CULTURAL TOURS PART I: archaeological sites
Traveling to Cancun and the Riviera Maya is not just about laying on the white sand beaches and enjoying the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. The Yucatan Peninsula has many other natural attractions and if you weren’t aware, there are also multiple cultural places of interest!
Among the attractions in this tourist area of Mexico are the incredible vestiges of the Mayan culture. This ancient civilization, whose descendants still inhabit part of Mesoamerica, has left many traces of its past greatness.
In this post we will tell you all about the main archaeological sites (and also about the less popular ones) in this destination so that you can learn in a fun way during your vacations in Cancun and the Riviera Maya.
Table of contents
- 1. The main archaeological sites of the Yucatan Peninsula:
- 2. The less popular archaeological sites of the Riviera Maya
1. The main archaeological sites of the Yucatan Peninsula:
Let's start with the 3 most important sites to go for a cultural tour in the Riviera Maya.
These are the 3 main archaeological sites that you must visit if you come on vacation to Cancun. They will immerse you in the heart of the Mayan civilization to discover the past greatness of this people who reigned over all of Mesoamerica for several centuries.
The ruins of this majestic Mayan city are located 110 miles (180 kilometers) from Cancun or around 2h30 - 3h by car. By itself, this site is worth the trip.
This city was one of the most important Mayan cities in the Yucatan Peninsula. Powerful and prosperous for several centuries, Chichen Itza was one of the of the core cities in the Mayan empire.
Chichen Itza is a must-visit place for those who want to go on a cultural tour in Cancun and Riviera Maya.
Once you are in Chichen Itza, you will be surprised with how well conserved it is. There are multiple buildings to see, from the Great Pyramid to the Ball Court and even the Sacred Cenote. Each building has its meaning, history and secrets. Pay attention to your guide, there will be many interesting revelations on site.
Chichen Itza was awarded with the World Heritage Site designation in 1988. This was mostly due for being a pre-Hispanic city that represents the essence of the Mayan civilization.
Chichen Itza also became one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2017.
📍 Address: Yucatan, Pisté, Route 180
🚗 Are you coming to Chichén Itzá from Cancun? Follow these directions.
⌚ Hours: Monday to Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The site closes at 5:00 p.m.
💲 Admission: $533 MXN or $27 USD - $80 MXN children / locals
Website: Chichen Itza.
Located 80 miles (130 kilometers) from Cancun, or 1h30 - 2h by car, the archaeological site of Tulum has one of the most beautiful views (probably the best) over the Caribbean Sea in the entire Riviera Maya.
Tulum was a fortified city and the only Mayan city built on the seashore. It is a must for anyone who wants to go on a cultural tour focused on the archaeological treasures of the Riviera Maya.
Its privileged location, on top of a cliff, is perfect to contemplate the turquoise Caribbean Sea. It is worth mentioning that swimming is allowed on the beach at the bottom of the cliff. So, don't forget to pack your swimming suit when you visit Tulum ruins.
On the tour through Tulum, you will discover more than 60 well-preserved structures, as well as a collection of exceptional wall paintings that represent the ancient Mayan cosmogony.
Regarding the buildings on this site, “El Castillo” (the castle) is the one that stands out. It is the most beautiful and famous building. Due to its strategic location at the top of the cliff, it was used as a lighthouse to help Mayan sailors avoid the dangers and pitfalls of the reefs close to this area.
📍 Address: Carretera Federal - Cancun Chetumal, km 230
🚗 How to get to Tulum from Cancun? Follow these directions.
⌚ Hours: Monday to Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
💲 Admission: $80 MXN.
Located 75 miles (120 kilometers) from Cancun, or 1h30 by car, the archaeological site of Coba is a wonderful place hidden deep in the jungle.
If you decide to go on a tour to Coba, you will realize that the jungle has covered most of this ancient city. There are dozens of buildings scattered through the vegetation. Visiting Coba is like participating in an Indiana Jones film, a total adventure.
It is thought that Coba was a trade hub in the Mayan Empire.
Once you are on site, the tour can be done on foot or by bicycle!
As you can see, in Coba, you can do both: explore the Mexican jungle and discover the architectural remains of the ancient Mayan culture.
The Great Pyramid of Coba or Pyramid of Nohoch Mul is the most famous building in this site. It is about 140 ft (42 meters) high and it has 120 steps. Climbing it is a feat worth doing. We won't lie to you, it won't be easy but the view is really worth it. You will have the jungle under your feet.
📍 Address: Carretera Federal Tulum, Quintana Roo Nuevo Durango ruta 307
🚗 How to get to Coba from Cancun? Follow these directions.
⌚ Hours: Monday to Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
💲 Admission: $80 MXN.
These three important archaeological sites are certainly must-do tours when visiting the Riviera Maya, but this part of Mexico has much more to offer to your cultural experiences and learning of the Mayan World in the Mexican Caribbean.
If you want more information about the must-see excursions in the Riviera Maya: 15 Must Do Activites in Cancun & Riviera Maya.
2. The least known archaeological sites in Cancun & the Riviera Maya
Chichen Itza, Tulum and Coba are not the only archaeological sites in the Mexican Caribbean. Remember, this was the place where the Mayan Empire flourished.
The Riviera Maya has other less popular sites that are also worth visiting.
If you like learning about ancient history and have considered visiting the main archaeological sites, you should consider visiting the archaeological sites that we will mention in the next paragraphs. These less popular sites will be very useful to expand your knowledge of the Mayan history!
2.1 The archaeological sites in Cancun City
No, you did not misread it! There are a few archaeological sites to visit in Cancun City just a few minutes away from the main hotels.
If you want to continue exploring the historical places in the Riviera Maya, these ruins can be part of your plan.
It would be a good idea to include them in a cultural tour while you are staying in Cancun’s Hotel Zone. One of the main advantages of such plan is that most of these ruins have extremely cheap admissions ($3 to $5 USDs).
- “El Meco” archeological site
North of Cancun, just 5 miles (8 kilometers) from downtown, you will find “El Meco” archeological site.
The real name of this ancient Mayan city is still unknown. According to some researchers it could have been "Belma".
Due to its strategic location, close to the sea, “El Meco” was an important port and a part of the main Mayan trading route in the Caribbean Sea. Besides being part of the trading route, this town was a trade hub by itself. It is thought that it had strong relationships with other trading hubs like Cobá.
The archaeological site of “El Meco” has the tallest pyramid in the area, it is also called “El Castillo” (like the one in Chichen Itza). From the top of this pyramid you will have an amazing sight of Isla Mujeres and the Caribbean Sea.
📍 Address: Carretera Puerto Juárez, López Portillo, 77520 Cancún, Q.R.
🚗 How to get to “El Meco”? Follow these directions.
⌚ Hours: Monday to Saturday, 8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
💲 Admission: $55 MXN.
Website: El Meco.
To learn more: El Meco, a hidden archaeological gem north of Cancun.
- “El Rey” archaeological site:
This site was discovered by two British travelers. Their first finding was an imposing sculpture of what they believed to be a person from the Mayan royalty. Therefore, the site was named as “El rey” which means “The king”.
"El Rey" was one of the main Mayan towns in the place that we currently know as Cancun. It was a fishing village.
Given its proximity to the San Miguelito archeological site, it is thought that both were part of the Mayan trade route to the Caribbean.
In “El Rey” you will find about 40 structures. The most important building resembles a palace flanked by columns. It was probably a building used by the local Mayan government.
📍 Address: Boulevard Kukulkan, km 18, zone hôtelière de Cancun
🚗 How to get to “El Rey”? Follow these directions.
⌚ Hours: Monday to Sunday, 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
💲 Admission: $55 MXN
Website: El Rey.
- “San Miguelito” archeological site
“San Miguelito” archeological site is possibly the most relevant site in Cancun City.
Obviously, the name "San Miguelito" is not Mayan related. This name belonged to the ranch that was located there between the 1950s and 1970s.
It is thought that “San Miguelito” was a thriving commercial city. In addition to being located on the trading route to the Caribbean Sea, the city also shows vestiges of fishing and agricultural activities. It was also a producer of multiple raw materials such as honey and copal.
“San Miguelito” site stands out mostly due to the complexity of its structures, which also shows that it was an important site. There are several buildings in small groups. The most impressive is the Chaak Palace.
📍 Address: Boulevard Kukulkan, km 16.5, zone hôtelière de Cancun
🚗 How to go to the San Miguelito site? Follow these directions.
⌚ Hours: Monday to Sunday from 9:00 a.m. at 5:00 p.m.
💲 Admission: Included in the price of the Mayan Museum in Cancun.
Website: San Miguelito.
Do you want more ideas about places and activities in the city of Cancun? Read our article: 35 activities in Cancún. Do the most of it and discover all the city's tourist attractions!
2.2 The archaeological site on the islands in the Mexican Caribbean
For many tourists, the islands close to Cancun and Playa del Carmen are only about water activities such as snorkeling and diving; and, of course, relaxing and partying.
However, on the islands it is also possible to explore a few archaeological sites.
Going on cultural tours through the islands on the Mexican Caribbean is an experience that you should not miss while traveling to the Riviera Maya.
Researchers has concluded that the islands in the Mexican Caribbean had an important role in the Mayan civilization especially when it comes to religion. Both in Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, the Mayan people built temples to worship some of their gods.
- Archeological sites in Isla Mujeres
Just a 30-minute ferry ride away from Cancun, Isla Mujeres is not only famous for its diving spots and amazing sunrises. There are other attractions. This island had an important religious role while the Mayan civilization flourished in the Mexican Caribbean.
At the southern end of Isla Mujeres, you will find the ruins of a temple built honoring the goddess Ixchel.
Ixchel was the goddess of fertility and love. She was also related to the moon and was also known as the patron saint of medicine and healing.
Beyond the historical and cultural aspects, this small Mayan temple in Isla Mujeres is a place worth visiting because of its privileged location at the tip of the island. From there, you will witness one of the best views of the Caribbean Sea, especially if you go by sunrise.
The temple was rebuilt in 1990. To get an idea of what it looked like before the rebuilding process, see the link below: Ixchel's site rebuilding project.
You can rent a golf cart or bicycle in Isla Mujeres downtown to get to Ixchel's Temple.
Hiking through the island is also another alternative to reach the site. Just consider a 1h to 1h15 walk (3.3 miles from the ferry terminal).
- Archaeological sites in Cozumel
The other Mayan sites on an island are located in Cozumel.
Cozumel is the largest island in the Mexican Caribbean. It is right in front of Playa del Carmen and can be reached by ferry.
San Gervaiso is located in the heart of Cozumel. To get there you can rent a 4x4. If you are a sport enthusiast, you can also consider renting a bicycle.
Consider about an hour to reach the San Gervasio site from the ferry terminal.
🚗 ¿How to get to San Gervasio in Cozumel?
Follow these directions.
⛴️ Para llegar a Cozumel: Ferrys ultraMar Ultramar.
Hours: Monday to Sunday from 9:00 a.m. at 5:00 p.m.
💲 Admission: $40 MXN.
Web site: San Gervasio.
🎁 Bonus site: Calakmul, the hidden treasure in the Yucatan Peninsula
Calakmul is the perfect setting for an adventure movie. Probably, the one you always dream of when you were a child inspired on the adventures of Indiana Jones or Tarzan.
This magnificent Mayan city lost in the middle of the jungle is in itself an adventure that you will remember for a lifetime.
This cultural tour requires a bit more planning due to its location. There are not many roads or transportations means to get there.
Going on a tour to this site is more of an experience focused on people looking to reconnect with nature as well as for ecotourism enthusiasts.
In Calakmul, you will not find crowds or street vendors, the archaeological site can be completely yours during your visit.
You can get to Calakmul taking the highway that runs parallel to the Caribbean Sea between Cancun and Chetumal. You can also fly from Cancun to Chetumal.
🚗 ¿How to get to Calakmul?
Follow these directions.
Calakmul from Cancun: 🚗 by Car (4h30 -5h), 🚌 by Bus, 🛫 by plane CUN/CTM
Hours: Monday to Sunday from 8:00 a.m. at 5:00 p.m.
💲 Admission: $80 MXN.
Web site: Calakmul.
Want to learn more about places like Calakmul?
If you want to learn more about the activities in nature and ecotourism in Cancun and the Riviera Maya, take a look to our ECOTOURISM section.