Are you visiting the Yucatan peninsula on vacation and wondering which Mayan archeological sites you should take the time to go visit? First off, realize there are probably hundreds of Mayan ruins on the Yucatan peninsula. You could probably spend months exploring all of the Mayan ruins in Mexico and still not see them all. Of the known ruins, many remain in their natural state – however a few major ones have been restored. The most famous of these are known as the “Big 4.” They are: Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Palenque, and Tulum.
During our travels, we visited 3 of the “Big 4.” We opted not to visit the site of Tulum. We chose not to visit Tulum because it is actually a more compact site – largely popular just because of its location along the Caribbean Sea and proximity to Cancun. Since we had spent plenty of time at beautiful seaside locations during our travels, we decided we would skip Tulum and spend more time exploring cenotes instead. However, if you only have limited time and are traveling to the Yucatan for sun, sand, and a little adventure – I have heard great things about Tulum. This may be the perfect spot for someone on a quick vacation.
The other 3 main sites we visited (Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque) each have distinct personalities. Here is some additional information about them.
Do you want to be able to climb the Mayan pyramids? Your best bet are Palenque and Uxmal. The pyramids at Chichen Itza have been closed to tourists to ensure their preservation.
Do you have access to a vehicle? Most American tourists fly into Cancun. Many then take a 2-3 hour bus ride to Chichen Itza or Tulum. While this is convenient option if you do not have access to a vehicle, it will put you in the company of large crowds. If you have access to a vehicle, you may prefer to drive yourself to Uxmal to see equally breathtaking ruins, and escape the masses.
Do crowds bother you? Chichen Itza, Palenque, and Tulum are all major tourist attractions on the Yucatan. Chichen Itza in particular is one of the most visited sites in all of Mexico, and get up to 40,000 visitors a day. Arrive when the gates open (8:00 am) to avoid the worst of the crowds and the heat of the day. Alternatively, arrive as the tour buses are leaving for the day, around 3:00 pm.
Does it bother you to be surrounded by vendors hassling you to purchase a souvenir? There are a LOT of people hawking souvenirs at Chichen Itza. They are everywhere along the main paths. Arriving early will allow you to see the site before they have set everything up. There are also vendors at Palenque, but not on the scale of Chichen Itza. We did not see any vendors in the archeological zone of Uxmal.
Do you have the ability to stay overnight? If so, I would highly recommend seeing the sound and light show at Chichen Itza. The show is projected onto the sides of the El Castillo pyramid – the modern lasers are able to render images of what the pyramid originally looked like.
Are you interested in viewing Mayan artifacts? The museum at Palenque has by far the best display of artifacts – in particular the tomb of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal which was found deep inside the the Temple of the Inscriptions is considered one of the most extravagant tombs ever found in the Americas.
While there are clearly amazing sights at Chichen Itza, comparable sights can be found in other parts of the peninsula. Uxmal in particular has stunning architecture, while still within relatively close to proximity the tourist centers in the Yucatan.