Maya Archaeological Ruins in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico

Yucatan Peninsula Map
Yucatan Peninsula Map. Peter Fitzgerald

If you are planning to travel to the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, there are several famous and not-so-famous archaeological sites of the Maya civilization you should not miss. Our contributing writer Nicoletta Maestri hand-picked a selection of sites for their charm, individuality, and importance, and described them in some detail for us. 

The Yucatán peninsula is that part of Mexico that extends between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea west of Cuba. It includes three states in Mexico, including Campeche on the west, Quintano Roo on the east, and Yucatan on the north.

The modern cities in the Yucatán include some of the most popular tourist destinations: Merida in Yucatán, Campeche in Campeche and Cancun in Quintana Roo. But to people interested in the past history of civilizations, the archaeological sites of the Yucatán are unparalleled in their beauty and charm.

Exploring the Yucatan

Maya Sculpture of Itzamna, lithography by Frederick Catherwood in 1841 : it is the only picture of this stucco mask (2m high). hunting scene : white hunter and his guide hunting feline
Maya Sculpture of Itzamna, lithography by Frederick Catherwood in 1841 : it is the only picture of this stucco mask (2m high). hunting scene : white hunter and his guide hunting feline. Apic / Getty Images

When you get to the Yucatán, you'll be in good company. The peninsula was the focus of many of the first explorers of Mexico, explorers who despite many failings were principal to recording and preserving the ancient Maya ruins you'll find.

  • Fray Diego de Landa, who in the 16th century attempted to make up for his destruction of hundreds of Maya books by writing the Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan.
  • Jean Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck, who moved to the Yucatan in 1834 and published Voyage pittoresque et archaelogique dans la province d'Yucatan pendant les annees 1834 et 1836, in which he propagated his notions of European influence on the architecture of the Maya
  • John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, who published detailed drawings and photographs of the Maya ruins in Yucatan in 1841 with Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan

Geologists have also long been fascinated by the Yucatán peninsula, at the eastern end of which are the scars of the Cretaceous period Chicxulub crater. The meteor which created the 110-mile (180-km) wide crater is believed to have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. The geological deposits created by the meteor impact of some 160 million years ago introduced soft limestone deposits which eroded, creating sinkholes called cenotes—water sources so important to the Maya that they took on a religious significance.

Chichén Itzá

'La Iglesia' at Chichén Itzá /archeological site
'La Iglesia' at Chichén Itzá /archeological site. Elisabeth Schmitt / Getty Images

You should definitely plan on spending a good part of a day at Chichén Itzá. The architecture at Chichén has a split personality, from the military precision of the Toltec El Castillo (the Castle) to the lacy perfection of La Iglesia (the church), illustrated above. The Toltec influence is part of the semi-legendary Toltec migration, a tale reported by the Aztecs and chased down by the explorer Desiree Charnay and many other later archaeologists. 

There are so many interesting buildings at Chichén Itzá, a walking tour has been assembled, with details of the architecture and the history; look there for detailed information before you go. 


Palace of the Governor at Uxmal
Palace of the Governor at Uxmal. Kaitlyn Shaw / Getty Images

The ruins of the great Maya civilization Puuc regional center of Uxmal ("Thrice Built" or "Place of Three Harvests" in the Maya language) are located north of the Puuc hills of the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico.

Covering an area of at least 10 sq km (about 2,470 acres), Uxmal was probably first occupied about 600 BCE, but rose to prominence during the Terminal Classic period between 800–1000 CE. Uxmal's monumental architecture includes the Pyramid of the Magician, the Temple of the Old Woman, the Great Pyramid, the Nunnery Quadrangle, and the Palace of the Governor.

Recent research suggests that Uxmal experienced a population boom in the late ninth century CE when it became a regional capital. Uxmal is connected to the Maya sites of Nohbat and Kabah by a system of causeways (called sacbeob) stretching 11 mi (18 km) to the east.


Decorative Frieze at Mayapan
Decorative Frieze at Mayapan. Michele Westmorland / Getty Images

Mayapan is one of the largest Maya sites in the north-west part of the Yucatan peninsula, about 24 mi southeast of the city of Merida. The site is surrounded by many cenotes, and by a fortified wall which enclosed more than 4,000 buildings, covering an area of ca. 1.5 sq mi.

Two main periods have been identified at Mayapan. The earliest correspond to the Early Postclassic, when Mayapan was a small center probably under the influence of Chichén Itzá. In the Late Postclassic, from 1250–1450 CE after the decline of Chichén Itzá, Mayapan rose as the political capital of a Maya kingdom that ruled over northern Yucatan.

The origins and the history of Mayapan are strictly linked to those of Chichén Itzá. According to various Maya and colonial sources, Mayapan was founded by the culture-hero Kukulkan, after the fall of Chichén Itzá. Kukulkan fled the city with a small group of acolytes and moved south where he founded the city of Mayapan. However, after his departure, there was some turmoil and the local nobles appointed the member of the Cocom family to rule, who governed over a league of cities in northern Yucatan. The legend reports that because of their greed, the Cocom were eventually overthrown by another group, until the mid-1400s when Mayapan was abandoned.

The main temple is the Pyramid of Kukulkan, which sits over a cave, and is similar to the same building at Chichén Itzá, El Castillo. The residential sector of the site was composed of houses arranged around small patios, surrounded by low walls. House lots were clustered and often focused on a common ancestor whose veneration was a fundamental part of everyday life.


Carved Stucco mask at pyramid in Acanceh, Yucatan, Mexico
Carved Stucco Mask at the Pyramid at Acanceh, Yucatan. Witold Skrypczak / Getty Images

Acanceh (pronounced Ah-Cahn-KAY) is a small Mayan site in the Yucatán peninsula, about 15 mi southeast of Merida. The ancient site is now covered by the modern town of the same name.

In the Yucatec Maya language, Acanceh means “the groaning or dying deer”. The site, which in its heyday probably reached an area of 740 ac, and included almost 300 structures. Of these, only the two main buildings are restored and open to the public: the Pyramid and the Palace of the Stuccoes.

First Occupations

Acanceh was probably first occupied in the Late Preclassic period (ca 2500–900 BCE), but the site reached its apogee in the Early Classic period of 200/250–600 CE. Many elements of its architecture, like the talud-tablero motif of the pyramid, its iconography, and ceramic designs have suggested to some archaeologists a strong relationship between Acanceh and Teotihuacan, the important metropolis of Central Mexico.

Because of these similarities, some scholars propose that Acanceh was an enclave or colony, of Teotihuacan; others suggest that the relationship was not of political subordination but rather the result of stylistic imitation.

Important Buildings

The pyramid of Acanceh is located on the north side of the modern town. It is a three-level stepped pyramid, reaching a height of 36 ft tall. It was decorated with eight giant stucco masks (illustrated in the photograph), each measuring about 10 by 12 ft. These masks reveal strong similarities with other Maya sites such as Uaxactun and Cival in Guatemala and Cerros in Belize. The face portrayed on these masks has the characteristics of the sun god, known by the Maya as Kinich Ahau.

The other important building of Acanceh is the Palace of the Stuccoes, a building 160 ft wide at its base and 20 ft high. The building gets its name from its elaborate decoration of friezes and mural paintings. This structure, along with the pyramid, dates to the Early Classic period. The frieze on the façade contains stucco figures representing deities or supernatural beings somehow related to the ruling family of Acanceh.


The presence of archaeological ruins at Acanceh was well known to its modern inhabitants, especially for the imposing size of the two main buildings. In 1906, local people discovered a stucco frieze in one of the buildings when they were quarrying the site for construction materials.

At the beginning of the 20th century, explorers such as Teobert Maler and Eduard Seler visited the site and the artist Adela Breton documented some of the epigraphic and iconographic materials from the Palace of the Stuccoes. More recently, archaeological research has been carried out by scholars from Mexico and the United States.


The Mayan ruins of Xcambo on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula
The Mayan ruins of Xcambo on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Chico Sanchez / Getty Images

The Maya site of X'Cambó was an important salt production and distribution center on the northern coast of Yucatán. Neither lakes nor rivers run nearby, and so the city's freshwater needs were served by six local "ojos de agua", ground level aquifers.

X'Cambó was first occupied during the Protoclassic period, ca 100–250 CE, and it grew into a permanent settlement by the early Classic period of 250–550 CE. One reason for that growth was due to its strategic position close to the coast and the river Celestún. Moreover, the site was connected to the salt flat at Xtampu by a sacbe, the typical Maya road.

X'Cambó became an important salt-making center, eventually distributing this good in many regions of Mesoamerica. The region is still an important salt production area in Yucatán. In addition to salt, the trade shipped to and from X'Cambo likely included honey, cacao and maize.

Buildings at X'Cambo

X’Cambó has a small ceremonial area organized around a central plaza. Main buildings include various pyramids and platforms, such as the Templo de la Cruz (Temple of the Cross), the Templo de los Sacrificios (Temple of Sacrifices) and the Pyramid of the Masks, whose name derived from the stucco and painted masks that decorate its façade.

Probably because of its important trade connections, artifacts recovered from X’Cambó include a large number of rich, imported materials. Many burials included elegant pottery imported from Guatemala, Veracruz, and the Gulf Coast of Mexico, as well as figurines from the Island of Jaina. X'cambo was abandoned after ca 750 CE, likely a result of its exclusion from the reoriented Maya trade network.

After the Spanish arrived at the end of the Postclassic period, X’Cambo became an important sanctuary for the cult of the Virgin. A Christian chapel was constructed over a Pre-hispanic platform.


A tourist takes pictures at the entrance of the Calcehtok cavern in Oxkintok, Yucatan state on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.
A tourist takes pictures at the entrance of the Calcehtok cavern in Oxkintok, Yucatan state on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. Chico Sanchez / Getty Images

Oxkintok (Osh-kin-Toch) is a Maya archaeological site on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, located in the northern Puuc region, about 40 mi southwest of Merida. It represents a typical example of the so-called Puuc period and architectural style in Yucatan. The site was occupied from the Late Preclassic, until the Late Postclassic, with its heyday occurring between the 5th and 9th centuries CE.

Oxkintok is the local Maya name for the ruins, and it probably means something like “Three Days Flint” or “Three Sun Cutting.” The city contains one of the highest densities of monumental architecture in Northern Yucatan. During its heyday, the city extended over several square kilometers. Its site core is characterized by three main architectural compounds that were connected to each other through a series of causeways.

Site Layout

Among the most important buildings at Oxkintok we can include the so-called Labyrinth, or Tzat Tun Tzat. This is one of the oldest buildings at the site. It included at least three levels: a single doorway into the Labyrinth leads to a series of narrow rooms connected through passageways and stairs.

The major building of the site is Structure 1. This is a high-stepped pyramid constructed over a large platform. On top of the platform is a temple with three entrances and two internal rooms.

Just east of Structure 1 stands the May Group, which archaeologists believe was probably an elite residential structure with external stone decorations, such as pillars and drums. This group is one of the best-restored areas of the site. On the northwest side of the site is located the Dzib Group.

The east side of the site is occupied by different residential and ceremonial buildings. Of special note among these buildings are the Ah Canul Group, where the famous stone pillar called the man of Oxkintok stands; and the Ch’ich Palace.

Architectural Styles at Oxkintok

The buildings at Oxkintok are typical of the Puuc style in the Yucatan region. However, it is interesting to note that the site also exhibits a typical Central Mexican architectural feature, the talud and tablero, which consists of a sloped wall surmounted by a platform structure.

In the mid-19th century, Oxkintok was visited by the famous Maya explorers John LLoyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood.

The site was studied by the Carnegie Institute of Washington in the early 20th century. Beginning in 1980, the site has been studied by European archaeologists and by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which together have been focusing both on excavation and restoration projects.


Pillars at Maya ruins at Ake, Yucatan, Mexico
Pillars at Maya ruins at Ake, Yucatan, Mexico. Witold Skrypczak / Getty Images

Aké is an important Maya site in northern Yucatan, located about 32 km (20 mi) from Mérida. The site lies within an early 20th-century henequen plant, a fiber used to produce ropes, cordage, and basketry among other things. This industry was particularly prosperous in Yucatan, especially before the advent of synthetic fabrics. Some of the plant facilities are still in place, and a small church exists on top of one of the ancient mounds.

Aké was occupied for a very long time, beginning in the Late Preclassic around 350 BCE, to the Postclassic period when the place played an important role in the Spanish conquest of Yucatan. Aké was one of the last ruins to be visited by the famous explorers Stephens and Catherwood in their last trip to Yucatan. In their book, Incident of Travels in Yucatan, they left a detailed description of its monuments.

Site Layout

The site core of Aké covers more than 5 ac, and there are many more building complexes within the dispersed residential area.

Aké reached its maximum development in the Classic period, between 300 and 800 CE, when the whole settlement reached an are of about 1.5 sq mi and it became one of the most important Mayan centers of northern Yucatan. Radiating out from the site center is a series of sacbeob (causeways, singular sacbe) which connect Aké with other nearby centers. The largest of these, which is almost 43 ft wide and 20 mi long, connected Aké with the city of Izamal.

Ake's core is composed of a series of long buildings, arranged in a central plaza and bounded by a semi-circular wall. The north side of the plaza is marked by Building 1, called Building of the Columns, the most impressive construction of the site. This is a long rectangular platform, accessible from the plaza through a massive stairway, several meters wide. The top of the platform is occupied by a series of 35 columns, which would have probably supported a roof in antiquity. Sometimes called the palace, this building seems to have had a public function.

The site also includes two cenotes, one of which is near Structure 2, in the main plaza. Several other smaller sinkholes provided the community with fresh water. Later in time, two concentric walls were constructed: one around the main plaza and a second one around the residential area surrounding it. It is unclear if the wall had a defensive function, but it certainly limited the access to the site, since the causeways, once connecting Aké to neighboring centers, were cross-cut by the construction of the wall.

Aké and the Spanish Conquest of Yucatan

Aké played an important role in the conquest of Yucatan carried out by Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo. Montejo arrived in Yucatan in 1527 with three ships and 400 men. He managed to conquer many Maya towns, but not without encountering a fiery resistance. At Aké, one of the decisive battles took place, where more than 1,000 Maya were killed. Despite this victory, the conquest of Yucatan would be completed only after 20 years, in 1546.


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  • Cucina, Andrea, et al. "Carious Lesions and Maize Consumption among the Prehispanic Maya: An Analysis of a Coastal Community in Northern Yucatan." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 145.4 (2011): 560–67.
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  • McKillop Heather. "Salt: White Gold of the Ancient Maya." Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. 
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Hirst, K. Kris. "Maya Archaeological Ruins in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 26). Maya Archaeological Ruins in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Maya Archaeological Ruins in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).