The Ruta Puuc is a historical route in the southern part of Mexico’s Yucatan state. Its name literally translates to “Puuc route”, reflecting the Mayan ruins scattered around this region that have been designed in the Puuc style of architecture.
The most famous Mayan city in this part of southern Mexico is the UNESCO world heritage site of Uxmal. However, the lesser-known ruins of Kabah, Labna, Xlapak, and Sayil are equally worthy of your time.
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 Yucatan 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 Labna, 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.
How to Explore the Ruta Puuc
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.
Rent a car
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.
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 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 15.30pm 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 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!
- From Merida: Uxmal, Hacienda Yaxcopoil, and cenote tour with lunch
- Uxmal with private guide and transportation from Merida
- Uxmal light and sound night experience from Merida
- Vintage Landrover experience to Uxmal
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.
Exploring the Ruta Puuc
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. If you are taking a bus or a tour, you will visit the closest ruins first and then work your way outwards. (I.e. Uxmal then Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labna).
If you are traveling independently, you can opt to head to the farthest ruin first and then work your way backward, or start at Uxmal and follow the traditional route. The best choice is perhaps to start at Uxmal as this is the most popular Mayan city on the route.
Get here for when it opens at 8 am so that you can avoid the crowds and swarms of tour buses that roll in around 9 or 10 am. From there, continue on to Kabah.
The little village of Santa Elena makes a nice pitstop for lunch and ice cream. If you prefer to explore the Ruta Puuc at a more relaxed pace and see some of the lesser-known points of interest along the route, you can stretch your journey into a two or three-day itinerary.
For instance, 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.
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
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).
Admission to Uxmal is 466 pesos per person (circa $22). It is free for Mexicans on Sundays.
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 travelling 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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. Xlapak is free to enter.
Labna is a small Mayan ruin that is perhaps best known for its 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 are several other notable structures to look out for here.
Each has been designed in the distinctive Puuc style of architecture, with walls decorated with the long-nosed mask of the rain god Chaac. El Mirador is the tallest structure on the site.
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).
The Caves of Loltun
The Caves of 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 2022, 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 paintings and handprints remain on the walls, while the remains of mammoths, bison, and other animals were recovered from the area.
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.
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