Mayan Ruins near Cancun and the Mayan Riviera

Mexico's Mayan Riviera is mainly known for its world-famous resorts, powder-fine white sandy beaches, and lots of other tourist attractions, but there is much more to this area of the world than that.
Cancun has only been there since the 1970s, when a computer showed developers where to build a resort with the best beaches, but the area has been occupied for thousands of years before. The Ancient Maya had built city-states all over the peninsula, and their civilization flourished for thousands of years. Some of the ruins are still standing, a few are rebuilt, and opened up for tourists.

If you go to Cancun or the Mayan Riviera, take a few days off your beach vacation and explore some of these ruins. You can take a tour bus to most of these sites, but you'll have a limited experience if you do. Instead, rent a car and take a road trip to see them.

Xel-Ha Ruins

Emese Fromm

If you take Highway 307 from Cancun towards Tulum, right before the big sign for Xel-Ha Park, on the right side of the road you will see a small sign with a gate and dirt parking lot. It is the entrance to Xel-Ha Ruins. Though it is a relatively small site, Xel-Ha has structures dating from 300 - 600 A.D., and some of them still have walls with the ancient paint still on. The trail to the left leads to the Palace Group, and farther on, to the Pyramid of the Birds, the oldest structure, visible even from the highway.


Carlos Delgado - Wikimedia Commons

Follow Highway 307 further South, and it leads to Tulum, the most visited ruin on the peninsula. The site is on the left of the road and you need to take a shuttle to the actual ruins. Since it gets very crowded, count on standing in line for tickets, and sharing the ruins with thousands of visitors. However, it is worth the stop if you've never been there. Built on a high cliff right on the beach, Tulum looks like an ancient fortress. The most spectacular structure is El Castillo, on a cliff above the beach. After exploring the site, you have the opportunity to walk down to the beach for a swim.


Emese Fromm

Heading farther South on Highway 307, about twenty minutes past Tulum, on the left side of the road you see another site, Muyil. The parking lot is dirt, and the site is much quieter than Tulum, though bigger and much older, some of its structures dating from as far back as 1 A.D. Although it is the largest site on the coast, most of it is still in the jungle. The most impressive structure is the Castillo, the tallest pyramid on the coast at 52 feet, recently reconstructed.

After exploring the few excavated structures, you have the option to go on a nature trail leading out to a spectacular lagoon, part of Sian Ka'an Nature Preserve.


Jeff Fromm

Head back towards Tulum and at the crossroads follow the sign to Coba. About 45 minutes later you reach the town and Archaeological Zone of Coba. This is one of the biggest excavated sites on the whole peninsula, and you'll need at least three to four hours to explore it. If you really want to do it justice, I would recommend spending a whole day there, from opening to closing time. If you explored the other sites earlier in the day, chances are, you'll get here by closing time, so it is worth to stay overnight in town. You don't have a big selection, but Hotel Sac-Be, owned by a local Mayan family, is a good choice. The ruins close at 5 p.m. so it is best to dine at the restaurant on site and set off for the ruins as soon as they open, at 9 a.m.

Coba is home to the only pyramid on the peninsula that you can still climb, the highest as well, called Nohuch Mul. If you want to climb it (and if you made it here, you might as well), head over to it first thing in the morning, to beat the heat and the crowds. It is one of the farthest structure from the entrance, and early in the morning, the walk is pleasant in the shade of the trees.

Once you leave Nohuch Mul, head over to the Macanxoc Group, an area filled with stelae, or history written in stone. You will most likely experience some solitude in this area since not many tourists come in so far. A walk among these stones filled with Mayan hieroglyphic writing and pictures is worth the stop. Heading back, stop at Templo de Las Pinturas, the Ballcourt, and finally, on your way out, at the pyramid at the entrance, La Iglesia.

After spending a big part of the day at the archaeological site, head over to the cenotes not far from here. The three underground cenotes, Tamcah-Ha, Choo-Ha and Multun-Ha, all have crystal clear, cold water that you can swim in.

Ek Balam

Jeff Fromm

Once you leave Coba, take Route 180 towards Valladolid, then take 295 North for about 20 miles to Ek Balam. Excavated recently, Ek Balam is one of the most spectacular sites. Only the main plaza has been excavated so far, dominated by the Acropolis, a palace as well as a pyramid, the largest structure on the Yucatan peninsula. The palace has six levels, and it is also the tomb of one of the greatest rulers of this city-state.

Chichen Itza

Jeff Fromm

From Ek Balam, follow the road towards Chichen Itza, probably the best-known Mayan Ruin. Chances are, you won't have time to explore these ruins the same day, so you might want to stay in a hotel close by. Hacienda Chichen is the best, as well as closest to the ruins, though I recommend calling ahead for reservations. Otherwise, you can find a hotel in the town of Piste. Go to the ruins for the light show, after dark, it is a spectacle you don't want to miss. Return in the morning to explore the ruins. You will probably want to spend a big part of your day here since there is a lot to see and you need to deal with crowds, lines and other tourist traps. However, it is all worth it, Chicken Itza being a spectacular site.

The most famous structure is the Castillo, the pyramid where the shadow of the Mayan God Kukulcan, in the form of a serpent, is seen descending the stairs during the spring and fall equinox. Other structures worth exploring are the Temple of the Warriors, the Caracol (the Observatory of the Ancient Maya), the Sacred Cenote, and the largest Ball Court on the peninsula.

Emese Fromm is a freelance writer and translator, who has been traveling to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and exploring its Ancient Maya structures for over twenty years.