Known for their great, stone pyramids and cities, the Maya were an advanced civilization with knowledge of agriculture, pottery, writing, calendars and mathematics.
The peak of the Mayan civilization is generally acknowledged to have lasted from 300-900 CE (the Classical Period). You can still see the imposing archaeological sites from this time in Mexico and Central America today.
The scale of these historical sites is truly impressive, and the ruins include vast cities, steep pyramids and intricate stonework. While the sites are dotted throughout Mesoamerica, Mexico has several well preserved cities, temples and pyramids.
Mexico was a significant part of the Mayan civilisation and there are around 200 different Mayan ruins in Mexico that we know of. Many were large cities or religious sites.
Below, we have selected some of the largest and most impressive of these sites. Some are easily accessible from major cities, while others are a bit more challenging to visit. All are worth the effort.
Chichen Itza was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007 and has been UNESCO World Heritage listed since 1988.
El Castillo Pyramid (also known as the Temple of Kukulkan) is probably the most recognizable of all the Mayan ruins. You will have seen its image in travel magazines and many online blogs.
But there’s so much more to see at the archaeological site. Chichen Itza itself was inhabited between 400 AD to 1200 CE.
It was an important cultural Mayan settlement in the Yucatan, highlights include the Ball Court, Tzompantl or the Skull Platform, the Temple of the Warriors and the cenotes.
Chichen Itza is easy to visit as it’s located in the Yucatan Peninsula, just a couple of hours drive from Cancun (one reason for its popularity).
Explore the site either early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the heat as well as the tourist crowds.
Read our full guide to Chichen Itza.
Also located on Mexico’s east coast, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, is the Mayan city of Coba. It’s unique among Mayan ruins in Mexico for the fact that you can climb up the pyramids and explore the ruins up close.
Coba is also home to a huge network of stone causeways, it is believed to be one of the oldest and largest in the entire Mayan world.
Highlights include visiting the many stelae dotted around Coba, engravings and sculptures that depict the life and times of the Maya people. These are believed to prove that, again unlike other Maya sites, Coba had mainly women as rulers.
Coba has a lot of archaeological ruins yet to be excavated, something that I think adds to the mystery and appeal of the site.
The site is 3km and spread out, so it’s best to hire a bike or bicitaxi to explore the ruins.
The Coba Mayan ruins are about an hour's drive from Tulum or an hour and a half from Playa del Carmen.
Book a private tour of the ruins
Another popular ancient Maya site in the Yucatan peninsula near Valladolid, is Ek Balam.
Ek Balam is thought to have been much bigger than Chichen Itza and holds many recently restored temples, two palaces and the famous El Torre pyramid.
The name Ek Balam means “dark Jaguar” in the Maya language, and they are a recurring theme in the carvings and murals covering the site.
There are 45 structures in Balam but Archeologists have only been able to excavate the middle 1 kilometre. It is believed the site actually covered an area of 12 square kilometres in total.
The largest pyramid at the site holds King Ukit Kan Lek Tok’s tomb, the first known king of Ek Balam, also known as the father of the four flint facades.
While you’re here you can also take a swim in the beautiful crystal-blue water of X’Canche, one of many stunning cenotes in the region.
Book a tour to visit El Balam from Valladolid
One of the most scenic locations to visit Mayan ruins in Mexico is the ruins at Tulum. A hot spot for digital nomads and backpackers, Tulum is well known for its dive-worthy cenotes and long sandy beaches.
But it was popular with the Maya too and was used as a major trading and religious site between the 11th and 16th centuries.
Although the Tulum structures aren’t that big, they are probably some of the most beautiful Mayan ruins in Mexico. You can visit the Temple of the Frescoes and see painted murals depicting the life and work of the Maya, they are some of the best preserved murals in the Mayan world.
The images show that they traded everything from turquoise, jade, cotton, copper, tools, and chocolate.
An interesting fact about the site is that the ruin El Castillo was actually a lighthouse for the ships arriving at night. The site is one of the most popular in the region and easily accessible from Cancun or Playa del Carmen.
Go early or late in the day to avoid queues, and get a guide to make sure you don’t miss any of the fascinating history.
Book a half-day guided tour of the Tulum archaeological zone.
Palenque is located in the state of Chiapas. Surrounded by lush forest and stunning waterfalls, it’s a world away from the Maya sites of the Yucatan.
Palenque is a prime example of the early Mayan civilization, reaching its height between 500 and 700 CE. It has some of the best examples of Mayan art, Palencano architecture, and sculptural remains.
It's incredibly well preserved due to being enveloped by the jungle after it was abandoned in the 9th century and left largely untouched by looters. It is thought that only 10% of this Late Classic Period city has been excavated and much of it still remains to be uncovered.
While you’re in the area, make sure to visit some of the waterfalls nearby, like the Misol-Ha waterfall and the Agua Azul series of waterfalls.
To get to Palenque by bus, it takes around five hours from Campeche, eight hours from Merida, and 13 hours from Cancun. Or you can fly to Villahermosa or Ciudad del Carmen.
Book a private tour to explore the ruins.
Hidden in the heart of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Calakmul is one of the more remote Maya sites in Mexico. It’s surrounded by a swathe of protected jungle near the border of Guatemala.
Spot howler monkeys, many bird species and maybe even a jaguar in the tropical forests that surround the ancient site. It was once home to 50,000 Mayans, with complex water systems, large altars, and around 6,500 structures.
It’s a huge area to explore and getting a local guide from the tourist office in Xpujil is a good idea. There are more ruins located next to the town.
Calakmul is located in the Petan Basin, in the state of Campeche. It’s best to hire a car to visit due to Calakmuls remote location; driving from Campeche City takes around 3 hours 30 minutes, or 3 hours from Bacalar.
Book a tour to Calakmul from Campeche.
Just an hour's drive south of Merida, the Zona Arqueológica de Uxmal covers an impressive 150 acres and contains Mayan buildings with beautifully detailed designs.
The religious site is home to many great pyramids used to perform ceremonies as well as sacrifices. Uxmal is most impressive at night when the pyramids are lit up.
Highlights of Uxmal include the Pyramid Of the Magician. According to legend it was magically built overnight during a series of challenges issued to a dwarf by the king of Uxmal.
There’s also the (climbable) Great Pyramid, the Nunnery Quadrangle, and the Palace of the Governor that features beautiful Mayan geometric art.
Uxmal is popular due to its convenient location, you can get a bus or do a tour from Merida.
Another option is to rent a car, get there early and have the place to yourself, plus you can visit the other Mayan sites along the Ruta Puuc: Sayil, Labná, Xlapak & Kabah.
Staying in Merida? Book a private tour to Uxmal.
One of the most popular Mayan sites to visit in the Campeche region is Edzna. The name means "House of the Itzas" and the site contains more than 20 complexes built in various styles.
In contrast to many Mayan sites, it flourished from about 600 BC right up until the 15th century AD.
The city once covered more than 17 square kilometres with huge staggered structures and the great Cinco Pisos Castillo.
Make sure to visit the Temple of the Masks; the two stucco masks on the base of its west and east ends honour the sunrise and sunset gods. You can still see traces of the vibrant red and blue colour they were once painted with.
To get to the site driving takes about an hour from Campeche, or take a shared taxi or ‘collectivo’.
Book a tour to visit Edzna from Campeche.
Many indigenous populations of Mesoamerica were fragmented and spread over vast areas. But the Maya made their home in one area, albeit quite a large one. The Mayan civilization spread across the Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas states in Mexico, as well as Guatemala, Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
El Mundo Maya is thought to have covered around 500,000 square kilometres in total. Large Mayan settlements outside of Mexico include the jungle city of Tikal in Guatemala, the large open plazas of Copan in Honduras, and one of the most important political centres of the Maya called Caracol in Belize.
Mexico was a significant part of the Mayan civilisation, there are around 200 different sites in Mexico that we know of. Many were large cities or religious sites.
There are over 4000 Mayan archaeological sites in total spread out all over Central America.
Of course there are many archaeological sites to visit in Mexico and not all of them are Mayan.
Some of the best include the Zapotec Monte Alban and Mitla near Oaxaca, the Purépecha Yacatas of Tzintzuntzan in Michoacan, Teotihuacan Mesoamerica’s greatest city (of unknown origins), and Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, in Mexico City.
Last Updated 21 January 2023