The route from Mexico City to Playa del Carmen in the Ancient Civilizations tour offers five incredible opportunities to explore Mexico’s rich and varied history. All five of the ruins in this article are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and all but Chichen Itza allow visitors to climb up at least some of the temples.
While guided tours are not necessary, I highly recommended them, as you’ll learn a lot more, faster, with a guide. Plus, guides know the best vantage points for taking photos, as well as where to find shade.
Dating back to 500 BC, Monte Albán was inhabited for over 1,500 years, primarily by the Zapotec civilization.
In order to develop the site, the top of a mountain was artificially leveled into a flat plain. Still standing 400 meters above the valley floor, buildings and temples were then constructed around an open space, known as the Grand Plaza.
Highlights of Monte Albán include the 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside, and the Galeria de los Danzantes (Gallery of the Dancers), which features 2,000+ year old stone carvings depicting ceremonial sacrifices.
Don’t Miss: The chance to climb down into a burial chamber, an opportunity easily missed if visiting without a guide.
Cost: $4 for a roundtrip bus ticket from Oaxaca, $4.75 admission. A 2-hour guided tour is about $20-25, depending on your negotiating skills.
Located an hour south of Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula, the Mayan city of Uxmal was founded in 700 AD, and once supported 25,000 people across 37-square kilometers.
According to UNESCO, “the ruins of the ceremonial structures at Uxmal represent the pinnacle of late Mayan art and architecture in their design, layout and ornamentation, and the complex of Uxmal and its three related towns of Kabáh, Labná and Sayil admirably demonstrate the social and economic structure of late Mayan society.”
Highlights of Uxmal include the 35-foot, pyramid-shaped House of the Magician, which is the first thing visitors see when entering the site, and the ornate carvings throughout the complex.
Don’t Miss: The view from atop the 30-meter high Great Temple, but be careful, it’s a very steep climb to get there.
Cost: $8 for a roundtrip bus ticket from Merida, $15 admission. The official rate for guided tours in English is 700 pesos, or $54.
Teotihuacan, known as “the place where the Gods were created” is located about an hour northeast of Mexico City. At the height of its power, this 2,000-year old Mesoamerican city supported 125,000 people, and was one of the largest cities in the world.
Highlights of Teotihuacan include climbing the Temple of the Sun for a bird’s eye view of the entire complex, and the view of the Avenue of the Dead from atop the Temple of the Moon.
Unlike the other ruins on this list, there is no shade available when touring Teotihuacan. Its size, coupled with the heat, make walking the entire length of the Avenue of the Dead, while climbing temples, an exhausting experience. Bottled water is only available at the entry and exit points, so plan ahead.
Don’t Miss: The Templo de los Caracoles Emplumados (Temple of the Green Birds), which is located at the exit near the Temple of the Moon, and features original, multicolored murals.
Cost: $37 for a guided trip, arranged through your CEO and a local tour operator. Lunch not included.
The Mayan city of Chichen Itza is the best known archaeological site on this list, and perhaps in all of Mexico, drawing over one million visitors per year. The buildings have been heavily restored, which makes for good photos, though the cleanliness gives it a Disneyesque feeling. In 2007, it was named one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”
UNESCO states “its monuments, particularly in the northern group which includes the Great Ball Court, Temple of Kukulkan and Temple of the Warriors, are among the undisputed masterpieces of Mesoamerican architecture because of the beauty of their proportions, the refinement of their construction and the splendour of their sculpted decorations.”
The most striking, and photographed building is Kukulcán pyramid (also known as El Castillo, or The Castle). If you’re able to time your visit with the Spring or Fall equinox, you and thousands of others will witness the purposeful play of shadow and light, creating the appearance of a serpent moving up the temple stairs.
Located on the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza is open 365 days a year. We visited en route from Merida to Playa del Carmen, though it can also be done as a long day trip from the Mayan Riviera.
Don’t Miss: The Cenote of Sacrifice, which was used as a source of freshwater, as well as offering sacrifices to the Gods.
Cost: The cost of a guided tour of Chichen Itza is included with the Ancient Civilizations tour.
Set in lush jungle, on the southwestern side of the Yucatan Peninsula, the Mayans began construction of Palenque in 200 BC. The city’s power reached its zenith in the 7th century AD, and was abandoned by the 12th century.
Highlights of Palenque include the Temple of the Skull, named for the cool carving of a skull on one of its pillars, and the chance to climb into underground buildings at Complex IV.
According to the other travelers in my G Adventures group, Palenque was far and away their favorite ruins of the trip, and it was mine too. The knowledge that most of the site has not been unearthed, and restored, makes your visit feel more like a page from an Indiana Jones adventure than a trip to Disney World.
Don’t Miss: The view from atop The Temple of the Sun.
Cost: Entrance is $4.40. For 1-7 people, the official group rate is 960 pesos, or $70.
What’s your favorite archaeological site in Mexico, and why?