The Yucatán’s ancient sites

One of the most advanced indigenous cultures of the ancient Americas, the Mayans began as hunter gatherers and migrated into the Yucatán around 2500BC. Over some 1,000 years, agricultural villages developed into mighty cities, as temples and monuments sprung up, displaying the Mayans’ sophisticated understanding of astronomy, architecture and mathematics. The surrounding rainforests of the Yucatán Peninsula provided migrating Mayans with protection and natural resources. The limestone here was easily quarried and used in the creation of temples and pyramids as well as tools and ceremonial objects.
During the pre-classic period (500BC to 250AD) they appeared in Quintana Roo, where they established ceremonial centers at Cobá and Kohunlich. During the classic period (300-900AD) the Maya were at their zenith, using solar, lunar and astral cycles to devise their complex calendars and building several cities in the Yucatán region, including Chichén Itzá and Uxmal.
Unfortunately, by the 10th century, warfare, widespread disease and natural disasters had already begun to ring the death knell for the Mayans; and what was left of their once powerful empire was destroyed by the conquistadors in 1524.

Top Mayan sites

Calakmul

From 250AD onwards, Calakmul was a Mayan powerhouse to rival Tikal across the border in Guatemala, and home to around 50,000 people at its peak. Much of the site still remains untouched – of the identified 6,750 ancient buildings only a few have been excavated with most of the buildings still hidden in the jungle. Those that have been unearthed are huge and include the impressive Structure 2 – the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán at 55m.
Thanks to its remote location – about 50km from the Guatemalan border and surrounded by the jungle of the Calakmul Biological Reserve – Calakmul is one of the hardest sites to reach, but that makes a visit here even more of an adventure. The bumpy drive into the site is a great chance to see wild pigs, deer and howler monkeys. And if you're extremely lucky, you could set eyes on a jaguar or other wildcat.

Chichén Itzá

The pyramids and temples of Chichén Itzá were the center of the Mayan Empire from 750 to 1200AD, during which time it was both a busy urban trading center and a religious and ceremonial site. The striking Temple of Kukulcán, a 30m-high step pyramid also known as El Castillo, provides the centerpiece. Other important buildings include the Grand Ball Court (the largest of its kind), the Temple of the Warriors and the crumbling El Caracol observatory, which reveals the importance that the Mayans placed on dark night skies of the Yucatán.

Situated 200km from Cancún and 120km southeast of Mérida, Chichén Itzá is easily accessible and hugely popular, with plenty laid on for tourists including a regular Sound and Light Show. The best advice is to visit from November to March before the heat and crowds of summer and US spring break. Visiting early in the day will provide some respite, too.

Cobá

Under an hour’s drive northwest of Tulum, Cobá’s crumbling ruins include the second tallest pyramid in the Yucatán, Nohoch Mul, which stands 42m high. Cobá’s claim to fame is the biggest complex of stone causeways in the ancient Mayan world, called sacbés, which connect clusters of former residential areas to the main pyramid. You can explore the ruins on foot, by bike taxi or by bike; and unlike some of the more popular sites, the ruins aren’t fenced off, so you can climb up Nohoch Mul for incredible views over the surrounding jungle.

Ek Balam

Set near the colonial city of Valladolid in the north of the peninsula, Ek Balam was a true superpower during its heyday of 700 to 900AD. Its grand temples and pyramids were built during this period, before the city was eventually abandoned around the 13th century. Much of the site has been reclaimed by the jungle, but there’s still plenty to see here, including a ball court, elaborate arches and the massive Acropolis. Even bigger than the main pyramid at Chichén Itzá, its base holds a series of galleries, some of which are home to intricate carvings.

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Palenque

Backed by densely forested hills and shrouded in morning mist, majestic Palenque is one of Mexico's best examples of Mayan architecture – and one of the most atmospheric. Hundreds of ruined buildings are spread over a 15km2 area in Chiapas State, in the southwest of the peninsula, but only a small proportion have been excavated. The temples here come with high-pitched roofs topped with ornate roof-combs (the typical structure that tops a pyramid in Mesoamerican architecture) which would have been painted with bright colours during Palenque’s peak. Opening time is a good time to visit, when it’s cooler and not too crowded and the jungle rings with a chorus of howler monkeys and parrots.

Tulum

The ruins of Tulum are less elaborate than some other local examples, but what it lacks in adornment it makes up for in jaw-dropping location, perched on a cliff above a brilliant turquoise sea. It came to prominence at a time when much of Mayan civilisation was in decline, and in the 13th century was a major seaport. Tulum is a prime destination for large tour groups, so to enjoy the ruins in relative peace, visit early in the morning. You can finish off your visit with a dip in the sea below.

Uxmal

Ornate Puuc architecture abounds in Uxmal, a mere hour's drive south of Mérida, and considered by many to be the finest example of classic Mayan architecture. Built from around 600AD, it includes the sprawling Governor’s Palace and the unique oval-shaped Pyramid of the Magician. Unlike other sites in northern Yucatán, Uxmal isn't built on a flat plane, but blends into a hilly landscape. The site is very well-preserved and easy to access, making it one of the most popular Mayan sites – and one of the most crowded.

Beyond the Maya

If you’ve had your fill of Mayan majesty, then the region’s colonial Spanish architecture is also worth a look. Since the Spanish conquest, Mérida has been the cultural heart of the Yucatán, and its colonial history is visible in the narrow cobbled streets, sweeping squares and fascinating museums. A UNESCO world heritage site and elegant waterfront city, Campeche is home to restored pastel-hued streets, grandiose mansions and city walls that once kept out pirates and invaders. About 80km east of Mérida, meanwhile, is Izamal. It’s home to traditional golden-yellow buildings, including one of the largest monasteries in Mexico; but what makes it unique are the ruins of temple pyramids, some of which are built into the fabric of the city.
The Yucatán made serious money during the Spanish colonial era through henequen, a plant used to make rope, twine, and paper. The goods were produced on vast haciendas, which, in turn, supported grand residences. Some of these have been restored and you can visit as well as stay the night. Two excellent options within an hour’s drive south of Merida include Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, the only working plantation left in the Yucatán, which dates back to the 1800s; and 17th-century Hacienda Yaxcopoil, whose French Renaissance–style buildings have undergone extensive restoration.

Practicalities

The best months for tramping the Yucatán’s ruins are November and May, at either end of the dry season, when it's comfortable for both walking and sightseeing, but sites aren’t too crowded with high season tourists.

While it’s possible to visit most of the sites under your own steam, a small group or bespoke itinerary will take all the hassle out of planning, and the presence a knowledgeable tour leader and expert guides brings the history and mystery surrounding these places to life. Tours will mix the area’s ancient sites, plantations and colonial cities with exploring the natural landscape, too, and some will go further afield, exploring temples, museums and Spanish cities elsewhere in Mexico, too.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Pascal] [Chichen Itza: Filip Gielda] [Calakmul: Rafael Saldana] [Palenque: Richard Weil] [Merida: Aussia Assault]
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