Love thy neighbor. It’s a proverb that Mexico has taken to heart. Our neighbors to the south aren’t the type to mow their lawn
at the crack of dawn or shoot displeasing glances over the fence. Instead, they warmly welcome us over to enjoy their serene sun-drenched beaches, vibrant culture and mouthwatering cuisine paired with some of the world’s best tequila and mezcal. Mexico is the neighbor that knows how to throw an excellent party, but sun and fun isn’t all that’s happening next door.

Four thousand years ago, Mexico was home to one of the world’s most dominant — and enigmatic — indigenous civilizations.
Masters of agriculture, pottery, astronomy and mathematics, the Maya thrived for over 3,000 years … until they didn’t. Although the reason for the sudden end of their reign remains unclear, the Maya left behind many clues to their fascinating culture, from massive palaces to vast plazas and temples scattered across Central America. If we weren’t already intrigued by the inviting smells and lively music wafting across the border, this mystery party is the perfect reason to go visit the neighbors.

TULUM

Perched on a bluff overlooking the aquamarine Caribbean Sea, Tulum is one of the most scenic Mayan sites in Mexico. It’s also one of the most unusual, being one of the only Mayan sites surrounded by a 20-foot wall and the only one directly on the coast. Because of its unique east-facing oceanfront vista, the ancient name of Tulum was “Zama,” which means “place of the dawning sun.” Visit in the morning for spectacular views of the sun rising over this stunning archaeological marvel.

CHICHÉN ITZÁ

You might already recognize Chichén Itzá as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World for its famous step pyramid of El Castillo. What you might not realize is that this massive temple is just one of more than 20 structures connected by 75 roadways across the site. After admiring the grand temple, you’ll have plenty more to explore, from the largest ball court in Mesoamerica to a massive sun dial and several sacrificial sites, such as the Sacred Cenote and the infamous Platform of the Skulls.

COBA

A departure from the tourist scene at Chichén Itzá, Coba is a complete Mayan city tucked away in the dense jungle near the Riviera Maya. Its dispersed sites are easily explored with a leisurely ride on one of the available rental bikes. This is also where you’ll find the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán and one of the few Mayan structures you can actually climb. Use the rope to scale its 120 narrow steps for sweeping views of the jungle from the top.

PALENQUE

If you want to experience the height of Mayan craftsmanship, head to Palenque in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Don’t miss the Temple of the Inscriptions, one of the largest and best-preserved Mayan structures in Mexico. It wasn’t until 1952 that archaeologists discovered the hidden crypt beneath it, unearthing a sarcophagus filled with precious gemstones, pearls and obsidian alongside the jade-ornamented remains of who was thought to be the site’s 7th-century ruler.

UXMAL

One of the most important cities of the Mayan empire, Uxmal was thought to house over 25,000 inhabitants during its peak. One of its more mysterious features is the Nunnery Quadrangle, named by a Spanish historian who thought its unique layout — four buildings of around 75 dormitories facing an open courtyard — was reminiscent of a convent. Although its real purpose remains unknown, some scholars argue it may have served a much different purpose: a military academy for young Mayan princes.

EK BALAM

If you’re looking for great views and a reprieve from the busy tourist scene, head to Ek Balam. Piercing the jungle canopy at 95 feet tall, the main acropolis is one of the highest structures in the region — and another you can climb. On a clear day, you can even see the tops of the temples at Chichén Itzá and Coba nearly 40 miles in the distance. Best of all, since this is one of the least-visited sites in the area, you won’t have to battle any crowds along the way.

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