The Mayan civilization spanned over three thousand years, covering what is now today southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Like many of their contemporaries, they left behind a startling number of ruined cities, many still cloaked in the jungle and unexcavated to this day. These are some of the best Mayan ruins in the Yucatán Peninsula.
Let’s start with the big one, the one everyone has heard of, Chichen Itza. Its step pyramid (El Castillo) is justifiably famous and was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World by the Travel Channel.
Travel Tip: It’s both popular and unmissable, so showing up early can mean the difference between a hundred other visitors or a several thousand.
How to see it? There’s a smattering of accommodation built just outside the site, though prices tend to be steeper here. Most folks stay in nearby Valladolid or in the city of Merida, where frequent buses and collectivos are always available. Both are pleasant places with plenty of colonial architecture on offer.
Location, location, location. Tulum’s ruins would be impressive in their own right, but their perch on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Mayan Riviera is what earns them a top spot.
Travel Tip: Keep an eye out for Iguanas! If you follow the nature path beyond the site (which provides the best view of the site, by the way) you’re almost sure to see plenty of them hanging out, sunning themselves of the rock cliffs.
How to see it? Easy as cake. Find yourself a hotel in the city and either rent a bike for the day or take a taxi. The ruins are about three miles outside of town.
Lamanai is a standout more for the small things rather than the large. Much more remote than the other entries on this list, 95% of the site remains uncovered. Still, the sense of adventure and its amazing mask temple make it worth the effort.
Travel Tip: Some of the low-hanging vines near the High Temple are pretty sturdy, should you feel the urge to heed your inner Tarzan.
How to see it? Though day tours are available from Belize City, it’s more convenient to visit from the town of Orange Walk. From there it’s a two-hour boat ride away, with ample diversion provided by the crocs, bats, and plentiful bird life that the river has to offer.
Buried in the jungles of Peten, Guatemala’s northernmost province, Tikal rises out of the morning mists like an illusion. One of the largest cities in the Mayan World, the main sites are spread out over several miles with well marked, looping paths through the forest connecting them.
Travel Tip: If you’re prepared for a very early morning and the weather is clear, a sunrise tour can be an unforgettable experience. Your guide will drive you to the park itself, then lead you across the entire site in the dark with a flashlight in hand. Your destination is Temple IV, the tallest of the bunch. You can then go up a wooden, zig-zag staircase which will take you up to the top. As the sky lightens from black to gray, the howler monkeys will begin their shockingly loud, echoing calls, a harbinger of the dawn. As the sun rises in proper you’ll see a vast canopy of trees spread out like a green blanket in front of you, punctuated by the tops of three of Tikal’s other temples.
How to see it? Most folks base themselves on Lago Peten, on the small island of Flores with its excellent infrastructure. Though the village of El Remate on the lake’s eastern shore is also a good alternative option. Both choices also good jumping off points for other nearby ruin sites such as Uaxactun or Yaxha.
Due to the sunny, dry climate of the northern Yucatan, fresh water was always at a premium. Fortunately, the region supports a vast underground river system. However, that system only reaches the surface in a few dozen places. Often, these azure blue waters emerge in partially exposed limestone caverns. Think of them as the ultimate swimming holes, roofed in stalactites, shafts of light descending down from above.
Travel Tip: Some cenotes, like Samula or Ik Kil, can get very busy, but you’re more than likely to get others such as Palomitas (pictured) or Agua Dulce all to yourself.
How to see it? With so many cenotes present all over the Yucatan, the doors are wide open on choice. Valladolid, Merida, Campeche, Tulum, Playa del Carmen or Cancun all offer options.