The Mayan archaeological sites in Mexico are a spectacular historical heirloom, which memories the natives still cherish. The Mayans were short (about 1.20 metres) and rounded, as our tourist guide told us. Despite not being tall, the Mayan managed to erect several huge pyramids and many other buildings that nobody would think they’d be able to put up.
With the help of strong Popeye muscles, the Mayan carried heavy and cumbersome slabs of rock inside each pyramid. How did they do that? I’m still wondering…
Ten are the Mayan ruins between Yucatan and Chiapas. If you wish to follow my road trip itinerary through Mexico , it includes the majority of them.
If, instead, your accommodation is in Cancun, or you depart from any area of the Riviera Maya, you’ll have to go for an organised tour, thus making it impossible to see all of the Mayan sites I’ll quote in this post.
Where are the Mayan ruins in Mexico?
I’d like to start talking about the Mayan ruins (that I included in the 15 best things to see in Mexico) starting from the one I liked the least, to get to the one I personally believe to be the most beautiful, meaning Palenque.
Just a small suggestion: if you are going to use non-professional photo and video cameras (GoPro included), you’ll have to pay a small fee of 45 pesos. I didn’t explicitly mention it in my previous post Useful Mexico travel tips, but, just so you know, nobody ever checked if I had paid the tax when I was visiting these ancient sities.
Cobá: the site not far away from Tulum
Cobá was the last Mayan archaeological site down on my itinerary. Honestly, it didn’t impress me that much. Bear in mind, I had already seen quite a few Mayan ruins, so my opinion may be influenced by this important factor.
To be honest, after having seen great mayan ruins in Uxmal and Palenque, I guess it is very hard to find something better. Whats more, given the fact that the Riviera Maya is only 2 hours away from Cancun, and just 1 hour away from Tulum, hundreds of tourist coaches flock to the site in the late morning, making it almost unlivable.
One of Cobá’s peculiarities is being really vast and completely immersed into the jungle.
There are three ways to visit the ancient mayan site of Coba:
- Walking: in order to get to the furthest point from the main entrance, you’ll have to walk for 2 kilometres. Add other 2 kilometres to come back, and there you go! A nice four-kilometre-walk in the nature. If you’re planning to do so, put a few bottles of water in your rucksack as there are no bars or food stands on the way there.
- Hiring a bike taxi: if you wish to be taken around Cobá without having to cycle or walk, a good and cheap option would be to go for a taxi biker. I can’t tell you exactly how much it would be for the entire journey to the furthest point in Cobá (Nohoch Mul Pyramid), but I can tell you that the return journey only costs 75 pesos (about 4 euros), non-negotiable.
- Renting a bike: as soon as you enter the park, turn left and you’ll see a bike rental shop. If you decide to go for this option, you’ll be able to cycle around Coba in perfect autonomy, taking all the time you need to snap a few photos and visit the site properly.
Three are the main points of interest of the ruins of Cobá. The most fascinating is Nohoch Mul, a group of large temple pyramids that you can still climb.
Don’t listen to people who say that climbing the ancient Mayan ruins is too difficult. On the contrary, the steps are large enough to climb up and down with no problems. You could even help yourself climbing by grabbing the thick rope in the middle.
Be careful: leave your flip flops at home as they’re not the ideal footwear to climb a Mayan pyramid. You might be wondering why would I say so… Well, believe it or not, the site was crammed with tourists wearing flip flops. I guess they thought that a swimming pool was waiting for them at the top of the pyramid,…who knows?
The view from the summit of Nohoch Mul is breath-taking. Gazing towards the horizon and surrounded by the jungle, please stop for a few minutes and enjoy this gorgeous site from the top.
Opening Hours: 8:00am to 5pm
Time spent visiting it: 2,5 hours if walking. If hiring a bike taxi or cycling it takes much less.
Admission Price: 65 pesos.
Parking price: 50 pesos.
Chichén Itzá: the most famous Mayan ruins
It’s the most famous and important archaeological site in Mexico. The main pyramid, called El Castillo, can be found in any magazine, touristic information sheet or web site about Mexico.
The archaeological site is very beautiful as well as fascinating. The main problem with Chichén Itzá is the incredible amount of tourists. The majority of them coming from the Riviera Maya.
Chichén Itzá is huge. As soon as you set foot on the site, you’ll find yourselves facing El Castillo, which will leave you speechless. You’ll be even luckier if you are visiting it during the spring or autumn equinox as, at this time of year, the lights cast some spooky shadows resembling a snake on it. Needless to say, if you were to go to Chichén Itzá then, you’d find it very crowded.
Whilst walking around the site, especially close to the Mayan pyramid El Castillo and Juego de Pelota, you’ll see many people clapping. Don’t worry, the tourists are just enjoying the amazing acoustic this place has to offer.
Juego de Pelota is another extremely interesting spot in the Mayan site of Chichén Itzá. In the past this was a huge field where the Mayan played a peculiar and difficult game also known as Mesoamerican ballgame. The playing field was rectangular and on the wall at its boundaries there were some stone rings. The aim of the players was to put the ball through a ring without using their hands, but rather other parts of their bodies such as hips or forearms. Scoring, as you can imagine, was a real challenge and the winners were sacrificed to the Gods, thus leaving this world with honour.
The entire Mayan site of Chichén Itzá is gorgeous, apart from the many stands at its sides as well as along the path leading to the cenote. (read also: What are the cenotes in Mexico?) I personally believe that the entire Chichén Itzá could surely do without all these annoying stands. Why cant this place be presented just in its indescribable beauty and mystery?
As I’ve mentioned above, inside the site of Chichén Itzá there is a cenote which, in all honestly, isn’t that impressive, especially if you have already seen the cenotes in Dnitzup.
Chichén Itzá is surely a must-see in your travel itinerary in Mexico and it’s with no doubts one of the most popular sights. Unfortunately, this means that the immense crowds of tourists won’t make you fully and peacefully appreciate its uniqueness.
To better enjoy Chichén Itzá there is only a way: getting there as soon as possible so as to avoid the hundreds tourist coaches which shortly invade the site. I personally saw Chichén Itzá in the afternoon when it was, sadly, too crowded. My suggestion is to find an accommodation near Valladolid, wake up in the early morning and rush to the archaeological site as soon as you can.
Opening hours: from 8.00am to 4:00pm.
Time spent visiting it: 2 hours.
Admission Price: 230 pesos.
Parking price: 30 pesos.
Tulum: the ruins next to the sea
Tulum is surely the most scenographic mayan ruins site.
The Mayans couldn’t have chosen a better place: stunning green nature, a cenote and the sea which is only a few metres away. The ruins, which are less majestic than other sites, are a truly breath-taking. Here people can enjoy the stunning Mayan buildings with the blue and fierce ocean on the background.
The mayan ruins of Tulum are not too far away from Tulum’s pueblo, that’s why many tourists flock here.
Should we blame them? Actually not. Who doesn’t want to admire such a beauty with their own eyes?
The main path that leads to the site runs along the coast and you can even go directly to the busy beach by climbing down the stairs which you’ll eventually see if you keep walking forward.
Just a small suggestion: put water bottles and drinks in your rucksack as there are no food stalls where to stop and buy something. What’s more, much of the path you’ll have to walk is constantly hit by the sun and you certainly know that the heat is not that merciful in Mexico…
How to get there: this archaeological site is outside Tulum. Once you have gone through the entire town, a few metres later, you’ll see the entrance to the site.
Opening Hours: 8.00am to 5.00pm
Time spent visiting it: 1,5 hours.
Admission price: 65 pesos
Parking price: 120 pesos.
Uxmal: the mayan site with less tourist
I have to be honest, the archaeological site of Uxmal was very impressive and really exceeded my expectations. Being a bit further away than Chichén Itzá, Uxmal doesn’t get as busy as other major Mayan ruins do. If you wish to visit it, please follow my itinerary in Mexico. Getting there is super easy!
Uxmal is pretty impressive for 3 main reasons:
- It is located in the Puuc region, an area of the southern Yucatan peninsula rich in hills;
- It is completely in nature, this makes the site even more magical and mysterious;
- There are fewer tourists compared to other well-renowned Mayan ruins. This means that you can walk around Uxmal in a quiet and relaxed atmosphere, which will make you enjoy it even more.
Uxmal means “built three times”, a clear reference to the fact that the town was built up to 5 times in the past. Just like Chichén Itzá, Uxmal has its own Juego the Pelota, albeit a bit smaller. When you climb up the Mayan pyramid and get at its summit, you’ll see a Mayan natives dedicating themselves to meditation. Indeed, with the gorgeous sight and the gentle breeze, this is the perfect place where to take some time for yourself.
I really enjoyed being able to visit Uxmal in peace and quiet for a few hours, taking all the time I needed to snap some beautiful shots.
And this is what I’d like to suggest. If you’re visiting Uxmal, please don’t do so in a rush, but let its peacefulness take over you.
Opening Hours: from 8:00am to 5:00pm
Time spent visiting it: 2,5 hours (2 hours are enough if you’re more in a rush)
Admission price: the first ticket is 65 pesos per person, whilst the second 148 pesos. The total to visit Uxmal is therefore 213 pesos.
Parking Price: 30 pesos.
Palenque: the best ruins in Mexico
My number-one Mayan ruins site in Mexico is undoubtedly Palenque. I was truly fascinated and touched by the beauty of its ruins.
Palenque is very famous amongst tourists and definitely much more people visit it compared to Uxmal. However, it never gets as busy as other Mayan sites and you’ll be able to visit it without feeling in a mosh pit.
I visited Palenque, which was originally known as Lakamha (“Big Water”), with the help of a tourist guide. My choice was dictated by the fact that I had previously read that the perception of Palenque is much better if visited with an organised tour. And I can happily say that it was a choice that I didn’t regret at all. Thanks to our tourist guide, I could better appreciate the incredible and fascinating story of this unforgettable marvel.
Just a small clarification on the tour guides. After you park your car (either in the car park or along the street that leads to the ruins), you’ll find many people offering you a guided tour. Careful! These are not professional tour guides. Turn down their offers and move forward, until you’ll come across the the official tour guides. You can’t miss them. They’re all wearing a badge.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to say that the unofficial tourist guides are not prepared enough to give you a good tour around Palenque. On the contrary, I had the chance of briefly listening to a young guide giving a small group a tour and I can definitely say that they sounded quite professional.
My point is that is always better to go for an official tourist guide to support their profession as well as get accurate information.
How much does a guided tour around the site of Palenque cost?
Everything depends on the language you want the tour to be in. A Spanish tour guide will be much cheaper than an English one.
Just to give you an idea, if you decide to go for an Italian guided tour the prices are:
- 1200 pesos (around 60 euros) for a 2-hour-tour around the ruins of Palenque;
- 2300 pesos (115 euros) for a complete tour of about 3.5 hours which also includes a visit to the forest.
The prices are negotiable so, if you want to, you could talk with the guides and ask for a cheaper tour.
I could keep talking about Palenque for hours. I don’t wish to spoil any more things, even though its mysteries are basically endless. Just think about the fact that only 5% of Palenque has been discovered. The 95% left is still covered by metres and metres of nature and vegetation!!
Amongst the many questions I asked to my guide there were:
- How did the Mayans manage to build such huge buildings despite the fact that they were very short?
- Why don’t archaeologists keep digging into the ground to find more precious Mayans ruins?
First of all he explained that yes, the Mayan were only 1.20 metres tall, but they were also very strong and powerful. Still, I can’t fully fathom how they managed to carry such heavy and cumbersome stones and place them where they are today.
As for the second question, he told me that there are several different reasons why the archaeologists prefer not to dig further. First thing, the mystery. What mystery would the ruins retain if they were brought up to the light? Second, the costs. Digging the ground to find more Mayan ruins would be an enormous expense. Last but not least, a great respect for nature and the desire to avoid an unwanted deforestation.
Our guided tour continued in the forest where the guide introduced us to the many different kinds of plants which can’t be seen in our country. By crossing little rivers, you’ll finally get to a small, yet gorgeous, waterfall where you can even have a refreshing swim.
Palenque is undoubtedly the Mayan ruins where you should spend a few pesos for a guided tour. You won’t surely regret it, trust me.
The entrance ticket includes the visit to the Museum. It’s located just a few metres from the road that leads you from the ruins to Palenque. So, if you’re headed to Palenque, the museum is on your left. On the contrary, if you’re headed towards the ruins, the museum is on your right. You can’t miss it because its parking space is huge!
Opening times: from 8:00am to 16:00pm
Time spent visiting it: 2 hours (tour with no forest) or 3.5 hours (tour with visit to the forest).
Admission price: 62 pesos
Parking price: free. You can park the car on both the sides of the road you take to get to Palenque or in the tiny parking space close to the site entrance.