Mexico's Ancient Ruins

Mexicos archaeological masterpieces include towering Mayan pyramids and elaborate ancient cities that offer a glimpse of life thousands of years ago.
By: Jennifer Plum Auvil
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Photo by: Sarah Holmstrom

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No trip to Mexico is complete without a walk deep down memory lane into the country's past. Mexico is filled with well-restored archaeological masterpieces that offer a glimpse of what life was like thousands of years ago. These ancient ruins are scattered throughout the country including towering Mayan pyramids in the Yucatan peninsula and the elaborate ancient city just outside of modern Mexico City. Here's our selection of Mexico's best ancient ruins broken down by region.

Quintana Roo
Tulum is one of the smaller Mayan ruins, but its cliffside setting overlooking the ocean makes it one of the most picturesque. Tulum was one of the last cities that the Mayan people built, between 1200 and 1450, and it served as a major commercial port up until the Spanish conquest. Tourists come from Cancun and Playa del Carmen to see the ruins enclosed by rock walls on 3 sides. The main point of interest is El Castillo, the castle that was once a lighthouse providing safe passage for boats traversing the rocky waters below. After exploring the archaeological sites, head down the cliffs for a dip in the ocean or head to one of the nearby cenotes for swimming and snorkeling.

Less than 10 miles south of Tulum is the small site of Muyil, which also goes by the name Chunyaxche. Muyil was built before Tulum, between 1100 and 1200, and was used as a trading post in the Mayan world thanks to its convenient location near lagoons that were once busy trade highways for canoes. Because of its small size, it's not nearly as popular as many of the other Mayan ruins. So, you may be able to explore El Castillo, the Pink Palace and the surrounding jungles and even enjoy some peace and quiet while you're there.

Chichen Itza is the most popular of the Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula and the most visited in all of Mexico. Its striking architecture and unique history earned it a spot on the list of the new 7 Wonders of the World back in 2001. Tour groups depart from Cancun and Playa del Carmen to visit the sites, but rent a car and plan your own trip if you want to spend more time exploring the ruins. In the past, visitors could ascend the 365 steep stairs built into the 78-foot tall El Castillo pyramid. However, today, for safety reasons, you'll need to admire the pyramid from the ground. Other features around the grounds include a large ball court, temples and groupings of columns. Decorative platforms are believed to have been spots for human sacrifice and feature a wall of skulls as well as carvings of snakes eating human hearts.

About 45 miles from Chichen Itza and tucked deep into the Yucatan jungle, Ek Balam is a sprawling site also known as 'Black Jaguar.' Archaeologists didn't start restoring the area until 1997 and have uncovered many treasures since then. The largest building on the site is the Acropolis, a 6-level palace believed to have been the home of the governors and politically powerful between 600 and 900. Climb to the top, and you can look out at the rest of the grounds, which include a court where people once played ballgames and carried out rituals that may have involved human sacrifices. The site is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for a small fee. Because it's not fully excavated, there are few amenities for tourists. However, the small village is home to the tasty Italian restaurant Dolce Mente that serves natural and organic fare.

Some of the city's prettiest ruins can be found just 50 miles outside of the Yucatan's cultural hub in the city of Merida. Between the years 600 and 900, Uxmal was a religious center, and some researchers believe it was the capital of the Puuc region. The tallest structure is the House of the Magician pyramid which towers 100 feet near the entrance. Other spots to explore include the spacious Nunnery that may have been a school and the Governor's Palace, which features some fancy stonework. The House of Turtles gained its name from the turtle sculptures that decorate the building. Plan to spend the night at one of the local hotels so you can enjoy the Light and Sound show that illuminates the grounds each night at 7 p.m. through fall and winter and 8 p.m. in the spring and summer.

It's easy to visit multiple Mayan ruins in just 1 day in Campeche because of the proximity of many of the archaeological sites. The entire area reflects an architectural style known as Rio Bec that is characterized by ornate carvings including monster faces, tall towers and false stairways. If you're looking to explore this region, check out the Rio Bec Dreams hotel, which is a short distance from the region's main sites.

The area of Becan dates back as early as 600 B.C. The city was surrounded by a moat with access at 7 bridges, and today many of the ceremonial buildings remain. There are tall temples topped with pyramids and a large palace that welcomes visitors through the enormous mouth of a monster. Add on the Xpuhil Ruins to your trip to Becan. This smaller site is just a few miles away and is not popular with visitors. Relish the unspoiled territory and quiet grounds at Xpuhil and marvel at the 3 tall towers that deviate from the traditional style of 2 towers in the city.

The Calakmul site is the farthest from the resort but is undoubtedly worth the drive. Not far from the Guatemala border, the site is located in the nearly 2-million-acre Calakmul Biosphere Preserve. There is a plethora of ancient treasures with about 6,750 structures, the largest of which is the towering pyramid known as Structure II. Rising an astonishing 180 feet above the jungle, Structure II is the largest of the Mayan pyramids.

Deep in the mountainous Chiapas region, there are 2 essential Mayan sites that are accessible from the city of San Cristobal de las Casas. The most popular and the most easily accessible of these is Palenque, which reached its peak in the classical period between the years 500 and 700. With a 4-story tower that rises above it, the palace differs from similar structures at other Mayan sites. All of the buildings are heavily adorned with carvings and inscriptions that give archaeologists clues to what life was like in this Mayan city. Explore the jungle trails and waterfalls, and check out more restored art in the on-site museum, which houses sculptures and reliefs depicting the rulers and gods.

Bonampak has a critical spot in the history of the Mayan people as the discovery of the detailed frescoes in 1946 shaped our understanding of the Mayan people. The colorful murals depict scenes of Mayan life, including religious ceremonies, a large battle and bloody rituals. The frescoes in the Temple of the Murals have not fared well over time and the colors are not as vibrant or clear.

The central valley of Oaxaca was once a center for Mesoamerican cultures before the Spanish invasion. A testament to the culture's clever architectural style and culture, Monte Alban is an elaborate site with buildings, underground passageways and evidence of drainage and water storage systems. This spot dates back to the Zapotec people, a pre-Columbian civilization that made it their capital sometime around 500 B.C. Today the ruins are all centered on the Gran Plaza, a wide-open space surrounding by buildings, palaces, pyramids and over 170 tombs. At the museum, you can view the Danzantes, a series of carved stone tablets that depict men in various states of torture and sacrifice.

Mitla was a cultural center for Zapotecans who made their home here as early as 900 B.C. About 30 miles from Oaxaca, this site represents Mesoamerican life and culture with a series of structures built on the valley floor. There's a ceremonial center, palaces and courtyards. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they built the Church of San Pablo above one of the original platforms to keep the gods of the underworld trapped in the ground. The site, like Monte Alban, is known for its fancy fretwork with detailed geometric patterns on the walls of the standing buildings.

If you're visiting Mexico City, add Teotihuacan to the top of your to-do list as it's one of the country's best archaeological sites. Roughly 25 miles from modern Mexico City, Teotihuacan was the epicenter of Mesoamerica dating back to the first 2 centuries B.C. and flourished until its collapse sometime around A.D. 700. The Avenue of the Dead is the wide main street that divides the city in half from the Moon Plaza stretching beyond the Ciudadela. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest in the world while the Pyramid of the Sun is equally impressive. In addition, the city was filled with temples, apartment buildings, artisans' workshops and the enclosed Cuidadel, many of which are visible today.

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