When most people think of Mexico, one of the first images that comes to mind (along with the good food) is the majestic, stately visage of the main pyramid at Chichen Itza rising serenely at the centre of a beautiful ancient plaza. Although Chichen Itza is a beautiful site, there are many other amazing ruined Mayan cities around Mexico that deserve to be explored and savoured. Better still, many of the other sites are much less touristy, and some of them are so quiet you can have whole temples to yourself for hours. This guide will give you the low-down on my 6 favourites.
Calakmul is my favourite Mayan site in Mexico. Just getting to the ancient city is an adventure in itself, as the nearest town is almost a two hour drive away through the jungle. You will feel like a real explorer as you wander around the huge site that is spread through 8 square miles of thick jungle in the Peten basin region.
The main attractions at Calakamul are the two huge temple mountains, so called due to there sheer size. From the top of the Pyramids you will have uninterrupted views of the huge tropical forest which surrounds this remote sight. Be sure to be on the look at for wildlife, as Calakmul is home to a massive variety of animals, including tapirs and jaguars!
Uxmal is a fantastic, stunning ruined city that gets a fraction of the tourists of the sites close to the Mayan Riviera. The architecture here is as impressive as any you will see in Mexico. The city is also considered one of the four most important Mayan archaeological sites in Mexico, so you can’t miss it if you exploring ancient history. Uxmal is only 62km south of Merida, so you can combine it with a trip to one of the most charming cities of the Yucatan.
The most iconic site of the city is the unique Pyramid of the Magician pictured above. As you can see it’s really well preserved and has a very different architectural style to sites like Chichen Itza.
No list of Mayan sites would be complete without Palenque. This ruin might not be as large or undiscovered as some other sites mentioned here, but it makes up for it in sheer breathtaking beauty. Palenque is an architectural gem. The city has more carvings than any other in Mexico, and the central Pyramid is stunning. What really sets Palenque apart is the tomb inside the Pyramid, where the cities greatest ruler was buried in a jade Sarcophagus. When you have seen this site you won’t be able to help making comparisons with the Egyptian Pyramids.
It’s not just the architecture that makes Palenque so special. The site is set in a verdant tropical rainforest on the edge of a mountain range. Many of the smaller buildings are inside the rainforest too, so you can enjoy a good hike while examining them. Don’t forget to check out the small waterfall and walk across the swinging wooden bridge.
Becan is an often overlooked site, partly due to it’s remote location in an area of Mexico few people stop in. Becan is also overshadowed by the larger site of Calakmul. This lack of exposure is your gain though, as this fascinating site often only sees only a handful of people each day. You are also allowed to climb up and inside all of the buildings here; allowing you to live out your Indiana Jones fantasies.
Becan is quite a large site with a couple of unique features: It has the only defensive moat of any Mayan city found to date, and has a covered walkway connecting two of the plazas. Becan also has two impressive Pyramids. The views from the top are stunning, with vultures and eagles often soaring close to the summits.
I would recommend climbing the main Pyramid last, then you can stay to watch the sunset and see the stars come out. Just be sure to bring a torch.
I’m sure many of you reading this will have a puzzled look when seeing the name Tonina in this list. Tonina has to be one of the least well known major Mayan ruins, but it’s certainly worth seeing. The pyramid at Tonina is arguably the tallest in Mexico at 75 metres (arguable as some of that height is due to it being on a hill). Naturally the views from the top of the Pyramid are stunning; with mountains covered in dark pine forest and lush valleys surrounding the site. As you can imagine the site gets very few visitors, so it has a relaxing atmosphere. Best of all there is no entry fee.
6. Chichen Itza
The Godfather of Meso-America ruins. No list of Mayan sites in Mexico would be complete without Chichen Itza. Yes it’s extremely touristy, with the hordes of tour groups and tacky souvenir stands everywhere. The fact you can’t climb up, or indeed inside any of the buildings also makes it feel like you are walking around an open-air museum at times. Still Chitchen Itza is undeniably beautiful and majestic. The sheer scale and intricate detail of the architecture will take your breath away. It’s amazing to think a people without the wheel or domestic animals could build cities like this. Go there early in the morning, or stay late to miss most of the tour groups and savour the views. The buildings look more beautiful in the later afternoon light too.