Mexico is famous for its gorgeous beaches, all-inclusive resorts, and delicious food. It's also teeming with history, art, and culture, and there's no better way to experience all three than by visiting one of the country's many stunning ancient ruins. Standing in front of these stone structures (some of which date back to 600 B.C.) is not only inspiring and humbling -- it's mind-blowing. There is still so much we don't know about the ancient, yet well-advanced, Mayan and Aztec civilizations, and nearly everything we do know has come from the excavation and exploration of these ancient areas. Below, we rounded up the 10 best Mayan and Aztec ruins in Mexico, so you can take your own walk through history, whether that means climbing to the top of the tallest pyramid, biking through a 1,500-year-old city, or taking a dip in the ocean behind the ruins of an old port city.
1. Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza just might be Mexico’s most famous set of ruins. Located in the Yucatan Peninsula, this ancient town is a result of a large and diverse population, which is reflected in the varying architectural styles and techniques found throughout the site. It’s considered to be one of the best examples of Mayan-Toltec civilization in the area. According to records and research, it was first founded and settled by the Maya people in the early to mid-400s. A half-century later, the town was conquered by the Toltecs and additional buildings were erected. Unfortunately, the city is believed to have fallen somewhere around 1440 A.D., and was then left abandoned in the jungle for 500 years until modern-day excavations began.
Chichen Itza’s ruins are in great shape, giving guests a privileged glimpse into an ancient life. The most famous building is the Temple of Kukulcan, a towering step-pyramid in the center of the city. At one time, visitors were able to climb up this stunning ruin, though wear and tear eventually led to closed access. Still, Chichen Itza receives over two-and-a-half million tourists each year and is one of Mexico’s most-visited archeological sites.
Construction on Teotihuacan is thought to have begun around 100 B.C., though it’s believed that the building of this large Mesoamerican city continued for the next 350 or so years. In its heyday, it was the most populated city in the Americas, clocking in at over 125,000 citizens. Incredibly, its ancient structures consisted of multi-level residences — akin to modern-day apartments — built to house the large population. Located in the Valley of Mexico, these architecturally-significant ancient ruins can be found just 25 miles outside of Mexico City. Other big finds from this archeological site include obsidian tools, well-preserved murals, and a system of complex buildings. Unfortunately, many of the original monuments were burned down around 550 A.D. The city itself holds a place in mythological history as a birthplace of the gods, and, in Aztec religion, it is specifically believed to be the origin of the sun. However, there is great mystery surrounding the exact origin of the city itself, along with its original founders.
Tulum’s gorgeous beachside ruins have became an increasingly popular attraction as tourism in the town has exploded. These Mayan ruins, located in the Riviera Maya and just a 10-minute drive or 30-minute walk from Tulum town — date back to the 13th century. Built directly on the cliffs and up against the ocean, Tulum back then was an important port city, trading precious stones. However, there’s a bit of mystery around why this seaside city was also protected by an approximately 30-foot-thick stone wall. Were they protecting nobility and priests housed in the interior or valuable trade goods? Or, do the walls have a deeper, more secret purpose? The biggest draw here is the cliffside Castillo, the largest and most impressive structure. The rest of the site is filled with mostly destroyed remnants of buildings (though there is ongoing reconstruction and rehabilitation work), and the views, especially at sunrise, are breathtaking. It’s believed that Tulum was functioning until the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century.
At its peak over 1,500 years ago, Coba was one of the largest cities in Mayan history. Covering over 50 miles of dense jungle, it was home to more than 50,000 Mayans and what archeologists now believe to be one of the most important sets of ancient ruins in the Yucatan. Today, it makes for an excellent day trip from Tulum — and, more importantly, it’s one of the remaining sites you are allowed to climb. That’s right, you can strap on your sneakers and climb 120 steep steps to the top of Coba’s main pyramid ruins, Nohoch Mul. Climbers are rewarded with 180-degree views over the jungle and Coba site itself, which may leave you more breathless than the climb. Although this feat is the ancient city’s main draw, don’t overlook the rest of the site, which is best explored by renting a bike. Don’t forget the mosquito repellant and bug spray — or the fact that this magnificent ruined site once ruled over the region.
5. Monte Alban
If you’re in Oaxaca and looking for a quick half-day trip through history, the pre-Columbian ruins of Monte Alban are less than 20 minutes outside of the city. Initially built around 500 B.C., Monte Alban is believed to have been the capital of the Zapotec nation — one of the earliest groups to thrive and grow in the Oaxaca area. The city remained a capital for about 1,300 years, boasting a population of up to 25,000 people, until it was eventually abandoned due to depleted resources. Research also suggests that Monte Alban had communication with Teotihuacan, another important Mesoamerican city. Today, the ruins of Monte Alban — a designated UNESCO World Heritage site — live on as one of the most significant sites in the area. It’s well-known for its numerous carved stone monuments, most of which resemble mangled or twisted figures thought to represent citizens that were human sacrifices and war prisoners. The 20-meter-thick walls also suggest that people of great power resided within them.
Palenque is a favorite for its romantic jungle location in Chiapas. The city came to its peak between 500 to 700 A.D. and is celebrated for its structural creativity and craftsmanship. Over 1,400 buildings have been discovered here, yet only around 10 percent have been explored. The ruins themselves are well-preserved and are therefore one of the best-known representations of the Mayan’s classical period. The site has also opened up a wealth of information on how the Mayans lived, thanks to well-preserved hieroglyphic inscriptions found within the Temple of the Inscriptions, a funeral tomb for the seventh-century ruler of Palenque, K’inich Janaab’ Pakal. We also love the mystical air that the surrounding lush jungle and hanging mist give Palenque. (Tip: It also makes for some great photo ops!)
Another significant set of ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula, Uxmal is grouped with important sites like Chichen Itza and Palenque. This 1,500-year-old site is particularly celebrated for its representation of Puuc buildings, which are considered to the be ruling architecture style for the area. Unlike the stepped pyramids found in places like Chichen Itza, the buildings here have smooth sides and a structure that mimics a traditional hut. Also unlike many other ruins, much of Uxmal is surprisingly intact and/or in good condition. One of the most stunning (and likewise most popular) buildings here is the five-leveled Pyramid of the Magician. Because of its architectural significance, this UNESCO World Heritage site has gotten a lot of attention by way of renovations, but there hasn’t been much planned excavation. If you’re over in Merida, it’s just an hour-and-15-minute drive down to Uxmal, making it a worthy day trip.
Just 20 miles from the Guatemalan border, you’ll find the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul. While most of the ruins on this list are easily accessible, Calakmul has a more remote location deep in the jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula. Like Coba, Calakmul is thought to have a large population of about 50,000 people. It’s believed that construction of this huge city started around 550 B.C., though there is also evidence of a large-scale remodeling in the fifth century. Over 6,700 buildings have been discovered here, and perhaps due to the ancient city’s out-of-the-way location, several pieces have survived with surprising detail intact. For example, some of the several intricately carved stone slabs still have their original pigmentation. Two things that make this site one of our favorites? One: The remote location means no swarms of tourists. Two: It’s home to the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan (and it’s the second-tallest Mayan pyramid ever discovered). Plus, you can climb its soberingly steep steps for stunning, unforgettable views over the surrounding jungle-scape.
9. Ek Balam
Yet another set of ruins found in the Yucatan Peninsula, Ek Balam, meaning “black jaguar” in Mayan, is a tourist-favorite and thought to possibly be the seat of the Tlalol kingdom. This ancient Mayan city peaked around the late Classical period between 600 to 850 A.D. In addition to housing numerous well-preserved sculptures, Ek Balam is known for the preserved plaster tomb of king Ukit Kan Lek Tok. For sweeping views over the Riviera Maya (and out to Coba on clear days), climb the Acropolis pyramid. This is a small city with only 45 buildings, but they are remarkably intact compared to other Classical-period structures like Coba. And although Ek Balam is gaining in popularity — it’s often tacked onto day trips out to Chichen Itza, which is only an hour away — it remains relatively less crowded.
Located about 90 minutes north of Mexico City, the ancient ruins of Tula are known for the 13-foot-high Toltec warrior columns made of basalt atop the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, a Mesoamerican feathered serpent god. Compared to other sites in the area, there’s not as much known about Tula or its significance alongside other settlements. However, the city does show up in Aztec mythology, and we know that it began to flourish following the fall of Teotihuacan before becoming abandoned around 1150, probably due to lack of resources. During its existence, it grew from a small settlement, known as Tula Chico, with around 20,000 citizens, to Tula Grande, a large, thriving city with a potential population of 60,000. For now, Tula seems to spark more questions than answers.
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