My Favorite Mayan Ruins to Visit from Playa Del Carmen, Cancun or Merida

Are you wondering which are the best Mayan ruins to visit from Playa Del Carmen, Cancun or Merida? I had the same dilemma when visiting the Yucatán Peninsula for the fifth time last month. There were some Mayan cities I wanted to visit again because I loved them so much…

YET,  there were many more I had yet explored! So what to do?!

Given that I’m obsessed with carvings and ancient art, it was all about analyzing the size and amount of detail found at each Mayan site. Moreover, I had to take into consideration distances between cities I would overnight in.

After taking all these elements into consideration, I built the following list of Mayan ruins. They are in order of my personal must-sees, so add these to your Mexico itinerary first!

Top Mayan Ruins to Visit from Playa Del Carmen, Cancun or Merida

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Uxmal

If you can go on just one of the Yucatan tours I booked,  I tell you right now: make it Uxmal, one of the most important pre-Hispanic towns in Latin America!

Founded in 700 A.D., Uxmal tops the list of the most important Mayan ruins in Mexico–along with Palenque, Chichen Itza, and Calakmul. I easily compare it to Italian Florence, both because of its historical importance and beautiful art found throughout.

The intricate carvings and unique decorated moldings, roofs, and open plazas are absolutely breathtaking. So much detail and scale! It is, hands-down, my favorite Mayan city.

There’s simply no comparison to Uxmal in my eyes, artistically speaking.

Just 62 km south of Merida, I explored Uxmal with Karma Trails as one of my excursions from the aforementioned capital city of Yucatan. However, it can also be seen on a full, action-packed day from Cancun or Playa Del Carmen. Prepare to walk and climb a lot!

main Mayan pyramid in Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

I had visited Chichen Itza both by public transport and a big tour company in the past…and my experiences weren’t the best. Gosh, is Chichen Itza crowded–but so worth it still.

The top trick here is to book a private tour and request your operator to get you there by opening time.

Another reason I think this is the best travel hack to visit Yucatan’s most popular Mayan ruins? Neither did I nor the big tour company went to explore the central area of Chichen Itza. It wasn’t until my local Karma Trails guide took me on my third visit that I saw this beautiful, ornate area of the ancient city.

Namely, this central area became my new favorite.

Geez, what I had been missing! Third time’s a charm: I could finally appreciate the variety of architectural styles present at the impressive ruins of the Terminal Classic period (AD 800–900).

Private homes of Mayan nobility, with deep reliefs and intricate art, popped in front of my eyes. Better yet? We pretty much had the central area of Chichen Itza to ourselves, as many tourists and companies skip it altogether.

Ek Balam

You all know I have a soft spot for Ek Balam: the first Mayan city I visited that wasn’t exclusively made out of rock.

Skillfully-carved stucco, mixed with rock inscriptions and paintings, give the site a unique color palette and design I had not seen at other Mayan sites.

My second visit was equally fulfilling. It was nice to take a deeper look at the detail of the Jaguar Temple carvings and jaw-dropping jungle surrounding it.

Many travelers are surprised when they find out this was the seat of the Mayan kingdom between the Preclassic and Postclassic periods, too.

A.k.a. you can’t miss this if you are in the area!

Given its relatively-compact size, it is easy to combine Ek Balam with a visit to Chichen Itza in one day. Wake up early to enjoy these contrasting Mayan ruins–the differences are a joy to appreciate.

Alternatively, you could book the Rio Lagartos Ek Balam tour I enjoyed on my first Playa Del Carmen trip–specially if you’re a nature lover.

The coastal Mayan city of Tulum

Tulum

It was tough to decide whether to recommend Tulum or Coba first. Assuming you go to either Uxmal, Chichen Itza, and Ek Balam, you should definitely head to Tulum for a change of scenery.

Not only was the pre-Columbian walled city built in a different period altogether, but it also managed to thrive approximately 70 years post-Spanish occupation!

Moreover, these coastal Mayan ruins are surrounded by the most intense turquoise-colored waters you’ve ever seen in your life.

So historical ruins AND a beach day?! These elements definitely make Tulum another fun day trip from Playa Del Carmen or Cancun!

Oh & did I mention there are many cenotes you can dive into in the Tulum region?

They look something like this:

Cenote by Mayan ruins in the Yucatan

Indeed: GO FOR IT

Coba

Lastly, you could visit the ancient Maya city of Coba. While it was the least impressive site I visited, Coba houses one of the few Mayan pyramids you can still climb in Mexico.

And that main pyramid in Coba is quite a steep, and exhilarating, climb for all.

If you have extra time or happen to be a history fanatic like myself, you will appreciate some elements. Namely, the many engraved stelae and inscriptions documenting ceremonial Mayan life in the Late Classic Period (AD 600–900).

Top of Mayan pyramid in Coba, Mexico

Which are your favorite Mayan ruins in the Yucatan?

Special thanks to Karma Trails for taking me on a deep exploration of these wonderful Mayan sites and other underrated Mexican attractions! More from this trip soon 😉

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About Maria Alexandra

Maria Laborde, aka latinAbroad, is an open-minded, highly-energetic woman with the spirit of a child. A world citizen, Puerto Rican at heart, carrier of an American passport. A passionate translator and writer, sprinkling Latin spice around the world!