Exploring Mayan Ruins in and around Cancun, Mexico

  • Rocío Soto
  • 2 November 2010

The renowned Mexican resort city of Cancun attracts more than three million tourists each year, many of whom fly here in search of some rest and relaxation upon the city’s famously sun-kissed beaches. Away from the world-class accommodations and the modern and sophisticated bars and restaurants of Cancun’s Hotel Zone, however, visitors are delighted to discover yet one more reason to make the trip.

The Tulum ruins are of  a small coastal city near Cancun, Mexico, that counted less than a thousand people.

Little is known about the Mayan cities built during the period immediately before the Spanish conquest, except for Tulum. This small coastal city near Cancun, Mexico, counted less than a thousand people. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Joiseyshowaa

In the state of Quintana Roo alone there are 12 ancient archaeological sites that stand as living testimony to the ancient Mayans, one of the greatest civilizations in the entire history of the world. Read on for a glimpse at the four probably best known to locals – Tulum, Coba, El Meco and El Rey.


Located approximately 120 kilometres south of Cancun, the famous ruins of Tulum – which means ‘wall’ in Maya – were built atop a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

History tells us that during its heyday, Saama (as Tulum was known by its ancient residents) was an important port city for trade routes by both land and sea. The business activities of its residents spread to distant cities, with items such as stone tools and pottery vessels having been discovered along the entire peninsula.

Nowadays, the Tulum archaeological site a must-see for visitors and locals alike. Don’t miss the most important structure of ‘El Castillo’ (the castle), an ancient fortress and temple perched above the clear blue waters and watching over the area’s other ceremonial structures. Like the other religious buildings at Tulum, El Castillo faces west (away from the sea), as the city was dedicated to Kukulcan, or Venus, the Morning Star who descended in the west each morning.

Tulum is open daily from 9:00am to 17:00pm. Locals tend to visit on weekends and holidays, and most sites are free on Sunday.

The 'castillo' of the Mayan archaeological site of Coba, near Cancun, Mexico

The 'castillo' of the Mayan archaeological site of Coba, near Cancun, Mexico, is at the centre of the remains of one of the largest and most powerful cities in the north of the peninsula. Photo courtesy of Flickr/Reseo


The archaeological site of Coba, located 42 miles west of the ruins of Tulum, are evidence of one of the largest and most powerful ancient cities in the northern Yucatan peninsula.

In Coba, travellers come face to face with proof of the city’s past significance, including a notable temple (called the ‘Church’) that is nearly 25 metres high, a palace complex and extensive residential building remains. Be sure also to stop by the colossal, stone-built ball courts to marvel at the spirit of ancient Mayan sportsmanship. Played between two teams, the game involved participants using only their hips and elbows to bounce a giant rubber ball through a hoop. The sport played an important role in Mayan society – human sacrifice was ultimately part of the game! Carved relief decorations include hieroglyphic inscription and representations of human skulls.

The long walk around Coba also offers many opportunities to observe a large variety of birds and animals, as well as numerous plant species, many native to the surrounding jungle environment.

Wear comfortable clothes and shoes (foot access to Coba is down a four-kilometre path), bring sun protection and consider hiring a knowledgeable guide for the day. Local certified guides await guests at the entrance to the ruins and many speak several languages.

Coba is open daily from 8:00am to 6:00pm.

Historians agree that the Mayan city of El Meco, near Cancun, Mexico, was an important place with both a political and ceremonial role

Historians agree that the Mayan city of El Meco, near Cancun, Mexico, was an important place with both a political and ceremonial role. The pyramid, the north side of which is pictured above, was no doubt used by high-ranking officials. Photo courtesy of Flickr/NCReedplayer

El Meco

Just north of Cancun, the smaller Mayan city of El Meco is far less travelled than other ruins and hosts structures that remain in good condition. Archeologists believe that this small city was abandoned around 600 AD, but had served for centuries as an important civil and ceremonial centre with links to Chichen Itza and other sites. Its privileged geographical position and utility as a port suggest something about its political and economic stature.

The coastal ruins encompass 14 structures with a main temple and an elaborate double-staircase altar in the middle of the city’s central square. Climb to the top of El Meco’s pyramids – the highest structures on the northern peninsula – for stunning views of the Chacmochuc lagoon.

El Rey

Located on Isla Cancun, the ruins of El Rey lie just off Kukulkan Boulevard in Cancun’s Southern Hotel Zone. Although no one knows its real name, the city was named ‘El Rey’ (the King) after a human skull was discovered here wearing an elaborate royal headdress. Pottery, jade and shell ornaments were found surrounding the burial site.

The 'El Rey' archaeological zone of Cancun, Mexico, is small but very significant

The 'El Rey' archaeological zone of Cancun, Mexico, is small but very significant. It is right within the Hotel Zone, seen here with the Hilton Hotel in the background. Photo courtesy of Flickr/drake lelane

The archaeological zone is small but very significant. Perfectly situated between the Caribbean Sea and Nichupte Lagoon, the ruins are believed to be the centre of a former port city devoted to maritime commerce and fishing. The port was abandoned when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century and then left to the mercy of seafaring pirates.

It is believed that the city was abandoned with the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century and thereafter remained at the mercy of pirates.

If you stay in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, a visit to this accessible site is an absolute must. El Rey is open daily from 8:00am to 17:00pm and admission is free on Sundays.

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architecture & landmarks, beaches, birds, ecotours, holy sites, local knowledge, Mexico, North America, Northern America, outdoors, whl.travel, world heritage,

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