A practical guide to the Maya ruins of Mexico

Did you know that there are over 20 Maya sites in Mexico?  That’s right, one of the world’s biggest civilizations ever definitely left its mark in Mexico! The majority of the sites can be found in the states of Yucatán and Chiapas, making it easy for travellers to go on a Maya exploration spree. Some of these sites can simply not be missed, like Chichen Itza or Palenque, but make sure you explore a few of the lesser known ones as well. They actually turned out to be my favourites!

Below you’ll find a list of the most famous Maya ruins in Mexico and a few lesser known ones that you should definitely put on your itinerary. Welcome to the wonderful world of the Maya!!

1. Chichen Itza (Yucatán)

We might as well start with THE Maya ruin, mightn’t we? Crowned as one of the 7 new world wonders, you owe it to yourself to pay a visit. Your experience will highly depend on your arrival time; at 8am the site is peaceful and utterly impressive! A few hours later, when the tour buses from Cancún have arrived and the vendors set up their stalls along the paths, it’s a whole different story! Go to “El Castillo” and the “Cenote Sagrado” first and visit the lesser known monuments later. Oh and don’t miss out on “El Caracol”!

Period: 2nd-14th century AD
Time spent: 2 hours
How to get there: public bus from Valladolid or Mérida or via an organised tour from both cities

2. Cobá (Yucatán)

One of my favourites! The architecture might not be as spectacular as some other sites, but the forest setting and the lack of crowds makes it a very cool place to satisfy your inner-explorer. Walk or cycle along ancient sacbés (stone-paved avenues) or climb the Nohoch Mul pyramid at a height of 42m. One of my best memories is standing on top of the pyramid all by myself, taking in the views over the nearby jungle and lakes.
The site is very spread out, so prepare to do a lot of walking or cycling. If you’re tired, drivers can take you around in one of the many tricycles.

Period: 600-1100 AD
Time spent: 3 hours
How to get there: public bus from Valladolid or Tulum

3. Tulum (Yucatán)

One of the most accessible ruins for the all-inclusive crowds on the Riviera Maya, so again show up early or prepare to share the site with more people and selfie sticks than you can probably tolerate. The ruins in Tulum aren’t the most impressive or detailed ones, but oh my, what a location! The Temple of the Wind God overlooks the rugged coastline and a lovely little stretch of beach. The tallest building on site is “El Castillo”.
Keep an eye out for the massive iguanas dotted around the ruins. No need to be scared, they are pretty tame and well used to the hoards of people.

Period: 1200-1600 AD
Time spent: 1.5 hours
How to get there: colectivo (shared van) from Tulum town

4. Palenque (Chiapas)

Considered by many people as the most beautiful Maya ruins in the whole of Mexico. Just as in Cobá or Yaxchilán, the surrounding nature plays a major role. While the structures are definitely impressive, this was the only site I struggled a bit with the crowds and I was there are 08:30 am!
My favourite part was actually the yet to be excavated ruins, where you’ll encounter only a handful of people and can enjoy a great walk along nature and small waterfalls. From the Grupo Norte follow the signs towards the museum and the path will take you there.

Period: 100 BC-740 AD
Time spent: 2h30
How to get there: colectivo from Palenque town

5. Yaxchilán (Chiapas)

By now you’ve probably figured out that I prefer the lesser visited sites. Well as far as less visited goes, Yaxchilán is definitely top of the list! It’s tricky to get to, so a lot of people just “don’t bother”. After driving along the Carretera Fronteriza which runs parallel to the the Mexican-Guatemalan border, you have to take a boat onto the Usumacinta river, where you can spot the occasional crocodile. And that’s not the only wildlife you’ll see on this trip: the “labyrinth” part of the ruins are filled with spiders and bats, so depending on your love or fear for both, you might (not) want to linger on too long in there. Once through, the Gran Plaza opens up and you can visit the various “edificios”. Climb the imposing stairway to Edificio 33, THE highlight of Yaxchilán, with its well-preserved lintels and roof comb.

Period: 7th-9th century AD
Time spent: 1h30 (could’ve spent longer)
How to get there: no public transport, so if you’re not driving, you have to take an organized tour from Palenque.

6. Uxmal (Yucatán)

The impressive decoration and the overall tranquillity of the site make it one of my favourites! Climb the Gran Pirámide for an impressive view over the site and the “Pirámide del Adivino”. The detailed ornamentation is at its best in the “Cuadrángulo de las Monjas” and on the “Casa de las Tortugas”, where turtles are carved on the cornice.
The architectural patterns are different from most other Maya sites and known as the “Puuc style”.

Period: 600-900 AD
Time spent: 3 hours
How to get there: public bus from Mérida or an organised excursion the same city

7. Bonampak (Chiapas)

Usually visited on the same daytrip as Yaxchilán, Bonampak is famous for its well-preserved frescoes. The site is small, but it takes some time climbing up and down the “Templo de las Pinturas”, plus they only allow three people in at once to see the frescoes. It’s a very different experience from the other Maya ruins, since here it is all about the paintings rather than the grand structures. Worth a visit!

Period: 8th century AD
Time spent: 1 hour
How to get there:  no public transport, so if you’re not driving, you have to take an organized tour from Palenque (combined with Yaxchilán)


Have you been to any of the ruins mentioned above? Or maybe to some other ones? Let me know in the comments: “What are, according to you, the best Maya ruins in Mexico?”

 

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One Reply to “A practical guide to the Maya ruins of Mexico”

  1. Rhiannon

    I was at teotihuacan on friday and loved that, climbed the temple of the sun and most of the moon (it’s blocked half way up). Those were the most impressive I saw, but we stayed in the west because that’s where my boyfriend is from.

    Reply

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