Which are Mexico’s 10 best ruins?  I should start by saying that I’m a bit of a ruins-junkie so wherever I travel, I make it a point to check out ancient sites.  I’ve explored pyramids in Egypt, wandered in Angkor Wat, visited forgotten medieval castles in Spain, searched through abandoned cities in Afghanistan, trekked up pyramids in Honduras, marveled at the carvings in Khajuraho, and gazed upon the statuary in Persepolis.  And honestly, I can say that Mexican ruins, unique and spectacular, rival those of any nation in the world.  There are many to see and some of them are quite accessible.  Any vacation you plan to Mexico will be enhanced by including at least one of the better-known sites.  Official English-speaking guides are available at all the major sites.  You can visit without one, but you’ll probably see and understand more about these ruins with a guide.  Here are some of my favorites, Mexico’s 10 best ruins.

Chichén Itzá – This is the probably the most famous of all the sites and for good reason.  The structures are in great condition, it boasts an iconic pyramid and a beautiful cenote, the grounds are immaculate, and it has the largest known ball court, as well as an ancient Mayan observatory.  About two million people visit every year but don’t worry, there are some superb hotels nearby so you can beat the crowds that come in from Cancún.  Cancún is about two and a half hours away so a day trip is not advised anyway.  Chichén Itzá is highly recommended and your kids will love it too!

Chichen Itza
Chichén Itzá is one of Mexico’s most popular destinations

Teotihuacán – These ruins were here before the Aztecs!  It had been abandoned some four hundred years previously and the awed Aztecs simply called it “the place of the gods”.  Two things make this site a great choice.  First of all, you can climb the two largest pyramids (!) and second, it’s relatively close to the Mexico City center, which makes getting there convenient.  The grounds are huge, covering 83 square kilometers, with a mile-long “Avenue of The Dead”, an interesting museum, and plenty of original murals.  Again, you’re going to want to get here early to beat the crowds.  If you’re hungry after your visit, there’s an interesting restaurant, La Gruta, in a huge open cavern tucked behind the Pirámide del Sol.

The view from the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan
The view from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon

Palenque – Palenque is fairly remote so the site takes some getting to, but it’s well worth the trip for the adventurous.  The ruins are vast, set amidst a pristine tropical rain forest.  You only have to look up to see the occasional macaw or toucan flying overhead.  There are far too many temples, carvings, and palaces to mention here; suffice it to say that you will have plenty to occupy you.  There are lots of quality hotels in the area, so accommodations are not a problem once you arrive.  Check out the nearby Chan-Kah luxury hotel/resort.  It’s worth the trip just to stay here and it’s very close to the ruins for a good early start. Palenque is hard to get to but it’s definitely one of Mexico’s best 10 ruins.

Palenque ruins

Monte Albán – Located close to the charming city of Oaxaca, Monte Albán is a Zapotec ruin located high in the surrounding mountains.  The 360-degree view is stunning, as are the ruins themselves.  The carving-rich site has two ball courts and several large pyramids.  The Zapotecs were among the first Mesoamericans to use true writing and many examples of hieroglyphs dating back to 200 BCE can found throughout the site.  You can see a fabulous horde of treasure that was found in Tomb 7 in the Museo De Las Culturas in Oaxaca.

Monte Alban
Monte Albán is rich in hieroglyph carvings

Templo Mayor – These ruins are absolutely fascinating and a must-see if you’re visiting Mexico City.  This was the main temple of the Aztecs when Hernán Cortés arrived.  He had the temple destroyed to build a cathedral, but the ruins are still worth visiting.  Previous Aztec rulers usually built a new pyramid over the existing ones when they came to power and you can still see the various layers of pyramid that exist today.  Also visible are two sacrificial stones dedicated to Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, as well as a wall of stone skulls.  The site is an easy one-hour visit.  The adjoining museum is well laid out and also worth a visit.  Its crowning exhibit is the 8-ton monolith of the goddess of the moon Coyolxauhqui whose discovery in 1978 led to the excavation of the temple.  After your visit, stop into the venerable Casa De Las Sirenas restaurant in its 16th century building for some traditional Mexican food and memorable views of the ruins and the cathedral from its roof-top terrace.

Stone skull wall in the Templo Mayor

Edzná – While not one of the best known of the monumental ruins, this is one of my personal favorites.  It’s somewhat remote so there are few people.  A spacious open area is surrounded by a collection of striking white limestone temples and pyramids.  You’ll definitely have the place to yourself if you get there early.  Edzná is really only close to Campeche so it’s not on most visitors’ lists but Campeche is a charming and quite beautiful city on the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and only about 50 minutes away so you might consider a visit.  There are daily flights from Mexico City to Campeche.

Edzna ruins

Uxmal – This interesting Mayan site is about halfway between Mérida and Campeche so it’s a real possibility to visit both Edzná and Uxmal on the same trip.  Uxmal has a preponderance of intricate carving and stonework, unlike any other in Mexico.  Some of the walls are covered in gigantic carved stone rattle snakes!  It also has a round-cornered pyramid, unlike any other that I’m aware of in Mesoamerica.  Again, a little out of the way for the standard tourist itinerary but well worth the trip.

Uxmal ruins

Kabah – Kabah stands out for its palace with over 300 carved stone masks of Chac, the rain god.  Heading northwest out of the ruins through a monumental stone arch is an 18-kilometer raised limestone road that leads to the Uxmal site.  In ancient times, all the major Mayan cities were connected with a system of these roads.  Kabah doesn’t have too much to see but it can be part of an Edzna and Uxmal itinerary due to its proximity to Uxmal. The photo below shows some of the masks of Chac.

Stone carvings of Chaac, the Mayan rain god

Tulum – Although it’s a well-known tourist destination, Tulum is actually not one of Mexico’s premier archeological sites.  It’s small and usually crowded with tourists because of its proximity to Cancún but… Tulum boasts one of the coolest locations ever and I’m sure you’ve seen some photos of it somewhere.  It’s right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean.  If you take a bathing suit, you can walk right down the to beach to cool off after your visit.  The Templo De Los Frescos has some interesting artwork that’s worth seeing.

Tulum

El Tajín – This expansive site includes a pyramid unique in the Americas.  Its 365 small niches for statuary were probably used as a sort of physical calendar.  Along with the pyramid, visitors will find several ball courts and carvings depicting the sacrifice of players (losers or winners, we still don’t know) after the sacred ball game.  El Tajín is located close to the Gulf Coast about four hours away from Mexico City, so it’s not easy to get to.  The nearby pueblo mágico Papantla is an excellent place to spend a night before exploring the ruins.

Human sacrifice at El Tajin ruins
Look closely and you can see the sacrifice of one of the ball-game players at El Tajín

Mexico’s 10 best ruins. Make at least one of them part of your vacation to Mexico.