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MAYAN RUINS IN MEXICO
Mexico is the North American nation with the most UNESCO World Heritage sites. Many of these sites are from the Maya civilization that began as far back as 2600 BC. Thus, there is a rich Maya history. While the ancient Maya cities no longer exist, the Mayan culture still exists today, since the Yucatan still has the largest indigenous population of Maya in Mexico.
This blog post describes the most important Mayan Ruins in Mexico. Included are ruins that would be of interest from the casual tourist to students of history. Or to families looking for an interesting break from the powder white sand beaches.
Until the 16th century, the Maya were a significant civilization in Mexico and Central America. They were located in the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, and also in Guatemala, Belize and parts of El Salvador, and Honduras. Since the population was concentrated they were largely secure from invasion by other indigenous people at the time.
Mayan history began with agricultural settlements from 1800 BC to 250 AD. The Maya first cultivated chocolate, chilli peppers, vanilla, papayas and pineapples.
Yet their advanced skills also included pyramid building, stucco facades, and other construction. The ancient Yucatan city of Mayapan, the last capital of the Mayan Kingdom is where the name Maya comes from.
The golden age of the Maya civilization was from 250 to 900 AD. The civilization grew to 40 cities with a peak population of 2 million. Discoveries at Mayan sites include plazas, palaces, temples, pyramids as well as ball game courts. While the Maya cities were often surrounded by large populations of farmed lands.
Also a highly religious society, the Maya worshiped various gods related to nature (sun, moon, rain, corn). This led to elaborate ceremonies and rituals that included human sacrifices. Guided by their religious ritual however, the Maya made astronomy and mathematical advances. For instance, they developed a complex calendar based on 365 days as well as hieroglyphic writing.
Unfortunately, from the end of the 8th century onward the Maya began a steady decline. The cause of it is still being debated. One theory is that they had exhausted their resources and could not sustain the population. Others, however, believe that constant warfare among competing city-states was responsible. A third theory is that natural factors such as an intense period of drought caused the decline.
Yet, in the highlands of the Yucatan a few cities, such as Chichen-Itza, continued to thrive even to 1500 AD. But, by the time the Spanish invaders arrived, most Maya were living in agricultural villages, while their great cities were buried under the rain forest. The Spanish colonized the last Mayan city, Nojpeten in 1697.
Currently, 7 million Maya live in the area, with 5 million still speaking Mayan languages. The Maya still maintain a distinctive set of traditions and beliefs that are evident still today.
Maya Archaeological Sites
There are so many Maya ruins across Mexico that you could spend a lifetime of vacations trying to explore them all. So, we have concentrated on some of the best examples, located close to the Riviera Maya (see Mayan Map). Such as in Cancun, Tulum, near Akumal, as well as a few in land that are easy to get to. Helping you to enjoy an experience of a lifetime.
El Meco, an archaeological site in Cancun, opened to the public in 2001. The ruin is well preserved and has the tallest Mayan structure around Cancun. The Castillo is 12 m (40 ft) high and was likely the lighthouse for the region. As well it has a small temple and fabulous sea views. The earliest ruins date back to 200 AD.
As this is a newly discovered site, excavation is still underway and several of the 15 structures can be closed at any one time. However, these off the beaten track Mayan Ruins, set in shaded and enjoyable grounds, have few tourists present.
The El Rey Mayan Ruin is in the Cancun Hotel Zone. The site dates back to 1200 AD and was once a centre for marine trade, as well as a royal burial ground. The name ‘El Rey’ (or ‘King’ in English), comes from the name of one of the sculptures. This site has a small temple and several other remnants of structures. The El Rey sculpture now resides at the Museo Maya in Cancun.
What this site lacks in the structures, however, it gains in the accessibility if you are staying in Cancun. As well, it has hundreds of resident iguanas. Since the iguanas have taken over the site it is an easy task to get a photo of your children (or you!), an iguana, and part of an ancient Mayan structure. Another plus is that the fee is a modest 50 pesos ($2.50 US).
Museo De Maya Cancun & San Miguelito
The Museo De Maya Cancun and the San Miguelito Ruins are both at the same site and within walking distance of El Rey. The entrance fee to the Museum includes entrance to the San Miguelito Ruins. The Museum has well-preserved artifacts and relics from the area as well as exhibits on the Maya civilization. The entrance fee is 70 pesos ($3.50 US).
San Miguelito is named after the coconut farm the ruins were on when they were discovered. This site was only opened to the public in 2012. It contains four sections, each connected by pretty and shady trails containing indigenous plants. San Miguelito was also a center of a widespread trade network reaching other parts of Mexico and Central America.
Near the Yucatan town of Valladolid, restoration of Ek Balam, meaning ‘black jaguar’ began in 1997. Dating from 600 BC it was populated until 1600 AD. While this site is 12 km2 in size and includes a walled city and 45 structures, only the central 1 km2 is currently excavated. Thus, it is manageable to easily view the restored part.
The most impressive of the many structures is the almost 100 ft high, El Torre, pyramid. Its size, 500 ft long and 200 ft wide makes it one of the largest structures in the Yucatan. Climbing to the top affords you a spectacular view over the jungle. On a clear day looking southeast you can see the top of a temple at Coba 65 km away. Similarly looking west-southwest, you can see Chichen-Itza 55 km away. Also, at the side of the pyramid is a tomb for King Ukit Kan Lek Tok. The doorway to the throne is in the shape of the mouth of a monster, possibly a jaguar.
Typical of larger Mayan cities, as well as temples and pyramids, there is also a ball court, albeit smaller than others in Coba and Chichen-Itza. While unlike some of the other Mayan Ruins the building facades are not carved from stone. Instead, they are made from plaster and stucco and are decorative, detailed, and intricate.
The entrance fee to this site is about 415 pesos ($20 US). You should bring comfortable walking shoes, water. Also, bring a towel if you want to swim in the nearby cenote.
Just over 2 hours from the Riviera Maya destinations of Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Akumal, and Tulum, Chichen-Itza is the most popular Mayan Ruin site. The history of these ruins date from AD 600 to 1200. During that time a multitude of architectural styles were used and it developed into one of the largest Mayan cities.
The only source of water in this arid area is from cenotes. Fortunately, two large cenotes give this, UNESCO World Heritage Site, its name. In Mayan, Chichen-Itza means ‘at the mouth of the Itza’ with Itza the name of a prominent ethnic group of the time.
Clustered around the central site it covers 5 km2, but with nearly 3 million visitors a year, it is still very busy. The site contains many fine stone buildings under restoration. In addition, a dense network of over 80 paved pathways extends in all directions.
One of the buildings, the Temple of Kukulkan, a Mayan feathered serpent, dominates the north platform of the site at nearly 100 ft tall. This step pyramid has a series of nine square terraces, with 365 steps to the top. Giving the temple its name, a carving of the feathered serpent sits at the top of the pyramid.
As well thirteen ball courts exist in Chichen-Itza alone. The most impressive is the Great Ball Court near the Temple of Kukulkan. It measures 170 m by 70 m (550 ft by 230 ft) and is the largest in the Americas. In addition to the walled ball court, it contains the temples of the jaguar. One of which overlooks the court, and one which opens behind the court.
Another interesting structure is El Caracol. It consists of a round building and gets its name (‘the snail in English’) from the stone spiral staircase inside. The structure is unlike most other buildings due to its circular construction and is assumed to have been an observatory. For instance, doors and windows align with astronomical events, such as the path of Venus at it traverses the sky.
Due to its popularity, it is best to start your visit early in the morning when the site opens at 8 am. Alternatively, if you go at 3 pm it is also quieter as people are starting to head home. The entrance fee is now 480 pesos ($24 US). Due to the size and complexity of the site, which could easily take you 3 hours to explore, you should consider hiring a licensed guide. You can hire them at the entrance for an extra fee.
Besides, the higher entrance fee, a downside of the site’s popularity is the many vendors. Unfortunately, unless you like shopping, there are souvenir stands everywhere with vendors trying to sell you their goods.
Coba, located 50 km from Tulum, is a popular site in Mexico. While you can find sites that have more restored buildings, Coba is an excellent option to consider for its own merits. Firstly, while it is a large site, 80 km2 mostly unexcavated, it has a large number of interesting structures. This includes the largest number of stone causeways (called Sacbes) in the ancient Mayan world.
Secondly, while this is a large site it has plenty of shady spots to hide from the sun, due to the jungle that covers the surrounding area. Thirdly, although it is somewhat popular, it isn’t overcrowded because of the size of the site. And lastly, you can also hike up the tallest Mayan temple in Mexico for a great view.
The site dates from 100 AD, established in part because of its access to water from the nearby lakes. Its name in Mayan means ‘waters stirred by the wind’.
Coba was a hub connecting Mayan towns through its network of roads for commerce. By 700-800 AD the population of the city was 50,000. However, after being defeated in a war with Chichen-Itza its gradual demise began. In 1550 Coba was abandoned after the Spanish conquered the peninsula.
One of the most interesting structures is the Nohoch Mul Pyramid which is 140 ft tall (42 m). It is the tallest temple structure in the Yucatan. Unlike Chichen-Itza you are allowed to climb the pyramid but be careful, especially when descending, as it is steep. However, the view is worth the effort.
Coba is different from many other Mayan cities in that it is not a single site. It consists of a large number of settlements connected to the central pyramid. Over 50 stone causeways (sacbes) have been discovered which all lead from the main pyramid and stretch out east, west, north and south. The sacbes, or roads, range from 10 to 30 ft wide with one reaching 100 km. The work to build these wide and long paths actually exceeded that of the stone buildings and temples. This underlines the importance of trade and transportation to the Maya. Goods were moved along the sacbes by people carrying parcels at night as it was cooler. The moonlight lighting the white limestone of the road as they walked.
Entrance to Coba is a modest 75 pesos ($3.50 US). One tip is to consider renting a bicycle for a small fee (50 pesos) to enable you to get around this large site a little quicker. You may also want to consider visiting one of the three nearby cenotes after your visit to cool off. The entrance fees to these are about 55 pesos each.
San Gervasio is a modest archaeological site with Mayan Ruins on the island of Cozumel. In ancient times this was the site of worship for pilgrims of the goddess Ixchel. Ixchel was a deity of childbirth, fertility and medicine. In fact, the bishop of Yucatán, Diego de Landa, wrote in 1549 that the Maya "held Cozumel in the same veneration as we have for pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome”. At the time San Gervasio was the most important site for pilgrims outside of Chichen-Itza.
While the ruins cover four different areas, only one site is open to the public. Mayan relics and artifacts as early as 600 AD and as late as 1650 AD have been discovered. The site hasn't undergone a lot of restoration but there are several structures set in a beautiful natural setting. Perhaps the most interesting building is the Temple of Hands. Inside are several small red handprints on the wall.
Tips for Visiting Mayan Ruins
1. Avoid going on Sundays as Mexican nationals receive free entrance to all national sites so they can get very busy!
2. Take pesos with you as $’s and other currencies often are not accepted.
3. Bring comfortable walking shoes.
4. Pack water, a hat, and biodegradable sunscreen, in case you go to a cenote (or ocean if you go to Tulum). And don’t forget the bug spray! Many of the sites are in the middle of the jungle.
5. Several sites don’t have any food at all and those that do charge tourist prices for it. So, remember the snacks and food for lunch.
The cost is $10.50 US. Unless you are a true Mayan history buff, it likely isn’t worth a visit to Cozumel solely to visit the ruins. Yet, if you’re staying in Cozumel this is a nice excursion. And it might whet your appetite for some of the more expansive Maya Ruins on the mainland.
Although not conclusive it is believed that the site was occupied by the Maya in the 1st century and not fully abandoned until the 19th century. Like Tulum, Xelha was one of several ports of the Maya city of Coba. The site has an interesting history which includes what was to be the first Spanish settlement on the peninsula. However, the expedition, led by conquistador Franciso de Montejo, to establish ‘Salamanca de Xelha’ failed after 18 months and was abandoned.
Although located on the coast the settlement did not overlook the Caribbean as does Tulum. The Maya used the lagoon as a port and built their settlement in the jungle. The ruins here include several small stone temples and two cenotes.
Also, the site has several important murals not found elsewhere. The murals in the buildings contain both red and blue paint. Blue paint was a spiritual colour for the Maya and is found here more than in other ruins. This is likely due to the close proximity to San Gervasio. Xelha providing direct access to Cozumel for pilgrims worshiping the goddess Ixchel.
While there isn’t a large pyramid, many of the buildings have several interesting features. These include the base of a residential complex and remains of El Palacio, a somewhat overgrown sacbe road, and several buildings at the pier. The murals are, however, a unique highlight.
The entrance fee to the site is 65 pesos and is well worth a visit if you are in the Akumal area. You will likely be the only people here when you visit.
The Mayan ruins of Tulum are good archaeological structures. But, their spectacular setting makes them a must visit for millions of people each year. Located on a 12 m high cliff overlooking the Caribbean ocean and the rising sun. It is the only Maya community on the beaches of the Caribbean. The site dates from before 564 AD, although it was at its fore between 1200-1541 AD.
The location on the coastline made it a hub for extensive international trade, as well as a distribution center to Coba.
Unfortunately, most of the Mayan population of Tulum was killed off by the Spanish when they introduced various diseases. However, Tulum remained inhabited 70 years after that until it was finally abandoned.
One of the unique features of Tulum is that it is a walled city on 3 sides, with the eastern side protected by the cliffs over the ocean. Another is El Castillo, the tallest building and the most famous due to its outlook over the sea. Below El Castillo is the beach which was an important part of the city. This was where the ships docked for loading and unloading. Today you can join the many tourists that sunbathe on the beach and swim in the ocean after a tour of the ruins.
The entrance fee is a modest 75 pesos and includes access to the beach.
Muyil was one of the earliest and longest inhabited ancient Maya sites on the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The artifacts date from 350 BC to 1500 AD. The ruins are an example of Peten architecture, like those found in Tikal in Guatemala. Situated on the Sian Kaan lagoon, Mujil was along a trade route via canals to the Caribbean sea. Like Tulum, Mujil had strong ties to Coba 44 km to the north. This is a small archaeological site as only a few of the sites have been excavated. But it is much, much less crowded than many others. Set in a nicely landscaped 38-hectare jungle environment, there are walking paths that lead to each of the structures. The largest intact structure being a 17 m high castle.
In addition to the Castillo, is a trail that leads to a boardwalk into the jungle. The trail leads into the Sian Kaan Biosphere, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The boardwalk trail is a pleasant walk that leads through the jungle. Part way, there is an observation tower that you can climb. After climbing up the four steep ladders, your reward is a beautiful view over the treetops overlooking the lagoon. Continuing on the trail you come out on the fabulous lagoon, where small boats are lined up on a dock. You can simply enjoy the turquoise blue lagoon with its white sand bottom or you can pay for a 2-hour boat ride through several lagoons.
This is an amazing site to visit but for different reasons than many of the other ruins. It doesn’t have the number of structures excavated as many of the other sites. However, it is a beautiful, off the beaten path, location. If you are looking for something a bit different, with interesting ruins, very few tourists, and to explore a little of the Sian Kaan Biosphere this is an excellent day trip.
The entrance fee for the ruins alone is 50 pesos ($2.50 US). If you want to walk the boardwalk to the Sian Kaan Lagoon that is an extra 50 pesos. Taking the 2-hour boat ride across several lagoons is 700 pesos ($35 US).
The Riviera Maya, Mexico is a great place to explore Mayan Ruins as part of your vacation. Located mostly within 2-hours of many sites you have lots to choose from. For instance, if you want a little history with the kids safely in tow, consider Tulum, or El Rey. Or if you want to delve into the historical details then go to Chichen-Itza. But if you don’t like lots of tourists then Coba is the place for you.
Or, if you are looking for an off the beaten path Mayan Ruin then consider Mujil, Ek Balam, El Meco, or Xelha near Akumal.
This overview of the sites allows you to select the Mexican Mayan Ruin(s) best suited for you to explore and have a vacation experience of a lifetime. The handy chart above will give you a quick reference guide to help you decide which Mayan Ruins in Mexico to visit. In addition a map of the locationsis provided to help with your planning.
Future BLOG articles will expand on parts of this article, but in the meantime if you have questions or want information on a specific activity don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, @oceanbreezeakumal, or call us at +1 250 538 8159.