Best Ancient Mayan Cities in Yucatan Peninsula Mexico

Top 3 Ancient Mayan Cities in Yucatan

The Ancient Mayan Cities were one of the major reasons why I wanted to visit Mexico. There are many many Mayan cities in Mexico and some of them count to world’s best. You probably have heard of Chichen Itza, right? Well, this one counts even to one of the seven world wonders.

In this blog post:
 #1 Chichen Itza
 #2 Uxmal
 #3 Tulum
 What to pack for visiting Mayan Archaeological Sites

My choice of Top 3 Ancient Mayan Cities in Mexico are all in Yucatan Peninsula, which makes it very convenient to visit them while staying anywhere in Yucatan Region, let it be a city inland like Merida or Valladolid or somewhere in Riviera Maya.

#1 Chichen Itza

Things to do in 2 days in Merida - Yucatan Peninsula - Mexico - day trip to Chichen Itza from Merida
Photo by Ingmar Sörgens

This is absolutely and unarguably the best Ancient Mayan City in Mexico and since 2007 it is officially one of the Seven Wonders of The World.

Chichen Itza was built between 750 and 900 AD and in the 10th century it became the capital of the region. Chichen Itza is believed to be one of the largest Maya cities with the most diverse population in the Maya world. In 16th century the Spanish conquerors took over the whole Yucatan Peninsula and turned it into a cattle ranch. During early 20th century archaeologists worked on the excavation and restoration of Chichen Itza.

Mexico Chichen Itza Maya City Archeological Site
Photo by Ingmar Sörgens
Temple of Kukulkan (El Castillo)

El Castillo is the highlight of Chichen Itza. The pyramid is approx. 30 meters high. Each side has 91 steps and one final step at the top which in total is 365 steps. Ever heard of this number in another context? That is not all! The pyramid is located and built in such a manner that on the equinox, the shadows of the stairs become a serpent wriggling down the stairway. I really believe the Mayan people were astrological geniuses.

Other important monuments in Chichen Itza
  • The Great Ball Court
  • Temple of Warriors & Thousand Columns
  • The Osario Pyramid
  • Temple of Xtoloc
  • The Caracol
  • Las Monjas
  • Akab Dzib
  • Sacred Cenote

How to avoid crowds - Mexico Chichen Itza El Castillo The Pyramid of Kukulcan

How to get to Chichen Itza

The drive from Cancún takes about 2,5 hours. If you’re inland of Yucatan the nearest city to Chichen Itza is Valladolid. The drive from Valladolid to Chichen Itza is about 40-50 minutes.

Merida is also a good base to visit Chichen Itza. From Merida the drive takes about 1,5 hours. There are buses leaving three times a day at 6:30am, 8:30am and 9:15am.

With an estimated 1.4 million visitors, Chichen Itza is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. So you can find many operators organising day trips from almost everywhere in Yucatan and Rivierea Maya. But honestly, do you want to be part of hundreds of tour busses packed with tourists? It is super easy to rent a car or catch the first bus from Merida and organise the visit on your own.

Mexico Chichen Itza Columns in the Temple of a Thousand Warriors
Thousand Columns – Photo by Ingmar Sörgens
Where to stay in Chichen Itza

I stayed in a nearby hotel, Villas Arqueológicas Chichen Itza, to get up early and visit the site as soon as they open the doors at 8 am. I was the first person entering the site and I was finished as the tourist busses arrived around 10-11 am.

Villa Arqueológicas – is a bit expensive but it is worth it. I mean it is located only 10 minutes walk away from the site of Chichen Itza.

Read my post How to avoid crowds in Chichen Itza
Where to stay in Chichen Itza Mexico Hotel Villa Arqueologicas
Practical information about Chichen Itza
  • Opening hours: Daily, 8am – 5pm (tourist busses arrive around 10-11am)
  • Sound & Light Show: 7pm (winter) – 8pm (summer)
  • Admission fee: 232 MXN (~13 USD). With credit card it costs 10% extra.
  • Photography & Video: For a tripod you need special permit and pay extra. For a hand-held video equipment you also need to pay a small fee.
  • Parking: 22 MXN (~1 USD) (if you stay at the hotel you can park there)
  • Admission fee for Sound and Light show: 75 MXN (~4 USD)
  • Personal Guide: 600 MXN (~30 USD)

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#2 Uxmal

Things to do in 2 days in Merida - Yucatan Peninsula - Mexico - day trip to Uxmal from Merida
Photo by Ingmar Sörgens

The ancient Maya city of Uxmal is located in Puuc Region. It is more or less off the beaten track and not as crowded as Chichen Itza. Uxmal is representing the Puuc style, with smooth low walls including some impressive friezes. Everytime I see the Mayan art I can’t help thinking that these civilisations had been in touch with outer space long ago.

Uxmal must have been built in 9th-10th century. Uxmal was one of the most powerful city in western Yucatán and it is believed that in alliance with Chichen Itza they have been dominating the region back then. After the Spanish conquest in 16th century the city of Uxmal was abandoned.

Best Ancient Mayan Cities in Yucatan Mexico

Pyramid of the Magician (Adivino)

With its 40 meters the pyramid is the tallest structure in Uxmal. The Pyramid of the Magician is considered as the most distinctive Mayan structure in Yucatán because of its rounded sides and unusual elliptical base.

Best Ancient Mayan Cities in Yucatan Mexico - Uxmal

Other important monuments in Uxmal
  • The Governor’s Palace
  • The Nunnery Quadrangle
  • Ball Court
  • House of the Turtles
How to get to Uxmal

The drive from Riviera Maya takes about 3-5 hours. But from Merida to Uxmal it is only 1 hour drive away. From Merida there are three daily buses at 8:30am, 9:30am 12:30pm.

Where to stay in Uxmal

I stayed at Uxmal Resort Maya which is located 5 minutes drive away from the archaeological site of Uxmal. In order to avoid crowds I planned the visit with an overnight stay, however since the site of Uxmal is not as crowded as Chichen Itza, you can consider visiting it as a day trip from Merida or Valladolid (2,5 hours).

Best Ancient Mayan Cities in Yucatan Mexico - Uxmal - Where to Stay

Practical information about Uxmal
  • Opening hours: Daily, 8am – 5pm
  • Admission fee: 188 MXN (~10 USD)
  • Photography & Video: For a tripod you need special permit and pay extra. For a hand-held video equipment you also need to pay a small fee.
Read next: Things to do in Merida

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#3 Tulum

Things to do in Riviera Maya - Mexico - Visit Archeological Maya City Tulum

Tulum is one of the last cities built by the Maya. It is located on 12 meter tall cliffs, along the coastal line of Riviera Maya. Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya around 13th-15th centuries.

To be honest, it lacks the magic and all the impressive monuments of Chichen Itza and Uxmal, but its location directly at the beach makes it to a popular site for the tourists in Riviera Maya of Mexico.  

Things to do in Riviera Maya - Mexico - Iguanas all over Tulum

Major monuments in Tulum
  • El Castillo
  • The Temple of the Frescoes
  • The Temple of the Descending God
  • God of Winds Temple
How to get to Tulum

By car the drive from Cancun takes about 2 hours. From Playa del Carmen it is an 1 hour drive. After parking you either take the shuttle bus or walk till the actual ruins.

From Cancun or Playa del Carmen you can also catch a bus or a collectivo van, once an hour.

Things to do in Riviera Maya - Mexico - Pack swimwear for Tulum Beach

Practical information about Tulum
  • Opening hours: 8 am – 5 pm
  • Entrance fee: 64 MXN (3-4 US$)
  • Parking fee: 50 MXN
  • Photography & Video: For a hand-held video equipment you need to pay a small fee.
Read next: Things to do in Riviera Maya

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What to pack for visiting Mayan Archaeological Sites

traveler packing listCheck my Pack List for more useful travel items! By buying products or booking accommodation with these links you’ll be supporting my blog without paying anything extra. Thanks already ❤️

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For more insights from real pros I recommend Lonely Planet's Travel Guide for Riviera Maya. For price worthy accommodation check Booking.com or Agoda.com.

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Best Ancient Mayan Cities in Yucatan Peninsula Mexico

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Other blog posts about Mexico

Travel Guide to Mexico Travel Itinerary - 2 weeks in Mexico Yucatan top things to do in mexico city

how to avoid crowds in chichen itza cenotes of yucatan mexico 10 reasons why you should not go to mexico

Things to do in Valladolid Mexico Yucatan Things to do in 2 days in Merida - Yucatan Peninsula - Mexico Things to do in Riviera Maya - Mexico

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