No trip to Mexico is complete without a visit to at least one ancient Mayan ruin. Of course, if you can see four Mayan Ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula—that’s even better!
One of the greatest civilizations of Mesoamerica, Mayans have inhabited Mexico and Central America since 1800BC.
Ancient Mayan culture is revered for its advanced hieroglyph writing, architectural feats, and impressive astrological and mathematical knowledge (which produced a sophisticated calendar system).
Mayans worshiped hundreds of gods, with a different god ruling over various aspects of their life. Mayans also believed in life after death, and that existence was part of a circular, never-ending cycle.
While the ancient Maya empire was destroyed many years ago, the Maya community in Mexico is still strong, with some 7 million people keeping their traditions and customs alive. This includes speaking Mayan languages!
Today you’ll find Mayan influences scattered across Mexico and Central America. While the jungle has overtaken much of the glory of the empire’s past, crumbling Maya archaeological sites are uncovered regularly.
If your Mexico vacation is based in Cancun or Tulum, here are four must-visit Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula you won’t want to miss!
Insider tip: Before heading out to explore the many Mayan archaeological sites in the area, visit The Maya Museum in Cancun. It’s a riveting encounter with Maya culture that helped us get much more out of our ruin visits.
Table Of Contents
4 Must-See Mayan Ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula
1. Ek Balam
Ek Balam is “new” to the list of must-see ancient Maya ruins to explore, archeologists having only begun restoration in 1997. However, the history of Ek Balam is anything but new; Mayans are thought to have occupied it sometime between 100 BC and 300 AD, and the civilization was at its height in the Late Classic period, 600-900 AD
Only the center of Ek Balam has been excavated. Of this, the Acropolis Temple is the most impressive at 95 feet tall. Visitors can climb the six levels to the top of the Acropolis for a fantastic view. Though it’s a bit of a trek—and not so good if you’re scared of heights—this is definitely the best way to appreciate the temple layout. Don’t miss the rare and original sculptures under the thatched roof on your way up.
The two hills viewed from the top of the Acropolis are actually two buildings yet to be excavated.
What We Love About Ek Balam:
Because the restored portion is relatively small, and the site itself is relatively new, Ek Balam doesn’t see nearly as many tourists as other ancient Mayan archeological sites. No hawkers are trying to sell you mass-produced souvenirs, no fellow tourists bumping into you as you wander the grounds. It was as though we were transported back to the ancient Mayan civilization, with only the occasional sunbathing iguana to distract us from our reverie.
The ancient artwork and calligraphy that you can still see on the walls are impressive, and the views from the top of the pyramid exceptional.
Things To Know Before You Visit Ek Balam:
The ruins of Ek Balam are located north about 30 minutes north of Valladolid. It only takes about 1-2 hours to explore this Maya ruin as the main points of interest are all quite compact. There is one restroom outside the site, and limited refreshments and food. There is a nearby cenote you can visit, though we did not. Ek Balam is open daily from 8am-5pm; foreigners pay 413 pesos to enter. Plan to arrive early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the blaring mid-day Mexico heat.
2. Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is perhaps the most popular of Mayan temples. It was first brought to attention in the book, “Incidents of Traveling the Yucatan,” and today is considered one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World‘. Chichen Itza is consistently crowded and feels extremely touristy, primarily due to the rows of vendors selling memorabilia. But like most attractions, Chichen Itza is touristy for a reason. If you’re prepared for that, you’ll likely find this Maya archeological site maintains a dazzling appeal.
Chichen Itza is a fantastic example of the post-classic Mayan civilization. Rather than a pointed top to the main temple (like Ek Balam and characteristic of the Classic Period), you’ll find a flat roof. Though Chichen Itza likely thrived nearly 600 years after Ek Balam, it became one of the largest Mayan city-states.
Chichen Itza is quite expansive, and it’s easy to spend a long time exploring the different buildings. That said, three attractions are particularly noteworthy:
This is the broad central pyramid; it’s impossible to miss at 98 feet high, and you’ve probably seen photos of it before. The temple wasn’t always that tall, though. Mayans would typically make their temples larger by superimposing one upon the other. Inside El Castillo is actually a smaller pyramid with a statue to the god Chac Mool. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to go inside the pyramid to see it.
El Castillo has 365 steps, one for each day of the year. There are serpent heads at the base of the steps. During the equinoxes, a shadow appears on the stairs, creating the snake’s image from top to bottom—an absolutely fascinating portrayal of ancient Mayan astronomical knowledge.
The Ball Court
The ball court at Chichen Itza is the largest and best-preserved in the Americas. The games not only served as entertainment but also as a ritual for the underworld. The rules are not known precisely, but most think that players used their hips to hit a 10lb rubber ball through the stone hoops on the side of the court. However, judging by the height of the circles at Chichen Itza, there were likely variations to these rules. Competition must have been intense as losers of the game were often put to death, a sacrifice for the gods.
The Cenote Sagrado
There is no shortage of cenotes to see in the Yucatan peninsula, but this is definitely one of the most famous. The Cenote Sagrado is a place of pilgrimage for Mayans, and historically a place to conduct sacrifices during droughts.
You’ll likely see tourists clapping their hands around El Castillo. This is because the ruins’ acoustics are so that you’ll hear on echo, said to mimic the sound of a quetzal.
What We Love About Chichen Itza:
Chichen Itza was the principal ceremonial center of the Yucatan. There is much to discover at this one Maya site (this sacred city covers some six square miles), and our overall knowledge of Mayan culture grew dramatically from the visit. Also, Chichen Itza made us think of The Emperor’s New Groove, which is always fun.
Things To Know Before You Visit Chichen Itza:
Arrive early. Chichen Itza gets exceptionally crowded in the afternoon. Know you can no longer climb to the top of El Castillo as a safety precaution. Admission is from 8am to 5pm and costs 486 pesos. The fee includes entrance to an evening light and sound show at 7 or 8pm (check the schedule); a unique acoustics and serpent shape is demonstrated, a phenomenon that occurs naturally with the setting sun during the twice-annual equinox.
A guided tour is well worth the investment as Chichen Itza is so vast and boasts a compelling (if haunting) past that’s best uncovered with a local expert. Even if you arrive early, you’ll probably find yourself battling the Mexican sun as it takes a solid couple of hours to do Chichen Itza justice. Don’t forget your water bottle and sunscreen.
While Coba wasn’t our favorite Maya ruin in Mexico, it is unique because it boasts the tallest Mayan pyramid in the Yucatan peninsula, coming in at a staggering 130 feet. You can climb all 120 stairs to the top for a fantastic view of the temple grounds, an intricate network of ancient roads, and snapshots of the vast, jungle-strewn landscape.
The name Coba means ‘water stirred by the wind’; it is named for its prime location amongst two lagoons. The bulk of the temple was constructed during the Classic Period, though it’s possible the temple was occupied by Mayans as late as the Spanish arrival. While you’re walking through the grounds, take note of the ancient roads, called sacbe. They were constructed of white rock, which would reflect moonlight at night, serving as a sort of flashlight. The streets also demonstrate that Coba was an important trading link between Mexico’s coast and the ancient cities inland.
Most of our knowledge about Mayan culture and temples came from our brilliant tour guide at Coba with Alltournative. A lot of the information we learned was directly applicable to the other Maya temples we visited. The two-hour Coba trip included an excursion to a traditional Mayan village, where we adventured through more cenotes, participated in a traditional Mayan ritual led by a shaman, and enjoyed a typical Mayan feast. The interaction with the Mayan community on this tour was memorable and enlightening.
What We Love About Coba
If you visit Coba with Alltournative, you can feel confident that you are giving back to the local Mayan population that still lives in the Yucatan. Unfortunately, many Mayans today live in poverty. One local told us that all-inclusive resorts send buses to Mayan communities to pick up the men and transport them to the hotels, where they work 12-hour days for just a few dollars. They return on the weekends to spend time with their families, but the income barely provides for them. Alltournative offers a solution to create fair, livable wages; they go into the Maya communities and work with the locals, creating eco-friendly attractions without changing the integrity of the environment. They then employ the locals to run the facilities.
The sustainable development of the Maya communities is supported by agreements made with community groups or ejidos, where the cities are committed not only to achieving social and economic growth but also to avoiding logging and hunting in the areas tourists visit beyond.
After participating in the ‘Coba Maya Encounter,’ we can say that Alltournative appears to be living up to this high standard. If you want to learn more about Mayan culture’s lasting legacy, this is definitely the tour for you!
Things to Know Before You Visit Coba
Coba doesn’t get as crowded as Chichen Itza, but as we’ve said before (and will say again!), arrive in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the intense heat while climbing all those stairs. There are bikes available to rent, which we recommend as it is quite a long way to access the main temple. Or take a bici taxi.
The tour with Alltournative costs $139 and includes transportation, lunch, Coba admission, guide, and adventure activities. The fee for Coba alone is 75 pesos; the site is open from 8am-5pm.
The Mayans sure knew where to build their temples. Tulum is located on a dramatic cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea—and it is simply gorgeous. By our visit to Tulum, we were a bit Mayan-templed out, but this Maya archeological site in the Yucatan was worth making the trek for, if not for the views alone.
Tulum was a walled city, likely a temple, trading port, and navigational guide. From the main shrine, El Castillo, there are small windows that line up perfectly with a gap in the barrier reef offshore. Boatmen could line up their canoes with the windows to provide safe incoming through the beach. Additionally, the Temple of Frescoes is one of the most unique Mayan attractions of all the temples; the frescoes are a magnificent depiction of Mayan artwork. It is still possible to see some of the original colorings of the pictures. Much of what archeologists know about Mayan temple décor comes from this specific Maya ruin.
Bring your bathing suit! There is a beautiful beach at the base of the temple. It gets hot walking around the grounds, so you’ll definitely want to cool off here.
What We Love About Tulum
I mean, do we even have to say it? Look at that view. Admission is 80 pesos. The coastal ruin is open from 8am to 5pm daily. You can breeze through the site in 30 minutes if you just want to take in the view, or easily spend an entire day learning about the temple and enjoying the Caribean beach. There is an additional fee of 45 pesos if you bring a camera. You can get a transportation service that best suits your needs. However, it is advisable to book a Tulum shuttle service, so you do not need to move with other transport methods from Cancun to Tulum. This type of service usually does not make continuous stops, which is nice to quickly arrive at your destination. We had plenty of time to devote one day to each of the ruins, but if you are up for a long day, it is possible to combine Ek Balam and Chichen Itza into a day trip and Coba and Tulum into another. Finally, try to avoid visiting Maya ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula on Sundays—admission is free to Mexicans, and the temples can get very busy. We were guests of Alltournative for our Coba Encounter. All thoughts and opinions are our own.
Things To Know Before You Visit Tulum
How to get from Cancun to Tulum
Admission is 80 pesos. The coastal ruin is open from 8am to 5pm daily. You can breeze through the site in 30 minutes if you just want to take in the view, or easily spend an entire day learning about the temple and enjoying the Caribean beach. There is an additional fee of 45 pesos if you bring a camera.
You can get a transportation service that best suits your needs. However, it is advisable to book a Tulum shuttle service, so you do not need to move with other transport methods from Cancun to Tulum. This type of service usually does not make continuous stops, which is nice to quickly arrive at your destination.
We had plenty of time to devote one day to each of the ruins, but if you are up for a long day, it is possible to combine Ek Balam and Chichen Itza into a day trip and Coba and Tulum into another.
Finally, try to avoid visiting Maya ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula on Sundays—admission is free to Mexicans, and the temples can get very busy.
We were guests of Alltournative for our Coba Encounter. All thoughts and opinions are our own.