Cancún’s Overlooked Ruins: San Miguelito, El Rey & Punta Sur

Last Updated on: 5th May 2024, 06:57 pm

Not many people realize that one can find ancient Mayan pyramids right in the heart of Cancún’s Hotel Zone. As far as Mayan ruins go, San Miguelito isn’t much to write home about, but entry is combined with the excellent Museo Maya. Just several minutes away, meanwhile, is yet another interesting archaeological site known as El Rey.

And just off the mainland is Isla Mujeres, an increasingly popular day trip destination. At the scenic island’s southern tip is Punta Sur, home to an obscure Mayan pilgrimage site set amongst breathtaking scenery.

As part of a 2024 update to this article, you can also learn more about the site of El Meco, located northeast of downtown Cancún.

After a summary of Cancún’s overlooked archaeological sites, you can learn more about where to stay in Cancún and how to reach each location below.

The Mayan Museum

As mentioned, the Mayan Museum (Museo Maya de Cancún) can be visited in tandem with the San Miguelito ruins, with a combined ticket costing $80 MXN.

While not that well known, this is an excellent modern museum that features interesting artifacts from all over the Mayan world.

San Miguelito Ruins Cancun

Highlights include significant sculptures and relief carvings from sites like Palenque (Chiapas) and Chichén Itzá (Yucatán) along with numerous smaller sites. You’ll also find comprehensive bilingual info on things like the religion, calendar and writing system of the Mayas.

In addition, you’ll learn a bit about Mayan history and the general layout of traditional Mayan cities. All in all, it serves as a great introduction to the Mayan civilization.

San Miguelito Ruins Cancun
San Miguelito Ruins Cancun

The Yucatán Peninsula’s main archaeological museum is the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Mérida. While that museum is a lot bigger and contains more information, Cancún’s smaller museum still provides a lot of bang for its buck.

Leaving the museum, you should easily be able to find the entrance to the San Miguelito ruins.

San Miguelito Ruins Cancun
San Miguelito Ruins Cancun
San Miguelito Ruins Cancun

The San Miguelito Ruins

After the downfall of great Mayan urban centers like Chichén Itzá and Mayapán, Mayan civilization entered what archaeologists call the Late Postclassic Period, which lasted from around 1250-1550 A.D. 

While most major Mayan cities had been located inland, this period saw new settlements develop along the coast, with an increasing emphasis on maritime trade. The most iconic site from this era is Tulum, although numerous smaller sites dot the Riviera Maya as well.

One of these is San Miguelito, which was connected with the nearby site of El Rey, both of which were part of the Mayan province of Ekab (‘black earth’) that was controlled by several ruling dynasties.

San Miguelito Ruins Cancun
San Miguelito Ruins Cancun

Entering the site, the first major landmark you’ll encounter is the Chaak Palace, a complex consisting of two temples and four houses. The largest structure contained numerous columns which once supported a flat roof.

As the name suggests, the temples were built for the veneration of Chaak (also spelled Chaac), the Mayan rain deity. 

Given the geology of the region, the entire Yucatán Peninsula lacks major rivers and lakes. The Mayans, therefore, built settlements near cenotes, or giant sinkholes which expose groundwater. But beyond that, they were totally dependent on rainfall.

San Miguelito Ruins Cancun

The Mayans had to dig pits and reservoirs throughout their lands to capture rainfall and keep enough stored throughout the long dry season. In fact, it was likely drought that ultimately caused the collapse of the major Mayan cities.

It’s no wonder then, why Chaak would play such a pivotal role in the Mayan religion. If you’re familiar with the deities of Central Mexico, Chaak could be identified with Tlaloc, who was revered by the Teotihuacanos and the Aztecs.

San Miguelito Ruins Cancun
San Miguelito Ruins Cancun

Beyond the Chaak Palace, you’ll have the choice of heading either north or south, where you’ll find the main pyramid. I decided to head north first, saving the pyramid for last.

This area is known as the North Complex and largely functioned as a residential area. While only the foundations remain, it was once home to five houses built of wood and palm leaves.

Sadly, numerous graves of small children were found around this area, suggesting a high infant mortality rate.

San Miguelito Ruins Cancun
San Miguelito Ruins Cancun
Part of the Dragon Complex

Looping back around and continuing south, you’ll pass by the ‘Dragon Complex,’ consisting of palatial buildings in addition to shrines. While hard to make out, some of the surviving walls here even have parts of their original frescoes intact.

San Miguelito Ruins Cancun
San Miguelito Ruins Cancun

As you walk further through the forest, past yet another residential area known as the South Complex, it’s easy to forget for a moment that you’re surrounded by luxury high-rise hotels.

While San Miguelito’s original name remains a mystery, its modern name was taken from a coconut ranch situated here in the 1950s. At that time, Cancún was nothing like it is now, with construction of tourist infrastructure only beginning in the 1970s.

In ancient times, both San Miguelito and El Rey ran alongside dune lines which helped protect the settlements from ferocious hurricanes. Today, the towering hotels surrounding them offer similar protection.

San Miguelito Ruins Cancun
The palace of the South Complex

Moving on, you’ll finally reach the largest structure of the San Miguelito ruins: the pyramid. Compared to others you’ll see around the region, it’s quite small, at only 4 meters high (compared with Chichén Itzá’s 30 m-high pyramid!).

Topped with a small temple, its single stairway is on its south side. According to archaeological evidence, its base was remodeled at least three times before the arrival of the Spanish.

San Miguelito Ruins Cancun

It’s likely that the staircase connected directly with the site of El Rey via a sacred road lined with structures on either side. Sadly, many of these were lost during the construction of the Hotel Zone in the 1970s.

While one can’t directly walk between the San Miguelito ruins and El Rey today, the two archaeological sites are just a 5-minute drive apart. For those without their own car, simply hop on the next southbound bus.

San Miguelito Ruins Cancun
San Miguelito Ruins Cancun

El Rey

As mentioned, San Miguelito and El Rey (open daily from 8:00-17:00, 65 pesos) were essentially the same city during the Late Postclassic Period, and therefore share an almost identical history.

El Rey functioned as a thriving trading port where goods like cacao beans and turtle shells were traded, while the main local industry was fishing.

Numerous goods from distant regions of the Mayan world were discovered here as well, revealing how extensive trade networks were still thriving long after the civilization’s heyday.

El Rey Ruins Cancun
El Rey Ruins Cancun

Today, the site appears as essentially one long road, with dozens of stone structures along either side of it. Its focal point would’ve been the central plaza, located near the northern end of the site. But first, visitors will approach from the south.

One of the first notable structures you’ll encounter on your right is a small columned temple, one of a few such structures discovered at El Rey.

Many of the structures along the road were also residential, with the now empty platforms being where residents built their houses with perishable materials.

El Rey Ruins Cancun
El Rey Ruins Cancun
El Rey Ruins Cancun
El Rey Ruins Cancun

Before long, you’ll make your way to the central plaza, where you’ll find a small temple on a platform (now protected by a thatched roof) in front of a pyramid temple.

Supposedly, the pyramid reaches up to 5.5 meters high (though some if it may be partially buried), making it even higher than San Miguelito’s pyramid. But its base is much smaller, and it’s the less impressive of the two structures overall.

El Rey Ruins Cancun
El Rey Ruins Cancun
El Rey Ruins Cancun

Elsewhere within the plaza, you’ll find two additional columned buildings, much larger and wider than the one mentioned above. As opposed to temples, they likely served as royal palaces and adminsitrative areas. 

Continuing north, you’ll find another structure under a thatched roof, more empty residential platforms, and then the road simply ends. While there’s no official gate, you’ll encounter dense jungle, preventing even the most curious of visitors from venturing much further.

El Rey Ruins Cancun
El Rey Ruins Cancun

For those with more time on their hands, the El Rey archaeological site is situated just a few minutes on foot from Playa Delfines, one of Cancún’s most popular public beaches. When finished, you can simply take the next public bus back to wherever it is you’re staying.

Our next destination also includes beaches and ruins, though you’ll want to visit Isla Mujeres as its own day trip.

Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres, situated about 13 km off the coast , is an easy ferry ride from Cancún. The island has plenty of accommodation options and makes for a nice low-key alternative to Cancún’s Hotel Zone. But it’s also easily visited as a day trip.

The most popular way to get around is to rent a golf cart, though you’ll have to share the roads with regular cars. Hourly rentals start from around $16 USD, while daily rentals cost at least $40 USD. Traveling solo, I opted for a cheaper option: bicycle.

Punta Sur Isla Mujeres

I ended up going with the first rental shop I found, called Giftshop and Bike Rental La Catrine. They charged $80 MXN per hour or $250 MXN (about $12 USD) for the day. 

I finished in just under two hours, only paying $160 MXN (about $8 USD) for the roundtrip ride to Punta Sur. 

Note that you will need to leave your passport or other form of ID with them until you return the bike. Fortunately, everything went smoothly with this shop and there were no issues regarding money owed (or my passport!).

Punta Sur Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is just 7 km long and 650 m wide. As you’ll likely arrive near the northern edge of the island (more below), you’ll essentially be traversing the entirety of Isla Mujeres to reach Punta Sur. 

As the ride there is uphill, it could take around 30-40 minutes to reach the southern tip (including short stops for photography), and just around 20 minutes back.

I started the ride along the local malecón, though it eventually ended and I then had to take regular roads. But it was easy enough to avoid the main, westernmost road on which most golf carts and taxis ride.

Punta Sur Isla Mujeres
Punta Sur Isla Mujeres

All in all, it was an easy and pleasant ride. But as the weather will likely be scorching hot no matter what month you visit, be sure to bring adequate sunscreen and water.

Eventually, I made it to my destination, and was greeted with a life-size statue of Ixchel herself. 

Punta Sur Isla Mujeres

Ixchel was the primary female deity of the Mayas, and she represented things like fertility, midwifery, water, the moon, love, medicine and even rainbows. And she remained as popular as ever up until the arrival of the Spanish.

Young women would frequently visit Punta Sur to bring offerings to the goddess in exchange for a healthy pregnancy. Among these offerings, small figurines of women were the most common. As such, when the Spanish arrived and discovered all the figurines, they named it Isla Mujeres.

Punta Sur Isla Mujeres

(Punta Sur wasn’t the main pilgrimage spot for the veneration of Ixchel, however. That was Cozumel, another island off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, which also happens to be Mexico’s largest.)

To continue to the ruins of the Ixchel temple, you’ll have to pay a fee of 60 pesos. But if you’re expecting an entire archaeological zone, you’re going to be disappointed. In fact, Punta Sur only consists of one ruined section of a single temple.

But the real reason to make this modern-day pilgrimage is for the atmosphere and for the views. 

Punta Sur Isla Mujeres
Punta Sur Isla Mujeres

Interestingly enough, Punta Sur is actually the highest point of the entire Yucatán Peninsula! It only reaches 20 m above sea level, which tells you how flat the Yucatán really is.

Punta Sur Isla Mujeres

After viewing the small temple, you can take a different path down which will lead you to a natural cave under the temple – surely one that would’ve had religious significance in ancient times.

Punta Sur Isla Mujeres

The path will then take you right in between the sea and the rocky cliffs. Looking off into the distance, you’ll even be able to spot the modern high rises of the Hotel Zone.

Punta Sur Isla Mujeres
Punta Sur Isla Mujeres

Finished with my visit, I cycled back to the rental shop. I then headed to the stunning Playa Norte at the northern tip of the island to admire its white sand and turquoise water.

Punta Sur Isla Mujeres
Playa Norte

El Meco

To the north of the city is yet another overlooked archaeological site: El Meco. While my visits to Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres and El Meco were actually a couple years apart, most visitors should be able to visit both locations on the same day.

While located on the mainland, El Meco is less than a 10-minute drive north of the Ultramar Ferry Port. While Uber isn’t generally reliable in Cancún’s Hotel Zone, it works just fine in this part of town.

El Meco Cancun
El Meco Cancun

As of 2024, El Meco is open daily from 8:00-16:30 and costs $75 MXN to enter.

The site’s history dates back to the Early Classic Period (300-600 AD), when it emerged as a small satellite city of Cobá. But it was then largely abandoned until the Late Classic Period, after which El Meco would thrive for centuries.

Like San Miguelito and El Rey mentioned above, its proximity to the coast allowed it to become a major trading hub during the Postclassic Era.

El Meco Cancun

 Upon entering the archaeological zone, it won’t be long before you spot the site’s main pyramid, El Castillo. Reaching up to 12.5 m high, it’s more than twice the height of the pyramids described above.

The pyramid stands in front of Plaza A, which is unsurprisingly regarded as El Meco’s principal plaza. In the center of the plaza is a large altar for offerings, while surrounding the square are the remnants of columned halls. 

El Meco Cancun
El Meco Cancun

Getting up close to the pyramid, you can also observe the remnants of carved serpents at the base of the staircase. While inaccessible today, the steps ultimately lead to a temple at the top.

El Meco Cancun

Just south of Plaza A is Plaza B, which contains what remains of a royal palace. Here you can find the remnants of numerous columns which would’ve once held up a roof.

El Meco Cancun

Directly behind Plaza A (and the main pyramid) is Plaza C. Here you’ll find more columned halls and what was likely a royal residence. Religious rituals probably took place in this plaza as well.

Circling back around, you’ll find the remains of a well-preserved wall being protected by a modern thatched roof. And that pretty much sums up El Meco.

While El Meco’s pyramid is the largest in the Cancún area, the site itself is rather small. But as mentioned above, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see before or after your trip to Isla Mujeres.

While unrelated to the ancient Mayans, just south of the El Meco ruins is the Mary Star of the Sea Church, which has a spectacular and unique seaside setting. You can also find some public beaches a bit further south.

El Meco Cancun

Additional Info

Cancún has a straightforward and efficient bus system, and I had no problem getting around via public transport with help from the MoovIt app.

From downtown, I could easily get to the Maya Museum / San Miguelito / El Rey, as well as the ferry port for Isla Mujeres.

Note that there are multiple ports, but I went with Puerto Juárez to the north of the city. The reason is that it’s supposed to be significantly cheaper than the others. 

The company that operates at Puerto Juárez is called Ultramar, and their ferries depart hourly. The ride to Isla Mujeres takes only 15-20 minutes and at the time of writing, costs $450 MXN roundtrip. You can learn more on their official website.

As mentioned above, you should easily be able to reach the ruins of El Meco from the ferry port via Uber, or even on foot.

Central Cancún consists of two main parts: the Hotel Zone, a long strip of hotels situated along a 22 km-long narrow island, and what’s referred to as ‘Downtown Cancún,’ or the regular city where locals live. The two areas are connected by road.

Downtown Cancún is farther from the beach, but also cheaper. While by no means the most charming city in Mexico, Downtown Cancún is home to plenty of restaurants and supermarkets and is ideal for budget travelers.

If you’re in Cancún for a flight, I’d recommend staying near the bus station. From there, you can easily catch public buses to the Mayan sites mentioned above, while the ADO company runs direct buses to the airport.

If you’re looking for a more typical Cancún experience, then of course there are a countless number of fancier places to stay right along the beach. Isla Mujeres itself would make for an excellent base as well.



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