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Best Mayan Ruins Near Cancun: Surprising El-Rey, Beautiful Tulum and More

Best Mayan Ruins Near Cancun: Surprising El-Rey, Beautiful Tulum and More

Some of the best Mayan ruins near Cancun are also the easiest to access. We’ve picked the best Mayan ruins to visit on the Eastern Yucatan Peninsula, basically most near Cancun, to add to a fun, interesting Caribbean Mexico vacation.

One of the most cool and unique aspects of touring the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico is the abundance of Mayan ruins. The Mayans were spread all across the Yucatan and down into Belize, Guatemala and beyond. They left behind thousands of small and large structures on the beaches and in the jungles. Having spent many days exploring the Yucatan Peninsula, these archaeological sites are some of the most fascinating things to do near Cancun.

Add the best Mayan ruins near Cancun to a Yucatan vacation itinerary. From Cancun to Tulum, Mayan ruins are everywhere and are some of the most interesting things to do.

Photographing Mayan Ruins Near Cancun

Spending a whole day going from ruins to ruins is tiring, so it’s best to plan your days visiting just one per day.  This is where you have the opportunity to plan your itineraries to get the best lighting at each of the archaeological sites.  Low light, meaning light coming from a lower point in the sky, will give the best shadows and prevent each of the Yucatan Mayan ruins sites from being completely washed out in your photographs.

No, I’m not talking about washed out photos while shooting with 35mm film, but with a basic digital camera or even a camera phone. Strong direct light from above will do two things:

  • reflect bright white light directly off the ruins causing unbalanced photos
  • make the site a hot one and all of the iguanas will be in hiding

Photographing Mayan ruins is a real treat and planning your visit to ensure the best lighting, temperatures and crowds is all to your benefit.  The best of the Yucatan is waiting and we all owe it genuinely good photography to preserve our memories of visiting through the years.

Best Mayan Ruins Near Cancun to Visit

Starting directly in Cancun and heading south and west, these are the best Mayan ruins near Cancun to visit on your beach vacation. This list is NOT inclusive of every single ruin or archaeological site, but these are the ruins that are closest to Cancun and Tulum. These sites you can visit on your own or do a tour to Mayan ruins with a local guide.

Any of these Mayan ruins can be added to your itinerary as a half or full day trip.

El Rey Mayan Ruins, Cancun

Before visiting the El Rey Mayan ruins in Cancun, I’d asked several friends for their opinion on visiting. I was told to skip El Rey Archaeological Zone in Cancun. They said that since it’s in the hotel zone it’ll be crowded and not very impressive.

Not true. And nope: don’t skip it. I love visiting El Rey Mayan ruins in Cancun for the exact opposite reasons.

Yes, El Rey is conveniently located in Cancun’s hotel zone, but once inside you’d never know it!

The El Rey Mayan ruins are directly in the hotel zone of Cancun, but it’s actually wonderful. I was THE ONLY ONE THERE when I arrived and for most of my visit. Well, it was me and a hundred iguanas. As far as a photography paradise goes, El Rey is a perfect 10.

While the overall structures weren’t towering and impressive like you think of when you hear the term “Mayan Ruins” the site was beautiful and ideal for a calming, relaxing stroll and taking beautiful pictures of wildlife and small-scale structures.

How to Visit El Rey Mayan Ruins in Cancun

If you are staying in Cancun’s hotel zone, you can easily walk or get dropped off at El Rey Archaeological Site. Parking at El Rey is complicated, as there is only a small lot on the side of the road just north of the entrance. The lot isn’t well marked, so if you miss the entrance drive a bit and do a U-Turn to get back to it.

Plan on arriving at El Rey first thing in the morning you’ll get the best light for photographing the ruins. Also, the iguanas haven’t been scared away by any tourists yet, so there’ll be lots out!

Cost:  El Rey is about $5 USD for entry (as of Feb 2017). It’s well worth it, particularly if you can be there when nobody else is.

Also in Cancun:  Ruinas San Miguel is another archaeological site directly in the hotel zone of Cancun. It’s not as withdrawn as the El Rey ruins, but if you’re staying in Cancun, you might as well pay them a visit. Also called San Miguelito, these Mayan ruins are located within the grounds of the Mayan Museum of Cancun.

Tulum Ruins National Park Archaeological Zone

South of Cancun, past Playa del Carmen, is the town of Tulum. It’s not difficult to get from Cancun to Tulum, so it’s an easy visit to plan and well worth it! The short trip down to Tulum is much closer than some of the more famous ruins further inland, making Tulum some of the best Mayan ruins near Cancun.

Book a tour from Cancun to visit the Tulum Archaeological Zone!

The Mayan ruins of Tulum are very different from what you’ll see at El Rey in Cancun. Tulum is an enormous site with many well preserved and strong standing structures. They’re exceptionally beautiful, particularly set against the Caribbean Sea.

The majority of the structures are small, but clearly set up in the layout of a community. There are broad lawns between the structures and lot’s of benches for sitting and taking it all in.

Tip:  be sure that you do all of the trails along the bluff, as you’ll get to enjoy both the gorgeous Caribbean view as well as snap some cool photos of the ruins juxtaposed against the sea. Really something to behold!

How to Visit the Tulum Ruins from Cancun

Arriving at Tulum, you’ll park your car and then have the option of renting bikes or walking to the Mayan ruins. It’s a twenty minute walk from the parking area to the start of the Mayan ruins, so be prepared.

Tip:  rent the bikes at the entrance to the Tulum National Park site. It’s well worth it due to the distance from the parking area to the actual ruins and then the beach.  You’ll be glad you did, especially when you’ve been walking for a long while with sand in your shoes.

Once at the actual national park entrance you can head directly into the compound or walk to the right and do the loop through the Mayan ruins backwards. There’s no wrong way.

Tour option:  If you’re staying in Cancun, this tour is a good option to visit the Tulum ruins.

In addition to the ruins of Tulum, there is also beach access. Upon completing the loop through the ruins, head south (to the left). The beach is a long stretch and it’s got several sandy restaurants along it. It’s quite the walk from the ruins though, so be prepared for the walk there are back.

Tulum Ruins National Park is a beautiful and fascinating place, so take your time to enjoy it. It’s not worth an entire day, or at least won’t take up an entire day. I would recommend three hours tops if you’re including beach time. Visiting the Tulum ruins is best when paired with other things to do between Tulum and Cancun.

When to Visit: while we are usually about doing activities early in the day, Tulum National Park is best in the afternoon.  The glow of the golden hour is gorgeous and makes for unforgettable views. Also, there should be fewer people at the Tulum ruins in the late afternoon.

Cost:  the Mayan ruins at Tulum are about $10 per person to visit. This can be paid just before you enter the actual ruins site or as part of a tour if you are not visiting on your own.

Also in Tulum:  Muyil Archaeological Site has some very impressive structures and it’s not as well known as Tulum. If you have extra time and cannot get enough of the other Yucatan Mayan ruins, plan a morning visit to Muyil for a different sort of Mayan site.

Favorite of the Best Mayan Ruins Near Cancun: Coba Archaeological Site

After visiting El Rey in Cancun and then the National Park in Tulum, I was really excited to visit the Mayan ruins at Coba.  I’d heard that they were really different from Tulum’s ruins and it was true. They were amazing, and for sure the best Mayan ruins near Cancun.

Much different than other ruins / archaeological sites, Coba has several pyramids and a very different layout… and the complete site is HUGE.

Without giving away the farm, let’s just say that the site at Coba was incredible and I would recommend it to anybody visiting Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum. If you talk with travelers who’ve spend a fair amount of time on the Yucatan Peninsula and have visited several Mayan ruins sites, many recommend the archaeological site at Coba over Chichen Itza, and I think I know why.  For a more detailed account of what to expect at Coba, check out this article and video from my visit.

Need to Know for Visiting Coba Ruins

The Coba ruins are a bit more of a drive than visiting Tulum, as you actually have to leave the coastal corridor. Plan for a two hour drive to go from Cancun to Coba. You’ll have time after your visit to make lots of stops on the way back to Cancun, so get the initial drive done as a straight shot.

Get to Coba as early in the day as possible. If you’re climbing the great pyramid, it gets hot and if you’re out of shape, you’ll be extra glad to climb it in cooler temperatures. Also, tours tend to arrive not long after the archaeological site opens, so if you can beat the tourist crowd, great!

Note: if you’re heading to Coba and don’t want to read the full article I published, take heed – rent a bike at the start of the park or jump on a bicitaxi. From the entrance back to the Great Pyramid is much much farther than you expect and the transportation assistance is really helpful.

Visiting Chichen Itza

Of all the Yucatan Mayan ruins, Chichen Itza may be the most famous, and also it’s one of the best ruins near Cancun for its updated tourist experience.  Being an enormous temple and structure complex, visiting Chichen Itza is a half-day activity actually on-site.  It does get a TON of tourist traffic, but it is famous for a reason.

Being very grand, well manicured and full of tourist friendly exhibits, Chichen Itza is a very good option.

While it is incredible, it’s the last of the recommendations due to its location.  It can indeed be a day trip from Cancun, but heading so far inland, it would make sense to visit Chichen Itza as part of a larger tour plan and to include some wonderful Mexican towns and natural beauty, such as the many cenotes you’ll pass on your way to the grandest of Mayan ruins.

Travel tip: If Chichen Itza is on your bucket list and you want as much time there as possible, consider staying in Valladolid or Merida overnight. Valladolid is very close and is itself a beautiful town with lots of great sights to see. Merida is much larger and is more of the picturesque Spanish colonial city, but it’s also more touristy, so you pick.

Did you know there were so many Mayan ruins near Cancun to explore on the Yucatan Peninsula? I know! Crazy and so cool!  Exploring the ruins is a very unique experience if you’ve not traveled to Greece or Italy, so be sure to plan a visit to at least one of the sites, as these are the best around and ideal to add some history to your Cancun vacation.

More Mayan Ruins Near Cancun to Visit

There are Mayan ruins all over the place! If you’re doing a trip to Isla Mujeres or Cozumel, you’ll actually find ruins on both islands. On Isla Mujeres you’ll find the Ixchel Ruins at the southern tip of the island. On the Island of Cozumel is the Zona Arqueológica San Gervasio. This is a large site and worth the trip!

Even walking around in downtown Playa del Carmen you’ll find small portions of Mayan ruins. Near the ferry terminal and in the neighborhoods near the beach are small, ancient buildings, overgrown but beautiful. And we can’t forget to mention Xcaret, which is both a theme park and an archaeological site. Go for the ruins, have fun in the water.

Ruins in Playa del Carmen

Planning a Visit to the Best Mayan Ruins Near Cancun

I guess you could just fly into Cancun (CUN) and not have a plan for your trip and see where you end up. OR you could make a simple itinerary and visit some of the best Mayan ruins near Cancun, or even IN Cancun, along with your beach days. Consider the following when planning your trip to Cancun: where to stay, what activities you want to do, and when you want to visit Mayan ruins in the middle of all of it.

Where to Stay Near Mayan Ruins

Most people visiting the Yucatan will be staying in one of the larger tourist areas, such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum, all of which have Mayan ruins very nearby or even directly in town. As you make your decision about where to stay, consider the following activities that you’ll want to be close to: 

  • the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan
  • the soft sand beaches
  • or the jungle cenotes.

There are spots that all three intersect or are very close, so choosing what’s most important to you will help determine where you’ll stay. If you don’t have a car, and choose to stay up in Cancun, check out this great article explaining how to get from Cancun to Tulum.

You’ll find beaches all along the Caribbean side of the Yucatan and most are picture perfect, but to find the ideal spot that puts you close to endless opportunities for exploring ruins and more is tricky.  Even Isla Mujers, an island near Cancun has ruins on it, but then you’re far from the jungles and cenotes.

Check out the variety of hotel and vacation rental options around Cancun or Playa del Carmen. There are some really unique places to stay between Cancun and Tulum.

Playa del Carmen is the most centrally located place to stay and there is plenty of fun and wonderful food to be had there. Our top pick for a home base when you’re touring the Yucatan Peninsula or Cancun area, particularly if you’re planning to visit the best Mayan ruins, is Playa del Carmen.

Tip:  I stayed at the Club Yebo Hotel in downtown Playa del Carmen and really enjoyed both the accommodations and the location of the hotel. With kitchenettes and plenty of quiet relaxation space, it’s a great find.

Club Yebo Hotel balcony Playa Del Carmen Yucatan 2

Additional Things to Do Near Cancun Besides Ruins

I recommend planning an itinerary that allows you to have ample beach time, including swimming with sea turtles at Akumal where you’re nearly guaranteed to see sting rays and turtles, as well as where you can easily do a day trip to the Mayan ruins of your choice.  You’ll find cenotes everywhere, so research which ones you want to visit to be sure you’re not wasting your time at a lame one when you can swim at an awesome cenote.

You’ll find that some of the best Mayan ruins near Cancun have museums attached to them or nearby. In Cancun and Chichen Itza you’ll find wonderful exhibits in several languages, so visiting the museums is very easy, even if you don’t speak or read Spanish. Near some of the ruins in Playa del Carmen, you’ll find the Frida Khalo Museum and all kinds of shopping activities downtown.

Tip: book the Frida Khalo Art Tour in Playa del Carmen for a really cool experience in town!

As you plan your itinerary for visiting attractions and Mayan ruins near Cancun, consider some of these interesting things to do. You’ll love having breaks from the beach and getting a complete experience of the culture and sights around Cancun.

Swimming with Sea Turtles in Akumal 1

If you have any questions or suggestions, leave a comment below so others can hear your advice or inquiry. And you can always send us a note with your own Mayan ruins ideas too!

Want to pin this for later when it’s time to plan your own Yucatan road trip? Go for it!

Add the best Mayan ruins near Cancun to a Yucatan vacation itinerary. From Cancun to Tulum, Mayan ruins are everywhere and are some of the most interesting things to do.
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