Besides its incredible beaches and world-class resorts, Mexico’s Caribbean coast is also home to (or within easy reach of) numerous ancient Maya ruins, including some of the most important archaeological sites in the country and the continent. A visit to one or more is well worth a day off the sand, even for committed beach hounds. (And at least one site—Tulum—has historical value and a pretty little beach. Sweet!)

Chichén Itzá, with its iconic pyramid and massive ball court, is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Scores of tours head there from Cancún, but getting to the site early—by bus or rental car—lets you beat the crowds and enjoy this fascinating site at your own pace.

Ek’ Balam boasts one of the best-preserved stucco friezes in the Maya world and an all-embracing view from atop its main pyramid. A nearby cenote is great for cooling off.

Ek' Balam in the Yucatan. Photo © Jose Ignacio Soto/123rf.

Ek’ Balam in the Yucatan. Photo © Jose Ignacio Soto/123rf.

Cobá has an even better view from its main pyramid—at 42 meters (138 feet) high, it’s the second tallest in the Yucatán Peninsula. Nestled in a forest near several small lakes, it’s also a good place to spot birds and butterflies.

Tulum is the subject of innumerable postcards, perched on a bluff overlooking the turquoise Caribbean Sea. Like Chichén Itzá, it’s far more rewarding to skip the tour and make your way to Tulum early to enjoy the site before the throngs arrive.

Kohunlich, in southern Quintana Roo, is the most remote of the ruins listed here and is best known for a series of imposing stucco masks. Nearby is a unique all-inclusive luxury resort with guided trips in the surrounding forest and lagoons.

Sculpture detail at the ruins of Kohunlich, Mexico. Photo © Achim Prill/123rf.

Sculptural detail at the ruins of Kohunlich, Mexico. Photo © Achim Prill/123rf.

San Gervasio is Isla Cozumel’s main archaeological site, with several modest temples connected by forest paths. Dedicated to the goddess of fertility Ixchel, San Gervasio was an important pilgrimage site for ancient Maya women.

El Rey, San Miguelito, and Yamil Lu’um are small ruins right in Cancún’s Zona Hotelera. El Rey is the largest and best preserved of the group, and is also home to hundreds of iguanas—a sure hit for the kids.


Excerpted from the Twelfth Edition of Moon Cancún & Cozumel.