Three of the best-known Maya archaeological sites on the Yucatan Peninsula, Uxmal, Coba, and Chichen Itza, are all worth a visit for anyone interested in the ancient culture that created them. Featuring some of the largest and most spectacular pyramids and other structures on the peninsula, each is worth exploring.
Close enough to each other, visiting all three is possible during a longer trip through the Yucatan Peninsula. But, unless you rush through them, or only plan to visit Maya sites, you might only have time for one. In that case, understanding some differences between the sites can help you decide which one you prefer to see.
I spent time at all three sites multiple times during the decades I’ve been visiting Maya ruins on the peninsula. I like them all for different reasons. While Chichen Itza’s famous Castillo, one of the New Wonders of the World, leaves me in awe, the elaborate stonework on the facades of the buildings at Uxmal is just as impressive, while Coba, surrounded by jungle, makes it the site I enjoy exploring the longest.
Here are a few key differences I noticed through my visits.
An ancient Maya city dating from the Classical period of this civilization, Uxmal is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural significance. Built in the Puuc style, with gorgeous facades specific to the region, it is one of the ancient Maya cities most representative of the style.
Archaeologists believe Uxmal was settled around the 6th century A.D., and this is when the first pyramid was most likely built. As the city expanded, it eventually became the center of the region, reaching its zenith around the 8th and 9th centuries.
How To Explore Uxmal
Dominating the site and larger than all the surrounding structures, the Pyramid of the Magician is the first building you notice when entering the ancient city.
Oval, with rounded edges, the massive pyramid is 100 feet tall. According to legend, a dwarf magician built it in one night (hence the name). However, archaeologists established that the pyramid we see today is the fifth one built on top of several others, each new one encasing the older one. Far longer than 1 night, the process took several centuries (from the 6th to the 10th).
Though you can’t climb the Pyramid of the Magician, you can admire it from every angle as you walk through the site. And you don’t need to leave without spending time on top of a pyramid. Climb the second largest one, the Grand Pyramid, and enjoy perfect views of the ancient city.
Besides the pyramids, Uxmal has several structures showcasing the gorgeous Puuc style architecture. The Palace of the Governor is famous for its spectacular facade, the longest one known so far in the Yucatan featuring the image of the Maya rain god, Chak. The Nunnery Quadrangle, also featuring the unique architecture of the region, was used as a ceremonial plaza.
Why Choose Uxmal?
A preference for the site’s architecture might be the key factor in influencing your decision. If you like elaborate, carved stone facades, and masks representing Chac, Uxmal is your obvious choice.
However, location can also play a role in your preference. Uxmal is the only site of the three close to a metropolitan Mexican city, offering the unique opportunity to combine exploring a major city with the archaeological site. The capital of the state of Yucatan, Merida, is 52 miles from the site, and offers an authentic modern Mexican city experience, with world-class museums, restaurants, cafes, parks, and plenty of activities for all ages.
The oldest and largest of the three ancient cities, Coba, is the least reconstructed site. Established during the Pre-Classic Period of the Maya civilization, between 50 B.C. and A.D. 100, the city reached its peak around A.D. 550 and A.D. 900, when it was home to about 50,000 people.
Being off the tourist track until the past decade, Coba still kept an off-the-beaten-track feel — at least early and late in the day — before and after the tour buses from Cancun and Tulum bring the largest number of tourists.
How To Explore Coba
Spreading over 30 square miles, Coba comprises several groups connected by long trails through the jungle. Because of its size, visiting just the ruins of Cobá can take you anywhere from a few hours to a whole day.
Since distances are large, you can rent a bicycle at the entrance, or hire a “Maya taxi,” a bicycle with a seat attached to the front, where you can sit while a local Maya pedals you around.
The Iglesia pyramid dominates the first group you reach. Past a ball court, the jungle path takes you to the second group, called Conjunto Las Pinturas. Here, the principal attraction is the small Pyramid of the Painted Lintel, named for the colorful paintings on the temple’s lintel.
Next, you’ll reach the most famous pyramid of the site, the tallest one on the peninsula, the Ixmoja of the Nohoch Mul Group. The possibility of climbing it used to be the main reason most people chose Coba as a destination. Closed to climbing in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, the seven-layer, rounded pyramid is still an impressive sight.
Past the Nohoch Mul plaza, the Macanxoc group is closed to bicycles. Filled with stelae, large pieces of limestone carved with images and glyphs, it is the quietest area of Coba Ruins.
Why Choose Coba?
If you like the mystery of ancient structures surrounded by jungle, Coba is the site you should visit. Since you need to walk through jungle paths to reach the separate groups, you might see wildlife. You also have the unique opportunity to ride a bicycle through the jungle.
Coba Archaeological Zone sits in a small Maya village with the same name, where you can find local arts and crafts, and Maya specialty meals in the restaurants. The site is also close to three underground cenotes, reachable through a dirt road.
Built much later than the other two sites, Chichen Itza dates from the Late Classic period (A.D. 600–900) through the Post-Classic period (A.D. 900–1200) of the Maya civilization. This means that its monumental architecture is the best-preserved of the three.
Another capital city ruling over the neighboring sites, Chichen Itza displays images of Kukulcan, the feathered serpent god of the Maya, besides jaguars and eagles.
How To Explore The Archaeological Site In Chichen Itza
The Main Plaza you first reach as you enter is dominated by the famous Castillo, or Pyramid of Kukulcan. The greatest structure in Chichen Itzá, the famous pyramid is one of the most astonishing pieces of architecture in the world.
Four stairways lead to the top of the symmetrical pyramid, each with 91 stairs, adding up to 364 steps. The step leading into the temple on top makes the number 365 steps, corresponding to the number of days in a solar year.
Two huge serpent heads adorn the bottom of the north-facing stairway, representations of the mythical serpent-god, Kukulcan. During both spring and autumn equinoxes at sunset, a shadow resembling the serpent descending the stairs of the pyramid is visible.
Besides the pyramid, several other structures surround the main plaza. The Temple of the Warriors, the Venus Platform, and the Jaguar Temple are the most notable, besides the Great Ballcourt, famous for its size and acoustics.
A trail from the Main Plaza leads to the Sacred Cenote. In the opposite direction, another one leads to the older part of the ancient city, where the best-known structure is the Caracol, the ancient observatory.
Why Choose Chichen Itza?
The most famous ancient Maya site on the peninsula, Chichen Itza, is the best-preserved of the three, giving you a great idea of what the structures looked like when in use. Though the main reason for choosing Chichen Itza would be the famous Castillo — after all, who would miss seeing one wonder of the earth, when in its proximity — its other structures are also worth the trip.
However, you need to deal with crowds in Chichen Itza, no matter when you visit. One way to avoid the worst of it is staying in a resort near the back entrance and entering the site as soon as it opens. You’ll still need to stand in line, and you’ll still encounter many people, but it won’t be as bad as entering through the main entrance after the tour buses show up from Cancun.
But, if crowds are not a deterrent, Chichen Itza is a must-see site for anyone who visits the Yucatan Peninsula.
Having visited all three sites multiple times, I can’t pick a definite favorite. Each has its merits, and everyone has different preferences when traveling.
Chichen Itza is your obvious choice if seeing a famous site and the best-preserved ancient Maya structures are important to you. However, if finding ancient structures hidden in the jungle is your preference, head to Coba. And if you love elaborate stonework, you can’t miss Uxmal.
But, if you have time, I recommend you visit all three. They each have merits that make exploring them worthwhile.
Other Mexico historical sites to visit: