Located about 50 km south of Mérida, Mayapán could be considered the last of the great Mayan capitals. But despite its historical importance, the site remains well off the tourist trail. What makes Mayapán unique is that its major buildings are all jam-packed into a single area, giving it one of the Mayan world’s most picturesque ‘cityscapes.’
With that being said, no individual structure is terribly impressive on its own, as they’re clearly smaller and shoddier copies of those at nearby Chichén Itzá. But here, at least, all of the structures are climbable, giving visitors plenty of spots to take in the views.
Originally settled in the Late Preclassic period (300 BC-250 AD), Mayapán would finally take center stage after the fall of Chichén Itzá in the 13th century. It was the Itzá people, in fact, who’d control Mayapán during its height of power.
Mayapán was the most dominant city in the Yucatán Peninsula from around 1200-1441 AD, controlling much of the north and northeast. But the Itzá dynasty was toppled by a revolt around 1380, with the Cocom dynasty taking their place.
Several decades later, the Xiu dynasty would take power, though Mayapán would eventually fall around 1450. The main centers of power would then shift to the peninsula’s east coast.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Mayapán continued to appear prominently in local historical accounts, as no contemporary cities came close to matching its former glory. In fact, it’s from Mayapán that we get the name Maya, a term the Spanish used to refer to all those once under Mayapán’s dominion.
Mayapán Visiting Tips
Despite being a relatively obscure archaeological site to most modern tourists, Mayapán seems to have recently become a common stop on day trips for cruise ship passengers. Expecting to have the ruins all to myself, I arrived to encounter no less than four or five busloads of tourists already at the site!
For those taking public transportation, however, you’ll have around four hours at the ruins in total before the return bus to Mérida. You should therefore have plenty of quiet time after the tour groups finally depart. (Learn more about transport below).
The main entrance to Mayapán is from the north. While the site is not very large overall, it’s incredibly dense. While there are too many structures for everything to be covered in detail, we’ll be covering the main landmarks of Mayapán below in a clockwise direction (for those facing south).
Though oriented upside-down in relation to the following guide, this official map by INAH is the clearest map of the ruins to be found online.
Exploring Mayapán's Central Plaza
In total, the walled city of Mayapán once covered an area of around 4 square kilometers and it contained thousands of buildings. But the main religious, civic and administrative buildings were all densely packed within the Central Plaza. And this is the area that constitutes the archaeological site today.
As mentioned above, the following guide covers the top landmarks in a clockwise direction from the northern entrance.
Arriving at the ruins, one of the first notable landmarks you’ll find to your left is a small pyramid known as the Templo del Pescador, or Temple of the Fisherman.
The small pyramidal temple closely resembles many of the other structures around Mayapán, though this one contains a thatched hut at the top.
Inside is a mural which unfortunately is no longer visible. But it displays a mythological scene that takes place on water. And while not fully intact, one of the figures is believed to be Kukulkán, the Mayan name for Quetzalcoatl.
The ‘Plumed Serpent’ was likely first introduced to Chichén Itzá by the Toltecs of Central Mexico.
To the east of the main plaza are two long colonnaded structures that were likely used as council halls and schools for elite youth. You’ll find another thatched hut on one of them, inside of which appears to be some kind of altar.
Over to the west, meanwhile, is the Temple of the Warriors. This two-tiered temple structure is now best known for containing the only surviving image of a serpent at Mayapán, as all the others were destroyed by the Spanish. Clearly, the design was directly inspired by the serpentine imagery at Chichén Itzá.
In the plaza’s southeast corner, you’ll encounter a well-preserved two-tiered structure about which little information exists. It’s well worth the short climb up for the views of the Round Temple and El Castillo – one of Mayapán’s many impressive viewpoints
Before visiting the Round Temple, you may want to walk down a forested path to the east. It’s here you’ll find another round structure which likely functioned as an astronomical observatory, though not much of it remains.
Back in the center, it’s time to check out the Round Temple. Built around the year 1350, it appears similar to the observatory but in much better condition. Many suspect this structure also functioned as an observatory too, given its similar style to the round observatory at Chichén Itzá.
But considering its lack of windows, one wonders what astronomical phenomenon could’ve possibly been observed from within. The structure was instead possibly built to act as some sort of astronomical marker.
Just outside the Round Temple is what remains of a room featuring elaborate masks of the rain god Chaak (also spelled Chaac). They’re strikingly similar to the masks found in the nearby Puuc region, with some speculating that these sculptures were taken directly from Kabah.
Numerous other structures surround the Round Temple, including a stairway at which archaeologists discovered thirteen human skulls!
Just next to the main pyramid is a small temple built around a cenote, or natural sinkhole. Amazingly, this is just one 26 cenotes within Mayapán’s original city limits, though the others don’t seem to be visible from within the central plaza.
In addition to being sources of freshwater, cenotes were also regarded as sacred links to the underworld. As such, finding temples near them is not uncommon. But it would be hard to compare this tiny one with the massive Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá.
Mayapán’s centerpiece is its nine-tiered pyramid known as El Castillo, or the Temple of Kukulcán. Built around the year 1300, it measures 30 x 30 meters at its base while standing at 18 m high. Its design is an obvious copy of the 30 m-high El Castillo at Chichén Itzá, but it makes nowhere near of an impact.
This one, at least, can still be climbed. Bur first, on the side of the second tier, notice the stucco decorations of warriors. Looking closely, you’ll see how niches were carved out where their heads are supposed to be.
While now empty, archaeologists discovered actual human skulls in these niches, along with other bodily remains nearby!
Winged beings depicted near the head may represent symbolism connected to the transmigration of the soul. Interestingly, similar imagery can be found at numerous other ancient sites throughout the world.
On the southern side of the pyramid’s base is a room containing frescoes. While the scenes are largely faded and difficult to decipher, they seem to depict gods within solar disks. They also reveal that Mayapán (and most other Mayan sites, for that matter) was once a lot more colorful than it appears today.
As with Chichén Itzá’s El Castillo, this one features staircases on all four sides. In total, the number of steps adds up to 260, the number of the Mayan Tzolkin calendar.
Today, visitors have the choice between either the north or west staircases, with the western steps being in slightly better condition.
Many are aware that each year at Chichén Itzá, during both the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow appears resembling a snake slithering down the side of El Castillo’s staircase.
Few people realize, however, that the builders of this pyramid at Mayapán managed to recreate the phenomenon , but during solstices instead of equinoxes!
Reaching the top, the views are just as spectacular as one would expect. As mentioned, the workmanship at Mayapán was rather shoddy, possibly due to the low quality of the local quarry.
Be that as it may, few other Mayan sites are this dense, and seeing dozens of structures at once like this is quite a sight.
While not obvious during your visit, just like Chichén Itzá’s pyramid, this one was built over a smaller, earlier version. It dates back to the 11th century, a few hundred years before Mayapán would reach its height of power.
The top of El Castillo contains the remains of a ruined temple, where you’ll find numerous columns and multiple rooms. Little decoration remains, however, including the lost serpent heads that once would’ve adorned the staircases.
Back down, to the west of the pyramid is a columned hall referred to as the Hall of the Kings. It was named after stucco decorations of warriors discovered there. But today it appears much like many of the other colonnaded structures throughout the city.
Western & Central Mayapán
Exploring Mayapán’s western half, you’ll encounter even more colonnaded structures to your left as you make your way north. To your right, meanwhile, is a small, unassuming platform known as the Temple of Venus.
It’s noteworthy due to its resemblance to the platform of the same name at Chichén Itzá. But this one is completely lacking in decoration.
In the northwest corner of the site, you’ll encounter a four-tiered pyramidal structure which archaeologists call the ‘Crematorium.’ Again, there’s not much to be found up top, though it offers more excellent views of this once-thriving city.
Heading slightly southeast, you’ll encounter the Temple of the Painted Niches, which sits in the center of the plaza across from El Castillo. Built over two construction phases, it consists of seven rooms and is one of the largest intact structures at the site.
Today, only faint traces of its frescoes remain, but the structure is remarkable for being one of the few you can walk inside of. And again, its platform offers even more great views of this overlooked archaeological gem.
Getting to Mayapán from central Mérida is as straightforward as a day trip to an obscure archaeological site can get. First, you’ll need to head to the Noreste Bus Terminal, located in the eastern portion of the historical center.
While there is indeed a town called Mayapán, this is NOT where you want to head, as the town and archaeological site are two completely separate places. Instead, you’ll need to buy a ticket to the town of Telchaquillo. This bus departs at 9:30 each morning.
Telchaquillo is situated north of the ruins and I was originally under the impression I’d have to walk from the town to get there. But it turns out that the bus continues further south, and the driver can easily drop you off along the highway by the entrance to the ruins.
On the way back, return to the highway and wait on the opposite side of the road for the return bus, which should come around 14:15 in the afternoon. In my case, the bus showed up right on time.
By taking public transport, you’ll have around four hours at the ruins in total, which is much more than you actually need. But if you encounter large tour groups upon arrival like I did, you’ll appreciate having some extra time after the groups finally depart.
Be sure to come prepared with a hat, sunscreen, snacks and water, as there are no restaurants in the area.
In Mérida, I highly recommend people stay as central as possible, even if it means splurging on accommodation. The reason is the sprawling city’s terribly inefficient transportation system.
While it’s easy to get to the center by either bus or colectivo from just about anywhere, it’s surprisingly challenging to get from the center to another part of town.
As Mérida is so spread out, things may be much farther apart in reality than they appear on a map. Before making any booking, it’s best to confirm the precise walking distance from your accommodation to the city’s main square, Plaza Grande. From there, you can easily get around to most of the major sites.
Also within the historical center is the main ADO bus terminal and the regional bus terminals run by Noreste, Oriental and Centro. As mentioned above, it’s the Noreste terminal that can take you to the ruins of Mayapán.