Where Are The Best Mayan Ruins?

Where are the best Mayan Ruins you ask? Well, we’ll start with some of the best in Mexico.

Mexican history can be divided into two eras: Pre-colombian and Colonial. That is, before the Europeans arrived, and after. Both periods have left a rich legacy, one living, one archaeological. To experience the Precolombian era, which dates from hundreds of years B.C. right up until the Conquistadores landed, you can visit any of the dozens of  archaeological sites you’ll find all over Mexico:  we’ve listed half a dozen of the best ones below.  As for the Colonial era: most of the towns established by the Spanish conquerors in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries are still around, busy contemporary cities with splendid colonial-era architecture—primarily churches, but also plazas, fountains, government buildings, palaces, and the like—at their cores. There are a bunch of these towns that are pretty well-trafficked with tourism—San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Guadalajara, Mexico City and some others. Then there are some well, not obscure, but definitely less busy spots.

What follows is a list of six pre-colombian archaeological sites. There are many more than this dozen out there, but these definitely rank among the most compelling.


How can we talk about famous Mexico pre-columbian ruins without mentioning this site? About an hour and a half from Merida and two and a half hours from Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza has long been recognized as one of the premier archaeological sites in Mexico, and is well worth a visit in spite of the crowds that now predominate. We recommend going super early—spend the night at a nearby hotel or in Merida, and get moving at the crack of dawn to explore the dozens of partially or fully-restored buildings and structures on the site before the mobs of tourists arrive by bus from Cancun and take over.  It is simply amazing to walk these ruins, and imagine the ancient Mayan world. In case you didn’t know how good the Mayans were at astronomy, consider this: On the Spring and Autumn equinox, at the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the great pyramid—the tallest, most dominant building at Chichen Itza–casts a shadow shaped like the plumed serpent – Kukulcan, or Quetzalcoatl – along the west side of the north staircase.

On these two annual occasions, the shadows from the corner tiers slither, snakelike, with the movement of the sun, down the side of the pyramid to the serpent’s head at the base. Of course these Mayan sophisticates also performed human sacrifices, as indicated by the presence of a Chac Mool discovered in the inner temple, a temple inside the pyramid that was found during an excavation in the 1930s. The Chac Mool is known to be a messenger, and the little tray he holds in his lap is where the human heart was placed after being carved out of the sacrificial virgin, so that the messenger might deliver it to the gods. But no need to linger there—dozens of buildings over an enormous swatch of terrain await exploring. Well-known, popular places like Chichen Itza are best experienced early in the day (it’s cooler as well as less crowded) or off-season if you can manage it.


If Tulum is any indicator, the Mayans liked life at the beach as much as we do. This small archaeological site contains only 60 structures (estimated to be about 10 per cent of the original city), enclosed by a thick stone wall on three sides—the fourth side being a forty foot high bluff overlooking a gorgeous stretch of Caribbean beachfront not far from Cancun. Tulum was discovered by the Spanish in the 16th century—after that, it didn’t take long for European disease to wipe the Mayans out—Tulum was abandoned by the end of the 16th century.  Check out the Castle, which is the dominant pyramid; the Temple of the Descending God; and the Temple of the Frescoes—these are the three most compelling structures on the site–before you hit the beach. The proximity to Cancun brings tons of daily tourists, so again, go early to beat the crowds.   You can do the whole site in a couple of hours, and then, if you’ve had enough of the beach and temple scene, head off to check out any of the many cenotes in the area. These fresh water sinkholes are the surface manifestations of complex underground water systems.  Rimmed with stone and often containing wonderfully clear water, for centuries the cenotes supplied much of the Mayan civilization of the Yucatan with fresh water.  Skeletons and treasures have been found in some, indicating that these cenotes, too, were perhaps used for human sacrifice.


Before Chichen Itza, there was Coba. Located about 50 miles east of Chichen Itza, Coba was founded around 100 BC to 100 AD, and reached its peak as a city-state between 200 and 600 AD, with an estimated 50,000 inhabitants. Over time Coba’s power waned, but new temples and pyramids were continuously added to the city up until the time of the Spanish
conquest in the 16th century. There has been a direct road to Coba for several decades now, so it is on the tourist map and is fairly busy, but the crowds here are nothing like Chichen Itza; even better, unlike Cancun, where tourists are not allowed to climb the
pyramid, visitors here are still allowed to climb to the top of the 140 foot high Nococh Mul Pyramid as well as other pyramids. With some 20,000 buildings and structures on site (many of them still buried in the jungle, as this is the least excavated major site in Mexico), and countless examples of beautifully detailed hieroglyphics, many experts feel Coba rivals the Guatemalan site at Tikal for scale, complexity, and beauty. For professional and amateur archaeologists this is definitely a main event—for the rest of us, it is just plain awe-inspiring.


These three sites, all located in the Oaxaca Valley in the region around Oaxaca City,
represent the archaeological remnant of the once-thriving Zapotec civilization. The Zapotecs, who actually went to war with the Aztecs for a brief time before the Spaniards wiped them all out, were a highly developed, literate culture established in the Oaxaca Valley as far back as 900 to 1000 BC; at one time the region supported a population estimated at over 500,000. Monte Alban served as the political center, while Mitla seemingly played a role as the religious and ceremonial center. In any case, all three sites are graced with archaeological treasures, especially Monte Alban with its spectacular hilltop pyramids. Each can be visited on a day trip from Oaxaca—Mitla is within the municipality of San Pablo Villa de Mitla, about 30 miles from Oaxaca, and Yagul can be found  20 miles from Oaxaca City, just off Hwy 190, the road connecting Oaxaca City with Mitla. Mitla is known for the artistically inspired architecture, with its wonderful surface detailing, while Yagul is recognized for hieroglyphic carvings, and for containing the largest ball court in Oaxaca Valley. Both of these sites are easily accessible, and Yagul is especially photogenic as there is an adjacent hill from which to take pictures.

If you only do one of these sites, make it Monte Alban—this is a truly awe-inspiring place, its myriad monuments, pyramids, statues and other restored structures occupying a huge swatch of terrain on a hill just six miles from Oaxaca City. Any trip into southern Mexico should include a visit to Oaxaca City and Monte Alban.


Located in the southern state of Chiapas lies the ruins of Palenque. The site itself has origins as far back as the first century AD, and the city state fell into decline due to sociological, and environmental reasons in the 8th century AD. From a personal visit to the site, I can tell you that it’s a far out of the way destination to reach, but like all such destinations makes it worth the effort to visit.  There are some 1400 temples that comprise the site, with most of them still enclosed in the thick surrounding jungle.  Palenque has 4 or 5 main temples, and the rest lie within an easy walking distance in the jungle, waiting to be discovered. It’s a magical place, and the distance necessary to travel will seem like nothing once you arrive and walk the ruins.

Comments are closed.