The Ancient City of Mayapan

Mayan Ruins
Getty Images

Mayapan was a Maya city which thrived during the Postclassic Period. It’s located in the heart of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, not far to the southeast of the city of Merida. The ruined city is now an archaeological site, open to the public and popular with tourists. The ruins are known for the imposing circular tower of the Observatory and the Castle of Kukulcan, an impressive pyramid.


According to legend Mayapan, was founded by the great ruler Kukulcan in 1250 A.D. following the decline of the mighty city of Chichen Itza. The city rose to prominence in the northern section of the Maya lands after the great city-states in the south (such as Tikal and Calakmul) had gone into steep decline. During the late Postclassic Era (1250-1450 A.D.), Mayapan was the cultural and political center of the waning Maya civilization and had great influence upon the smaller city-states that surrounded it. During the height of its power, the city was home to approximately 12,000 inhabitants. The city was destroyed and abandoned in about 1450 A.D.

The Ruins

The ruin complex at Mayapan is a sprawling collection of buildings, temples, palaces, and ceremonial centers. There are about 4,000 buildings spread out over an area of about four square kilometers. The architectural influence of Chichen Itza is plainly evident in the impressive buildings and structures at Mayapan. The central plaza is of the greatest interest to historians and visitors: it is home to the Observatory, the Palace of Kukulcan and the Temple of the Painted Niches.

The Observatory

The most striking building at Mayapan is the circular tower of the observatory. The Maya were talented astronomers. They were particularly obsessed with the movements of Venus and other planets, as they believed they were Gods going back and forth from the Earth to the underworld and the celestial planes. The circular tower is built on a base which was divided into two semi-circular areas. During the city's heyday, these rooms were covered in stucco and painted.

The Castle of Kukulcan

Known to archaeologists simply as “structure Q162,” this impressive pyramid dominates Mayapan’s central plaza. It is likely an imitation of the very similar Temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza. It has nine tiers and stands about 15 meters (50 feet) tall. Part of the temple collapsed at some point in the past, revealing an older, smaller structure within. At the foot of the Castle is “Structure Q161,” also known as the Room of the Frescoes. There are several painted murals there: a precious collection, considering those very few examples of painted Mayan art remain.

The Temple of Painted Niches

Forming a triangle across the main plaza with the Observatory and Kukulcan’s Castle, the Temple of Painted Niches is home to more painted murals. The murals here show five temples, which are painted around five niches. The niches symbolize the entrance to each of the painted temples.

Archaeology at Mayapan

The first account of foreign visitors to the ruins was the 1841 expedition of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, who took a cursory look at many ruins including Mayapan. Other early visitors included noted Mayanist Sylvanus Morley. The Carnegie Institution launched an investigation of the site in the late 1930s which resulted in some mapping and excavations. Important work was done in the 1950s under the direction of Harry E.D. Pollock.

Current Projects

Much work is currently being done at the site: most of it is under the direction of the PEMY (Proyecto Economico de Mayapan) institution, supported by several organizations including the National Geographic Society and SUNY Albany. Mexico’s National Anthropology and History Institute has also done much work there, especially restoring some of the more important structures for tourism.

Importance of Mayapan

Mayapan was a very important city during the final centuries of the Maya civilization. Founded just as the great city-states of the Maya Classic Era were dying in the south, first Chichen Itza and then Mayapan stepped into the void and became the standard-bearers of the once-mighty Maya Empire. Mayapan was a political, economic and ceremonial hub for the Yucatan. The city of Mayapan is of particular importance to researchers, as it is believed that one or more of the four remaining Maya codices may well have originated there.

Visiting the Ruins

A visit to the city of Mayapan makes for a great day trip from Merida, which is less than an hour away. It's open daily and there's plenty of parking. A guide is recommended.


Mayapan Archaeology, The University of Albany's Informative Website

"Mayapan, Yucatan." Arqueologia Mexicana, Edicion Especial 21 (September 2006).

McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: Norton, 2004.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Minster, Christopher. "The Ancient City of Mayapan." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 26). The Ancient City of Mayapan. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The Ancient City of Mayapan." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).