Ever wondered how the Riviera Maya got its name? Well, a long time ago, seven hundred years ago to be exact, the Mayan people built many cities along the coast and today the Yucatan Peninsula is dotted with ruins of this ancient civilization.
The Mayan civilization was one of the most advance and sophisticated cultures in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of European explorers. At one point this civilization consisted of over 40 cities spread across southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and northern Belize where there are some of the most impressive ruins of these ancient cities that can be visited today.
There are a handful of ruins that remain extremely well preserved. As a result, these Mexico Mayan ruins are the most popular and the most crowded.
A visit to one of these ancient sites is a nice complement to a relaxing beach vacation. Especially for kids, this is a great way to learn about the history and culture of Mexico.
There are several well-preserved sites and this guide to the Riviera Maya ruins should help you decide which site fits in best to your vacation itinerary.
Go Big or Go Home at Chichén Itza
The biggest and most popular ancient Mayan city in Mexico, Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was named a 7th Wonder of the World in 2007.
Not surprisingly, this is also the most crowded site to visit. Tourists arrive by the bus-load to view the impressive 79-foot Castillo (El Kukulcán).
The temple is famous not only for its grandeur but also for the various symbols of the Maya calendar represented in its features: a total of 365 steps, for example, and the shadow of a serpent slithering down the stairs that appears during equinoxes.
A full-day tour from Cancun, several tour companies will pick you up at your hotel around 7am and drop you off around 7pm the same day. Prices range from about $70 per person to $120 per person depending on meals and other activities planned besides the visit to the ruins. Chichen Itza is located about a 2.5 hour drive from Cancun.
Climb Into the Sky at Cobá
The archaeological site of Coba features an impressive 42-meter pyramid called Nohuch Mul. This is one of the tallest temples in the Mundo Maya, and visitors are allowed to climb the 125 steep steps.
These delightfully shaded ruins are famous for an inscription that indicates a date far exceeding that of modern astronomers’ estimates for the age of our universe. At the site’s Stela 20 (a stela is a sculpted stone shaft or tablet; look for signs to Structure 5), this “deep time” inscription is evidence that the Maya marked time past December 21, 2012, which represents not the end of the world, but the end of their Long Count calendar and the beginning of a more advanced era of time measurement.
Cobá is located about a two-hour drive from Playa del Carmen, and evokes a somewhat wild, yet spiritual vibe with its leafy canopy, maze of “white roads,” or sacbeob, which were the actual routes that the Maya walked upon, and scores of as-yet unexcavated structures. Coba is normally much less crowded than other Mexico Mayan ruins sites and good for children of all ages.
Marvel at the Caribbean Sea and the Cool Ocean Breeze at the Tulum Ruins
Set against the spectacular backdrop of the shimmering Caribbean Sea, the Tulum ruins are easy to walk around and can be experienced in an hour or so making this a great option for families traveling with younger children. Tulum is the only Mayan Ruin that is located directly on the Caribbean Sea.
From an archaeological perspective, Tulum is significant because of its status as a hub of trade and commerce in the Riviera Maya dating back to 1200 A.D. Structures of note include the often-photographed El Castillo, which is magnificently perched on a seaside cliff, the Temple of the Wind, whose rounded corners allowed the wind to flow freely around it as a sort of tribute to that god, and the Temple of the Frescoes, which shows different scenes of gods including Chaac, the ever-powerful rain god.
Enjoy an Easy, Beginners Ruins Experience at El Rey
Located in Cancun, technically on Isla Cancun, the ruins of El Rey lie just off Kukulkan Boulevard in Cancun’s Southern Hotel Zone.
Although no one knows its real name, the city was named ‘El Rey’ (the King) after a human skull was discovered here wearing an elaborate royal headdress. Pottery, jade and shell ornaments were found surrounding the burial site. In 2006, workers discovered a Maya skeleton on the barrier of the land, leading to speculation that this land still has a lot to be uncovered. So in a few years time there may be much more to see as archaeologists work to uncover more on this ancient site.
The archaeological zone is small but very significant. Perfectly situated between the Caribbean Sea and Nichupte Lagoon, the ruins are believed to be the center of a former port city devoted to maritime commerce and fishing. It is believed that the city was abandoned with the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century and thereafter remained at the mercy of pirates.
El Rey is open daily from 8:00am to 17:00pm and admission is free on Sundays. If you’re staying in Cancun this is an ideal place to experience the Mayan ruins in Mexico.
Don’t Miss the El Meco Complex for an Easy Ruins Visit
Located just a few miles north of Cancun, the smaller Mayan city of El Meco is far less trafficked than other Mayan ruins and remains in remarkably good condition.
Archeologists believe that this small city served for centuries as an important civil and ceremonial center with links to Chichen Itza and other sites.
Here you’ll find 14 structures with a main temple and an elaborate double-staircase altar in the middle of the city’s central square. Climb to the top of El Meco’s pyramids, the highest structures on the northern peninsula, for stunning views of Cancun and the Chacmochuc lagoon.
Solitary Mayan Ruins Experience at Ek Balam
Ek Balam, meaning Black Jaguar, is the most recently discovered Mayan ruins site on the Riviera Maya.
Ek Balam is located just 51 kilometers northeast of Chichen Itza and both sites are often visited in the same day. Once Ek Balam was abandoned it was taken over by the jungle, similar to Coba, and is still not fully excavated.
This Mexico Mayan ruins has very few visitors making it an ideal destination for photographers. There are very few services available with one bathroom on site, and no refreshment services so keep that in mind when visiting Ek Balam.
Often it is HOT at Ek Balam so to cool off after exploring hit the adjoining cenote. There are tricycle drivers that you will see adjacent to the ruin entrance and they will you bring you into the cenote for a small fee. This experience is best for older children.
Embark on an Adventure to Uxmal
Uxmal is located about 6 hours away from Cancun, thus requiring an overnight stay. There are a number of hotels near the ruins.
The name Uxmal means ‘thrice-built’ in Mayan, referring to the construction of its highest structure, the Pyramid of the Magician. The Maya would often build a new temple over an existing one, and in this case five stages of construction have actually been found. The lower sections of the buildings are plain and made of small arches, but the upper sections are ornately decorated with lattice work, pillars and layered stone work.
Uxmal was one of the largest cities of the Yucatán peninsula, and at its height was home to over 20,000 Maya. This Mexico Mayan ruins site is best for older children keen on adventure!