Keen to explore some of the archaeological sites in Mexico? In this article, we’ll highlight the best ruins in Mexico to help you decide which sites warrant a spot on your Mexico itinerary.
Mexico was home to many fascinating pre-Colombian civilizations and many of them left behind incredible ruins that are now open to the public. There are thousands of archaeological sites within Mexico and nearly 200 of them are open to visitors.
Some of the best-known ruins in Mexico, sites like Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan, welcome millions of visitors each year. But Mexico is also host to a plethora of lesser-known, but equally impressive sites which are not nearly as crowded.
If you’re curious about Mesoamerica and want to learn about pre-Colombian cultures, visiting one (or many) of these sites should definitely be on your Mexico bucket list.
For this article, I teamed up with some fellow travel bloggers to highlight the breadth of the different ruins to be found in Mexico. Hopefully this (non-exhaustive) list will inspire you to learn about some of Mexico’s ancient civilizations.
- The Best Ruins in Mexico
- 1. Templo Mayor, Mexico City
- 2. Tlatelolco and the Plaza de las 3 Culturas, Mexico City
- 3. Teotihuacan, Estado de Mexico
- 4. Xochicalco, Morelos
- 5. Yaxchilan and Bonampak, Chiapas
- 6. Becan, Campeche
- 7. Calakmul, Campeche
- 8. Ek Balam, Yucatan
- 9. Uxmal, Yucatan
- 10. Chichen Itza, Yucatan
- 11. San Gervasio Ruins, Quintana Roo
- 12. Chacchoben, Quintana Roo
- 13. Muyil, Quintana Roo
Tips for Visiting Archaeological Sites in Mexico
Before we dive into learning about all the different ruins in Mexico, I wanted to offer a few tips that will help your visit go more smoothly. I haven’t been to all of the sites mentioned below, but I’m confident that these tips will serve you well at each of them.
- Bring water: Most of these archaeological sites are large and will entail a lot of walking. You’ll be able to find bottled water on-site, but it’s always easier to show up prepared so you don’t have to waste time on a water detour. Pack a refillable bottle and purchase more along the way if necessary.
- Wear comfortable shoes: Again, many of these sites are large and you’ll do a lot of walking (and possibly even climbing the structures). You’ll have more fun if your feet are comfortable. I recommend a pair of lightweight, breathable running shoes.
- Carry cash: It’s always handy to have cash in Mexico and that holds true at the ruins. Whether you want to hire a guide, purchase souvenirs or snacks, or tip your guide, cash will come in handy. You may be able to find an ATM on-site, but it’s easier to come prepared.
- Bring sun protection: Most times, exploring Mexico’s archaeological sites involves prolonged sun exposure. Pack sunscreen, a hat, and a sun cover-up of some sort to avoid getting burnt.
- Sundays are free for locals: All of Mexico’s ruins are free for Mexican residents and Mexican citizens on Sundays, so prepare for crowds. If you are a resident or citizen, bring your INE card to receive free admission on Sundays.
- A note on cameras: This tip applies on a case by case basis, but I think you’ll still appreciate having a head’s up. If your camera appears to be “professional” you may be forced to pay a fee to enter with it. I encountered this at Chichen Itza with my GoPro– it was on a selfie stick, which I guess made it seem professional. I had to pay 100 pesos extra to take it in with me. If you have a professional-looking camera, just stow it in your backpack before you head in to avoid this extra charge.
The Best Ruins in Mexico
1. Templo Mayor, Mexico City
Sitting right on Mexico City’s Zócalo, Templo Mayor was once the main temple of the Mexica kingdom of Tenochtitlan. It is one of many fascinating sites in Mexico City’s Centro Historico.
This site is particularly striking because you can view the impressive ruins and the colonial buildings of the zocalo at the same time. This contrast serves as a stark reminder of the weight of colonialism. The Spanish literally dismantled parts of the temple and used the same stones to build a church (the Metropolitan Cathedral) right on top of it. It’s haunting.
There is a museum (Museo del Templo Mayor) adjacent to the cathedral where you can tour the excavated portion of the ruin and browse a collection of Mesoamerican artifacts. You can view part of the excavated ruins without paying for entrance to the museum, but going inside will help you learn more about what you’re looking at.
If you don’t have time to visit the famed anthropology museum, this is a smaller, more digestible alternative. Opt for a guide so you can learn about the significance of Templo Mayor and more fascinating details about Mexica history. If you’d like to learn about this ruin within the broader context of Mexico City’s history, opt for a guided walking tour of the historical center.
A visit to the Templo Mayor Museum will take 1 to 2 hours. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 AM to 5 PM.
2. Tlatelolco and the Plaza de las 3 Culturas, Mexico City
By Bella of Passport & Pixels
Most history-lovers visiting Mexico City will make a beeline for Templo Mayor, the magnificent temple that used to be at the heart of the Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan. But if you want to know more about the Aztecs and Mexican history then there’s another site you definitely should not miss: Tlatelolco.
Situated about 30 minutes’ walk north of Templo Mayor, Tlatelolco was the second most important city in the Aztec Empire. Where Tenochtitlan was the spiritual and religious heart, Tlatelolco was the center of commerce, the ‘Wall Street’ of the Aztec world. The main market was the busiest in the Empire, with around 25,000 visitors every day coming to trade goods.
Just like at Tenochtitlan, the city had its own impressive central temple, the ruins of which can still be seen today. There are also dozens of other smaller temples and structures, including a calendar temple covered with carvings and a round temple that was discovered underneath the shopping center next door.
After the Spanish conquest in 1521, the Spanish tore down the temple and used the stones to build their own church on the same spot.
Today the square next to the church is known as the Plaza of 3 Cultures – where Aztec, Spanish, and modern Mexican influences can all be seen side by side.
The site is about the same size as Templo Mayor but doesn’t have a museum. A visit should take you no more than an hour or two.
3. Teotihuacan, Estado de Mexico
Located just an hour from Mexico City, Teotihuacan is one of Mexico’s most famous ruins. This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, among other structures.
Teotihuacan is believed to have been one of the largest cities in the Americas at its height, which was sometime between the 1st and the 7th Century AD. By the 8th Century, the city had been abandoned and remained that way until the Aztecs claimed it as their own in the 1400s.
Now, Teotihuacan welcomes over 4 million visitors each year. You can stroll the Avenue of the Dead, a 1.5-mile stretch that extends from the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and ends at the Pyramid of the Moon. The Avenue of the Dead is flanked by the Pyramid of the Sun and many other intriguing structures. Visitors can climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and take in panoramic views of the entire site.
Teotihuacan makes a great day trip from Mexico City and can be reached using public transportation. The entire trip will take 6 to 8 hours if you go this route.
There are very few interpretive signs within the Teotihuacan site, so hiring a guide is the best way to learn about the significance of these ruins. There are guides for hire when you enter the site, or you can join a guided tour.
On my last visit to Teotihuacan, I went with a tour group and it was definitely worth it. Not only did it make the transportation easy, but the guide spoke English and Spanish and shared a ton of interesting historical anecdotes. Here is a similar Teotihuacan tour that includes round trip transportation and a look at two other important cultural sites in Mexico City.
There is no shade at this archaeological site, so pack sunscreen and plenty of water.
4. Xochicalco, Morelos
By Jordan of Inspired by Maps
Xochicalco is an exceptionally well-preserved ruin complex in Mexico, and one of the least touristy. Given its proximity to Mexico City, this is rather curious, but don’t be fooled – it is well worth the effort to get here.
Xochicalco is a fortified city with grand military infrastructure dating back to around 650 AD. This was a fraught period in Mexico’s history following the break-up of great Mesoamerican states such as Teotihuacan and Tikal, and therefore defensive was paramount. Hidden high on a mountain summit, at Xochicalco, you can easily send a day exploring the extensive system of ramparts, moats, palisades, bastions, and citadels that offers its 20,000 residents protection.
The exquisitely sculptured reliefs on the sides of most ruins structures also make the site unique. Especially the temple of a sacred feathered serpent — which is worth a visit alone for. The carvings around Xochicalco are so detailed in form and style that it is even speculated that Xochicalco may have housed artisans from across Mesoamerica.
There is also a well-preserved pyramid, ball game courts, sacrificial altars, a cave that receives light only on the summer solstice, and plenty of awe-inspiring views. The entry ticket there costs $59MX.
5. Yaxchilan and Bonampak, Chiapas
By Becki of Meet Me In Departures
Even though these are two different Mayan ruin sites, they are fairly tricky to get too because of where they are located. You could visit them independently, however, there will be a lot of logistics in terms of getting a 4×4 ride along the bumpy jungle tracks and coinciding this with one of the small boats which shuttle visitors along the Usumacinta River.
The best way to see Yaxchilan and Bonampak is to book onto a full-day small-group tour (as well as a few smaller sites en route). This also includes the guide, entrance fees, and food for the day. Prices vary depending on group size but expect to pay around $70.
Because it’s not straightforward to get there, you’ll have the pleasure of the ruins being quieter than others in Mexico. After visiting some of the busier Mayan sites, one of the highlights with visiting Yaxchilan and Bonampak is that it’s visually much more rustic, you don’t have hoards of people standing in your pictures, as well as more of the ruins being open to explore the inside (which you often can’t do at lots of the busier Mayan ruins).
Bonampak is the smaller site of the two, the main thing you’ll want to see here is the colorful murals painted inside one of the tombs (you can’t go inside this one). They are so vibrant and weren’t destroyed during the Spanish conquest.
Yaxchilan is the larger of the two ruin sites, one of my lasting memories here was going inside the ‘labyrinth’. Ok, so it’s not officially a maze, but it’s dark (so take a torch) and filled with huge tailless whip scorpions (don’t worry, they are harmless to humans) and bats. We spent ages exploring these underground tombs.
6. Becan, Campeche
By Kate of Our Escape Clause
Nestled in a quiet part of the jungle in Campeche sit the absolutely magnificent Becan ruins— ruins made all the more stunning for the fact that they are located off the beaten path on the Yucatan peninsula, and seemingly worlds away from the tourist crowds of Chichen Itza or Tulum.
Located an easy 1.5-hour drive from Bacalar, Becan is situated near the small town of Xpujil and is so easy to get to that it’s almost hard to believe the ruins aren’t more crowded.
When exploring Becan–an impressive 20 structures have been excavated, including defensive walls and a moat–you very well may spend parts of your visit entirely alone, surrounded by only the jungle and the remains of this once-powerful city.
The oldest structures in Becan date to around 500 BCE, but it saw a large expansion much later and was populated until around 1200 AD when the city was abandoned.
Much about the city, including its original name, has been lost to time, but it was clearly a very powerful population center.
Most of the structures in Becan are free to climb, and during your visit, you absolutely should climb at least a few of the pyramids–the views are stunning.
Becan currently costs 65 pesos to visit, and eager travelers will probably want to spend 2-3 hours there. It’s easily combined on an overnight trip with a visit to the more popular, yet harder to get to, ruins of Calakmul, for those looking to see multiple cities!
7. Calakmul, Campeche
By Isabella of Boundless Roads
Situated in the state of Campeche bordering with Quintana Roo in the south and El Peten in Guatemala on the west side, Calakmul is an unmissable place either if you love archeology or nature, as you get the best of both worlds.
Calakmul is one of the largest protected reserves in Mexico and stretches for 7,231 km2 (2,792 sq mi).
To visit the Biosphere you will need at least one entire day and I would recommend hiring a guide and start from early morning to get the chance to spot the unique wildlife living in the biosphere. If you are lucky and spot a Jaguar but even local guides rarely see them.
I wish I did. After the jungle tour, you will be taken to the most interesting pyramids where the guide explains the history of the ancient Mayan civilization. If you chose to go on your own without a guide you will still enjoy the magic atmosphere of this place. And you still be able to see lots of birds and maybe monkeys while hiking to the top of the ancient temples.
Since it’s far away to everything you will need to plan at least a 2-night stay close to the entrance. There are lovely jungle hotels in the area for any budgets and needs. If you have time I would suggest you extend your stay as the area is packed with amazing things to do. I stayed there one full week to see everything.
8. Ek Balam, Yucatan
By Erin Tracy of Traveling Thru History
Ek Balam is one of the hundreds of Mayan ruins that cover the Yucatan Peninsula and was once a ruling city of the Mayan Kingdom.
When you visit, you’ll be greeted by defensive walls, arches, a palace, a chapel, a ball court, and an Acropolis. The Acropolis is the tallest building and houses the remains of one of the kings of Ek Balam. You can climb to the top of the Acropolis to get a closer look at the carved jaguar teeth that guard the entrance to the king’s tomb and also get a breathtaking view over miles of the Yucatan’s landscape.
Guides can be found at the entrance to Ek Balam and I highly recommend hiring one to learn more about the fascinating history of this site.
Ek Balam is located near Valladolid in the Yucatan Peninsula. If you don’t want to use a tour company, you can take a taxi from the corner of Calles 44 and 37. Taxis cost 250 pesos, but you can share the car and split the cost.
The entrance fee for Ek Balam is 423 pesos and you can expect to spend 1.5-2 hours exploring the ruins. If you want to avoid the crowds, go in the morning when most people are visiting some of the larger ruin sites.
9. Uxmal, Yucatan
By Wendy Werneth of The Nomadic Vegan
For me, Uxmal is the most impressive of all the ruins in the Yucatan peninsula, including the more famous ones like Chichen Itza and Tulum.
The bas-reliefs sculptures on the buildings around the main square are in excellent condition, and the site has some unusual features that you won’t see elsewhere. Of these, the most striking is the huge pyramid known as the House of the Magician, which has a unique, rounded shape.
Admission costs 413 pesos in total, which includes the general admission ticket as well as a Federal fee ticket. Be sure to keep both tickets, as they will be checked when you enter.
There are about five buses a day to Uxmal from Mérida, which is 50 kilometers away. If you can manage to wake up early, I recommend taking the first bus at 6 am so that you can avoid the heat, take photos in the beautiful early morning light, and have the place to yourself before the crowds arrive. This will also ensure you have plenty of time at the site, which takes a few hours to explore thoroughly.
Within the visitor’s center is a restaurant that serves up basic Mexican food, but it’s a good idea to bring snacks and plenty of water with you.
10. Chichen Itza, Yucatan
Chichen Itza was once one of the most significant cities in the Mayan empire. It was built sometime before the 5th Century and at one point had as many as 50,000 inhabitants.
Now, Chichen Itza is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. The site is famous for it’s impressive El Castillo pyramid, which features one step for each day of the year.
The pelota ball court is another impressive structure within this site. However, my personal favorite is El Caracol because it’s a little different from each of the others.
Located 2.5 hours from Playa del Carmen and 1.5 hours from Merida, Chichen Itza is easily accessible from the most popular areas of the Yucatan peninsula. A visit to this archaeological site makes a fun day trip from Playa del Carmen.
Like many other ruins in Mexico, there are very few interpretive signs on the site. If you wish to learn more about the history of Chichen Itza and its role in Mayan culture, you will need to hire a guide. The structures are beautiful and interesting to look at on their own, but a guide will offer more depth and context for what you’re seeing.
Private guides are available for hire at the entrance to Chichen Itza, or you can visit the site as part of a guided tour. If you’re a solo traveler, a guided tour is an easy way to visit Chichen, as it includes transportation. This Chichen Itza tour includes transportation from the Riviera Maya and stops in the city of Valladolid and the cenote Ik Kil. It’s sure to make for an action-packed day.
Chichen Itza is open daily from 9 AM to 5 PM. It’s best to visit as early in the day as possible in order to escape the crowds and the heat. Plan to spend about 3 hours at the site.
11. San Gervasio Ruins, Quintana Roo
By Natalie of Blissmersion
The San Gervasio Ruins are located on the northern section of Cozumel island. Though San Gervasio isn’t as big or flashy as some of the more famous Mayan ruins in Mexico, they are worth touring as they were a very important site for the Mayans.
Cozumel was the island of fertility and the birthplace of chocolate. Since these ruins are less crowded, you can get up close and personal with many of the buildings, even touching and walking on some structures.
We opted to use a tour guide, which was 400 pesos additional (around $17 USD) and definitely worth it. We learned so much more about the site, plus we could go through the ruins at our own pace. Without a tour guide, it’s difficult to understand the purpose of each building and its importance.
The entrance fee is $9.50 USD. I recommend wearing mosquito repellent to this site. It’s offered for $1 USD at the entrance.
The easiest way to get there is to get a taxi to the site. From our resort, we paid $50 USD for a roundtrip taxi ride to the ruins and back. The driver waited for us, so we weren’t worried about being stranded. I recommend planning for 2-3 hours at this site. We only planned for one hour and it was much too short.
12. Chacchoben, Quintana Roo
By Annick of The Common Traveler
Located in the south of Mexico, in Quintana Roo, visitors will find the Mayan ruins of Chacchoben. The ruins make a great day trip from the Riviera Maya. Most visitors explore this site as an excursion from their cruise ship stop as it is one of the best things to do in Mahahual.
Visitors should take Highway 307 to Highway 293, through Lazaro Cardenas, until reaching the ruins 3 km to the north-west of the town. Open daily from 8 AM to 5 PM, plan on spending about 2 hours visiting the entire site. Visitors are advised to arrive early or late to avoid the cruise crowds or to check with the cruise schedules (looking for “Costa Maya”). Admission to the ruins costs an affordable $60 Mexican pesos (about US $3.50).
The story of its discovery is fascinating. In 1942, a local Mayan discovered the ruins and built his home here and started farming the land. Thirty years later, an archaeologist discovered the family and the ruins and reported the discovery to the Mexican government. The Mayan family then became honorary guards of the site.
Surrounded by the jungle, you’ll see lots of birds and howler monkeys, adding to the ambiance! Don’t forget to bring bug spray, sunscreen, water, and your sense of adventure!
13. Muyil, Quintana Roo
By Jenn and Ed of Coleman Concierge
Muyil was one of the earliest and longest inhabited ancient Maya sites on the Yucatan Peninsula. What made Muyil a rich and powerful city was that it was on a perfect small boat port along a chain of brackish lakes connected to the ocean by a series of canals.
It’s located just 10 miles south of Tulum and was actually the major port city in the area with more size and power than the picturesque Mayan city that now sits in ruins on the outskirts of modern Tulum.
Today visitors to Muyil can enjoy one of the most unique Riviera Maya excursions by combining Muyil with the adjacent waterways of the Sian Ka’an biosphere. There are half a dozen major excavated structures at Muyil, including some interesting Alux houses for the mythical little people who bestowed favors to the Maya.
After touring the ruins, visitors walk through a jungle path to the edge of Laguna Muyil. From there, they take a boat across the Laguna Muyil and Laguna Chunyaxché to a hand-dug Mayan canal. The tour lets you snorkel about a mile through the canal like an ancient lazy river, and imagine what it must have been like for Mayan ships to enter and exit the once-powerful city of Muyil.