Cancun sits at one end of the Maya Riviera on the Yucatan Peninsula, an area that is now one of Mexico’s top beach destinations. But, in direct contrast to the rowdy bars, beach parties and bikini-clad bodies that Cancun is known for, it was once home to the ancient Mayan civilization. In fact, some of the most impressive ruins in the Yucatan are easily reached from Cancun.
The Maya were incredibly advanced for their time and built more than 40 cities throughout southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. Mystery surrounds the legends and folklore of the Mayans but it is known that they had an impressive knowledge of architecture, mathematics and astronomy. This expertise is evident when you lay eyes on the beautiful, often well-preserved, pyramids and temples at these archaeological sites.
It’s true that most people go to Cancun for the beaches, nightlife and water sports but in our opinion, a visit to the Yucatan is not complete without exploring at least one of the Mayan ruins near Cancun. We have personally been to several sites and can say that they are well worth adding to your Mexico vacation itinerary. Especially if, like us, you like to add some culture into the mix when on vacation.
The following eight Yucatan Mayan ruin sites are all within a couple of hours of Cancun and each offers a unique style and character.
Ruins in the Yucatan Near Cancun
Chichen Itza (Mayan meaning: At the mouth of Itza’s well)
Chichen Itza is the best known, and therefore the most popular Mayan Ruins excursion from Cancun and Riviera Maya. However, as with most top tourist attractions, there is good reason for its popularity and therefore we consider it a must-see when you’re in Cancun.
This UNESCO World Heritage site was one of the largest Mayan cities of the time and was inhabited for almost 1,000 years. To date, more than 18 structures have been revealed and restored and can be viewed by awe-struck visitors.
The most impressive structure is the Kukulkan Pyramid (aka El Castillo) which was named one of the “New 7 Wonders of the World.” When I first visited many years ago you could climb the 365 steep steps but unfortunately, that is no longer possible. Other claims to fame are the massive ball court, the largest known in the Americas, the Observatory and the Temple of Warriors.
Tips: If you have the option go first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds and heat. Bring lots of water, sunscreen and a hat because there is very little shade. Bring a swimsuit and towel and include a visit to the beautiful Cenote Ik Kil.
Of all the Mayan ruins we have visited, Tulum is the only one with a stunning ocean view. The ancient city ruins sit on a dramatic cliff overlooking the clear, blue Caribbean making it worth a visit for the incredible photos alone.
Aside from being the only coastal Mayan city it was also one of the few walled cities. The wall was needed to protect it as an important seaport trading mainly in jade and turquoise. The site is quite compact but there are some interesting buildings to explore once you can tear yourself away from the amazing view.
The most notable building is El Castillo, perched on the edge of a cliff and the subject of pretty much every promo photo you will see of Tulum. In front of the castle is the Temple of Frescoes which still retains the colored murals on the interior of the building and carvings in the stone of the exterior.
Tips: As with Chichen Itza early morning is the best time to visit to avoid the crowds and heat. Also, bring a swimsuit and towel for a much-needed dip in the sea below. If you haven’t yet been to the town of Tulum plan to stop in for lunch and check out the beautiful beaches.
ⓘ TIP: To read about more great excursions from Cancun and Playa del Carmen click here.
El Rey (Mayan meaning: The King)
If you don’t have the time or desire to take a day trip from Cancun to see ruins there are some right at your doorstep. El Rey archaeological site is at the southern end of Cancun’s hotel zone, right across the street from Playa Delfines making it an easy cultural addition to your beach day.
El Rey is a small site with just a few structures so it can be easily explored in less than an hour. Although, it is usually very peaceful so you may find yourself lingering as you enjoy the escape from Cancun crowds and imagine life 1,000 years ago.
Tip: You can hop on any bus heading to Playa Delfines and can walk to the ruins from there. Just look for the sign with an arrow pointing down the stairs to the entrance.
Ek Balam (Mayan meaning: Black jaguar)
Ek Balam in the Maya language translates to black jaguar, an animal that was worshiped by the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas. This ancient site was discovered in the 1800s but excavation did not begin until the 1980’s making Ek Balam a relative newcomer on the Yucatan ruins map.
Only a small portion of the city has been excavated so it is not as impressive as Chichen Itza. In some ways that makes Ek Balam more inviting as you can often visit without the hoards of tourists, other sites suffer with. Another appealing feature is that visitors can climb the six levels of the Acropolis Temple and reach an incredible viewpoint.
Tip: There is very little at the site in the way of services so come prepared with water. If you are renting a car in Cancun and are driving yourself it may be an idea to visit Chichen Itza in the early morning and then Ek Balam on that same afternoon.
Coba (Mayan meaning: Water stirred by wind)
The Coba ruins don’t have the impressive structures of Chichen Itza but the site offers a different sort of experience that some prefer over the more popular ruins. The city was built around two lagoons and much of it is still engulfed in jungle. This gives it a more authentic and natural feel allowing the visitor to let their imaginations run wild.
The main structure, Nohoch Mul, is the highest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula. Visitors can climb the 130 feet to the top for an amazing view of the jungle, the ruins site and the ancient sacbe (Mayan road network.) The roads are made from white rock which was believed to be lit by the moon to light the way at night for traders.
Tips: The site is huge so we suggest renting the bikes that are available on site to explore the ruins via the white roads and jungle paths.
Xel Ha (Mayan meaning: Spring water)
Many people know Xel Ha as the fabulous and fun eco-park with an amazingly clear lagoon for snorkeling. However, right across the street from the park is a lovely Mayan ruin site. The site is small with three groups of structures that can be viewed within an hour.
Possibly the best thing about this archaeological site, aside from the lack of other tourists, are the colorful remnants of the original frescoes. These can be seen best at the Pyramid of the Birds and the House of the Jaguar.
Tip: If you plan to visit Xel Ha water park factor in an extra hour to visit this pretty site.
ⓘ If you want to read full reviews and suggested itineraries for Xel Ha and Xcaret eco-adventure parks click here.
How to Get to the Mayan Ruins
All of these sites are close enough to do as day trips from Cancun. Travel time depends on the mode of transportation and of course which site you visit. El Rey is the closest to Cancun and will take about 20 minutes by bus from downtown. Chichen Itza is the furthest with a drive time of about 2 1/2 hours.
Having a car is our favorite way to travel around the Yucatan because there are so many beautiful and interesting stops that can be made. If you don’t want to drive, the ADO bus line will have stops at some of these sites and there are also collectivos that run between Cancun and places like Tulum. There are also plenty of tour companies offering transportation.
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Born in England, Sarah developed her wanderlust at a young age as she traveled around Europe with her parents. As a young adult she spent every penny she could on experiences as opposed to possessions. Eventually she found a way to earn a living doing what she loved: traveling, writing and capturing images of the wondrous world we live in. When not on the go Sarah enjoys time in her “sometimes home” of Vancouver.