Planning a vacation to the Riviera Maya? One of the wonders of visiting this region of Mexico is its proximity to so many beautiful and historic archaeological sites. Trying to figure out which sites to visit? Check out the list below to read more about the history of some of the most popular Riviera Maya ruins and tips to make your visit one to remember!
The city of Chichén Itzá was one of the largest Mayan cities and thrived between the 600s and the 1200s. It was a regional capital and a major economic center in its heyday.
El Castillo is the most iconic image of Chichén Itzá, and it is a sight to see. The pyramid is actually a larger pyramid built atop another older pyramid. In the past, you were able to climb the pyramid and even enter the inner pyramid, but both are now closed to the public for health and safety reasons.
During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the light creates a serpent pattern on the steps up the pyramid, suggestive of the Mayan snake deity Kukulkan. Plus, if you stand in front of the pyramid and clap loudly, it will echo back to you with the sound of the quetzal bird!
In addition to the pyramid, Chichén Itzá has the largest and best-preserved ball court of ancient Mesoamerica; the Temple of the Warriors with rows upon rows carved warrior columns; the astronomical observatory El Caracol; the governmental palace Las Monjas; and many other impressive structures.
Chichén Itzá is also home to the Cenote Sagrado, or the Sacred Cenote. Cenotes are natural sinkholes filled with water that are found throughout this region of Mexico. The cenote served as a pilgrimage site for the ancient Mayan people. Archaeologists have found offerings at the bottom of the cenote, including pottery, shell, gold, jade, obsidian, and even human skeletons.
The best time to visit Chichén Itzá is in the morning, before the tours arrive and the sun gets too hot. The site is very popular with tourists and gets crowded during peak hours. Be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat, comfortable walking shoes, and lots of water!
Cobá is another ancient Mayan city, which experienced its peak between 500 A.D. and 900 A.D. The site was first inhabited between 50 B.C. and 100 A.D. and remained inhabited even up to the arrival of the Spanish.
During its prime, it was a site of great political and economic importance in the region. The city had contact with other city-states in Guatemala, southern Mexico, and central Mexico.
Eventually, the emergence of Chichén Itzá took away power from the city, and Cobá began its decline.
One of the highlights of the site is that you are still able to climb the pyramid at Cobá. The view from the top is remarkable, as you can see the forest and some of the city’s ruins from above.
Cobá is a less popular tourist site than the ruins at Chichén Itzá and Tulum, so it is a great place to visit without worrying about large crowds. Plus, the forest surrounding the ruins protects you from the sun. But you should still plan to bring sunscreen, a hat, and water!
Comfortable walking shoes are a must, as the ruins are spread out. Shoes with tread will be helpful if you climb the pyramid, as the stones are worn smooth in some parts. You can walk, rent a bike, or hire a bicycle taxi to get around the site. (I personally recommend the bicycle taxi, since our driver turned out to be an excellent guide too!)
Ek Balam is a city that was populated for over 1,000 years, with its peak between 700 and 900 A.D. It served as a regional capital at one point, but it was later abandoned. The ruins are well preserved and have served as a valuable source of information for archaeologists studying ancient Mayan civilization.
The Ek Balam site has become a site of interest more recently, and some areas remain unexcavated. This has protected the site from some of the intense tourism seen by other sites in the area, such as Chichén Itzá.
Some notable structures on the site include the impressive tomb of one of Ek Balam’s rulers within the Acropolis, the city’s defensive walls, the Oval Palace, and the Entrance Arch. Another highlight of the site is the murals, some of which are still preserved. Plus, you can still climb most of the structures at Ek Balam!
Near Ek Balam there is also a cenote where you can go for a swim, about a one mile walk down a shaded path.
Ek Balam is another site that is less popular among tourists, and therefore less crowded. As always, bring comfortable shoes, sunscreen, a hat, and water!
Tulum was a small walled city built in the 1200s to serve as a port for Cobá. Its peak lasted through the 1400s, and the city managed to survive even after Spanish settlers came to Mexico.
The site sits atop cliffs facing out toward the sea. With access to both land and sea routes, it served as an important trade hub.
Some of the most important structures of the city are the pyramid El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Ascending God. A mural is still preserved within the Temple of the Frescoes.
The most beautiful aspect of this archaeological site is the contrast between the ancient buildings and the clear turquoise water of the ocean below. There is also a beach area for swimming below the cliffs and ruins.
Tulum is another tourist site that attracts a lot of visitors, and it can get crowded around midday when the tour groups arrive from Playa del Carmen and Cancun. Try to head over in the morning for a calmer visit. Be sure to bring sunscreen, a hat, a swimsuit, comfortable shoes, and water. I recommend the swimsuit so that you can enjoy the unforgettable beach among the ruins!
Have you ever visited any of these ruins? Which was your favorite? Tell us in the comments!