The vast collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Mexico includes some of the Yucatán Peninsula’s most treasured pre-Columbian archeological complexes. While you can easily reach most of these ancient cities within an hour’s drive from modern urban areas, others are hidden deep among dense rainforests. These are arguably the more rewarding discoveries, with their stunning array of magnificent pyramids and ornate stone monuments.

    Some Mayan city ruins and Aztec ceremonial grounds boast ancient technological feats that go down as important human achievements in Central American history. With the coming of the Spanish conquest came new architectural styles and striking urban layouts. Learn more about some of these intriguing human civilizations and beautiful cities in Central America through this compilation of Mexico’s most treasured historical places.


    Chichén Itzá

    A Mayan city with magnificent ruins

    Chichén Itzá was the largest pre-Columbian Mayan city in the Yucatán Peninsula. The ancient city is filled with sacred temples, grand pyramids, and ceremonial cenotes. Its centerpiece is the El Castillo step-pyramid, also known as the Temple of Kukulkan. 

    This temple is dedicated to the Mayan serpent deity who ‘snakes down’ the temple’s stone staircase at dusk during the spring or autumn equinoxes. The magnificent snake heads at the base enhance the shadow play. It takes about 2 hours to drive to Chichén Itzá from Cancun.

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    Open: Daily from 8 am to 4.30 pm

    Phone: +52 985 851 0137



    Walk through the Avenue of the Dead

    Teotihuacan is a vast pre-Columbian ‘holy city’ that’s filled with geometric pyramids which predate the Aztecs. The great Avenue of the Dead runs through it, lined with sacred monuments such as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (a feathered serpent deity resembling the Mayan Kukulkan). 

    There’s also the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun, from the tops of which you can take in panoramic views. Drop into the onsite cultural museum to learn more about Teotihuacan artifacts. You can reach the site in around an hour’s drive northeast of Mexico City.

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    Location: Autopista Ecatepec 22,600 Km, 55850 San Juan Teotihuacan de Arista, Méx., Mexico

    Open: Daily from 9 am to 4.30 pm

    Phone: +52 594 958 2081


    El Tajín

    A cultural cradle at the dawn of the Aztecs

    El Tajín is a Mesoamerican city ruin with stone pyramids and large monuments peppering a lush, green valley. The most prominent among them is the 18-meter-tall Pyramid of the Niches, with its 7 tiers of small window-like niches (hence its name). 

    There’s a total of 365 niches, representing the number of days in the solar calendar. You can search the site for some remarkable wall paintings inside the ruins, some of which bear well-preserved colors.

    Location: Calle Limaxkgan, 93479 Papantla, Ver., Mexico

    Open: Daily from 9 am to 5 pm

    Phone: +52 784 842 8537



    The pinnacle of late Mayan architecture

    Uxmal is one of the largest Mayan cities in the Yucatán peninsula. It’s made up of a complex of ceremonial ruins whose layout and architecture are widely considered to be the pinnacle of Mayan culture. At the complex’s center is the 35-meter-tall Pyramid of the Soothsayer, which is adorned with a blend of symbolic motifs and sculptures that depict Chaac, the Mayan rain deity. 

    Unlike other ancient Mesoamerican cities, Uxmal isn’t laid out geometrically. Rather, it’s spatially organized following astronomical phenomena, such as the rise and setting of certain planets.

    Location: Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico

    Open: Daily from 8 am to 5 pm

    Phone: +52 999 944 0033



    A small, silver-rich valley

    Zacatecas is a sovereign state in North-Central Mexico that dates to the 16th century and is known for its rich silver deposits. Its historical center is cradled in a breathtakingly gorgeous small valley, with its clusters of old buildings that combine European and indigenous elements. 

    Among the grand structures to check out are the 18th-century Mala Noche (which interestingly translates as the ‘Bad Night Palace’), the beautiful Calderón Theatre, and the pink stone-walled cathedral with its soaring towers.

    Location: Av. Hidalgo 617, Zacatecas Centro, 98000 Zacatecas, Zac., Mexico

    Open: Monday–Saturday, from 7 am to 1 pm

    Phone: +52 1 492 922 0490



    A special zone blending pre-Columbian and Hispanic elements

    Querétaro is an old colonial town in central Mexico, with a historical center that serves as a special zone of historical monuments built by Spanish conquerors. The city dates to the 17th and 18th centuries and boasts a geometric street plan that was established by the Spanish conquerors alongside a network of pre-Columbian alleyways – testament to a somewhat good-termed relationship between the Spanish and natives at the time. 

    Among the legacies are cisterns and reservoirs around the town, as well as the magnificent pillars and arches of the aqueducts that tower around 23 meters above the city streets.

    Location: Centro, Santiago de Querétaro, Qro., Mexico



    A historical Spanish town of pink stone landmarks

    The 16th-century city of Morelia is a fine example of urban planning that was laid out by the Spanish, combining Spanish Renaissance and local Mesoamerican styles and elements. The city was known as Valladolid before being named in honor of the half-Spanish and half-native Mexican hero José María Morelos.

    Morelia’s historical center has over 200 grand landmarks and colonial buildings, all of which were built using the region's iconic pink stone. These include palatial cathedrals and townhalls, whose unique architectural styling were to become known as Morelian Baroque.

    Location: Centro Histórico, 58000 Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico


    photo by Adam Jones (CC BY-SA 2.0) modified



    Beautifully decorated houses built around silver mines

    Old Spanish towns in Mexico are known for their neat urban planning, but the old town of Guanajuato is a kind of exception. It traces its development back to the mining rush following the discovery of silver back in 1548, when settlers rapidly flocked here. 

    The closely huddled whitewashed houses are all beautifully painted with splashes of colors, making it quite a sight, and some still house silversmithing families even centuries on. Looking around, you can admire a heritage that, to a certain extent, is directly connected to world economic history.

    Location: Centro, 36000 Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico



    Explore a cradle of Mayan civilization

    Palenque is a complex of Mayan city ruins in southern Mexico which dates back to the 7th century. Magnificent stone temples with well-preserved sculptural remains grace the city, hidden away in the lush rainforests of Chiapas. 

    The discovered area is thought to be only a fraction of the ancient city’s total area, which means a lot of it and its secrets are still to be revealed. Its urban planning and intricately adorned monuments make it one of the most significant human achievements in Central American history.

    Location: Carretera a Palenque- Zona Archaeologica Km. 8, 29960 Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico



    Home to earliest 16th-century monasteries

    The slopes of the snow-capped stratovolcano of Popocatépetl in Central Mexico are home to 14 16th-century monasteries, which show great examples of the architectural styles adopted by some of the early Spanish missionaries. 

    Most of the chapels were built to face open courtyards, to ease evangelising the natives who were accustomed to performing religious activities out in the open. Even the sculptures of Christian figures on its walls, including Jesus himself, were carved to bear native features. Some monasteries look more like fortified castles with their towering bastions.

    Location: Popocatépetl, State of Mexico, Mexico

    Ari Gunadi | Compulsive Traveler

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