Chichen Itza and beyond: Mayan ruins in Yucatan, Mexico

Lilit Marcus, CNNUpdated 28th April 2018
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Cancun, Mexico (CNN) — Mexico is the North American nation with the most UNESCO World Heritage sites, thanks in large part to its rich history and well-preserved archaeological sites -- some of which are still being discovered and excavated to this day.
One of the most famous destinations, and most popular, is Chichen Itza, which was a thriving city of the Mayans tracing its roots to the fifth century AD. In addition to being an important historical site, Chichen and its central pyramid are fantastically well-built and well-preserved.
While Chichen -- as the locals call it -- is absolutely still worth visiting, there are also a few other Mayan ruin sites in the area where you can get a more relaxed, personalized experience with bonus pyramid climbing. Here's what to see when you travel here:
The Yucatan peninsula that curls into the ocean on Mexico's eastern coast is comprised of three states--Campeche, Quintana Roo (where Cancun is) and Yucatan, the sites we're talking about are all within Yucatan state.
Yucatecans are known for being so proud of their history and culture that other Mexicans occasionally tease them about being an independent country. One thing's for sure--the phrase "embarrassment of riches" could have been coined about Yucatan's wealth of archaeological ruins.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza cenote
Chichen Itza: One of the best ways to see this site is from a water-filled cave called a cenote.
Getty Images/AtanasBozhikovNasko
It feels wrong to visit the region and not make a stop at Chichen Itza, but it can be tough to navigate when an entire ship of cruise ship excursioners all descend on the site at the same time. Still, there's a method to the madness.
Your best bet is to get there early in the morning, as the site opens every at 9 a.m. Odds are good you'll beat the van loads, and the huge open space can have bright, unforgiving sun. (Also, to sound like your mom for a minute, wear a hat.)
Many travelers specifically plan to visit on the spring or fall equinoxes (March and September), when the sun casts a shadow down the angles of the iconic Kukulkan pyramid to show how the stones are laid to look like snakes slithering down the sides.
It's a very cool effect, but you'll likely deal with a huge crowd. And the good news is that you can see the shape and concept year round fairly easily, no matter the light.
Kulkulkan was a Mayan god who is depicted as a snake (hence the serpentine design details) with feathers, but the locals also call this pyramid El Castillo, or The Castle.
The pyramid was built with some fascinating properties--for example, there are 365 steps in total (the same as the number of days in a non-leap year), and each corner faces one of the cardinal directions so that people could use it to navigate.
There's also a cool auditory trick you can play here, where if you stand in just the right spot beneath the pyramid and clap or whistle, the acoustics will echo perfectly. It's a fun game, although it can be annoying at peak times of day when everyone is doing it all at once.
Since the Chichen complex is so massive, you should do some reading about the history of the space before you go. The entrance fee is just that (a fee to enter, and to walk around), so consider hiring a guide to give you a more personalized look. There will be plenty of them milling around near the entrance, many wearing signs or small flags to show which languages they speak.
Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza's beautiful steps stay beautiful by being closed to foot traffic.
Getty Images/zxvisua
Give yourself 2-3 hours for the full experience. Other highlights include El Caracol, the onetime observation deck, and the ball court where Mayans probably held their rituals (and probably not where they played basketball, although many of us heard about this legend in school).
Carry cash with you (Mexican pesos, as not everyone accepts USD), and be prepared to haggle with the many vendors who pack into the site selling handicrafts, magnets, carved figurines, jewelry, kids' toys, Christmas tree ornaments and just about anything else you can think of.
One note of caution: Although the El Castillo is stunning, don't expect to be able to get too close. To preserve the site, climbing is expressly forbidden and rigidly enforced. Your selfies, though? Those should be fine.

Mayapan

Mayapan Mexico
Mayapan, another Mayan ruin in Yucatan state.
Getty Images/Michele Westmorland
Mayapan, about a half hour drive from the Yucatan capital of Merida, feels like the flip side of the Chichen Itza coin. Like Chichen, it has a massive central pyramid dedicated to Kukulkan. Unlike Chichen, the place is often deserted and you have free reign to climb the pyramid.
That resemblance isn't a coincidence. Mayapan was largely modeled after Chichen, and both were major, thriving cities before the Spanish came to Mexico. You will also want to hire a guide to lead you through the complex, which is about four square kilometers and contains about 4,000 total structures. (Yes, you did read that correctly -- 4,000 -- although they range considerably in size).
Those structures include the huge pyramid but also a lot of places where people lived during Mayapan's thriving city days and the remains of the wall that enveloped the city and protected it from outsiders.
Like nearly all ruins in Mexico, Mayapan is still being actively excavated, so keep an eye out for dig spots. And just like other Mayan sites, Mayapan has cenotes, or underground pools. Wear a swimsuit under your clothes and feel free to dive on in, although the water is usually on the colder side (perfect on a hot day).
Things to keep in mind: While the relative emptiness of Mayapan is good for your exploration, it does mean there are fewer amenities. You will need to drive yourself or take a taxi since public transport is minimal, and bring your own water and sunscreen since there aren't vendors or restaurants (but there is a bathroom).

Ek Balam

Ek Balam Mexico
Ek Balam: You're more likely to see archaelogists digging than tourists taking selfies.
Getty Images/Harry Kikstra
About 25 kilometers (16 miles) north of the beautiful small town of Valladolid, Ek Balam is the perfect site for advanced travelers who like doing things independently.
Ek Balam is a mix of Mayan and Yucatecan ruins, and it's also so new--it's still being excavated daily--that you might find yourself the only tourist there. Unlike other sites, if you want to hire a guide you will need to do it privately and in advance, as this site is generally so empty that there's no one waiting around.
While Mayapan and Chichen are dedicated to the snake god, Ek Balam is all about the jaguar. (In fact, its name is Mayan for "black jaguar.")
Ek Balam is made in the gorgeous details, and the ability to climb and explore the site freely makes it easy to get up close. About halfway up the central structure known as The Acropolis there are white wall carvings depicting Mayan gods and stories that are similar to the ones at Palenque. (Trust me, you'll be happy to have a break from the steep steps, not to mention a photo op.) There are also references to Chaac, the Mayan god of lightning.
The top, at 95 feet high, provides gorgeous views of the entire Ek Balam site and well beyond, and the strenuous climb also means you can more than get your FitBit steps for the day.
If the weather's nice and the sky is clear, you may even be able to see all the way to ... wait for it... Chichen Itza.
Besides the Acropolis, keep an eye out for the beautiful entrance arch and the oval palace where royal relics are buried, as well as the obligatory cenote.

Dzibilchaltún

Dzibilchaltún Mexico
Dzibilchaltún's name means "place where there is writing on the stones."
Getty Images/stockcam
Just north of Merida is this site, where you're more likely to see schoolkids playing or locals walking their dogs than other travelers. Dzibilchaltún is special in that it shows where Mayan and Spanish influence overlapped -- in the archaeological sense, if not the historical kind.
First, the Mayans: The most famous structure here is the Temple of Seven Dolls, named because archaeologists found seven dolls here (most likely not toy dolls, instead representing something connected to Mayan ritual) and because they were extremely literal.
Second, the Spanish: Many Christian civilizations claimed pagan sites as their own and built on top of them, and Dzibilchaltún is no exception. There are also the ruins of a cathedral here, and the small but detailed on-site Museum of the Maya People has both Mayan and Spanish artifacts on display.
The best way to experience the site is to walk the "sacbe" (white road) from one end to the other, with the Temple of the Seven Dolls anchoring one end. Like Chichen Itza, Dzibilchaltún's design was inspired by the planets and stars. On the spring and fall equinoxes, the sun falls in a perfect line down the sacbe.
An open cenote called Xlakah was most likely the water source for the people who lived in Dzibilchaltú, and to this day there are still archaeological dives to unearth treasures from the water's depths.