The ancient Maya were among the most advanced early civilizations. Ancient Mayans, like their descendants, lived in modern-day Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. These are the best Mayan ruins in Mexico that you can’t afford to miss.
Archeologists, sociologists, and historians continue to study the civilization’s writing system and its forays into art, mathematics, timekeeping, and astronomy. However, the Maya are probably most well known for their enduring architectural feats. They left behind countless towering monuments, temples, and cities spread across the Americas.
Today, millions of tourists from all over the world visit these Mayan ruins every year. If you’re planning a sightseeing trip or are looking to learn more about the history, read on to learn more about the best Mayan ruins in Mexico!
Looking for things to do in Mexico? Check out all of our Mexico articles here, or start with these posts:
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The ancient kingdom of Calakmul is located deep in the jungles of the Yucatán Peninsula, close to the Guatemalan border. Calakmul was the seat of the Kingdom of the Snake between 250 and 900 BCE. Because of this, Calakmul’s kings were known as k’uhul kan ajawob, which translates to “Divine Lords of the Snake Kingdom.”
Calakmul means “two adjacent mounds” or “City of the Two Adjacent Pyramids” in ancient Mayan. The city of Calakmul itself was home to an estimated 50,000 people, but it also had 20 secondary cities under its jurisdiction. That brought the whole kingdom’s total estimated population up to 1.7 million people.
The ruins of Calakmul are beloved by archeologists and those who admire the richness of ancient architecture. Unlike many of the Mayan ruins on this list, Calakmul is in a very remote location. It is well hidden in the jungle and far from the most popular tourist cities on the Yucatán Peninsula.
That is either a blessing or a curse, depending on how you see it. If you’re interested in Mayan history and want to avoid big crowds of gawkers, Calakmul is the perfect place to visit! However, it can be more of a challenge to access than its popular cousins.
Tulum is a stunning 13th Century coastal site named for the city it belongs to. It is also known by its original ancient Mayan name of “Zama,” which means “sunrise” or “City of Dawn.” It rests on the Caribbean coastline of the Yucatán Peninsula and is beloved by sight-seers and beachgoers alike. Zama was believed to have been inhabited between the 13th and 17th centuries.
At some point, the residents abandoned the city. Their decision came less than 100 years after first contact with Spanish conquistadors (conquerors). Today, Tulum is best known for the impressive walls that surround the city: they are 26 feet thick, 1300 feet long, and up to 16.4 feet tall.
As a tourist destination, Tulum is rivaled only by Chichén Itzá in its popularity. Visitors are drawn in from all over the world, enticed by the site’s spectacular seaside vistas and breathtaking architecture.
Cancun is only a short distance away, making Tulum ideal for a day trip. Tulum may be the best Mayan ruin for an adventurous globetrotter looking to experience a little bit of everything that Yucatán has to offer.
Like most of the ruins on this list, Mayapan is located on the Yucatán Peninsula, roughly 60 miles from the more famous Chichén Itzá. The city’s estimated population was much lower than that of Calakmul, ranging between 15,000 and 17,000 people at its height.
Mayapan’s claim to fame is that it was the political and cultural capital of ancient Mayan civilization for nearly three centuries, between the 1220s and the 1440s. For this reason, the city was given the name Mayapan. That is commonly translated into English as “Standard of the Mayan People.”
The city was said to be founded by Kukulcan himself after the fall of Chichén Itzá. Kukulcan is considered to be the Mayan equivalent to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. The Mayans saw him as a god, a king, and a cultural hero. Indeed, Mayapan is home to a temple built in his honor.
Mayapan is an excellently preserved ruin. More than 4,000 of its structures are still standing today, including temples, pyramids, residences, and art. A common motif found in Mayapan’s surviving art and decor is the image of the sun disc. The sun disc is believed to represent the Mayan sun god Kinich Ahau.
Of the Mayan temples in Mexico on this list, Bonampak is the only one not located on the Yucatán Peninsula. You can find it in the Free and Sovereign Mexican state of Chiapas, just 30 miles south of the site of the Yaxchilan people.
The Mayan people knew Bonampak as Usiij Witz (“Vulture Hill”). What makes these ruins so special are their many elaborate murals, lintels, and monuments. The Temple of Murals, which is separated into three structures, is particularly impressive.
Bonampak’s Temple of Murals is filled with art depicting everything from scenes of daily life to renditions of mythological and historical events. That includes an enormous mural considered one of the finest examples of a battle scene in Mayan art. Bonampak is the ultimate destination for anyone with an interest in art history.
Chichén Itzá is the best known Mayan ruin in the world. Like most Mayan cities in Mexico, Chichén Itzá is on the Yucatán Peninsula. Chichén Itzá is ancient Mayan for “at the mouth of the well of the Itza.” This site has an abundance of incredible sculptures, art, and decorations.
Chichén Itzá is home to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World: El Castillo, also called the Kukulcan Pyramid, which is found in the center of the site. In its heyday, this ancient city’s population bustled and thrived. It was ultimately conquered by the Mayapan people and later by the Spaniards.
Chichén Itzá is considered one of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico due to its many elaborate and well-preserved structures, art pieces, and landmarks. Along with El Castillo, Chichén Itzá is home to The Great Ball Court, a 490-foot sporting arena. It is one of 13 ball courts found in Chichén Itzá and is the best-preserved of the ancient Mesoamerican ball courts.
These ruins are home to the Sacred Cenote, which is also known as the Well of Sacrifices. Cenotes are naturally occurring pits that expose groundwater. Mayans commonly cenotes as water supplies, but they also served as a repository for sacred offerings. These included human sacrifices.
Along with gold, jade, and other valuables, archeologists have uncovered human remains in the sacred cenote. That indicates that the Mayans offered human sacrifices in such spots. If you’re curious about ancient Mayan culture, Chichén Itzá is the place to be!
Conclusion – Best Mayan Ruins In Mexico
The breadth of surviving art and architecture from the ancient Maya is extraordinary. This article has listed five of the best Mayan ruins in Mexico. Yet they represent only a tiny percentage of all the ancient Mayan ruins that we know about.
There are dozens upon dozens of Mayan cities in Mexico, each of which offers a glimpse into one of the most impressive civilizations in human history. Whether you are a history buff or a dedicated vacationer, these remarkable sites are certain to take your breath away and leave a lasting impression.