There are endless reasons to explore Mexico's majestic Yucatán – haciendas, pink salt lagoons, flocks of flamingos, white-sand beaches, and cenotes. But, history buffs are drawn to the area for the ancient cultural history in the region's countless Maya archaeological sites. Here’s how to take an epic week-long road trip to explore the Yucatán Maya archaeological sites.
Where to start: Arrive in the capital city of Mérida and stay the night there or book a hotel off the Ruta Puuc such as the FlyCatcher Inn Boutique Hotel or the gorgeous Hacienda Temozón so you can get an early start the next day.
Day 1: Ruta Puuc, part 1
From Mérida, start your adventure early along the hilly Ruta Puuc, a meandering road along which are the architectural remains of the Puuc Maya civilization. Make a quick stop at Oxkintok at 8am when the site opens. The site is quite large and not as well restored as others but will give you a better understanding of the layout of a pre-Columbian Maya town. Archaeologists believe Oxkintok was inhabited from 300 BCE to 1500 CE.
Don't linger too long at Oxkintok because you'll want to beat the crowds to one of the most beautiful Maya sites – Uxmal. The massive site can easily take a full day to explore. Tour buses tend to arrive by 10 AM. Uxmal is in incredible condition and boasts some of the best-preserved ornate reliefs that display stories of Maya folklore along the Governor’s Building. The ceremonial Casa del Adevino or Temple of the Magician is 115ft tall and features unusual curved corners. Learn about the Mayan's celestial beliefs by visiting the Planetario Maya at Uxmal.
Where to stay: Spend the night at The Pickled Onion
Where to eat: The restaurant at the Pickled Onion is the perfect place to taste typical Yucatecan dishes including Poc Chuc and Pollo Pibil.
Day 2: Ruta Puuc, part 2
It's a busy day so get an early start and head to Kabah, which means powerful hand. Climb up the stairs of the Palace of Masks for an incredible vista of the grounds including the sacrificial altar. On the way up you’ll notice gigantic faces – these depict Chaac, the Maya rain god.
Your next stop will be Sayil. Be amazed by the three-tiered Palace building that’s an astonishing 280ft long. There are other buildings to see at the site including stelaes with detailed reliefs and various structures that have been reclaimed by the forest – following the dirt paths through the trees feels like a real adventure at Sayil compared to the infrastructure of other sites.
Just down the road is Xlapak which isn’t as well kept as the other sites and is significantly smaller but it’s worth a quick visit to see the detailed columns and latticework on the Palace. The last stop of the Ruta Puuc is Labná where you’ll be able to walk through an ancient archway with Puuc reliefs. Be sure to arrive before 5pm when the site closes.
Read more: Feel the beat on the streets of Mérida
Day 3: Dzibilchaltún
The first two days on the Ruta Puuc are a bit rigorous so take it easy on the third day of your trip. Spend a leisurely morning walking around Merida. In the late afternoon, grab your swimsuit and head just north to Dzibilchaltún.
The Maya city was occupied for nearly 3000 years and there are over 8400 structures here but only a few have been excavated and can be seen during your visit. The most popular time to visit is during the equinoxes when the sun rises and aligns with the main door of the Temple of the Seven Dolls casting a spooky glow.
Don’t worry about working up a sweat as you walk around the grounds – you can take a dip at the on-site cenote or visit the air-conditioned Museo del Pueblo Maya to read more about the structures at Dzibilchaltún.
Day 4: Xcambo and Mayapán
Wake up and enjoy the beach before driving towards Xcambo. On the way, you’ll pass by the pink salt lakes of Laguna Rosada and flocks of flying flamingos.
Xcambo is small but mighty with many massive structures in great condition. Climb up all of the structures for various vistas of the surroundings – if you’re tired then save your energy to get to the top of the Pyramid of the Cross.
Hop back in the car for an hour and a half drive south to Mayapán. The site was the center of the Maya civilization from 1200 to 1440 CE. There are many structures to see in the cluster including impressive masks of Chaac and the Round Temple. Climb to the top of the Kukulcán Castle for an amazing view of the surrounding landscape.
Where to stay: Hacienda Sac Chich so that you’re well prepared to head off early the next morning
Day 5: Aké and Izamal
Start your day early by reaching the archaeological site of Aké by 8am. The site is small and you won’t need a lot of time to explore. Aké means place of reeds in Yucatec Maya. Climb to the top of the Palace to walk through rows and rows of columns atop the Palace – the steps are long and short rather than steep and shallow unlike other structures in the area. Next door is an active hacienda where henequen (a fiber made from the agave plant) is still processed.
In the afternoon head to Izamal and enjoy the yellow architecture of the city and some of the restored pyramids around the town. There were once a dozen temples here as Izamal was a central place of worship for the major Maya god Itzamná, and the sun god, Kinich-Kakmó. The best-preserved temple is in honor of the sun god and can be climbed. At about 112ft tall, it’s the 3rd tallest pyramid in the Yucatán.
Where to stay: Mayaland and watch the light show at Chichén Itzá
Where to eat: Have lunch at Kinich Restaurant and order the papadzules which are rolled tortillas typically stuffed with egg and doused in a divine roasted pumpkin-seed sauce.
Day 6: Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá is the second largest archaeological site, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and one of the new 7 Wonders of the World. Crowds flock here by 10am. It’s worthwhile to get an early ticket and hire a guide who can explain all of the various buildings around the site, explain the history of the area, sacrificial ceremonies at the cenote, and how The Castle pyramid is actually a calendar. When you arrive, ask other tourists if they want to share the price of a guide.
During the equinoxes, the sun illuminates the side of the staircase of The Castle pyramid which makes it appear like a snake is descending the building. Due to the phenomena, this is the most popular time of year to visit.
Day 7: Ek’ Balam
The last stop is Ek’ Balam which is dedicated to the Jaguar, a sacred Maya symbol. The showstopper here is the 104ft-tall pyramid which can be climbed. The steps are narrow so take your time as you ascend. From the top, you can see Chichen Itzá on a clear day.
Ending your trip
Keep in mind
Most of the archaeological sites in the Yucatán have strict rules against the usage of drones and tripods without prior permission. If you bring them you’ll likely have to pay to store them in a locker as it’s better not to leave anything valuable in your car. They can cause damage to the sacred sites which is why they’re not permitted.
Drink plenty of water as many of the archaeological sites are sprawling so you’ll be walking quite a lot. The larger sites will have small cafes with refreshments but bring your own reusable bottle in order to avoid plastic waste. Be generous when applying mineral sunblock, wear comfortable walking shoes, and a hat.