The Mayan civilization was one of the most advanced and sophisticated cultures in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of European explorers. It thrived between 300 and 900 AD and at one time included over 40 cities. Mayan Ruins by Cancun are some of the most impressive ancient cities that can be visited today. Other locations to find Mayan Ruins include Guatemala, Honduras, and northern Belize.
The Mayan cities, full of magnificent stone temples and pyramids, were primarily ceremonial centers. The Mayan people are known for their advanced knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, which were incorporated into many of their rituals.
Many of these Mayan ruins have been designated World Heritage Sites.
9 Mayan Ruins & Archaeological Zones Near Cancun
Map of Mayan Ruin Locations in and around Cancun
These are the ruin locations mentioned in this article. You can zoom in to see each location.
Best Mayan Ruins by Cancun (Easy Day Trips)
For this Mayan ruins guide, I reached out to some of my favorite travel bloggers who are experts on Mexico travel. This guide includes the best Mayan ruins to visit near Cancun including Chichén-Itzá, Tulum, Coba, Ek Balam, and many others.
Each Mayan ruin section includes details about how much time you should plan for your visit, directions from Cancun, other nearby ruins and much more. When I visited Cancun with my son, we rented a car and drove ourselves to several Mayan ruins and cenotes. We used rentalcars.com to reserve our car in advance.
Hope you enjoy these Mayan ruins of the Yucatan!
Disclosure: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I may receive an affiliate commission. I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.
Contributed by Sarah & Olivier from Off The Tourist Treadmill
Chichén-Itzá is a magnificent archaeological site located in the east of Yucatan. This well-preserved ancient Mayan city is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Chichén-Itzá was built 1,500 years ago and its name means ‘at the mouth of the well of Itza’ in Maya. By 600 AD, Chichén-Itzá had become one of the most important and powerful regional capitals with 50,000 inhabitants at its peak. Mysteriously, the site was abandoned in the 1400s leaving behind amazing architecture, sculptures and artifacts.
Valladolid is a charming colonial town en route to Chichén-Itzá with pastel-colored houses and Spanish architecture. Why not cool off in the town’s central Cenote Zaci? Close to Valladolid and Chichén-Itzá are also the Ek Balam ruins in their jungle setting.
Chichén-Itzá are the most visited Mayan ruins on the peninsula of the Yucatan. There are eighteen structures that have been restored over the years. Pyramid Kukulcan is the tallest and most famous ruin at Chichen Itza. During the Spring and Fall equinoxes, (March 21 & Sept 21) the setting sun creates shadows down the steps of the pyramid that resemble a snake descending.
Allow at least half a day to visit Chichén-Itzá. Avoid the crowds and heat by visiting early morning or late afternoon. Take a hat and plenty of water as there is little shade. If you time your visit with the spring or fall equinox, expect plenty of tourists but you will catch a glimpse of Kulkulkan!
Distance from Cancun: 2 hours (120 km)
Directions from Cancun: Take highway 180D. Then take the 79 to Piste and then the 180 to Chichen Itza. Alternatively, buses run from Cancun to Chichén-Itzá via Valladolid.
Minimum Time to see ruins: Half Day
Closest Ruin: Ek Balam
Closest Town: Valladolid
5 Fun Chichén-Itzá Facts
- Chichén-Itzá has its own form of hieroglyphs! Similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Mayan people used carved pictures and characters to convey meaning. Look out for these all over the site!
- Chichén-Itzá is a mathematical masterpiece! The imposing main pyramid at Chichén-Itzá (El Castillo) is symmetrical and has 365 steps which represent the Mayan solar calendar.
- Chichén-Itzá has hidden treasure! The towering temple of El Castillo hides a smaller temple inside with a stunning jaguar throne studded with jade.
- Chichén-Itzá is still visited by a serpent deity! During the spring and fall equinox, you can witness the shadow of the feathered Kulkulkan descend the pyramid’s staircase.
- Chichén-Itzá has amazing sound effects! Stand at the bottom of El Castillo’s staircase and clap your hands. The echo eerily sounds like the sacred Quetzal bird!
Chichen Itza Tours
Contributed by Sarah Hughes of Live, Dream, Discover
There are some amazing Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula. But the Tulum archaeological site is unique in that it sits on a cliff overlooking the beautiful Caribbean Sea.
The impressive site was inhabited as far back as 564 AD and was originally named Zamá meaning “dawning sun.” The name was later changed to Tulum which is Mayan for “wall.” This is because Tulum was one of the few ancient Maya cities built with three surrounding walls. Together with the cliff and sea, forming the fourth “wall”, Tulum was quite the fortress.
Due to its location, Tulum was also an important trading port for nearby city-states like Chichen Itza and Coba. It too was an important city-state in the 13th and 14th century although it’s thought there were never more than about 1,600 inhabitants at any time. Shortly after the Spaniards began to occupy Mexico in the 1500s the Mayas abandoned their home of Tulum.
Today visiting Tulum is a popular excursion from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. Tourists flock to this ancient Mayan site for both the historic value as well as the awe-inspiring views. The site is not as large as some of the other Mayan ruins and can get very crowded and hot during the day. Therefore, if you’re able to arrive early morning (8 am) or late afternoon (4 pm) you may be rewarded with fewer people and more tolerable temperatures.
Allow at least one hour to tour the site and visit the important ruins of El Castillo, the Temple of Frescoes, and the House of Columns. Add on another hour to go swimming at the gorgeous beach below the ruins.
However, if you’re visiting the Tulum ruins from other parts of the Riviera Maya you’d be well advised to make a whole day of it and spend some time in the town of Tulum and exploring the beautiful Tulum beaches
Facing the sea, Tulum is impressive and powerful. Known as the “Walled City”, Tulum was thought to be one of the most important cities of the ancient Mayan during its time. Fresco remnants are still visible inside some of the structures.
Distance from Cancun: 128 kilometers / 80 Miles south of Cancun
Directions from Cancun: 90-minute drive straight down Hwy 307
Minimum Time to see ruins: At least one hour
Closest Town: Akumal is 20 minutes south of Hwy. 307
5 Fun Facts About Tulum
- It is one of the very few walled cities built by the Maya as a fortress
- The original name, Zama, means “Place of the dawning sun” because it was one of the first places in the Maya empire to see the sun in the morning.
- Tulum is the third most visited archaeological site in all Mexico
- Tulum was also a school of astronomy attended by Aztec nobles
- Tulum sits on top of 39 ft cliffs overlooking the Caribbean Sea
Contributed by Tristan from Traxplorio
Located in the state of Quintana Roo Mexico, west of Tulum are the Coba Mayan ruins. With many buildings still covered by jungle, Coba is over 80 sq. miles and has five lakes.
The Coba ruins are, in my view, one of the most spectacular ruins in Mexico. The largest ruin at the site, Nohoch Mul is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan peninsula. It is 12 stories tall and has 120 steps to the top and you are still allowed to climb. From the top there is a magnificent span of jungle where you can also see the tops of other ruins.
Be careful and don’t wear only flip flops. The climb is quite steep and there is only one safety rope. But at the top you will be more than rewarded for your effort – the view over the Mexican jungle is unique!
The entire area is huge. You can of course explore it on foot – but I would not recommend that. Hire a bicycle taxi or rent your own bicycle instead.
Distance from Cancun: 2 hours
Directions from Cancun: The route via Puerto Morelos, past Playa del Carmen (with the most beautiful beaches on Yucatan) via Tulum (another great ruin) to Coba is much the most beautiful route. Here you are on the road for about 2.5 hours. For a day trip it makes sense to choose this route on the way to Coba and to take the shorter one on the way back. If you like this way of traveling, you can find even more inspiration on Traxplorio.
Minimum Time to see ruins: 60-90 minutes
Closest Ruin: Tulum
Closest Town: Valladolid
5 Fun Facts About Coba
- One of the few places in the world where you can actually climb a real Mayan pyramid
- There is a court fort the famous Mayan ballgame: ōllamaliztli
- There are amazing Cenotes nearby, where you can relax after climbing the pyramid (e.g. Cenote Choo-Ha)
- Coba can be translated as „waters stirred by the wind”
- You have to climb up 120 steps to get to the top of this ruin
Contributed by Julien Casanova of Cultures Traveled
Located in the middle of the jungle of the northern Yucatan peninsula is Ek Balam. The name translates to Black Jaguar, a sacred and powerful animal to the Maya, Aztec, and Inca. For the Maya, the black jaguar represented the ruler of the underworld and thus the night sun, darkness.
As you climb to the top of the main pyramid, stop about halfway to admire the tomb where a king is buried. An open jaguar mouth with large carved teeth signifies the portal to the other world. Surrounding the tomb are incredibly detailed original stucco sculptures depicting warriors and other animals.
Ek Balam is located about two hours west of Cancun via the toll road 180D. Just as you reach Valladolid, turn right on 295 towards Tizimin. Ek Balam will be 30 minutes ahead. Plan to arrive early to beat the crowds and expect to spend about two hours there.
On the way back, stop for lunch in Temozon, a town known for smoked meats. And you’ll definitely want to allow time to explore the traditional Yucatan town of Valladolid where you can find colonial buildings, lots of churches, authentic food, and many nearby cenotes.
Distance from Cancun: 2 Hours
Directions from Cancun: Head west on the toll road 180D & then turn right on 295 towards Tizimin.
Minimum Time to see ruins: 2 Hours
Closest Ruin: Chichen Itza
Closest Town: Temozon & Valladolid
5 Fun Facts About Ek Balam
- The name translates to “Black Jaguar,” a sacred animal for the Maya.
- Ek Balam was inhabited for over 1,000 years which is one of the longest periods in the northern Yucatan.
- The largest structures were built during the city’s peak, from 770 to 840 AD.
- Based on the size of the buildings, Ek Balam was an important center in the northern region before the rise of Chichen Itza around 950 AD.
- Archeologists have mapped 45 structures on the four and a half square mile site. However, only one square mile has been excavated.
Contributed by Ellie from Ellies Travel Tips
As one of the best Spring Break spots, Cancun is home to historic El Rey Mayan ruins that were once an important trade route during the height of the Mayan empire. This is the closest Mayan Ruins from Cancun. The best time to visit this archaeological site is early morning to avoid the crowds and intense Cancun sun.
Once you arrive at El Rey, named after ‘the king’ stone sculpture on the site, you can walk among the 47 structures making up these Mayan ruins. It will take anywhere from 20-30 minutes to walk around, however, you may want to stay a little longer to take some pictures and learn about the Mayan culture.
El Rey played a huge role in the Mayan empire’s trading enterprise. In fact, it has been discovered that El Rey had direct communication with the most influential Mayan cities! El Rey was strategically placed on the Nichupté Lagoon for its strong defensive location and access to the Caribbean Sea.
El Rey is relatively small compared to other Mayan ruins in the area, running only 520m north to south and 70m east to west. The Mayan pyramid with the most significance is labeled as Structure 2 – where the base of the original pyramid and temple was constructed. Make sure you also explore the other ruins like Structures 1 and 4 which were historic palaces and administrative buildings for the Mayans.
Make sure to stop at the nearby Cancun Mayan Museum to learn more about El Rey’s history on your way or to these Mayan ruins. Another great Mayan ruin to check out while you are vacationing in Cancun is Tulum—located on top of a cliff by the Caribbean Sea.
Distance from Cancun: 20 minutes
Directions from Cancun: Just before the Cancun Airport exit on Highway 307.
Minimum Time to see ruins: 30 minutes
Closest Ruin: Coba and Ek Balam are both 2 hours from Cancun
Closest Town: Cancun
5 Fun Facts About El Rey
- El Rey was linked to hundreds of other Mayan sites by trade.
- Dozens of iguanas roam around the structures of El Rey.
- El Rey is named after a king whose remnants are believed to still remain on the property.
- These ancient ruins hold intricate pieces of art left by the former inhabitants.
- El Rey is located in Cancun’s hotel zone as a convenient morning or afternoon trip within the city.
Contributed by Claudia Tavani from My Adventures Across The World
At a solid 5 hours drive from Cancun, the Ruta Puuc is one of the best places to visit in Yucatan and a fun overnight trip to take if you want to get away from the fantastic beaches of Mexican Riviera Maya.
This lovely 58 km route at the heart of the peninsula comprises 5 sites that are now UNESCO protected- Uxmal is the most popular one; then there are Kabah, Labna, Xlapak and Sayil. The easiest access point to visit is Merida, from where you can take the Ruta Puuc bus, or a guided tour. Alternatively, you can opt for a fun road trip for a day or – if you want to take it easy – even two.
The term “puuc” is used to describe the architectural style of the ruins, which date back between 600-1100 AD. All ruins along the Ruta Puuc are connected by sacbes – ancient pathways.
Uxmal is definitely best enjoyed with a guide: the site is large, there is a lot to see and a guide will be able to share some curious facts about it (ie the ball court where you can hear the echo) and take you to the best viewpoints.
You will find the main complex of Kabah on the eastern side of the Ruta Puuc, but the Gran Piramide (the Great Pyramid) is located on the western side – you’ll have to cross the street and follow a short trail to get there.
If you are planning on visiting all sites, definitely start with Uxmal and plan to be there as soon as it opens to avoid the crowds and the heat of the peak hours – other sites aren’t as popular so the crowds won’t be an issue.
Keep in mind that climbing the pyramids on the Ruta Puuc is not allowed.
Distance from Cancun: 5 Hours
Directions from Cancun: 180 D toll road from Cancun to Merida. As you approach Merida you will need to take the ring road toward Campeche (the 180 O). Take the 261 to Uxmal following the signs.
Minimum Time to see ruins: 4 hours drive time plus at least 1 hour at each ruin site.
Note: The entire distance from Merida centro is 259 km (161 kilometers) and takes about four hours of actual driving time.
Closest Ruin: Other ruins in the Ruta Puuc.
Closest Town: Merida
5 Fun Facts About Ruta Puuc
- There are 5 sites along the Ruta Puuc
- The Ruta Puuc is 58 km long
- Puuc means “hills” in Mayan and it’s the word that best describes the area, which as opposed to the rest of Yucatan is indeed hilly.
- The most popular site on the Ruta Puuc is Uxmal, which at its peak boasted a population of 25000 people
- Uxmal is a fun place to spot iguanas
Contributed by Jane and Duncan from To Travel Too and Staycation Australia
Uxmal was an important Maya city dating back to the 6th – 10th century CE. It is an important UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best-preserved in the Yucatan Peninsula.
You should allow 2- 3 hours to explore the site. The best time to visit is in the morning when the gates open at 8 am. If you employ the services of a local guide the tour will be approximately 2 hours and then you can wander at leisure after.
Uxmal is pronounced ‘oosh-mahl’. Uxmal means ‘built 3 times’ which relates to the site being built over 3 times, so the story goes.
The Pyramid of the Magician is the largest structure in Uxmal standing at 35 m tall with 90 steep steps leading to the top.
The Mayans were excellent astronomers. If you visit the site of Uxmal on April 12 or August 13 at sunset you will notice that the door on top of the Pyramid will align to the setting sun in the west.
Other Uxmal structures to visit are:
- The Governors Palace
- The Nunnery
- The Ball Court
- The House of the Turtles
- The Great Pyramid
After visiting Uxmal you can dine at the Lodge which is a few minutes from the Entrance Gate.
The Choco Story Museum is close by to the Lodge. Not only can you enjoy tasting local Mayan hot chocolate and chocolate you can learn about the history of chocolate in the region.
Another Mayan ruin close by is Kabah just 22.7 km away. Kabah is the second largest ruin in the Puuc region, the first being Uxmal.
Uxmal has it all located in one spot which makes it a great day out in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Distance from Cancun: 4.5 hours (382.5 km)
Directions from Cancun: 180D through Valladolid and Merida.
Minimum Time to see ruins: 2-3 hours
Closest Ruin: Kabah
Closest Town: Merida
5 Fun Facts about Uxmal:
- Legend states that the Pyramid of the Magician was built by a dwarf in one night.
- 100 stone masks of the Rain God are on the facade of the Governor’s Palace.
- In its heyday Uxmal was home to 25,000 Mayans.
- The central doorway of the Governor’s Palace is aligned to the planet of Venus.
- The Mayan ruins of Labna, Sayil and Kabah are close by and can be visited in one day.
Contributed by Daphna Bar from A Tiny Trip
One of the most magical experiences in the Yucatan peninsula is visiting Kabah.
Kabah is one of the ruins on the Ruta Puuc. During the Classic Period, roughly 600 to 900 CE Uxmal was the main center of the regional civilization. Kabah was connected to Uxmal through a sacbe (road).
A sacbe, (also called a white way) is a paved road built by the Maya civilization of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Most connect temples, plazas, and groups of structures within ceremonial centers or cities, but some longer roads between cities are also known.
Kabah is best known for the Palace of the Masks, also known as, Codz Poop. This main structure is decorated with hundreds of stone masks of the rain god Chaac.
Many come to Kabah and spend very little time looking at the Palace and moving on. However, you could easily spend half a day exploring the nooks and crannies and crossing the street to the sacbe to Uxmal. Come first thing in the morning and you may have the ruins to yourself!
Note: There are organized day trips you can book that visit both Uxmal and Kabah.
Distance from Cancun: 4.5 hours
Directions from Cancun: 180 D toll road from Cancun to Merida. As you approach Merida you will need to take the ring road toward Campeche (the 180 O). Take the 261 to Uxmal following the signs. You will pass by Uxmal ruins, and bypass the town of Santa Elena on the same road. The entrance to Kabah is on your left.
Minimum Time to see ruins: 2-3 hours
Closest Ruin: Uxmal
Closest Town: Santa Elena (a great place to stop for lunch)
5 Fun Facts about Kabah:
- Kabah is mentioned in the Chilam Balam book from Chumayel, which documented Mayan culture during the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
- Inhabitation of Kabah dates back to at least the Early Classic period.
- Despite being in the Puuc Region, there are architectural elements of both the Petén and Chenes styles.
- If you cross the road to the sacbe you will see the Arch of Kabah.
- There are many parts of Kabah that have yet to be excavated!
San Gervasio Mayan Ruins
Contributed by Shelley Marmor of Travel Mexico Solo
The San Gervasio Mayan Ruins site is located in Cozumel, Mexico. This island is well known for beautiful beaches, and world-class diving and snorkeling in the world’s second-largest reef system, behind the Great Barrier Reef.
Visiting Cozumel Island is one of the best things to do in Playa del Carmen, but also a great day trip from Cancun. From Cancun, take a taxi or the ADO bus to the Playa del Carmen bus station on 5th Avenue, and then walk to the nearby dock and take the ferry to Cozumel.
The whole trip takes just two hours, with half it by boat in the Caribbean Sea, so not too bad! Once you arrive at Cozumel Island, grab a taxi by the dock, or even rent a car or moped, and head to the ruins, located 12-miles away.
Though a smaller archeological site, these are interesting ruins, and in fact, the best ruins in Cozumel. This remote temple site was built in honor of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of the moon, healing, and childbirth, and ancient people made pilgrimages to Cozumel to worship there.
As a smaller site, you can explore San Gervasio in about two hours. There aren’t large pyramids to climb, but there are amazing things to see, including the Templo Nohoch Nah, the main altar, and Templo Ka’na Nah de Ixchel, the central temple.
Besides seeing the San Gervasio Mayan Ruins, don’t pass up the opportunity to take a snorkeling tour to El Cielo or Palancar Reef. For divers, there are dive boats that go out a few times a day to all the top spots.
If you rented a car or moped, drive the whole island and check out all the best beaches like Playa Palancar, Playa El Cielo and Punta Sur Eco Park. Head to Cerveceria Punta Sur, Cozumel’s only microbrewery, and have a local beer and bite to eat before taking the ferry back to Playa del Carmen.
Distance from Cancun: 2 Hours (for bus & ferry)
Directions from Cancun: From the Playa del Carmen bus station on 5th Avenue, take the ferry to Cozumel. From the ferry, the ruins are an additional 12 miles.
Minimum Time to see ruins: 2 Hours
Closest Ruin: El Cedral
Closest Town: Cozumel
5 Fun Facts About San Gervasio
- They were constructed in honor of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of the moon, healing, and childbirth, and many Mayan women made the pilgrimage to this site at least once in their life to pay homage to her.
- San Gervasio is the largest Mayan Ruins site on Cozumel Island, though only about one-fourth of it is open to the public.
- This site, located in the center of Cozumel Island, is a popular hangout for the local wildlife — so be on the lookout for peccaries (small wild pigs), coatis (AKA coatimundis), and iguanas.
- The age of the site is unknown, but archeologists believe it was abandoned between 1520-1600, after the Spanish arrived.
- Head to the Las Manitas (little hands) building and be on the lookout for the small red handprints on the wall — this structure was named after these handprints and was the once-home and private sanctuary to a Mayan ruler.
What to Bring on a Mayan Ruin Day Trip
If you are planning a day trip to visit any of the Mayan Ruins or Archaeological Zones Near Cancun, there are a few things you should bring along.
- Mosquito repellent like the DEET Free Murphy’s Naturals Lemon Eucalyptus Spray
- Sunscreen like Reef Repair biodegradable SPF 50+
- Light rain jacket (never know when you’ll get a short rain shower in the Yucatan)
- Water (It can get very hot, especially in the summer months).
Heading to Cancun? Check out my printable packing checklist for Cancun!
Mayan Ruins Tours
Prefer an organized tour rather than exploring on your own? Below are the best Mayan ruin tours as well as tours that include a cenote visit.
- Coba Mayan Ruin, Mayan Chocolate Tasting & Tankach-Ha cenote
- Ik-kil cenote & Chichen Itza Ruins Tour
- Tulum and Cenote Dos Ojos Tour
Cancun with Kids – Tour Recommendations
- The best kid-friendly tour in Cancun is the Cenote Day Tour which takes you to four amazing cenotes where you will swim, snorkel, and zipline. (Kids need to be 6 years or older.) Swimming in a cenote (a sinkhole filled with cool freshwater) is the highlight of any trip to the Yucatan and this is an easy way to see four really unique ones. Tour includes hotel pickup, lunch, snorkel gear, and life vests.
- Another fun kid-friendly tours is the Tulum Ruins & Turtle Swim Combo Tour. This 6-hour package combines 2 amazing activities. First, you’ll step back in time at the Tulum Mayan ruins. Later, you’ll swim and snorkel close to the marine turtles and a variety of multi-colored fish in the protected environment of the Caribbean sea.
The Best Time To Visit Cancun
Cancun is a good year-round destination but the best weather for a family vacation is between December and April. Summer can get fairly hot and late summer also adds the possibility of hurricanes. When visiting Mayan Ruins by Cancun in the summer months, you’ll want to arrive early and bring plenty of drinking water.
Recommended Cancun Travel Resources
- Travel Insurance: World Nomads.
- Transport: AirfareWatchDog and Skyscanner (Best Sites to Research Flight Prices)
- Best Hotels in Cancun (Reviews): TripAdvisor
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Alexa Meisler is the editorial director of 52 Perfect Days. Born in Paris, France she has since lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. She currently resides in San Diego with her husband and son where they enjoy exploring California and Mexico.
Travel has always been a part of her life; traveling to such places as Morocco, Tangiers and Spain as a young child as well as taking many road trips to Mexico with her grandparents as a young girl. Since then, she has traveled abroad to locations such as Russia, Taiwan and throughout Europe.
Prior to working at 52 Perfect Days she was a freelance travel writer; focusing on family and women’s adventure experiences.