The country might be famous for pretty palm-lined beaches and the guacamole of your dreams, but for history buffs, Mexico is a different kind of paradise.
Mexico’s storied and often debated history lives within its many ancient ruins sites, where pyramids, murals, statues and structures combine to be the object of speculation for archaeologists and historians. Though finding exact answers for the culture and conflicts of Mexico’s civilizations is nearly impossible, Mexico’s three most visited historical sites – Chichen Itza, Teotihuacan and Tulum – provide an unforgettable experience for travelers. History buff or not, we guarantee a visit to one of the mystical sights of Mexico will ignite a whole new sense of curiosity for bygone eras.
Why it’s significant: The ancient city, built by the Maya people around 400AD, is considered to be the most well-preserved example of Mayan civilization in the Yucatan Peninsula. Today, archeologists and historians are still exploring Chichen Itza in search of answers on the cultural practices and significant events of Mayan civilization.
In 900AD, Chichen Itza is said to have been invaded by Toltec warriors, a civilization from central Mexico whose traditions were the foundation for the Aztec people. Though the Toltec influence on Chichen Itza is hotly debated, many archeologists consider certain structures around the ruins, including El Castillo, the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl and El Caracol (the observatory) as examples of Mayan-Toltec cultures fusing together. For example, the serpent Quetzalcoatl, known as the god of the winds to the Aztecs, or Kukulcan to the Mayans, is carved into columns and structures throughout the city. Chichen Itza’s most famous structure is El Castillo (also known as the temple of Kukulcan), a massive pyramid with a sacred temple on top.
Pro Tip: The most impressive time to visit Chichen Itza is during the spring or autumn equinox. On these days, when the late afternoon sun strikes, triangular shadows form along the walls making it look as though Kukulcan/Quetzalcoatl is sliding down the structure. Otherwise, plan to go early in the morning (it’s quite hot and busy come afternoon), then spend the rest of the day exploring the area’s cenotes (underwater swimming holes). For a further taste of Mayan culture (luxury style), visit the Yaxkin Spa just steps away from Chichen Itza. Visitors to the spa are treated to ancient Mayan cleansing rituals and healing ceremonies.
Where to find it: 30 miles northeast of Mexico City
Why it’s significant: Occupying over 82square km, Teotihuacan was once the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas. Today, what remains at this sprawling UNESCO World Heritage site is several pyramids, residential areas, and colorful pyramids that give clues to the area’s complex history.
Although Teotihuacan was established around 100BC, it was an advanced city in many ways. Historians believe the city was multi-ethnic, made up of mainly Nahua, Otomi and Totonac groups. The city had a mixture of residential and business areas and upper-class homes spread across massive estates that could accommodate several families, made special by beautiful colorful murals. There were even multi-floor apartment buildings.
Teotihuacan is the most visited ruins site in Mexico. It’s famous for the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon (the names were given to the pyramids by Aztecs who occupied Teotihuacan centuries after it was first abandoned). The pyramids’ significance to the city’s original inhabitants remains unknown; but today, you can climb both pyramids for a fascinating look at ancient cultures.
Pro Tip: You’ll get more from your visit if you hire a private tour guide to take you around the site who will explain each area and the varied myths associated to them. Like Chichen Itza, plan to go early in the morning to beat the crowds. Plus, the quiet surroundings will enhance the mystical atmosphere.
Ruins of Tulum City
Why it’s significant: Photographers, have your camera at the ready! Nestled against the crystal turquoise Caribbean Sea, the walled city of Tulum is the most picturesque of all the ruins sites (Tulum is the Mayan word for wall). And it’s also the newest: it was one of the last to be built by the Mayans, and reached its height between the 13th and 15th centuries.
The city location right on the ocean made it an important trading post between central Mexico, the Yucatan and Central America. In contrast to Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan, the ruins of Tulum City are relatively small, but you’ll find three major structures – El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes and The Temple of the Descending Gods.
Pro Tip: Exploring the ruins will take about 2 hours. If you want to experience more Mayan history nearby, drive to the Coba ruins about 45km northwest of Tulum, where you can climb the pyramids. Otherwise, make a day of it in Tulum and shop at the delightful boutique stores, and enjoy dinner at Hartwood, the hottest restaurant in Mexico right now.
Where to stay in Riviera Maya