The Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan

By: Catherine Gordon

January 27, 2015

If you’re heading to the Yucatan on your travels, visiting the many Mayan ruins there should be top of your list of things to do. But with the majority of travellers seeking out the largest ruins at Chichen Itza, we’d recommend spending some time exploring less touristy territory at these lesser-known Mayan ruins of the Yucatan.


The Mayans inhabited the Yucatan in pre-Hispanic times, creating mighty cities that now survive as ruins. The Maya constructed elaborate architecture, including temples, pyramids and palaces. Visiting these ruins gives a fascinating insight into the magical gods, rituals and beliefs of the Mayans. From Cancun, you can easily explore the various Mayan ruins of the Yucatan, each of which is located in a contrasting setting.

If you’re staying in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, and don’t have the time or desire to venture too far from the beach, there is a small Mayan ruins site at the Museo Maya de Cancun. Displaying over 400 artefacts from the Mayan’s ancient civilization, the museum is a good introduction for anyone interested in the history of the area. The museum is built above sea level on stilts, and if you head to the jungle gardens below, you’ll find the San Miguelito Mayan Ruins. This settlement dates from 1250 to 1550 AD and you can follow paths leading around its houses, temples and palaces. The highlight is a restored 20-metre-high pyramid, which will give you a small glimpse of what the larger ruins sites have to offer.

Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan | Tulum
Tulum was an important trading port for the ancient Mayans © Catherine Gordon

Heading down the coast from Cancun and away from the crowds, travellers often visit Tulum, with its relaxed vibe and cliff-top Mayan ruins. Overlooking the sea, this was one of the last cities built by the Mayans. It served as a trading port, and its El Castillo temple has a shrine that marked a safe route through the reef for trading canoes landing in the cove below. Tulum also has a temple dedicated to the Mayan diving god. Avoid the morning rush by visiting the ruins in the afternoon, that way you can enjoy a peaceful stroll around the site as the sun begins to set. Don’t forget to take your swim gear with you for a refreshing dip at the ruin’s beautiful beach.

Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan | Tulum
Take a stroll around the Tulum ruins at sunset © Catherine Gordon

In the midst of thick jungle near Tulum are the rugged ruins of Coba. Only part of the vast 50 sq km site has so far been restored, which gives the area a more secluded feel. Rent a bicycle to explore the city at a relaxed pace before you climb Nohoch Mul, the 42m-high pyramid built on a natural hill. This is the tallest structure in the Yucatan Peninsula and provides vast panoramic views of the surrounding jungle.

Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan | Muyil
The Muyil ruins are surrounded by thick jungle © Catherine Gordon

Just south of Tulum is the traditional Mayan village of Muyil, where you will really start to lose the crowds. With just 500 inhabitants, Muyil is not a hive of activity, but it does offer a quiet Mayan ruins site hidden away in the jungle. Trek along the paths through the trees to find the 17m-high El Castillo. Also, look out for the remains of the Mayan trade road, known as a sacbe. If you are feeling adventurous, the ruins site leads to the entrance of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, where local boats can take you on tours of the surrounding lagoons and mangroves.

Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan | Muyil
The castle ruins are the highlight of the Muyil site © Catherine Gordon

Heading inland from Cancun near to Valladolid, a laid-back Yucatan City with a peaceful café-lined main square, are the quiet Ek-Balam ruins (translating to Black Jaguar in Mayan). Recently restored and with less tourists than larger Mayan ruins of the Yucatan region, the site has a large 200-room complex of buildings called The Acropolis. This palace once housed the city’s governors and is decorated with a 5m tall jaguar’s mouth and winged Mayan warriors.

Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan | Uxmal
The Adivino pyramid at Uxmal © Catherine Gordon

Of all the Mayan ruins to experience, many visitors put Uxmal at the top of their list. This well-preserved site near Merida isn’t plagued by crowds, so you can explore its many structures in relative tranquillity. Located in the hilly Puuc region and made from pink limestone, Uxmal is found in an area with little water, so images of the rain god Chac pervade the city. The Mayans built reservoirs and cisterns to catch rainwater, but despite this, drought was the reason that Uxmal was eventually deserted. Explore The Magician’s House, a 39m-high temple, and The Governor’s Palace with its 100m-long façade.

Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan | Uxmal
Uxmal is located near Merida © Catherine Gordon

For those who like a challenge, and a hire car is a must for this one, track down the Mayapan ruins near the town of Telchaquillo, 25 miles south of Merida. Found in the middle of the Yucatan countryside, this is as far away from the well-beaten path as you’re likely to get, but it’s worth the effort and you might even have the site to yourself. Mayapan will fascinate history buffs because it was the last standing Mayan civilization before the arrival of the Spanish and an important urban centre that became the main political and cultural influence in the Yucatan. You will get a clear idea of the typical layout of a Mayan city here, with its main Castillo surrounded by government buildings and religious structures, as well as round observatories.

Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan | Mayapan
The Mayapan ruins give a glimpse what a Mayan city looked like © Catherine Gordon

Discovering the ancient Mayan ruins of the Yucatan is a vital part of any trip to Mexico – especially if you want to find out more about the ancient civilizations who inhabited this area, and the origins of much of the culture and customs that survive to this day.

Virgin Atlantic operates direct flights to Cancun from London Gatwick, making it easy for you to explore the Yucatan on your next trip.

Have you visited the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Catherine Gordon


Catherine Gordon

British freelance journalist Catherine Gordon is based in Cancun, Mexico. She writes about Cancun, the Riviera Maya and the Yucatan for newspapers, magazines and online media. She specialises in travel, culture, health, luxury, water sports and off-the-beaten-track city guides. Her website can be viewed at

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