Mexico is a country with a long and diverse history featuring a number of civilizations ahead of their time. And the opportunity to explore how these people lived is available at these 12 ancient ruins in Mexico you shouldn’t miss.
Just before we start exploring let’s get a short background on the people responsible for building these great cities and temples.
These guys were the first major civilization in Mexico and flourished from around 1200BC to 400BC. They are most famous for their giant head carvings and it is believed they had a great influence on the Aztecs and Maya who followed them.
Better known as an ancient city than a civilization it is not clear who actually built this place. What is known is that from around 150BC to 650AD it was arguably the most significant city in the Western Hemisphere and a true melting pot of many different cultures.
While Mayan civilization has a long history stretching across thousands of years with the period from around 250AD to 950AD considered the height of their influence. They had a strong understanding of mathematics and astronomy as shown in the creation of the famous Mayan Calendar.
At their peak from around 900AD to 1150AD the Toltecs were able to take the best of previous civilizations and build on everything they could learn. Something of a “stepping stone” culture they were considered a great civilization by the Aztecs who would later claim to be their descendants.
Most likely started by a group of nomadic tribes from Northern Mexico around 1200AD the Aztecs rose to become the powerhouse of Central America. They developed complex societies, government, science and engineering. Much of their history is lost due to their defeat at the hands of the Spanish invaders.
Living history – the ruins you can visit
Archaeologists and explorers are still discovering ruins of these ancient civilizations every year. From personal experience I can tell you that visiting some of these places will give you a strong sense of what life must have been like during their glory days.
1 – Palenque
At it’s prime from around 500AD to 700AD, Palenque is a prime example of the culture and craftsmanship of the Mayan people and was considered a regional capital. What is even more impressive is that the city was constructed in an obviously planned manner.
While the city was almost totally overrun by the jungle after its demise is was never completely lost or forgotten. But it was not until 1949 that a serious attempt was made to excavate and investigate the city.
The site is spread over a large area and to truly appreciate it you should plan on spending an entire day.
2 – Teotihuacan
One of the most exhilarating experiences of my life was climbing to the summit of the Sun Pyramid and looking out over the expanse of Teotihuacan. While this place is impressive from ground level it is not until you see it from above that it truly comes to life.
Teotihuacan translates as “the place where the gods were created” which shows the reverence it was held in by the people of the time. At its peak around 500AD it is believed to have been the 6th largest city in the world.
The city, which became UNESCO listed in 1987, is just a 40 minute taxi ride from Mexico City. It is strongly suggested that you pay one of the guides offering their services to enhance your visit. Many of them are archaeologists waiting for the next stage of their work to commence.
3 – Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza is arguably the most famous, most visited and most photographed of any of the Mexican ruins. It was also one of the major cities of the Maya and believed to have great mythical significance.
The buildings throughout the city have an eclectic architectural style leading to the belief that it may have been a melting pot of cultures. The site was given UNESCO Heritage status in 1988.
Chichen Itza is a popular day trip from Cancun and is open 365 days of the year. It is always popular and attracts between 4000 and 8000 visitors per day depending on the season.
4 – Uxmal
At its peak 25000 people called the city of Uxmal home. It is considered a center for astronomy among the Mayan people. Amazingly it is connected to other major sites like Chichen Itza by an ancient road network, emphasizing the importance of trade during its prime.
Notice how the buildings have a smoother finish than those of many other ancient sites in Mexico. Because of this superior building technique the city was in much better shape than most others when excavation and restoration began.
Uxmal can be reached as a day trip from Merida and is considered one of the most important ancient cities of the Maya.
5 – Monte Alban
This is a city that was literally carved into the top of a mountain. It is difficult to image how many people and how long it must have taken to level the top of a mountain to create the enormous flat area that houses the city of Monte Alban.
One thing that stands out is the solidity of the construction showing that the engineers of the day had an understanding of how to protect the city against the threat of earthquakes. Another interesting thing is the obvious divide between the elite residential areas and the common residential. So obvious it included a wall of “Berlin” proportions.
Monte Alban is a short bus ride from Oaxaca and not only makes for a very interesting half day excursion but also provides some stunning views across the entire valley.
6 – Tulum
Quite possibly the most photogenic ruins in the world, and a Mecca for Instagrammers, Tulum is an ancient walled city which acted as the trading port for the city of Coba. It was also one of the last Mayan cites built and managed to survive almost 70 years after Spanish occupation.
Tulum is one of the most visited Mayan sites due to its close proximity to Cancun and Playa del Carmen. While the site is quite compact and unlikely to keep anyone but the most avid archaeology geek entertained for more than half a day it is a must do and perfectly placed to make a full day by combining with any of a number of other tourist attractions in the area.
7 – Chacchoben
Heading about 70 miles south from Tulum brings you to the secluded site of Chacchoben, a secluded city that remained hidden by dense jungle until 1972 when an American scientist in a helicopter spotted some hills which he considered possible temple sites.
A concerted excavation effort did not begin until 1994 and the site did not open to the public until 2002. The site now includes a number of pyramids, walls and staircases but there are also further mounds to be explored which may expand this site even further.
8 – El Tajin
After the fall of Teotihuacan this city become one of the most influential cities in Mexico. A center for trade throughout the extended region and the Gulf. The city was so large they have unearthed twenty ball courts as well as many unique buildings.
One of the most impressive buildings is the Pyramid of the Niches which features a design unlike any of the other pyramids throughout Mexico and is in a remarkable state of preservation.
The site holds an annual art and culture festival each March which is an identity festival of the Totonacs, considered the guardians of El Tajin. The festival also brings together Voladores, the crazy guys that swing upside down from giant poles, and creates a display of amazing color and traditional costumes.
9 – Xochicalco
At its peak Xochicalco is believed to have housed a population of around 20000 and quite possibly most of them came from the declining Teotihuacan. It was a heavily fortified political, trade and religious center for about 200 years.
One of the highlights of the city is the ornately decorated Temple of the Feathered Serpent which shows signs of artistic and spiritual influence from both Teotihuacan and the Maya.
The site is open daily and located 75 miles from Mexico City by road. It covers a substantial area and can easily fill an entire day of exploration.
10 – Coba
Less than 30 miles from Tulum is the site of the city of Coba, a substantial city in its day and believed to have a population exceeding 50000. It is one of the few cities that not only maintained its Temples but continued to add new and more impressive ones as the years went by, possibly right up to the time of the Spanish arrival.
Coba is becoming more popular with the tourist crowds of Cancun because, unlike Chichen Itza, the Pyramid is still open for the public to climb its 130 steps. Much of the ancient city is still covered by dense jungle.
11 – Templo Mayor
Before there was Mexico City there was Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire prior to being conquered by the Spanish in 1521. More of the city is being discovered as new construction in Mexico City uncovers the past.
The most famous part of this discovery in the middle of the Mexico capital is undoubtedly the Templo Mayor, or main temple. A hugely significant building and one with a very bloody history.
The story is told that over the 4 days celebrating the opening of the temple in 1487 some 4000 prisoners of war were sacrificed on the steps to appease the Aztec Gods and to strike fear into their enemies. Painting the temple red with blood.
12 – Mitla
While Monte Alban was considered the capital of the Oaxaca region there is no doubt that nearby Mitla was the center of religion, with it’s name derived from a word meaning place of the dead. It was also the most important city of the Zapotecs.
The most unique feature of Mitla, and something found nowhere else in Mexico, is the use of small, finely cut and polished stones to create elaborate mosaics to cover tombs and walls. Rather than featuring Pyramids like many other ancient cities, Mitla was more designed for the residents. But don’t think there is nothing interesting to see.
And many more.
Mexico is filled with remnants of past great civilizations and small ruins can be found everywhere. For the history buff or those of us looking for more than just the basic tourist trip, Mexico is a place matched by few other countries.