The Yucatan peninsula on the Caribbean coast is one of our favourite destinations in Mexico. Yucatan has beautiful sandy beaches, tropical jungle with the most beautiful birds and butterflies, and underground rivers and cenotes. But together with Guatemala, it was also the former centre of the once mighty Maya civilisation. The many ancient Maya buildings still remind us of that time. We have visited many of them over the years. We consider them an absolute highlight of Central America!
The most famous archaeological sites are located along the so-called “La Ruta Maya” (the Maya route). This popular travel route runs not only through Mexico but also through neighbouring Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Most of the buildings are hidden in the jungle in the interior. But a small number are close to or on the Caribbean coast. You should take several weeks for the complete route. If you don’t have that time, limit yourself to the ruined cities in the northern, Mexican part of Yucatan. In this blog we will tell you which archaeological sites you should not miss in this part of Mexico. Later on, we will also pay extensive attention to the ancient Maya cities in the neighbouring countries.
The mighty Maya empire
The Maya civilisation was one of the most dominant societies of Central America before the arrival of the Spanish colonists. They lived in one geographical area, namely the entire Yucatan peninsula, Belize and present-day Guatemala. Within that area, the Maya lived in three distinct sub-areas with marked cultural differences: the northern Maya lowlands in Yucatan; the southern lowlands in northern Guatemala and neighbouring parts of Mexico, Belize and western Honduras; and the southern Maya highlands, in mountainous southern Guatemala.
The Maya empire reached its peak of power and influence around the sixth century AD. The Mayans then excelled in agriculture, pottery, calendaring and mathematics. They left behind impressive architecture in large stone cities and symbolic works of art. Around 250 AD was the golden age of the Maya empire. The Mayan civilisation grew to around 40 cities. At its peak, the Mayan population was estimated to have reached more than five million inhabitants! In the 9th century, however, most Mayan people left the cities for mysterious reasons.
Also read our separate blog about the Maya. Here you will find some history and more background about art, religion and culture of the Maya.
The Maya Route
As mentioned before, the Maya route (La Ruta Maya) is one of the most popular travel routes in Central America. By following the route, you visit different countries with the most beautiful and scenic landscapes. Most travellers start the route in Cancun, Mexico. West of this seaside resort is the beautiful and well-preserved Ek Balam. A little further west is the most visited Mayan site of antiquity: Chichén Itzá. This Maya city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 and is now one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
The route then takes you via Mérida to the ancient Mayan cities of Uxmal and Palenque. Palenque, hidden in the jungle, was particularly impressive. Not so much because of the Maya buildings, but even more because of the beautiful nature. From this Maya site, the journey continues via San Cristobal de las Casas to Guatemala.
The most important ancient Maya city in Guatemala is Tikal, located in the north. But the route also passes other Maya highlights in Guatemala. Like Lake Atitlan and the colourful market of Chichicastenango. Before you travel on to Tikal, you can make a trip to the small town of Copan in Honduras. Most travellers pass by Copan. A shame, because a lot has been preserved of this archaeologically important Mayan site. You will need at least two days for the unprecedentedly impressive Maya city of Tikal. The roar of the howler monkeys alone will make your visit to the city in the jungle well worthwhile.
From Tikal you travel on to Belize. Here you will visit the two most important Maya cities, Lamanai and Altun Ha. The Lamanai ruins are only accessible via a river cruise through the jungle. The boat trip is an unmissable highlight, especially for birdwatchers. Via the Caribbean coast of Belize you finish the Ruta Maya in Tulum, Mexico. Thanks to its direct location on the sea, these ruins are perhaps the most picturesque of all Mayan sites. But nearby Cobá should not be missed either! This ruined city is situated on a beautiful cenote (a cave or pool containing water).
The top seven Maya sites in Yucatan
Soon we will describe in more detail the most important Maya sites of Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. In this blog we will give you more information and inspiration about the ancient Maya cities in Mexico. However, there are so many of them that we will now limit ourselves to what we think are the seven most impressive ones:
It is not without reason that Chichén Itzá was declared one of the seven new wonders of the world at the beginning of this century. The site is an absolute must during your trip through Yucatan. The focal point of Chichén Itzá is the pyramid El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulkan. When the sun is perpendicular to the equator, it creates the illusion of a snake ascending or descending the 365 steps. During your visit, you may also see people clapping in front of the pyramid. They do this to hear the echo that sounds like the chirping of a Quetzal. Other highlights are the Great Ball Playground and the Sacred Cenote, where human sacrifices used to take place.
On the way from Cancun to Chichén Itzá you will first pass Ek Balam. The coaches with tourists from the beach resorts usually skip this Maya site. Nevertheless, these best-preserved ruins of the region are worth a visit. One of Ek Balam’s special features is that its facades are made of stucco and limestone mortar. Walk through the jungle-covered ruins and climb to the top of the 15-metre-high pyramid. The view from the top is magnificent. In the vicinity of Ek Balam, you also have the Cenote Maya Park. There is so much to do that you can easily spend a day here.
Uxmal, located near the lovely city of Mérida, is another popular UNESCO heritage site. There you have a stunningly well-preserved 40-metre-high pyramid and beautiful temples. Legend has it that a magical dwarf built the pyramid in one night. Hence the name: the Pyramid of the Dwarf (incidentally, also called the Pyramid of the Magician). The pyramid can be climbed. There is also the Governor’s Palace. From the main entrance of this building, astronomers could observe ‘the climbing’ of the planet Venus.
Of all the Maya cities in Mexico, we think that Palenque is perhaps the most beautifully situated. The city lies at the foot of the Tumbalá mountain range, with a view of the jungle. Palenque is one of the most extensive Maya sites. However, only a few of the 500 buildings have been excavated to date. The city is particularly famous for its ingeniously designed canal and its many hieroglyphs. But it is not only this UNESCO world heritage site that you should visit in Palenque. In the immediate vicinity you will find, besides ruins, the most beautiful waterfalls, caves and canyons.
Cobá used to be one of the biggest cities of the Maya civilisation. Even now, the complex is very large. The good thing is that you can hire a bicycle here so that you can visit the most important temples and other buildings in a relatively short time. Cobá is also the place where you have the highest Maya structure in northern Yucatan. Not afraid of heights? Then climb the 130 steps of the pyramid for a breathtaking view. Afraid of heights or are the many steps too tiring? No problem: there are plenty of other interesting ruins to explore.
Tulum was one of the last cities built by the Maya. The Maya site is not large and less impressive than, for example, Chichén Itzá. However, what makes it one of the most special Mayan cities in all of Mexico is its location: Tulum is situated on the edge of a cliff directly on the turquoise Caribbean Sea. You have some interesting temples there. Furthermore, the Paradise beach at the bottom of the cliff is a highlight in itself. It is even considered by some to be one of the best beaches in the Riviera Maya.
The Maya sites mentioned above have one big disadvantage: it can be very crowded especially around noon. Looking for a quieter archaeological Mayan site? Then visit Calakmul, hidden deep in the jungle of Tierras Bajas just north of Guatemala. You can climb the pyramids for a great view. Only then will you be able to see how beautifully located this ancient Mayan city is. Nature lovers are also well catered for here. There are hundreds of species of birds and monkeys!
Practical tips for the Maya route in Mexico
Due to the distances involved, we recommend that you take at least a week for your tour. However, don’t be afraid to see only more ancient ruins. Your journey will take you through fantastic landscapes with beautiful nature and interesting cities.
The best season to visit the Maya sites in Yucatan is from November to March. You will usually have beautiful sunny days without too high temperatures. In April it already starts to get pretty warm.
The answer to this question depends on your own wishes. We ourselves usually like to travel around on our own. Either with a hired car or by bus. We are then free to go wherever we want. Moreover, we can avoid the crowds of coaches from the big seaside resorts. For example, by visiting a ruined city early in the morning or late in the afternoon. But a combination is also possible. There are plenty of nice towns in the vicinity of a Maya site. If you stay in such a city, there are often many affordable excursions available.
Yes, there is:
- The Maya sites of Ek Balam and Chichén Itzá are best reached from Valladolid. This beautiful old colonial city is also a great base for various other attractions in the area. Like some fantastic cenotes, or picturesque small towns.
- Uxmal is easy to reach from the super nice city of Mérida. You can easily spend several days in this city. Historical sights, the cosiest terraces, the most delicious eateries and the most beautiful haciendas: you will find it all in Mérida. Extra tip: on Friday evenings you can watch a Pokatok game. This is the game played by the Mayas in ancient times. Entry is free, like most things in Mérida.
- In Palenque, the pool is a bit thinner. But also, in the village near the old Maya city, there is enough accommodation available. There are real gems among them. Usually with a fantastic swimming pool in the middle of the jungle. Palenque is also an ideal base for visiting the many beautiful waterfalls in the area.
- Near Calakmul, apart from the many Mayan ruin cities, there are very few villages or towns to stay in. The nearest hamlet with sufficient accommodation is Xpujil. Not a very special town, but it is ideally situated on the route towards the big city of Chetumal. From Chetumal you are easily in Belize (to the south) or on your way to Tulum (to the north).
- Tulum offers, if possible, the widest choice of accommodation of all the Maya sites mentioned in this blog. The offer varies from flats, (luxury) hotels and holiday homes to bed & breakfasts, resorts and luxury tents.