Our favourite Mayan ruins in southeast Mexico: Chiapas and Yucatan

There are about fifteen notable Mayan archaeological sites in the southeastern Mexican states of Chiapas and Yucatan. Some sites are easier to visit than others but we like our ruins and so made the effort to see as many as possible in the time that we had. Here’s a rundown on the nine that we visited in March/April 2014.

Ek’ Balam

Ek’ Balam is refreshingly free of tourists and well worth visiting. The ruins are surrounded by dense forest and the view from the top of the Acropolis is superb. Ek’ Balam is compact in size but the above-mentioned views and forest location meant we liked this site very much.

The Twins Ek’ Balam MexicoThe Twins, Ek’ Balam

The Oval Palace Ek’ Balam Mexico (2)The Oval Palace, Ek’ Balam

Where is Ek’ Balam archaeological site?

Ek’ Balam is located in Yucatan, 25km north of the small town of Valladolid.

How do you get to Ek’ Balam on public transport?

In theory, it is possible to catch a colectivo (shared transport) from downtown Valladolid to the ruins but we had trouble finding one that was leaving anytime soon (i.e. when full) so we ended up taking a taxi. On the return journey, we didn’t have to wait too long to grab a taxi that was dropping off more tourists but again we didn’t see any colectivos.

How long do you need to see the site?

About 1½ to 2 hours is ample to see the site but don’t forget to factor in an hour each way to get there from and return to Valladolid.

Current entrance fee for non-Mexicans:

$413 pesos (approximately US$21)

Opening hours:

8am-5pm

Chichén Itzá

There is a reason why Chichén Itzá is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Mexico; simply put it is extremely impressive. When you enter the site the first thing you see is the huge Pyramid of Kukulcán which is most definitely one of those ‘wow’ moments. There is no getting away from the fact that Chichén Itzá is very overcrowded with both tourists and hawkers but if you spend the previous night in Pisté (or Valladolid) and get to the site when it opens at 8am, you will only have to share it with a handful of other visitors for at least an hour, maybe two if you are lucky.

El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulcan) Chichen Itza Mexico (6)El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulcán), Chichén Itzá

Gran Juego de Pelota Chichen Itza Mexico (2)Gran Juego de Pelota, Chichén Itzá

Where is Chichén Itzá archaeological site?

Chichén Itzá is located in Yucatan, about 2km from Pisté and 54km from Valladolid.

How do you get to Chichén Itzá on public transport?

If you are staying in Pisté then you can walk to the site or take a taxi. Alternatively, there are plenty of buses and colectivos passing by as Chichén Itzá is just off the main highway linking Cancun with Valladolid and Merida.

How long do you need to see the site?

If you are in a rush you can see the whole area in about 2½ hours but 4 to 5 hours will give you more time to enjoy the site and take in its many architectural and historical attractions.

Current entrance fee for non-Mexicans:

$481 pesos (approximately US$25)

Opening hours:

8am-5.30pm

Uxmal

Uxmal was one of our favourite Mayan sites. The oval-shaped Pyramid of the Magician is quite unusual and very big and you get great views over the whole complex from the Governor’s Palace. We would definitely recommend making the effort to include it on an itinerary even if public transport is lacking a little (see below).

Casa del Adivino Uxmal Mexico (9)Casa del Adivino, Uxmal

Palacio del Gobernador Uxmal Mexico (1)Palacio del Gobernador, Uxmal

Where is Uxmal archaeological site?

Uxmal is located in Yucatan, 86km from the colonial city of Merida and 16km from Santa Elena.

How do you get to Uxmal on public transport?

There are only 5 buses a day between Merida and Uxmal (and Santa Elena) so make sure you have an up to date schedule so as not to miss the bus going back to Merida or onto Santa Elena if you decide on this option. Alternatively you can join a tour ex Merida or take a taxi. The bus from Merida continues to Campeche so one option is to visit Uxmal en route between the two cities. In fact we did this. We left Campeche on the morning bus, spent about 2 hours at Uxmal and then caught the onward bus to Merida in the afternoon. You can leave your luggage for free in a secure cloakroom near to where you buy your entrance ticket (a left luggage service is available at quite a few of the archaeological sites in Yucatan and Chiapas).

How long do you need to see the site?

The site is quite spread out but two hours is plenty of time for the casual visitor. Keep 15 minutes or so aside to walk back to the main road if you go for the bus option.

Current entrance fee for non-Mexicans:

$413 pesos (approximately US$21)

Opening hours:

8am-5pm

Tulum

Situated on rugged coastline and overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, Tulum arguably has the most stunning location of all Yucatan’s Mayan sites. On the downside, the site is extremely popular with visitors. Its proximity to Playa del Carmen, Cancun and all of the other resorts along that coast means that tourists arrive in droves all day long. The advice given by Lonely Planet to visit early or late in the day is worth heeding but the site itself is pretty small and losing the crowds is nigh on impossible at any time of the day. That said, we would still recommend a visit and getting photographs without other tourists in them is actually pretty easy as many of the building are roped off and not accessible – you just have to jostle for space on the path.

Pyramid El Castillo, Tulum

Templo del Dios del Viento Tulum Ruins Tulum Mexico (2)Templo del Dios del Viento, Tulum

Where is Tulum archaeological site?

Tulum ruins are located in the eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo. They are 3km from the town of Tulum and 66km south of Playa del Carmen. Cancun is 131km away.

How do you get to Tulum on public transport?

You can walk from the town of Tulum or hire bicycles. The most direct (and shortest) route is along a busy highway but it is much nicer to walk/cycle along a pleasant bike path that links the town with the beach (5km from the town) and head to the ruins that way. There are plenty of taxis and the fare is in the region of $50 pesos (approximately US$3.50) one way. If you are based in either Playa del Carmen or Cancun, there are plenty of buses and colectivos to Tulum town. Alternatively, there are numerous companies offering tours.

How long do you need to see the site?

2 hours will allow plenty of time to walk around the ruins.

Current entrance fee for non-Mexicans:

$65 pesos (approximately US$3.50)

Opening hours:

8am-5pm

Palenque

Palenque is a superb place to visit. It is the top drawer site in Chiapas state and does get busy but it is not in the same league (busy wise) as Chichén Itzá. Given the impressiveness of the ruins however, they certainly represent good value for money when compared with many of the other Mayan sites in southeastern Mexico. Palenque is surrounded by dense jungle and what we liked about our visit was the fact that you could enter via the upper entrance, see all of the main sites and then walk downhill through the jungle (seeing some minor ruins along the way) to the museum and main road back to town.

Temple of the Inscription Palenque Mexico (3)Temple of the Inscription, Palenque

Where is Palenque archaeological site?

Palenque ruins are located in Chiapas, 7km from the modern town of Palenque.

How do you get to Palenque on public transport?

Getting to the ruins from the town is nice and simple. Colectivos run from the centre of town to the ruins at least every 20 minutes and it is easy to hail one from the roadside for the return journey.

How long do you need to see the site?

2 hours will allow enough time to walk around the ruins if you have limited time but allow 4 hours if you want to walk through the jungle visiting the museum (which is worth seeing) along the way.

Current entrance fee for non-Mexicans:

It is necessary to pay your entrance fee in two parts at Palenque. The first part is paid at the National Park’s main gate and the second part is paid at the Archaeological Park’s entrance.

$36 pesos (approximately US$2) (National Park main gate)
$75 pesos (approximately US$4) (Archaeological Park entrance)

Opening hours:

8am-4.30pm

Yaxchilán and Bonampak

Bonampak pretty much consists of one main plaza and a large Acropolis and externally is the least impressive set of ruins that we visited in Mexico but the vivid frescos inside the modest temple are the big draw. Quite a few of them have been sympathetically restored and it’s easy to make out courtly life, war and ceremonial scenes from classical Mayan times. Authorities limit the number of visitors allowed inside the temples at any one time and you are allowed to take photos but the use of flash is prohibited.

Edificio 3 Acropolis Bonampak MexicoEdificio 3 Acrópolis, Bonampak

Templo de las Pinturas Bonampak Mexico (3)Templo de las Pinturas, Bonampak

Yaxchilán is located deep in the jungle on the banks of the Usumacinta River and is a great site for exploring. It reminded us a bit of some of the off-the-beaten-track temples in Cambodia (Beng Mealea and Koh Ker for example) and getting away from other visitors is pretty easy as there are plenty of well-marked trails that lead to ruins located deep into the jungle.

Edificio 33 Gran Plaza Yaxchilan MexicoEdificio 33 Gran Plaza, Yaxchilan

El Laberinto Yaxchilán Mexico (1)El Laberinto, Yaxchilán

Overall, if you have time, both temples are worth visiting with Yaxchilán definitely being the better of the two because of its superb jungle setting and sense of remoteness. However it is important to stress that you will spend a lot of time on the road if you decide to undertake a day trip from Palenque and if your time is limited, the day could be better spent elsewhere.

Where are Yaxchilán and Bonampak archaeological sites?

Yaxchilán is located in Chiapas, 164km from Palenque.
Bonampak is located in Chiapas, 146km from Palenque.

How do you get to Yaxchilán and Bonampak on public transport?

Unless you are continuing across the border into Guatemala, it is easier and arguably less-expensive to visit Yaxchilán and Bonampak together on an organised tour out of Palenque. There are plenty of companies offering tours. The standard price is in the region of $600 pesos (approximately US$40) per person and includes breakfast, lunch, entrance fees and transportation including the return boat trip to Yaxchilán and the dirt-track ride to Bonampak. This price does not include the services of a guide but more expensive excursions are available to include this service or local guides can be hired at the individual sites. The tours depart very early in the morning (5am) and involve a lot of driving. Don’t expect to be back in town much before 7pm.

How long do you need to see the site?

If you take a guided tour then the amount of time at each site is dictated. From memory, I think we spent an hour at Bonampak and about 1½ hours at Yaxchilán and this was ample time for each site.

Current entrance fee for non-Mexicans:

$91 pesos (approximately US$4.50) (Bonampak)
$90 pesos (approximately US$4.50) (Yaxchilán)

Opening hours:

7am-5pm (Bonampak)
8am-5pm (Yaxchilán)

Toniná

This was the first Mayan ruins we visited in Mexico and it is definitely one of our favourites. From the carpark/ticket entrance it’s a pleasant walk through open grassland to the main plaza and the first view of the towering Acropolis. To quote our American cousins, ‘It’s awesome!’ Unlike many of the other sites in the region, you are free to explore (nearly) every nook and cranny and the views of the surrounding countryside from the top of the main pyramid are superb. Another major draw is the distinct lack of tourists at the site and we also think Ocosingo is a pleasant place to spend the night.

Toniná near Ocosingo

Toniná near Ocosingo Mexico (5)Toniná near Ocosingo

Where is Toniná archaeological site?

Toniná is located in Chiapas, 14km east of Ocosingo.

How do you get to Toniná on public transport?

Colectivos depart every 30 minutes or so from the central market and will drop you at the entrance to the site. The last colectivo back to town departs at 5.30pm.

How long do you need to see the site?

It’s a good 20-minute walk in each direction from the ticket office to the Grand Plaza so allow 3 hours to fully appreciate the site.

Current entrance fee for non-Mexicans:

$60 pesos (approximately US$3)

Opening hours:

8am-5pm

Edzná

Edzná will not instantly impress in the same way some of the other sites in this list will but, it is little visited and makes for a perfect half-day excursion out of Campeche (which by the way, with its stunning main plaza and colonial backstreets, will instantly impress). If you do come here, be sure to check out the Temple of the Masks and be careful of ants – the little devils are everywhere and they bite!

Gran Acrópolis, Edzná

Nohochná Plaza Principal, Edzná

Where is Edzná archaeological site?

Edzná is located in Yucatan, 53km southeast of Campeche.

How do you get to Edzná on public transport on public transport?

Colectivos depart every 30 minutes or so from Campeche and take approximately 1 hour.

How long do you need to see the site?

Edzná is not a big site so 1½ hours is ample time to explore it.

Current entrance fee for non-Mexicans:

$60 pesos (approximately US$3)

Opening hours:

8am-4.30pm


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