A Practical Guide to Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan
Since I have visited a number of Mayan ruins, I would like to explain each of them helping the novice traveler decide which ones to visit. The first four are accessible from the Riviera Maya in a day trip:Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba and Ek Balam. Chichen Itza: Probably the most well known ruins in the peninsula. It is a full day trip from the Riviera Maya, but these are spectacular and worth the time. In terms of ruins, I give it a 10 however so everyone else does and it shows.
You will most likely be surrounded by people the entire time. You MUST get a guide for these ruins, the history and story is so amazing that I don’t know why anyone would go without a proper tour. The experience becomes more personal and you will remember so much more about the experience. This site is for the history buff who is very interested in learning about Mayan culture.
Tulum: Very popular, beautiful ruins located right on the coast. This is a relatively small site however it is striking against the bright Caribbean Sea. It will not take long to view the ruins (around an hour or less) and there is a beautiful beach to enjoy afterwards. Please note that there is not much shade on the coast so bring adequate sunscreen and a hat. The two times I have been there were no vendors either, so bring a small cooler if you want refreshments. What’s better than enjoying a few cervesas on the beach after traipsing around ruins! I recommend this excursion for people that are interested in learning a little about Mayan culture but only want to sacrifice half a day.
Coba: Located in the jungle, Coba boasts the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan. Coba is unique because of the jungle surroundings; you may see spider monkeys and all manner of indigenous birds. Be sure to bring lots of bug spray. This site is not as popular as Tulum or Chichen Itza, so you will be able to hire a guide inexpensively or wander on your own in relative privacy.
Ek Balam: Although recently renovated, these ruins still have many large un-restored structures. The crowning jewel of Ek Balam is located about 3/4ths up the main pyramid and contains almost perfectly intact stucco carvings of winged figures, which are not found in any other Mayan site. This is a great way to view Mayan architecture at the micro level with more detail. For me, the rest of the site fairly boring compared to Chichen or Uxmal, but the carvings are worth it. After the ruins, an eco company run by locals has set up a bicycle route to a cenote. It costs extra but the open air cenote is perfect after a hot day at the ruins so don’t forget your swimsuit.
Uxmal: One of the most spectacular and historical sites in the Yucatan. Since it is further from Cancun you do not get as many tourists, although with it’s proximity to Merida it does get some action. It boasts one large pyramid, an interesting quadrangle formerly thought to be a school, a governor’s palace and many other smaller structures. Currently you are unable to climb the large pyramid but everything else is open. The views are stunning and if you are in Merida it is a must see.
Ruta Puuc including Kabah, Sayil and Labna: These three small sites can be done in one day from Merida. Each location has at least one well excavated structure and many looming in the jungle untouched. They only cost a few dollars to get in and each one takes around 30 minutes or an hour to tour. Bring a good guide book to learn more about the ruins as these sites might not have guides available to give tours.
Mayapan: Close to Merida, Mayapan is in fact a smaller replica of Chichen Itza and is also the reason archeologists started using the names “Maya” and “Mayan” to refer to the indigenous people of the area.
There are some Impressive frescos and original paint on a few of the structures and we were able to hire a guide in Spanish for 50 pesos. Mayapan is a well manicured site and easily accessible. You can see the majority of the structures in about 1 hour. It does not have large scale constructions such as Uxmal, Chichen or Edza, but it is worthwhile If you have a free afternoon. These ruins can also be coupled with the centoes at Cuzama for a day trip from Merida.
Dzibilchaltun: Only 10 minutes from Merida, Dzibilchaltunis just off the highway that goes to Progresso. Apparently there is an impressive museum but it was closed for renovations at the time of our visit. Several small structures make up this site but the most interesting is the “house of the dolls” named due to the dolls found within at the time of excavation. An interesting and somewhat sad feature of these ruins is the Catholic Church that was constructed from dismantling Mayan structures. Also on the property there is a cenote open for swimming if you want to cool off. We chose to drive up to Progresso after the ruins and have some ceviche and beer on the beach. It made for a lovely afternoon outside of Merida.
Edzna: Located near Campeche, this makes for a pleasant weekend visit to the city and ruins. We left on a Saturday, toured the ruins, had a nice seafood lunch on the coast and the next day proceeded to tour the forts and town of Campeche before heading back to Merida. I recommend this educational overnight trip since it includes Spanish and Mayan history. As for the ruins of Edzna, there are several large structures and one eye-catching pyramid containing interesting architecture compared to Chichen Itza or Uxmal as the pyramid is one side of a large plaza. We were unable to hire a guide so our guide book helped explain a lot of the structures. I believe you could do this in a day trip from Merida but Campeche is worth the overnight.
Becan: One of my favorite sites due to a number of factors including its unique architecture, jungle surroundings and secluded location. It is not easy to get to and I drove about 2.5 hours from the Mahajual/Chetumal area to view these ruins. My friends and I were literally the only people there the majority of our visit, we saw one other small group as we left. Becan is nestled in the jungle (need bug spray) but I saw a multitude of interesting birds, flowers and plants. The architecture and scale was amazing and you can literally crawl and climb over any structure which leads to fantastic views and photo opportunities. There are multiple pyramids and a literal maze of structures to get lost in. A gem of a site.