Yucatan Pyramids | Stories by Soumya

8 Iconic Yucatan Pyramids – To Climb Or Not To Climb?

Last Updated on April 26, 2022 by Soumya

If you are visiting the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, you are probably looking forward to visiting (climbing) one of the iconic Yucatan pyramids from the Mayan era. These ancient Yucatan monuments (many of which are UNESCO Heritage Sites in Mexico) speak tons about life and beliefs in those times and can captivate the imagination of any visitor.

I am not a big fan of climbing ancient monuments. I feel climbing is dangerous for both the climber (slippery stairs because of years of wear) and the monument (more wearing out). The pyramid of Chichen Itza was closed to climbing in 2006 when a woman slipped to death on her way back.

Nevertheless, some of the pyramids in Yucatan are still open to climbing. A few have thick ropes to give you support. These Yucatan pyramids offer amazing vistas of the peninsula once you are at the top. Are they safe? Well, that’s for you to decide. Take into consideration your fitness levels, prior experience, weather, group composition, and restoration state of the monument and make an informed choice.

Let’s start with some details on Mayan pyramids of the Yucatan peninsula.

Are you keen to visit (climb) one of the iconic Yucatan pyramids? Not sure which is the best for you? Check out our article on the 8 most iconic pyramids in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. And decide for yourself. #yucatanpyramids #yucatanruins #mayanruins #mayanpyramids #mexicopyramids #mexicotravel #yucatanwhattodo #chichenitza #uxmal #coba #tulum

History of Yucatan pyramids

People of the ancient Mayan civilization constructed a number of pyramids all over Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. For the Mayans, these temple-pyramids or El Castillo’s were the illustrious centers of their prosperous cities.

Many of these Yucatan pyramids were built between the 8th and 11th centuries. A number of them were built over smaller existing structures to create massive monuments. Chichen Itza is a great example. The Pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza nests, within itself, two smaller pyramids.

Structure of Yucatan pyramids

From the top of Ek Balam pyramid
View from the top of Ek Balam – A Yucatan pyramid off-the-beaten-track.

The soaring pyramids of the Mayan civilization were constructed using locally available materials such as sandstone and limestone. They were very often astronomically aligned.

Yucatan pyramids have stairs on all four sides that take you to the summit. On the top, there is usually a small temple dedicated to a Mayan deity. The deity varied by era and region. These pyramids were known as the Castle (El Castillo) many-a-time.

8 most iconic Yucatan pyramids in Mexico

Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico constitutes of three different states: Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. Our pyramids below are spread all over with a majority in the state of Yucatan.

1. Chichen Itza – Yucatan

Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza | Stories by Soumya
El Castillo at Chichen Itza – One of the most famous Yucatan pyramids.

The El Castillo at Chichen Itza is one of the most iconic Yucatan pyramids that you ever need to visit when in Mexico. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is very crowded, especially on equinoxes when the Snake God, Kukulkan is believed to descend on the temple.

The best part is there are a lot of interesting things to see in Chichen Itza. So, once you are done appreciating the mysteries of Chichen Itza at the Kukulkan pyramid, you can check out a second pyramid called the Temple of Warriors, an impressive Ball Court, and a gruesome Platform of Skulls.

  • Height: 30 m or 98 ft
  • Best time to visit: Before 9:30 am or after 3:30 pm
  • Open to climbing? No
  • Bonus tip: The Snake God, Kukulkan is believed to descend on the pyramid every year on the equinoxes. Those days are very crowded.

Check out our detailed guide to visiting Chichen Itza.

2. Mayapan – Yucatan

Mayapan is another prosperous city of the Mayan civilization that lies further west of Chichen Itza. It is believed that the rise of Mayapan as the political and cultural capital of Mayans was a reason for the decline of Chichen Itza or vice versa. Art and architecture of Mayapan were inspired by Chichen Itza.

The El Castillo at Mayapan stands tall among the 4000 odd houses that have been excavated. It is an impressive pyramid and was dedicated to the Snake God, Kukulkan.

  • Height: 15 m or 50 ft
  • Best time to visit: Throughout the day though it gets pretty hot between 12 – 2 pm
  • Open to climbing? Yes
  • Bonus tip: Mayapan is almost a copy of Chichen Itza though you will find a lot of public dwellings here. Fewer crowds.

3. Coba – Quintana Roo

Coba Pyramid | Stories by Soumya
Image by Marc Tran from Pixabay

Coba was a large, sprawling Mayan city located in the state of Quintana Roo and quite close to the ruins of Tulum. This Mayan city was made famous because of the large number of raised stone pathways (sacbeob) that lead to and from the center.

The Nohoch Mul Pyramid at Coba is the tallest and one of the most remarkable ones among all Yucatan pyramids. You can climb the 120 steps if you wish to here for an amazing view of the peninsula. A thick rope that runs in the middle of the stairs helps ensure safety.

  • Height: 42 m or 137 ft
  • Best time to visit: Throughout the day since it is not very crowded. Again, midday is hot.
  • Open to climbing? Yes
  • Bonus tip: The top provides some great view of the jungle. Make use of the rope for a safe climb down.

4. Ek Balam – Yucatan

Ek Balam pyramid or Acropolis

Known as the Jaguar City of Mexico, Ek Balam is a lesser-known Mayan city in the Yucatan peninsula and is quite deserted unlike Chichen Itza or Tulum. It is located on one of the ancient sacbeob of the Mayan empire and a beautiful arched gate stands testimony to that.

The Acropolis is the tallest structure in Ek Balam and features palapa-covered sanctuaries on both sides of its stairs – not seen commonly on other Yucatan pyramids. Underneath, you can see remarkable stucco figures especially those of mysterious winged warriors.

  • Height: 30 m or 95 ft
  • Best time to visit: Throughout the day though it gets pretty hot between 12 – 2 pm
  • Open to climbing? Yes
  • Bonus tip: Take a detour at some of the sanctuaries and appreciate the stucco work, especially that of the Monster Mouth.

Want more details? Check out our complete guide on visiting Ek Balam.

5. Uxmal – Yucatan

Uxmal Pyramid | Stories by Soumya
Image by Darvin Santos from Pixabay

Uxmal is a Pre-Hispanic Mayan town in Yucatan and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site was designed on the principles of astronomy like Chichen Itza. In Uxmal, the majority of the monuments are in the Puuc style, unlike other sites where a lot of Toltec influence is seen.

Uxmal is unique because of its towering Pyramid of the Magician which has a rounded structure not commonly seen at any of the other Mayan sites. Plus, the Governor’s House on site has one of the longest and most attractively-carved facades in the whole of Yucatan. Without a doubt, Uxmal is one of the must-visit Yucatan pyramids.

  • Height: 35 m or 115 ft
  • Best time to visit: Uxmal is not very crowded though early in the morning or later in the afternoon are better times to visit.
  • Open to climbing? Pyramid of the Magician is not open to climbing. However, a number of other smaller structures such as the Great Pyramid are open.
  • Bonus tip: Do not forget to check out the Governor’s House with its impressive facadethe best piece of Mayan art anywhere in the world.

6. Calakmul – Campeche

Calakmul Pyramid | Stories by Soumya
Image by JORGE RODRIGUEZ from Pixabay

Yet another UNESCO World Heritage site is the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul located deep within the forests of Tierras Bajas. A remote jungle location in the midst of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve makes this archaeological site unique.

Calakmul’s claim to fame is its massive pyramid which is the tallest in Yucatan and the 2nd largest structure in the Mayan world after the El Mirador in Guatemala. Additionally, you can spot a variety of wild birds such as toucans, turkeys, and parrots here.

  • Height: 53 m or 174 ft
  • Best time to visit: Any time of the day between 8 am – 5 pm
  • Open to climbing? Yes
  • Bonus tip: Climb up the pyramid to feel at the top of the world and try spotting the pyramid of El Mirador across the border in Guatemala.

7. Muyil – Quintana Roo

The ruins of Muyil are yet another set located within the biosphere reserve of Sian Ka’an. Muyil is located pretty close to Tulum but is far less crowded. Muyil is believed to have been one of the oldest settlements of the Mayan Empire.

The El Castillo of Muyil is considerably smaller than others in Yucatan but is still mostly intact. Behind the pyramid is a raised walkway which enables you to explore the jungles, climb up to an observation tower and get an amazing view of the lagoon.

  • Height: 17 m or 55 ft
  • Best time to visit: Anytime during the opening hours. Muyil is not crowded at all.
  • Open to climbing? No, you get to climb the Observation Tower instead.
  • Bonus tip: The main attraction in Muyil is not the pyramid rather the observatory which gives you some great views of lush green forests and a blue lagoon. Absolute must-do for any nature lover.

8. Tulum – Quintana Roo

El Castillo at Tulum | Stories by Soumya

Tulum was the last on our Yucatan itinerary and I must say it did not disappoint us. The main attraction of Tulum was its location right on the Carribean coast. Turquoise waters, white sand, and a continuous hum of the sea behind you can make your Tulum ruins tour worthwhile.

The El Castillo at Tulum, however, is not as impressive as others. It is a mere 25 ft tall and does not contain elaborate niches or carvings. On the other hand, the Temple of Frescoes is more interesting because it houses a still-intact mural painting from the Mayan times.

  • Height: 7.5 m or 25 ft
  • Best time to visit: Before 9:30 am or after 3:30 pm
  • Open to climbing? No
  • Bonus tip: Tulum has the most dramatic location of all. You can get some amazing pictures here.

Read our complete guide to touring the ruins of Tulum to plan your trip here.

A trip to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is incomplete without a trip to one or more of these famous and not-so-famous Yucatan pyramids. To make your planning easier, we have a list of some of the best Mayan pyramids in Mexico. So which of these will you include in your list? Do let us know in the comments below.

Some more articles to check out for planning your Yucatan itinerary

A complete guide to visiting Chichen Itza
11 amazing facts about Chichen Itza
A complete guide to visiting Tulum ruins
Chichen Itza vs Tulum – Which one is the best for you?
A complete guide to visiting Ek Balam
Top things to do in Valladolid

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Soumya is an acclaimed travel writer who has traveled to 30+ countries and lived in 8 while pursuing her passion for history and culture. Her writings have been published in BBC Travel, Architectural Digest, National Herald, and many more. She loves exploring world heritage sites and has a deep affinity for everything ancient, especially the lost civilizations of Mesoamerica!

27 thoughts on “8 Iconic Yucatan Pyramids – To Climb Or Not To Climb?

  1. You include Calakmul but not Palenque??? Palenque is not in the Yucatan per se but it is still as much on the peninsula as Calakmul. Surely, you have never been to Palenque or do not know how important of a site it is … or both.

  2. Just like you, I don’t enjoy climbing historical monuments. I. Would rather enjoy their beauty from a distance and appreciate by clicking. These monuments are so ancient why destroy them for a moment of adventure.

  3. Thats a great post. Yucatan Pyramids looks grand and also quite inviting. But I agree with you that there is no fun climbing historical ruins or pyramids for that matter. I would rather observe it from far and like to know more about the history which I find quite fascinating. I quite liked theEk Balam – Yucatan out of the list. Its a great read

  4. The Yucatan Pyramids look so grand, I understand that climbing atop them will give a great view of the surroundings.But yes, I too am against climbing ancient monuments. Mainly because that they are not safe for the pyramids! When I had visited Bagan last year, I found most of their temples were closed for climbing. The ones that were open were flocked by tourists during the sunrise and sunset. I found it quite dangerous there with the already weak structures and so many people on the temples! Whatever be it, I personally want these ancient structures to be preserved, even if it has to stop climbing on them permanently!

    1. That’s right Amrita. Climbing needs to be banned permanently on these ancient structures. Otherwise, all we may be left with is a pile of stones.

  5. My friend is Mexican and recently visited a bunch of her family in Mexico. Before she left, we had a lengthy discussion about the ancient pyramids and the whole climbing situation. I love viewing a new destination from a high vantage point, but the historian in me is opposed to climbing these pieces of history. I’m glad that people can’t climb Chichen Itza any more.

    1. I feel the same too. A lot of wear and tear is destroying these Yucatan pyramids. Hopefully, we can conserve them for our future generations as well.

  6. I am also not a fan of climbing ancient ruins. It’s dangerous and of course, I do not want to cause any damage (no matter how big or small it is.)

    I am happy to learn something new today. Thank you for sharing its history and a background about the pyramids. It is very interesting.

  7. Yucatan Pyramids look so much beautiful amidst the greenery unlike the ones in Egypt that are in desert. Chichen Itza looks wonderful and so does the Coba. Uxmal looks more like a fortress to me. All of these are incredible and surely worth visiting. Thanks for the insight. I indeed was not aware of so many of these in Yucatan.

  8. When you say that some of the monuments are open to climbing, what do the local people think of tourists climbing? Is it offensive or are they fine with it? I only ask because when I visited Uluru in Australia’s Northern Territory, it’s still open to climbing but the indigenous owners of the land ask you not to out of respect, so I’m curious! Great post.

    1. That’s quite an interesting question. I think I read an Uluru post a while ago on this issue. In the Yucatan, I don’t think locals oppose climbing. Did not see any evidence of that. Although it could be possible that the Yucatan pyramids that are open to climbing nowadays are mostly in jungles and not many local habitations nearby.

  9. I would definitely climb to the top! I even want to climb all those pyramids. My family would love such trip. Thanks for sharing.

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