An Idiot’s Guide to the Mayan Ruins of the Yucatán

The Yucatán Peninsula in South East Mexico is a hotbed for ancient Mayan ruins, many of which have been partially lost to the tropical jungle and its fauna. Yet this sense of adventure is precisely why so many backpackers end up spending time around Cancún and Mérida. 3 sites in particular – Tulum, Chichén Itzá, and Uxmal – provide world class temple trampling, but which one should be at the top of your bucket list?


Unless you want to spend your entire holiday on the beach (and who could blame you – you are in MEXICO, after all!), then you will need something else to do during the daylight hours to keep you occupied. Yet fear not, as in the Yucatán you are only a few hours away from an array of incredible temples that should be explored by any serious backpacker, when you get the chance.


Chichén Itzá is one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations and an area of immense cultural significance. It is perhaps the most famous and most accessible Mayan site, albeit a very expensive day trip from Cancún.

The focal point of the region is the towering Castillo pyramid, which is fraught with cosmological symbolism. Its four sides contain 365 steps (depicting the solar year), 52 panels (for each year in the Mayan century), and 18 terraces (for the 18 months in the religious year). Unlike other Mayan pyramids in the region, you are NOT ALLOWED to climb the staircase up to the top of the Castillo Pyramid.

Another major attraction within the Chichén Itzá complex is Il Cenote, which is a subterranean pool where you can take a dip and have a swim. Mayan legend has it that you could journey to the Underworld by swimming to the depths of the pool.


  • a true wonder of the world
  • a great insight to Mayan culture
  • Il Cenote


  • way too many tourists
  • a bit expensive
  • large area to cover on foot


Tulum is the site of a walled city containing ruins that are situated on tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. I learned that Tulum was one of the last cities inhabited and built by the Maya, and managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico.

There are three major structures of interest at the Tulum site: El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God. The whole site is relatively compact compared but Tulum is one of the best-preserved Mayan sites anywhere in the Americas, and its proximity to the modern tourism developments along the Caribbean coastline has made it a popular tourist site.


  • cheaper than other sites in the region
  • glorious coastline with scenic views
  • one of the better preserved Mayan ruins


  • much smaller than the other sites
  • slightly too touristy
  • mosquitoes


Uxmal is the site of yet more ancient Mayan ruins in Mexico. It is considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Mayan culture, and is reckoned to be one of the cities most representative of the region’s dominant architectural style. It is located 62km south of Mérida, the capital of the Yucatán Peninsula.

A number of other temples and monuments, of varying states of preservation, are also situated at Uxmal. These include the Nunnery Quadrangle, the House of the Birds, the House of the Turtles, and the Grand Pyramid. The buildings take advantage of the terrain to gain height and acquire important volumes, including the Pyramid of the Magician, with five levels, and the Governor’s Palace, which covers an area of more than 12,000sqft.


  • less touristy than other sites
  • large scale complex with lots of interesting buildings
  • laser show in the evenings


  • a long drive from any major city
  • howler monkeys are everywhere
  • less grandiose than the ruins at some other sites


So which Mayan ruin do you prefer? Is there one you don’t like? Or would you just prefer to lay back on that Mexican beach and soak up the sun?


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