Ruta Puuc Mexico: Exploring the Yucatan’s Lesser Known Ruins

The Ruta Puuc is a 30 km-long historical route in the southern part of Mexico’s Yucatan state. The road takes you past some of the most spectacular (yet underrated) Mayan ruins and archeological sites in the region. 

The name ¨Ruta Puuc¨ literally translates to mean ¨Puuc route¨. ¨Puuc¨ means hills in Mayan but the word is also used to refer to the specific style of Mayan architecture that you can find at the ruins here. 

If you have traveled to any other Mayan ruins in Latin America or you are planning to, you will easily be able to see the difference in construction styles between the cities found in the Puuc region and the likes of Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Coba, etc. 

The UNESCO world heritage site of Uxmal is arguably the most famous ruin in this region. However, the ancient cities of Labna, Sayil, Xlapak, Kabah, and the Loltun Caves are also well worth a visit and are often completely devoid of tourists. 

This Ruta Puuc guide has been written by a British Travel Writer based in the nearby city of Merida that has visited every single Mayan archeological site in the Yucatan state. (Yes, every single one!) Rest assured, you are in good hands here 😉 

In this post, we will look at the best ruins and things to see along the historic Puuc route, a suggested Ruta Puuc itinerary, and anything else you need to know before you visit. Some off-the-beaten-path Yucatan villages in the area are just as magical as the ruins themselves.

Exploring the Ruta Puuc

Ruta Puuc extends across a distance of 30km and encompasses several fascinating ruins, charming villages, caves, and cenotes in its grasp. Some of the ruins here can be visited on day trips from Merida

Though arguably the most rewarding way to explore this area is via a multi-day Yucatan road trip. That way, you can explore at a relaxed pace and spend your nights at charming guesthouses and Yucatan haciendas. 

Despite how grand and well-preserved the Ruta Puuc ruins are, very few people take the time to venture here. Most tourists that visit Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula tend to follow the same route from Merida to Cancun via Izamal, Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and Valladolid.

Driving deep into the Yucatan jungle towards Kabah and Labná, with no other cars on the road, can make you feel like a modern-day explorer. You will often find that you have some of these ruins almost entirely to yourself – especially as you reach the end of the route. 

Visiting the Ruta Puuc

Ruta Puuc: The ceremonial arch at Kabah
Ruta Puuc: The ceremonial arch at Kabah

The Ruta Puuc is found south of the city of Merida. The closest Mayan city on the route is Uxmal, which can be reached via the Mexico 261 Highway through Muna.

You have a couple of options available in terms of how to approach the Ruta Puuc. The best way to experience the Ruta Puuc is to rent a car in Merida as public transport in this area is extremely limited.

(There is a Ruta Puuc bus that runs from Merida to the various ruins but does not run frequently).  

You may prefer to start your trip at the farthermost ruins and work your way back towards Merida, or you may prefer to start at Uxmal (the closest ruins to Merida) and work your way out. There is some element of personal preference involved here. 

I would personally recommend starting at Uxmal and getting there when it opens at 8 am before the crowds. This is the most popular site on the route as well as one of the most popular ruins in Mexico full stop and visiting Uxmal in the middle of the day when there are tons of tourists can take away the magic somewhat.

It is not as though everyone starts at Uxmal and then moves on to Labna, Kabah, etc. Most people just go to Uxmal and then they’re done for the day. 

When you get out to the other ruins along the Ruta Puuc, there are usually very few people there – whatever time of day you stop by. 

The little village of Santa Elena makes a nice pitstop for lunch and ice cream.

A recommended Ruta Puuc itinerary 

You can cram a Ruta Puuc itinerary into one day. It will be a busy, tiring day, but it will no doubt be a highlight of your time in Mexico! 

However, I would recommend dedicating at least 2 days to this area, especially if you have a strong interest in history. That way, you are not rushing around in the heat and you can really savor the different Mayan cities. 

The best route to follow is detailed below. 

  • Uxmal

  • Choco-Story Uxmal

  • Santa Elena village

  • Kabah

  • Sayil

  • Xlapak

  • Labna

  • Muna city 

There are several ways to explore the Ruta Puuc. By far the easiest option is to rent a car. 

If you cannot drive or you prefer not to drive overseas, you can also take the Ruta Puuc bus that departs from Merida every Sunday. However, do note that public transport in this part of Mexico is extremely limited. 

Uxmal  

The Mayan city of Uxmal (pronounced Uss mal) was one of the most important Mayan settlements that existed in Mesoamerica. It is up there with Chichen Itza, Mayapan (the last Mayan capital), and Edzna, House of the Itzas, in terms of power and importance. 

The name Uxmal means “thrice built” in Mayan. It is a name that refers to the main structure, the Pyramid of the Magician, which was built on top of earlier pyramid constructions. 

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 has been recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1996. The site is surrounded by some interesting legends and stories.

The Temple of the Magician

Uxmal’s most iconic structure is no doubt, The Temple of the Magician. You will find this grand pyramid on your right-hand side immediately after entering the complex.

It was constructed somewhere between 600 and 1000 AD, although five different construction phases have been found. The structure that is currently visible dates back to around 900 AD. 

This phenomenal pyramid towers over the rest of the ancient city at a height of 90.5 feet. There are rooms inside, although today they are currently closed to the public.

The Temple of the Magician is also referred to as the “House of the Dwarf” (Casa del Enano). A local legend has it that it wasn’t actually the Ancient Mayans that built the pyramid, but a magical dwarf who constructed it in just one night with the help of his mother who was a witch.

You will often see groups of people clapping at the base of the pyramid. If you do so, the sound of a bird call is echoed back at you from the pyramid.

You will note a similar sound at the Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza. It seems that the sound was intentional rather than just an oddity of design. When people would pray to Kukulkan, they would clap, thus creating this sound.

Other notable Uxmal structures

Ruta Puuc: Uxmal

There are several other fascinating structures at the Uxmal site, including the Palace of the Governor and the Nunnery Quadrangle. Some are climbable and offer incredible panoramas (and photo opportunities) over the complex. 

The Nunnery Quadrangle is an interesting courtyard complex that consists of four rectangular buildings with 74 rooms. Its exact purpose remains unknown, but it is believed that the site may have been used as a school, a palace, or a place of residence for priests/nuns. 

Northwest of the Governor’s Palace, you will also find the House of the Turtles. This small shrine decorated with friezes takes its name from the turtle sculptures that decorate its outer walls. 

The Pok a Tok ball court is also not to be missed. This ancient ballgame was enjoyed by the Mayans centuries ago and was often played to settle debates.

Players had to hit a hard rubber ball through a stone hoop that was mounted high on the wall. There was a lot of pressure as sometimes the losing team was sacrificed!

Ideally, you should dedicate 2-3 hours to exploring Uxmal as it is a relatively vast complex. If you want to gain more context about the various structures around the site, you can consider hiring a local Tour Guide at the entrance for 200 pesos ($10.20).

The entrance fee for Uxmal is 466 pesos per person (circa $22). It is free for Mexicans on Sundays.

Choco-Story

Choco-Story is a small museum housed in the former Hacienda Uxmal. It sits right across the road from the archeological site. 

As the name suggests, it tells the story of chocolate’s 4,000-year-long history. One of the most interesting facts about Mexico that few people are aware of is that chocolate was actually invented here. 

The museum tells the history of cocoa and its importance to the Mayan people of the Yucatan.

It is believed that the indigenous Olmec people of Mexico were the first to turn the cacao plant into chocolate. They then used chocolate beverages during their rituals and as medicine. 

The museum is worth visiting, particularly if you are spending the night at a hotel near Uxmal or you are traveling with kids. Many of the exhibits are interactive and of course, there are free samples to try! 

At the end of the tour, you will be treated to a steaming hot cup of the ritual drink Chokoj Ha. There is also an animal shelter at the rear of the property, where the museum has helped to rehome local strays.

Santa Elena

Santa Elena is a charming little village that sits at the midpoint between Uxmal and Kabah along the Ruta Puuc. Today, it is home to a population of just 3,500 people and the town has developed from the Indigenous town of Raza Maya.

Most of the town’s stores, restaurants, and points of interest are centered around its main square (zocalo). The pastel-colored buildings here are a photographer’s dream come true, and part of the joy of spending a couple of hours in Santa Elena is found in simply taking the time to explore the old cobbled streets and passageways, camera in hand.

Look out for the charming little figurines of traditional Mexican dancers in traditional dress in the central square. At the top of a flight of stairs, surrounded by hundreds of papel picado fluttering in the wind, is the burgundy Church of Santa Elena.

Nearby, you will find an interesting but obscure museum dedicated to 12 infant bodies that were recovered from the area. For some reason, they had not decomposed, but their identities were never found.

There are several charming cafes in Santa Elena where you can sample pollo asada (grilled chicken), carne asada (grilled beef), and traditional Yucatecan food. In the corner of the square, you will also find a small Michoacana ice cream store where you can buy cones of homemade ice cream and paletas (ice lollies) made from fresh fruit.

Kabah 

Kabah ruins, Ruta Puuc

Kabáh is one of the grandest Mayan cities along the Ruta Puuc. In Ancient Mayan, it translates to mean “ the lord of the powerful hand”. It is 22km away from the important city of Uxmal and has only been partially excavated.

Like many other Mayan ruins in Mexico, Kabah is waiting to be awarded attention and funding. Centuries ago, the city had an important relationship with the city of Uxmal and the two settlements would trade goods. 

It’s believed that Kabáh was 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 (as per the name of this road). 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.

Sayil 

The Ancient Mayan city of Sayil, along with Kabah, Xlapak, and Labna, is part of the UNESCO-protected zone of Uxmal. It dates back to 600-900 A.D. and the palaces at Sayil are very similar in appearance to those at Kabah. 

Sayil means “Place of the ants” in Mayan. Many of the palaces and structures here are very similar in design/appearance to those at Kabah. 

The most notable site at Sayil is the Grand Palace which sits immediately on your left once you enter. The three-story structure is 85 meters long and houses over 90 rooms. 

Like the Codz Poop in Kabah, the facade of Sayils Grand Palace has been decorated with hundreds of masks representing the rain god Chaac. To your right, a pleasant woodland trail leads you past streams and waterfalls to a shrine to the well-endowed god of fertility. 

A collection of pesos and small change scattered around the site in various currencies suggests that people still make offerings to this site even today if they are hoping to conceive. It is quite unlike anything you will see at other Mayan ruins. 

Unfortunately, much of the history of the site is unknown and archeologists have not been able to find any information about Sayil’s rulers. It is believed that the residents of the city developed a strong relationship with the Peten region in Guatemala.

Sayil was abandoned until 1000 A.D. It was then rediscovered by explorers Fredrick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stevens in the 1840s. 

Look out for the North Palace (Palacio Norte) which was made up of 90 rooms and once housed around 350 people. Admission to Sayil is 50 pesos (circa $2.18). 

Xlapak

Xlapak is a small Puuc archeological site that is best known for its buildings which have been designed with hundreds of masks of the Mayan rain god Chaac. Like many Mayan settlements, it thrived between 600 and 1000 AD before being eventually abandoned. 

The residents largely lived off the land and were deeply religious. They would pray to Chaac to ask for rain and a successful harvest.

Xlapak is only partially excavated at present, and there seems to be no set date as to when archeological work will continue at the site. Today, three out of about a dozen buildings have been unearthed.

It is quite disappointing compared to the other archeological sites detailed here, but if you want to be thorough and see all the places on the Puuc route, it’s worth stopping by briefly. (Plus admission to Xlapak is completely free!) 

Labna

Famous Labna ceremonial archway in the Ruta Puuc, Southern Yucatan

Labna is a Mayan city that dates back to around 600 AD, with most of the preserved structures here dating back to between 750 and 1050 AD. It is believed that between 1,500 and 2,500 people lived here at one point.

The most famous structure here is the Labna monumental gateway arch. The intricately designed archway marked the entrance to a sacbe (white paved Mayan road) that connected the city center to the palace. 

This archway was famously sketched by British Explorer Fredrick Catherwood during his exploration of Mesoamerica in the 19th century.

There isn’t a ton of information about Labna online and most photos of the site just show the famous ceremonial archway. So, you would be forgiven for thinking that Labna is just a small site but it is far from it. 

You should dedicate at least two hours to exploring this vast ancient city. Many of the structures are laden with masks of Chaac. 

One of the most notable ones to look out for is El Mirador. This is the tallest structure in the complex and it towers above the jungle canopy at a height of 65 feet. 

Nearby, you will find the Temple of the Columns and a few smaller structures. Admission to Labna is 50 pesos (circa $2.18). 

Muna 

Local women wearing huipil and talking in Muna marketplace, Yucatan

If you have time, you can stop in the city of Muna on your way back to Merida for a quick browse around the marketplace and for some traditional local food. The impressive burgundy 16th-century Virgin of the Assumption church sits in the center of Muna, and there is a charming marketplace (mercado) right beside it where women wearing traditional huipil sell herbs, spices, meats, clothing, and vegetables. 

By night, the central square (zocalo) comes to life with street vendors selling tacos de cabeza (cows head tacos) and marquesitas. If you have a car, you can stop by the ¨Muna lookout point¨ on the outskirts of town. 

Muna is the highest-altitude town in the Yucatan (which isn’t really high altitude at all since the state is mostly flat as a pancake!). Just outside it, someone has built a rickety wooden lookout tower that you can climb for 20 pesos and enjoy sweeping vistas across the Yucatan jungle canopy, with Uxmals pyramids in the distance. 

The Caves of Loltun 

The Caves of Loltun (grutas de Loltun) are the largest caves (“grutas”) in the Yucatan peninsula, as well as the most studied. They are close to the town of Oxkutzcab and are worth stopping by on your return back to Merida if you have any time left at the end of the day.

Sadly, as of summer 2023, the caves are temporarily closed to the public until further notice. If you are passing through the area while exploring the Ruta Puuc, it is worth having a quick check online to see if they are open. 

Prehistoric humans are believed to have inhabited the caves some 7,000+ years ago. Today, petroglyph cave paintings and handprints remain on the walls, while the remains of mammoths, bison, and other animals were recovered from the area.

How to Get to the Puuc Route

Shrine to the fertility god at Sayil, Ruta Puuc
Shrine to the fertility god at Sayil, Ruta Puuc

You have a couple of different options available to you for exploring the Ruta Puuc but driving is the best option by far. Public transport in the area is extremely limited, and can mean that you only have a short amount of time to spend at each site and have to skip some sites completely.

If you cannot drive, or you do not feel comfortable driving overseas, the next best option would be to participate in a tour offered by a local company or organise a private excursion to the area.

Rent a car 

Santa Elena, Ruta Puuc
Santa Elena, Ruta Puuc

Renting a car is the best way to explore the Ruta Puuc. This gives you a lot more freedom and flexibility than having to depend on public transport. 

You can spend as much time as you like at each archeological site without having to rush onwards to the next place or adhere to someone else’s schedule. You can also make impromptu stops along the route to check out caves, cenotes, and villages.

If you are spending any amount of time traveling around the Yucatan, you can pick up a rental car from either Cancun or Merida. Several reputable international rental companies operate in Mexico, including Avis, Sixt, and Budget. 

You can expect to pay around $30 USD a day to rent a car in Merida including full coverage insurance, with pick-up available from the city center and the airport. Driving in Mexico is not as daunting as it may seem either. 

In the Yucatan in particular (including the Ruta Puuc), the roads are very well maintained and are in excellent condition. There are no potholes or hazards to worry about (bar the occasional roadkill) and the Yucatan is very safe.

In Mexico, you drive on the right-hand side of the road, like in most of the world. Road rules are enforced and people don’t drive as chaotically as many seem to assume, because the penalties for doing so are severe. 

The scenery along the Ruta Puuc is beautiful, despite being remote and rural. You pass by many interesting sights en route to the ruins so it is never dull despite the long journey.   

Take the Ruta Puuc bus from Merida

There are buses that take you from the city of Merida to some of the ancient cities along the Ruta Puuc. However, they run on very limited schedules and it would be difficult and stressful to try and get to multiple Ruta Puuc sites in a day. 

Autobuses Sur operate a bus from Merida to Uxmal several times a day. The bus departs at 6 am, 9 am, 12 pm, and 15.30 pm each day and takes just over an hour.

(The actual drive time to Uxmal is only around 45 minutes but the bus makes several stops en route so the journey often takes longer). There is also a bus that leaves every Sunday at 8 am from the TAME bus station in Merida and stops at all five ruins along the route. 

You should aim to arrive at the bus station by at least 7.30 am to give yourself ample time to buy your ticket. A return trip ticket costs 280 pesos per person ($14) and the bus returns to Merida at 4 pm.

The bus stops for 30 minutes at each site, with the exception of Uxmal, where you stop for 2 hours. This can be a nice option if you are short on time.

However, you may feel a little rushed if you are someone that is really interested in history.

Participate in a Ruta Puuc tour

Several reputable local tour companies offer small group trips to Ruta Puuc, Uxmal, and various other ruins around the Yucatan. They usually include pick up and drop off at your hotel and take a lot of the stress out of working out the logistics of how to get from A to B.

Often, these tours do not work out any more expensive than it would be to organize everything independently. A selection of some of the most reputable Ruta Puuc tours is detailed below for your consideration. It is a good idea to book your place online in advance to avoid disappointment! 

Take a cab/Uber

Taking a cab/Uber/Didi car is not really the most realistic or economical option for exploring the Ruta Puuc. But it is worth mentioning nonetheless. If you want to travel to Uxmal, you may be able to find a driver to take you for around 700-800 pesos ($35-$41) each way.

They will wait for you while you explore the site and then drive you back again. Uber works in Merida and is a popular way for locals to get around.

Equally popular is Didi, an alternative Mexican ridesharing app. Finding a driver to take you to and from Uxmal is feasible but Uber drivers are unlikely to agree to take you all along the Ruta Puuc as it is a full day of driving.

You can also ask the receptionist/concierge at your hotel to recommend a local taxi company that can offer a private tour. You should expect this to cost a couple of hundred dollars but if there is a group of you, the price is not all that bad.

Ruta Puuc Travel FAQs

Do you have any further questions or queries about traveling along the Puuc route in the Yucatan? The answers to some frequently asked questions on the topic are detailed below for your consideration.

Hopefully, you will find the information you are looking for there. If not, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.

How can I spend 2 or 3 days on the Ruta Puuc?

It is preferable to spend at least a couple of days exploring the Ruta Puuc if your schedule allows. There is a lot to do in the area, and you will definitely have to forfeit some stops and activities if you want to fit it all in one day.

If you have two days to spare, you could spend the first day visiting the ruins of Uxmal and the nearby Choco-Story museum. Stay in a luxurious hacienda close to Uxmal.

On day two, wake up bright and early to visit the smaller ruins along the Ruta Puuc and then spend the night in one of the charming guesthouses in Santa Elena. The best approach depends on your personal preferences.

Final Thoughts on traveling the Ruta Puuc

Driving along the Ruta Puuc can be one of the most rewarding adventures that you can do in Southern Mexico. This is particularly true if you are interested in history, culture, and traveling off the beaten path. 

If you have more time to spare in the area, you can also take an adventure to the ruins of Oxkintok which are also seldom visited and are about a 40-minute drive away from Uxmal.

Have you traveled to any part of the Ruta Puuc before or visited other places in the Yucatan? If you are traveling to Mexico for the first time, you may enjoy reading these Mexico travel tips or browsing through these books about Mexico. 

Safe travels! Have a wonderful time in Mexico! Buen Viaje! xo


Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer based in Merida, Mexico and the Editor-in-Chief of Mexico Travel Secrets. She has over seven years worth of experience in working in travel media and has travelled to 57 countries, mostly solo. Throughout her career, Melissa has produced written content for several high-profile publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, the Huffington Post, Rough Guides, and Matador Network.

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