Tips for Chichen Itza and the Best Mayan Ruins on Yucatan Peninsula

While visiting Mexico you can’t miss visiting some of the many and best Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula which are remains from one of the greatest and most historical civilizations of Mesoamerica that lasted more than 2,500 years and the history of the planet. The Mayans were known for their incredible architecture, hieroglyphics, astronomy, mathematics, and of course the Mayan calendars. You can’t come to the Yucatan and not see some of the Mayan influences here whether it’s in the names of places with crazy X’s in them from food to drinks as well as encountering people who still speak the Mayan languages today.

It is said that there are over 70k Mayan ruins that spread all through southern Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala many of which have yet to be discovered. Since we can’t possibly get to them all we are going to cover the best Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula including tips for Chichen Itza, a must-see site and new 7 wonders of the world.

Some of these Mayan ruins are set in dense jungles and surrounded by cenotes. It was said that many of these ancient civilizations built their cities around cenotes as a source of fresh water and is also where they performed sacrifices! There are also thousands and thousands of cenotes in Mexico, some of which can be visited right next to the very ruins we mention in this post!

Each archaeological site and Mayan ruins is different and unique in its own way so try to plan for at least a few of these Mayan ruins on your trip to experience more than just Chichen Itza and witness where one of the world’s greatest civilizations once thrived.

Tips for Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza pyramid

It just wouldn’t be fair not to include Chichen Itza as one of the best Mayan ruins in the world. Besides being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chichen Itza is also one of the new 7 wonders of the world and considered the most famous of the Mayan ruins as it sees over 1 million visitors a year.

The most impressive site here is El Castillo or Temple of Kukulcan, the famous massive step pyramid you’ve seen in your history books and will undoubtedly try to capture during your visit. You’ll also want to make sure you don’t miss the great ball court which is the best-preserved ballcourt of Mesoamerica, the columns of the temple of a thousand warriors, the skull platform, and the grand cenote used as a water source and where the Mayans would sacrifice during a drought from everything from children, men, to gold, jade, pottery, and obsidian to name a few. All of which have had remains discovered by archaeologists.

  • Arrive before the 8 am opening. We showed up at 7:45 and there was a line out the gate. The gate doesn’t open until 8 am but you will want to be one of the first people they let in to increase your chances of witnessing Chichen Itza before the crowds.
  • Bring water and make sure to drink plenty of it as it gets EXTREMELY hot especially from March on. If you arrive first thing in the morning you should beat most of the heat from midday.
  • You will need to purchase two tickets, why it’s not all together? Don’t ask us. We don’t get it either. If you decide to pay with credit card you will have to see two different tellers. Make sure you DO NOT get out of the line without buying both tickets otherwise you will have to go back to the end of the line to purchase the second ticket. It’s a pain, but as long as you know this you can avoid having to get back in line.
  • The merchants selling goods inside Chichen Itza have dramatically raised the price of goods. Items were triple if not double the price than what prices were at Teotihuacan in Mexico City. We found the best deals to be outside the ruins as we were leaving as those salesmen were eager to get a last sale before you leave the premises. 
  • If you want to learn the history you can hire a private guide for you or your group for around 600 pesos. 
  • Come back in the evening for the light show on the Temple of Kukulcan. The summer months the show starts at 8 pm, in the winter it starts at 7 pm.
Admission:

237 pesos for regular admission, 30 pesos to park. 440 pesos per person for the light show at night.

Best Mayan Ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula

A couple poses in front of Chichen ItzaWhile Chichen Itza is one of the most important Mayan Ruins in the world, it wasn’t actually our favorite we visited! That is why we are mentioning other great Mayan Ruins to visit on your trip that are either just as impressive, set in a jungle, or come without any crowds!

Note: None of the ruins in Mexico allow you to fly a drone. Don’t even bring it as you’re not even allowed to carry it into the Mayan ruins archaeological site. Also, many will stop you if you try to carry a tripod too. Leave it in the car or at the hotel!

Uxmal

Uxmal Pyramid in MexicoOur favorite of the Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula is hands down Uxmal. Besides being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Uxmal was one of the largest cities of the Yucatan Peninsula on the Puuc Route about 80 km southwest of Merida in the Yucatan state. Dating back to as early as 500 AD, Uxmal was home to 15,000-20,000 Mayans.

Unlike most of the Mayan ruins, you can actually climb all of the pyramids and temples at Uxmal except for the highest structure, the Pyramid of the Magician which was said to be built on top of pre-existing pyramids.

What makes Uxmal unique in Mayan ruins history is that this ancient city was built without any cenotes around which were used for natural water supplies in ancient Mayan civilizations all over the Yucatan Peninsula. They honored Chac, the Mayan God of rain here since they had no natural water supply source. They had to collect rainwater and store it for use.

Uxmal With no crowdsSomething that made Uxmal even more special was that there were really no crowds. You can explore the grounds and get photos easily without tons of people in them. Plus, the Mayan ruins here are just awe inspiring. It’s definitely worth making these Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula high on your priority list.

Admission:

Uxmal requires you to buy two tickets similar to Chichen Itza totaling 223 pesos per person. 50 pesos to park.

Calakmul

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One of the absolute best Mayan ruins experiences you can have is at Calakmul located only 35 km from the border to Guatemala in the remote jungles of Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Calakmul is located in the Campeche state of Mexico and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While getting to Calakmul is a bit of a challenge since there is no public transport, you are required to rent a car or take a pricey taxi ride, but it is totally worth the effort. Since Calakmul is located in the jungle it’s likely you’ll see monkeys, many of the 230 different species of birds, armadillos, and even jaguars!

Calakmul was once the largest and most powerful ancient cities of the Mayan lowlands. There are over 6,700 ancient structures identified at these Mayan ruins, the largest of which is Structure 2 which is also the largest pyramid of the Mayan world at an astonishing 148 ft tall! Even better yet, you can climb to the top here and see Guatemala as well as an endless jungle as far as the eyes can see.

Calakmul thrived in the Classic Period between 500 – 800 AD although this kingdom played a key role in the history of this region for more than twelve centuries! But that didn’t come without rivalries. Calakmul and the civilization of Tikal struggled for power in the Mayan world fighting mostly over resources.

This is a unique, one of a kind Mayan ruins experience in the Yucatan Peninsula worth the drive. Be sure to check out the museum on site that also explains the different plants and species in the biosphere.

Admission:

182 pesos per person, 70 pesos per car. 

Coba

Coba Ruins near Tulum in Mexico

Just around a 45-minute drive from Tulum Mexico are the ancient Mayan ruins of Coba dating back to as early as 100 AD. These ended up being one of our favorite Mayan ruins to visit because of the actual experience. The Mayan ruins at Coba won’t necessarily blow your mind, but what ended up making this one of our favorite ruins to visit is the location of the ruins. They are nestled in a dense jungle and require you to either walk, bicycle, or ride to the Mayan ruins on your own personal man operated bicycle tuk-tuk chariot. We highly recommend the bicycles. Riding from site to site through the jungle along the little dirt roads was not only a refreshing way to cool off with the breeze and shade of the jungle but it was absolutely stunning.

Scott riding a bike through the Coba RuinsCoba doesn’t get as crowded as Chichen Itza but are becoming more and more popular since there are cenotes nearby that you can also enjoy before/after the ruins.

People climbing Coba RuinsYou can climb the largest pyramid, Noohoch Mul and look over the top of the jungle which is a canopy of lush green as far as the eye can see. This is actually the largest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula as well!

Another reason why we love the Mayan ruins at Coba is that they open the ruins back up in the evening from 4:30 to 7 pm for the evening. Depending on the time of year you can catch it right as the sunsets.

As mentioned before there are also cenotes nearby you can swim in to cool off and ziplining!

Admission:

70 pesos per person for entrance during regular hours, 50 pesos for a bicycle inside after you enter or 120 pesos for your own 2 person chariot. Admission for the evening is 240 pesos a person. 50 pesos to park.

Tulum

Tulum Ruins overlooking the beachEasily one of the most popular Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula is the Tulum Ruins. These ruins aren’t massive but do offer the best location perched on a cliff overlooking one of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico with powdered sugar white sand and turquoise water.

The Mayan ruins are well preserved and date back to as early as 564 AD and didn’t ever have more than 1,600 inhabitants meaning it was probably more likely to have been a spiritual or religious grounds rather than a home to an entire city. This is one of the only walled city built by the Mayans and the two most notable spots not to miss are The Castillo and the Temple of the Descending God.

When visiting you even have access to the beach attached to this archeological site. As you roam the site you can see iguanas of all sizes basking in the sun or climbing through the ruins. You can’t actually climb the ruins here but you can surely enjoy the views and beauty of this historic site.

Just like Chichen Itza, you will want to arrive early or right when they open around 8 am before the crowds come. These are some of the most visited ruins in Mexico because of its convenient location right in the heart of Tulum, the popular beach resort city.

Admission:

40 pesos per person. 30 pesos to park.

Ek’ Balam

Mexico-6159 - That way is out and to my air conditioned car...
Another great Mayan ruins site on the Yucatan Peninsula is Ek Balam. Easily done in the same day as Chichen Itza since its only 51 km away, Ek Balam is a smallish set of Mayan ruins due mostly to the fact that only the center of Ek Balam has been heavily excavated. This Mayan civilization thrived during 700 – 1000 AD but dates back as early as 100 BC to 300 AD.

Ek Balam was first rediscovered back in the 1800s but it wasn’t until the late 1980s into the 1990s when the site was mapped and excavated. Hopefully, there’s more to come in the future for this off the beaten path set of Mayan ruins.

There are a total of 35 current structures mapped composed up of several temples, two palaces, and the Tower, the large pyramid in the center of the city. The Tower is 100 ft tall and is the most impressive structure in Ek Balam as well as home to the tomb of Ek Balam’s powerful ruler Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok the highest official during the city’s peak in 800 A.D. You can even see statues decorating the tomb as well as carvings, paintings, and murals.

After you visit you can swim in the cenote right next to Ek Balam and head to the colonial city of Valladolid or do some cenote hopping nearby Valladolid!

Admission:

132 pesos per person, 50 pesos to visit the cenote.

Edzna

Dark clouds over Edzná
Another great Mayan ruin to visit located just outside of Campeche city is Edzna. Dating back to as early as 600 BC with a population that reached up to 25,000 people when it developed into a full city by 200 AD, Edzna belonged to part of the Calakmul political system mentioned earlier.

A cool backstory includes the origins of the name of Edzna which comes from the “House of the Itzás”, which has led archaeologists to believe that these Mayan ruins were influenced by the Itza family way before they built Chichen Itza.

However, unlike the other Mayan ruins whose civilizations demise came when the Spaniards came, Edzna was mysteriously abandoned in 1500 that is still unexplained to this day. Another notable feature about Edzna was that the city lacked a natural water source as it wasn’t built next to a cenote like many other Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula. So the city had an elaborate underground system that stored and captured rainwater to supply the city.

There is an evening light show that takes place here all year long, in the summer it shows at 8 pm and in the winter at 7 pm.

Admission:

55 pesos a person, parking is free.

Xcambo

Xcambo Ruins in Mexico

Xcambo is not the most impressive of the Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula but totally worth a stop if you happen to be passing by between Progresso and San Crisanto in the Yucatan state. The site itself is located in next to a jungle swamp and only 2 km from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Why did we include this smallish site?

Pink Lakes in Mexico

Because right by the Xcambo Mayan ruins is pink lakes. Not as large as the popular Las Coloradas but still pink lakes that you can actually get in! There are several small lakes and totally worth the stop. Especially since it’s only a few bucks per person to visit. (I can’t remember exactly how many pesos we paid, but it wasn’t much)

With both of these things right here along the coast of the beach, it’s worth the 30-45 minute stop to see both!

You can visit the pink lakes Facebook page here.


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