7 Best Mayan Ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula

This article may contain affiliate links. You can see our disclaimer here.

If you’re traveling in the Yucatan Peninsula, you need to visit a Mayan ruin. Or two, or three. I was introduced to Mayan ruins in the Yucatan during a lecture given by the cruise ship director the night before I visited a small ruin south of Tulum.

Not knowing anything about the Maya I listened as he described, with adoration, the basic aspects of the Mayan culture. Little did I know that once I explored my first Mayan ruin, the same enthusiasm would be instilled in me.

Fast forward four years and I have now been to many ruins, each one with its own story directed by the lay of the land, water, and commodities available. The pyramids, carvings, and stelaes (large stone slabs) differ vastly, representing the statuses each society symbolized.

If you study a map of the Yucatan Peninsula, you’ll soon realize there are many more Yucatan ruins than the famous Chichen Itza. And while it did make my list of the best Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, I’ve included some other cool sites you should check out as well. You’ll also want to read my tips for visiting Mayan ruins in Mexico.

Tulum Mayan Ruins

From the Tulum Mayan Ruins, a view of the cliff descending into the Caribbean Sea with sand in the foreground.

Perhaps one of the biggest draws to this Yucatan ruin is the stunning backdrop of the Caribbean sea. The ruin is perched on a cliff that drops into powdery sand and beautiful turquoise water. This is the third most visited archeological site in Mexico, behind Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza.

Tulum was an important stop for trade. Maya from all over Mesoamerica traded gold, copper, feathers, and most notably obsidian. These are just a few of the similarities to the Aztec Teotihuacan in Mexico City. El Castillo, for me, is the most impressive building on the archeological site, serving as a lighthouse for seafaring traders to mark exactly where the reef splits to safely land their canoes.

Location: 2 miles outside of Tulum | Google Maps  Hours: Every day 8:00 am – 5:00 pm  

Chances are you’ll spend some time enjoying this small beach town that has exploded in popularity recently. Whether you want to be a beach bum or explore the nearby cenotes, read this guide for ideas of what to do in Tulum.

Coba

Located 45 minutes from Tulum, the Coba ruins are impressive. Climb to the top of the main pyramid for a stunning view of the lush jungle below. Controlling trades routes, and dominating much of the Northern Yucatan, this Mayan city was of great importance in the region. Older, but lesser known than Chichen Itza, Coba is easily accessible by bus, shared taxis, or renting a car. It does tend to get busy by midday.

TIP: To navigate this site more quickly, bicycles are available to rent for 100 pesos. Or opt to hire a transport bicycle that will ferry you and your travel partner down the covered pathway to the pyramid sites.

Location: Between Tulum and Valladolid | Google Maps  Hours: Every day 8:00 am – 5:00 pm

If you’re arriving to Coba by way of Playa, check out this list of the best things to do in Playa del Carmen.

[penci_blockquote style=”style-1″ align=”none” author=”” uppercase=”false”]READ NEXT: Celestun, Mexico[/penci_blockquote]

Ek Balam Ruins

From the top of Ek Balam in the Yucatan Peninsula. The view includes other buildings on the ruin site and the lush jungle below.

Just 16 miles north of Valladolid, Ek Balam has the most amazing temple. The doorway is a huge carving of a Jaguar with its mouth open. Huge teeth and all. The Maya warrior statues are extremely well preserved and intricate. There aren’t a ton of tourists that visit this ruin, so you should be able to get some great views. On a clear day, they say you can see Coba and Chichen Itza from the top.

Location: 30 min north of Valladolid | Google Maps  Hours: Every day 8:00 am – 4:00 pm

Chichen Itza

Stars light the sky above El Castillo, Chichen Itza's most notable pyramid.
Isn’t this an amazing image of Chichen Itza under the stars? Credit goes to Walkerssk on Pixabay.

Chichen Itza is the second largest archaeological site in Mexico. This archeological site is easy to get to if you’re visiting nearby Valladolid, but get there early. The crowds and vendors are crazy if you don’t.

The main pyramid, El Castillo is quite impressive, given its size. I found the history of the sacred cenote quite interesting since they found many items of sacrifice, including human remains, at the bottom. Maybe it was because of the constant ‘predatory vending’ or the hoards of people even though I got there fairly early, but this has by far been my least enjoyable Mayan site.

TIP: Every night there is a sound and light show at Chichen Itza. If you have a car or are staying close by, check it out.

Location: 45 minutes west of Valladolid | Google Maps  Hours: Every day 8:00 am – 4:30 pm

Uxmal

This site is very well preserved due to the cut stone laid into a bed of concrete. At over 100 feet tall, the Temple of the Magician is unusual for its oval shape. While you can no longer climb the Magician pyramid, you can climb the main pyramid at Uxmal for amazing views. Other interests at this Mayan site are numerous statues carved into the shape of turtles, birds, and snakes. The geometric art on the side of the governor’s building is unlike other carvings that I have seen.

TIP: If you visit the Uxmal Mayan Ruins, consider doing the entire Puuc route which includes the caves of Loltun, several haciendas, cenotes, and the smaller nearby ruins of Labna, X-Lapak, Sayil, and Kabah.

Location: 1 hour south of Merida | Google Maps  Hours: Every day 8:00 am – 5:00 pm

[penci_blockquote style=”style-1″ align=”none” author=”” uppercase=”false”]READ NEXT: 15 Fabulous Things to do in Merida, Mexico[/penci_blockquote]

Mayapan

After the collapse of Chichen Itza, Mayapan became the next thriving capital of the Yucatan Maya. Only 45 minutes south of Merida, the ruins of Mayapan is a quiet archaeological site featuring many stone carvings and a circular observatory. The site is well excavated, though the original construction was not as sound as that of Chichen Itza, so a lot of roofs have caved in.

There is no ball court at Mayapan, but you are able to climb the ruins. This is an archaeological site that even if you arrive later than the gate opening you may still have the place to yourself. If you do find yourself arriving at 10 or later there are numerous cenotes in the area to cool off in after a visit to the ruins. A little out of the way is the Nah Yah cenote. Not only is saying the name kinda fun, but if you’re scuba/cave certified you can contact a scuba outfit ahead of time and explore depths of this cenote.

Location:  45 minutes south of Merida | Google Maps  Hours: Every day 8:00 am – 4:00 pm

Kohunlich Mayan Ruins

Stone carved masks at Kohunlich Mayan Ruins in the southern Yucatan Peninsula.

This is a smaller ruin in the southern Yucatan so I wasn’t going to give it much attention, but the Temple of Masks is really amazing. Plus, when I visited this ruin in July with friends, we were the only ones here. It’s amazing to visit an archeological site like this with the freedom to roam at your pace and explore the ruins. 

Equally as impressive were the huge cohune palms, their fronds almost hitting the ground from the large height they originate from. You do need a car to get to Kohunlich. The ruins are located down a dirt road 5 miles (15 min by car) from the turnoff at Hwy 186. There are restrooms located on site next to the ticket office.

Location: 1 hour southwest of Bacalar | Google Maps Hours: Every day 8:00 am – 4:30 pm 


Tips To Visit the Yucatan Ruins

Arrive when the site opens

This cannot be stressed enough. I’ve had some pretty early mornings to visit ruins in Mexico, but the beauty of sharing the site with only a few others is completely worth it. If you are looking for the perfect picture, get there before the tour buses full of photobombing people. Also, most of the vendors will just be arriving by the time that you’re leaving.

TIP: Try to avoid visiting the ruin sites on a weekend, especially on Sunday when it is busiest and often free for Mexican nationals.

Wear solid shoes

A lot of the ruins in Mexico are in the middle of the jungle. Navigating the terrain can be tricky enough, but if you’re allowed to climb the structures it can be nerve-wracking looking down. You certainly don’t want to add poor footwear into the equation.

Bring water, sunscreen, and a hat

Perhaps it goes without saying, but the Yucatan Peninsula can be sweltering hot. The smaller ruins may not have water for purchase, so it’s best to bring all you will need. (Don’t worry there are always bathrooms!) Some ruins offer more shade than others, but most are exposed to the elements. I always bring sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat.

Hire a guide

I have been to many ruins and each one has its place in the Maya lore. The guide’s insight is steeped in a combination of archaeologist academia and personal family history of the area. The tour guides we’ve experienced have all been very proud of their Mayan ancestry, and the more questions you ask them the more information they will give you without prompting.

Tour guides in Mexico are all licensed by the federal government. They are trained to expertly explain the lives of the Maya and answer any questions about the flora and fauna you encounter.

TIP: As you enter the site, see if there are other visitors that would be willing to share the price of a guide.

Cool off in a Cenote after

Swimming in a cenote after visiting a Mayan ruin should be mandatory. There’s no better way to cool off and reflect on the Mayan history you just experienced. Every ruin has at least one nearby, though they tend to be some of the most touristy. But not to worry, there are thousands of cenotes in the area!

Have you explored the Mayan Ruins in the Yucatan? Tell me about it in the comments!

Save our guide to Yucatan Ruins. Pin it for later!

7 Amazing Mayan Ruins Mexico.

From Chichen Itza to Tulum to Coba, save the 7 Best Mayan Ruins in the Yucatan for later.

Related posts

Hierve el Agua: Mexico’s Petrified Waterfall

Julien Casanova

Antique Stores in Merida Mexico

Julien Casanova

7 Museums in Merida Mexico

Julien Casanova

7 comments

Nancy Hann November 17, 2019 at 12:52 pm

Looks amazing! The history of this culture sounds so interesting too. Thanks for sharing.

Reply
Cultures Traveled November 20, 2019 at 9:51 am

Thanks for reading Nancy! I love learning about the Mayan culture from the guides when visiting the Mayan ruins as well.

Reply
Becki November 17, 2019 at 2:43 pm

I visted Mexico a couple of years ago, and loved the temples and ruins. I visited a few that you talked about – Tulum and Chichen Itza, but then totally missed out on Kohunlich and Mayapan, they werent even on my radar. Great post, I need to go back soon and do these.

Reply
Cultures Traveled November 20, 2019 at 9:54 am

I always love a reason to return to a previous travel destination, especially in Mexico! There are several Yucatan ruins that get overshadowed by the more prominent sites. They are still restoring a site near Bacalar that has yet to open to the public. I read it’s one of the biggest Mayan Ruins in the Yucatan!

Reply
Lisa Dorenfest November 18, 2019 at 10:10 pm

On my list. Especially the Temple of Masks at the Kohunlich Mayan Ruins. Great capture. And the image from Chichen Itza is stellar! Pinned a few of your pics!

Reply
Cultures Traveled November 20, 2019 at 9:55 am

Yes, the Temple of the Masks was a great delight at Kohunlich, as were the giant palms. I’m thrilled you’ll add these destinations to your list!

Reply
Emese January 21, 2020 at 6:24 pm

Glad to see you are enjoying Maya sites when traveling through Yucatan. The peninsula is like a second home for us, and the first time I traveled there was for Maya ruins. As crazy as it sounds, with all the tourists, you can still find some off the beaten track to visit. Glad to see you included Mayapan and Kohunlich. My favorite of the ones you listed is Coba, for its jungle setting and its stelae.

Reply

Leave a Reply to Nancy Hann Cancel Reply

* By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website. See our Privacy Policy for more details.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

shares