Are you planning to explore the Mayan Ruins near Cancun but aren’t sure where to start? From getting there early to taking plenty of water to beat the heat, here are our top tips for visiting.
Cancun is one of the best places in the world to get some tropical sun and knock back some beach cocktails, but it’s also home to some of the most impressive ancient ruins in Mexico.
Long before Digital Nomads were soaking up the sun along the Riviera Maya, the Mayans were building vast cities that you can still explore today.
Here’s how to plan your visit to the Mayan Ruins, both Chichen Itza and Tulum, when you’re staying in Cancun.
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Mayan Ruins Cancun: How To Guide
We love Cancun for many reasons. Sure it’s busy and touristy, but there are few other places in Mexico that are so well connected, have guaranteed sunshine and offer so many white sand beaches. But we also love Cancun for its Mayan ruins, which are criminally overlooked in our opinion!
Sure, spending some time on the beach is the first stop, but exploring the ancient Mayan Ruins is a great way to find out more about the history of Mexico. Cancun sits on the Yucatan Peninsula’s eastern shores, but thousands of years before property developers realised the value of its climate and coastline, Mayan civilizations emerged from the forests of Central America.
Cancun became an integral link in the Mayan trade networks stretching across the Yucatan Peninsula, and important cities developed in places like Tulum and Cozumel. Of course, Chichen Itza was the greatest city of them all, and it’s easy to visit the world-famous ruins on a day trip when you’re staying along the Riviera Maya.
Best Mayan Ruins To Visit Near Cancun
Mayan ruins abound in Mexico, and you can delve deep into the past as you explore ancient temples, sacrificial cenotes and the ruins of Mayan ball courts.
Within day-tripping distance of Cancun’s ‘Hotel Zone,’ you have countless archeological sites offering a unique insight into Mayan history. If you want to experience more of Quintana Roo and the Yucatan Peninsula, then why not make an excursion to the Mayan Ruins?
You’ve got lots to choose from, but the closest ruins to Cancun include:
1. Chichen Itza
The crowning destination amongst Yucatan’s Mayan Ruins, Chichen Itza is a 3-hour drive from Cancun, but the long day trip is worth it to see the Temple of Kulkulkan. This is the steep, distinctive pyramid that rises high above this ancient Mayan city, and we’re certain you’ll have already seen the photos!
Don’t try climbing the pyramid (it’s off bounds), but do admire the historical remains around you. Chichen Itza developed from around 750 AD onwards and was the focal point for trade and religion in the region for many centuries after. The city’s decline began in the 13th century AD, and by the time the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, the jungle was already reclaiming the ruins.
Tulum is home to one of the best Mayan Ruins, and it’s an easy day trip away from Cancun. Located just under a 2-hour drive from the Hotel Zone, you’ll love how the crumbling ruins are found right to the Caribbean Sea.
Part of the Tulum Archeological Zone, the Tulum Ruins are much younger than other Mayan sites in the region. The small city only began to expand in the 12th century AD, at the same time that Chichen Itza began to decline. It was a thriving trading hub when the Spanish arrived, but by the end of the 16th century, the Conquistadores had forced Tulum to be abandoned.
A short drive inland from the Tulum Ruins brings you to the jungle-clad remnants of Coba. Built around two freshwater lagoons, the earliest archeological finds here date back to 50 BC. Coba was inhabited until the Spanish arrived, but as with many Mayan cities, it was abandoned towards the end of the 16th century.
Today, Coba is one of the rawest archeological sites to visit when you’re in Cancun. Many of the ruins have yet to be excavated, while the temples are still shrouded in vines. You can even climb to the top of the main pyramid, although this may not remain the case for long!
4. Ek Balam
Mighty Ek Balam is so often overlooked by tourists visiting Chichen Itza. From the top of Ek Balam’s tallest temple, you can even see the ruins of Chichen Itza across the forest ahead of you, and the two cities were fierce rivals for many centuries.
Ek Balam rose to greatness before Chichen Itza became the region’s great power, and the city is thought to have still been inhabited when the Spanish began their conquest of the Yucatan. Despite this, Ek Balam’s ruins have yet to be fully excavated, and you’ll feel a little like Indiana Jones as you climb temples and explore overgrown palaces. Ek Balam is a 2-hour drive from Cancun.
5. Museo Maya de Cancun
Surprisingly, you don’t actually need to leave Cancun’s Hotel Zone to find Mayan Ruins. Just a short walk from many of the major resorts, you’ll find the little-visited Museo Maya de Cancun. This excellent museum has a collection of artifacts that tell the story of the Mayan World, and it’s a great place to learn more about local history.
The museum is set around several distinct Mayan Ruins which are in various states of excavation and disrepair. San Miguelito is the main one, while El Rey is also popular. While not nearly as impressive as Chichen Itza, they’re an excellent warm-up for the bigger ruins further away.
6. El Meco
Just north of Cancun, you’ll find the small-scale ruins of El Meco. Also little-known, El Meco is home to one of the highest temples in the Yucatan, although again, it’s not as tall as Chichen Itza’s Temple of Kulkulkan!
El Meco dates back to at least 200 AD, and the small city had trading links to all the other cities, like Ek Balam and Chichen Itza. It’s just a fifteen-minute car drive from Cancun’s Hotel Zone, but despite this proximity, you’ll be one of the few tourists there.
7. Temple of Ixchel
Take the boat over to Isla Mujeres and you can visit one of the most fascinating Mayan Ruins near Cancun. Now devoted to holidaymakers seeking white sands and serene sunsets, Isla Mujeres was once devoted to the Goddess Ixchel.
The Mayans built a grand temple to Ixchel, who was associated with fertility and childbirth. You can still find the ruins of the temple on the island today, although there’s little left compared to the ruins of cities you’ll have already explored on the mainland.
8. San Gervasio
Jump on the ferry to Cozumel Island, and you can visit yet another temple dedicated to the goddess of fertility and childbirth. On the resort island, you’ll find the overgrown Mayan Ruins of San Gervasio, which are also thought to have been dedicated to Ixchel.
The low lying structures have been retaken by nature, and the wild ruins are now partly a wildlife reserve that helps sustain the local iguana populations. It’s a great addition to your itinerary if you’re heading over to Cozumel, where you can also find excellent diving and snorkelling, alongside beautiful beaches.
You can find plenty of sustainable Cancun vacations here, which can provide you with an excellent way to discover more about Mayans and the architecture they built, while also exploring more of Mexico than just Cancun!
However, before you start exploring, it’s time to plan your trip. Here’s how.
Top Tips For Visiting Mayan Ruins Near Cancun
The two most popular Mayan ruins to visit near Cancun are Chichen Itza and the Tulum Archaeological Zone.
They are both worth visiting in their own right, however, they should be done on separate days to make sure you have enough time at each. You could also work each of them into a day-trip, while visiting the nearby Mexican Pueblos, Cenotes and other ruins like Coba and Ek Balam.
Here are 5 tips to help you make the most of your visit to the Mayan ruins near Cancun.
1. Plan Your Trip
Plan your trip to help you make the most of your days out from Cancun.
Not all ruins are close to each other and therefore planning your itinerary helps you to optimise your time at each of the archeological sites.
If you are visiting the most popular Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza, you need to know how to get from Cancun to Chichen Itza and what modes of transport are available. If you’re in a hurry, you’ll want to join a day tour from Cancun, but if you’ve got more time, you could plan a route using the local ADO buses to save money. You can take buses from Cancun’s bus station right to the ruins, or you could rent a car.
READ MORE: How to Rent a Car in Cancun or Tulum
2. Always Carry a Water Bottle
The Yucatan Peninsula is a hot place to visit. That’s all part of the region’s draw, but you need to be prepared by carrying plenty of water!
Most of these locations are far away, and therefore you want to ensure that you have access to plenty of water. Also, it means that you don’t have to buy single-use plastic bottles that are harmful to the planet.
3. Dress Well
While you are exploring these ancient ruins you also want to dress the right way.
Stick to loose comfortable clothing with a breathable fabric to ensure that you can beat the heat while you are exploring these ancient Mayan ruins.
Always wear a hat or cap that can help you to stay cool, and keep direct sunlight from hitting your eyes and face. You can also wear some light-coloured clothing to help you manage the heat.
4. Bring Some Cash
When you are traveling from Cancun to any of these ancient ruins, you will need to carry some local cash with you. Dollars can also be fine, but you will be charged a higher rate.
While there are plenty of hotels and restaurants and cafes that accept credit cards, many of these isolated ruin locations have local vendors that do not accept cards at all.
Having some petty cash will help you buy some local foods, drinks, and souvenirs during your trip!
5. Go Early
One of the best ways to explore these ancient ruins is to take a guide along that can help you understand the structures and architecture.
If you have your own private guide, they can usually arrange for you to get there early and avoid the tourist rush. If you’re a real early riser, Chichen Itza also offers super early entrance tickets, although they’re very limited in number. These tickets give you sunrise access to the archeological site, which means you’ll be able to photograph the ruins without the crowds.
READ MORE: Our Complete Guide to Visiting Tulum
Frequently Asked Questions about Visiting Mayan Ruins from Cancun
The Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza are located approximately 90 miles west of Cancun. The ruins at Tulum are located about 125 miles south of Cancun.
There are several Mayan Ruins in Cancun, including El Rey. The most famous Mayan ruins are Chichen Itza and Tulum, located approximately 90 miles and 125 miles away from Cancun, respectively.
El Rey and El Miguelito are the closest ruins to Cancun. The closest large Mayan ruins to Cancun are Chichen Itza and Tulum Ruins.