Sun and sand, pink flamingoes and colorful colonial cities, and of course, the Mayan ruins – the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico has indeed got it all! I got back from a trip there a couple of weeks ago and I am still going gaga about it.

In this post, I am going to talk about the Mayan ruins I visited and would absolutely recommend. There are numerous Meso-American archaeological sites – the Mayan ruins – throughout the Yucatan region. These sites were once bustling cities, dating all the way back to over 2000 years, occupied up until the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century. The Mayan civilization was built around these autocratic city-states and formed a complex trading network. These cities demonstrate advanced urban planning, architecture and engineering. Their impressive architecture is characterized by step platforms, temple-pyramids and ornate palaces, many of which are still standing.

Really, there are too many to choose from. These are the ones I visited:

1. Uxmal

I dare say these are my favorite of all!

Located a little over an hour’s drive away from Merida, the Uxmal (pronounced “oosh-maal”) ruins are a must-do day trip. It is a fairly easy drive on the ‘Ruta Puuc’ which loosely translates into the route that goes through the hills.

I suggest arriving at the ruins first thing in the morning. That way you can have the grounds all to yourself and you can also beat the intense afternoon heat.  Maybe because it isn’t as close to Mayan Riviera or as easily accessible, Uxmal does not get crowded like the other ruins. However, don’t let the relative lack of crowds mislead you into thinking that these ruins are in any way less than the more popular ones, like Chichen Itza. They are just as impressive and well-preserved. We were late; we reached here around noon owing to our rental car acting up. It was unbelievably hot, and yet, we ended up spending some 4 hours here. In fact, we initially thought we could do without a guide, but we were so intrigued that we doubled back outside and hired one to really understand the grandeur before us.

Oh, and the iguanas! They are initially difficult to spot due to their impressive camouflaging skills, we realized they were everywhere once we figured out what to look for.

In the end, our rumbling stomachs won out, and we left the ruins, thoroughly impressed.

*Click on any image to enlarge and see description

 

 

2. Ek’ Balam

Hidden deep inside the dense jungles north of Valladolid, these ruins are truly a treasure.

‘Ek Balam’ translates to ‘black jaguar’ or ‘star jaguar’. This Black Jaguar city was the capital of an ancient kingdom and was inhabited as early as 100 BC. It was slowly reclaimed by the jungle after it was abandoned by the Maya people, and was discovered relatively recently, in the 1980s. Only a small portion of the city has been excavated so far and very little of which has been rebuilt; most structures are still in ruins and covered in vegetation. Maybe because of this, these ruins do match the image of “ruins” one has in their minds.

Oh and one more thing – unlike other more popular sites, the structures at Ek’ Balam are not cordoned off. These ruins thus offer an intimate experience. Climbing the steps of the main pyramid and looking at the vistas from the top, it is very easy to imagine the city that once was, the people that lived there and how their life used to be.

*Click on any image to enlarge and see description

 

 

3. Chichen Itza

Of course, the Chichen Itza ruins had to make it to this list!

I am going to go out on a limb here; the popularity of the Chichen Itza ruins has a lot do with how easily accessible they are. The ruins are grand but not the grandest, they are beautiful but we did visit more picturesque ones; these score ‘meets expectations’ on all the criteria – if such a criteria did exist!

Don’t get me wrong – I am also saying that Chichen Itza is a great choice if you are in the Cancun area and have room in your plans to visit only one site. If you do have time, definitely consider the previous two. Particularly, Ek’ Balam would be a great addition to a day trip to Chichen Itza as the two sites are close by and would together offer a more complete experience.

Honestly, we had no plans to visit Chichen Itza and decided to take the exit at the last minute. We were also late, it was almost 4 PM by the time we parked our car. As the sites usually close for the day at 5 PM, the entry is closed by 4 PM, and we were advised to just turn back and leave by the street vendors. Luckily, we chose to inquire at the information desk, and were told that the site would reopen for an additional hour at 5 PM to accommodate the clueless wanderers like us. In the end, we did not get a lot of time at the ruins as it got dark pretty soon, but, on the flip side, we skipped the usual throngs of tourists, had the site almost entirely to ourselves, and got some truly spectacular photos.

*Click on any image to enlarge and see description

 

4. Tulum

Perched high atop a rocky cliff, overlooking the azure Caribbean sea, the ruins of Tulum are a testimony to Maya’s aesthetic sense. The location made a lot of practical sense too; it was a major hub for the Maya’s extensive trade network with both land and sea routes converging here.

It is a fairly compact site and the different structures are well illustrated. As such, hiring a guide isn’t strictly necessary. There is a small, secluded beach right below the cliff that you should definitely check out. Do note that they close entry to this beach about an hour before the closing time for the ruins. However, the Playa Paraiso public beach right next to the ruins doesn’t have any access restrictions and can be a great choice for enjoying the sunset, which is exactly what we ended up doing.

I feel compelled to mention that Tulum is a highly touristed and commercialized place. Be prepared to come across hordes of people, touts forcing tours on you and endless markets selling souvenirs. It can be extremely off-putting for some as it was for me. Go early in the morning or just before closing and you can somewhat keep the madness in check and get rewarded by the views.

*Click on any image to enlarge and see description

 

Here’s a map to help you with directions:

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Center map
Traffic
Bicycling
Transit

 

And some useful tips

  1. Carry water… lots of it! We visited in December and still the heat was unbearable, especially between 10PM and 3PM
  2. Wear sturdy footwear as exploring the ruins involves lot of walking and climbing
  3. Plan to be there early just when the ruins open
  4. Wear insect repellent. The ruins are situated in tropical jungles and there are mosquitoes

10 Replies to “Mayan Ruins of Yucatan

  1. I’m jealous! Looks like you had an amazing trip. I can’t wait to visit this part of the world so I totally appreciate your tips and detailed this post is. Thanks!

  2. Mexico is simply beautiful! I live in the yucatan oeninsula and still haven’t discovered all the magical places around here! Your guide is really good, congrats

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