One of the many interesting facts about Mexico is that it’s full to the brim with ancient ruins. It would be a mammoth task to visit them all and, unless you’re a history/architecture buff, you might even find your patience for them wearing thin. To avoid reaching that point and to make sure you pick those ruins best suited to your preferences, here’s a rundown of some of the best ruins in Mexico.
RUINS IN MEXICO: THE TOP 7
Mitla was built by the Zapotecs and was their cultural centre from around 900 BC. Situated about 30 miles outside of Oaxaca, the best way to visit is to combine it to join one of the Oaxaca tours of the surrounding countryside. Many hostels and tour companies sell reasonably priced day trips that take in a carpet factory, show you how to make mezcal, introduce you to what is thought to be the widest tree in the world and give you time to relax in the beautiful waters of Hierve el Agua with views of an impressive petrified waterfall. Mitla has retained the characteristic red hue on some of its buildings. You can also see intricate geometric patterns representing the elements. There are a couple of tombs to explore and, once you’ve gotten to grips with the Zapotec architecture you can wander through the church of San Pablo, which was constructed by the Spanish in the 16th Century.
6. MONTE ALBAN
One great advantage of Monte Alban is that you can easily visit it independently from Oaxaca. This is an elaborate site with many temples, buildings, underground passageways and even evidence of a drainage system. This site also has incredible views over surrounding valleys. As with Mitla, this site was built by the Zapotecs and dates back to 500 BC. You can look around in about two hours as the ruins all surround one wide open plaza. It’s possible to climb a few of the structures for views over the rest of the ruins. There’s also a museum containing artefacts and more information.
5. CHICHEN ITZA
While Chichen Itza is the most popular Mayan site and has been listed as one of the new seven wonders of the world, it’s actually not as interesting to explore as some of the lesser-known ruins in Mexico. You’re not allowed to climb any of the structures, and many areas are cordoned off. On a more positive note, the main pyramid, El Castillo, is very imposing and some of the temple embelishments are still in excellent condition. Make sure you arrive early in the morning. After 9 am, the site is packed with tourists. Valladolid is a good place to base yourself and it’s easy to arrange to catch a bus independently. They run each way every 30 minutes to an hour.
One of the best things about Palenque is its location in the middle of the jungle. Even if the ruins weren’t there, you could spend hours exploring the jungle trails and waterfalls, frequently encountering wildlife. In fact, the journey from San Cristobal to Palenque is an adventure in itself. Built by the Mayans, Palenque has many buildings embelished with carvings and inscriptions. Some of them are cordoned off while others enable you to climb above the treetops for views of distant temples jutting above the trees. Small annoyances are the large number of people selling souvenirs and hassling you to use them as a guide. It’s also uncomfortably humid here. A great option for visiting Palenque is to combine it as part of a tour that also takes in Misol-Ha waterfall and the swimming pools of Agua Azul. If you’re short on time, one tour leaves early from San Cristobal and drops you off by the bus station in Palenque afterwards.
Tulum has to be the most picturesque of all the ruins in Mexico. One of the last cities built by the Mayans between 1200 and 1450, its main temple is perched on top of a 40-foot cliff above the ocean. The ruins are speckled with palm trees and overrun with iguanas, which make for great photo opportunities. You can easily walk or cycle to the entrance from Tulum, and the site is reasonably compact, making for an enjoyable stroll. Afterwards, head to the nearby beach, Paraiso, for a refreshing swim in the ocean and a beach-side cocktail.
Teotihuacan was the epicentre of Mesoamerica from two centuries BC to around 700 AD. Of all the ruins in Mexico, this is the one most shrouded in mystery and it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Mexico City. Historians are not even sure which ancient civilisation constructed the city and which may have occupied it later. Due to the size of the sun temple and the location of all structures along one ‘Avenue of the Dead’, this site really packs a punch. The best views are from the top of the moon temple, but the sun temple is definitely worth a climb too. Avoid visiting on Sundays, when you may have to queue for hours to reach the top, worming your way slowly around each level. While it’s possible to make your own way there on public transport from Mexico City, it’s much easier to take a tour. If you’re trying to stick to a budget, take your own lunch. The restaurant they take you to is quite pricey. Even if you want to eat there, snacks are a good idea. We didn’t have lunch until 5 pm! Also, look out for the men dancing the Danza de los Voladores in the parking lot.
Coba is the best set of ruins in Mexico if you’re an explorer at heart. The structures are spread out over many hectares, making it necessary to rent a bicycle or take a lift in a tuktuk. For much of the day, you could fool yourself into thinking you’re the only person there. The highlight is climbing the Ixmoja pyramid, which is the tallest on the Yucatan Peninsula. Its steps are incredibly steep, causing a constant stream of visitors to counteract the vertigo by clambering back down on their bums. To get there, grab a taxi from Tulum for around 250 pesos. We were told there were no collectivos/buses. If you like to zipline, take extra cash as there’s one just outside the main entrance. Also be on the lookout for tarantulas!
While your enjoyment of each site really comes down to personal preference, it’s hard to put a foot wrong with each of these seven sets of ancient ruins. If you have the energy for one more, you should definitely consider hopping across the border to Guatemala and visiting Tikal as well. The views of temples emerging from a vast expanse of forest are unparalleled.