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20 BEST Aztec & Mayan Ruins in Mexico (+ Map)

A must-see on any trip to Mexico, the remains of these once-powerful cities will amaze you! Check out this guide to the best Aztec and Mayan ruins in Mexico.

They say that History is told by winners. That’s a controversial term, but among the Spanish-speaking towns of Mexico (the language of the conquerors), there are many other voices. Many stories waiting to be told: The stories of the ones who lost.

Colossal pyramids, sacred temples, and beautiful palaces covered in art rise strongly, waiting to reclaim (and retell) history.

A woman in a red skirt and black shirt, wearing a hat is sitting on top of an ancient pyramid, overlooking the site of Monte Alban. Inserted in a post about ruins in Mexico

If you’re planning to go to Mexico, I bet visiting at least one of the many archeological sites and Mexico ruins is on your list. And if it’s not, then it definitely should be!

From the cliffs of beach-side Tulum to the deep green of the southern jungles, Mexico is a treasure trove of wonders, both historical and natural.

The Mayans and Aztecs, along with other Mesoamerican civilizations, once dominated present-day Mexico and Central America. Now, the remains of their cities are scattered all over the country, and it’s something to behold.

Each site has something unique to offer. From Mayan ruins in the jungle to the possibility of climbing ancient temples in Mexico, and looking over the turquoise Caribbean Sea… There is something for everyone.

Here you’ll find my list of the best Aztec and Mayan ruins of Mexico. Good luck picking which one you’d like to visit the most!

But first, where are the Mayan ruins located? They are pretty much all over Mexico, so check out the map below to have a clearer picture in your head. It will help you when navigating the long list.

MAP OF MAYAN RUINS IN MEXICO

Check out the Mayan ruins map for the location of the most important pyramids in Mexico.

Ok, now let’s get to it, shall we?

9 TOP AZTEC & MAYAN RUINS IN MEXICO

Chichen Itza

The ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza is one of the greatest archaeological sites in the Americas. It’s also the most famous of the Mexican Mayan ruins!

Undoubtedly one of the biggest tourist attractions in Mexico, it receives millions (yes, millions) of visitors each year.

A woman standing in front of the Kukulcan Pyramid in Chichen Itza

After all, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and in 2017, it was listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. We all recognize the famous step pyramid that dominates all the photos, but what exactly is Chichen Itza?

Located in the jungles of the Yucatan region, near the colonial town of Valladolid, Chichen Itza was an important Mayan city. It’s also the largest archaeological ruin of that civilization.

A major political, religious, and cultural center in the empire, it was also a site of pilgrimage for more than 1,000 years. It’s often compared to sacred pilgrimage sites such as Jerusalem or Meca.

The name Chichen Itza means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza.” The Itza were an ethnic group of Mayans who had risen to power. The well in the name refers to a nearby cenote that was considered sacred and where rituals were conducted.

The city’s importance in the Mayan world is undisputed, but what is unclear is why it went into decline and was later abandoned. Or when.

In any case, it remains an active archaeological site and one of the biggest centers of pre-Columbian life in Central America.

The site was abandoned for a long time, but now most of the ancient structures have been restored. With towering temples, a Mayan ball court, and impressive monuments it’s most definitely worth a visit on your trip to Mexico.

READ ALSO: Visiting Chichen Itza, Mexico | A Complete Guide

A woman sitting on a bench in front of the Kukulcan pyramid in Chichen Itza

If you would like to visit the Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza with someone else doing the organizing, here are some tour options:

➤ To kill three birds with one stone, this Chichen Itza, Cenote and Valladolid All-Inclusive Tour is a great option. You’ll explore Chichen Itza with a guide, then visit Valladolid, and cap the day with a swim in a sacred cenote. Pick-up from the Riviera Maya is included. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

➤ If you’re coming from Valladolid and would rather get to Chichen Itza on your own, I recommend you at least get a Chichen Itza Skip-the-Line Ticket. (Millions of visitors, remember?) ➥ BUY TICKETS

Chichen Itza Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to Chichen Itza: Valladolid (44 km / 27 miles away)

Palenque

Southern Mexico is a region of wonders. Tucked away in the deep green of the Chiapas jungle, Palenque is another major archaeological site. It lures tourists for its historical importance and natural surroundings.

A woman looking at an impressive ancient pyramid in the site of Palenque

Once a bustling city and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Palenque had connections with other big centers such as Chichen Itza or Tikal.

The city was in full bloom during the 7th century AD. Just like most of the ancient sites of Mayan civilization, it started to fall into decline and was eventually abandoned.

The constructions were overgrown by the jungle and not discovered again until 1746.

A drone image of Palenque, one of the important ruins in Mexico. A few structures can be seen among the vegetation

Home to some of the most incredible Mayan temples in Mexico, it’s believed that only about 10% of the site has been uncovered. According to archaeologists, there could be a thousand more structures left to be found in the jungle.

You can climb most of the buildings and get amazing views of the site and its surroundings. Think lush green jungle, rivers, waterfalls… It is worth staying a couple of days and chill in nature!

Even though they are the most important Mayan ruins in Chiapas, the thing about Palenque is that it’s in a remote location. It’s nowhere near the big tourist routes!

It will take you some time (and determination) to get there. But don’t be put off by this, Palenque is worth your time.

There is a small airport in the town of Villahermosa (2 hours from Palenque), but not many flights are available. Youll probably be arriving by bus or car if you have rented one.

READ ALSO: A Day Trip to Palenque, Misol Ha, and Agua Azul Waterfalls

From Cancun, it takes an overnight bus to get there (around 13 hours). It’s around 5 hours from Campeche and 8 hours from Merida.

The nearest tourist town is San Cristobal de las Casas, but still expect a few hours’ drive on a pretty bad road full of potholes.

There are places to stay and restaurants in Palenque town (7 km from the ruins), or you can take an organized tour from San Cristobal de las Casas.

➤ This Chiapas: Agua Azul, Misol-Ha & Palenque Tour is a good option. You’ll be picked up from your accommodation in San Cristobal, and taken on a day trip to the ruins. You’ll also get to see the nature around it, including the gorgeous waterfalls of Agua Azul and Misol-Ha. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

Palenque Archaeological Site Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 4.30 PM.
Closest city to Palenque: Palenque / Villahermosa (144 km / 89.5 miles away) / San Cristobal de las Casas (213 km / 132 miles)

Tulum Ruins

Ah, Tulum. Who doesn’t love Tulum? Once a hidden spot, it has become a gem in the Mayan Riviera. This is partly because of its proximity to Playa del Carmen, its turquoise waters, and world-class beaches.

But there’s more to Tulum than sand, sea, and sunshine.

A woman in a red dress overlooking the secret beach underneath the Tulum Ruins

Next to Chichen Itza, the Mayan Ruins of Tulum are one of the most popular tourist attractions and ancient Mayan sites in the Yucatan Peninsula. They’re also the best ruins in Riviera Maya.

Built as a seaport fortress on a steep ocean cliff, the ruins consist of large and thick limestone walls and brick buildings. The walls, which gave the city its name, protected it from the East.

El Castillo (The Castle) is the main pyramid at the heart of the site, and it used to serve as an ancient lighthouse.

Directly across El Castillo, you have the Temple of the Frescoes, the most well-preserved building. It has fascinating, intact murals worth checking out!

Unlike other archeological sites, the Mayan ruins in Tulum, Mexico are unique because they’re on a cliff overlooking the ocean. This makes it arguably the most picturesque Mayan ruins in the Yucatan peninsula, or even in the country!

READ ALSO: Tulum Ruins: A Complete Guide

➤ If you’re staying in Cancun or Playa del Carmen, check out this Viator Exclusive: Tulum Ruins, Reef Snorkeling, Cenote and Caves. It includes hotel pick-up and drop-off, entrance to the Tulum ruins, snorkeling on a coral reef, and swimming in a cenote. It doesn’t get any better than this! ➥ BOOK IT NOW

➤ If, on the other hand, you would rather visit these Riviera Maya ruins independently, you can get the Mayan Ruins of Tulum Entrance Tickets here. ➥ BUY TICKETS

Tulum Archaeological Site Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to Tulum Archaeological Site: Tulum (8 km / 5 miles away), Playa del Carmen (64 km / 40 miles away)

Monte Alban

Monte Alban was one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica, and it’s the most important archaeological site in the Valley of Oaxaca. It was home to the Zapotec civilization and a big socio-political center for over 1,000 years, between 500 BC and 800 AD.

A woman sitting on top of an ancient pyramid, overlooking Monte Alban. Inserted in a post about ruins in Mexico
Image by Raphael of Journey Wonders

The site is wide and open, a pleasure to walk around, and less crowded than other ruins in Mexico. It is located on a flattened mountaintop, so it’s not only great to go back in history, but also to enjoy spectacular views.

You’ll get to see the surrounding mountains and valleys, as well as Oaxaca and other smaller towns.

Back then, this elevated position allowed the government to look over its citizens and territory. Just like Chichen Itza, Monte Alban was also added as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

The Zapotecs were influenced by other civilizations, like the Aztecs and the Mayas. You can see that in the temples and tombs with hieroglyphic inscriptions, and the ball courts.

And, in case you were wondering, yes, there is a pyramid and yes, you can climb it! You will be rewarded with breathtaking views of the surroundings if you go all the way up. Definitely worth it.

At the entrance of the site, there is a small museum, a restaurant, and clean bathrooms. Monte Alban is around 4.3 miles from the center of Oaxaca City. It can be reached by a local bus (15-20 minutes), taxi, or as part of a tour.

➤ For all the fun and none of the hassle, choose this Monte Alban half-day Tour. It will pick you up and drop you off in Oaxaca, and take you to Monte Alban by the hand of a local bilingual guide. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

READ ALSO: 9 Oaxaca Tours Not to Miss

Monte Alban Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to Monte Alban: Oaxaca (7 km / 4.3 miles)

READ ALSO: 9 Incredible Things To Do in Oaxaca

Coba

There are two big advantages of visiting the Mayan ruins of Coba. For starters, they’re not nearly as crowded as the other ruins in Mexico. And secondly, climbing to the top of the pyramid is still allowed. Yesssss!

A woman climbing the steps of Nohoch Mul in the Coba ruins in Mexico

Now that I have your attention, let me tell you a bit more about the place. This site is deep in the jungle between Tulum and Valladolid, making it a little more “remote” than others, hence the lack of tourists.

It is still only a 45-minute drive from Tulum and easy to access, so there’s no excuse to miss it.

Coba was an incredibly important city in Mayan times, and it differs from others in that it was not a single site. It was rather a collection of settlements connected to the main pyramid by over 50 stone pathways known as “sacbes” (white roads).

The area is still largely unexcavated and structures are very well preserved, with nature still growing wild around it.

The sites cover an area of around 30 square miles, so it’s a great opportunity to walk around from one structure to the next under the green canopy.

Renting a bicycle is also a popular choice among tourists, and it will make for a pleasant ride among the ruins and the jungle.

A woman sitting atop a Mayan pyramid, overlooking the jungle at Coba

The pyramid in Coba is one of the few remaining Mayan pyramids in Mexico that you can still climb. So don’t waste your time and visit, as it’s likely to change if tourism increases.

READ ALSO: A Guide to the Coba Ruins, Mexico

The largest pyramid in Coba is called Ixmoja, and it’s also the tallest pyramid in Yucatan at 42 meters tall (137 feet). It takes 120 steps to reach the top.

It is a steep climb, I warn you, and the descent might be even more complicated than the way up! Luckily, there is a rope in the middle to help you, but don’t try to climb if you’re not in decent shape or feel unsure for whatever reason. It could be dangerous.

Having said that, the views from up there are unbeatable and totally worth the effort. There are ruins and the deep green of the jungle as far as the eye can see.

➤ For an amazing day trip I recommend this Tulum and Coba: Full-Day Archaeological Tour with Lunch. It will take you to both Coba and the Tulum Archeological Site, and you’ll get the chance to swim in 2 different cenotes. Pick-up and lunch are included. Worth every penny! ➥ BOOK IT HERE

Coba Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to Coba: Tulum (47.6 km / 29.5 miles)

READ ALSO: 11 Unmissable Day Trips from Tulum

Uxmal

People seem to rave more about the Uxmal ruins than Chichen Itza, claiming it’s the prettiest Mayan archaeological site in Mexico.

The archaeological site of Uxmal, surrounded by vegetation

Indeed, this impressive site used to be the most powerful Mayan city in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula along with Chichen Itza. Because the latter is very close to the big resort towns, however, Uxmal has been relegated to second place by tourists.

If anything, this at least means smaller crowds, which is always good news.

The layout of the city is not geometrical as in other Mayan cities in Mexico. Instead, it’s adapted to the hilly terrain, and it is also believed to be based on astronomical phenomena.

The structures at Uxmal are also considered to be some of the best examples of Mayan art and architecture. Without question, the most impressive and visually imposing structure on the site is the Pyramid of the Magician.

The smooth curved design and the excellent state of preservation make this 35-meter-high structure jaw-dropping.

The Uxmal archaeological site is the most important Mayan ruin near Merida, and the road is peaceful and well-maintained. It makes for a very pleasant day trip.

Once you’re done visiting the ruins, there are many cenotes in the area you can visit to cool off after a busy morning!

READ ALSO: How to Get from Cancun to Merida

➤ Check out this Tour to Uxmal, Cenote & Kabah from Merida to visit with a professional guide. You’ll visit the ruins of Uxmal, and the spectacular site of Kabah before relaxing in a beautiful cenote. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

Uxmal Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to Uxmal: Merida (80 km / 49.7 miles)

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan is the most visited tourist attraction and probably the most striking of the ancient ruins in Mexico. A fascinating archaeological site today, in its golden period (between the 1st and 7th centuries AD) it was one of the largest cities in the Americas.

A woman sitting on top of a pyramid in Teotihuacan, overlooking the site and other structures

The history of Teotihuacan is shrouded in mystery. Historians and archaeologists alike keep scratching their heads and trying to figure out who built the city, what for, and why it went to its demise.

There are many mysteries unsolved, but one thing is certain: Teotihuacan has to be on your list of places to visit in Mexico. It’s only a mere 25 miles (40 km) from Mexico City.

The entire city spans a total land area of 13 square kilometers. In fact, nearly all of the people in the Valley of Mexico lived in ancient Teotihuacan. You should plan around 2 or 3 hours for your visit, as there’s a lot of ground to cover.

The city was named UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Teotihuacan is composed of thousands of pyramids and residential compounds.

The pyramids (which are also temples) that can be found on this site are so massive that they are often compared to the pyramids of Egypt.

A panoramic image of Teotihuacan, one of the most impressive ruins in Mexico

Probably the most famous (and certainly the largest) structure in Teotihuacan is the Pyramid of the Sun. Also known as Temple of the Sun, it dominates the landscape.

The good news? You can climb it. The bad news? It’s pretty tall! (65 meters /213 feet). But don’t worry, once you see it, excitement will take over and give you the strength to climb. I mean, see the view from up there!

I could go all day about how amazing this city is, but it’s better if you just go and check it out by yourself!

➤ To get an extra taste (quite literally) of Mexican culture, check out this Teotihuacan Early Access Tour with Tequila Tasting. It includes pick-up from and drop-off at Mexico City, a visit to the ruins, and tequila. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

➤ If you would rather go on your own, I recommend getting your Teotihuacan Tickets in advance, it will save you time! ➥ BUY TICKETS

➤ Now, do you want a once-in-a-lifetime experience? This Hot Air Balloon Flight over Teotihuacan will provide. You will get to admire Teotihuacan and the surrounding valley from the air. A magical experience, to say the least, and one of the cheapest hot air balloon rides you will find anywhere. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

READ ALSO: 17 Best Tours from Mexico City

Teotihuacan Opening Hours: Daily from 9 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to Teotihuacan: Mexico City (48 km / 30 miles)

Cholula

The ruins at Cholula, better known as the Great Pyramid of Cholula, are a massive archaeological complex near Puebla. This site is recognized as the largest archaeological site of a pyramid in the New World, as well as the largest pyramid in existence.

The pyramid of Cholula, with the Popocatépetl volcano in the background

Yes, you read that right! Even if it’s only 55 meters in height, it cannot compete with the Giza Pyramid; the Great Pyramid of Cholula is much, much larger in volume. Its base covers 450 meters… on each side. It’s the biggest pyramid in all of the Americas.

When the Spaniards arrived, they, unfortunately, pillaged the city and built a church on top. To this day, the Iglesia de los Remedios is still perched on the hilltop and worth a visit too.

The views from the top are fantastic, with the imposing (and slightly scary) Popocatépetl volcano in the background.

As with other archaeological sites in Mexico, much is still unknown about it. The pyramid seems to have been constructed for the god Quetzalcoatl and functioned as a temple. Its style and history are closely linked to the pyramids in Teotihuacan.

Getting to Cholula town from Puebla is easy. In fact, there’s a tourist train that will take you there for free. Yes, for free. You can check the schedule here (in Spanish).

You can also hop on one of the many local colectivos that connect the towns all day long. The Cholula Pyramid site is within the town limits, so just look for the hill with the big church at the top!

READ ALSO: How to Get from Mexico City to Puebla

➤ If you’d like to visit on a day trip from Mexico City, join this Puebla, Cholula & Tonantzintla Day Trip. You’ll have the chance to explore the UNESCO-listed city of Puebla and wander around the Cholula archaeological site with a guide. A visit to the Tonantzintla church is included. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

Cholula Opening Hours: Tuesday to Saturday from 9 AM to 5.30 PM.
Closest city to Cholula: Puebla (11.3 km / 7 miles)

Ek Balam

If you’re looking for something that is accessible in the Yucatan Peninsula but still off the beaten path, then the Mayan ruins at Ek Balam are for you.

This site is very close to Valladolid and not far from Chichen Itza either, and it makes for a great stop on a road trip around the area.

The ruins of Ek Balam, inserted in a post about ruins in Mexico

Ek Balam is Mayan for “black jaguar” and it’s kind of a newcomer in the Mayan Ruins scene. Restoration only began in 1997, so it’s still not well-known by tourists.

You will appreciate the quiet, and the gorgeous views from the top of the pyramid. Yes, you can actually climb it, as opposed to what happens in most Mayan ruins in Mexico.

The site is composed of more than 40 structures, including several temples, two palaces, a pyramid, and a ball court. Even then, it’s still largely unexcavated, with only 1 square mile (out of the site’s 12 square miles) open to the public.

Its highly decorated structures and the presence of a defensive wall set Ek Balam apart from other ruins in the area. Everyone who visits keeps raving about how beautiful and well-preserved it is, so go now before it gets famous!

This ancient city is a fantastic site to delve into Mayan culture.

➤ The Rio Lagartos – Ek Balam from Valladolid is a 10-hour excursion. You’ll visit the biosphere reserve of Rio Lagartos, and be dazzled by the pink lakes of Las Coloradas. Meet the local flamingos, and then explore the ruins of Ek Balam. All transfers, a guide, and lunch are included. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

➤ If you’re staying in Cancun or the Riviera Maya, choose the Ek Balam Majestic Mayan Ruins and Cenote Tour. You’ll visit the ruins with a guide, discovering Mayan history and the pyramids’ restoration efforts. Then, relax in a nearby cenote and witness a Mayan ceremony. A buffet lunch is included. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

Ek Balam Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to Ek Balam: Valladolid (28 km / 17.3 miles)

11 OFF THE BEATEN PATH MAYAN RUINS IN MEXICO

The most famous ruins in Mexico, like Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan, have undoubtedly earned their reputation. Visiting them should definitely be on your list!

But if you want to avoid crowds and boast in front of your friends about how you visited a lesser-known side of Mexico, then this is your chance.

These are the best off-the-beaten-path Mayan ruins in Mexico.

Muyil Archaeological Site

Here’s a great chance to see not only Mayan ruins without the crowds but also the huge Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Muyil is a part of this reserve, which I HIGHLY recommend visiting.

The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is an area of sublime natural beauty and one of the most ecologically diverse places on Earth. Many people stop in Muyil as part of their visit to Sian Ka’an, but I’ll go back to that in a minute.

A Mayan pyramid in Muyil archaeological site, located in Sian Ka'an

Muyil is a small, very lush archaeological site near Tulum. It receives few visitors, which gives it a magical feeling.

Also known as Chunyaxché, Muyil was one of the earliest Mayan settlements on the Caribbean Coast, dating as far back as 300 BC. (This is centuries before sites like Chichen Itza or Uxmal were established!) It remained inhabited right until the Spanish invasion.

Near the site, there is a gorgeous lagoon, which is already on Sian Ka’an’s grounds. To get there, look for the wooden boardwalk to the north. It will lead you into the jungle, walking over areas with fresh cenote water, and then right into the lagoon.

It’s a very peaceful experience, and has chances of being one of the highlights of your visit. To get into this part of the site, you’ll need to pay a small fee of 70 MXN (around USD 4).

➤ The Sian Ka’an and Muyil Archaeological Site Tour will check both sites off your list. With pick-up included from Tulum, they’ll take you through a nature trail up to the lagoon, and on a boat ride through the mangroves.

You’ll learn about the ecology of the area, explore the ruins at Muyil, and cap the day with a healthy lunch. ➥ BOOK IT HERE

Muyil Opening Hours: Daily from 9 AM to 3 PM.
Closest city to Muyil: Tulum (23 km / 14.2 miles)

El Meco Ruins

In the middle of the wild but still a stone’s throw from Cancun, you will find El Meco Archaeological Site. Opened to the public very recently, it is a small and very well-preserved site.

An Image of El Meco ruins, surrounded by vegetation, inserted in a post about ruins in Mexico

El Meco was an important trading point in Mayan times, but still depended on Coba for survival. From the top of the temple (which is the highest of the Cancun pyramids), you can see the Caribbean Sea all the way out to Isla Mujeres.

El Meco is believed to have been both a port for sea trade and a sort of lighthouse and vantage point for incoming ships. The views from the pyramid are incredible; you can get a view not only of the sea but also of the jungle and all of Cancun’s lagoons.

Going to El Meco makes for a relaxing visit. It is barely outside of Cancun, so it’s very easy to get there (a local bus will drop you off), and it’s very quiet and full of trees. It’s a good option to visit with your kids.

There aren’t many notable pyramids near Cancun, so if you are in the area and have little time for ruins, this site is definitely worth checking out!

El Meco Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM. Last access is at 4 PM.
Closest city to El Meco: Cancun (9 km / 5.5 miles)

READ ALSO: 41 Fun Things To Do in Cancun

Calakmul

For the most adventurous types, Calakmul is the real deal. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Calakmul is located deep in the jungle around Campeche, near the border with Guatemala.

For obvious reasons, not many tourists venture this far, but those who do will get their reward. This site is a real gem!

A Mayan pyramid, completely swallowed in a sea of green, lush jungle vegetation

Calakmul used to be the capital of a kingdom that included many other settlements. When it was still a thriving community, around 50,000 people lived there.

The kingdom of Calakmul had a big rivalry and fought constantly with Tikal. Around 700 AD, the latter won, which led to Calakmul’s collapse and eventual abandonment.

The site today is made up of over 6,000 ancient structures, with temples, many tombs, and of course, a great pyramid at the center of it all. The pyramid is 147 feet (45 meters) high, making it one of the highest Mayan structures!

Climb the pyramid and you will get unbelievable views of the site and the surrounding jungle, which is part of a Biosphere Reserve.

Granted, it takes determination (and time) to get here. But if you dare to go off the beaten track, this is a fantastic opportunity to have a site almost completely to yourself.

Calakmul Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to Calakmul: Xpujil (116 km / 72 miles), Campeche (276 km / 171 miles)

El Tajin

El Tajin is a pre-Columbian archaeological site located amid the rainforests of Veracruz, in the southern part of Mexico.

The El Tajin community flourished during the 600 to 1200 AD. After the fall of Teotihuacan, it became the most important city and main trade center in north-east Mesoamerica.

An image of the main pyramid at El Tajin, one of the ruins in Mexico

Just as with Teotihuacan, the history of the city is shrouded in mystery. To this day, it’s still an enigma which civilization was responsible for building it.

The site features a wide range of ancient structures including temples, pyramids, ball courts, and palaces.

The whole site is considered a masterpiece of Mesoamerican architecture. However, the structure that steals all the eyes is, without a doubt, the Pyramid of the Niches.

Standing 65 feet (20 meters) tall, this pyramid has a very unique design. It features stepped terraces that lead to the top and 365 niches stacked around its four sides. It’s believed that the niches were used as some sort of astronomical calendar.

The city saw its doom when the Aztecs started to expand and brutally took over. It then remained undiscovered until 1785, way after the Spanish invasion!

In 1992, El Tajin was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its architectural and cultural importance.

Despite its fascinating history, marvelous architecture, and beautiful surroundings, El Tajin is one of the least-visited archaeological sites in Mexico. So if you’re looking for off-the-beaten-path ruins and a good mystery story, you know what to do!

El Tajin Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to El Tajin: Papantla (10 km / 6.2 miles) / Veracruz (248 km / 154 miles)

Bonampak

Next, I’m taking you to Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border, to the ancient site of Bonampak. It might not be as impressive as other Mayan sites in Mexico in terms of architectural and spatial size, but size isn’t everything.

Bonampak has something very unique to offer: the finest examples of classic Mayan frescoes.

Classic Mayan frescoes in the archaeological site of Bonampak

READ ALSO: 13 Unmissable Things to do in Chiapas, Mexico

Bonampak means “painted wall”. Indeed, the site is known (and highly appreciated by archaeologists) for its murals.

These are well-preserved frescoes that offer an insight into everyday life in pre-Hispanic civilizations.

The frescoes date all the way back to 790 AD, and they are thought to have been painted in a single session each! An impressive feat and a window into Mayan history unseen on any other site.

Only a few people can enter to see the murals at a time, and for a very limited time. At the time of writing, however, we have received comments saying that the murals are not open to the public, so do check this before you go.

It is possible to get there from San Cristobal de las Casas, but it’s better to go from Palenque. Going on a tour is also a good idea since it can be a complicated part of the country to navigate.

Bonampak Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to Bonampak: Palenque (146 km / 90.7 miles) / San Cristobal de las Casas (338 km / 210 miles)

Edzná

Only an hour-long bus ride from Campeche, the ruins of Edzna make for a perfect one-day trip. It’s hard to compete with ruins the size of Chichen Itza or Uxmal, but really, it’s difficult to believe that hardly anyone visits these ruins!

The good news? You might have the whole place for yourself! Quite literally! (not counting the iguanas, of course).

An ancient Mayan pyramid in Edzná, inserted in an article about Aztec and Mayan ruins in Mexico

Edzná is believed to have been built around 400 BC and abandoned around 1500 AD for reasons not yet clear. Edzná translates as “House of the Itzás” or “Place of the Itzás”, as in… you guessed it: Chichen Itzá.

“Itzá” itself was a term designated to refer to the people of that area in general. It could have also been a powerful family that lived there before moving to (or maybe founding?) Chichen Itzá.

Since the surroundings lack a water source, Edzna had elaborate underground systems to store rainwater.

The site also contains a central plaza, a big palace, and a gorgeous 5-level pyramid that is 50 meters (165 ft) high! They used to allow tourists to climb the pyramid but unfortunately, it’s not possible anymore.

There is a light and sound show on the site that is worth seeing. The pyramids are illuminated in different colors to recall the splendor of the Mayan times. The show takes place from Thursday to Sunday at 8 PM in the summer and 7 PM in the winter.

Edzná Opening Hours: Daily from 9 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to Edzná: Campeche (52.5 km / 32.6 miles)

Chacchoben

If you are looking for a Mayan site close to Tulum, make sure you add Chacchoben to your list of destinations.

The Chacchoben ruins are the most popular archaeological site in the south of the Yucatan Peninsula. It makes for a great day trip from Tulum or a half-day trip from Costa Maya.

An ancient pyramid at the site of Chacchoben

Chacchoben, Mexico is an ancient Mayan settlement that dates back to 200 BC. The structures themselves, however, were probably built around 700 AD.

The site was discovered in 1946 by a local family, and this is the crazy part: this family decided to settle there! They lived in peace among the ruins until an archaeologist found the site in the early 1970s and reported it to the Government.

Restoration began in 1994 and it wasn’t until the year 2002 that the site became available for visitors to see, so it’s all pretty new! (I mean, it’s ancient but you know what I’m saying).

Today, only a portion of the site is open to the public. Many buildings are still covered in vegetation, patiently waiting to be uncovered and restored.

The site features massive platform groups and large temples, and it’s very popular with tourists from cruise ships that make a stop here.

Chacchoben Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to Chacchoben: Costa Maya (70 km / 43.5 miles) / Tulum (169 km / 105 miles)

Tula

About 2 hours from Mexico City and once the capital of the Toltec empire, there sits Tula. The city served as an important center between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan.

basalt statues of Toltec warriors in the archaeological site of Tula, near Mexico City

Considerably smaller than those larger cities, what sets Tula apart is the colossal basalt statues of Toltec warriors that sit on top of one of the pyramids. These were probably dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl.

The statues used to be columns that sustained a roof over the pyramid. They demonstrate the power and might of the Toltec warriors and civilization.

Maybe too small to warrant an entire day trip, it’s a good idea to combine your trip to Tula with a visit to another site, like Teotihuacan.

Tula Opening Hours: Daily from 9 AM to 4 PM.
Closest city to Tula: Mexico City (98 km / 61 miles)

Tepoztlan (El Tepozteco)

Avid hikers, this one’s for you! This is one of the most unique Aztec ruins in Mexico.

High up in the mountains of the rainforest near Morelos, in the ancient town of Tepoztlan, you’ll find the pyramid El Tepozteco.

Dedicated to the Aztec god of Pulque, this pyramid was a kind of shrine that attracted pilgrims from far away… as far as modern-day Guatemala.

An Aztec pyramid surrounded by vegetation in Tepoztlan (El Tepozteco), one of the lesser-known ruins in Mexico
At the top of Tepozteco. Photo by Fido via Flickr

The hike up to the pyramid is nothing short of spectacular, with gorgeous waterfalls, lush vegetation, and rock formations.

Mind you, it’s a steep walk at times, with an elevation gain of 365 meters (1,200 ft). It will kick your butt if you are not moderately fit, but the breathtaking views will make up for it!

In case that’s not enough motivation, on your way back, you’ll come down to a fantastic market with cheap, amazing homemade local food!

Bear in mind that “off the beaten path” does not necessarily mean “empty”. Even if it’s not like the big, famous Mayan ruins, this is a popular spot for locals, especially on the weekends. It can get packed!

Tepoztlan Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
Closest city to Tepoztlan: Mexico City (83 km / 51 miles)

Mitla

Mitla is the second most important archeological site in Oaxaca (after Monte Alban) and the most important for the Zapotec civilization.

Mitla is a Hispanicized version of the native word Mictlan, which means “place of the dead” or “underworld”. Its Zapotec name (Lyobaa), however, means “place of rest”.

The archaeological site of Mitla

This is because Mitla was constructed as a sacred burial site. Its importance was religious and ceremonial rather than political, as was the case with Monte Alban. The city was still developing when the Spaniards arrived and destroyed it.

What sets Mitla apart from other sites in Mexico is the intricate mosaic fretwork in geometric designs that cover most of the structures. Tombs, panels, columns, and even entire walls feature this artistry.

The site is divided into 5 groups of structures. It’s important to bear in mind that once you go into the complex you can’t retrace your steps. Be sure to spend enough time in each section before moving on to the next one.

A small but unique site, you can see Monte Alban and Mitla in a single combined visit. They are both very close to Oaxaca.

Mitla Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday from 9 AM to 4 PM. On Sunday it closes at 2 PM.
Closest city to Mitla: Oaxaca (43 km / 26.7 miles)

El Rey

What the Mayan ruins El Rey lack in size, they make up for in convenience. This is arguably the easiest site to visit in Mexico, located right in the heart of the Hotel Zone in Cancun (no, I’m not kidding).

You won’t find any giant pyramids here, but these Mayan ruins in Quintana Roo boast more than 40 structures in different states of conservation… and lots, lots of iguanas who think they own the place (they do!)

READ ALSO: 9 Mayan Ruins near Cancun that are Easy to Visit

The Mayan ruins of El Rey, in the Cancun Hotel Zone

“El Rey” translates as “The King”. Remains were found here that were thought to have been of a king, hence the name. The theory is that El Rey was the main area of a settlement based on sea trade and fishing.

It’s a short visit but it can be a nice break from the Cancun tourist craziness! There are very nice beaches nearby and a lookout point.

El Rey Opening Hours: Daily from 8 AM to 5 PM.
El Rey exact location: km 18, Kukulcán Boulevard, Cancun Zona Hotelera


And we have come to the end! That was my list of the best Aztec and Mayan ruins in Mexico, but it is by no means an exhaustive one.

Many more sites, big and small, are scattered all over the country. From the Aztec pyramids around Mexico City to the Yucatan ruins or the Mayan Chiapas ruins further south, there is a TON to see. This guide, however, should have provided you with a basic idea of what’s in store for your visit.

Now have fun planning your next trip to Mexico!

AZTEC & MAYAN RUINS IN MEXICO FAQ

Where are the best Mayan ruins in Mexico?

There are great sites all over the country, but in general, they are in the south of Mexico, with a great majority of the most famous sites in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Where are the Aztec ruins in Mexico?

The Aztec temples in Mexico are mostly in what is now the Valley of Mexico, in Central Mexico. The ruins of Teotihuacan, the most visited in the country, are in this area, near Mexico City.

What is the best Mayan ruin to visit in Cancun?

To be honest, there aren’t many notable ruins near Cancun. You can check out El Meco, which is modest but boasts the tallest pyramid in the area. However, for more famous, impressive ruins, head to Tulum Ruins or Chichen Itza.

Is it safe to visit the Mayan ruins in Mexico?

Yes, the ruins are safe to visit. The sites have security and only admit people who have purchased an entrance ticket. Be careful, though, when climbing a pyramid (if allowed). They have very steep and narrow steps, so don’t attempt to climb if you’re not in good or at least decent shape.

Which Mayan ruins can you still climb?

At the time of writing, you can still climb the structures of the Mayan ruins at Coba, Uxmal, Ek Balam, El Meco, El Muyil, and Calakmul. This could change any day.

Why can’t you climb the pyramids in Mexico?

For 2 main reasons: to protect the structures (sometimes millions of tourists climb the pyramids each year, which was rapidly and severely damaging the ruins) and to prevent injuries (the climbs are steep and the weather is hot, which is not a good combination; after a fatal accident in 2006, many sites decided to forbid climbing).

Where should I stay in Mexico to see the Mayan ruins?

There are ruins all over the country, so it really depends on which ones you want to see. Most tourists stay in the Quintana Roo or Yucatan area, since they provide a good base to get to most of the major Mayan sites. For Teotihuacan (not Mayan, though), stay in Mexico City.

Can you go inside Mayan ruins?

No, it’s not possible to go inside the temples and other structures.

Are the Mayan ruins worth seeing?

Yes, yes and yes. Try and visit at least one site during your trip to Mexico!

What are the best ruins near Playa del Carmen?

The three best ruins near Playa del Carmen are Chichen Itza, Tulum Ruins, and Coba.

I want to visit the Mayan ruins near Mexico City. Where should I go?

You won’t find any Mayan ruins, as the area of Mexico City was inhabited by the Aztecs and other civilizations. However, the Teotihuacan pyramids are really impressive and should 100% be on your Mexico City itinerary!

What’s the difference between Aztec vs Mayan ruins?

The Mayans are mainly known for their stepped pyramids, ceremonial complexes, and observatories. The Aztec sites also have pyramids, but they’re very distinctive for having twin temples at the top.

  • Stefania Guglielmi

    Stefania Guglielmi is the founder of Every Steph. Originally from Bologna, Italy, she's been traveling full-time since 2016 and has visited over 50 countries across 6 continents. She believes sustainable travel and luxury travel can go hand in hand and has been advocating for responsible tourism since 2014. Stefania's advice and travel experiences have been featured in important publications such as Business Insider, Refinery29, and Yahoo Money.