The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is known for its stunning natural beauty and rich history, including many ancient ruins. There are about 200 Maya ruins in just this region.
Chichen Itza is the most famous archaeological site in the region and one of the most visited in all of Mexico. Ek Balam is another popular site to visit.
But if you want to explore the hidden gems of Yucatan with the added benefit of small or no crowds at all, we recommend following the Ruta Puuc (Puuc Route). This route connects five major archaeological sites included on the Unesco World Heritage List.
The route is nearly 40 km long and starts in the town of Uxmal. It takes you on a journey through the heart of the Yucatan, revealing the architectural splendor and significance of the Maya civilization in this region.
The meaning of 'puuc'
The word 'puuc' was used by the Maya people to mean 'low range of hills'.
Nowadays it's used to describe both a region of northwestern Yucatan and the style of architecture used by the Maya people in that region. The style is characterized by intricate stone mosaics, ornate facades, and geometric patterns.
One element that sets Puuc architecture apart from others is the use of limestone. This creates a stunning visual impact when seeing the buildings. They appear to blend in seamlessly with the natural landscape, thereby adding to the overall beauty of the region.
The Puuc style is a testament to the advanced architectural techniques employed by the ancient Maya. Walking among the ruins, you can't help but be awe-inspired by the grandeur of the structures and the intricacy of the stone work.
The Puuc region played a significant role in the political and economic power of the Maya civilization. The region's strategic location in the Yucatan Peninsula made it a hub of trade, commerce, and cultural exchange.
The Puuc sites served as important locations of power, religious ceremonies, and social gatherings. The Ruta Puuc therefore offers a unique opportunity to explore the remnants of this ancient civilization and gain insight into their cultural and architectural achievements.
How to get to the Ruta Puuc
The best way to start exploring this route is from Merida. It will take just over an hour to travel the 80 km to reach the first archeological site, Uxmal.
We highly recommend a rental car to visit the Ruta Puuc sites. The bus from Merida only goes at certain times, and only as far as Uxmal. So catching this bus works if you only want to visit Uxmal, but you will definitely be missing out on so much more.
We heard it's possible to catch a bus to the other sites on Sundays. Note all the locals have free entrance on Sundays, so it will be very busy. You will also be limited with how much time you can spend at each site.
We haven’t done it this way, but just wanted to let you know that there is an option. We are not sure how far the bus can actually go along the Ruta Puuc because when we visited, the road to go to all the ruins wasn’t suitable for a bus.
You can also hire a taxi for the day, but that would be quite pricey unless you have a group of people to share the cost.
There are tours you can take to Uxmal. We didn't see any tour operators going to the other sites. For some of them, it would simply not be possible because of a lack of parking and narrow roads.
The road is in perfect condition until the third site along the route, Kabah. But the further along you go, the narrower it gets. The bushes have taken over the road in places, so there is almost no space for two cars to pass without scratching the sides on the bushes.
There are also lots of potholes in the ground, so don’t speed and drive super carefully. Renting a car in Mexico is a subject for another article. But there were a few providers that we found with a good rating. We left Merida really early because we wanted to beat the traffic and the crowds.
The five main jewels of the Ruta Puuc
The Puuc region is home to remarkable Maya sites. There are five main sites with each one offering its own unique charm and historical significance.
From the impressive structures in Uxmal to the captivating ruins of Sayil, Kabah, Labna, and Xlapak, each site in the Ruta Puuc offers the chance to immerse yourself in the rich history, architectural beauty, and cultural legacy of the Maya civilization.
The magic of Uxmal
Uxmal is the first stop along the Ruta Puuc and stands out as one of the most awe-inspiring sites in the region.
When we arrived at Uxmal, it was 8.30AM. There were just a few people that entered just before us.
An important tip is that tripods and drones are not allowed. We were told to bring out tripod back to our car, so don't bother bringing one especially if you're travelling by bus!
If you want to use an action camera (e.g., GoPro), you have to pay a fee. However, our professional DSLR camera was OK to bring inside without any fee.
The iconic Pyramid of the Magician (Pirámide del Adivino) greeted us soon after entering. The largest structure in Uxmal stands 40 metres high with unique rounded corners. It also has steep sloped sides, which make it too dangerous to climb.
The light was still soft this early in the morning, which made it perfect to take photos of this impressive structure. It was really nice to take time to not just admire this place without the crowds, but also to take some amazing photos.
You can walk around to the other side of the pyramid too. This isn't immediately obvious and we saw people walking past one of the three entrances to a small area behind the pyramid, so make sure you look for this.
After walking past the Pyramid of the Magician, we arrived at an amazing courtyard surrounded by four different buildings. Although built around 900-1000AD by the Maya, it became known as the Nunnery Quadrangle because nuns were assigned to live there in the 16th century after the arrival of the Spanish.
The view here was just jaw dropping. And the scale of it really surprised us. Some parts of the buildings were open for visitors, so we could go on the stairs, inside the rooms, and touch the walls.
The walls and the roofs are decorated with detailed motifs and sculptures that remain in really good condition. In the middle of the quadrangle, you will see an arch through which you can see a whole city of ruins drowning in the greenery of the jungle.
By this point of our trip, we had visited at least half a dozen Maya ruins. So we knew what to expect. Still, Uxmal blew our minds. Make sure you explore the whole site as the further you go, the better it gets.
Once you continue on through to exit the courtyard, you will have the option to walk left to see behind the Pyramid of the Magician if you haven't already. Otherwise, you can walk straight ahead to explore the rest of the ancient city.
You will first walk through the remains of a ball court where the Maya played their ritual ball game. Unfortunately the rings you will see there are reproductions of the originals that were removed for their protection.
Further along to the left you will come across the massive Governor’s Palace. It's 328 feet long and set on a massive platform rising 50 feet above the ground.
We loved how tranquil it was there. We were the only ones exploring this part of the site at first which truly felt very special.
There is a jaguar sculpture in front of the palace to admire.
There were also so many iguanas enjoying the morning sun on the rocks. They didn’t seem to mind people at all!
The last section we walked through behind the palace towards the back of the site was less maintained. We came across the Great Pyramid, which was no longer fully formed. We also couldn't climb up the pyramid stairs as they were closed off. The structure has become somewhat run down, which is a great shame.
To the right of the Great Pyramid though we discovered the Dovecote. This is a gabled roof comb with nine triangular units with perforated apertures that the many local birds use for nesting.
The Dovecote is the best preserved structure of an entire complex of buildings that now lay in ruins. They had started work on clearing the area when we were there, and presumably will look at reconstructing them.
It took us three hours to explore and take pictures at a reasonable pace. We didn’t choose to employ a guide, but if you have the money we recommend doing that.
There isn’t much information provided around the site or at any of the ruins. This means it's not always easy to understand or fully appreciate what you're looking at.
A guide will provide all the necessary context, which will take a while. We saw guides helping people with taking photos too. If you decide not to get a guide, make sure you read about Uxmal prior or after your visit.
Visiting Uxmal is like stepping back in time. The ruins transport you to a world where the ancient Maya once thrived, creating a profound connection to the past.
At the start of the Ruta Puuc, we weren’t sure how many ruins we would visit. We definitely didn’t aim for all of them. But once we started, it was hard to stop going as they are all so different and beautiful in their own way.
The masks of Kabah
Kabah Is the second site we visited. These ruins are the second biggest on the Ruta Puuc after Uxmal. They are actually quite compact though, so there is minimal walking around this site.
The road there is very easy to drive on. The parking area once there was really small though. Big buses would simply not be able to park there. Which is a bonus for you in terms of crowd sizes!
We explored these ruins for about 40 minutes. There was only one other couple there the whole time we were there. Note there isn't much shade, especially if you visit in the middle of the day, so we probably wouldn't want to spend longer than that there.
The admission fee is much cheaper than Uxmal too, at only 80 pesos. You can hire a guide for extra.
The first and main structure you'll come across at Kabah is known as the Palace of the Masks. Its called this because of the hundreds of stone masks that decorates the façade. The masks represent the long-nosed rain god Chaac.
The other name it's been given is Codz Poop, which means 'Rolled Matting' based on the pattern of its stone mosaics.
Kabbah absolutely amazed us with how detailed the decorations are. We actually didn't believe our eyes that they are in such good condition after more than a millennium. We assumed that they must be replicas, but one of the guides at the entrance assured us that they were all original.
These ruins had actually been washed recently, which gave the masks and other decorations a fresher and lighter look compared to the other ruins we had seen. Everything is original, except for some wooden frames that help to keep the stone arches in place.
There are several other palaces, stone buildings, and step pyramid temples dotted around the perimeter of the site. Another thing that we loved about Kabah is that we could still climb and explore almost all of these structures up close.
Watch your step at Sayil
Next on the Ruta Puuc is Sayil, which actually means 'place of the ants' in Maya. We didn't particularly notice any of them, but apparently this name came from ant mounds dotted around the area.
What we did notice were several deep holes in the ground. We had to watch out that we didn't step and fall down into them.
We discovered later that these are 'chultunes', underground cisterns the Maya dug out and lined with stucco to keep the water in. These were essential as there aren't any cenotes commonly found in other areas of the Yucatan.
The entrance fee is 75 pesos. Make sure to take photos of the map at the entrance so you don’t get lost around the site. There are no guides available at the site, so if you want a tour you may have to bring a guide with you from Mérida.
The ruins at Sayil are much more spread out through the jungle.
The main attraction is the southern part of the Gran Palacio (Great Palace) that you first see along the path through the jungle. The palace is a three-story structure with approximately 90 rooms.
We could spot the remains of other buildings tucked in the jungle, such as the temple pyramid El Mirador ('lookout point'), but unfortunately there wasn’t much left of them.
You can’t climb any of these ruins. You can follow the path leading deep to the jungle until you reach the remains of a temple.
We loved how shaded this place was and it was definitely nice to cool off after visiting the previous site Kabah. Despite our pleasant walk in the jungle, Sayil was our least favourite of the sites that we saw that day.
The stone walls of Xlapak
We drove by another site called Xlapak, which means 'old stone wall'. We didn’t stop there as we were pressed for time and wanted to fit in the next site that day.
Based on our research, this site seemed to be the smallest with the least number of structures still intact to view and explore. Don't let us stop you if you have the time.
But we definitely recommend fitting in the next site first as this was our favourite site alongside Uxmal.
The ancient beauty of Labna
Labna is a bit further along the Ruta Puuc. It's a 10-minute drive from Sayil and a 20-minute drive from Kabah.
To get there, you have to drive carefully as there are many bumps on the road. The road also got much more narrow due to the overgrown bushes. We were lucky that there were no other cars coming from the other direction, otherwise it would have been quite tricky.
We loved how quiet Labna was. There were only few other people around the whole time we were there. You can climb around and explore these ruins to really immerse yourself in Maya history.
We felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie looking for treasures and secrets!
Even though the site is smaller than some of the other ruins we have seen, there is quite a bit to explore.
Once you enter the site, you will see the main palace on the left side. It was built with more than 60 rooms across multiple levels of different heights. It has managed to retain some of the most outstanding details in geometric patterns and symbolic motifs adorning the structure.
We loved walking through a passage, up some stairs onto the higher level and into some of its rooms there. We really felt a sense of time and place with the ancient Maya inhabitants who once lived there.
Opposite the palace there is a path that leads to the other side of the site. The path was overgrown with grass which was a beautiful gold colour when we visited at around 3PM. This made everything even more magical and as the light started to get softer, it was perfect for photographs.
Once on the other side of the site, to the left is the temple pyramid El Mirador ('the lookout'). This is similar to the building at Sayil, but in way better shape and more impressive.
To the right is the famous Portal Arch of Labna. It boasts beautifully intricate decorations. When originally built, it acted as an entrance to a plaza from a group of residential buildings.
Now it's surreal to see green jungle when looking through the arch.
This is probably the most picturesque site on the Ruta Puuc. If you love photography, this is your place.
If you only have time to see two sites on the Ruta Puuc, we highly recommend you visit Uxmal and Labna!
Bonus: ancient art at Grottoes Loltún
Grottoes Loltún (or Grutas de Loltún) is a two-kilometre cave. It was a popular nearby attraction for people exploring the Ruta Puuc. It boasts cave paintings of different complexity by the ancient Maya.
We had added it to our itinerary based on recommendations from other blogs before discovering that unfortunately it has actually been closed since 2019. There's no confirmation of when it may open again.
We recommend either checking the listing on Google Maps, or asking at the information desk when you visit Uxmal to confirm whether you can visit.
Grab authentic Yucatecan food in Mani
After you are done exploring, it's time to eat! In our opinion, there is no better place than the nearby town of Mani.
Mani had just recently been awarded the title of a Pueblo Magico (magic town) when we visited. It’s quite small, but very cute.
There is a town square with the colonial-era Church and Convent of San Miguel on one side and local administration buildings on the other side. This layout is common in the small towns of Yucatan.
There were also some cute houses including a few traditional Maya ones with thatch roofs.
There are a few restaurants that you can choose from to have a traditional Yucatecan food. We went to Los Frailes and were very happy with our choices.
Although there weren’t many plant based options, we tried their panuchos, papadzules with egg and guacamole. We definitely recommend their homemade lemonade too which comes in a gigantic glass.
It was already very late when we arrived to Mani, so we had a stroll around town to check out the church and a cenote in the middle of town. It’s more like a cave with bats because there was very little water inside and you couldn’t swim there.
Another option is to visit the sustainable farm Solar Maya U Lu'umil Kuxtal to learn more about local life, plants, traditional agriculture and bees.
Consider staying overnight and cooling off at cenotes
We returned to Merida after visiting Mani. But if you want to do more things or take your time along the Ruta Puuc without rushing, staying overnight in one of the nearby towns like Mani is a great way to spend more time exploring the area.
It's also a great way to support local communities by choosing to stay with local accommodation providers. It's one of the best ways to travel sustainably!
On the way back to Merida, you can also visit some local cenotes to cool off. Choose from Cenote Su-hem that is 20 minutes off the road to Merida when coming from Mani.
If you return to Merida from Uxmal, you can stop at Cenote X’batun. This cenote is more popular as many tours include it in a day trip exploring Uxmal.
Note if you want to do Maya ruins and cenotes in the same day, you will likely have to choose only two or three places and bring your lunch with you to save time.