We have fallen in love with exploring the Mayan Ruins in Mexico. The Riviera Maya is one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations, made popular because of it’s incredible Caribbean beachfront, located on the east side of the Yucatan Peninsula. This beautiful coastline is the preferred destination for millions of tourists every year looking to soak up the sunshine in beachside towns such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum. For those who want a bit of adventure on their vacation, we recommend checking out some of the archeological history from the Mayan civilization who once called this region home.
The Yucatan Peninsula – and parts of northern Central America – is home to over 90 discovered Mayan Ruins, the remnant of the once mighty empire that occupied this land. While some of them are quite small (with only a few simple temples and fortifications) there are many great cities that were regional powerhouses that you can visit during your trip. The most famous of these ruins is the iconic Pyramid of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza, which was named as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.
The Riviera Maya was given its name in the 1970s, when the newly formed state of Quintana Roo was promoting this new tourism corridor, which covered the coastline from Cancun to Tulum. While it was an ambitious project, it was successful and today Cancun International Airport is the second busiest airport in Mexico (behind only Mexico City) and is the main entry point for visitors on the Riviera Maya.
Mayan ruins are everywhere on the Yucatan Peninsula, and there are many more yet to be discovered. There are many small temples and ruins that you can explore during your visit. Some of these smaller ruins – such as Playacar, Xcaret, El Rey (on the Cancun) or the temple on Isla Mujeres – that you can visit if you want to see ALL of them, but there are 6 of these archeological zones that stand out and are the most worthy of your visit.
Tulum and Chichen Itza are two of the three most visited archeological sites in all of Mexico, and are definitely the most popular for people to visit .The crystal blue water at Tulum and the Pyramid at Chichen Itza are both very worthwhile, but if you want to get a bit further of the beaten track, there are several other nearby ruins you can see as well. We have narrowed down our favourites to the following 6 locations, all of which can be visited during your visit to the Riviera Maya.
All of these ruins are quite easy to explore, either DIY or as part of a tour. If you rent a car, you can easily see two of these ruins in the same day, and if you’re on a budget, you can also reach any of these via public transit for a few dollars. There are many tour operators that make the journey, and it is easy to book through a travel agency in any of the towns or inside the resort.
We still have so much more exploring to do along the Yucatan Peninsula, and there are many ruins still on our list of things to do; we will be sharing more recommendations once we’ve knocked off a few more sites from our list. We’re hoping to visit Calakmul, Chachoben and Uxmal before the end of 2019.
With this article, we are only showcasing the easiest ones to visit on a day trip from the Riviera Maya resorts and tourist centers. This list will hopefully inspire you to include some of these great sites on your next visit to the Riviera Maya. Please enjoy our latest post, “6 Incredible Mayan Ruins on the Riviera Maya”.
6 Incredible Mayan Ruins on the Riviera Maya
1. Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is number one for good reason. It is one of the most visited places in Mexico, drawing over 2 million visitors every year and it was named as one of the “New 7 Wonders of the World” which has only made it a more popular place to visit.
This sprawling ruins complex has many well preserved structures, but the archeological zone is best known for the Temple of Kukulkan, a 30-meter tall step pyramid with 7 platforms that rise above all the other temples and structures in the complex.
It is one of the most incredible structures we’ve seen anywhere in Mexico. The symmetry of this step pyramid is amazing, casting perfect shadows onto itself when the sun is just right. It is one of the most recognizable archeological landmarks in the world and one of the main reasons why Chichen Itza is such an impressive place to visit.
While most people come to see the main temple, there is much more to Chichen Itza than just this one pyramid. This complex is home to many other really well-preserved temples and buildings, including the observatory, the great ball court and the temple of the warriors.
It is also one of the easiest to visit, as most local tour operators will be trying to sell you a tour here. Don’t miss your chance to see this incredible place. The ruins are located just outside of the city of Valladolid, a very picturesque colonial town with nearly 500 years of history.
For those who are a bit more adventurous, renting a car will allow yourself to stop at other attractions and destinations on the way. Driving in Mexico isn’t for everyone, but there are two toll-highways that travel from either Cancun and Playa del Carmen that make it a safe and easy trip. If you’re doing it on the cheap, and planing to spend a few days in Valladolid, it is possible to take a small public bus (collectivos) or the comfortable air conditioned ADO’s busses that travel this route.
A trip to Chichen Itza is definitely worth the trip, and if you’re only going to see one of the ruins on this list, this has to be the number one choice.
2. Ek Balam
These incredible ruins are located just north of Valladolid, and are one of our favourite archeological zones that we have visited in Mexico. Especially when you consider how close they are to Chichen Itza, its a shame that more people don’t visit.
It is about a 30 minute drive north-east of Valladolid, the Mayan Ruins at Ek Balam are one of the best examples of the Mayan world found in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Ek Balam means ‘black jaguar’ in the Mayan Language. The city was prominent from 300 BC until the end of the Mayan Empire and was likely known as Talol instead of Ek Balam. The main pyramid of Ukit Kan Lek Tok is noted for the preservation of the plaster on the side of the tomb, which is covered and on still on display. Much like Coba, it is still possible to climb to the top of the tallest pyramid.
Most of the buildings here are from the late classical period. Despite its size and importance during the Mayan period, it had been abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived and the site was hidden under the jungle until the 1980’s when excavation began.
There is still much of this location that has yet to be excavated; only the main plaza area has been uncovered but you can see many covered mounds that have pyramids and structures underneath. It was once the seat of an important Mayan Kingdom and the site has many well-preserved examples of Mayan architecture, especially the tomb of Ukit Kan Lek Tok, the tallest pyramid on the site.
For the best views of Ek Balam, hike to the top of the staircase for a great panorama of the surrounding jungles. We had heard that on a really clear day its possible to see the distant pyramids at Chichen Itza and Coba on the horizon.
While a lot of this Mayan ruin is still under dirt awaiting excavation, the main plaza is well preserved, and most days you will have this place mostly to yourself. There are some impressive buildings that have been uncovered here aside from the main pyramid, including the Entrance Arch, the Oval Palace, and ball-court, and includes a defensive wall surrounding the complex.
There are less tourists here, which means you can still feel like an explorer while wandering around this amazing archeological zone. Ek Balam is located a short drive from Valladolid, and while it might not get the same attention of its more famous neighbors (such as Coba and Chichen Itza) it holds a special charm, and should be added to your itinerary.
Exploring the ruins of Tulum is a can’t miss experience on the Riviera Maya. The ancient walled city sits on some of the most pristine real estate in Mexico, perched on top of the hills overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
It is one of the most picturesque places in the world. The lush green vegetation and crystal blue waters form the perfect backdrop, contrasting against the grey concrete of the ruins. It is absolutely beautiful.
There are many great Mayan Ruins scattered around Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and into Northern Honduras and Nicaragua, but none of them have the same view as the ruins in Tulum.
The city is distinct amongst the Mayan cities, as it had a strong defensive wall to ward off any attacks. In fact, the name Tulum is most likely a translation of the Mayan word for wall. The cities actual name was likely to have been “the city of dawn”, which makes sense because the city faced the sunrise every morning. It was an important coastal city for trading, connected to nearby cities such as Coba and Muyil.
It is one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico, behind Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan in Mexico City. It is easily accessible for thousands of tourists who visit this part of Mexico, and there are always busses of tourists arriving every hour. You really want to visit this place first thing in the morning, because even at this time it is difficult to avoid the crowds. With that being said, even with the crowds, it is totally worth it.
Coba was one of the most important Mayan cities located on the Yucatan peninsula during the height of the Mayan period. It is the nexus of one of the largest network of stone roads and causeways which all lead to this city.
It is located about halfway between Chichen Itza and Tulum, about an hour drive from the coast. Along the road to Coba, there are many great cenotes to visit as you make the 40-km drive from Tulum. Try to get there early in the day in order to beat the crowds, as around mid-day there are many tour buses that begin to arrive. It also helps to avoid the heat.
The Coba archeological zone is fairly large and worthy of a few hours to spend exploring the complex. The city had a close relationship with the smaller nearby cities of Muyil and Tulum. Since the complex is quite large, you can rent a bike (or hire someone to do the peddling for you) which will allow you to cover more distance during your visit.
During it’s peak, it was one of the most influential city’s on the Yucatan Peninsula and was once home to as many as 50,000 people. The site has been inhabited since 50-100 AD and most of the most prominent buildings were built during the late classical period, around 500-900AD.
There are many well preserved stone causeways that have been found at this site, which have helped archeologists map the site. These roads were called “Sacbeob” and connected the residential areas of the site with the main temple grounds.
This archaeological site has 4 main temple complexes, and the city was located around two lagoons, Lake Coba and Lake Macanxoc. The largest pyramid at Coba is the Ixmoja, part of the Nohoch Mul group, and this pyramid is 42 meters high.
One of the highlights from visiting this location is that there is a staircase you can still climb up tallest pyramid. It is one of the few pyramids that you can climb in Mexico, and there are rumours that they will soon restrict access to the top, so make sure to visit while this is still possible. The views from above of the surrounding jungle canopy is pretty impressive.
This is where you get way off the beaten track, as the Mayan Ruins at Muyil is much less popular than any other sites on our list. Located only 15 km south of Tulum, is one of the oldest (and longest-standing) cities in the Mayan world, dating back 300 BC.
We spent just over 2 hours wandering around these ruins and had a hard time running into other people. It felt like we were exploring the ruins for the first time, much like an Indian Jones adventure. Most of the pathways are still surrounded by jungle and the ruins are still slowly being uncovered and preserved.
This was an important city for trading along the Caribbean and likely had close ties to the walled port city of Tulum and the nearby regional powerhouse Coba. It is one of the oldest and longest inhabited cities that the Mayans established on the Yucatan peninsula, with artifacts dating back as far as 350 BC.
Much like Coba, it was built in the “Petan” style of Mayan architecture and visually looks a lot like Tikal, in Guatemala, with high pyramids and steep staircases. Part of this Archeological Zone is bordered by and located inside the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve, which the Mayans held in high regard, the meaning of which translates into “where the sky is born”.
As you wander through the site, you will find a small gate, which leads through the jungle to visit a great obvservation platform and the nearby Lagoon of Muyil, and from the dock here you can take a boat tour out onto the lagoon.
The entrance to this park is much cheaper than any other in the region and is very close to the highway, making it an easy place to visit while on a road trip south (or on your way back from Coba). It is a very peaceful way to spend some time in the jungle, admiring the achievements of the Maya. It is one of our favourite ruins in the area, and it is about as far off the beaten track that you can get.
6. San Gervasio
The Mayans had inhabited the island of Cozumel as early as the 1st century, and it was an important pilgrimage destination for women desiring fertility in order to appease the Moon Goddess Ix Chel.
There were several permanent settlements on the island, mostly from the post-classic period, and even after the Mayan decline, there were still 10,000 people living on the island when the Spanish first arrived in the 1500’s.
Cozumel is a 40 minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen, and once you’re on the island, the best way to explore here is to rent a car for the day – also a good way to see the east side of the island – or hire a taxi to act as your tour guide.
The city of San Miguel just celebrated its 500th birthday, and the new town displaced and destroyed the largest of the remnants from the Mayans and is where most of the current population live today. There are several small ruins located on the island – at El Caracol and Punta Sur – but the largest remaining structures can be found at the archeological zone of San Gervasio, which was an important pilgrimage site.
Only a quarter of San Gervasio has been excavated, so there is only a small portion of this site which can be visited. If you’re visiting here expecting to see grand pyramids such as those found at Chichen Itza, you will be disappointed.
We hired a guide for our visit, and he told us much of the specific history of this site, and pointed out some interesting symmetry and numerology found at the ruins.
Sadly, most of the ruins at San Gervasio was destroyed by dynamite in the 1800’s when raiders came here searching for hidden gold inside the temples. Archeologists have reconstructed some of the ruins, but since there were no photos taken before it’s destruction, the site is only partially rebuilt.
This particular location wasn’t a place where the locals lived, but instead was a temple complex where people from across the Yucatan would come to pay homage to Moon Goddess Ix Chel, who was the goddess of fertility amongst other things. Most Mayans would either send offerings or travel here themselves once in their lifetime, making the crossing from Tulum to Cozumel. It seems fitting to make the journey to Cozumel once in your life to visit this ruins.