Like many things in life the answer to this question depends on how much time you have and what your interests are. While Chichén Itzá is the most well-known Mayan ruin and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, there are other ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula worthy of your consideration, especially if you want a peaceful experience. Listed below are the top ruins of the peninsula and the pluses and minuses of each.
The ruins of Tulum are most notable for their exquisite setting, a bluff overlooking a white sand beach and turquoise water. The ruins themselves are of an East Coast style that is not as large or elaborate as other sites. Access to the main pyramid is highly restricted, so much so that you can’t get a good look at the front of the Castillo. This is the closest ruin to Cancún and worth visiting if you are in the area, but I wouldn’t travel far for this one.
The setting of the Cobá ruins is completely different from that of Tulum. At Cobá paths through the jungle connect the structure groupings. This is a great place to rent a bike and go for an easy ride through the jungle. This is also one of the few sites that still allow you to climb one of the great pyramids for a view overlooking the jungle. It’s an easy site to add on the drive from Tulum to Chichén Itzá. On the negative side, there are few carvings and for me the building style is not as interesting as at other sites.
The ruins of Chichén Itzá are the most popular for a reason; the structures are amazing and varied with beautiful intact carvings and expansive grounds to explore. Unfortunately this site does get crowded. Check out my post on the best time of day to visit Chichén Itzá for tips on how to avoid the masses. The other negative is access to the structures is restricted. There is nothing that you are allowed to climb or explore in depth.
The ruins of Uxmal are my overall favorite. I love the carvings and the variety of structures. In addition you are allowed to climb and explore most of the structures. The exception is the central pyramid, Casa del Adivino. I also preferred the hilly terrain to Chichén Itzá’s flat grounds for the viewpoints it offered. There were few other tourists during our early morning visit in mid-December. The one negative is the long distance from Cancún. From Mérida it’s an hour drive.
This collection of 4 sites, a 30 minute drive from Uxmal, was the most surprising destination. The sites – Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná are small and easy to explore. Each has something special to offer, although Xlapak less so. We saw some of the most interesting carvings of the trip at Kabah and Labná. On a mid-morning visit, after Uxmal, we saw very few other visitors.
Edzná was one of two ruin sites on this list that we decided to skip. Although it is only a 45 minute drive from Campeche it’s not on the way to Palenque. We decided the time to drive there and back, plus the time to visit the ruins and then the long drive to Palenque would make for too long a day. In looking at photos of the site I also thought that there would be few carvings. Others have written that they particularly liked the site for the solitude.
The ruins of Palenque (technically not on the peninsula) are often listed as a favorite site but it’s a long way from the other ruins on this list. The drive from Campeche is 5 hours. The jungle setting is beautiful with a manicured almost garden park atmosphere. Steep mountains loom over the site and large trees tower over the structures, giving a majestic feel compared to the scrawny trees at Cobá. The structures are somewhat varied and impressive but there is little carving on site. While you can climb and explore many of the structures access to the Temple of Inscriptions is restricted.
Calakmul is the other site we decided to skip. Another jungle setting with great distances between structure groups, this site potentially takes time to visit. It is on the long drive back to Tulum from Palenque but would require an extra night or two to do it justice.
What is your favorite Yucatan Mayan ruin?
If you agree, have a different opinion or know of something I’ve missed I’d love to hear from you.
For links to all the posts in this series see the Yucatan Peninsula page.