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A Guide to 7 Amazing Maya Ruins in Quintana Roo

As Quintana Roo is opening up, loosening its Covid restrictions, I’m sure many of us are looking forward to travel there once again. For me, I’ve been missing the Yucatan Peninsula and Quintana Roo, even though I am not a fan of the Riviera Maya as a tourist destination. So, even as the region is opening up for tourists, I hope it will stay a bit less crowded, and visitors will respect the local culture as they help the state’s economy.

In the meantime, it is still important to remember that Covid is not over. Quintana Roo loosening restrictions doesn’t mean they have no restrictions. You’d still need to be careful, face masks are still mandatory. Mexico has color-coded restrictions, ranging from red, orange, yellow and green. Up until now it was at orange, turning it to yellow starting in March. Honestly, I am not sure it is a move because indeed, the danger is less, or they are trying to open the Riviera Maya, beaches and resorts up for spring break.

As much as I miss it, I am not going to rush flying into Cancun any time soon. But if I did, of course my first priority would be visiting Maya ruins in the state – and the rest of the peninsula.

Maya Ruins to Visit in Quintana Roo

Early spring is a good enough time to visit Quintana Roo and its Maya ruins, though by April it tends to get hot. Though most people go for the beaches, and try to stay along the coast to have access to them, the Maya archaeological sites offer another dimension to any trip to the state.

I’ve been visiting them for almost three decades, and still can’t get tired of them, though over time, as they become more and more crowded, I started avoiding a few. So, what are the best ruins in Quintana Roo to visit?

1. Xel-Ha Ruins

Not to be confused with the amusement park in Xel-Ha Lagoon, the ancient Maya ruins of Xel-Ha sit right on the highway from Cancun down the coast towards Tulum.

The Pyramid of the Birds at Xel-Ha Ruins, Quintana Roo
The Pyramid of the Birds, near the highway, in the ancient ruins of Xel-Há

A relatively small site, it features a few ancient structures, dating from between 300-600, used by the ancient Maya up until the 1100s. As small as it is, the site is worth a stop for a walk in the shade of tall trees, and to visit of the ancient structures and the crystal-clear cenote.

The Cenote

The cenote at the site is not for bathing though; extremely deep, with steep banks, it offers a nice place to sit along its banks, especially if you enjoy birdwatching. If you didn’t before, you might start here, as you watch and listen to the birds surrounding you. I like to say that on the Yucatan peninsula even the crows are colorful, as in the area I often see a variety of bluebirds. Or I thought they were bluebirds, until I read a sign introducing them as crows – blue crows. hey are beautiful.

The House of the Jaguar

Near the cenote you’ll find the House of the Jaguar, a small temple that got its name from a painting depicting a jaguar on its wall, with the color still visible. Though you can no longer enter the temple, so the painting is hard to see, if you are there at the right time and the sun shines through the mesh covering the entrance at the right angle, you can still see and recognize the painting.

Regardless of the painting though, the small structure and its surrounding makes a great stop.

The Pyramid of the Birds

The largest pyramid at the site, the Pyramid of the Birds, sits by the fence separating the site from the highway. You can still explore it, and get relatively close to the paintings on the wall that gave the structure its name, representing different birds.

The Castillo Group

he largest structure at the site is the Castillo Group, a group of a few one-story low structures you can walk through.

2. Cobá

My favorite Maya site in Quintana Roo, also the largest site, and home to the tallest pyramid on the peninsula, the Nohuch Mul pyramid, along with hundreds of other structures, Cobá sits inland, rather than on the coast.

However, that doesn’t deter from the experience, in the contrary. Being inland offers a different experience, especially since the archaeological site, the ancient city of Cobá sits entirely in a jungle, surrounded by lagoons. Even walking to the site, you’ll walk on the shore of Lake Cobá, where you might see crocodiles poking their heads out. The site sits in a modern-day Maya town, and a short drive from three underground cenotes.

Visiting just the ruins can take anywhere from a few hours to a whole day, as you make your way through the different groups. Since distances are large, they offer bicycles for rent, or even to drive you on the “Maya taxi”, bicycles fitted with seats in front. Regardless of walking, riding or being driven, you get to explore a few different groups of structures.

The Iglesia and the Entrance Group

The first structure you notice as you enter the site is dominated by a large pyramid they call La Iglesia, the church. Though you can’t climb it, you can walk around it, or sit on a bench in front of it and enjoy the surrounding jungle.

The Ballcourt

Walking past the Iglesia, you reach the best-preserved, or reconstructed ball court at the site. Though not a large one (by Chichen Itza standards), the rings and the ball court markers are spectacular, worth a look. Past it, a large, well-preserved stela lays protected under a mesh.

Past the ball court you’ll get on the long path under the jungle canopy, taking you to Nohuch Mul and other structures in the jungle.

Nohuch Mul

The tallest pyramid excavated so far on the Yucatan peninsula, Nohuch Mul sits in a clearing, though surrounded by jungle. In the last few years, it was getting crowded; everyone was climbing it. The climb to the top, even if it seems hard, is well worth it.

It's crowded on Nohuch Mul, Cobá
It can get crowded on Nohuch Mul, in Cobá, as everyone is climbing the pyramid.

Not as steep as some of the other Maya pyramids, the climb seems harder than it really is. However, if you go, take your time, and watch your step, especially on the way down. The stairs are eroded in most parts, so it is easy to slip. On our last trip we’ve seen someone tumble down a few steps to the bottom. Luckily, he was ok – I’m sure he was hurt, but at least they didn’t need to bring an ambulance – but it was a scary sight.

Or, instead of climbing the pyramid, like everyone else, enjoy it from the bottom, while exploring a few small stelae at the bottom.

Grupo Macanxoc, a Forest of Ancient Stelae

Ancient Maya stelae are stone slabs filled with writing; history written in stone. Unfortunately, even stone erodes over time in the jungle, especially sandstone, or limestone the ancient Maya used for their monuments. This seemed to be especially true at Cobá, since most of the stelae are badly eroded. However, the ones that stand are spectacular, and if you know what you are looking for, it’s easy to make out the images, if not always the glyphs.

This area of the site has always been my favorite, mostly because I can spend hours trying to “read” this ancient history. But also because it is the quietest place in an otherwise busy site. Out of the way, past Nohuch Mul, with no major structures here, few visitors even go back there. You can’t ride a bicycle in there, either, which makes it inconvenient for those who like to run through the site, climb the tallest pyramid, and leave. The few visitors who actually walk through this group, don’t linger. So that leaves the area quiet for those of us who love to hang out with the ancient stones in the jungle.

3. Tulum

Driving farther south, you’ll reach Tulum, the most visited ancient Maya site not only in Quintana Roo, but everywhere. It is a site we’ve been skipping, the last time I visited it was probably at least a decade ago. Even then, the changes I noticed between our earlier visits when it was still relatively unknown, or at least little-visited, left me wishing I didn’t return. So, I haven’t been back since. But rather than telling you why I don’t like visiting it, I thought I’d mention it anyway, because the combination of ancient structures on the beach make a gorgeous setting. So, if you’ve never been, or you don’t mind crowds, visit the site.

Tulum Castillo in 1995
The Castillo in Tulum (photo taken in 1995)

Perched on a cliff above the beach, the Castillo of Tulum is indeed a gorgeous site, and if you imagine its view from the ocean, you’d understand why anyone who sailed to the coast would have wanted to land there.

The only ancient Maya city built right on the beach, the structures of Tulum date from 1200-1450, one of the few cities still inhabited when the Spaniards landed on the peninsula.

4. Muyil, also known as Chunyaxché

Driving farther down the coast, you’ll reach the ruins of Muyil, or Chunyaxché, set in the jungle, part of the Sian Ka’an Natur Preserve.

This site offers a different environment, and beautiful structures. Walking through the pyramids in the jungle offers more of an adventure, and the site is – or at least was last time I visited – still relatively quiet, with few visitors.

The Castillo

The Main Pyramid at Muyil Ruins
The Main Pyramid, Castillo, at Muyil Ruins

After walking through the Entrance Group, stop at the Castillo, dominating the front plaza, visible even as you enter the site. Unique among the ancient Maya sites on the coast of Quintana Roo, the Castillo in Muyil looks more like a Classic site, built in terraces, with rounded corners. The looks are not deceiving, the pyramid is indeed much older than the ones of both Tulum and Xel-Ha, the other two pyramids on the coast.

Structures through the Jungle

As you walk through the jungle path, you’ll find other structures, like the small Temple 8 and its surrounding plaza.

Path through Sian Ka’an to the Lagoon

After exploring the ancient structures, walk down the jungle path to the lagoon. This might e the highlight of your trip here, as you are most likely to encounter small animals, and enjoy the lush tropical forest.

Along the path, a so-called “Mirador”, a lookout tower offers a walk to the top and a scenic look at the surrounding from above the canopy.

5. Chacchoben

The ruins in Southern Quintana Roo are less visited than their northern counterparts. However, Chacchoben is an exception, since it is close to the port town of Mahahuatl, where the cruise ships dock. A side trip to the ruins of Chaccchoben is part of many cruises, so the site might get overrun by tourists at certain times.

It might be the best destination this year if you travel to Quintana Roo as it starts to open up, since cruise ships are still not operating because of Covid-19. So you might want to take advantage of this.

Opened in recent years, in 2002, it is a site I only visited once so far. It was larger than I expected for a relatively unknown site, featuring a few pyramids that reminded me a bit of Cobá. You’ll find a few large pyramids in main plaza the site, surrounded by manicured lawns and well-kept trails. But if you wonder off into the jungle in search or other structures, you’ll find narrow trails under the tropical jungle canopy, and more pyramids partially covered by vegetation.

6. Kinichná and Dzibanché

Two adjacent sites, in the middle of the jungle, Kinichna and Dzibanche are far from the beaten track, though I heard they get tour buses once a week. I’ve never been there during the time they come, and we’ve been the only visitors every time we ventured so far off the main roads.

The structures at these two sites are all partially covered by jungle vegetation, and adding the fact that you are most likely alone there, you can feel like a true explorer.

7. Kohunlich

Probably the largest site in southern Quintana Roo, Kohunlich is surrounded by a forest of palm trees, unusual for Maya archaeological sites. Over two hundred structures are known at the site, though very few are excavated. Still, you can spend a few hours at this site. After a walk through the palm trees, you’ll reach the first structures.

The first group of structures you’ll reach after a walk on the path under the palm tree canopy is the Northwest Group, featuring several structures surrounding a central plaza, and past it, the Acropolis. Walk through their chambers, and the platform of the Acropolis surrounding an interior courtyard.

South of the Acropolis you’ll find the Plaza of the Stelae, named for the three stelae standing on the Palace of the Stelae on the east side of the plaza. You’ll find more plazas, and groups of interconnected rooms or chambers to explore, and eventually you’ll see the short path leading to the Temple of the Masks.

The Temple of the Masks

Kohunlich. The Temple of the Masks
Kohunlich. One of the masks in the Temple of the Masks

The structure Kohunlich is most known for, the Temple of the Masks features – like you might guess from its name – a series of large masks. One of the oldest structures at the site, it is a short pyramid-temple sitting alone, away from the rest of the excavated structures.

Though not the largest, it is the structure you have to see if you visit Kohunlich. Walk up on the central stairway flanked by gorgeous, six feet tall, masks of the Sun God. You’ll see five of the original eight masks as you walk up the stairs.

If you can’t go to this site, you can visit Kohunlich virtually now; one of the few sites where this is possible.

Why Maya (and not Mayan) Ruins?

Though it may seem that used as an adjective, the correct version would be Mayan (and even I used it the same way before), the actual correct way is to call the archaeological sites, ancient towns, Maya sites, not Mayan.

Scholars use “Mayan” to denote most of the languages used by the Maya people, and “Maya” for everything else. This means that Maya is used as a singular and plural noun, and as an adjective unless referring to one of the 30 family of languages spoken by the Maya (outside of Yucatan). Except one language: the Maya who live on the Yucatan peninsula and speak Yucatec Maya call their language “Maya”, so that’s how we should also refer to it.

So, for the most part, in just about every instance the correct term is Maya, especially in Quintana Roo (and the rest of Yucatan). Outside of this area, the language may be referred to as Mayan, but the people, culture, food, and identity is Maya.

Source: Na’Atik Language and Culture Institute

Beaches and Cenotes in Quintana Roo

Besides the ancient Maya ruins, Quintana Roo is known for its gorgeous, white-sand beaches and its crystal-clear cenotes.

Though beaches are all free in Mexico, including Quintana Roo, unfortunately the large resorts built on the shore make finding access to these beaches difficult at times. An easy place to find a beach is the town of Puerto Morelos. Here, you have access to the beach right from the zocalo, the center of town, and from there, walk up and down as far as you like.

If you drive slow on the coast highway, you’ll also find several dirt roads leading to public beaches.

You’ll find cenotes along the roads, and usually can access them for a small fee. Though some of them are built up for tourists, try to stop at smaller ones, owned by locals for a better experience, and to feel like a true explorer.

Maya Ruins in Quintana Roo

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