How to explore Mexico's ancient ruins

Mexico’s ancient civilisations were the most sophisticated and formidable in North and Central America, and the ruins of their cities and sacred precincts are an unforgettable highlight of any trip there. For all you need to know about ancient ruins, here's an excerpt from the latest edition of Lonely Planet’s Mexico travel guide.

The tall pyramids, richly decorated temples and palaces, ritual ball-game courts and gruesome sacrificial sites have amazed outsiders since the Spaniards arrived on Mexican soil in 1519. Visiting them today is still very much a journey of discovery into an extraordinary past, and an experience not to be missed.

Archaeologists have been uncovering ancient sites and making spectacular discoveries here since the 19th century. Many impressive sites have been restored and made accessible to visitors, while others have been explored only in part; thousands more remain untouched.

Mexico’s major ancient civilisations

Olmec: Mexico’s ‘mother culture’ was centred on the Gulf coast, from about 1200 BC to 400 BC. It’s famed for the giant stone sculptures known as Olmec heads.

Teotihuacán: this city with its huge pyramids, 50km from Mexico City, flourished in the first seven centuries AD, and ruled the biggest of the ancient Mexican empires.

Maya: the Maya, in southeast Mexico and neighbouring Guatemala and Belize, flowered most brilliantly in numerous city-states between AD 250 and AD 900. They’re famed for their exquisitely beautiful temples and stone sculpture. Maya culture lives on today.

Toltec: a name for the culture of a number of central Mexican city-states, from around AD 750 to AD 1150. The warrior sculptures of Tula are the most celebrated monuments.

Aztec: with their capital at Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) from AD 1325 to AD 1521, the Aztecs came to rule most of central Mexico from the Gulf coast to the Pacific. The best known Aztec site is the Templo Mayor in Mexico City.

Major sites and museums

Most of Mexico’s major pre-Hispanic sites are scattered around the centre, south and southeast of the country, where the greatest ancient civillisations developed. The most famous sites are often thronged with large numbers of visitors; others are hidden away on remote hilltops or shrouded in thick jungle, and – for those with an adventurous spirit – can be the most exciting and rewarding to visit.

The ideal months to visit archaeological sites are outside the rainy season and avoiding the highest temperatures. For the main archaeological regions, this means:

  • Central Mexico: August, October to April
  • Gulf coast: November to April
  • Yucatán Peninsula: November to April
  • Chiapas: October to May
  • Oaxaca: October to March

Most sites are open from 9am to 5pm. If they have a closing day, it is usually Monday. The best time of day to go is soon after opening time, when temperatures are lower and the main visitor crowds have not arrived yet.

The top five sites that everyone should see if they can are:

Some sites have their own museums, but there are also important city and regional museums which hold many of the most valuable and impressive pre-Hispanic artefacts and provide fascinating background on ancient Mexico.

Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City: the superb National Museum of Anthropology has sections devoted to all the important ancient civilisations and includes such treasures as the famous Aztec sun stone and a replica of King Pakal’s treasure-laden tomb from Palenque.

Museo de Antropología, Xalapa: mainly devoted to Gulf coast cultures, this excellent museum contains seven Olmec heads and other masterly sculptures among its 29,000-piece collection.

Parque-Museo La Venta, Villahermosa: this outdoor museum-cum-zoo holds several Olmec heads and other fine sculptures from the site of La Venta, moved here in the 1950s when La Venta was under threat from petroleum exploration.

Museo de la Arquitectura Maya, Campeche: excellent overview of the Maya sites in Campeche state and their varied architectural styles.

Other resources

Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH; www.inah.gob.mx): you can take virtual tours of a dozen archaeological sites and museums on the website of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, which administers 180 zonas arqueológicas (archaeological sites).

Mesoweb (www.mesoweb.com): a great, diverse resource on ancient Mexico, especially the Maya.