The best 25 archaeological sites to visit in Mexico
Mexico is a country of culture and traditions, many of which Mexicans have inherited from the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of this vast territory.
And although it is true that there were more settlements in the central and southern part of the country, it is also possible to find some archaeological remains in the North.
Without a doubt, touring Mexico through its archaeological zones is to soak up culture, traditions and discoveries that will not leave you indifferent.
Chichen Itza has been called one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Among its main structures, El Castillo, El Caracol (or observatory), the Ball Court, the Temple of a thousand columns stand out.
One of the most important finds in Chichén Itzá was the sacred cenote, from which various offerings and bones were extracted from the maidens who were sacrificed to the gods, and sometimes also the prisoners of war were sacrificed and thrown into that seemingly bottomless pit.
Undoubtedly one of the most important archaeological sites of the Mayan culture in Yucatan, El Castillo was one of the great temples that were built near the end of the splendour of that culture.
Palenque is a Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it is located in the state of Chiapas, its magnificent sculptures and buildings tell us the story of the man who tries to understand and explain the universe.
Its most important building is the Great Palace, the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Temple of the Foliated Cross and the Great Ball Court.
One of the most important finds in Palenque was undoubtedly the tomb of Pakal II, whose stela adorns this entrance, and although there are many theories, it is most likely that the tree of life is portrayed, pointing the roots towards the underworld that was mysterious and attractive to the Mayans.
Without a doubt, the palace is its most important construction, since over 400 years it was built in various styles, with various architectural elements such as a tower, four patios, foundations and stairways, among others.
One of the greatest exponents of the Puuc route is the archaeological zone of Uxmal, its main buildings are the Pyramid of the Magician, the Quadrangle of the Nuns and the House of the Doves.
Among its ruins were stupendous masks of Chaac (god of rain) and also stelae with hieroglyphics.
One of the things that visitors can enjoy in Uxmal is the “light and sound show”, since entering an archaeological zone at night gives you a different perspective of how it is during the day, in addition, those shows designed by the INAH allow you to enter to learn about the history and daily life of the ancient inhabitants of the place.
One of the most beautiful pre-Hispanic buildings, it is undoubtedly the pyramid of the Nichos de Tajín, located in the state of Veracruz is a great exponent of the Totonaca culture.
Niches, reliefs and mural paintings are the silent witnesses of that city that was known as the city of smoking temples since copal was constantly burned in its buildings.
It has 17 ball courts, which archaeologists have interpreted as a sign of multiculturalism since it was inhabited for almost 900 years, which speaks of periods of evolution within the same ethnic group.
One of the archaeological sites with which Mexico is identified is undoubtedly Teotihuacán, it is one of the most important ancient cities in the centre of the country, Its name in Nahuatl means “city of the gods”.
At its time of maximum splendour, it had 100 thousand inhabitants. Its privileged location in a valley rich in natural resources made it a city as well as important for its architecture, an economic, political, religious and cultural centre of the time.
The most impressive thing is that even today we do not finish unravelling all its secrets, although we know that since Aztec times it was considered a sacred site.
Its extension available to the public is 264 hectares, in them, you can find the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, the Citadel, the Calzada de Los Muertos, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, so without a doubt, the best thing is to go to visit it and fill yourself with the energy and history that still lives within its walls.
One of the few archaeological sites found in the north of the country is Paquimé, which is located in the state of Chihuahua, a culture that adapted to fight and survive in the great expanse of the Chihuahuan desert and that left evidence of it with the impressive structures.
The most striking thing about Paquimé is perhaps the impressive play of light and shadows that are made when the sun shines from different heights in those labyrinths that housed hundreds of rooms, some with a very specific function and others simply residential.
The archaeological wealth of Yaxchilán is not only in its buildings but in the texts found on its stelae, altars and lintels, which narrate the history of that city-state, with everything and its warlike conflicts, its alliances and the exploits of its rulers.
One of the peculiarities of Yaxchilán is that it must be reached by boat with an outboard motor crossing the Usumacinta River. You should not miss the Acropolis, the Labyrinth or the Ball Court, silent witnesses of the splendour of this city.
From the top of Structure 33, one of the tallest buildings in Chiapas archaeology, it is possible to observe the meandering Usumacinta River and also a part of the Guatemalan Petén, another area where the Mayan culture flourished.
Your visit can be even more enjoyable with good binoculars to observe the Lacandon Jungle from its acropolis.
Just 10 kilometres from the city of Oaxaca, is Monte Albán, a vestige of the Zapotec and Mixtec culture, since, like many of the pre-Hispanic cities, it was inhabited by different cultures over time.
According to its architecture, it has been determined that it was in contact with the powerful Teotihuacán.
Its main structures are the Ball Court, the Dancers Building and the South Platform. In the esplanade called Great Plaza, the merchants were located to set up the market.
This city was founded around 500 BC. C. at the top of a hill in the central valleys of Oaxaca, it had up to 35 thousand inhabitants who lived on architecture, pottery and mural painting.
One of the best-known images of Cholula is that of the church on a mound and with the Popocatepetl as a backdrop, and it is that according to the story, the Spaniards tried to replace the indigenous gods with their God, and for this, they destroyed the ancient temples and built their churches on them. More or less this is the history of this city of Puebla, which is said to have more than 300 churches.
But speaking of the archaeological zone, we must mention Tlachihualteptl (which means hill made by hand), the pyramid on which the church of the Virgen de Los Remedios is built and whose base is 450 meters long on each side. The Toltecs expelled from Tula were the ones who built this archaeological zone.
Cholula’s strategic location made it a privileged place for trade between the various pre-Hispanic ethnic groups, it has amazing murals in good condition of conservation that by themselves make it worth the visit.
A walled city that overlooks the Caribbean Sea from above, this is Tulum, a sacred site for the Mayans, which despite being so close to the sea, has murals and structures in very good condition. In Mayan, it received the name of Zamá, which means sunrise.
The Castle, on the highest part of the cliff, has on its facades sculptures of the descending god, who has sometimes been associated with Chaac, the god of rain, there is also the temple of the frescoes in whose corners you can also see masks of Chaac.
The visit to the site will take perhaps an hour and a half, but if you have a chance, I recommend you go down to the beach and take a quick dip, or at least a foot soak in the warm waters of the Caribbean.
Nohoch Mul is the highest pyramid in Cobá, previously, when it was possible to climb it, from the highest part there were three freshwater lagoons that the Mayans used to supply themselves. One of its most impressive and well-preserved structures is the Ball Court.
Many of the centuries-old trees that grew on the structures have been respected, giving them an overwhelming air.
The archaeological zone of Cobá is quite extensive, so after visiting the main buildings, I recommend renting a bicycle or a tricycle with a driver to reach the structures furthest from the entrance.
Its stelae tell us the history of this site, that although it was not inhabited by the ruling class, it did have a sacbé of more than 100 kilometres that reached a city near Chichén Itzá.
Of the eminently commercial character, Comalcalco (city of the Comales), is the westernmost city in the Mayan world, in it, objects that belonged to ethnic groups from other latitudes have been found both towards the north of Mexico and south to Central America.
The Chontales who inhabited this area (and whose descendants still live there), were born merchants, even reaching Cacaxtla in Tlaxcala. In this place, the cultivation of cocoa was and is to this day one of the most fruitful economic activities.
The North Plaza, the Acropolis and the Tomb of the Nine Lords are the best-preserved structures, and one of the attractions of this place is the contrast between the well-kept green areas and the grey and yellowish tones of the walls.
If you are a nature lover, and you love to observe flora and fauna, Calakmul is a city that you cannot miss on your itinerary to Campeche. In the middle of the biosphere reserve is the archaeological zone which means two adjacent mounds.
Much of the history of this site was captured in its stelae and in the beautiful wall paintings that are not yet open to the public as they are being prepared to be exhibited. Within the site, you can visit extensive ceremonial squares and places destined for the dwellings of the inhabitants.
Its majestic palace is a tall construction that dominates the jungle and if you arrive very early, from its summit you will be able to admire how little by little the blanket of fog that covers the place is rising at night.
The mural paintings that Bonampak houses are among the most representative of the Mayan world, many have been the studies that have been conducted to try to determine who are the portrayed characters and what passages of history each of those painted walls tells us.
On the Acropolis, there is Building I, in whose three rooms 112 square meters of these murals are preserved, which archaeologists have unravelled speak of a long battle.
Getting to Bonampak is not an easy task, because, after several forks in the road, you will find a dirt road that after 8 kilometres leads to a place from where you will be transported by vehicles from the Lacandon community.
Its name means Star Jaguar (according to other translators, it means Black Jaguar), and its Acropolis contains one of the most impressive examples of stucco work carried out by the Mayans. That palace was built as a tomb for one of their kings.
Inside it contains a ramp that the priests and rulers used so that the people did not see them ascend, but they saw them already at the top of the palace, which is one of the main doors is adorned with what looks like the jaws of a jaguar, and it is also possible to see human beings with wings as if they were angels.
From the entrance of the site you can be surprised with a magnificent Mayan arch, a sample of the advanced architecture of its architecture, also in its heyday, the city was protected by a double wall that had access at each cardinal point.
The place of red corn, this is how the name of Chacchoben translates, was one of the most important settlements in the lake area, and began to be populated before the birth of Christ, since the bodies of water attracted the inhabitants to settle around it, let us remember that in Quintana Roo there are only underground rivers.
The different buildings remind us of the style of other sites of the Mayan culture, but due to its size, one of the great temples that we see at the beginning of these paragraphs stands out, two stelae have also been found on the site and there are still sites to be explored.
Cacaxtla contains some murals that could well be confused with those of Bonampak due to their aesthetics, it was a city that after the fall of Cholula had the hegemony of the Puebla-Tlaxcala area. It was a ceremonial centre, a fortified city, it had defensive walls and moats and residential areas for the elite.
Its murals combine Mayan and Altiplano features, in one of the most imposing you can see the scene of a battle between Olmec jaguar warriors and Huastec birdmen who are clearly losing the fight, and some are shown naked or in different states of dismemberment.
The Great Basamento is its most important structure, in fact, different ceremonial buildings were built in it and it is where the priests had their homes.
Cantona, although it has only been open to the public for a short time, was a rival of Teotihuacán, in fact, it diverted the goods that were supposed to arrive in that city, which contributed to its decline. However, their power was hampered by a climate change that drained the lands and forced them to emigrate.
Obsidian was one of the main products that they traded and worked in their various workshops, and in fact, being so close to the Citlaltépetl volcano from which they extracted it, it was possible for them to dominate the trade of this very valuable good for the ethnic groups of the centre of the country.
In addition, due to its privileged position, it controlled trade between the centre and the gulf side.
Cantona is considered the most urbanized city in pre-Hispanic Mexico, as evidenced by the more than 500 streets and 3 thousand residential patios that have been discovered, as well as its roads of more than a kilometre in length.
So far 24 ball courts have been discovered, which shows the great importance of this site.
Settled on a group of low hills, Xochicalco was one of the most important cities in Mesoamerica after the fall of Tenochtitlán, it has civic, residential and religious buildings, as well as moats and walls, which tells us about a war era in the one that each city wanted to control its own territory.
Among the constructions that you can visit is the Great Pyramid, in the central plaza, the South Ball Court and the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpents, which suggests that some southern Mayan groups would have emigrated to Xochicalco before the fall of their cities.
In this archaeological zone, you will find a rather peculiar observatory because it is located inside a cave that is accessed through a stairway carved in stone.
Tamtoc was a political and religious centre that came to house up to 16,000 inhabitants, it was home to the Huasteca culture, which we know from its buildings with a circular base or with rounded corners. The inhabitants of Tamtoc were mainly engaged in astronomy and hydraulic engineering.
The other economic activities of Tamtoc were agriculture mainly of beans and corn, fishing and hunting of animals. Its inhabitants were sedentary and knew how to work obsidian, flint, gold, basalt and copper.
An important characteristic of this culture is that it gave a very special value to women since she was considered a living symbol of fertility and also the owner of time due to her menstrual cycles.
In Colima due to its climate, and the few rains that usually fall each year, it is difficult to find pre-Hispanic settlements, however, there is the Potrero de la Campana, named like this because, before the excavation, the hill looked like a bell due to its trapezoidal shape.
Here you will find the famous shaft tombs, places where bodies and rich offerings were deposited and which were accessed by a vertical shaft.
It is located between the Colima and Pereira rivers, which despite having little rainfall during the year, ensured their water supply. Its platforms are circular or quadrangular and it is possible to appreciate a Ball Game and innumerable petroglyphs.
One of the things that most attracts the attention of La Campana is its drainage and water distribution network, which tells us about advanced hydraulic engineering.
One of the most important settlements in the Guadiana Valley was in La Ferrería Durango, in it more than twenty structures with religious functions, housing, pyramids, patios have been identified, in short, almost all types of pre-Hispanic structures are found here.
There is evidence of astronomical observation, also of good hydraulic knowledge, since they used channels to evacuate rainwater. The House of the Leaders preserves its original drains and is oriented towards the Temascal hill, very important for the ruling elite.
There are also several engraved rocks in the area that tell us stories of daily life, hunting scenes, fertility rituals associated with the female figure, a representation of the birth of the sun, among others.
Mictlán was the name given in Nahuatl to the place of the dead, Hispanicized it remained in Mitla, this city of Zapotec and Mixtec origin surprises with the abundant decoration on its facades, made of limestone rock mosaics that form frets, and that it could remind us of the decorative motifs of other archaeological sites.
After the fall of Monte Albán, it was the most important site in Oaxaca, it contains five sets of monumental architecture.
Also in Mitla, the evangelizers built a church on one of its main palaces, this is how we see the church of San Pablo on that structure.
Monolithic columns are very important, as they were used both as structural and decorative elements. The stones for the construction of the San Pablo temple were obtained from the destruction of other pre-Hispanic structures and temples.
The Tarascans were a parallel culture in relevance to the Mexica, the big difference is that those of Michoacán were not so warlike, however, when they were attacked by the Tenochcas they had no qualms about fighting them and stopping them in their tracks, inflicting severe defeats on the most powerful Mexican rulers: Atzayácatl, Ahuizadotl and Moctezuma Xocoyotzin.
The domain of the Tarascans extended from the Lerma River to the Balsas, occupying more than 75 thousand square kilometres. The city of Tzintzuntzan has a sobriety and austerity that contrasts with the ornamentation of the temples that the Spanish had the Tarascans built.
The name has to do with the hummingbird, a bird of great importance both for the Mexica for whom it represented the god Huitzilopochtli and for the Tarascans for whom it represented the god Tzintzuuquixu.
A place dedicated to trading, which had influence throughout Mesoamerica is Tula, they controlled the turquoise trade, and their occupation began at the same time that Teotihuacán began its decline. The Giants or Atlanteans of Tula are very tall sculptures representing warriors.
While Quetzalcóatl reigned in those places, the palaces covered with feathers and jade were common, and due to the fertility of their lands, merchants came from other latitudes who brought cocoa, precious metals, jaguar skins, jade and ceramics from Chiapas and Guatemala.
The Burned Palace and the two Ball Games with their hoops decorated with undulating serpents, are structures that you should not miss, and it is remarkable that the Atlanteans supported a palace, implying that the warfare was the sustenance of the universe.