Ruins from the ancient Maya civilization are dotted throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. There are hundreds of Mayan ruins to choose from, with varying degrees of historical significance and contemporary popularity, but you may only have time to visit a few. Your decision may be based on a number of factors, including: proximity to your lodging, history of the site, quality of preservation, tourist infrastructure, and the surrounding environment (e.g. jungle, beach, highlands, etc.). For example, many tourists stay in Cancun or the surrounding Riviera Maya and visit the popular Chichen Itza ruins on a day trip. Though recognized as a spectacular site, it’s also notorious for being overrun with tourists. It all depends on the type of experience that you’re looking for. Choose your Mayan sites wisely, and don’t get too close to the sacrificial altar 😉
There’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation, but that won’t stop me from providing my highly subjective take on the following 4 Must-See Mayan Ruins.
Palenque Mayan Ruins, Chiapas, Mexico
Nestled in the jungle of the beautiful state of Chiapas, Palenque is worth visiting for the unique wilderness alone. Jaguars, howler monkeys, snakes, and strange insects inhabit the jungle. If that isn’t enough to entice you (or scare you away), the site’s fascinating history and culture should do the job. Palenque was an important political and cultural center during its day, as showcased by the impressive ruins. Exploring the ruins will likely bring to mind scenes from Apocalypto. Palenque is a relatively well-known and popular site for tourists, so it’s not a bad idea to venture into the jungle early in the morning to avoid midday crowds. With that being said, you won’t encounter as many Cancun shoobies, since Palenque is not easy to get to from the Riviera Maya.
The actual town of Palenque is a bit seedy and doesn’t have a whole lot to offer. Budget accommodations abound. I would recommend staying in a funky area called El Panchan, just a few kilometers from Palenque. It’s actually closer to the ruins and located right in the jungle. Consider staying at the Jungle Palace for an affordable tiki cabana. I’m talking around $7 a night. There are a few other affordable options in El Panchan as well. Beware of the humidity. The jungle isn’t for the faint-hearted.
Tonina Mayan Ruins, Chiapas, Mexico
Consider visiting Tonina if you’re looking for an off the beaten path site. Tonina is lesser known and rarely frequented by international tourists, primarily because tourism isn’t really developed in the nearby city of Ocosingo. The lack of tourists coupled with the intrigue of being the token Gringo made my visit to Ocosingo and Tonina especially interesting. Tonina is located about three hours south of Palenque in the heart of Chiapas, and can be accessed from Palenque or San Cristobal de las Casas – a beautiful city worth visiting.
Tonina prides itself on its historic rivalry with the kingdom of Palenque. You’ll be reminded early and often that Tonina captured and assassinated one of Palenque’s most famous kings. I think they’re still a little bitter that Palenque gets more attentions and tourists. In contrast to the lowland jungles of Palenque, Tonina was built on a hill and is in the highlands of Chiapas. Because the ruins are less established as a tourist site, there aren’t many rules and the ruins are basically your playground. Climb wherever you want (at your own risk). When I visited, there were only a handful of other visitors at the site. Oh, and you’ll be taking a local colectivo (small minibus) with local farmers to get to the ruins from Ocosingo. I don’t know much about lodging options, since I visited on a daytrip. If you’re up for an adventure and the idea of non-touristy ruins piques your interest, consider visiting Tonina.
Tulum Mayan Ruins, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Tulum, located on the Caribbean Sea on the southern end of the Riviera Maya, has become a popular tourist alternative to Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Cozumel. Beautiful white sand beaches and aquamarine water attract both domestic and international tourists. There’s plenty to keep you occupied in Tulum apart from the ruins, but I would highly recommend a visit if you can spare a few hours away from sunbathing. Because Tulum has become a booming tourist destination, the ruins are likely to be quite crowded. Arrive early to avoid the lines and crowds gawking at the large iguanas that are all over the ruins. Seriously, I think half of the visitors are oblivious to the history because they are so mesmerized by the iguanas and the beautiful ocean views from on high. One thing is certain: the Mayans of Tulum hit the jackpot with their location. Ruins with a view.
Your entry ticket also includes access to a private beach that will be overrun with shoobies and sunbrellas, but is gorgeous nonetheless. Lodging options in Tulum run from basic hostels to more luxurious beachside getaways. Don’t miss these beachside ruins – you’ll be amazed at the contrast with its inland counterparts.
Tikal Mayan Ruins, Guatemala
Tikal may be “The Granddaddy of Them All”, at least as far as size and scope go. Located in the jungle of northern Guatemala, Tikal is a truly impressive Mayan site. The city is far more spread out than the others and takes the better part of a day to explore. While a tour guide is an added bonus at any ruins you visit, it is basically essential at Tikal. Similarly to Palenque, keep an eye out for howler monkeys, insects, snakes, and the sacred jaguar. You might even have a chance to eat termites (I kindly declined, but apparently they taste like carrots). Tikal is a great place to view exotic birds, including the national bird of Guatemala – the resplendent quetzal. Quetzal sightings are rare, but you may get lucky! I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that a scene from Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope was filmed at Tikal. A trip to Guatemala would be incomplete without visiting the treasure that is Tikal.