The pyramids, temples and palaces of the ancient ruins in Mexico tell the story of advanced Mesoamerican people. A story that was brought to an end by the Spanish in the 16th century.


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.

The Mayas were just one of the many peoples of Mesoamerica who lived in modern-day Central America. Throughout the ancient ruins in Mexico, their story is told through weathered frescoes, through temples built to their gods, and through the ruins of ancient centres of commerce.

These symbols from the past tell the story of their incredible achievements and how easily it can all be lost.

BEST ANCIENT RUINS IN MEXICO

ZAPOTEC CAPITAL OF MONTE ALBÁN / Hilltop capital of the Zapotecs on an artificially levelled plateau

TOWERING PYRAMIDS OF TEOTIHUACÁN / Mexico’s largest city in the 5th century, home to 250k people

CLASSIC MAYA CITIES OF PALENQUE & YAXCHILÁN / Evocative Maya temples shrouded in lush jungle

MAYA POWER OF CHICHÉN ITZÁ / Tourist friendly ruins with mixed architectural designs

MIGHTY AZTEC EMPIRE AT TENOCHTITLAN / Ancient Aztec ruins in the foundations of Mexico City

1 / ZAPOTEC CAPITAL OF MONTE ALBÁN

Our Honda Civic creaks and crawls her way into Oaxaca. She has travelled over miles of cavernous potholes and mountainous speed bumps. Her suspension is shot; she is wheezing as she finally slumps under a lamp outside our hotel.

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. Restaurants, sitting in the shadows of regal churches, produce trendy fusion dishes for locals and travellers.

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. As a result, its one of the finest ancient ruins in Mexico.

Monte Albán sits on top of a hill just outside Oaxaca. The summit has been artificially levelled at 1940 m creating a huge Main Plaza. From here, ancient stones form a multitude of pyramids and palaces, accessed by a network of artificial terraces.

We stroll around collecting the remnants of civic buildings, testament to Monte Albán’s advanced society: 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.

Free from the burden of Oaxacan potholes, our little Civic zips along the capital’s roads. We arrive at an ancient ruin in Mexico that – at its peak in the 5th century CE – housed 250,000 people. Thereby making 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.

We arrive early from Mexico City to beat the tour buses, the hawkers, the heat and, unfortunately, the opening of the toilets.

We stand in awe, minimised by the sheer size of the pyramids and temples.

The Temple of the Moon – beautifully proportioned – glows in the dusty early morning light. We walk down The Avenue of the Dead – a 2 km boulevard that leads triumphantly to the Temple of the Sun – and climb the 248 steps to the top. Here, on the 3rd largest pyramid in the world, the hegemony of Teotihuacán can be reimagined 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 MAYA CITIES OF PALENQUE & YAXCHILÁN

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.

We sit in our Civic staring at a huge tree trunk lying across the only main road between us and Palenque. The latest act of resistance by the Zapatistas.

“How long till we can pass? “we ask a local.

“A day maybe two.”

Taking a necessary diversion, our 5-hour drive becomes 9. Our Civic once again bounces over familiar potholes and speed bumps, this time deep in 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.

DISCOVERING JUNGLE-COVERED PALENQUE

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.

Two hours to the south, on the banks of the Usumacinta river lies a rival Maya city, the mysterious Yaxchilán. Accessible only by boat, we dump the Civic at Frontera Corozal and haggle for a good price. Powered by the fumes of a rusty old speedboat, we are whisked upstream.

Dropped back on land, howler monkeys swing through trees, directing us to the ruins. They’re not as complete as the ancient ruins in Palenque but far more evocative. 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.

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


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.

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.

4 / DECLINING POWER OF CHICHÉN ITZÁ & TULUM

Just as the Maya abandoned divided Chiapas, so too do we, driving eastwards towards the wealth of the Yucatán peninsula. Our Civic is happy to dish out a few coins to speed along new highways free from potholes, speed bumps and civil-resistance trees.

Yucatán was home to the final fling of Maya culture and the over-visited Chichén Itzá is one of the finest restored ancient ruins in Mexico. Abandoned in the 8th century, it was resettled a century later.

The Mayas that migrated here mixed with the many local tribes creating new architectural designs.

With a throng of tourists, we stare up at the best example. El Castillo is a towering pyramid that’s also 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.

An hour’s drive to the east, we arrive at Tulum, 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. With a 784 m wall surrounding the city on 3 sites, Tulum was intended to be protected.

Perhaps they knew what was coming. In 1511, a Spanish ship ran aground at Tulum and first encountered the Mesoamerican people; an 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.

WILD SWIMMING / COOLING OFF IN MEXICO


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

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

5 / RISE AND FALL OF THE MIGHTY AZTEC EMPIRE AT 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. We walk across the Zocalo (main square), past today’s monuments to wealth and power: the National Palace, government buildings and the towering Catholic cathedral.

Around a corner sits the monuments to yesterday’s power: the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. Once a blood red temple that rose from this floating city of one hundred thousand people, now a bundle of rocks resting in the dirt.

We pass the place where it is believed the eagle was originally spotted; the centre of the universe for the Aztecs and the beginning of their dominance.

Instead, these dilapidated ancient ruins in Mexico 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?

Fitting all these magnificent ruins into a trip to Mexico is difficult. But we saw them all on our rewarding yet challenging 1 month Mexico road trip. You can read about the challenges (such as avoiding separatists holding ropes, cutting down trees and wielding machetes) in our driving in Mexico post and about the rewards in our top experiences post.

If you are looking at a shorter trip, check out our 3 days in Mexico City or our 2 week Mexico itinerary, which includes most of the highlights from our 1 month on the road. Or you could simply peruse all our other Mexico articles, including our favourite waterholes and cenotes spread across the country.

Oregon Girl Around the World

If you have questions please leave them in the comments section below – we always reply. But before you go any further why not follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and sign up to our monthly newsletter.

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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

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

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