Best Mexico Ruins - Maya Ruins of Becan

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Nestled in the jungles of Mesoamerica, the rediscovered ruins of Maya, Aztec and Zapotec cities stand as monuments to the power and knowledge of these ancient civilizations.  How many of these best Mexico ruins have you visited, and which are on your bucket list?

If you’re like me, ruins check off an important part of your travel diet.  Only one destination has sated my appetite for crumbling ancient ruins: Angkor Wat.  After three days there, the more than 1,000 ruins of  the Angkor complex led me to declare I was “templed out.”  I didn’t see them all by any stretch of the imagination, but it felt like I had!

In contrast, the best Mexico ruins dot the landscape throughout the country.  This makes it easier to add them on to other itineraries including Mexico’s stunning beaches, colorful colonial cities, and natural landscapes.  Some of these ruins are difficult to get to, but I’ve got tips to help with that!

In this guide, I’ll share information on the top archeological sites in Mexico: their history, highlights, and reasons for visiting, as well as information for getting there including the best Mexico ruins tours.  So whether you’re looking for day trips from Cancun or Mexico City, or planning a ruins road trip, this guide will help you explore all the best ruins in Mexico.

Throughout the guide, I’ll also share virtual tours and multimedia experiences for exploring Mexico’s best ruins from home!

Best Mexico Ruins - Maya Ruins of Becan

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In this guide on Mexico Archeological Ruins:

Quintana Roo Ruins | Yucatan Ruins | Campeche Ruins | Chiapas Ruins | Oaxaca Ruins | Mexico City & Central Mexico Ruins | Other Central America Ruins

Map of Central America archaeological sites, including Mexico’s best ruins color-coded by state. Click on each icon to open a photo and location of the site. Or click on the top left arrow for the full list.


Mexico Ruins Vocabulary

“Wow” other ruin explorers when you roll up already knowing these archaeology terms:

Ball Courts: these focal points of Mesoamerican cities are rectangular playfields with sloping walls on the two longest sides.  Found in cultures throughout the region, ballgames were played for religious, social and political reasons.

Stelae: (singular – stele) tall wood or stone slabs with carved or sculpted surfaces.  At Maya sites, these are usually made from stone and commemorate events or explain the function of the building they mark.

Cenotes: water-filled sinkholes formed when limestone bedrock collapses.  Some are open pools, and others are caverns.  Nowadays they’re great swimming holes; but the Maya made offerings to the gods at cenotes, believing that they were portals to the underworld.

Sacbeob: (singular – sacbe) roughly translated to “white way,” sacbeob are raised, limestone stucco-paved roads built by the Maya that connect temples and structures within ceremonial centers.  A few connect to other communities in the region.

Ancient Mesoamerican Ballgame

Learn more about the ancient ballgame with a Google Arts & Culture feature


Best Ruins in Quintana Roo State

The Maya ruins in Mexico’s state of Quintana Roo are a must-see if you’re visiting the region. Well-run tours with English-speaking guides are plentiful, which makes seeing the ruins here easy.  In particular, check out Coba where you can climb the main temple, and Tulum for its spectacular seaside setting. 

Best Mexico Ruins - Mayan Ruins of Tulum

Tulum

The Maya ruins at Tulum are iconic: perched at the edge of a high cliff, with sweeping views of the turquoise Caribbean waters and white sands below.  Tulum was one of the last cities built and lived in by the Maya, dating to 1200 – 1450 CE, although the area was inhabited earlier.  It served as a center of trade, where both sea and land trade routes converged.  

Tulum was walled on three sides, with the fourth protected by the sea cliff; in fact, Tulum means “wall.”  The original name of the city might have been “Zamas” meaning dawn, since it faces east and sunrises here are certainly stunning! Surviving ceremonial buildings at Tulum include the main temple overlooking the sea, called El Castillo, and several others including one with frescoes inside.

Tulum is a must-see Mexico ruins site, because of its dramatic location and sweeping views.  You can also swim on the private beach, accessible by a long staircase from the cliff, and relax with the enormous resident iguanas. 

Visit Tulum on a day trip from Cancun.  Or to avoid the crowds, stay in Tulum or Akumal and go early in the day or later in the afternoon to avoid tourist buses.  Be sure to bring a bathing suit, towel, sunscreen and hat (there’s little shade, and the white sacbeob paths reflect a ton of light!).  Bring cash to pay. 

Getting to the Tulum Ruins

Check out my Tulum guides for all the info you need on planning a trip: I’ve got handy tips for visiting on a budget or advice on the best beachfront hotels. Or if you’ll day trip from Cancun, here’s a good option that includes the Tulum ruins and Dos Ojos cenote or one for Tulum, Coba and a cenote.

Website | Hours 8AM – 5PM | Cost: 80 pesos; extra for parking and the train to the entrance

Facilities: Restrooms | Find a hotel in Tulum or Cancun or grab my hotel best tips here

Can you climb the ruins: No | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Best Mexico Ruins - Mayan Ruins of Coba

Coba

Coba is one of the first Mexico ruins I visited, and it’s still a favorite.  Exploring its jungle setting and sprawling complex gives you serious Indiana Jones vibes.  Coba sat at the nexus of the largest network of sacbeob in the Maya world, which connected structures within Coba as well as neighboring cities.  The name Coba in Mayan means “waters stirred by the wind,” perhaps due to its place on two large lagoons.

Coba was estimated to have more than 50,000 residents at its peak.  It flourished between 600-900 CE, and was abandoned around the time of the Spanish colonization.  Like all Maya sites, the reason is unknown; although leading theories are drought, disease, overpopulation and destruction of the environment due to overfarming. It’s likely that a combination of factors led to the Maya downfall.

Coba is notable for several reasons.  First, it has a large number of surviving stelae with images and Maya hieroglyphic writing, which give insight into important aspects of Mayan rituals, politics, and history.  Women are depicted in positions of power in some of the stelae scenes.  Also, the largest temple of Coba, Nohoch Mul, can be climbed: it’s 137 feet high (42m), with expansive views over the jungle.  

How to Get To Coba

Coba is only about 45 minutes from Tulum, and can be combined with cenotes in the area like Choo-Ha.  The site is large, so it’s easiest to get around by bike which can be rented onsite.  Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes (I love these!), bug spray and a hat, as well as a bathing suit and towel if you plan to visit cenotes. Bring cash to pay.  Or here’s a good tour from Cancun to Coba and Tulum, one that includes snorkeling, or a Coba sunset tour.

Website | Hours 8AM – 5PM | Cost: 80 pesos; extra for parking and bicycle rental

Facilities: Restrooms, restaurants, limited hotels | Find a hotel

Can you climb the ruins: Yes | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Best Mexico Ruins - Mayan Ruins of Muyil

Muyil (Chunyaxche)

The Muyil ruins are located about 15 miles south of Tulum in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere.  Set deep in the lush jungle, Muyil is less impressive than Tulum, but also less crowded and touristy.  Ruin-lovers in the area could check it out on a day trip to the biosphere.  The architecture here is known as “Peten” style, meaning similar construction and design as the ruins at Tikal in Guatemala.

Muyil was one of the earliest Maya cities on the coast, settled as early as 300 BCE.  It is situated on the Sian Ka’an lagoon, a name meaning “where the sky is born.”  (If you visit and see the beauty of the biosphere, you’ll understand how it got this name!)  There is a boardwalk through the jungle that takes you to a lookout over the lagoon.  

How to Get to Muyil

You can take a colectivo (shared van) from Tulum, arrange a taxi for the day, or take a tour that combines the ruins with other activities. Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes (I love these!), bug spray and a hat, as well as a bathing suit and towel if you plan to swim.  Bring cash to pay.

Tours: Check out this tour of Sian Ka’an and Muyil from Tulum or see Muyil and an ancient Maya trade route before relaxing on a canal float. 

Website | Hours 8AM – 5PM | Cost: 45 pesos; extra 50 pesos for the boardwalk 

Facilities: Restrooms | Find a Tulum hotel or grab my hotel best tips here

Can you climb the ruins: Yes | Can you hire a guide onsite: No


More Quintana Roo-ins  (Get it?)

If you’re in Quintana Roo and not templed-out yet, check out a few more Maya archeological sites:

Xelha (pronounced “shel-ha”): located across the highway from the popular Xel-Ha waterpark between Tulum and Akumal, this small site has visible murals and a cenote you can visit.

Chacchoben, Kohunlich, and Dzibanche and Kinichna: these ruins are located near Chetumal, Mahahual, and Bacalar.  Kohunlich is notable for its Temple of the Masks stairway, which is flanked by huge humanized stucco masks.  All are popular day trips from the cruise port in Chetumal.  For a ruins tour option from Bacalar, check out this itinerary for Maya sites and nature photography.

What are colectivos?

Grab a guide to taking shared van colectivos between Cancun and Tulum here.


Best Ruins in Yucatan State

Mexico’s best ruins in Yucatan state are some of the most famous, and several have UNESCO status.  Legendary Chichen Itza is here with its iconic pyramid and ball court.  Other Mayan sites include Ek Balam, noted for its well-preserved sculptures, and Uxmal, with its intricate carved facades.  They are easy to visit on day trips, with many good guided tour options.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is the celebrity entry on this list: it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was voted one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.  It’s also one of the most-visited tourist sites in Mexico; try not to visit during school holidays and the equinoxes!  

Chichen Itza was at its peak from 750 to 1200 CE as a center of trade and culture.  It fell into rapid decline around 1200, and was abandoned around 1500 at the time of Spanish colonization. Chichen Itza’s blend of architecture, with stylistic influences from central Mexico and other Maya regions, make it an important Mesoamerican ruin site and a must-see for ruin enthusiasts.

Surviving monuments at Chichen Itza include the main temple, the Pyramid of Kukulkan (also known as El Castillo); the Great Ball Court, the largest of its kind in Mesoamerica; El Caracol, an astronomical observatory; and the Temple of Warriors, an enormous temple with hundreds of stone columns.  You can also see the Sacred Cenote, where the Maya made offerings of jade, gold, and even sacrifices.

At the spring and autumn equinoxes, the Maya believed that the serpent god Kukulcan descended to Earth. The pyramid at Chichen Itza dedicated to him creates the illusion of this at the equinox.

 How to Get to Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza can be seen on a full day trip from other cities in the region like Cancun, Merida, or Tulum.  Itineraries often include a visit to nearby cenote Ik-Kil, which gives a welcome chance to cool off after a visit to the ruins.  Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes (I love these!), and a hat, as well as a bathing suit and towel if you plan to visit the cenote.

Chichen Itza Tours from the Mayan Riviera and Merida

Check out this all-inclusive tour of Chichen Itza, Valladolid and Cenote Ik-Kil, or this itinerary that includes Coba, or even a sunrise Chichen Itza tour to beat the crowds.  If you want to add on the Xel-Ha park, there’s an all-inclusive option that also goes to Xcaret cenote.  If you’re based in Merida, here’s a good Chichen Itza itinerary.

Website | Hours 8AM – 4PM | Cost: 480 pesos; extra for parking

Facilities: Restrooms, restaurants, lockers, hotels | Find a hotel or get my expert Tulum hotel tips

Can you climb the ruins: No | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes

Chichen Itza Virtual Tour

Explore Chichen Itza virtually from home with a feature from Google and the British Museum and also a 360-degree virtual Chichen Itza tour from National Geographic


Best Mexico Ruins - Maya Ruins of Ek Balam
On a clear day, you can see the temples of Chichen Itza and Coba on the horizon from the top of Ek Balam’s Acropolis, which is 90 feet (30m) high.

Ek Balam

The lesser-known Maya site of Ek Balam is about 15 miles north of the city of Valladolid, and means “black jaguar” in Mayan.  It’s notable for its well-preserved sculptures and stonework, panoramic views, and a four-sided entry arch.   

First settled in 100 BCE, most of the buildings at Ek Balam were constructed around 600-900 CE.  Must-see sights here include the Acropolis, restored stucco facades, and views of the jungle.  There is also a cenote, X’canche, where you can cool off after your visit.

Get there: Ek Balam can be seen on day trip from other cities in the region like Valladolid, Cancun, Merida, or Tulum.  You can take a taxi or colectivo from Valladolid, or book a tour with transportation.  Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes (I love these!), bug spray, and a hat, as well as a bathing suit and towel if you plan to visit the cenote.  Bring cash to pay.

Tour options: These are itineraries that include Chichen Itza or Ek Balam and cenotes.  Another popular day trip in this area is Rio Lagartos – check out my guide here

Photo caption: on a clear day, you can see the temples of Chichen Itza and Coba on the horizon from the top of Ek Balam’s Acropolis, which is 90 feet (30m) high.

Website | Hours 8AM – 4PM | Cost: 480 pesos; extra for the cenote

Facilities: Restrooms | Find a Valladolid hotel or check out the cool Airbnb where I stayed

Can you climb the ruins: Yes | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Best Mexico Ruins - Maya Ruins of Uxmal
The Pyramid of the Magician is Uxmal’s largest structure at over 115 feet tall (35m). Its western stairway faces the setting sun at the summer solstice.

Uxmal

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Uxmal (pronounced “oosh mahl”) is one of the most important Maya archaeological sites.  It is built in the “Puuc” architectural style of the region, with building facades made of plain blocks on the lower part of structures, and intricate mosaics on the upper sections.  Puuc design also used a concrete core for support beneath the veneer blocks.

Founded around 500 CE, Uxmal flourished as a regional capital from 850-950, then started to decline.  Since the Spaniards didn’t build a city there, it was largely abandoned after 1500.

Uxmal is about an hour south of Merida, and there are three other smaller ruins sites in the same area: Kabah, Labná and Sayil.  These sites share the UNESCO designation with Uxmal.  If you want to see a less crowded ruin that looks like a smaller version of Chichen Itza, Mayapan is also within an hour drive from Merida.

How to Get to Uxmal

Uxmal can be seen on a day trip from Merida or Valladolid.  You can take a bus or taxi from Merida and/or stay overnight and see all the ruins in this area. Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes, a hat and cash to pay. 

If looking for a tour, check out this tour to Uxmal and Kabah from Merida or this itinerary with the Loltun caves, Sayil, Xlapak and Labna.

Website | Hours 8AM – 5PM | Cost: 413 pesos

Facilities: Restrooms, restaurants, hotels | Find a hotel in Uxmal or Merida

Can you climb the ruins: Yes | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Dzibilchaltun

Located about 10 miles north of Merida, Dzibilchaltun is a small Maya site.  Dzibilchaltun is notable for its accompanying museum, beautiful cenote Xlacah, and its Temple of the Seven Dolls, named for small effigies discovered during excavation.

How to Get to Dzibilchaltun

Dzibilchaltun can be seen on a half day trip from Merida or Valladolid, or combine it with other sites in the region like Progreso.  You can take a colectivo or taxi from Merida, or book a tour like this itinerary that includes Progreso. Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes, a hat and cash to pay.

Website | Hours 8AM – 4/5PM | Cost: 250 pesos

Facilities: Restrooms, restaurant, lockers, museum | Find a hotel in Merida

Can you climb the ruins: Yes  | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes

Small Group Tours to See Maya Ruins

Want to visit the ruins of Central America but not sure where to start? A small group guided tour is a fun, easy, and cost-effective way to travel in Latin America, especially for solo or new travelers. Check out this trip with G Adventures to Mexico and Guatemala, or this longer Mexico – Guatemala – Belize itinerary from Intrepid Travel.  And if you’re not sure if group tours are for you, be sure to read this post! (Spoiler: they are!)

Affordable Small Group Tours

Ten years ago, on my first international trip for work, I fell in love with traveling.  I really wanted to …

Read more


Best Ruins in Campeche State

The Mexican state of Campeche has more than 1,000 registered archaeological sites.  Unlike the ruins of other states, though, they receive relatively few visitors due to their more remote locations.  The most-visited ruins are accessible mainly from two cities: from Bacalar on the east, and from the capital city of Campeche on the west coast.  The largest site, Calakmul, is set deep in a 2,800 square mile biosphere reserve.  All of this lets you explore the ruins at a slower pace and experience the power of their natural settings.  

Best Mexico Ruins - Maya Ruins of Calakmul

Calakmul

Hidden in the jungle of the Mexican state of Campeche, just 20 miles from the border with Guatemala, lies the Maya archeological site of Calakmul.  At its height, Calakmul was a major power and important Maya city. Calakmul is sometimes referred to as “The Kingdom of the Snake” due to their extensive use of a snake head sign as their emblem glyph.   Its well-preserved ruins and surrounding tropical forest ecosystem are now a UNESCO site.  

Calakmul is notable for one of the highest pyramids in the Mayan world at 148 feet (45 meters).  And you can climb it!  Calakmul also has the greatest number of stelae discovered (120). Calakmul’s location in a tropical forest means you’re likely to encounter a variety of flora and fauna including spider and howler monkeys, colorful wild turkeys, agoutis, coati, toucans, and green parrots.  Nearby there is also the smaller site of Balamku, known for a stunning preserved stucco frieze.

How to Get to Calakmul

Calakmul is remote, located well into the biosphere off the road.  To see the site, it’s easiest to stay overnight in the town of Xpuhil or near the entrance to Calakmul in Conhuas.  Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes, a hat and cash to pay.  Or check out this tour option that departs from Bacalar or Palenque.

Website | Hours 8AM – 5PM; enter by 3PM | Cost: Community, national park and ruin fees (paid separately) total around 180 pesos

Facilities: Restrooms | Find a hotel in Conhuas or Xpuhil

Can you climb the ruins: Yes  | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Best Mexico Ruins - Maya Ruins of Becan

Becan

Occupied since around 550 BCE, Becan grew in political, religious and economic importance until reaching its peak in 600-900 CE.  Fragments of trade goods indicate that it might even have traded with Teotihuacan outside Mexico City.  Becan is notable for being surrounded by a moat, the only one found in a Maya settlement.  For this reason, the archaeologists who rediscovered it gave it the modern Mayan name Becán, meaning “ravine or canyon formed by water.”

Its architectural style known as “Rio Bec” is characterized by a central tower flanked by two false, very steep towers.  This area is known as the Rio Bec region, named after other ruins discovered deep in the Calakmul reserve. The Rio Bec ruins themselves are quite remote; you would have to find a guide to take you via ATV due to very poor roads to the site.

Ruin lovers can check out the more accessible nearby sites of Xpuhil, Chicanna and Hormiguero in the same day.  They are all within about 15 miles (24km).  

How to Get to Becan

To visit Becan, it’s easiest to stay overnight in the town of Xpuhil or near the entrance to Calakmul in Conhuas.  Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes, a hat and cash to pay.

Website | Hours 8AM – 5PM | Cost: 60 pesos

Facilities: Restrooms | Find a hotel in Conhuas or Xpuhil

Can you climb the ruins: Yes  | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Best Mexico Ruins - Maya Ruins of Edzna

Edzna

Edzna is an impressive Maya site, with a mixture of architectural styles spanning years from 300 BCE to 1200 CE. The main temple is built on a wide platform and has five stories, totaling 165 feet high (50m).  A cluster of structures known as the “Old Sorceress Group” includes a Temple of the Witch. Other notable ruins include a 32 stelae, a ball court, an astronomical observatory, and a temple with well-preserved masks of the sun god.

Edzna was an influential political and economic regional capital.  The name Edzná comes from “House of the Itzas,” which suggests that the city was influenced by the family of the Itza name before they founded Chichen Itzá. The architectural style of this site shows signs of the Puuc style, even though it is far from those sites.

How to Get to Edzna

Edzna can be visited on a day trip from the pretty colonial capital city of Campeche (also called Campeche), which is about an hour away, or here’s a tour option from Merida that includes Campeche.  Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes, a hat and cash to pay.

Website | Hours 8AM – 4/5PM | Cost: 250 pesos

Facilities: Restrooms | Find a hotel in Campeche or check out the spectacular Hacienda Uayamon

Can you climb the ruins: Yes  | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Best Chiapas Ruins

Deep in the mountainous Chiapas state, there are two must-see Maya sites accessible from the city of San Cristobal de las Casas. Here you will find Palenque, one of the most mythical Maya sites and best ruins in Mexico.  Other ruins in this region are more remote, including one that is accessible only by boat!  Travel in Chiapas is not without risk; I visited here on a small group tour, and recommend checking travel advisories if you go without a guide.  Travel on roads after dark is not recommended.

Palenque

A dramatic forest setting and heavily-adorned buildings make Palenque one of my favorite Maya sites.  I arrived here early in the morning just as fog was lifting, which cemented its magical status in my mind.  This site contains some of the finest Maya architecture, sculpture, carvings and roof combs (decoration on the tops of temples) that the Maya produced. Much of the history of Palenque has been reconstructed from reading the preserved carvings and hieroglyphic inscriptions on its monuments.  

Palenque reached its peak between the years 500 and 700 CE but declined sharply thereafter, and was lost to the jungle for hundreds of years.  It is a large site, encompassing around 50 square miles, only about 10% of which has been excavated.  The many structures here include temples, terraces, plazas, burial grounds, and a ball court.  You can climb some of the ruins for impressive views of the most famous temple called The Temple of the Inscriptions.  Also don’t miss the hiking trails through the jungle with waterfalls and wildlife including monkeys.

How to Get to Palenque

Palenque can be visited on a day trip from San Cristobal de las Casas, or stay at a hotel near the site in Palenque. To see some of the ruins, it might be required to have a guide. Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes, bug repellent, a hat and cash to pay.  Be aware of security conditions in the area and do not travel on roads after dark.

Tours: From San Cristobal, here’s an itinerary for Palenque with the Agua Azul waterfalls.

Website | Hours 8AM – 5PM | Cost: 80 pesos

Facilities: Restrooms, museum, cafe, gift shop  | Find a hotel in San Cristobal, Palenque or check out the secluded Hotel Boutique Quinta Chanabna a few miles from the site

Can you climb the ruins: Yes  | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes

Virtual Tour of Palenque

Take a virtual visit to Palenque with Google Arts & Culture, with photos both modern photos and pictures taken in 1891 by British explorer Aflred Maudslay.


Best Mexico Ruins - Bonampak
Bonampak frescoes discovered in 1946.

Bonampak

The explorer and Mesoamerican anthropologist Jacques Soustelle called Bonampak “a pictorial encyclopedia of a Mayan city,” due to its extraordinary murals.  These painted frescoes depict scenes of Maya life including rituals and warfare and are in astonishingly good condition.  They are meant to be read together, to tell a story. Depending on the number of other visitors, though, your time to view the murals may be very limited.  Be sure to take photos (without flash, of course) so you can pore over them later!

Hidden deep in the Lacandon jungle, Bonampak is a small site.  Other than the frescoes, its main features are a Grand Plaza with its surrounding structures and the Acropolis. The site is built among a series of low terraced hills, with the Acropolis built into the hillside itself.

How to Get to Bonampak

I have not visited Bonampak yet, but other travelers report that you cannot drive into the archaeological park itself.  It seems that there is a “shuttle service” (and I use this term very loosely) provided by locals for the last step, for around 150 pesos a person round trip.  The road conditions are very poor, so it’s probably best to avoid wear and tear on a rented vehicle anyway. (Also it doesn’t seem that you can refuse and still get to the site!)  Chiapas state has the highest poverty rate in Mexico; if you want to see this site, just budget extra for “last mile” transportation and be aware of this arrangement.  Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes, bug repellent, a hat and cash to pay.  Be aware of security conditions in the area and do not travel on roads after dark.

Alternatively, you can book a tour from Palenque like this one to see both Bonampak and Yaxcihilan.

Website | Hours 8AM – 5PM | Cost: 70 pesos plus see note on “shuttle service” above

Facilities: Restrooms, museum | Find a hotel in San Cristobal, Palenque or Lacanja near the site

Can you climb the ruins: Yes  | Can you hire a guide onsite: No


Best Mexico Ruins - Maya Ruins of Yaxchilan

Yaxchilan

Perched on the western bank of the Usumacinta River, Yaxchilán (“the place of green stones”) lay along the trade route between the two great Maya cities of Palenque and Tikal.  To get here, you’ll need to take a boat along the river that forms part of the border between Mexico and Guatemala. 

Notable for its temples and beautiful carvings, Yaxchilan has acropolises with temples, grand staircases, and a palace.  Local legends say that a headless sculpture of a god here would bring about the end of the world if his head is replaced.  (So don’t move any stone heads when you go!)  

How to Get to Yaxchilan

Yaxchilan is accessible by boat from the pier in Frontera Corozal, or take a tour from Palenque to both Yaxchilan and Bonampak.  Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes, bug repellent, a hat and cash to pay.  Be aware of security conditions in the area and do not travel on roads after dark.

Website | Hours 8AM – 5PM | Cost: 60 pesos plus boat fee

Facilities: Restrooms | Find a hotel in Palenque, Lacanja or Frontera Corozal

Can you climb the ruins: Yes  | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Best Ruins in Oaxaca State

The state of Oaxaca, located in Southwestern Mexico, was home to the Zapotec and Mixtec people among others, and contains ruins from these pre-Columbian civilizations.  The two most well-known sites are easy to visit on day trips from the state capital Oaxaca de Juarez (Oaxaca City), a destination rich in indigenous culture and history.  Monte Alban and Oaxaca are a UNESCO site.

Best Mexico Ruins - Zapotec Ruins of Monte Alban
View of Monte Alban central plaza from top of the south platform.

Monte Alban 

One of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, Monte Alban in Oaxaca flourished for over a thousand years from 500 BCE to 850 CE.  It was the socio-political and economic center of the Zapotec people.  Monte Alban is an elaborate site, with plazas, pyramids, a ball court, canals, and tombs.  As the Zapotec culture declined in the fourteenth century, areas of Monte Alban were then occupied by Mixtec peoples.

Designated a UNESCO site in conjunction with the city of Oaxaca, Monte Alban is notable for its architecture which bears similarities to the Teotihuacan ruins near Mexico City.   Although never as large as Teotihuacan, there is evidence of trade between the two cities.  Its hieroglyphs also contain some of the earliest writing in Mesoamerica. 

If you visit Oaxaca, you must visit Monte Alban to appreciate the history and culture of the region.  Climb the south platform for dramatic views of ruins and the valley against the backdrop of the Sierra Norte and Sierra Sur mountains.  Be sure to check out my guides to visiting Oaxaca for Dia de los Muertos and all of the top Oaxaca sights.

How to Get to Monte Alban

Monte Alban can be seen on a day trip from Oaxaca. Take a shuttle from the city, or book a tour with a guide to fully appreciate the site (and avoid the shuttle delays as it stops colectivo-style for passengers along the route).  Be sure to bring sunscreen, water, suitable shoes, a hat and cash to pay.  Here’s a good Monte Alban half-day tour from Oaxaca or this full-day Monte Alban itinerary that also includes Arrazola, Coyotepec and Cuilapam.

Website | Hours 8AM – 5PM | Cost: 80 pesos

Facilities: Restrooms, museum, restaurant, gift shop | Get my guide to hotels in Oaxaca

Can you climb the ruins: Yes  | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Best Mexico Ruins - Zapotec Ruins of Mitla

Mitla

As the former cultural and religious center of the Zapotec people, Mitla is another important archaeological site in Oaxaca.  Mitla began to gain prominence as the capital Monte Alban declined, reaching its peak in 700-900 CE.  Between 900 and 1500 the Mixtecs moved down from northern Oaxaca and took possession of Mitla; the Mixtec influence is most pronounced on the remaining ruins.  It is well preserved due to the cold, dry climate of the Oaxaca Valley.  

The most important architectural feature of Mitla halls are carvings, either carved into the stone or built up of individual stone pieces like a mortarless mosaic, which cover their exterior walls.  The site is most famous today for its huge rectangular building, the Hall of the Columns, which is richly decorated in these geometric relief carvings.  When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they built the Church of San Pablo above one of the original platforms to keep the gods of the underworld trapped in the ground. 

How to Get To Mitla

Mitla can be seen on a day trip from Oaxaca by bus. Or you can take a tour; Mitla itineraries usually include other sites in the region.  

Tours: There are many options! You can see both Monte Alban and Mitla in one day, or take a tour combining Mitla with Hierve el Agua waterfall, Santa Maria de Tule, and Teotitlan de Valle.  This itinerary adds on a mezcal tasting at the end of the day.

Website | Hours 8AM – 5PM | Cost: 75 pesos

Facilities: Restrooms  | Get my guide to hotels in Oaxaca

Can you climb the ruins: You can climb down into some of the tombs 

Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Mexico City Ruins & Central Mexico Ruins

Unlike the Maya ruins found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, the ruins surrounding Mexico’s capital city were built by different civilizations – Teotihuacanos, Toltecs, Aztecs and more.  Teotihuacan is here, possibly the largest and most influential city in the history of the New World.  It’s easy to see the most significant ruins on day trips.  When I visited, I was surprised to find ruins in the center of Mexico City!

Best Mexico Ruins - Aztec Ruins of Tenochitlan - Templo Mayor

Tenochitlan – Templo Mayor

The ancient city of Tenochitlan was built upon a lake in what is now Mexico City by the Mexica people. This founding fulfilled one of their ancient prophecies.  Also known as the Aztecs, the Mexica were great warriors and formed a regional alliance in order to conquer their most powerful rivals.  By the time the Spanish arrived, the Aztecs ruled over as many as 5 to 6 million people in the region. The capital of Tenochitlan alone had over 200,000 inhabitants and was a huge center of trade.

By 1521, the Spaniards had conquered the Aztecs by alliances with their enemies, superior weapons, and the help of smallpox.  They razed the city and built the capital of New Spain in its place.

Excavations on Tenochitlan’s Templo Mayor began in 1978 after utility workers unearthed ruins.  Today, excavations continue providing insight into life during the height of Aztec rule.  Mexico City’s Zocalo is located at the site of Tenochtitlan’s original central plaza and market.  Be sure also to see the Aztec Sun Stone, which was discovered here in 1790 and is on display in the National Museum of Anthropology.

Fascinated by the Aztecs? Learn about Aztec beliefs and the meaning of the Sun Stone.

How to Get to Templo Mayor and Tenochitlan

The ruins of the Templo Mayor are located in the city center.  I had an amazing Mexico City historical center Airbnb experience that included a short visit to the ruins, but you could also book a private tour with the historian and guide Pau.  

Website | Hours 9AM – 5PM | Cost: 80 pesos | Find a hotel in the historic center of Mexico City

Can you climb the ruins: No | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Best Mexico Ruins - Teotihuacan
View of Teotihuacan’s Avenue of the Dead from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon. The Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan’t largest structure, is on the left.

Teotihuacan

Located about 25 miles north of Mexico City, Teotihuacan is Mexico’s most-visited archaeological site as well as a UNESCO Heritage Site.  Teotihuacan was built between 200 BCE and 600 CE, and became the largest and most populous city in Mesoamerica until its collapse around a hundred years later.  At its peak, it had more than 150,000 inhabitants.  The name of the civilization that built Teotihuacan is unknown; the city’s name was given by the Aztecs centuries later.

Teotihuacan is arranged in a grid layout that covers about 8 square miles (20 square kilometers). The main buildings are connected by the Avenue of the Dead, and include The Pyramid of the Moon, the Pyramid of the Sun, the Ciudadela (“Citadel”) and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (the Feathered Serpent).  

The Pyramid of the Sun is 216 feet high (66 m) and can be climbed; get there early to avoid the long line of ruin-climbers.  The Pyramid of the Moon provides an impressive view of the Avenue of the Dead.  A number of paintings and frescoes also survive, and there is an on-site museum that displays artifacts found during excavation as well as a model of the city.

Get there: Teotihuacan is accessible by public bus from Mexico City.  Or check out this itinerary with a professional photographer as guide, sunrise tour, sunset tour, or hot air balloon ride over Teotihuacan.


Best Mexico Ruins - Tula
Atlantes of Tula basalt sculptures

Tula

Another day trip from Mexico City, the city of Tula was an important regional center as the capital of the Toltec Empire.  The Toltecs and Tula flourished between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan.  The site is most known for the Atlantes of Tula, the enormous basalt sculptures of Toltec warriors, and the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl.

How to Get to Tula

Tula is located in Tula de Allende in Hidalgocan be seen on a day trip from Mexico City.  Most tours to Tula are private: check out this itinerary for both Tula and Teotihuacan, Tula and Teotihuacan with the Anthropology Museum, or Tula And Tepotzotlán.

Website | Hours 9AM – 5PM | Cost: 75 pesos 

Facilities: Restrooms, museum | Find a hotel in the historic center of Mexico City

Can you climb the ruins: Yes | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Puebla: The Great Pyramid of Cholula

In Puebla, Mexico you’ll find the Great Pyramid of Cholula, also known as Pirámide Tepanapa and Tlachihualtepetl (in indigenous Nahuatl).  It’s the largest ancient pyramid in the world by volume, but you wouldn’t know it: it’s so hidden under a hill that the Spanish built a church on top of it!

Constructed from 20 BCE to 900 CE, the pyramid is actually a number of successive pyramids on top of each other, with later civilizations building a temple on top of the one before.  Because the church on top of it now has its own historic significance, the pyramid has not been fully excavated and restored.  To date, however, 5 miles (8km) of tunnels have been excavated to explore the levels inside as well as some stairways, platforms, and altars.  A side of the pyramid has been reconstructed.

The architectural style of the building was linked closely to Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, although influences from temples on the Gulf of Mexico coast have been noted, including El Tajin.  The low, narrow tunnels are probably not for the claustrophobic, but Cholula offers a chance to go inside a pyramid!

How to Get to The Great Pyramid of Cholula

Buses run daily between Mexico City and Puebla.  From Mexico City, you can book a full-day tour to Puebla or check out this private tour

Website | Hours 9AM – 5PM | Cost: 80 pesos 

Facilities: Restrooms, museum | Find a hotel in the historic center of Mexico City or Puebla

Can you climb the ruins: Yes | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes


Best Mexico Ruins - El Tajin

El Tajin

Located near the Gulf coast of Mexico in the state of Veracruz lies the UNESCO Heritage Site of El Tajin.  The city reached its peak in 900 – 1300 CE and became the most important city in the region after the fall of Teotihuacan.  This is one of the best Mexico ruins sites, and a must-see for ruin aficionados!

The most famous structure at El Tajin is the Pyramid of the Niches.  At 65 feet (20 meters tall), it is made up of 7 terraces of decreasing size. Each of its four sides is covered with stacked rows of small niches formed from blocks of stone. There are 365 total, suggesting this pyramid was used to track the days of the year.  Other remaining structures include pyramids, platforms, stelae, and 17 ballcourts.

How to Get to El Tajin

Buses run daily between Mexico City and Papantla, then take a taxi to the site.  Or you take a day trip from Veracruz.

Website | Hours 9AM – 5PM | Cost: 80 pesos 

Facilities: Restrooms, museum | Find a hotel in the historic center of Mexico City or Puebla

Can you climb the ruins: No | Can you hire a guide onsite: Yes

Advice

Explore more of the Maya Civilization with “Meet the Maya” from Google Arts & Culture and the British Museum including virtual tours, cultural features and images from early expeditions.


Other Central America Ruins Sites

If ruins are your thing, or if you’ll be traveling elsewhere in Central America, the Maya civilization extended further south. 

Best Mexico Ruins - Sunrise at Tikal in Guatemala
Sunrise at Tikal in Guatemala

Best Maya Ruins in Guatemala

Tikal, El Mirador and Yaxha.  Tikal was one of the largest urban centers of the Maya, and is now a UNESCO Heritage site.  It can be visited from Flores, a quick flight from Guatemala City.  Be sure to stay a few days at Tikal so that you can climb Temple IV for sunrise!  

Yaxha can also be visited from Flores, but it is best to book a tour.  El Mirador is the most remote of the three: a tour is required.  Here are some good tour options for Guatemala ruins from Guatemala City and Flores.

Best Maya Ruins in Belize

Caracol and Lamanai.  Located near the Guatemalan border, the ancient Maya city of Caracol is the largest archeological site in Belize.  To get to both, it’s easiest to take tours: check out this option for Caracol with Rio Frio Cave and itinerary for Lamanai with a jungle river cruise.

Honduras Maya Ruins

Copán. Copan was the most southerly and also the highest of the Classic Maya centres, which today is a UNESCO site.  Get here via a tour from San Pedro Sula.

Maya Ruins in El Salvador

Joya de Ceren. This is an archaeological site in the Department of La Libertad in El Salvador. A UNESCO site, it contains the remains of a pre-hispanic farming village that was covered by a volcanic eruption in the seventh century CE.  Visit on a day trip from San Salvador, including this itinerary with Joya de Ceren, lakes and volcanoes.


Best Mexico Ruins - Teotihuacan - Temple of the Moon

Best Mexico Ruins Bucket List

I hope that this compilation of the best ruins in Mexico helps you with planning your adventures! Be sure to pin it for later so you always have my latest advice – I’ll update it periodically with tour recommendations and visit tips!

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Best Mexico Ruins - Mayan Ruins - Aztec Ruins

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Adrienne, The Haphazard Traveler

I used to be a hot travel mess, but I got better! I kept the name and now blog my best tips for culture and adventure travel from around the globe. Follow along for travel advice, destination info, and photography from faraway lands - and at home in Washington, D.C.

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