There are thousands of Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula, southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras – many of them still unexcavated. Of the hundreds that are open to visitors, even just starting with the Yucatan Peninsula, how do you decide which of the best ruins to visit in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula to explore?
I’ve spent over 2 months here, so I want to share with you the best Mayan ruins to visit in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula – from popular and well-visited sites, to a few that are more off-the-beaten-path – you’ll get a well-rounded idea of Mayan history and architecture.
The 5 Best Ruins to Visit in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula
And if you follow the order I list them in below, you can easily shape your itinerary – first spending a few days in the colorful colonial city Merida, and then relaxing on the beautiful beaches of Tulum (with a few side trips to the ruins of course!).
Chichen Itza is usually considered the most important Mayan site so it’s a must see. It’s thought to have been a capital city of the region, and a major trade center. This also means it’s the most touristy ruin in the area – but it’s still definitely worth a visit!
How to Get To Chichen Itza:
You can visit this site from almost any town in the peninsula, but it’s easiest and fastest from the city of Merida. You can drive yourself – it’s a straight shot on the highway – or arrange a tour in one of the many tour agencies in the city. Or if you prefer to DIY it, you can hop on an ADO bus to the ruins, and catch a return bus later in the day.
Bring lots of water, a big hat, and sunscreen. This is one of the hottest sites – there are almost no trees for cover, so you’ll be really glad you brought a hat!
You can combine your visit to the ruins with one of the many beautiful cenotes nearby.
Uxmal is considered one of the most important ruins, yet is surprisingly little-visited. It is located further inland than most of the other popular sites,and is representative of the Puuc style of architecture. The buildings and carvings are unique to this area, and make for an interesting comparison to the styles at Chichen Itza or the Tulum ruins.
The layout of the ancient city is also different than many other ruins. Instead of being arranged geometrically, it’s arranged according to astronomical events.
How to Get to Uxmal:
Uxmal is located only 62km south of Merida, so it makes for a very easy day trip. You can drive yourself on the highway if you’ve rented a car. You can also easily arrange a tour from the city.
The third option is to take the Sunday bus from Merida which stops at all the minor Puuc ruins (see below), as well as Uxmal. This is what I did, and I thought it was a great and efficient way to see all these ruins, including the more off-the-beaten path smaller ruins, in one day.
The Sunday bus leaves at 8am from the TAME station in Merida. You can find more info here.
If you don’t have your own transportation, take the Sunday Puuc route bus!
And as always, bring a hat, sunscreen, and water!
Why Visit the Puuc Ruins:
These are very overlooked ruins because the sites are small, but I found them super interesting! Many of them had very interesting carvings, cool building layouts, and interesting locations. Some were tucked in the jungle, while others were more in the open.
Here’s a breakdown on the 4 smaller Puuc sites:
Labna is a small ruin with interesting carvings and columns. My favorite part was a partially unexcavated ruin in the back. There is a square geometric structure with a unique flat section at the top. It’s atop an unexcavated pyramid. There is also a pretty and unique archway. The structure is super unique!
X-Lapak is very small, but has a very interesting design. The main temple has distinct and complex geometric shapes across the top half of the temple.
This site is less restored than others, so it’s in a bit of a “crumbling” state. This makes for an interesting ambiance though and allows you to see what it might look like when a temple is discovered.
This was my favorite of the smaller Puuc ruins. The main temple is pretty huge and impressive. It is 3 distince floors/tiers with lots of regal columns and staircases. It feels like a mix of a Mayan ruin and a Roman ruin. The pink/red stones also are pretty and unique
Kabah is a big open site with lots of large connected structures. You can climb around and across them. There are great views on top as well as a section with lots of interesting carved masks.
There are lots of interesting carvings here and nooks & crannies to explore.
How to Get to the Puuc Ruins:
As with Uxmal, you have three options to get here. You can drive yourself if you have rented a car – all the sites are on the same route and close together. You can follow this map.
You can also take a tour from any agency in Merida.
The third option is to take the Sunday Puuc route bus that leaves from the TAME station in Merida at 8am. This will take you to all 4 of the above Puuc ruins, as well as Uxmal at the end. See here for more info.
Don’t miss these small but interesting sites! You’ll get a look into Mayan life during the classical period, and most likely have the sites mostly to yourself.
Taking the Sunday bus is a great way to see these off-the-beaten path sites if you’re short on time or don’t have your own transport.
Many of these sites have some shade, but as always bring a hat, sunscreen and water!
This is one of my favorite sites to visit in this area for a couple reasons.
- The best way to see this large and spread out site is by bicycle! You can rent bikes as soon as you arrive, and it’s sooo fun to cruise around this jungley area.
- There is so much to see here – tons of small little ruins tucked into lush jungle here and there, plus a super tall pyramid that you can climb to the top and have an amazing view for miles and miles over the jungle canopy.
How to Get to Coba:
This site is so easy to get to from Tulum, that it surprises me that more people don’t visit!
It’s a straight shot on the highway inland from Tulum. If you have your own car, it should take you less than an hour.
You could also arrange a tour with an agency in Tulum.
It’s also super easy to take an ADO bus from Tulum pueblo to the ruins. This is how we got there. Buses leave every day in the morning.
Rent a bike! It’s definitely the best way to get around this huge site, and also the most fun. You’ll beat the heat as you cruise around.
As always, bring a hat, sunscreen and water.
The little taquerias and comedors outside the gates are pretty good for a snack after your explorations.
I definitely recommend climbing the big pyramid for amazing views and photo ops. Just keep in mind that these steps are suuuper steep, so if you’re afraid of heights, it might be challenging to get back down (though there is a rope to hold on to as you descend).
The Tulum ruins definitely win for having the most beautiful location of all the ruins. Their placement on the cliffs overlooking some of the most beautiful white sand and turquoise water beaches on the coast is breathtaking.
The ruins are pretty and impressive too. They are not the biggest individual buildings, but the site is fairly large, with interesting ruins here and there.
How to Get to the Tulum Ruins:
These ruins are incredibly easy to visit if you’re staying in Tulum. You can drive the few minutes from the town or the hotel zone on the beach. Or you can easily take a taxi from either location.
A third option is bike there. I’ve done this on a couple of occasions and think it’s a really fun way to take in the jungle surroundings.
Bike rentals are super common in Tulum, so you’re hotel will likely have them available, and if not there are tons of other bike rental shops.
If you’re biking from town, you can take the highway until you reach the turnoff for the entrance. Or you can take the scenic route. It’s a bit longer, but more pleasant. You can take the paved bike/walking path from town to the beach, and then take the quieter beach road to the entrance. It’s also fun to stop on the way at any of the many hotels and restaurants for a cold beer or a snack.
There are also a couple beautiful beaches along this stretch with public access. Lock up your bike and go for a refreshing dip before continuing on your way!
If you are biking, try to do it earlier or later in the day to beat the heat. Take breaks and drink water!
If you’re not staying in Tulum, there will still be many tours available from Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
If you’re looking for an affordable hotel in Tulum that’s super cute, check this one out. You’ll also get a more authentic experience spending a few nights in town.
Even though these ruins are right by the sea, it can get incredibly hot here. If possible, I’d recommend to go early. They are also quite a popular site, so going early may help you beat the crowd! Pictures will also be nicer if you avoid the harsh light of midday.
If you go during green/rainy season, the foliage will be lush.
There isn’t a lot of shade here, so definitely a good idea to have a hat, sunscreen, and water.
Bring a bathing suit, there is a beach you can access through a staircase inside the ruins. With how hot and sweaty you will be, you’ll most likely want to jump into the refreshing water!
Visiting any of these ruins is fun and adds a lot of cultural context and history to your trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. If you’re able to visit all 5 sites, you’ll come away with a much richer understanding of the region!
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