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Visiting the Mayan Ruins in Mexico

Robert Nicholson is a member of the California Mission Historical Society and the California Mission Walkers and an amateur historian.

Mayan Pyramid at Chichen Itza

Mayan Pyramid at Chichen Itza

History the Mayan Civilization

The Mayan civilization was a widespread and sophisticated culture that spanned much of Central America and survived for thousands of years. The culture originated in Guatemala around 2000 BC and spread to Honduras, Belize, and southern Mexico. The height of the Mayan civilization lasted from about 250 AD to 900 AD—the Classic Period. During this period, the Maya built great stone cities and developed astronomy, mathematics, and a sophisticated calendar.

Scholars believe that the fall of the Mayan civilization was due to a number of factors, including overpopulation, environmental degradation, prolonged drought, and warfare. By 900 AD, most of the great cities had been abandoned, though the language and culture persisted throughout the region. In the 1500s, Europeans brought diseases which decimated the remaining Maya and completed the collapse of their once-great culture.

Many Maya survived, however, and continued to live in small communities. The Mayan languages are still spoken today by at least 6 million people [1].

Visiting the Mayan Ruins

Although the Maya are best remembered for their large cities, they built a host of smaller settlements, roads, and irrigation systems. The remains of these works can be seen throughout the region. Watch for road signs featuring a Mayan pyramid.

Roadsigns showing a pyramid indicate nearby Mayan sites.

Roadsigns showing a pyramid indicate nearby Mayan sites.

Chichen Itza

The best known Mayan city, Chichen Itza, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is located midway between Merida and Cancún, and there are bus tours from both cities. When visiting Chichen Itza, try to get there early in the day. The site is very popular, and at peak periods the pathways are packed with visitors, and lined with vendors selling souvenirs.

There’s also a nighttime light show illuminating the pyramid and other major structures, with narration in English and Spanish.

The city was occupied from about 600 to 1200 AD, and therefore features a wide range of architectural styles. Structures include a variety of administrative buildings, a central plaza, temples, pyramids, observatories, and even a stadium where the Maya played a ball game called pitz, in which athletes tried to pass a ball through a small stone hoop. Most of the buildings are decorated with elaborate stone carvings.

Archeologists believe that the city once housed more than 50,000 people.

The observatory at Chichen Itza.  The Maya developed advanced astronomy, and were able to predict planetary movements.

The observatory at Chichen Itza. The Maya developed advanced astronomy, and were able to predict planetary movements.


Uxmal is located about 50 miles south of Merida, the capital of the state of Yucatan. Although it is smaller than Chichen Itza—about 1/3 the size—it’s much less crowded with tourists. While at Chichen Itza there are rope barriers to keep crowds away from the structures, the more relaxed atmosphere at Uxmal allows visitors to touch and even climb on the ruins.

One of the most impressive structures, the Sorcerer’s Pyramid, stands alone as you enter the city, presenting a dramatic sight. Another structure, the Governor’s Mansion, is situated on top of an enormous raised plaza, giving some idea of the labor that went into building the Mayan cities.

Uxmal was home to over 25,000 people.

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The Sorcerer's Pyramid at Uxmal.

The Sorcerer's Pyramid at Uxmal.

"Pitz" ball court at Uxmal.

"Pitz" ball court at Uxmal.

Ruta Puuc

Ruta Puuc (the Hill Route) is a road extending south from Uxmal. It features the remains of three smaller but worthwhile settlements which were probably ruled from Uxmal.

  • Kabah features a three-story building and a façade featuring over 250 carved masks.
  • Labná features a number of small buildings, and a large triangular archway (the Maya never developed a true arch).
  • Sayil features a three-story building decorated with hundreds of elaborate carvings of mysterious figures, animals, and symbols. There are 85 chambers in the building, although their purpose is not known.
Stone building at Labná, covered with elaborate carvings.

Stone building at Labná, covered with elaborate carvings.

Stone carvings at Kabah.

Stone carvings at Kabah.

Another highlight of Ruta Puuc is Grutas Loltún, a series of caverns that were discovered by the Olmecs, and later used by the Maya as a ceremonial site. It is thought that when the Maya discovered the caves, they saw carving left behind by the Olmec civilization, and believed they were supernatural.

The extensive caves contain the bones of many animals, including mammoths, as well as petroglyphs, and beautiful natural formations. The caves include a cenote—a large cave with a collapsed roof, open to the sky above.

There are guided tours in both English and Spanish. The tour, which takes a little over an hour, includes scrambling over some slippery rocks; be sure to wear good walking shoes.

Stalactites in Grutas Loltún on the Ruta Puuc.

Stalactites in Grutas Loltún on the Ruta Puuc.


Located on the Riviera Maya, about 80 miles south of Cancún, Tulum was a major Mayan trade center. Archeologists have found copper and gold jewelry and decorations, pottery, flint blades, feathers and textiles.

Tulum was home to about 1,500 people. The site was still occupied when Spanish explorers arrived in 1518.

Lookout point at Tulum on the Riviera Maya.

Lookout point at Tulum on the Riviera Maya.


[1] Spence, Jack; Dye, David R.; Worby, Paula; de Leon-Escribano, Carmen Rosa; Vickers, George; Lanchin, Mike (August 1998). "Promise and Reality: Implementation of the Guatemalan Peace Accords". Hemispheres Initiatives. Retrieved 2006-12-06.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Robert Nicholson

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