The Ultimate Mayan Ruins Guide
Mexico draws millions of visitors to its country each year – and for good reason! This culturally rich paradise offers up sunny beaches, colonial architecture, exotic jungles, vibrant cities, mouthwatering cuisine, and several ancient Mayan ruins with amazing stories to tell! A visit to one of these must-see ruins will transport you back in time to an exceptional period full of unique innovations, amazing architecture, powerful trade centers, and fierce warriors.
The Mayans were superstars of the ancient world, dominating culture, trade, politics, and more throughout Mesoamerica (a historical region of early Mexican and Central American culture) from as early as 2,600 BC until their civilization collapsed by 900 AD. It is estimated that The Mayan civilization expanded to about 40 cities with up to 10,000,000 million total inhabitants at its peak.
The Ancient Mayans
Mayan culture was very progressive with complex language, calendar systems, and advanced mathematical formulas. Astronomy, geometry, and spirituality were everyday tools used in their life, art, architecture, and city development. They created books from tree bark and used cacao as currency and in rituals.
There was a dark side to Mayan culture as well: that of human sacrifice. Throughout their rise the Mayans would offer up notable prisoners of war to various gods in return for blessings and favor.
The Mayans Today
There is debate among historians and scholars as to what eventually happened to the Mayan people. Food shortages, Spanish invaders, warfare, disease, overpopulation, and shifting trade routes are frequent explanations for the collapse of the Mayan civilization. The Mayans themselves did not disappear, however; around 7 million descendants are alive today, about 40 percent of them residing in Guatemala.
One thing is for certain — the Mayans had a remarkable influence on the region’s language, art, cuisine, and religion.
How to Choose the Best Mayan Ruins to Visit
From the remote jungles to the coastline are several archeological ruins where you can gain insight into the mighty Mayan civilization.
At this point you may be asking yourself, “which are the best Mayan ruins to see in Mexico?” The answer depends on your interests. Architecture lovers will be amazed by Chechen Itza while history buffs will enjoy Dzibilchaltun. Tulum will appeal to social influencers with their exotic locales and panoramic views.
The typical Mayan city was an independent commonwealth designed with palaces, pyramids, and temples in the center that were flanked by multi-room structures and residences. The buildings were made out of limestone and a cement-like substance, and it was not uncommon for them to be built over existing structures. Many cities also had irrigation and intricate waterway systems.
Some cities had ball courts, where games were often played with political or cultural meanings… sometimes with deadly consequences (fact: in at least one city, the “losers” of a game literally lost their lives). Other Mayan cities were connected by sacbes (raised, paved roads) that allowed both trading and the Mayan culture to flourish.
Here is Our Short List of the Mayan Ruins Worth Seeing:
Chichen Itza — if you only have time to visit one of the Mayan ruins, make it this one! It is a great introduction to Mayan history and culture; it is also one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Chichen Itza was the most powerful regional capital in the Yucatan Peninsula as well as one of the largest Mayan cities. And it’s only a couple of hours away from Cancun!
The well-preserved ruins showcase a blend of both older Mayan and newer Toltec architectural styles and contain the largest ball court in the area. The use of sacred geometric construction is evident with the twice-yearly visit of the Serpent god Kukulkan dancing on the steps of the El Castillo pyramid, helping to make Chicken Itza one of the most visited ruins in Mesoamerica. You’ll also find many amazing hieroglyphics throughout the ruins, dating from 832 AD to 998 AD.
Tulum — probably one of the most photographed of the Mayan ruins, thanks to the Caribbean sea as its stunning backdrop. This fortress city was one of the most powerful in the 13th and 14th centuries due to its strategic location, where it was a major trading port for the inland cities of Chichen Itza, Coba, and Ek Balam. It is also considered to have been a spiritually and ceremonially significant city.
Check out the protective seawall surrounding the Tulum ruins and admire the El Castillo pyramid, which served as an ancient lighthouse.
Mayapan — this walled, mostly residential city was the most important one in the Yucatan during the Postclassic Period. It is known today for its Hall of Frescoes as well as a structure containing reliefs of beheaded warriors carved into its stucco. You will also find the Room of the Turtles, named from the stone turtle offerings placed on its base.
Dzibilchaltun — this city was home to one of the oldest settlements on the Yucatan Peninsula, with ruins dating back to 600 AD. While there are no large pyramids on this Mayan site, the Temple of the Dolls (aka the Temple of the Sun) is a fascinating structure; 7 “dolls” (human clay figurines), were ritually buried by shamans at the foot of the altar.
Sacred geometric construction used the sun’s rays to illuminate the temple doors during the equinoxes. Also on site is Cenote Xlacah, a 144-foot deep sinkhole with an underground cave.
Chacchoben — these ancient Mayan ruins are nestled deep in the jungle alongside deer, foxes, howler monkeys, jaguars, and more. Its pyramids, temples, and courtyards were used for modern Mayan ceremonies until 1847.
Kohunlich – this ancient city covers 21 acres with more than 170 mounds that have not been excavated yet. What has been uncovered in excavations include various temple platforms and pyramids, including the Pyramid of the Masks. Built in honor of the Sun god, this structure contains 6 magnificent stucco masks along its staircase.
Other Ruins Worth Noting:
Yaxchilan — this hidden city in the state of Chiapas is located along the Usumacinta River and is accessible only by boat. One of the Mayan’s most sacred places, it is a pilgrimage site today for the nearby Lacandon Maya. You’ll also find a large number of carvings and murals in Yaxchilan.
Calakmul — known as the Kingdom of the Snake, this was one of the Mayan’s most powerful settlements during the Classic period. Located in the state of Campeche, it boasts 117 carved stone slabs, 8 sacbes, extensive canals, and more within its 27 square miles — the majority of it not accessible to the public yet. What is accessible at this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the magnificent 148 foot Great Pyramid rising out of the jungle canopy.
Tikal — the largest, most powerful, and possibly, oldest Mayan kingdom and a rival of the Mayan city of Calakmul. Located in the jungles of Guatemala, this important political and economical center features an inner urban zone complete with pyramids, palaces, elite residences, temples, ceremonial sites, ball courts, and roads. Surrounding the center was a mostly residential zone with water reservoirs. A peripheral zone was used for agriculture, security, and check in points.
Teotihuacan — another UNESCO World Heritage Site, these Mayan ruins were home to an estimated 200,000 inhabitants at its peak. Settled as early as 400 BC, Teotihuacan was a wealthy trade center full of palaces, temples, plazas, and pyramids.
Coba — the city of Coba was one of the more populous, with about 50,000 inhabitants at its peak. Located in the jungle, this least-excavated city boasts an extensive sacbe highway network; its longest road, at 62 miles, connected Coba to the ancient city of Yaxuna. On site are the looming 137 foot pyramid on Nochul Mul, as well as the 138 foot pyramid of Ixmoja, along with 2 ancient ball courts and over 6,500 temples
Mayan Ruins Essentials and Tips
Have you picked out a Mayan ruin — or two, or three — to visit yet? If so, great! Be sure to take the following with you when you visit:
Sun protection — sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses to protect you from the sun’s strong rays
Handheld fan — a portable, battery-powered fan can help keep you cool
Bug spray — a must-have for any jungle visits
Pesos — many sites do not accept any kind of payment cards, so plan on having some cash on hand for entry or parking fees, food, and to pay any guides
Water — another must-have, due to the intense heat. As for snacks, keep in mind that some sites allow them while others do not.
Wear lightweight casual or dry-fit clothes that you don’t mind working up a sweat in. Closed-toed shoes will protect your feet, and wear ones with a good tread on the bottom if you want to climb any pyramid steps.
As with many attractions, the earlier in the day you can go, the better. Sundays tend to be the most crowded, as that is the day locals can visit the sites for free.
Read up on the ruins you are interested in before your visit in case your chosen site does not have a guide. Alternatively, some background information can help you fill in the blanks that your guide might skip over.
Climbing or touching the ruins is prohibited at some of the sites in an effort to help protect the ruins, or out of regard for the deceased. Read and respect the posted signs. Keep in mind that your best bet to climb the ruins will typically be at the smaller, less popular sites.
Other Things to Do while visiting the Mayan Ruins
While Mayan ruins are the main attraction, there are other things to do and see while in Mexico!
The beautiful Tulum Ruins Beach along the Riviera Maya is part of Tulum National Park, with access to the ruins. Its soft white sand, cool turquoise waters, and colorful iguanas provide a welcome respite from the crowds.
Shop til you drop in Tulum — starting at the Mercado Maya Tulum (aka Tulum Market), a vibrant outdoor market full of art, handicrafts, textiles, and more. Then head over to the Tulum Bazaar with its cozy boutique shops and delicious food.
Elsewhere in Tulum you will find shops with such treasures as boho-chic clothing, colorful jewelry, sugar skulls, and handmade pottery. Take some time to visit MexicArte Tulum, a popular shop for souvenirs and home goods.
Animal and nature lovers will love a trip to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. This park and UNESCO World Heritage Site on the outskirts of Tulum contains 23 Mayan ruins, mangrove canals, trails to lagoons, and a tree planting program. And let’s not forget the tropical flora and fauna to admire and take photos of.
Cruises That go to the Mayan Ruins
The Mayan ruins are accessible from many ports of call — some ruins are fairly close, others a longer ride, all of them magical. Here is a list of cruise ports with the most popular ruin excursions:
Cozumel — Tulum
Costa Maya — Chaccoben, Dzibanche, Kohunlich
Progresso — Chichen Itzá, Mayapan, Dzibilchaltun
A huge perk of travel is the ability to see and understand a region’s culture through its history. With all the various ruins available you have a rare opportunity to witness the incredible influence of the Mayans in modern-day Mexican life and traditions. Don’t leave Mexico without experiencing at least one of them!
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