The Yucatan Peninsula offers a huge variety of attractions. You'll find exquisite beaches along the Caribbean coastline, popular resort areas like Cancun and the Riviera Maya, ecological reserves and water parks, the lovely colonial city of Mérida, and the special Yucatecan gastronomy. But among the Yucatan's most fascinating attractions are the fascinating ancient sites of the Maya civilization which can be found throughout the area. Here are some of the larger ones that you should make an effort to visit, although there are many, many smaller ones that are also worth exploring.
For centuries, Chichen Itzá was the political, religious and military center of the northern Yucatan Peninsula. This is among Mexico's must-visit archaeological sites. The city flourished from 300 to 900 AD, was abandoned, then re-established from 1000 to 1250 under Toltec rule. This is why there are two areas of Chichen, the "old" and the "new." The most well-known building of Chichen Itza is the Castillo, or "Castle," which was dedicated to the Plumed Serpent, Kukulkan. On the equinoxes, a play of light and shadow on the stairs appears to take the form of a serpent. The name of the site means "the edge of the well of the Itzaes."
Location: 75 miles (120 km) east of Mérida and 60 miles (195 km) west of Cancun.
Functioning between 400 and 1000 AD, Cobá was built around four small lakes. Only a few of its estimated 6,500 structures have been uncovered. It was the hub of a complex network of causeways called sacbeoob (the plural of sacbe, which means white road). The Nohuch Mul Pyramid, is the tallest pyramid in the area and has 120 steps to the top. If you don't suffer from vertigo, climb to the peak where you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the surrounding jungle. In Mayan, Cobá means "Ruffled Water."
Location: 95 miles (150 km) from Cancun, 28 miles (45 km) from Tulum
The original name of this site is unknown, but it is called "the King" in Spanish. The present name refers to a stone sculpture that was found at the site that depicts a head with an elaborate headdress. This stone is on exhibit in the Cancun Archaeology Museum. The excavated area contains 47 ancient structures which formed the center of a small city devoted to maritime trade and fishing.
Location: within Cancun's tourist resort area at Km 18 on Kukulcan Avenue..
This site, whose name means "Mayan Flag," was part of a triple alliance with Chichen Itza and Uxmal, but reached its peak after the fall of Chichen Itza, between 1250 and 1450. It is considered the last great Maya stronghold. The archaeological zone covers two and a half square miles and that area contains vestiges of nearly 4000 structures, mostly residential buildings. Several of the constructions contain mural paintings. Mayapan has a Castillo which is a replica of the one in Chichen Itza.
Location: 27 miles (43 km) south east of Merida
Inhabited from 200 A.D. until the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, this is the largest of 30 Maya sites found on Cozumel Island. It was the political and economical center of the island and also the sanctuary of the Mayan moon goddess Ixchel, deity of childbirth and fertility. Pilgrims from the entire Mayan world may have come to worship her.
On the northern part of Cozumel island, Transversal highway Km 7.5
Located right in the Cancun hotel zone, this archaeological site is on the same property as the Cancun Maya Museum. The Maya inhabited the site over 800 years ago until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors (roughly 1250 to 1550 A.C.). The site contains some 40 structures, of which five are open to the public, the largest being a pyramid of 26 feet in height.
Location: Boulevard Kukulkan Km 16.5 in Cancun's hotel zone.
It is believed that the original name of this city meant dawn, but the current name means "Wall". The most spectacular aspect of Tulum is its stunning location right on a cliff by the clear turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea. The fortress city of Tulum had a population of only five to six hundred people within its walls, probably only nobles, and commoners dwelled outside the walls. The site was at its peak between 1200 and 1520 and was one of the first sites mentioned by the Spaniards. The most important structures within the site are El Castillo, which functioned as a navigational aid, directing Mayan craft through the break in the reef, and the Temple of the Frescoes.
Location: 81 miles (131 km) south of Cancun on Highway 307.
Tulum Ruins Visitor's Guide
This is the most important site of the Puuc region and was at its peak between 600 and 1000 A.D. Its name means "Three harvests" or "Three times built." The legend of the city's founding involves a dwarf who outwitted the king, became the new ruler and magically constructed the buildings of Uxmal. The Pyramid of the Dwarf (also known as the Pyramid of the Magician) dominates the site. Many of the buildings are arrayed in ornate stone carvings .
Location: Uxmal is located 48 miles (77 km) south of Merida on federal highway 261.
Xcaret is an eco-park which encloses a small Mayan archaeological zone. Due to its location on one of the most important coves in the area, this site was a leading commercial port. Its name means "Little inlet."
Location: 35 miles (72 km) south of Cancun
Read more about Xcaret eco-archaeological theme park.
A water park with ruins on-site, Xel-Ha's archaeological zone is only partially excavated. This was once an important sacred site where a variety of gods were honored. It was also a key ocean port and trade center. It went through two periods of flourishing, from 100 to 600 and again from early 12th century until the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500s. Xel-Ha means "where the water is born" in Mayan.
Location: 75 miles (122 km) south of Cancun