One of the most important, most studied, and most reconstructed Mayan sites, Chichén Itzá is a huge complex (covering some 2.5 square miles) that makes an even bigger impression. Though often crowded, it’s absolutely worth seeing. The city was at its height from the seventh to ninth centuries (and was abandoned in the late 13th century) and is particularly renowned for its pyramid, El Castillo; ball park; Temple of the Warriors; and El Caracol (the snail), a round building believed to have served as an observatory.
This barely-explored lakeside archaeological zone comprised one of the largest Mayan cities. From the pyramid's tower you can see across miles of flat peninsula to other ruined towers in the distance. Travel Yucatan operates buses from Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
This colonial village near Merida is home to the pyramid of Kinich Kak Moo, which dates back to 400-600 AD and is Mexico’s third largest. Dedicated to the sun god, or Fire Macaw, the settlement was an important site for Mayan shamans. A 16th-century monastery that was built on top of another Mayan temple, Convento de San Antonio de Padua, sits nearby and is an important historic attraction in its own right.
Building on this one-time Zapotec capital began in 500 BC with the leveling of a hilltop in mountainous central Oaxaca. The dramatic site can first be glimpsed onboard flights descending into Oaxaca City. It’s most famous for its Danzantes carvings, which were not really dancers, but more likely depictions of tortured prisoners and people with deformities. Monte Albán had two rich cultural periods that spanned some two hundred years around the time of Christ and again from 600 to 800 AD.
Palenque is arguably Mexico’s most magnificent ruin. Rising out of the jungle in the foothills of the Sierra Madres, the site is most famous for the discovery in 1952 of the tomb of King Pakal, which was found hidden in the Temple of Inscriptions. Palenque was a powerful Maya city-state which achieved rare heights of artistic beauty between the seventh and ninth centuries AD, and because it’s far from major cities and beach resorts, it’s never as crowded as other ruins.
Pre-Columbian Mexico’s largest city, the ruins of Teotihuacán cover some 12 square miles, which encompass the towering Temple of the Sun (150 AD), the world’s third largest pyramid. The site is both fascinating and mysterious, and was inexplicably abandoned in the eighth century. The Teotihuacános passed on to later empires their worship of Quetzalcóatl, their feathered serpent god, and Tlaloc, their god of rain. Aztecs considered the ruins a sacred site. Arrive early if you can – it starts getting very crowded by mid-morning.
The Yucatan's most picturesque ancient Mayan complex is perched dramatically on a cliff overlooking the sea. After exploring the ruins, cool off on the wide beach to the south, one of the most beautiful on the coast.
Considered as beautiful and artistically advanced as Palenque, this city in the Puuc region has unusual features, including the Temple of the Magician, a pyramid with rounded edges rising from a rectangular base. The stone carvings and decorations are far more intricate than those of its contemporary and sometime ally, Chichén Itzá.
Our Experts save you money with travel deals and advice
Consider booking seats at the back of the plane since you’ll usually board first and have first dibs on luggage space.
Laura Motta Director, Deals Publishing
Sign up for the Top 25 Newsletter
to get exclusive weekly deals