visit in 2023
A selection of the very best Mayan ruins in the Yucatan peninsula is summarised below. These range from popular must-see sites to lesser-known gems.
One thing to note is that in the Yucatan, you should not use the popularity of a place as a measure of whether it is worth visiting or not. This region is (for now) largely untapped and I strongly believe that some of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico are some of the places that many people haven’t even heard of.
Oxkintok is a seldom-visited archeological site in the western part of the Yucatan state, close to the border with Campeche. Its location means that if you are renting a car in Mexico, you can easily pair a visit to Oxkintok with an adventure along the historic Ruta Puuc nearby.
Oxkintok means ¨three flint suns¨ in Yucatec Mayan, although archeologists believe that the city may have gone by a different name historically. It dates back to around 300 BC and was occupied until around 1200 – 1450AD when the Spanish colonization of Mexico led to the gradual abandonment of many Mayan cities.
In its heyday, Oxkintok was an important political and commercial hub for the Mayans, and the residents of the city would trade with their neighbors in Uxmal, Kabah, and Labna. The site is vast and the buildings here are divided into three separate groups categorized as the Ah Canul group, the Ah Dzib group, and the Ah May group.
There are some interesting buildings and sculptures here that are quite unlike anything you will see at other Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. For example, the Satunsat (Tzat un Tzat in Ancient Mayan meaning ¨place where its easy to get lost¨) is a multi-storied labyrinth whose levels are supposed to represent earth, the underworld (xibalba), and the celestial plane.
It really isn’t common to find labyrinths in Mayan cities and only a couple of others are known to exist in Mexico. The Palacio Chi’ch and the Palacio del Diablo have been built in the Puuc architectural style and are guarded by intricately carved sculptures of humans and skeletons.
To this day, archeologists are unsure as to who they are supposed to represent.
Dzibilchaltún, meaning ¨writing on flat stones¨ is a Mayan city located just 16km northeast of the Yucatan capital of Merida. (Making it one of the best day trips you can take from Merida).
It dates back to 500BC and was once home to over 25,000 people. There are a number of pyramid structures and shrines throughout the archeological site but the most notable one to look out for is the Temple of the Seven Dolls dedicated to Yum Kax, the Mayan God of corn.
The temple is located quite a ways away from the center of the settlement, and you have to trek down an old ceremonial sacbe (Mayan white paved road) to reach it. When archeologists excavated the temple back in the 1950s, they found seven crude clay dolls inside that boasted exaggerated genitalia.
(They are now on display in the nearby museum). It is believed that the dolls were used for some kind of ritual or ceremony.
On the temple’s interior walls are red-painted hand prints, similar to what you see in some Yucatan cenotes that were used for spiritual purposes. Twice a year, you can catch the equinox at Dzibilchaltun, when the light of the sun at sunrise shines through the temple door.
This would indicate to the Mayans that it was time to start planting or harvesting their crops and they would perform Shamanistic rituals to pray for a good harvest. Locals and tourists alike still celebrate this to this day.
Entrance Fees: 282 pesos ($14) per person
Chacchoben (¨Cha-cho-ben¨) is a unique Mayan ruin set deep in the heart of the Yucatan jungle in the southern part of the state of Quintana Roo. The site is large and consists of several well-preserved pyramids, platforms, and shrines, but it is the setting of Chacchoben that makes it special.
The ancient city has been largely reclaimed by the jungle and the scenery here is dramatic. Giant palm trees tower overhead, tens of feet tall, completely concealing the sky from view.
Peccaries, armadillos, grey foxes, spider monkeys, and howler monkeys have made the site their home, and if you get here early enough before the tour buses arrive, you might catch them scurrying between the pyramids. (Deeper into the jungle are jaguars and other wild cats!)
The first inhabitants of this region were former residents of Los Lagos who settled in ramshackle shacks throughout the jungle and the various lakes in the southern Yucatan. The Mayans started building their impressive stone structures around 2,000 years ago and between 600 and 900 AD, Chacchoben became an important political and commercial post that controlled much of the area around Lake Bacalar.
Chichen Itza is arguably the most famous Mayan ruin in the world and for a lot of people, it is the entire reason why they decide to plan a trip to Southeastern Mexico in the first place. The UNESCO world heritage site was chosen as one of the ¨new¨ seven Wonders of the World in 2007 and sees more than two million visitors every year.
Visiting Chichen Itza is a highlight of any Yucatan road trip itinerary and if you really only have time to visit one or two Mayan ruins in the Yucatan during your trip, this is one that you need to prioritize.
The main pyramid that you see in photographs of Chichen Itza is the Temple of Kukulkan or ¨El Castillo¨. It was built in honor of the serpent deity Kukulcán/Quetzalcoatl.
Interestingly, the temple also functions as the world’s biggest manmade calendar! Each of its four stairways contains 91 steps.
Those, plus the final step at the top of the temple represent the 365 days in a calendar year. The four sides of the pyramids represented the four stages of the solar cycle – the winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice, and fall equinox.
Many people don’t realize just how expansive the Chichen Itza complex is. There are more than 20 different groups of buildings here, connected by 75 roadways.
You should allow at least 3-4 hours to explore the site. Other noteworthy structures to look out for include the Tzompantli platform, La Iglesia (the church), the Great Ball Court, and the El Caracol observatory.
Get here by 8 am if you want to avoid the crowds. You might also want to consider staying in one of the Chichen Itza hotels nearby so that you can be one of the first people in the queue at 7.30.
The Mayan city of Mayapan isn’t anywhere near as well-known or frequently visited as the likes of Chichen Itza, the Tulum ruins, or Uxmal, which is a shame because it is actually one of the most important Mayan sites in Latin America.
After the downfall of Chichen Itza, King Kukulkan II, and his people fled to the city of Mayapan. They hurriedly built homes, structures, and temples that mirrored those that they had left behind at Chichen Itza, but archeologists and historians confirm that they are all inferior copies.
The Pyramid of Kukulkan at Mayapan (which you can climb) is an almost exact replica of the Pyramid of Kukulkan/El Castillo at Chichen Itza, but it is less well-built. The same care and effort that was put into the construction and detailed architecture of other Mayan cities isn’t present at Mayapan and the move here marked the beginning of the end of the Mayan civilization.
At its height, approximately 12,000 people lived within the defensive walls of Mayapan, and a further 5,000 people lived in the rural areas just outside it. When King Kukulkan II passed away, feuds broke out between the two different cultural groups that lived here (the Xiu and the Cocom), and in the 15th century, it was eventually abandoned.
Aké, meaning “place of reeds” in Yucatec Maya is an overlooked archaeological site that sits around 35km away from the Yucatan capital of Merida. It dates back over 2,300 years and is believed to have thrived between 600 and 1,200 AD before it was eventually abandoned around 1450 AD.
As you enter the complex, you will pass by several large pyramids, before entering a grand plaza. On your left, is a stone structure covered with dozens of stone columns that is known as structure one or ¨pilasters¨.
It is believed that various ceremonies, speeches, and celebrations were hosted here, while the center of the plaza acted as a rendezvous point for locals. Archeologists believe that the pillars here once supported the largest roof of palm and wood in Mesoamerica.
Several white paved roads (sacbeob) connect the center of the site, where the governor lived and the most important buildings were located, with other building groups and plazas. One long sacbe led all the way to the yellow city of Izamal whom Aké likely had some level of dependence on.
Kinich Kakmó Pyramid, Izamal
In prehistoric times, the Mayan city of Izamal was of great importance across the Yucatan peninsula. Sadly, very little remains of the original settlement which was largely destroyed by Spanish colonizers who tore down temples and pyramids and used the stone to create Catholic churches, a monastery, and haciendas.
In the center of town, a pyramid dedicated to the Mayan sun god Kinich Kakmó is one of the only Mayan structures that remains. The base of the pyramid measures around 600 sq. feet/200 sq. meters and its height reaches 110 feet.
It is free to enter the site, and it is possible to climb the pyramid, which today is one of the best places to watch the sunset over pretty Izamal. When renowned Yucatan explorers Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens explored Izamal in the 1840s, they sketched out a drawing of the Kinich Kakmó pyramid, with a giant mask of the face of the sun god on one side.
Sadly, the mask is no longer present, likely destroyed by the Spanish.
The ruins of Ek Balam, meaning ¨black jaguar” in Yucatec Maya, are what remain of an ancient Mayan city that awaits 28km north of Valladolid. A lot of travel guides refer to the site as being an ¨off the beaten path¨ alternative to Chichen Itza but honestly, anywhere close to the Riviera Maya, Cancun, and Playa Del Carmen isn’t going to stay unknown for long, and today, Ek Balam is just as crowded as its more famous neighbor.
Fascinatingly, Ek Balam wasn’t discovered until the 1980s. After it was abandoned, it became consumed by the jungle and hidden for centuries.
Even now, only the center of the complex has been excavated. Who knows what other artifacts and treasures await beneath the surface?
Construction on the site began between around 100 and 300 AD and the city thrived between 770 and 840 AD until the population started to decline. El Torre, a spectacular 95-foot pyramid that you can climb for sweeping vistas of the Yucatan jungle canopy, is one of the most interesting structures at Ek Balam.
The structure is also known as ¨the Acropolis¨ and part-way up, you will find the remarkably well-preserved tomb of Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok – a revered leader of the city. The tomb’s facade is decorated with intricately designed stucco masks and figurines and the fact that it is still standing all these centuries later is astounding.
The Uxmal ruins are what remains of one of the most important cities in the western Yucatan. Like Chichen Itza and Coba, Uxmal was a key commercial and political hub, and it is one of the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan that you should prioritize visiting.
Once upon a time, over 25,000 people called Uxmal home. The UNESCO-protected site dates back to around 300 AD and thrived during the Late Classic period (700 to 900 AD).
Uxmal is vast, and you should dedicate at least 3-4 hours to exploring it. One of the first structures that you will see when you enter is the Pyramid of the Magician.
The pyramid actually consists of five different pyramids of varying sizes built over top of each other like a stack of Russian dolls. It is also sometimes referred to as ¨the Pyramid of the Dwarf¨.
A local legend tells the story of a sorceress that once lived near Uxmal, who laid an egg, from which popped out a magical dwarf. The dwarf bet the local governor that he could build a pyramid in just one night and if he could, he should be made the new governor of the city.
The dwarf successfully followed through on his bet, building the Pyramid of the Magician in one night, and becoming the new governor. Whether or not there is any truth in that story is for you to decide 😉
Kabah, the Puuc Route
Kabah is a grand Mayan city that sits along the Puuc route in the southern part of the Yucatan state. The Puuc route (Ruta Puuc) is a 30km historic driving route connecting Uxmal with Kabah, Labna, Sayil, and Xlapak.
¨Puuc¨ is the name of the distinctive type of architectural style in which the shrines and buildings in these cities have been constructed. Structures built in this style are very different from those built in other Mayan cities in the northern and eastern parts of the Yucatan, as well as in Mayan cities found in Belize and Guatemala.
It is immediately recognizable by its smooth vertical walls, archways, and detailed building facades that are often adorned with intricately designed friezes and masks of the long-nosed rain god Chaac. In Kabah, you can find the impressive Codz Poop (Temple of the Masks) which is adorned with hundreds and hundreds of stone Chaac masks.
Kabah means ¨lord of the powerful hand¨ in Yucatec Maya and the city is believed to have had an important relationship with Uxmal. A short distance away from the main archeological site, not marked on any map, is a sacbe that once connected the two cities.
Here, you will find an impressive archway in the middle of the jungle that is widely regarded to be the largest freestanding arch that was ever built by the Ancient Maya.
Sayil archaeological site
Sayil, meaning ¨place of the ants¨ in Yucatec Maya, is the third city along the famous Puuc route, and a place that shares a lot of architectural/design similarities with Kabah and Uxmal. The city dates back to 600-900 A.D and like most Mayan cities in the Yucatan, it was eventually abandoned.
The most impressive building here is the incredible three-story Grand Palace whose appearance is similar to the Codz Poop in Kabah. It sprawls across a length of 85 meters and contains over 90 rooms.
Nearby, a woodland trail with wooden signs leading to a ¨shrine of the fertility god¨ takes you through trees, and over streams and small waterfalls to a large stone statue of a well-endowed god. Little information can be found about this statue on the site or online, but it is generally believed that the Ancient Mayans would make a pilgrimage to the sculpture to pray for a successful pregnancy.
Even today, a collection of pesos at the base of the sculpture indicate that locals and travelers are still hopeful about the powers of the Mayan fertility god.
Labna is the third major city on the famous Puuc road that is best known for its monumental gateway arch, famously sketched by explorer Frederick Catherwood in the 19th century. The city is believed to date back to between 600 and 900 A.D, although most of the structures that remain today were built around the later period of 750 and 1000 AD.
Labna likely had some kind of dependence on Sayil or Uxmal and formed strategic alliances with its neighboring cities, but as it stands, much of its history has been lost in time. El Mirador is the tallest building in the complex which towers above the Yucatecan jungle at a height of 65 feet.
The grand plaza of the site is flanked by a two-story palace that is richly ornamented with geometric designs and masks depicting the rain god Chaac. The date 862 A.D is carved into one of the masks, which is interesting because the Maya rarely ever carved dates into their constructions.
Xcambo (pronounced ¨shh-cambo¨) is an off-the-beaten-path ancient Mayan city that sits in the northern part of the Yucatan state, close to the charming beach town of Telchac Puerto, on the Gulf of Mexico, and the Laguna Rosada pink lake.
The people that lived in Xcambo relied on the nearby pink lakes for trade. They would mine salt from the waters here and then sell it to other cities across the peninsula.
Locals still use these lakes for this purpose today, and if you take a day tour to Xcambo, you will see them sieving the salt from the water by hand. Sadly, very little is known about Xcambo or its rulers and there is very little further information available at the site.
Still, the city is believed to have thrived during the Early Classic Period (250 to 600 CE) and to have built strong relationships with the Mayan cities of Dzemul and Ake. At the center of the site, you will see the weather-worn remains of a Catholic church that looks completely out of place among the Mayan pyramids.
In the 1950s, locals living in the nearby villages quarried rocks and stones from the Mayan structures to build a church (before it was recognized as an important historic site by INAH!) Devout Mexican Catholics make a pilgrimage to this site today as they believe that an apparition of the Virgin Mary once appeared here.
Xlapak is the smallest of the group of sites that are found along the Puuc route. For the time being, the little site remains largely unexcavated, with just the tops of various pyramids and shrines visibly peeping out above the ground.
It can feel almost disappointing to arrive at Xlapak after seeing the grandeurs of nearby Sayil, Kabah, and Labna, but it is still absolutely worth stopping by in order to have seen the complete set of ruins on the designated Puuc route.
The buildings that are visible are adorned with hundreds of Chaac masks. It is believed that the people of Xlapak were deeply religious, lived off the land, and would pray to Chaac for successful harvests.
Xlapak thrived between 600 and 1000 AD before being eventually abandoned.
Acanceh, meaning ¨lament of the deer¨ is a small town and archeological site located 27km southeast of Merida. The fascinating thing about Acanceh is that the modern settlement has sprouted up amongst the ruins.
At the center of the town, you will see pyramids that sit beside ramshackle palapa-style convenience stores and people that stand at the side of the road cooking carne asada. Motorbikes whizz between ancient shrines and many of the townspeople wake up to the views of centuries-old pyramids and impressive stucco masks from their windows.
Historians believe that Acanceh once went by the name A’Kan’Keh, although there are no glyphs or hieroglyphics present at the site to help us learn about the city’s rulers or relationships. Unlike many other Mayan cities in the Yucatan, Acanceh was never abandoned and the site is regularly mentioned in sources dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Tulum ruins are what remains of the Ancient Mayan city of ¨Zama¨ meaning ¨city of dawn¨. They are perched atop a cliff overlooking the shimmering turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea and are the only known Mayan ruins to be built by the coast.
Inscriptions at the site indicate that the settlement dates back to at least 564 AD, but Tulum reached the height of its prosperity and influence between the 15th and 16th centuries. The word ¨Tulum¨ actually means ¨wall¨ and was a nickname awarded to the site by the Spanish conquistadors who were impressed by the city’s defenses.
Indeed, Tulum managed to resist Spanish conquest throughout the 15th century. Its waterfront location made it an important trade port. Goods like cacao and food, as well as precious gems of jade and turquoise, would be shipped from here.
Today, there are three gorgeous beaches that sit at the base of the cliff near the Tulum ruins. Playa Ruinas, Playa Paraiso (Paradise Beach), and Playa Las Parmas all boast white sand coastlines and sparkling turquoise waters.
Muyil Chunyaxhe Archeological Site
The Muyil/Chunyaxhe archeological site sits in the state of Quintana Roo between Playa Del Carmen and Tulum. This ancient settlement was one of the very first to be established within the Yucatan, as well as one of the longest-inhabited.
It was active between the years of 300 BC and 1500 AD and was constructed in the Peten architectural style similar to the cities of Peten, Tikal, and Uaxactun in Guatemala and Palenque in Chiapas.
After the city was abandoned, it was not rediscovered again until the 1920s. The Castillo, a narrow, five-tiered pyramid with a height of 59 feet is the tallest and most famous structure on the site.
(It is also one of the largest pyramids in the Riviera Maya). Nearby, you will also find the Muyil lagoon and a sequence of canals that lead through the mangroves that were actually carved out by the Ancient Maya so that they could transport chocolate, honey, salt, and other foodstuffs for trade.
One of these canals is known as the ¨Muyil River Float¨ and is essentially a beautiful, tropical lazy river. You can simply put on a life jacket, and spend a full-day here exploring the ruins and floating downstream, through the crystal clear waters, and admiring the natural scenery as you go.
Xcaret Mayan Ruins
Many people that travel to Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and the Riviera Maya have heard of the Xcaret Theme Park but few are aware that the adventure park also contains the ruins of an Ancient Mayan city.
The settlement here was originally called Polé and dates back over 1,000 years. The people that lived in Polé predominantly worked in the maritime trade and the fishing industry.
However, the most unique thing about the settlement is that its seafront location made it an important stopping point for Mayan pilgrims who would travel here (and the nearby city of Xaman-Há) before setting sail for the island of Cozumel in order to pray and ask for favors at the Temple of the goddess Ixchel.
Today, the city sits within Xcaret Park where sun-bleached pyramids sit beside stages that host Papantla flyers and other street performers. Here, you can feel like a modern-day Indiana Jones exploring ancient ruins one minute and whooshing down water slides, exploring underground rivers, and snorkeling the next.
Entrance fees for Xcaret Park vary depending on the specific type of ticket you purchase but generally range between $109.99 and $164.99 USD per person.
Edzna, ¨The House of the Itzas¨ is a Mayan city in the southern part of Campeche state, some 52km away from Campeche City. Although the archeological site is a planned stop on the Tren Maya route that is due to launch in December 2023, for the time being, it flies largely under the radar.
This, in part, is likely due to the fact that the city is awkward to get to without a car. Edzna dates back to around 700 BC and was a major commercial and political hub for the Itza people, forming strategic alliances with Uxmal and Chichen Itza.
The Great Pyramid and the Grand Acropolis are two of the most imposing structures. You should also keep your eyes peeled for the impressive ¨Temple of the Masks¨ which contains two large, carved stucco masks that represent Kinich Kak Mo – both as a young man and as an old man.
Since Edzna is something of an unknown, you will often find that you have the grounds largely to yourself. If you understand some Spanish, you can also catch the sound and light show that takes place here every Thursday through Sunday at 8 pm.
The temples and ruins are illuminated in bright colors, and the story of the Ancient Maya and how their civilization came to power and then, its eventual demise, is told over loudspeakers.
The Coba ruins are one of the largest and most important Mayan cities in the Yucatan. The site sprawls across a surface area of approximately 80 square kilometers making Coba almost 8 times larger than Chichen Itza!
Visitors are even able to rent bikes or carts at the entrance in order to help them navigate their way around the complex more easily!
Coba dates back to the first century AD. It was one of the final Mayan cities in the Yucatan to resist the Spanish conquest and it remained a crucial religious and political hub until well into the 19th century.
The buildings, pyramids, and stellae here are divided into four main building groups: the Nohoch Mul complex, the Coba group, the Macanxoc group, and ¨Group D¨ containing the Coba Acropolis.
The Nohoch Mul Pyramid (also known as the Ixmoja Pyramid) is the largest pyramid in the Yucatan peninsula. It soars above the jungle canopy, at a height of 137 feet.
If you like, you can climb the 120 steep steps to the top of the pyramid. It’s quite a workout but it is certainly worth it for the views.
Many of the hieroglyphics and stelae in the Macanxoc group of structures depict women as important leaders and nobles. This is interesting because it suggests a matrilineal society or gender equality, which is significant considering the time period.
Final thoughts on the best Mayan ruins to visit in the Yucatan peninsula
If you have a strong interest in learning about Mayan culture and history during your time in the Yucatan, you will not be disappointed by the abundance of museums and Mayan cities in the Yucatan. I have been based in Merida for close to two years and it has taken me that long to feel like I have even begun to make a dent on all the things to do in the Yucatan peninsula.
So rest assured, you won’t be short of activities during your one or two-week itinerary! If you have any further questions or concerns about planning a trip here, please do not hesitate to reach out and I will get back to you ASAP.
Safe travels and enjoy Mexico! Buen Viaje! Melissa xo