Mexico’s ancient civilizations were the most sophisticated and formidable in North and Central America. These often highly organized societies didn't just build towering pyramids and sculpt beautiful temples; they could also read the heavens, do complicated mathematics and invent writing systems.
Exploring their sites is an unmissable Mexico travel experience.
Ancient Palenque stands at the precise point where the first hills rise out of the Gulf coast plain, and the dense jungle covering these hills forms an evocative backdrop to Palenque’s exquisite Maya architecture. Hundreds of ruined buildings are spread over 6 sq miles (15 sq km), but only a fairly compact central area has been excavated. Everything you see here was built without metal tools, pack animals or the wheel. As you explore the ruins, try to picture the gray stone edifices as they would have been at the peak of Palenque’s power: painted blood red with elaborate blue and yellow stucco details. The forest around these temples is still home to howler monkeys, toucans and ocelots.
Palenque sees more than 1000 visitors on an average day, and visitor numbers spike in the summer vacation season. Opening time is a good time to visit, when it’s cooler and not too crowded, and morning mist may still be wrapping the temples in a picturesque haze.
This complex of awesome pyramids is set amid what was once Mesoamerica’s greatest city. The sprawling Teotihuacán site is comparable to the ruins of the Yucatán and Chiapas for significance, and anyone lucky enough to come here will be inspired by the astonishing technological might of the Teotihuacán civilization. Set 31 miles (50km) northeast of Mexico City, in a mountain-ringed offshoot of the Valle de México, Teotihuacán is known for its two massive pyramids, Pirámide del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun) and Pirámide de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon), which dominate the remains of the metropolis.
Pirámide del Sol is the world’s third-largest pyramid – surpassed in size only by Egypt’s Cheops (which is also a tomb, unlike the temples here) and the pyramid of Cholula – overshadows the east side of the Calzada de los Muertos. When Teotihuacán was at its height, the pyramid's plaster was painted bright red, which must have been a radiant sight at sunset. Clamber (carefully by rope) up the pyramid’s 248 uneven steps – yes, we counted – for an inspiring overview of the ancient city.
The most-famous and best-restored of the Maya sites on the Yucatán Peninsula, Chichén Itzá, while tremendously crowded, will still impress even the most jaded visitor. Indeed, its inclusion in the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007 came as no surprise at all. Many mysteries of the Maya astronomical calendar are made clear when one understands the design of the "time temples" here.
The heat, humidity and crowds in Chichén Itzá can be fierce, as can competition between the craft sellers who line the paths. To avoid this, explore the site either early in the morning or late in the afternoon, or consider splashing out on a private tour allowing you access to the site before it officially opens at 8am.
Getting to know Chichén Itzá, the heart of the Maya Empire in Mexico
Pronounced oosh-mahl, Uxmal's size and uniqueness make it a fascinating stop for ruin-lovers and novices alike. The top draws are the oddly shaped Magician's House, the Pigeon House (a structure with a delicate roof comb still standing that resembles pigeon houses) and the vast Governor's Palace. Part of the Puuc region, it is an unmissable stop if you're in the area. For an additional cost, Uxmal projects a nightly light-and-sound show.
The city from which the ancient Zapotecs once ruled Oaxaca's Valles Centrales, Monte Albán towers more than 1300 feet (400m) above the valley floor from a hilltop a few miles west of Oaxaca. Monte Albán is one of Mexico's most culturally rich archaeological sites, with the remains of temples, palaces, tall stepped platforms, an observatory and a ball court all arranged in orderly fashion, with wonderful 360-degree views over the city, valleys and distant mountains. Monte Albán traces its roots to 500 BC and its 1300-year history is usually split into five archaeological phases. The city reached its apex between AD 300 and 700, but was abandoned long before the Spanish arrived in the 1520s.
While busy compared to other Oaxaca archaeological sites, Monte Albán avoids the tour-bus circuit of some of the better-known ruins around Mexico City and Cancún.
The ruins of Tulum preside over a rugged coastline, a strip of brilliant beach and green-and-turquoise waters that'll leave you floored. It’s true the extents and structures are of a modest scale and the late-post-Classic design is inferior to those of earlier, more grandiose projects – but, wow! Those Maya occupants must have felt pretty smug each sunrise. You can see (at a premium price) the sunrise yourself on a sunrise tour. Late-risers may prefer the sunset tour, though the sun sets over the jungle, not the sea.
Tulum is a prime destination for large tour groups. To best enjoy the ruins without feeling like part of the herd, you should visit them early in the morning, another benefit of the sunrise tour.
Calakmul is a magnificent experience, made even better by its history as a leading city from around AD 250. Many buildings survive, evoking a sense of a powerful place, and getting there – its serious remoteness – makes it all the more special. But visiting Calakmul is not just a historical experience, it's also an ecological one. Lying at the heart of the vast, untrammeled Reserva de la Biosfera Calakmul (which covers close to 15% of the state’s total territory), the ruins are surrounded by rainforest and a seemingly endless canopy of vegetation. You might glimpse ocellated turkeys, parrots, toucans and more – around 350 bird species reside or fly through here. You'll no doubt see or hear spider and howler monkeys, too. You're much less likely to spot a jaguar – one of five kinds of wildcat in the area – but it's not impossible.
The site of Tzintzuntzan comprises an impressive group of five semicircular reconstructed temples known as yácatas, which are all that remain of the mighty Purépecha empire. The hillside location offers wonderful views of the town, lake and surrounding mountains and is rarely crowded. A small but well-curated museum showcases finds from the site, including jewelry and pottery. Don't miss the replica of the Ihuatzio coyote. Down the hill to the east there are some boulders with carved petroglyphs of barely recognizable deities. A small info point and some flowering bushes highlight a project that's trying to entice the once-abundant hummingbird back to the area; "Tzintzuntzan" means "place of the hummingbird" in Purépecha.
Edzná’s massive complexes, which once covered more than 6.5 sq miles (17 sq km), were built by a highly stratified society that flourished from about 600 BC to the 15th century AD. During that period, the people of Edzná built more than 20 complexes in a melange of architectural styles, installing an ingenious network of water-collection and irrigation systems. Edzná means "House of the Itzáes," a reference to a predominant governing clan of Chontal Maya origin. Most of the visible carvings date from AD 550 to 810. The causes leading to Edzná’s decline and gradual abandonment remain a mystery; the site remained unknown until its rediscovery by farmers in 1906.
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