The Mayan civilization dates back to as far as 1800 B.C, and many of their traditions are still alive and well today. Many people assume that the Maya were wiped out or inexplicably vanished from the face of the Earth, but in reality, the Mayan community lives on. Over seven million descendants are still native speakers of the Mayan language, even if they’ve left behind the once glorious Mayan cities.
Many crumbling Mayan ruins have been excavated and are open to the public, although some are more popular than others. The Mayans were a farming civilization, planting and harvesting crops like maize, beans, tobacco, and squash. They cleared the surrounding jungles using a ‘slash and burn’ technique that helped enrich the soil around them.
One of the most fascinating things about the Mayans was their interest in math and astronomy, especially their now-famous Mayan calendar. They believed their Kings were related to at least one of over 150 different Gods, each one assigned to a different part of their lives. Their cities and temples are astounding feats of construction. Over 4000 sites are spread out all over Central America with about 200 different ruins in Mexico alone. Most of these sites are open to the public, and each one is a unique wonder to behold.
Mayan Ruins in Tulum
The Tulum ruins are located south of Cancun and are one of the most visited ruins in the area. Although rather small, the Mayan Ruins in Tulum are delicately balanced on fifteen-meter-high cliffs above the crystal waters of the Caribbean Sea down below. The word ‘Tulum’ means ‘Wall’ in Mayan, and the city was named so by archeologists. Research after the fact uncovered that the city was formerly called ‘Zama’ which means ‘to dawn’, most likely after the breathtaking views from the bluff that it stands on.
Coba Mayan Ruins
43km northwest of Tulum is the ruins of Coba. Archaeologists believe that Coba was an important city to the Mayan people, and due to its remote location, it doesn’t get much tourism so visitors can still climb on the structures. From the top of Coba’s pyramid, you can get some rather unique sights of the lush, green jungle that surrounds the ruins. What makes the Coba Mayan Ruins so special are their large network of stone pathways. Called sacbes, or ‘white roads’, the pathways connect the residential areas both to the main pyramid and the small lakes used as a water supply. Over 50 of these roads have been uncovered, and 16 of them are open to the public, allowing visitors to explore the ruins at their own leisure.
Chichen Itza sits on the Yucatan Peninsula and is one of the most visited Maya ruins in Mexico. El Castillo, a 30-meter tall step-pyramid sits in the middle of the site, surrounded by ballcourts and sacred sinkholes. The site can be explored in a myriad of ways from walking to biking as you’re surrounded by dense jungles and a Caribbean coastline.
The impressive architecture and location have continued to make Palenque one of the most popular ruins in Mexico. Home to parrots and monkeys, the limestone pyramid called the Temple of Inscriptions is where the former ruler Pacal was buried. The ruins are being consumed by nature, making visitors feel like they’re Indiana Jones as they surround themselves with both nature and history. Palenque has close ties to other famous Mayan cities such as Tikal and Chicken Itza, with temples and palaces built at the height of Mayan power. Palenque is thought to have suddenly been abandoned around 799AD with the reason being unknown.
Calakmul is home to one of the tallest Mayan temples in Mexico and is able to be explored without huge crowds due to its’ remote nature. Over 6750 structures have been discovered within the city, including a 45-meter tall pyramid. It sits only 35 kilometers from the border of Guatemala inside the jungles of the Peten Basin region.
Sitting 400 meters above the valley floor is the observatory of Monte Alban, which is one of the most culturally rich ruins of the Zapotec civilization. Doubling as a fort, the ruins are rich with things to explore including palaces, temples, and a ball court amongst the mountains and valleys.
Teotihuacan’s origins are unknown but it was once one of the largest, most populated cities to exist in the world. Today all that remains are ruins. The sprawling site is home to the pyramids of the sun and moon as well as the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Even the Aztecs, who built Tenochtitlan to the south where Mexico City stands today, made regular trips to the temples. After the Spanish claimed the lands the pyramids fell into disrepair until archeologists began their work centuries later.
Ek Balam is rather new on the tourist scene but has made a place for itself on the list of ruins to visit in Mexico. The city is walled, with 45 structures and a climbable pyramid that yields amazing 360 views of the area.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of ruins by any means but it’s certainly a great place to start. Ancient Mayan ruins are found all over Mexico and boast some of the best things to do while visiting the area. From easy day trips to lengthy excursions, there are ruins to pique every level of interest.