10 Amazing Mexico Ruins to See in Your Lifetime

June 15, 2023

mexico ruins

Mexico was the second international country I visited, in my early 20s, and I’ve been going back ever since (several decades). Visiting the Mexico ruins is one of the reasons why I continue to go back to this county. Each one, whether Mayan, Aztec, or Zapotec, is incredible in its own way, even the tiny ones.

Although thousands of ruins are scattered across Central America, Mexico has some of the most outstanding structures, towers, fortresses, and pyramids. The once-grand cities of Mesoamerica are now overtaken by the jungle and immortalized in various stages of crumbling decay.

Thousands of years ago, different cultures lived, thrived, and built their cities in Mexico. The Mayans, Aztecs, Zapotecs, and other Mesoamerican civilizations are just some of the many civilizations whose mighty empires once dominated modern-day Mexico and Central America.

Nearly all of these ancient ruins are just partially excavated and still shrouded in mystery. It is likely that even more will be discovered in the future.

Note: While you can certainly tour the ruins on your own, having a guide is invaluable to learn about the sites, so I’ve included tours to save you time.

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Here are the ten Mexico ruins I liked the best, plus seven honorable mentions.

10 Mitla


Photo by Cantimplora Travel

Although Monte Alban is a better-known Zapotec site, the lesser-visited Mitla UNESCO archaeological site is just as impressive in its own way. Originally an important Zapotec ceremonial and burial center, Mitla (“place of rest”) contains a series of five groups of structures adorned in finely cut stonework and mosaics not found in other Mexico ruins. Geometric designs cover most of the structures, tombs, panels, columns, and walls.

The site is believed to date back to the last two or three centuries, before the arrival of the Spanish. A 16th-century Spanish church was constructed right in the middle of the site; you can see some of the original stonework that was removed from the original ruins and used for the church.

You may be interested in 12 Off-the-Beaten-Path Adventures in Oaxaca.

9 Ek Balam

mexico ruins

While covering a smaller area than some of the more famous ruins, Ek’ Balam (“black jaguar”) is still impressive.

Ek’ Balam was a functioning city between 700-1000 A.D. with 18,000 inhabitants.

Discovered in the 1980s, these lesser-known ruins are usually uncrowded.

There are more than 40 structures including Mayan temples, two palaces, a ball court, a tower, and a pyramid. It is also the location of King Ukit Kan Lek Tok’s tomb, which lies within the largest pyramid.

The main attraction is the Acropolis Pyramid which has 106 steps to the top for a panoramic 360-degree panoramic view over the lush jungle canopy.

To date, only a fraction of the site is excavated and several trails meander through the trees, providing visitors a chance to explore more of the site. Like Coba, Mayapan, and Uxmal, you can also still climb some of the ancient structures.

You may be interested in 10 Fabulous Things to Do in Valladolid.

8 Teotihuacan

mexico ruins

Teotihuacan (“place where gods were born”) is an ancient Mesoamerican city located 30 miles northeast of Mexico City in the Valley of Mexico. Construction of this important archeological site began around 300 BC and at its peak in the 5th century AD, it was the largest Pre-Columbian city in the Americas, reaching a total population of 150,000 in its heyday.

It is unknown who first inhabited the mysterious city. The Aztecs found the abandoned city in 1400 AD and named it “the place where the gods were created.” It’s known for the Aztec practice of human sacrifice.

mexico ruins

At the top after climbing in heels!

The UNESCO site contains pyramids, plazas, temples, and palaces. The Pyramid of the Sun, located on the east side of the Avenue of the Dead, is the third-largest pyramid in the world and offers a stunning view of the Pyramid of the Moon at the summit. I first climbed the 250 steps of the Pyramid of the Sun when I was 24 years old….in heels, no less! That’s where I first heard and became familiar with the word “loco” as numerous Spanish-speaking climbers passed me, some staring, some pointing me out. I wasn’t totally loco, though; I did take the shoes off to descend the pyramid. Ah, to be young and invincibly foolish.

You may be interested in How to Spend 3 Days in Mexico City.

7 Edzna


The closest Mayan Ruins to Campeche, Edzna Archaeological Zone is considered to be one of the most important Mayan archaeological sites in Mexico. These ruins, surrounded by lush green jungle, are some of the most impressive in the Yucatan. This complex can easily be visited on a day trip from Campeche as it is only an hour’s drive from the city center.

Edzna is a window to the past as it is believed to have been inhabited as early as 400 BC and features different architectural styles that span 1500 years. Dating back to as early as 600 BC to the time of the “House of the Itzás” has led archaeologists to hypothesize that the Edzna ruins were influenced by the Itza family even before they built the more famous Chichen Itza.

The main attraction of the destination is a well-preserved main temple surrounded by a complex system of canals that were once used to capture, store, and distribute water around the area. In the center is the Temple of Five Buildings, with five levels and towers 131 feet tall. While you can’t climb this pyramid, you can climb other Edzna structures, like the Great Acropolis, the Temple of the Masks, the Palace, and the Small Acropolis.

Unlike other Mayan ruins whose demise came when the Spaniards invaded the Yucatan, Edzna was mysteriously abandoned in 1500 and remains a mystery today.

This amazing site is one of the hidden gems of Mexico. While lacking the notoriety of Chichen Itza or even Tikal in Guatemala, Edzna has the advantage of being still somewhat wild, authentic, and practically free of tourists. Indeed, we had the entire place nearly to ourselves and were able to get the most incredible unencumbered photos.

You may be interested in Campeche Beach & Attractions You Can’t Miss.

6 Mayapan


Mayapán (pronounced mī-ä-ˈpän) may be the most underrated of the Mayan cities, but it just might be my favorite.

A mere 25 miles from Mérida, the archaeological ruins sprawl out in tranquil splendor, with hardly anyone around, even during the afternoon. Mayapán is a jaw-dropping metropolis, with more than 4,000 individual structures spread over about 1.6 square miles.

In the Late Post-Classic Period of Mayan civilization (13th-15th century), Mayapán was home to up to 17,000 people and the political and cultural capital of the Maya in the Yucatán Peninsula. The grounds include shrines, temples, halls, and 12 gates.

Nothing beats climbing to the top of the Temple of Kukulcan (modeled after Chichen Itza) for those Instagram shots. Even the escalation itself was photo-worthy. Oh, the fun and corny moments I had!

Mayapan is so incredible, it’s difficult to understand why it’s less visited than some of the other Mayan sites; perhaps it’s because it’s just one of many ancient ruins in the Yucatan.

You may be interested in Guide to Yucatan Road Trip.

5 Calakmul


UNESCO World Heritage site Calakmul (pronounced cah-lack-mool) was an important Mayan city during the Classic Period. Together with Palenque to the west, and Tikal just south in Guatemala, they three ruled the highlands and maintained an intense rivalry. Known as the Kingdom of the Snake, Calakmul had a population of 50,000 during its height in the 7th century.

For history buffs, this off-the-beaten-path site is not easy to get to, but perfect if you want to combine a visit to the archaeological site with an exploration of the nature reserve. Remote Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is deep in the jungle and can be difficult to find. The drive from Campeche to Xpujil is about four hours alone, and the ruins are another hour into the jungle on slow-moving dirt roads. While technically it can be done as a very long day trip, we chose to make it a stop on our journey east from Campeche on the Gulf Coast to Chetumal on the Atlantic Coast.

Calakmul was the largest Mayan city in Mexico with multiple structures, including two large pyramids, one of which still allows visitors to climb. The largest one, Structure 2, is about 150 feet tall and has been named the tallest Mayan pyramid ever discovered.

Structure 1 is the pyramid you can climb. It’s slightly smaller than Structure 2 but offers incredible views of the surrounding jungle from the top (see photo above). From the top, you’ll have a sweeping 360-degree view of the Yucatan jungle canopy.

Calakmul is one of Mexico’s hidden gems and is definitely worth exploring.

4 Uxmal

mexico ruins

Just an hour southwest of Mérida, Uxmal (pronounced óˑʃmáˑl) is one of the best ancient Mayan cities in Mexico. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but nowhere near as crowded as Chichen Itza and easy to explore and roam around.

Built between 700 – 1000 AD, the spellbinding jungle city once had 25,000 inhabitants. Uxmal was well-preserved, even before restoration began. It is believed to have been taken over by Toltec invaders during the 12th century.

The ruins, while not laid out as geometrically as other Mayan ruins, are well-preserved, giving a glimpse into Mayan life. The intricate grounds include the famous five-level Temple of the Magician (according to legend built by a magic dwarf!), the Nunnery Quadrangle, and the Governor’s Palace, which rests on a massive platform and is aligned with the path of Venus when viewed from the Pyramid of Cehtzuc. Fine examples of carved stone are displayed throughout. In ancient times, Mayan high priests would perform ceremonies (including sacrifices) atop the religious structures in Uxmal.

Unlike Chichen Itza, it is still permitted to climb the Pyramid of the Magician where you’ll have great views of the ancient city at the top.

You may be interested in Merida: Yucatan’s Best City.

3 Tulum


#11 Mayan Ruins

You can’t visit this region and not explore the magical Tulum Archaeological Site. Though the Tulum Ruins are not the most impressive of their kind, this cliff-hanging pre-Columbian fortress in Tulum has always been my favorite ancient Mayan site because it’s the only one that overlooks the sea. Dramatically poised 39 feet over the sparkling turquoise Caribbean Sea (well, when the dread seaweed isn’t there!) surrounded by dense jungle, exploring the well-preserved and expansive walled city is a treat for the eyes.

El Castillo (The Castle) is the main pyramid at the heart of the site, and it used to serve as an ancient lighthouse. Across from the kitchen is the Temple of the Frescoes, one of the best-preserved buildings on the site.

Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya and was a major trading and religious center between the 11th and 16th centuries.

I recommend getting there as soon as it opens because (1) it gets VERY crowded as the morning wears on, and (2) the midday sun is excruciatingly hot. If you get hot, there’s a beach below the ruins where you can take a dip.

Bring exact cash (pesos) to pay. They don’t take credit cards and they do not have small bills for change.

You may be interested in Best Tulum Instagram & Attractions and 21 Crazy Fun Things to Do on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast.

2 Palenque

mexico ruins

Despite being remotely located in the less-visited state of Chiapas, one of the poorest regions in the country, UNESCO Palenque is perhaps the most studied and documented of all the Mexico ruins.

Set deep in the jungle, the city dates back to 226 BC and has 1,400 buildings, and had 6,220 inhabitants at its peak. While smaller than other Mayan cities, it was as important as Chichen-Itza. The city reached its peak during the 7th century AD, but like the other ancient civilizations, it started to fall into decline and was eventually abandoned. The once majestic structures were overgrown by the jungle and not discovered again until 1746.

Less than 10% of Palenque has been excavated, but it is possible to explore almost all structures except for the Temple of Inscriptions, the crown jewel of Palenque. The burial pyramid got its name because of the second-longest hieroglyphics, bas-reliefs, and inscriptions carved into the stones, recording over 180 years of the city’s history.

1 Chichen Itza

chichen itza

About two hours from Progreso, Chichén Itzá is probably the best-known Mayan ruins in the world, and it lives up to its reputation, e.g. it’s the largest pre-Columbian archaeological site in the Yucatan, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Highly excavated, I’ve been to the site twice and learned more each time.

Founded in the 6th century, this sacred Mayan city built in Puuc style flourished between 900-1300 AD. It became one of the largest political and economic cities in the Mayan world with 50,000 inhabitants.

The ancient city covers around six square miles. Looking across the ground to the imposing main Castillo (Kukulcán) pyramid will take your breath away.

It’s also popular for equinoxes when the Castillo (castle) temple forms a shadow of a serpent slithering down the pyramid’s steps. There’s also the Great Plaza, the Ball Court, the Temple of the Jaguars, the Sacred Cenote, and other fascinating structures to explore.

Chichén Itzá is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of pre-Hispanic culture, along with Palenque and Uxmal in Mexico and Tikal in Guatemala. It is unclear is why it went into decline and was later abandoned.

chichen itza serpent

Chichen Itza serpent, 1982

Due to a fatality in 2006 where a woman tumbled to her death, you can no longer climb any part of the pyramid. I did climb it my first time visiting, when I was in my early 20s.

Because it is the most famous Mayan archaeological site in the Yucatan (easily accessible from nearly every corner), it gets very crowded. If you can get there right before it opens, you’ll be able to explore a bit before the masses invade.

Honorable Mentions



Six miles from Puebla is the tiny town of Cholula, best known for containing Pyramide Tepanapa. The Great Pyramid archaeological complex was built in the second century B.C. and is the world’s largest pyramid by volume – a third larger than the Great Pyramid at Giza.

When the Spaniards arrived, they pillaged the city and built Iglesia de los Remodiios church, perched on the hilltop, where it remains today. The pyramid was allegedly constructed for the god Quetzalcoatl and functioned as a temple. Its style and history are closely linked to the pyramids in Teotihuacan.

Take a deep breath and climb the seemingly endless stairs to get to the top of the site where you will be rewarded for your efforts with a panoramic view of the entire region. The town also claims to have 365 churches, one for each day of the year.


mexico ruins

At its peak of civilization, the ancient Mayan city of Coba (“waters stirred by wind:) had an estimated 50,000 inhabitants. Built between 50 – 100 AD, the ruins and jungle setting are stunning.

The site is very large and many people opt to rent bicycles to traverse the ruins. Note that Coba is the least excavated of the Mayan with over 5,000 mounds still undiscovered.

At its peak, it housed over 50,000 people and was a significant trade and agricultural center.

The main structure is the ancient Nohoch Mul Pyramid, which offers a steep, 130-step 137-feet climb to the top for dramatic panoramic views of two lagoons. There’s also the Xiabe/Crossroads Temple– named for its location at the intersection of three different sacbeob (roads).

Due to the female statues discovered on the site, historians believe that Coba may have been ruled by women.


Climbing Coba, circa 1984

Coba is attractive to tourists for its untamed charm and for the ability to climb one of the highest pyramids for great birds-eye views, as well as the number of nearby cenotes.


Coba, 1984

Templo Mayor

templo major

The UNESCO architectural site is part of the Historic Center of Mexico City just to the northeast of the Zocalo. Templo Mayor (“The Greater Temple”) was one of the main temples of the Aztecs in their capital city of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City).

The ruins are located next to a cathedral and allegedly stones from the temple week used to construct the church, which is kind of odd considering Templo Mayor itself was once the scene of both coronations and human sacrifices

Excavations are sparse but are ongoing, and there is a museum on site.



Less than 30 minutes from Progreso beach and center, you can also immerse yourself in ancient Mayan culture by visiting the Zona Arqueológica X’Cambo, believed to have been a fish curing and salt-producing center, which makes sense given its location near the coast.

The recently discovered site isn’t very large and archaeologists are still working on uncovering and restoring the structures. It was an important town in its time, used as a trading city, mostly for salt, of which they had plenty. Within the complex, you’ll see several pyramid structures surrounding open space.

You may be interested in Progreso Beach & Attractions You Can’t Miss.

Kinich Kakmó

mexico ruins

Photo credit: Yodigo

Built between 400 – 600 A.D. and sitting to the north of the city center (Calle 23 between Calle 27 and 28) are large but less impressive than the ruins of Chichen Itza Uxmal, Mayapan, or even Tulum. Kinich Kakmó (“fire parrot”) is dedicated to the sun god Itzam Na. Though an impressive 656 feet high, it’s largely unrestored, not much more than a symmetrical stepped hill today; few tourists visit the ruins. But there’s one very positive thing about Kinich Kakmo; unlike Chichen Itza and Tulum, you can climb the high, uneven stone steps to the top for impressive panoramic views of an endless jungle in all directions.

You may be interested in Izamal: Mexco’s Beautiful Yellow City.



Skeleton in Oxtanka

Roughly about an hour away will take you to either Oxtankah or Kohunlich. Oxtankah offers a variety of temples, pyramids, and palaces, dating back as old as 300 BC, and has an ancient skeleton on site.

You may be interested in Bacalar: The Jaw-Dropping Gem You’ve Never Heard Of.


mexico ruins

From its beginnings as a small village around 1500 BC, Izapa grew into the region’s most influential cultural and commercial center, with a population of up to 10,000 people at the height of its influence. It was once the leader of production of highly valued cacao, attracting many of Mesoamerica’s ancient cultures. While as of yet to be proved, some historians believe it is the site of the origin of the sacred Mayan Calendar.


With over literally thousands of Mexico ruins to explore (not to mention more in Belize and Guatemala), there are many more that would be great to see. If you have another favorite, please list it in the comments so I can put it on my list for my next visit to Mexico!

Most photos by Kary Kern.

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About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and the southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.

She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the new few months.

Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.

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