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Mexico Vacations | DIY Guide to Mayan Ruins & Natural Wonders

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Mexico’s coastal region is well known for fantastic diving and gorgeous beaches, but all Mexico vacations should include a dip into the country’s rich culture. Travel Mexico to discover some of the most unbelievable treasures in the world, including ancient Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan Peninsula and the Alley of The Kiss in Guanajuato. Travelers looking for a relaxing journey can board the El Chepe train in Chihuahua and enjoy 15 hours’ worth of Mexico’s incredible terrain – including Copper Canyon! – on the way to Los Mochis.

Mexico vacations-travel-Chichén Itzá-Yucatan-El Castillo-Temple of Kukulcan

1. Mexico Vacations | Chichén Itzá, Yucatan

Exploring the Yucatan Peninsula must include a tour of Chichén Itzá, a complex of ancient Mayan ruins that dates to about 600 A.D. The site welcomes more than a million visitors each year and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once a large Mayan city, Chichén Itzá is separated into three sections (or architectonic sets) that are open to the public: Great North Platform, the Osario Group and the Central Group. Other sections in the area are closed to the general public, but archaeologists continue to explore the ruins regularly. Also on the grounds are unique cenotes, or natural sinkholes, that once were used to supply water to the thriving community.

Visitors can find the ancient ruins just an hour and a half outside Yucatan’s capital city of Mérida, between the small villages of Pisté and Xcalacoop.

A 45-minute drive to neighboring Valladolid also is recommended. The city contains several ancient landmarks, and Balankanche Caves can be found just on the outskirts. The caves contain ancient artifacts as well as hieroglyphics. Groups of 6 or more people are welcome to book guided tours of the caves.

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Explore Great North Platform

  • El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcan): this pyramid designed in a step-like style stands nearly 100 feet tall and measures 181 feet at its base. Look for the serpent-shaped shadow in late afternoon on the north side of the pyramid. Some scholars believe the feature was built intentionally to honor Kukulcan, the Feather Serpent god, himself.
  • Great Ball Court: the massive playing area is impressive, for sure, but the fact that the Great Ball Court once hosted endless rounds of the Mesoamerican ballgame, a sport dating to 1400 BC, is mind-blowing. The field measures 551 by 230 feet and is surrounded by high walls decorated with depictions of feathered serpents.
  • Sacred Cenote (Cenote Sagrado): this ancient water source also was a place of pilgrimage and sacrifice for ancient Maya people.
  • Temple of the Warriors: one of the most impressive landmarks in the compound, the Temple of the Warriors features an ancient step pyramid guarded by rows of sculpted columns that depict warriors.

Things to see in Osario Group

  • The Osario: a step pyramid containing a natural cave called The High Priests’ Temple.
  • Temple of Xtoloc: overlooking a large cenote, the Temple of Xtoloc is a restored temple featuring ancient carvings of people, plants, animals and mythological scenes.
  • House of the Metates & House of the Mestizas: two small buildings that experts believe once served as living quarters for important officials.

Can’t-miss sights in Central Group

  • Las Monjas: the name means “the nuns” or “the nunnery,” but Las Monjas actually was a political palace. The cluster of buildings was designed in the Puuc architectural style and features loads of hieroglyphics.
  • El Caracol (The Snail): this round building plucked in the middle of a square platform is believe to have been used to track the stars.
  • Akab Dzib: meaning “dark writing,” Akab Dzib is thought to be the former home of Chichén Itzá’s administrator. The building contains multiple chambers and mysterious glyphs and overlooks a dried cenote.

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Tulum-Quintana Roo-Yucatan Peninsula-Pyramid El Castillo

2. Mexico Vacations | Tulum, Quintana Roo, Yucatan Peninsula

A beautiful combination of alluring beaches and historic landmarks, Tulum invites travelers to kick back and enjoy the view. The quaint city is situated on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and was one of the last cities developed by the Maya people. The coastal village was founded some time between 1200 and 1400 AD. Ruins in the area sit atop a cliff in Tulum National Park, and the historic site is known as Zona Arqueológica de Tulum.

Tulum-Quintana Roo-Yucatan Peninsula-Biosphere Reserve-Sian Ka’an

Top things to see in Tulum National Park

  • Pyramid El Castillo (The Castle)
  • Casa del Cenote
  • Great Plateform
  • Temple of the Frescoes
  • Playita Tortuga beach
  • Santa Fe nature preserve & beach
  • Playa Pescadores beach

Just an hour and a half from Tulum is Biosphere Reserve (Sian Ka’an). Spend a day in this protected jungle taking guided boat tours and exploring more Mayan ruins.

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3. Mexico Vacations | Guanajuato, central Mexico

A colorful, compact village in central Mexico, Guanajuato preserves some of Mexico’s richest history related to silver mining. The city was founded in 1554, and a mining boom resulted in the city expanding in all directions. Ironically, Guanajuato means “place of frogs,” and the frog is the city’s official pet.

Today, Guanajuato is known for its jam-packed streets of colonial buildings and one-of-a-kind underground alleyways. The entire town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and some consider it to be the most beautiful town in Mexico. Visit the most popular row of houses in the Callejón del Beso (Alley of the Kiss), where homes are built so closely together that neighbors can kiss from their balconies!

Guanajuato-central Mexico-Museum of the Mummies

Best things to see in Guanajuato

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Copper Canyon-El Chepe-Chihuahua-Los Mochis

4. Mexico Vacations | Copper Canyon via El Chepe, Chihuahua

The most popular way to see Copper Canyon is by boarding the El Chepe (Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico) train in Chihuahua and making your way to Los Mochis, a mere 418 miles across the northern region of the country. The canyon is situated in the middle of the trek, and the train makes several stops along the way so that passengers can take in the incredible scenery, especially at Copper Canyon.

Copper Canyon consists of six canyons, which measure four times longer than the Grand Canyon. The unbelievable landmark was formed thousands of years ago by six rivers that form the Fuerte River (Rio Fuerte) and drain into the Gulf of California. The canyon is named for the color of its rock walls and is one of Mexico’s most popular photography spots.

Passengers riding El Chepe have plenty of opportunities to hop off the train and see the canyon from different viewpoints. More adventurous travelers can stay in the area to explore walking trails, go on horseback rides and see the dozens of sights in and around Copper Canyon.

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Most popular things to do in Copper Canyon

  • Cascada Cusárare (Cusarare Falls)
  • Recohuata Hot Springs
  • Lake Arareco
  • Basaseachi Falls
  • Creel
  • Batopilas
  • Copper Canyon Adventure Park

Passengers who stay on El Chepe from Chihuahua to Los Mochis can expect a scenic 15-hour ride. The train passes through valleys and over cliffs and stops regularly so that passengers can stretch and buy food and handmade goods from Tarahumara (local residents) along the way.

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5. Mexico Vacations | Agua Azul Waterfalls & National Park of Palenque (Zona Arqueológica Palenque), Chiapas & Palenque

Get a well-rounded holiday with a stay in Palenque in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas. The city itself features the National Park of Palenque (Zona Arqueológica Palenque), which hosts the ruins of the former Mayan city-state of Palenque. Less than two hours away visitors can chill out at Agua Azul Waterfalls.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the National Park of Palenque offers a glimpse into the Mayan civilization. Visitors can explore an entire city, thought to be one of the most modern in 500 AD, and view exquisite illustrations of Mayan mythology.

Mexico vacations-National Park of Palenque

Important landmarks at National Park of Palenque

  • The Palace
  • Temple of the Inscriptions
  • Jaguar Temple
  • Temple of the Red Queen
  • Temple of the Cross
  • Temple of the Sun

Agua Azul Waterfalls can be found about 40 miles south of Palenque near a small community known as Arroyo Agua Azul. Famous for their blue waters and expansive streams, the falls are popular with locals and tourists alike. Cool off in designated bathing streams or follow the rapids for miles and miles … and miles.

Travelers staying in Palenque can take Highway 199 to Agua Azul Waterfalls and stop at Misol-Ha Waterfall, less than 30 miles north, on the way back!

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Cozumel-Coral Reefs Monument-diving-beach

6. Mexico Vacations | Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Yucatan Peninsula

Cozumel is an island paradise and a popular stop for cruise ships, tourists and divers. The south side of the island is a national marine park, called Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park. The park is a fantastic place for beginner divers to get their feet wet, and access to magnificent marine life attracts advanced divers year-round.

The north side of the island features San Gervasio, a Mayan archaeological site set in a wildlife refuge. Visitors can explore the ancient grounds and count the number of iguanas that occupy the landscape.

Cozumel-San Gervasio

Things to do in Cozumel

  • The capital city of San Miguel de Cozumel also is a must-see in Cozumel. Many tourists with families flock to Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park and swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery Cozumel or Aquaadventures. Playa Mia Grand Beach Park also is a great place to hang ten (or just hang out by the ocean with other travelers).
  • El Cid La Ceiba Beach is where fun in the sun meets party central. Sip cocktails at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Cozumel, and munch down on some serious eats at Hard Rock Café. This district also contains the cruise ship terminals, Coral Reefs Monument and the Museum of Cozumel. It is near Cozumel International Airport as well.

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San Miguel de Allende-San Miguel Arcángel Church-Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel

7. Mexico Vacations | San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato

An art lover’s playground, the quaint city of San Miguel de Allende is located in central Mexico in the highlands of Guanajuato. The entire town is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it boasts a colorful array of colonial-style houses circling the magnificent San Miguel Arcángel Church (Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel). The 17th-century structure is famous for its towering pink spires and elaborately-designed sanctuary. Visitors can learn more about its significance next door at the Historic Museum of San Miguel de Allende.

While the parish is a definite stand-out attraction in the city center, San Miguel de Allende easily can keep tourists happy for several days. Photographers can roam around cobblestone streets snapping endless pictures of baroque Spanish architecture.

San Miguel de Allende-Charco Del Ingenio

Things to see in San Miguel de Allende

  • Nature lovers and families should head to Juarez Park, where gardens offer a respite for adults and a playground lends a spot to play for restless children.
  • Charco Del Ingenio also is a must-see attraction in San Miguel de Allende. The botanical garden and nature preserve features indigenous cactus and several endangered plants.
  • Just outside San Miguel de Allende, travelers will find Laja River (Rio Laja) and La Begoña. The serene river-lake-dam combo is a fantastic place to picnic and watch the sun go down.

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8. Mexico Vacations | Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral, Mexico City

Every first-timer’s trip to Mexico should include a day or two in Mexico City, and a stop at Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México) is a must. Built in the late 16th century, and completed in its entirety in the early 1800s, the Roman Catholic cathedral is the largest and oldest cathedral in all of Latina America. The enormous compound features ornate chapels, a dreamy art collection and tours of underground catacombs.

The historic landmark today serves as the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico. It can be found in Downtown Mexico City next to several other significant attractions, including the Templo Mayor, the historic center of Mexico City, and the Zócalo, the city’s present-day main square.

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Can’t-miss museums near Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral

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9. Mexico Vacations | National Anthropology Museum (Museo Nacional de Antropología), Mexico City

The largest and most visited museum in Mexico stands on a massive green space just 4 miles from the Historic Center of Mexico City. The magnificent National Anthropology Museum (Museo Nacional de Antropología) features artifacts from the ancient Maya civilization, the most noteworthy being the Stone of the Sun (Aztec Sun Stone), an ancient Aztec calendar stone weighing in at about 48,000 pounds! Exhibits include pieces recovered from the Sacred Cenote in Chichén Itzá and giant sculptures found in the jungles of Tobasco and Veracruz. Displays also depict contemporary rural Mexican life as well as Native American influences after Spanish colonization.

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Explore attractions near National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City

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Teotihuacan-Pyramid of the Sun

10. Mexico Vacations | Teotihuacan, Mexico City

Drenched in history and home of the largest pyramid in Mexico, San Juan Teotihuacan is an easy 30-minute day trip from Mexico City. The archaeological complex, Teotihuacan Pyramids & Botanical Gardens, is one of the country’s most well-preserved and popular tourist attractions. It features the Pyramid of the Sun (Pirámide del Sol) and the smaller, yet as impressive, Moon’s Pyramid (Piramide De La Luna). Visitors are welcome to climb to the top of the historic structures, as well as walk along the Avenue of the Dead, a former housing complex which links the two main pyramids with the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, Teotihuacan (Templo de Quetzalcóatl).

Other highlights of the tour include the Mural Painting of the Cougar (Mural del Puma), discovered in the early 1960s, and the Museum of the Teotihuacan Murals (Museo De Los Murales Teotihuacanos).

Teotihuacan-Mural Painting of the Cougar-Mural del Puma

More places to visit in the pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan

  • Museo de Sitio Teotihuacán
  • Teotihuacan Pyramids – Botanical Gardens
  • Templo de los Jaguares
  • Palacio de Quetzalpapálotl

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