Top 20 archaeological sites of Mexico
There are just so many archaeological sites in Mexico that it would probably take several years of traveling to see them all. Plus, it would take at least 40 hours by car to get from the northernmost sites to the southern ones. On top of that, many of them are hidden in the jungle, in areas that aren’t easy to reach or where the roads are not the best or that you even have to take a boat through the jungle to see them.
Many people plan specific journeys to see archaeological sites, and many others just rather mix it in with visiting towns or beaches. We know we are not all the same kind of traveler.
In this post, we suggest a list of top 20 archaeological sites of Mexico. The list, of course, is just a vague suggestion that we based on five criteria: 1) Personal opinion and taste; 2) Cultural and architectural value; 3) Uniqueness; 4) Popularity; 5) Location and environment.
Anyway, the list order is not as important as the information we decided to include in the most summarized way as possible:
1) Where the site is, it’s location and if it’s close to other sites. This is mainly important because Mexico is a big territory and maybe you are going to spend some days in a particular region and you want to see some archaeology but you may not have time to get to the most popular sites. Also, if a site is located close to another one (for example all of the ones in Yucatan or in Chiapas), it may mean that those cities once had contact with each other and influenced or one another perhaps were rivals.
2) Around which century this place was built and the city occupied. This gives you a perspective of the chronological development of prehispanic cultures in the country and also it gives a better idea of the conservation work done.
3) The most important characteristic of the site. Since not all cities or cultures were the same, not all sites are the same. Some of them were more like ceremonial centres, whilst others were more focused on either military or astronomy. Many had a tradition of painting or rather carving in stone. When it comes to prioritising, maybe you want to know what kind of site you will visit.
We hope you find this information useful. Enjoy!
Region: South-Central (Morelos)
Location: 35 km from Cuernavaca and 120 km from Mexico City
About the place: It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is believed that a community of artist that came from other parts of Mexico was established here. Even if the area was first occupied around 200 BC, it developed into an urban centre between 700 and 900 CE, when the main monuments were built. The site museum was the first ecological museum in the world.
Why it is worth seeing: Since it is located in the centre of Mexico, the architecture of the site was influenced by different cultures with which it was in contact. The main place to see is the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (picture).
Region: East (Puebla)
Location: 25 km from Puebla City and 125 km from Mexico City
About the place: This is one of the oldest settlements in Mexico (around the 2nd century BCE. Because it is located in a very central area, since its beginnings it was in contact with many different cultures. Today it is possible to see in one site both the Catholic and prehispanic religions.
Why it is worth seeing: The main structure, the Great Pyramid or Cholula, is one of the largest pyramids in the world (400 m each side and 65 m tall, with a total volume of 4’500’000 m3). Although, today it looks more like a hill with a church on top, which was built by the Spanish in 1594 to show the power of their religion. Because of the church’s current religious importance, the pyramid has not been excavated further than the tunnels found throughout it, which altogether cover a distance of nearly 8 km.
Region: Southeast (Yucatán)
Location: 120 km from Mérida and 150 km from Campeche City
About the place: This small archaeological site is part of the Puuc Route, an area in Yucatán where many Mayan constructions can be found. Labná is located 40 km southeast of Uxmal, the biggest archaeological site of the Puuc Route. Both were incorporated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996.
Why it is worth seeing: a 6-metre-high unique gateway arch is the most representative structure on this site. It is elaborately decorated and has very well preserved bas reliefs.
Region: Southeast (Yucatán)
Location: 105 km from Mérida and 150 km from Campeche City
About the place: This archaeological site is also part of the Puuc Route (the second largest) and it is located only 20 km away from Uxmal (you can even walk from one to another). It was occupied and built between 700 CE and 1100 CE.
Why it is worth seeing: This site has some very particular, finely decorated constructions. Its palace, with more than 30 rooms, is the biggest structure in the site and its stone decorations are very well preserved.
Region: Southeast (Campeche)
Location: 300 km from Campeche City
About the place: This archaeological site is located in the heart of the jungle of the Petén region, 35 kilometres from the border with Guatemala (there was a rivalry with the Guatamalan city of Tikal). It was one of the biggest cities in the area during the Classic period (250 CE to 900 CE).
Why it is worth seeing: Surrounded by dense jungle, there are more than 6000 ancient structures and the biggest pyramid on the site is one of the tallest Mayan pyramids, at 45 metres high. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Region: Southwest (Chiapas)
Location: 105 km from San Cristobal de Las Casas and 130 km from Palenque
About the place: This archaeological site, whose origin lies in the migration of various peoples from the northern regions since the 1st century CE, was built to be one of the largest military powers in the area. It is considered by some that around the year 900 CE, this city became the most important in cultural matters of the Mayan area and even of the whole of Mesoamerica.
Why it is worth seeing: Far less touristy than Palenque, yet closer to San Cristobal de las Casas, Toniná is a big archaeological site that was occupied for 1000 years, which resulted in variety of very different structures built on top of on another. In Toniná you will find one of the tallest ancient structures in Mexico, a temple that is more than 70 metres high.
Region: Southwest (Chiapas)
Location: 45 km from Frontera Corozal
About the place: The place was built between the years of 580 CE and 800 CE. It has a temple made up of three rooms with painted walls and ceilings that relate the story of the site. They were painted in 790 CE and the colours and details are like no other, which makes these paintings a particularly interesting piece of art for understanding prehispanic cultures.
Why it is worth seeing: Surrounded by the Lacandon Jungle, this small archaeological site has one of the most amazing wall paintings that remain from the rich Mayan culture. If you have plans to visit Yaxchilan, it is worth driving a few kilometres more to take the chance to see this unique archaeological site.
Region: East (Hidalgo)
Location: 100 km from Mexico City and 140 from Querétaro
About the place: Tula was the capital of the Toltec Empire and the main political power in the area of the Valleys of Mexico, Puebla and Tlaxcala after the fall of Teotihuacan and before the rise of Tenochtitlan.
Why it is worth seeing: The distinctive structure of the city of Tula is the Temple of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, on top of which are the Atlantes of Tula. These famous 4.5-metre-tall sculptures represent Toltec warriors. Along with this, it is possible to see in Tula other big structures that include Pyramid C and a ball court, the court where the prehispanic ritual ballgame was played.
Region: Southwest (Oaxaca)
Location: From Oaxaca City (40 km)
About the place: This religious centre is the second most important archaeological site in Oaxaca (after Monte Albán) and the most important one of the Zapotec culture.
Why it is worth seeing: This UNESCO World Heritage site has one of the most amazing mosaic fretwork and geometric designs on the walls that were made with fine and small polished pieces of stone. The patterns vary from one wall to another and are never repeated exactly. This kind of stone decoration is unique to Mitla, which makes it a very extraordinary piece of architecture.
Region: Southeast (Yucatán)
Location: From Mérida (80 km) or from Campeche (165 km)
About the place: This place has several big buildings that date from between 700 CE and 1000 CE. Because of how they are built, many structures reveal that for the city astronomy was a very important matter, as well as that it was a ceremonial centre dedicated to Chaac, the god of the rain.
Why it is worth seeing: This place is considered as one of the most important Mayan archaeological sites, and it is the most representative of the Puuc style. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The biggest structure is the Pyramid of the Magician, a 35 metre tall pyramid with 5 levels.
Region: East (Veracruz)
Location: 200 km from Xalapa
About the place: Tajín was the capital of the Totonaca Empire during its peak between 800 CE and 1500 CE. This big city, that is estimated to cover more than 10 km2, of which only 50% has been excavated to reveal seventeen ball courts and several other monumental structures.
Why it is worth seeing: This place is the most important archaeological site in Veracruz and was named a World Heritage Site in 1992 because of its unique architecture, which is best represented in the Pyramid of the Niches (this niche style doesn’t exist anywhere else in Mesoamerica).
Region: Southwest (Quintana Roo)
Location: 50 km from Tulum (50 km), 110 km from Playa del Carmen (110 km) and 175 km from Cancun
About the place: Located next to two lagoons and surrounded by wild and thick vegetation, Cobá has a group of large temple pyramids, the tallest of which is 42 metres high. It is estimated that at its peak the city had 50,000 inhabitants and that it extended over 80 km2.
Why it is worth seeing: This site is located close to Tulum, however it is far less touristy than Chichen Itzá (number one in our list). On the other hand, Cobá isn’t as big as Chichen Itzá but it is still possible to climb up to the top of the tallest pyramid (Chichen Itzá was closed recently due to the damage caused by climbing up the structure). The wildlife that surrounds it along with the fact that it isn’t as well preserved as the two previous ones, gives it a more authentic vibe of an ancient city hidden in the midst of a jungle.
8- Templo Mayor
Location: It is in the heart of Mexico City, next to the Zocalo (main square)
About the place: The Templo Mayor is comprised of the main buildings of the capital city of the ancient Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan, where after the conquest, Mexico City was built. The Great Temple was a ceremonial site devoted to Huizilopochtli and Tlaloc but was destroyed by the Spanish to build the Metropolitan Cathedral instead.
Why it is worth seeing: Surrounded by colonial buildings in the heart of the Historic Centre of Mexico City, the Templo Mayor was excavated and now it is possible to visit some of the remaining areas of it. A great number of the objects found are unique pieces of art and are on exhibit in both the Museo del Templo Mayor (next to the archaeological site) and in the Anthropology Museum of Mexico City.
Region: Southwest (Chiapas)
Location: next to the Usumacinta river, 2 km from Frontera Corozal
About the place: Located next to the Usumacinta River, to get to this archaeological site hidden in the jungle, you have to travel by boat. It has many well-preserved structures with lintels that describe the history of the city.
Why it is worth seeing: Since it isn’t easy to get to this archaeological site, it is not a very touristy destination even if it is pretty impressive and unique. Yaxchilan’s lintels stand out for their intricate level of detail, many of which can be found in the buildings themselves or on the site, but many others have been taken to other museums, especially to the British Museum.
Region: Southwest (Quintana Roo)
Location: 4 km from Tulum town, 60 km from Playa del Carmen or 170 km from Cancun
About the place: Build on a 12-metre-tall cliff along the Caribbean coast, this Mayan city was the port for Cobá. The architecture is typically Mayan, even comparable to Chichen Itza but on a much smaller scale. The city was built between 1200 CE and 1450 CE and remained inhabited several decades after the Spanish Conquest.
Why it is worth seeing: The spectacle of the Mayan ruins next to the turquoise ocean is one of a kind. On top of that, contrary to what one might think, the site is one of the best-preserved Mayan archaeological sites.
Region: North (Chihuahua)
Location: 300 km from Chihuahua City, 280 km from Ciudad Juarez or 290 km from El Paso, Texas
About the place: Paquime is the largest and most complex site built by the Mogollon culture. Its construction started in the 12th century CE and was abandoned by mid-15th century CE. Paquime is famous for its pottery adorned with black and red colours, which in the decade of 1970 was taken up by local artisans to make modern versions. Nowadays, the pottery of Mata Ortiz is one of the most famous of Mexico.
Why it is worth seeing: Paquime is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s nothing like the other archaeological sites in Mexico. This labyrinth-looking site is located in a very large valley where many indigenous groups have been established for thousands of years. Don’t miss the Cultures of the North Museum next to the site.
4- Monte Albán
Region: Southwest (Oaxaca)
Location: From Oaxaca City (7 km)
About the place: Monte Albán was one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica and an important civic and ceremonial centre for the whole Oaxaca Valley region. The archaeological site has several buildings, platforms, astronomic observatories and a 54-metre ball court.
Why it is worth seeing: Nowadays, Monte Albán is considered the most important archaeological site in the state of Oaxaca and endured as the seat of power for the Oaxaca Valley region over an impressive period of time (more or less between 700 CE to 1100 CE). It is one of the most ancient cities in Mesoamerica. It was declared a UNESCO Worlds Heritage Site. Many objects were found in the tombs of Monte Albán (the most famous one being Tomb 7). Some of them can be appreciated in the Site Museum or in the Santo Domingo Museum in Oaxaca City.
Region: South-Central (State of Mexico)
Location: 50 km north of Mexico City
About the place: Located to the North of Mexico City, this is for many the most important and representative archaeological site of the country. The main monuments were built around the year 550 AD and the city probably remained populated for 7 centuries. It is estimated that it was the largest city in the Americas during its prime.
Why it is worth seeing: This UNESCO World Heritage Site is probably the most visited archaeological site in Mexico, so in order to enjoy it you have to keep in mind you might have to share it with a big crowd. To avoid this, aviod going during the weekend or try to get there really early. The Sun Pyramid is 63 metres high and you can climb its 238 narrow stairs. The view from the top is breath taking.
Region: South-west (Chiapas)
Location: 8 km from Palenque Town, 150 km from Villahermosa, and 220 from San Cristobal de las Casas.
About the place: Palenque’s first buildings were built around 220 AD and building continued through to the 7th century when the finest structures were built. Even if after its decline the city was absorbed by the jungle, it has now been restored and has turned into one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. Recent explorations have taken place, yet it is estimated that only 10% of the city is visible, leaving the rest covered by thick jungle.
Why it is worth seeing: The archaeological site of Palenque and its museum are a must if you find yourself around Chiapas or Tabasco. The site is surrounded by a misty jungle, and it has been restored to a much greater extent than other sites. Here you will also find many large structures like the Temple of the Inscriptions and the funerary monument for Hanab-Pakal, which contained hieroglyphic inscriptions that are key to the study of ancient Mayan culture. There are also some other temple-pyramids found in the Temple of the Cross Complex and a Palace with the emblematic Observation Tower, the largest building of the site covering an area of 97 m by 73 m at its base.
1- Chichen Itzá
Region: Southwest (Yucatán)
Location: from Merida (120 km), Tulum (150 km) Cancún (200 km),
About the place: This is one of the biggest archaeological sites of the region. El Castillo, or the Castle, built between the 9th and the 12th century AD, stands out as it is the tallest structure at 30 metres high and has 91 steps on each side, which altogether with the temple platform on top add up 365 steps (the number of days of the Mayan year). The site also has the largest and best-preserved ball court of ancient Mesoamerica.
Why it is worth seeing: Arguably the most famous archaeological site in Mexico, Chichen Itza’s pyramid has somewhat become a symbol of the country. It is actually on the list of the New 7 Wonders of the World, so don’t be surprised when you see big crowds visiting the site, especially during the Spring and Autum equinoxes, when visitors flock to witness how shadows are formed on the big pyramid in the shape of a giant snake wriggling down the stairs: the representation of the feathered-snake god Kukulkan.