Mexico // Top 7 ancient civilizations ruins to visit
There is no way you can ignore any of the great remains of the once powerful Pre-Columbian cultures when you’re visiting Mexico. The country has sites everywhere, and lots of these national treasures probably haven’t even been discovered yet!
The best way to visit the famous temples and pyramids you see and read about in numerous travellers magazines – and now here as well :) – is to simply plan your journey from Mexico City to Cancún or the other way around. Either one of those cities can be your starting point, but if you can’t wait to see the biggest site first (Teotihuacán) you’d have to go to Mexico City like we did.
Our trip took several weeks and we even crossed the border to Guatemala in order to visit our all-time favorite historic site, Tikal (reporting on that soon!).
We visited so many ancient ruins we almost couldn’t tell one from the other by the end, even though they all are very different and each one has its own unique charm. So we thought it would be good to refresh our memories by choosing our top 7 favorite ancient ruins!
The list below starts with the ancient site of Teotihuacán, and follows our travel route down the southeast of Mexico, all the way to Cancún. Listo? Vamos!
1. Teotihuacán, Mexico State
Let’s start off with the biggest and most famous of all, Teotihuacán! This huge site consists of several pyramids such as the massive Templo del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) and the Templo de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon) located along the 2km (1.24mi) long Calzada de los Muertos (Avenue of the Dead).
The climb to the top of these giant pyramids is STEEP but as you can imagine the views are well worth your suffering calves! And it’s an excellent way of outrunning the many vendors that are trying to sell you jaguar whistles along the Calzada de los Muertos – although we must admit they sound pretty awesome :)
Both of these pyramids can compete with the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, although we haven’t been there yet so maybe we’re a little biased…
The smaller Templo de Quetzalcoatl (how’s that for a tongue twist) is decorated with detailed feathered serpent heads and other serpent-creatures, very remarkable architecture!
2. Monte Albán, Oaxaca
Perched atop a hill expertly leveled by the Zapotecs themselves (!), this site provides gorgeous views of the beautiful colonial town of Oaxaca and the surrounding valley.
Our attention was mostly drawn to el Observatorio (the Observatory) which stands out because of its unusual shape. It is thought that this arrowhead-shaped building was constructed for astronomical purposes.
3. Palenque, Chiapas
Set in the lush jungle of Chiapas, this site is definitely one of our favorites. What has been exposed until today is probably only a fraction of the great city that was once thriving in this area.
The main building is el Palacio (the Palace) and which can easily be recognized by the watch tower in the middle that has become Palenque’s landmark.
But the thing we found so special about this site is the surrounding nature. Not only is it situated in the dense jungle of Chiapas, but when we were walking through the ancient city we could see and hear dozens of howler monkeys…howl (what else?) in the surrounding trees. Awesome!
Oh, and a quick tip: bring lots of water, because you’ll sweat like a horse out there in the tropical rainforest!
4. Yaxchilán, Chiapas
An excellent day trip for those who still have some Maya-ruin-visiting energy left after exploring Palenque. This site is located along the Rio Usumacinta, which forms the border between Guatemala and Mexico.
To get to the ruins we had to take a river boat from the border town of Frontera Corozal which we obviously found to be a great start of the experience :)
Yaxchilán’s ruins are spread throughout the jungle, and we had the pleasure of being accompanied by a couple of curious spider monkeys during our walk. Many of the constructions are now home to thousands of bats that were sleeping peacefully upside down when we entered their hangout… until I forgot to switch of my flash when taking a picture, sorry for that fellas!
Because of the remoteness this amazing site attracts a lot less visitors than Palenque and Chichen Itza (and a lot less intrusive vendors!). We felt like the extra effort it took us to get there was easily compensated by the tranquility during our visit. Highly recommended!
5. Uxmal, Yucatan
This has to be our personal favorite. The main pyramid (el Adivino or Pyramid of the Magician) has rounded sides which is already exceptional compared to the square shapes of other Mayan structures, but what we loved the most was the entrance to the pyramid.
At the top of the stairs the Mayans built a mask around the doorway, which makes it look like you step into the creature’s mouth when entering the temple. Hope he didn’t have bad breath!
Most of the buildings of Uxmal and their details are in prime condition, but we witnessed the coolest natural phenomenon of our trip when a huge flock of birds surprised us by leaving their home (aka el Templo del Governador) all at once in the late afternoon.
What followed was the buzz of hundreds of wings flapping simultaneously until all the birds had flown away and the jungle “silence” took over again after about 10 minutes – Goosebumps!
Later that night we came back to the ruins to take a seat at the Cuadrángulo de las Monjas (Nuns’ Quadrangle) and enjoy the amazing Light and Sound Show.
As a storyteller built up the suspense with an extremely thrilling story (ahum…) and we saw the buildings of the site being lit up in fluorescent lights that gave the Mayan culture a whole new dimension. Very cool!
6. Chichén Itzá, Yucatan
This site can be a little overcrowded because of the many sun seekers that are making a cultural day trip away from the beaches of nearby Cancún, but that didn’t keep us away!
The centerpiece of this city is without a doubt El Castillo (also known as the Temple of Kukulkan). On the spring and autumn equinoxes – that is today! – the shadow-play turns its stairways into moving snakes!
We also enjoyed a walk through the Templo de los Guerreros (the Temple of the Warriors) that is surrounded by 200 round and square columns – perfect for playing hide-and-seek with pushy street vendors!
Just like Monte Albán in Oaxaca, Chichén Itzá has an observatory (known as El Caracol) where Mayan astronomers used to gaze at the skies and develop their amazingly accurate astrological predictions.
The Mayans in this part of the country had to be big sports fans, because Chichén Itzá has the largest ballcourt ever discovered (30m/225ft wide and 96,5m/545ft long)!
7. Tulum, Quintana Roo
If you ask us, this coastal Mayan site has the best location you can imagine! It was built on the edges of cliffs overlooking the picture-perfect pristine white sandy beaches of the Caribbean.
Tulum is protected by the sea on one side (although that didn’t stop the Spanish invaders of course) and impressive walls (up to 8m/26ft thick and 5m/16ft high!) on the other sides.
The main building, El Castillo, is built right on the edge of the cliffs and faces the Caribbean Sea. Now that’s a house with a view!
Of course, we wouldn’t do the Aztecs, Olmecs, Mayas, Zapotecs and many other ancient civilizations justice if we didn’t mention a few amazing runner-ups!
These sites are a bit smaller than the ones in our top 7, but nonetheless definitely worth a visit:
– Mitla, Oaxaca
Painted blood-red walls and well-preserved fretwork make this small religious city a great outing from the city of Oaxaca.
– Bonampak, Chiapas
An excellent stopover between Palenque and Yaxchilán. This site is a great place to have a closer look at some of the most well-preserved Mayan murals!
– Toniná, Chiapas
Located near the cozy town of Ocosingo and consisting of a number of terraces built on a hillside that provide stunning views over the surrounding valleys.