These ancient ruins in Mexico include Mayan cities shrouded in jungle, Aztec temples submerged underground and pyramids towering above the plains. But these remarkable places also have a story to tell.


The turquoise blue of the Caribbean Sea glows off into the distance. Waves crash against a perfect golden beach. Kids play on the sand, shouting at each other in Spanish – a language inherited from European conquerors. Next to us on the clifftop, the faded stone of Tulum’s ancient Maya temple basks in the late afternoon sun.

With an enviable position on a thriving seaport, the town of Tulum reached its zenith between the 13th and 15th centuries. It would be one of the last Maya towns to be built and one of the last to fall. It was this temple and this town where the Spanish fleet first spotted Maya civilisation. A civilization they would soon destroy. But fortunately the Mayans (and the Mesoamerican people that came before them) have left many remarkable monuments behind.

Here – in our opinion – are the seven best ancient ruins in Mexico. From decaying cities shrouded in jungle to towering pyramids rising from the plains, they are not just great tourist sights but also tell the story of these once remarkable people.

BEST ANCIENT RUINS IN MEXICO


MONTE ALBÁN / Ancient hilltop capital of the Zapotecs

TEOTIHUACÁN / Towering pyramids of the Temple of the Sun and Moon

PALENQUE / Atmospheric temples deep in the jungle

YAXCHILÁN / Remote Mayan ruin that can only be reached by river

CHICHÉN ITZÁ / The most famous ancient ruin in Mexico does not disappoint

TULUM  / Picture perfect temple overlooking the sea

TENOCHTITLAN / Ancient Aztec ruin submerged beneath Mexico’s capital city

1 / ZAPOTEC CAPITAL OF MONTE ALBÁN

Oaxaca is a shining gem in a very impoverished Mexican state. It’s nestled in the bottom of a valley with the Sierra Norte and Sierra Sur mountain ranges rising around it. Creative art and craft galleries, both modern and indigenous, line the streets and squares of the colonial centre. In addition to trendy restauratns, Oaxaca’s other big attraction is the ancient ruins of Monte Albán.

The early Mesoamerican folk occupied the land that today runs from central Mexico to Costa Rica. Their first complex civilisation was the Olmecs, who began the city of Monte Albán around 500 BCE. As their hegemony faded, regional groups came to power. One of those groups, the Zapotecs, turned Monte Albán, Oaxaca into their capital. It’s now one of the finest ancient ruins in Mexico.

The ruins are on the summit of a hill that has been artificially levelled. The huge Main Plaza, at 1940 m sits on the top. From here, ancient stones form a multitude of pyramids and palaces, accessed by a network of artificial terraces.

The remnants of civic buildings are a testament to Monte Albán’s advanced society, including a ball court, elaborate tombs, and temples with intricate bas-reliefs. Hieroglyphics suggest Monte Albán was one of only three civilisations in the world that independently learnt to write. (The others being Sumer and China).

As a result, Monte Albán today stands as a testament to Zapotec achievements. Ushering in a more advanced time, it would hold for over 1300 years until abandoned around 850 CE.


Monte Albán / 8:00 – 16:30 | Price: M$70 | Getting there: Monte Albán is 20 minutes drive from Oaxaca. A local taxi will cost about $M200-300 round-trip from most parts of Oaxaca. Various tour operators offer shuttle services from hotels.

2 / TOWERING PYRAMIDS OF TEOTIHUACÁN

Unlike the defensive hilltop setting of Monte Albán, Teotihuacán lies on a plateau an hour northeast of Mexico City.

We arrived at an ancient ruin in Mexico that – at its peak in the 5th century CE – housed 250,000 people. This made it Mexico’s largest city of the time. It’s unclear whether Teotihuacán was the centre of an empire, but nonetheless, its influence dominated the area.

The sheer size of the pyramids and temples left us awestruck.

The Temple of the Moon glows in the dusty early morning light. The Avenue of the Dead – a 2 km boulevard – leads triumphantly to the Temple of the Sun, the 3rd largest pyramid in the world. We climb to the top and witness the hegemony of Teotihuacán from what remains of a once powerful city.

Further along the Avenue of the Dead, the precision geometry of the pyramids of the Sun and the Moon contrasts with the colourful richness of the murals on the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Striking carvings of a plumed deity, believed to be the rain god Tláloc, adorn the walls.

The city collapsed in the 8th century. But almost a millennium later the Aztecs would return to these ancient ruins in Mexico and claim it as their heritage. They would make regular pilgrimages here to pay homage to “the place where gods were created.”


Teotihuacán / 8:00 – 16:30 | Price: M$70 | Getting there: Teotihuacan is located about 30 miles northwest of Mexico City. Public buses leave from Autobuses del Norte and cost M$52.

3 / CLASSIC ANCIENT RUIN OF PALENQUE

As Teotihuacán power waned in the 8th century, other squabbling Maya city-states rose in power and influence. None was more successful than Palenque.

Palenque is deep in the jungles of Chiapas which is one of the poorest states in Mexico. The area is home to many different indigenous tribes that have remained relatively untouched by the Spanish invasion and the Spanish way of life.

Many of these indigenous people see themselves not as part of Mexico, but as a separate independent state. Calling themselves Zapatistas, they control a large area of Chiapas and, in order to attempt independence, engage in civil resistance to the Mexican government.

Driving through Zapatista held territory, red flags of independence hang from shanty towns; a declaration of their rejection of Mexican law. Kids with machetes hold ropes across the road, a gentle act of encouragement to get us to stop.

The next morning, relieved yesterday’s drive is over, we arrive at Palenque, one of the finest ancient ruins in Mexico. Harmoniously integrated into the landscape, the exquisite array of pyramids, temples and palaces are warmed by dappled light. The trees of the jungle acting as the perfect filter. Architectural designs and sculptural reliefs adorn walls, telling the story of Maya gods and Maya laws.

This is the story of one civilization at their peak; an intoxicating place refined in majesty.


Palenque / 8:00 – 16:30 | Price: M$32 to enter the national park & M$70 to enter the ruins | Getting there: Palenque is located about 90 miles southwest of Villahermosa.

4 / REMOTE MAYAN RUIN OF YAXCHILÁN

Two hours to the south of Palenque, on the banks of the Usumacinta river lies a rival Maya city.  The mysterious Yaxchilán. Accessible only by boat, the best approach is to park at Frontera Corozal and haggle for a good price from one of the many locals manning the boat ramp. Powered by the fumes of a rusty old speedboat, we were whisked upstream to explore Yaxchilán.

Back on dry land at the entrance to the ruins, howler monkeys swing through trees, directing us to the ruins. They’re not as complete as the ancient ruins in Palenque. But what they lack in complete structures, Yaxchilán more than makes up for in evocative atmosphere.

Centuries-old structures surrender to the jungle, shrouded in twisted vines and roots. Lintels and stelae are covered with hieroglyphs telling the story of the people, their religious rituals and their conquests. It’s a ethereal places to explore and the most successful of the ruins in Mexico for transporting you back to a different age.

Palenque and Yaxchilán both collapsed around the turn of the 9th century. The inhabitants abandoned their jungle riverfront properties and migrated eastward, towards Yucatán.


Yaxchilán / 8:00 – 16:30 | Price: M$60 plus M$800 for the return boat ride and 2 hours to explore | Getting there: Regular boat services leave from Frontera Corozal.

5 / ICONIC ANCIENT RUIN OF CHICHÉN ITZÁ

The Maya abandoned a divided Chiapas and moved eastwards towards the wealth of the Yucatán peninsula and established Chichén Itzá, which would become the final home of Maya culture in Mexico. The city was abandoned in the 8th century, only to be  resettled a century later when it became the capital, controlling the Yucatán peninsula.

Chichén Itzá was the largest of all Mayan cities and is thought to have had the most diverse population in the world. The Mayas that migrated here mixed with the many local tribes and created new architectural designs. The result today is one of the finest restored ancient ruins in Mexico.

El Castillo – the most famous of the Chichén Itzá buildings – is a towering pyramid that also acts as a calendar. Four stairways of 91 steps plus the top platform make 365 days. Nine levels, split by the staircases, represent eighteen 20-day months. During the equinoxes, the sun casts a shadow on the north face of the pyramid giving the impression of a serpent wriggling down the staircase.

Chichén Itzá / 8:00 – 17:00 | Price: M$250 | Getting there: Chichén Itzá is a 45-minute drive from Valladolid

6 / POSTCARD PERFECT MAYAN RUINS AT TULUM

Tulúm is the only Maya city built on the coast, the only one designed as a fortress and one of the last Maya cities to be constructed. Construction includes a 784 m wall surrounding the city on 3 sites, indicating that Tulum was intended to be protected. With access to both land and sea trade routes, Tulum was an important economic hub for the region.

The Temple of the Frescoes is one of the best-preseved buildings on the site. It was used as an observatory for tracking the movements of the sun. The facade of the temple is decorated with deities sacred to the Mayan people.

Tulúm was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries but succumbed to old world diseases and Spanish conflict. It was at Tulúm that Mesoamerican people were first encountered by the Spanish fleet who had run aground just off the coast. The encounter captured in stone on the walls of the Temple of the Frescoes. A carving resembles a man on a horse; something the Mayas would only have seen after the Spanish invasion.


Tulum / 8:00 – 16:30 | Price: M$70 | Getting there: The ruins are 3 km from Tulum town.

7 / AZTEC RUIN OF TENOCHTITLAN

Perhaps the greatest of Mesoamerican empires, the previously little known Aztecs shot to fame in the 14th century. Their religion foretold that their people would build a great city at a place shown to them by an eagle with a snake in its mouth, perched on a cactus.

Spying this vision on a swampy island on Lake Texcoco the Aztecs began their city. Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325. Reaching its zenith in 1519 CE, it became the largest city and empire in the Americas. But just two years later Spanish armies, old-world diseases and rival empires, brought Mesoamerican independence crashing to an end.

Today the ruins of this once mighty city sit under the modern-day capital, Mexico City. Beside today’s monuments to wealth and power: the National Palace, government buildings and the towering Catholic cathedral, sits yesterday’s core of power: the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Once a blood-red temple that rose from this floating city, it’s now a bundle of rocks resting in the dirt.

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Tenochtitlan marks the spot where the eagle was originally spotted, it was considered the centre of the universe for the Aztecs and the beginning of their dominance. But, these dilapidated ancient ruins in Mexico City mark its end. The near future would belong to the Spanish.

But the Mesoamerican people would come again. In 1821, Spanish colonialism would be swept away and an independent Mexico would be born. This new independent state would represent both Spanish and Mesoamerican heritage.

The eagle on a cactus, devouring a snake, that foretold of a great Aztec empire would live on, immortalised on the Mexican flag.


Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan / 9:00 – 16:30 Tue-Sun | Price: M$65 | Location: Tenochtitlan is located in the heart of Mexico City here.

MAP OF THE ANCIENT RUINS IN MEXICO

To assist with your Indiana Jones-style search of the best ancient sites in Mexico, save our map to your places by click on the star to the right of the title. This will save the map to: YOUR PLACES -> MAPS in Google Maps.

Remember to download the area to your off-line maps so you can access all the map information without a data connection.

WHERE NEXT?

Firstly, if you found this guide useful, we’d love it if you could follow us on Instagram.

We found all these sights on our 1 month Mexico road trip, which was both rewarding and challenging. For some tips if you intend to undertake your own road trip, see our driving in Mexico article.

We also have 2 itineraries for Mexico: 3 days in Mexico City and if you have a bit more time: 2 week Mexico itinerary.

If you have any questions please leave them in the comments section below – we will always reply. To stay up to date with our travels, follow us on social and signup to our NEWSLETTER.

The towering pyramids, temples and palaces of the ancient ruins in Mexico, are magnificent monuments to the story of the Mesoamerican people. Here's how to see them all #mexico #maya #ruins

The towering pyramids, temples and palaces of the ancient ruins in Mexico, are magnificent monuments to the story of the Mesoamerican people. Here's how to see them all #mexico #maya #ruins

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