Key information: Mayan Ruins
- Browse the ruins of the ancient Mayan empire; elaborate temples steeped in human sacrifice, still standing, amidst the decayed trappings of a once-glorious civilization.Astronomically aligned civic buildings introduce a culture advanced in mathematics, in science, and in art: colonnaded structures, wide streets and grand forums rise organically from the insatiable forest.Over thirty culturally and archaeologically significant sites across the Yucatan Peninsula: throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. An infinite number of day walks available, with each site justifying its own dedicated meander.Alternatively, extend your expedition through a series of hand-picked sites, linking them together via guided treks through lush jungle, populated with hundreds of smaller settlements, or along Mayan limestone causeways.
- These walks can be tough; through rainforest, in hot sun and intense humidity. Come prepared.
- Walkopedia rating85
- Natural interest10
- Human interest18
- Negative points3
- Total rating85
- Length: Variable
- Maximum Altitude: Not high
- Level of Difficulty: Variable
The ruins of the Mayan Empire spread throughout Central America. Low-lying land is home to site after site, palace after palace, and temple after temple, each telling an oft-times gory tale of human sacrifice, and vengeful gods. The empire that built such wondrous and widespread cities eventually fell amidst Spanish machinations, or tore itself apart.
While perhaps thirty or so sites throughout the Yucatan Peninsula stand out as the deposed nations great civic fulcrums, there are in fact hundreds of archaeologically significant sites, and indeed thousands of smaller ones, across Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.
Each one is a Central American Troy: an evocative cultural spectre resonant with its societys art, history and cruelty. Compared to Troy, and despite the encroaching jungles avarice, many of these sites are in a good state of repair. Many more are as yet unexplored, and others still, unmapped.
Each of the larger sites merit a long day; the regional capitals of Chichen Itza or Tulum; Palanque; Uxmal; Guatemalan Tikal or Naranjo. There are many more. This was a nation forged from its feuding city-states and vicious infighting. Prestige seems to have been the one universal commodity, overseeing the construction of competing temples on a vast scale.
Wander along raised causeways, past collapsed residence and decayed forum, always converging on a central temple or group of temples. These vast, limestone structures have a bone-like pallor, casting a chilling menace over their environs. At dawn and sunset, steps still run red, but without the sacrificial blood that once seeped down their descent. Such causeways, sacbeob, can offer an extended trip, sometimes walkable directly to another site: opportunity to create multi-day itineraries, with the right guide.
Straying away from the main tourist thoroughfares (most often those near the resorts of Cancun and Mexicos other coastal honeypots) you find a seemingly impenetrable jungle punctuated with valleys, cliffs and caves and further Mayan settlements. Rivers wind around precipitous cliff-based ruins and the low-lying hills of this ancient seabed. Not far from the site of Dzibilchaltun is the inland sea and part of the impact crater of the meteor said to have wiped out the dinosaurs.
Cenotes - large sinkholes - pockmark the entire peninsula. They represent collapsed cave systems extending throughout the Yucutan, a porous limestone crust that harbours thousands of miles of labyrinthine tunnels. For the Maya they had a cultural and religious focus: sacrificial gold, jewellery and obsidian another precious Mayan commodity were heaved into their depths, as were bodies of enemy and religious victim alike. Disturbingly, these natural wells also provided the drinking water for most of the civilizations peoples.
Creating one iconic walk is almost impossible in the Yucatan: almost every ruin is iconic their silhouette, history and cultural import. Multi-day walks can connect ruins in train, but you will need an experienced guide to help identify routes and dangers. Century-old Mayan causeways can peter out, or be swallowed by the voracious jungle.
Problems lie in the widespread distribution of ruins across the ancient empire and the sapping humidity and heat that feed the oppressive jungle. Come prepared.
We will be developing many Mayan Ruins pages over time: so far, see
Further pages in the pipeline (to be confirmed):
- Copan (Honduras)
- Mirador Basin
- Naranjo Cultural Triangle (Guatemala)
Other accounts: share your experiences
Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.
Books and Maps
Books on this walk
Yucatan and Mayan Mexico – N. Rider
Yucatan – Lonely Planet (Regional Guides)
Cancun, Cozumel and the Yucatan – Lonely Planet (Country and Regional Guides)
The Rough Guide to the Yucatan – Z. O’Neill and J. Fisher
Mexico – Lonely Planet (Country Guides)
Guatemala – Lonely Planet (Country Guides)
Belize – Lonely Planet (Country Guides)
Honduras and the Bay Islands – Lonely Planet (Country Guides)
Northern Yucatan / Maya Sites– Adventure Map
Central America – Nelles Map
Map of the Yucatan Peninsula – ITMB
Best times to walk/weather
Best times to walk
September is ideal; after the summer high season but before the October rains (which end around January-time). Furthermore, accommodation is cheaper and there are more spaces.
In the wet seasons it can rain every day, all day (coastal regions). Inland, it is more a case of regular showers. In June and July this can offer some welcome respite from the intense heat. Rainy seasons are from October – January, and April – July.
Hurricanes and other natural disasters can devastate large swathes of the Yucatan during the rainy season, and are not particularly uncommon.
Flights into the Yucatan run from either Mexico City (Mexico’s capital) or Cancun, both international airports. However there are no flights into Cancun during the off-season. Those on organised expeditions are likely to be transported from/to arranged start/departure points.
Most of the major ruins are either privately– or state owned, and will charge an entry fee.
Route(s)See our links in the “Walk Summary” above for our (developing) dedicated pages on, as we see it, the major and best ruins. Note that there are no formal "walk routes" at most ruins - it is a question of consideration and research, and deciding what you are up for.Other sites in Mexico that just missed out on their own pages:
Chunchucmil; Oxkintonk; the Calcehtok Caves (approx. 30km): Chunchucmil is a massive site that now extends onto the ejido (communal) lands of at least 5 modern communities. In the site core, trappings include enclaves of residential buildings with individual temples, and a startling network of paved paths radiating from the site central arteries. The site core is thought to be around 350,000sq metres; but an unusual lack of iconography, stelae and sculpture indicates a commercial rather than monastic heritage. Some 27km away on the Gulf of Mexico coastline, the site of Canbalam is thought to have been Chunchucmils satellite port. 30km inland, along another ancient Mayan route, lies Oxkintok, at the tip of the Puuc hills. The most popular structure here is the tzat tun tzat: a vaulted labyrinth cut within the Yucatan plateau. Nearby, the Mayan site of Maxcanu and Calcehtok caves.
Dzibilchaltun: A large site, with an excellent museum including both Mayan and Spanish artifacts. About 30mins from Merida and the site of inland sea and impact crater of the meteor said to have wiped out the dinosaurs. The most impressive structure is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, excavated from the ruins of a later pyramid and connected to the rest of the site by a white road (sacbe). On the spring Equinox, a similar event occurs to the Descending Snake on the temple steps at Chichen Itza. A 16th Century Spanish church stands next to a nearby cenote, still used for swimming in the summer by locals.
Mayapan: The political and cultural capital of the Mayan empire in the Yucatan (Late Post-Classic period), Mayapan was a formidable walled city and remains compelling to this day. Once home to over 15,000 people, the enormous site still bears the hallmarks of their culture and politics in its treasures from stelae to statues. Its flagship temple is a (slightly smaller) replica of its namesake in Chichen Itza, the Temple of Kukulcan.
Below, some of the ruins throughout Central America that we couldn’t squeeze in:Mayan MapBy Wikipedia user Kmusser. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Possible problems, health, other warnings
- Heat and strong sun. Humidity too is especially high, here; making the jungle oppressive, and any trek demanding. Carry enough water and protect yourself.
- Dangerous/harmful animals of all shapes and sizes, including snakes and other jungle fauna; mosquitoes, stinging/biting insects and plants. Take all appropriate precautions.
- Some ruins are in remote country: food and other supplies will not be readily available and help will be hard to get if things go wrong, particularly if on an extended trek.
- Health risks: parts of Mexico are relatively undeveloped, and you will not get prompt medical help of a standard available elsewhere if you become ill. Come prepared, including getting all appropriate inoculations/medications.
- Drug cartels: in Mexico City and some other urban areas, drugs gangs fight a daily war against the authorities and, in particular, the army. ALWAYS check your country’s consulate advice before travelling to Mexico.
See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.
Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and problems can arise on any walk. Many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks and possible problems. This website cannot, does not purport to, identify all actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to a walk or a country. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.
Make sure you have appropriate insurance.
Guided or independent?
Some of these walks can be done independently: particularly day walks focusing on single sites. The amount and quality of facilities at individual sites is arbitrary, so always plan as if you are to be self sufficient, at least for the day. Come prepared.
If attempting a longer trek, joining successive sites up through dense jungle and across plateau and wetland, the only realistic option is to make use of an (experienced!) guide.
At many of the larger sites, dedicated guides loiter. They are for the most part well-informed, and picking out the best parts with a knowledgeable guide has real advantages.
If attempting a longer trek, most people form a group and source an experienced guide. Given the remoteness of the country and difficulty of getting supplies, many will prefer to do it this way; this is advisable.
When hiring a personal (for you/your group) guide locally, best practice is to meet him/her and get comfortable before committing. Make sure all requirements are understood and agreed – including how you will eat and the importance of avoiding illness, as well as overnighting and (of course) remuneration. As there are few “set routes” from site to site, and because distances involved are often quite large, you will need to be forensic in finding the right guide. Some guides will consider routes achievable, that others will turn their nose up at. You MUST find a guide you trust.
Organisers tour to most of the major sites and do offer some extended trips. They can also arrange for permits to be obtained. Expedition organisers include:
- Explore! - www.explore.co.uk - reputable and experienced organisers. No less than eight tours in the Yucatan!
- Wilderness Travel – www.wildernesstravel.com
- Exodus – www.exodus.co.uk
- Audley Travel – www.audleytravel.com
It really does depend on where you’re going, and which sites you want to see.
Hostelbookers usually has a good selection of cheaper-end accommodation.
Other information and tips
Useful websites and information
There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.
- Wikipedia is absolutely essential, when you think about the sheer range of ruins across Central America.
- Try www.flickr.com for pictures of this walk.
Other things to do in the area
Mexico has a huge variety of great walks, and that is only taking into account its ruins. There is likely to be a good walk (ruin) within range wherever you may be.
- Swimming, in the cenotes that aren’t too boggy, or in the crystal Gulf waters.
- Beach resorts abound around Cancun. Variety is endless.
Shopping, if you mustMany local economies are founded on the income from tourists visiting the ruins. So keep it coming!
share your experiences
Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).
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