Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is home to a number of former Mayan cities, with the ruins that remain today major tourist attractions that allow visitors a glimpse into the Mayan world. The Mayan civilisation is one of the ancient world’s most fascinating cultures. The Yucatan Peninsula is home to some of the most famous Mayan sites including one of the New Seven Wonders of the World – Chichen Itza – and exploring a Mayan site or two is on the agenda for most visitors to this part of the world.
With so many Mayan sites to visit, all a little different but equally astounding, it can be overwhelming when deciding which ones to prioritise on your itinerary. While each and every site has something to offer, planning which sites you visit and in what order is important. One of the things about travel is that as well as opening us up to new worlds, we can sometimes become a bit accustomed to things and can at times be guilty of not appreciating each site with perhaps the same enthusiasm you do the first couple you visit.
When visiting any of the sites below, remember to take plenty of water as it’s very hot on the Yucatan Peninsula most of the year and many of these sites offer little or no shade. Another thing to note about admission to many of the sites below are the different fees payable for admission. It’s often not clearly signed so don’t be surprised if you queue up for a ticket at one window to then be told to go and queue at another window to pay again. These are different fees – one collected by the state government and other by the federal government.
Here are my top five Mayan sites on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. They all offer something a little different and I suggest you visit them all if you have time.
Uxmal is an impressive site with lots of buildings, most of which have been restored. This is a large complex and the variety of the structures here allows you to get as sense of how people lived and what Uxmal might have looked like in its time. Many of the buildings are decorated with snakes, gods and serpents. The giant Pyramid of the Magician that you will see when first entering the site is the most impressive of all structures at Uxmal and is of a scale that in my view rivals the Great Pyramid at Chichen Itza. The decorative Governor’s Palace is another highlight. Although Uxmal is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a major tourist attraction in this region, it doesn’t draw the same crowds as Chichen Itza and if you plan your visit for the early morning, you will likely be able to get away from the rest of the tourists to really appreciate the site for what it is.
Mayapan is only a small site and is off the main tourist trail. This lesser-visited site is worth adding to your itinerary as you can explore freely without the crowds. The site is about 20 minutes from the main road between Merida and Uxmal. The journey there is interesting in itself – the narrow road goes through a number of small villages and you will get an authentic look at Mexican life here. Mayapan itself was once one of the most important communities of the Mayan civilisation and was home to around 15,000 people. The real attraction of Mayapan is the opportunity to explore the site largely on your own. During our visit, I counted only five other people. You can climb the largest pyramid here and it offers views out over the site and the surrounding landscape.
Chichen Itza is the most famous Mayan site of them all and deservedly so. This enormous former city has been carefully restored in part and perhaps more than any other site allows visitors to step back and imagine what life was like for the Mayan people. The Giant Pyramid is one of the world’s most iconic structures and it doesn’t disappoint. The masses of people who visit every day don’t distract from the awe this pyramid inspires. A highlight here is the Great Ball Court where traditional ballgames were played by the Mayan people. There are 13 ball courts at Chichen Itza, with this being the largest. The Temple of the Warriors and the Sacred Cenote are other highlights of this sight. Again, try and visit in the early morning to beat some of the tour buses.
The ruins at Tulum have to be the most beautifully situated in all of Mexico. On a limestone cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, many people come here for the photo opportunities alone. The most impressive structure still here today is the Castillo, perched above a small beach with the white sand and turquoise water you expect of the Caribbean Sea. Tulum served as a port city and was the only Mayan city built on the coast, as well as one of only a few walled cities built by the Mayans. The site was at its most powerful between the 13th and 15th centuries. Like most sites, it’s best to arrive early to visit Tulum. Make your way straight to the Castillo to get some great photo opportunities before the tour groups arrive.
The Mayan ruins at Coba are set among dense jungle, making them different from the other Mayan sites covered here. Large sections of the former city of Coba are still to be discovered and restored, meaning the site has a much more wild and untouched feel to other Mayan sites. Coba is also home to the largest pyramid remaining in the Mayan world.
Coba was once home to around 50,000 people and is a large site to get around. There are bikes for hire just inside the complex so grab one for exploring Coba. The bike enables you to cover more territory during your visit and is also lots of fun. It’s popular to climb the Nohuch Mul, the giant pyramid at the back of the site, and you’ll find lots of people doing this. It’s a steep ascent, but the challenge is more in the mind than the body at times, particularly on the way down. Much of the site’s construction occurred in the sixth and seventh centuries and you can see the remains of roads, homes and temples. You’ll also ride past plenty of mounds that upon closer inspection prove to be pyramids and other structures yet to be uncovered.