8 Best Ruins You Must Visit in Mexico
We've spent over a month in Mexico and during this time visited and saw a large number of (Mayan) ruins and archeological sites spread around the country (most of them on the Yucatan Peninsula). Here is the list of 8 best ruins we visited in Mexico and you must too.
Mexico's ancient ruins is a notion on its own, and visiting the old cities is one of the main reasons why to travel to the country. Although Latin America is dotted with thousands of ruins, not only Mexico has some of the most outstanding structures and perfect pyramids, but it also possesses the most of them in its territory.
Thousands of years ago different cultures lived, thrived and built their cities in Mexico, but the most famous is Maya civilization (descendants of Maya people still live in Mexico), and some of the best ruins you can visit in Mexico come from this period, but you can find in the country other ruins built for example by Zapotecs or Aztecs only to name a few.
Until today, ruins in Mexico are shrouded in mysteries, and we still do not know everything when it comes to their purpose or history even when talking about the most famous ones, and we don't mention those which still hasn't been excavated.
We traveled more than one month around Mexico and visited quite many ruins, but we would have needed decades to explore them all. During the time we allocated for Mexico, we tried to see the best and also the most diverse ruins the country has to offer.
That's why we traveled to Chichen Itza, the must-visit and probably the world's most famous Mayan ruins, to Palenque ruins hidden deep in the jungle, to almost forgotten and off-the-beaten-path ruins such as Edzna ruins, or two ruins built by different cultures, Teotihuacan and Monte Alban.
Here's the list of the must-visit ruins in Mexico you should without a doubt put on your travel itinerary.
Coba Ruins are one of the most visited Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula for three reasons.
First, the location of the site is perfect because Coba is only a short drive from both resort town Tulum and the colonial city of Valladolid. Second, the ruins and the settings are simply stunning - the ruins are in the jungle, and you still can see how roots and lianas try to swallow the structures and take over the rule, and this place actually reminded us a lot the most famous Mayan ruin in Guatemala, Tikal. Third, only a short drive by car or a quick ride by bike there are three cenotes where you can swim and cool off after the half-day walking around Coba Ruins.
Well, there might be one more reason why to visit Coba ruins, and for some travelers, it is the highlight - it is possible to climb to one of the highest pyramids to get a perfect view of the surroundings.
The site is quite spread, and although we had no problem to cover all trails on foot, by far the most popular way how to explore the ruins is to rent a bike and travel between points of interest faster.
Our Tip: Visiting Coba ruins would not be complete without swimming in cenotes. Read our guide on how to get to Choo-Ha, Tamcach-Ha, and Multun-Ha cenotes.
When you decide to get to Coba Ruins, you can do it easily from Tulum independently you only have to take an early morning direct bus or take a guided tour from Tulum.
Probably none of the Mayan ruins was built on a more stunning place than Tulum Ruins, the famous walled city.
Perched atop a 12-meter high cliff overlooking the rough Carribean Sea, Maya people for sure knew how to choose the eye-catching setting for their city. Although Tulum ruins were the smallest archeological site we visited, and it for sure was not that historically important as Chichen Itza or Uxmal, because of its proximity to the resort town Tulum (and generally all cities along Riviera Maya) and the photogenic location, it was definitely the most crowded site, so we recommend you to come either early before tour buses arrive or later in the afternoon.
Tulum city was built quite late, compared to other sites, in the 13th century, and the city was an important transportation hub and trading center. Despite its small size, you can find here many interesting structures and even more iguanas lazing in the sun.
Our Tip: When staying in Tulum, it is super-easy to get to the ruins, as you can either take a colectivo, rent a bike, or even walk (we decided to jog both ways), and we recommend you to pay more for an organized tour only when you want to get more information and learn about this place or if you are staying outside Tulum and want to get to the ruins directly from your hotel without having to use public transport.
There is probably no need to introduce Chichen Itza as this site is a synonym for Mayan ruins, and the massive El Castillo Pyramid standing in the middle of the main courtyard is one of the most photographed landmarks in the world.
Chichen Itza is undoubtedly the most popular Mayan ruin in the world and it is the must-visit place when traveling on the Yucatan Peninsula, but honestly, we think it is worth it to visit Chichen Itza even when your itinerary is not revolving around beaches and hotel resorts the peninsula has aplenty and even when you don’t plan on spending much time in this part of Mexico.
Some people we met on the road told us they were quite disappointed by Chichen Itza, but we think the crucial thing when visiting this particular archeological site is to set your expectations, which is sometimes not that easy when you pay an entrance fee which is far from being insignificant. When you accept the fact that this is the top tourist attraction in Mexico and overlook the hoards of people and vendors inside the complex, you must enjoy the visit to the fullest and walk around the structures in awe as the pyramids, ball courts, columns and other structures are truly magnificent.
Chichen Itza can be easily visited from any city on the Yucatan Peninsula, we used Valladolid as our base, but it is not uncommon to travel to the pyramids from Merida, Tulum, Playa del Carmen or Cancun.
Where to Stay before Visiting Chichen Itza | Chichen Itza: Mayaland Hotel & Bungalows | Valladolid: Le Muuch Hotel | Tulum: XscapeTulum | Cancun: The Royal Caribbean - An All Suites Resort | Playa del Carmen: Antera Hotel & Residences | Merida: Casa Del Maya Bed & Breakfast
Tours to Chichen Itza | In case you don't have own transport and do not feel like traveling by public bus, you can take one of the numerous tours generally from every city on the Yucatan Peninsula. One of the most popular tours is a sunrise tour which allows you to enjoy the site without crowds or the day tour which includes the visit of Chichen Itza, Valladolid, and cenotes.
The least touristy ruin we saw in Mexico was Edzna Ruins close to a colonial city of Campeche, and if you want to experience the absolutely serene and peaceful day, this is exactly where you should head, but rather sooner than later, before the word about the beautiful ancient city spread out.
We could not believe our luck, that when we entered the archeological site, we found out we were completely alone in the complex, and the situation did not change for an entire hour, so we could sit on the ruins, absorb the magnificent views and take as many photos from as many angles we wanted.
If you are either in Campeche or in Merida (the drive from Merida is longer but doable), one-day trip to Edzna Ruins should be on your itinerary. The absolute highlight apart from escaping the crowds is the impressive Pyramid of the Five Floors standing on the main square. As the name suggests the structure has five floors with several livable quarters, and in the middle is a wide staircase leading to the top. Although it is possible to climb most of the structures and buildings in Edzna Ruins, you cannot climb to the top of this pyramid. On the other hand, we think it is much better to look at it than look from it.
Edzna Ruins are one of those many which have not been yet been fully excavated, and you can walk to the back part of the site and see how the ruins looked like before the place was (re)discovered at the beginning of the 20th century.
Our Tip: When you are in Campeche short on time, you can take a tour and combine visiting of three ruins in the area in only one day, Edzna, Kabah, and Uxmal.
Where to stay in Campeche | Budget: Hostal Casa Allende | Mid-range: Hotel Socaire | Luxury: Hacienda Puerta Campeche a Luxury Collection Hotel
Uxmal Ruins is a very impressive site only 80 kilometers from Merida, and we must admit we enjoyed this place even more than Chichen Itza, but cannot exactly explain why.
Uxmal Ruins is a well-known place, so you will meet here many other tourists as well, but vendors cannot enter the site, and we had a feeling that we could walk around much more freely, without being rushed, plus the most awe-inspiring structure at Uxmal, Pyramid of Magician was one of our favorites we've ever seen.
Uxmal was the most powerful between 7 AD and 9 AD, during this time almost 25 000 people lived on-site, and at that time Uxmal was similarly powerful and important such as Chichen Itza because it had a great position on a trading path. The importance and the past grandeur of the ancient city can be told by the architecture which is represented by the Puuc style well-known for the area.
Except for walking around, you can also climb narrow steep steps to the top of the great pyramid, from where you can better appreciate how Maya people built their cities.
When staying in Merida, getting to Uxmal ruins is simple as there is a direct bus to the ruins and back, but if you prefer even easier way how to enjoy this one-day trip, you can take a tour.
Mexico is not only the Yucatan Peninsula, but other parts of the country also offer wonderful things to do.
One of the often-overlooked states is Chiapas, which is one of the poorest regions in the country, but Maya people left their trace here as well. Despite the fact, the Chiapas state is usually not on travelers' itineraries, and the safety situation has worsened here lately, there is at least one reason why to take a detour to this part of Mexico - Palenque Ruins.
Palenque Ruins has impressive architecture, and the site is surrounded by jungle, so when visiting early in the morning, you can hear the forest waking up and the echoing sound of howler monkeys is something you will never forget. It is possible to explore thoroughly almost all structures within the complex except for the crown jewel of the place, Temple of the Inscriptions, the burial pyramid which got its name because of the second-longest inscription carved into the stone in Mexico. To get the best photos, we suggest arriving early in the morning when the light is soft, also when visiting early, you will beat the tours arriving usually from San Cristobal de las Casas a bit later.
In case you have only San Cristobal on your itinerary, you can visit Palenque ruins with an organized tour altogether with waterfalls.
Our Tip: When in Palenque, you can take a half-day trip to Agua Azul Waterfalls.
The birthplace of the Gods alias Teotihuacan is another must-visit ruins in Mexico.
Sitting only 50 kilometers from Mexico City, it should not surprise you that it is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Mexico by both locals and foreigners. Teotihuacan was once the biggest ancient city in Mesoamerica, but until today historians and archeologists cannot say who built Teotihuacan, we also do not know why the city lost its powers, but we know it was partially burnt and Aztecs who came centuries later gave the site its present name.
The city of Teotihuacan is large, and there is absolutely no shade, so be ready for some serious walking under the harsh sun. Two must-see sights in Teotihuacan are two pyramids, some of the largest structures in Mexico, Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. You can climb narrow rickety stone steps to reach viewing platforms on the top of the pyramids to get a sense of how incredible the city was and still is.
It is easy to travel from Mexico City to Teotihuacan by public transport on a one-day trip, or you can take a guided tour.
Our Tip: If possible, try to plan your visit to Teotihuacan on any other day than Sunday as Mexican citizens have free entry on that day, and the site can get easily crowded.
According to archeologists, Monte Alban was founded in 500 BC, and during centuries the city became the capital of Zapotecs culture and one of the most important and largest cities in Mesoamerica at that time. The city had its peak between 200 - 600 AD when almost 35 000 people lived there, but it lost powers in 800 AD, and the site was abandoned only to be found by Mixtec people later, who used it as a sacred burial site.
It is possible to see a clear influence of Teotihuacan culture here, which gives us evidence that those two cultures were in contact, and Zapotecs were also one of the first cultures with clearly visible differences between the upper class and lower class who lived on the sides of the hill while the elite lived on the top.
Thanks to its position near Oaxaca, Monte Alban is not an unknown site, on the other hand, it doesn't get that many visitors as we had expected, so wandering around the site was pleasant enough. There are plenty of options on how to get to Monte Alban Ruins. You can take a tour, shuttle bus or a taxi.
Our Tip: When planning your Mexico itinerary, stay in Oaxaca two or three days, and except for admiring the city's architecture and visiting Monte Alban ruins, take also a one-day trip to Hierve el Agua, a petrified waterfall.
PACKING ESSENTIALS FOR VISITING RUINS IN MEXICO
It does not matter what ruins you are going to visit they have one thing in common - you can often expect hot weather between November to April, especially in the afternoon, and there is no shade inside the archeological sites. From May to October, you can expect showers later during the day, but temperatures still remain the same.
Here are several things you should pack with you when visiting ruins during both dry and wet season.
Our Tip: Ruins in Mexico are often near cenotes, where you can take a dip after all day exploring, so do not forget to pack your swimsuit.
Straw Hat for Him & for Her | Sunscreen | Sunglasses for Him & for Her | Filtered Water Bottle | Runners for Him & for Her | Daypack for Him & for Her | Rain Poncho | Canon M50 | Swimsuit for Him & for Her
Have we inspired you to travel to Mexico and visit all of the unique and must-see ruins in the country?
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