For many people, 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; here is a description of the best Maya ruins in each region to help you decide which ones to add to your itinerary—and which to save for next time!
To dig a little deeper, so to speak, pair ruin hopping with a visit to one of the excellent Maya museums in Cancún, Chetumal, Mérida, and Campeche City.
Cancún and Isla Cozumel
El Rey, San Miguelito, and Yamil Lu’um: These small ruins are found right in Cancún’s Zona Hotelera. El Rey is the largest and best preserved of the group, and is home to hundreds of iguanas—almost as interesting to see as the structures themselves.
San Gervasio: Isla Cozumel’s main archaeological site has several modest temples connected by forest paths. Dedicated to the goddess of fertility, San Gervasio was an important pilgrimage site for ancient Maya women.
Tulum and the Costa Maya
Tulum: Perched on a bluff overlooking the turquoise Caribbean Sea, Tulum’s structures themselves are quite decayed, but a visit here is still worthwhile. Come early, as the site is often mobbed by day-trippers from nearby resorts.
Cobá: With the second-highest pyramid on the peninsula, Cobá offers a great view of the countryside. Nestled in a forest near several small lakes, it is also a good place to spot birds, including herons, parrots, and toucans.
Kohunlich: Located in southern Quintana Roo, Kohunlich is best known for a series of imposing stucco masks. Nearby is a unique luxury resort with guided trips in the surrounding forest and river areas.
Chichén Itzá: Named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, this site has the largest ball court of any Maya ruin and a pyramid recognizable the world over. Come early to beat the tour groups arriving from Cancún. Plan on spending several hours—it’s huge—and checking out the worthwhile evening sound and light show.
Ek’ Balam: Near the city of Valladolid, Ek’ Balam boasts one of the best-preserved stucco friezes in the Maya world and an all-embracing view from atop its main pyramid. Nearby cenotes provide a great place to cool off afterward.
Mérida, the Puuc Route, and Campeche
Uxmal: This may be the area’s most beautiful site, with intricate palaces and a massive pyramid with rounded corners—another must-see. The sound and light show here is also recommended.
The Puuc Route: The Ruta Puuc 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 round-trip bus from Mérida hits all four plus Uxmal, but visiting by car will give you the freedom to appreciate them longer.
Near the Puuc Route, other remarkable sites include the neatly organized Mayapán and the little-visited Oxkintok, with two impressive caves nearby; and Dzibilchaltún, with its first-rate museum and intriguing main temple.
Edzná: A peaceful site, Edzná’s Temple of Five Stories looks over a small acropolis and broad main plaza. It’s located in the Chenes region, less than an hour’s drive from Campeche City, but you still may be the only one there when you visit.
Calakmul: Located in Campeche’s Río Bec region, Calakmul was one of the most powerful Maya cities in its time and contains arguably the largest known Maya pyramid. What’s more, the site is ensconced in a biosphere reserve, where you can spot monkeys and tropical birds.
Becán and Chicanná: Also in the Río Bec region, Becán’s many structures include two huge pyramids and an impressive multiroom palace, while Chicanná has gorgeously decorated temples and residential buildings.
Other excellent sites in southern Campeche include Balamkú, El Hormiguero, and Río Bec; the latter two can be difficult to reach, however.
Palenque: This is the all-time favorite ruin of many travelers, thanks to its elegant design, intricate carvings, and superlative museum. Much of what archaeologists know about the Maya calendar, hieroglyphics, and astronomy emerged from studies conducted here.
Bonampak and Yaxchilán: Sister cities located along the Guatemalan border, Bonampak and Yaxchilán are commonly reached on tours from Palenque. The former contains brilliantly colored murals, while the latter has beautifully carved stone panels and monoliths.
Excerpted from the Twelfth Edition of Moon Yucatán Peninsula.