Pyramids and Palaces
For many, the Maya ruins are the Yucatán Peninsula’s greatest attraction, with their massive pyramids and palaces, and amazing artistic and astronomical features. Few visitors have time to visit every site in a single trip; below is a description of each state’s best Maya ruins to help you decide which ones to add to your itinerary—and which to save for next time!
State of Yucatán
There is no better state to see Maya ruins than Yucatán in terms of number, quality, and ease of access. Mérida, the lively state capital, also has an excellent Maya archaeology museum.
Chichén Itzá is a must-see, with the largest ball court of any Maya ruin and a pyramid recognizable the world over. Come early to beat the tour groups that arrive by the dozen from Cancún, and plan on spending several hours—it’s huge. The evening sound and light show is worth attending.
Uxmal may be the state’s most beautiful site, with intricate palaces and a massive pyramid with rounded corners—another must-see. The sound and light show here also is recommended.
The Ruta Puuc (Puuc Route) is a series of four smaller ruins near Uxmal. Kabah and Labná are especially memorable, including beautiful archways and facades decorated with scores of identical rain-god masks. A roundtrip bus from Mérida hits all four plus Uxmal, but visiting by car will give you the freedom to appreciate them longer.
State of Campeche
Campeche has a rich collection of archaeological sites, made all the more appealing because so few tourists visit them. The attractive state capital, Campeche City, has two highly recommended archaeology museums too.
Calakmul, in an area of southern Campeche known as the Río Bec region, was one of the most powerful Maya cites in its time and contains the largest known Maya pyramid. Even better, the site is ensconced in a biosphere reserve, where you can usually spot monkeys and tropical birds.
Becán and Chicanná are also in the Río Bec region. Becán’s many structures include two huge pyramids and an impressive multi-room palace, while Chicanná has gorgeously decorated temples and residential buildings.
Edzná is located less than an hour’s drive or bus ride from Campeche City, but you still may be the only one there when you visit. A peaceful site, its Temple of Five Stories looks over a small acrópolis and broad main plaza.
State of Quintana Roo
Quintana Roo is better known for its beaches and resorts than for its Maya ruins, but the state does has a few sites worth visiting. The capital, Chetumal, near the Belize border, has an excellent museum on Maya culture that is well worth a visit.
Cobá has the second-highest pyramid on the peninsula, offering a great view of the pancake-flat countryside. Nestled in a forest near several small lakes, Cobá is also a good place to spot birds, including herons, parrots and toucans.
Tulum, the subject of innumerable postcards, is perched on a bluff overlooking the turquoise Caribbean Sea. The structures themselves are quite decayed, but a visit here is still worthwhile. Come early, as the site is often mobbed by day-trippers from resorts near and far.
Kohunlich, in southern Quintana Roo, is best known for a series of imposing stucco masks. Nearby is a unique luxury resort operated by Fiesta Americana, with guided trips to the ruins and surrounding forest and river areas.
San Gervasio is Isla Cozumel’s main archaeological site, with several modest temples connected by forest paths. Dedicated to the goddess of fertility, San Gervasio was an important pilgrimage site for ancient Maya women.
El Rey and 22070 link Yamil Lu’um are two small ruins right in Cancún’s hotel zone. El Rey is larger and better preserved, and is also home to hundreds of iguanas, as interesting to see as the structures themselves.
State of Tabasco
Tabasco has only one major Maya site. It is much better known as the birthplace of the Olmecs, the first civilization in Mesoamerica.
Comalcalco was built in an area of swampy coastal wetlands where very little stone was available. Instead, the pyramids were built of packed earth, with oyster shells mixed in for strength, and covered with baked bricks. It is the only Maya ruin to be built in such a way.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition