Uncovering 5 Legendary Mayan Ruins near Cancun

Posted by Kristin Busse on December 30, 2014


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I moved to Cancun almost 14 years ago, thinking more about salsa dancing than ancient Mayan culture.

The first Mayan archaeological site that I visited was Tulum. Back then, the most impressive thing about what looked to me like well-organized pile of rocks was the spectacular turquoise sea. Ten years later I returned and this time to Chichen Itza. With a guide and some knowledge about the mysterious Mayan civilization, it was a whole different ball game.

Home to Cancun, the Yucatan Peninsula was once bustling with the cities and trade routes of a civilization that dates back to 1800 B.C. So if you crave a little ancient history as part of your Cancun vacation, I’d highly suggest touring a Mayan ruin or two.

Chichen Itza


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Chichen Itza is probably the best known Mayan ruin of all time. A few years ago it was named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The grounds include a ball court, where the Mayans played their most popular game, which included rituals of human sacrifice, and of course the spectacular Templo de Kukulkan, a nine story pyramid. Cenote Sagrado or Sacred Cenote is another highlight. This natural hole in the earth was the site of sacrifices in honor of Chaac, the rain god. Cenote Sagrado is some 50 meters wide with almost horizontal cliffs that extend some 20 meters down to the water’s surface.

To get to here you can rent a car or take an ADO bus and hire a guide at the entrance. Chichen Itza is about two and a half hours southwest of Cancun.

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Hours: 8 am-5 pm

Tulum


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The Mayans knew prime real estate when they saw it, which explains the location of the ancient city of Tulum. The main building is perched on a 12 meter cliff overlooking a breathtaking white sand beach and the turquoise Caribbean. Tulum was a port for regional trade and is the only known walled city on the Yucatan Peninsula.

It’s also the closest ruin to Cancun – about an hour and half drive. If you rent a car you’ll be able to visit the charming town or hit the beach club and spend the afternoon sipping tropical cocktails on a beach bed. Or you can take the ADO buses to Tulum and then hire a taxi to take your to the entrance of the park.

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Hours: 8 am-5 pm

Cobá


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What’s the best thing about this Mayan ruin? At Cobá, you can actually climb the 120 steps to the top of the biggest pyramid in the Northern Yucatan, Nochoch Mul, which is some 42 meters high. At one time Cobá was home to over 50,000 inhabitants. Today, though it’s less crowded than Chichen Itza. You can also rent bikes at Cobá or hire a ride rickshaw cab and tour the site.

The Mayan community is alive and well in the area around Cobá, continuing many of the civilizations’ traditions and language.

Tours are available of the area around Cobá, some which include stops at Mayan communities and cenotes. Cobá is located about two hours southwest of Cancun.

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Hours: 8 am-6 pm

Uxmal


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The unique “Puuc style” structures at this UNESCO World Heritage Site are in much better condition than most ruins. Even better, Uxmal only receives about 100 visitors per day!

Legend has it that the awe-inspiring Pyramid of the Magician was built overnight during a series of challenges issued to a dwarf by the ruler of Uxmal. Although Visitors can no longer climb the Pyramid of the Magician, you can still climb the other structures at Uxmal to get a great view of the entire site. Be sure to stay for the surreal sound and light show, presented in both English and Spanish, every evening.

Because of its distance from Cancun, there aren’t really any day trips to Uxmal. The best way to visit is to stay at least one night at a hotel in Uxmal or in the nearby city of Merida, the capital of Yucatan and home to many of its own charms. Uxmal is about four hours southwest of Cancun.

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Hours: 8 am-5 pm

Dzibanché


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The lesser known site of Dzibanché is visited by even fewer tourists. The name means "writing on wood," which comes from the fact that Temple #6 has a wooden lintel with glyphs that date back to 618 AD. The Cormoranes Pyramid is the largest pyramid at Dizibanché and the view from the top is awe-inspiring. Visitors can climb all of the structures here and there are very few ropes or signs, just a ranger that watches over the site.

There aren’t really any formal tours available to Dzibanché from Cancun, so the best way to visit is to rent a car. The azure Bacalar Lagoon and the ruin site of Kinichná are close by and you can visited both in the same day. Dzibanché is located approximately 5 hours south of Cancun.

What you need to know
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Hours: 8 am-5 pm