Exploring the ancient cities of Mexico can be like stepping back in time through a myriad of cultures and civilisations and among the very best ruins to explore are Chichen Itza, Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan. Other popular sites tend to include Calixtlahuaca, El Tajin and Uxmal.
Though many of the most famous ancient cities date back to the Maya period, there are in fact archaeological sites and ancient ruins which trace their routes to a number of other societies, including the Aztecs, Totonac, Zapotec and Mixtecs.
We’ve put together an expert guide to lost cities and ancient ruins of Mexico, with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list of Mexico’s ancient cities which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.
What are the best ancient cities in Mexico?
Tulum has it all. With its idyllic beaches and clear blue coastal waters, Tulum has beaches that rival even the most majestic coastlines in the world. Once a thriving walled city, the ruins of Tulum lie alongside a popular and picturesque tourist resort. Whilst relatively modest in comparison to, say Chichen Itza, Tulum does feature some fascinating ruins, including its castle, city walls and temples. However, the real beauty of Tulum the perfect combination of its ancient ruins and shimmering beachside location. Now that’s hard to beat.
Probably the most famous of all ancient cities in Mexico, Chichen Itza is an amazing archaeological site built by the Mayas and the Toltecs. Stunningly well-preserved and imposingly beautiful, Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most impressive historical sites. The site is made up of several surviving buildings including a circular observatory known as El Caracol, the Warriors’ Temple and El Castillo. Accounts vary as to the date of the first settlement at the site, placing it between the 6th and 9th century AD when the Mayas built the original city including “The Building of the Nuns” and a church. The city was conquered by the Toltec King of Tula in the 10th century AD, accounting for the fusion in Maya and Toltec influences.
Teotihuacan was a holy Mesoamerican city built in around 400 BC in what is now Mexico and forms one of the country’s oldest archeological sites. Whilst the founders of Teotihuacan have never been definitively identified, it is thought that the city was inhabited by the Toltecs and was also an important Aztec site. Characterised by looming step pyramids, indeed one of the most impressive aspects of Teotihuacan is the sheer size of these monuments, including the Pyramid of the Sun, which measures 225 by 222 metres at its base, rising 75 metres high. Visitors can manoeuvre their way through the city via its original streets which divided the city into quarters, although take note that the site is absolutely enormous.
Monte Alban is a hugely impressive ancient site created by an incredible feat which involved literally carving a flat space out of a mountain. The earliest inhabitants were the Olmecs, who are credited with the over 140 carved stones known as the monument of Los Danzantes, depicting mutilated figures. However, most of the structures found today were built by the Zapotecs, who are thought to have arrived between 800 BC and 500 BC. Today, Monte Alban is a popular tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has a small on-site museum showing some of the finds from excavations.
Listed by UNESCO for its well-preserved ruins, Xochicalco ranks among the most important pre-Columbian cities of Mexico. At its peak between 650AD and 900AD the Mesoamerican world was in great flux, with places like Tikal, Teotihuacan and Palenque being broken up. As such, this city’s ruins are seen to represent the coming together of several cultures. Xochicalco’s impressive hierarchy of ruins includes a ball court, a palace, temples, monuments and homes, all carefully arranged amid terraces, plazas and ramps to great effect.
In the heart of the jungle and containing some fascinating sites, the Maya settlement of Palenque ranks amongst the most impressive historic cities in Mexico. Some of the most fascinating sites in Palenque include the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Palace and several other temples, such as the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Cross. Each of the structures in Palenque is ornate and lavishly decorated, bearing inscriptions chronicling the history of the city, which was probably the capital of the region.
Boasting a number of impressive Maya temples and other buildings, Ek Balam is a Maya site on the Yucatan Peninsula. The amazing central pyramid rises to almost 100 ft. Translated either as Black Jaguar or Star Jaguar, Ek Balam is surrounded by a low, stone wall, an unusual feature in Mayan cities. Within this area are several restored pyramids and large temples as well as a ball court. The site’s vast main pyramid rises to a height of almost 100 feet, making it a remarkable example of Maya engineering.
Definitely ranking among the very best historical cities of Mexico, Uxmal was a Maya city in Yucatan which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. A thriving city and a religious centre with great ceremonial significance, at its peak Uxmal had a population of around 25,000 people. Like other ancient cities in Mexico, Uxmal has a series of ceremonial pyramids the most celebrated of which is the Pyramid of the Soothsayer, an impressive 100-foot high monument dating back to the Late Classic Period. Uxmal is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and also has a small museum. Organised tours from Merida can last a whole day and include sites such as Kabah. Audio guides are available in several languages for an added fee.
Cobá houses the remains of a once vast city that developed in around 632 AD and peaked between 800 and 1100 AD. Whilst it is thought the city originally spanned a massive 60 square kilometres, the current archaeological site has yet to uncover all its remains. Among the sites to explore are a large holy pyramid called the Temple of the Church, a playing field used to play ball games and of course the Great Pyramid, also known as the Nohoch Mul Pyramid. Rising to a height of 138 feet, the Great Pyramid is the second tallest of all Maya pyramids in the region. Climbing the steep stairs of this pyramid can be daunting, but the views are great.
El Tajin is an impressive archaeological site which originally formed the capital city of the Totonac state. The city was founded following the abandonment of Teotihuacan and was inhabited from around 800AD to 1200 AD. Today, much of El Tajin is extremely well-preserved offering a great many things to see. Amongst the most famous attractions is the Pyramid of the Niches, an incredibly impressive six-stepped pyramid which would once have been crowned with a temple. Stone reliefs and friezes around the site offer an insight into the lives of those who lived in El Tajin.