How to Find Maya Pyramids Off the Beaten Track on the Yucatan Peninsula

Although they are becoming more and more popular destinations on the Yucatan Peninsula, Maya pyramids are not all overrun with tourists. To this day, you can still find some off-the-beaten track pyramids where you can be alone among the ancient structures.

I have been climbing Maya pyramids, and visiting the ancient sites on the Yucatan Peninsula with my family for decades. We have seen many changes during this time.

When I first visited the Peninsula with my husband, thirty years ago, the Riviera Maya didn’t exist as a tourist destination. The road from Cancun down the coast was so narrow, two cars could barely fit through. Most of the traffic we encountered were indigenous Maya on their bicycles.

In those days we could climb every structure even in the most popular sites like Tulumand in Chichen Itza; We explored Ek Balam as the only visitors to the newly excavated site.

Now these sites are always swarming with visitors, so we try to stay away from them.

Over time, we learned to venture deeper into the jungles of Quintana Roo, Yucatan, and Campeche (the three states on the peninsula), in search of lesser-known Maya pyramids to explore (and possibly climb).

Over time, we learned to venture deeper into the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula in search of less-known Maya pyramids to explore.

As popular as the majority of he sites are, you can always find a few ancient Maya sites off the beaten track. You just need to know where to look. Or who to ask.

The Pyramid of the Birds in Xel-Ha Ruins, Quintana Roo

Xel-Ha Ruins, Pyramid of the Birds
Cars zoom by on the busiest highway of the peninsula, without a look to the ancient ruins of Xel-Há

Though right on the busiest highway on the peninsula, between Cancun and Tulum, we can sometimes still find ourselves alone at Xel-Ha Ruins. It has become more popular in the last several years, but it is still one of the quieter, less visited ruins along the road.

This is probably due to its proximity to the better-known Xel-Ha Park, the major destination for most tourists in this area. While rushing to experience the famous, and thus overcrowded water park, tourists tend to overlook the ruins across from it.

Last time we visited, we could still climb the Pyramid of the Birds, and enjoy the ancient frescoes on its walls.

Along the trail, we saw not only iguanas, but other wildlife. We spotted a coatimundi on the sacbe (ancient Maya road) between the Pyramid of the Birds and the House of the Jaguar.

The Pyramids of Aké Ruins, Yucatan

We were the only visitors in Aké Ruins, Yucatan
We were the only visitors in Aké.

Though close to Mérida, Aké Ruins are still far enough from the main roads that so far they escaped the tourist crowds. When we visited, we were the only ones at the ruins.

Though short, the small site’s pyramids are worth the climb.

Only a few structures are still standing at the small site. However, the ruins are still worth a look if you are nearby and want to get away from crowds.

Besides, the ancient Maya Ruins are not the only attraction at the site; an old Spanish hacienda and a working henequen plantation are also interesting to see.

The Pyramids at Kinichná and Dzibilchaltun, Yucatan

Every time we visited the neighboring sites of Kinichná and Dzibilchaltun, we only shared them with spider monkeys, iguanas, and birds of all colors and shapes.

The two sites, in close proximity to each other, sit far from the main road. To get to them, we drove on narrow roads through small Maya villages.

Both sites feature relatively large pyramids we could still climb. We’ve never seen more than two or three other people at these sites.

However, I heard that tour buses from the coast bring visitors twice a week. I would imagine, during the times the buses are there, the sites are not so quiet. Last I heard, these buses only run Tuesdays and Thursdays, and stay from 9 am to 12 pm. I imagine if you avoid the times, you can have the sites to yourselves, like we did.

You can visit both for one entrance fee. Once within the sites, enjoy climbing pyramids and other structures, surrounded by the quiet of the jungle.

The Largest Maya Pyramids on the Peninsula in Calakmul, Campeche

Update 2024:

Calakmul is no longer off the beaten track. With building the Maya Train in its close proximity, more and more visitors know about the site and visit it. In January of 2024, construction nearby, in the middle of the town of Xpujil, is at its worst, causing never-ending traffic, dust, and noise pollution in the area. The workers’ camp is set up nearby as well, and the once sleepy town and nearby villages are full of construction trucks. Not worth the trip, at least until the dust settles (in this case, literally).

View from one of the tallest Maya pyramid on the Yucatan peninsula, in Calakmul. Campeche, Mexico.
On the way to the top of one of the pyramids in Calakmul

One of ht largest and most impressive ancient Maya city on the Yucatan Peninsula, Calakmul is still remote enough to attract few visitors. This might change with the introduction of the Maya Train, but for now, it is still relatively quiet. Tourists generally don’t bother driving to it.

The site features two of the highest Maya pyramids of the peninsula, and you can (still) climb them both.

At the end of a 60 km long narrow, dirt road, the grand site is still a challenge to reach. Large tour buses from Cancun don’t make it through. And most tourists don’t bother driving so far from their resorts.

Since the site is also a nature preserve, birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts visit it besides those interested in ancient Maya structures. But those who visit, are in for a treat.

You can still climb the Maya pyramids in Calakmul. The two major pyramids are tall enough to see the surrounding jungle canopy and the whole ancient city from their top. They are not the easiest to climb, especially if you are there mid-day, when the sun is strongest, since you’l find no shade while climbing. But once you make it, you feel you are on top of the world. At least I did.

Besides a few other visitors, howler monkeys, tropical birds, iguanas and ocellated turkeys kept us company.

The short Pyramid of Balamkú with its Beautiful Stucco-Frieze, Campeche

Balamku. Inside the temple.
Inside the Temple of Balamkú.

Although it has an easy entrance right from the main highway, near Calakmul, most visitors to the Peninsula still bypass Balamkú. Which is understandable, especially after visiting a site like Calakmul. However, the Temple of the Jaguar, a small pyramid in Balamku, hides one of the most beautiful and well-preserved Maya stucco-friezes.

To enter the pyramid you need a guide to unlock the door and go in with you. The frieze, the largest surviving one of its kind on the peninsula, is indeed spectacular. Not only the shapes, but still vivid colors adorn the wall of the pyramid. The guide who took us inside for our latest visit told us that an ancient tomb was underneath the structure.

Outside, while exploring the other structures and trails at the site, only iguanas kept us company,

The Pyramids of Becán, Campeche

Becán Maya Ruins, Campeche, Mexico
The highest pyramid in Becán

Though close enough to the road for the highest structures to be visible from it, Becán is still mostly unknown. As such, every time we visit, we only meet a few fellow visitors, if any. With no crowds to ruin them, we can still climb each structure, including the 30 meters (100 feet) high main pyramid.

Besides climbing its massive pyramid, visitors of Becan can also explore the maze of the Palace, and even climb it. One of the main draws of the site is a large stucco, now behind a glass, covered with a large cloth.

Hormiguero, Hidden in the Jungle, Campeche

The most spectacular structure at Hormiguero

Then there is Hormiguero, a set of ruins at the end of a dirt road, barely passable in a car. Since we drove in towards the end of the day, we did not meet another human being at the site. Instead, we enjoyed the company of a family of howler monkeys on the trail.

Hormiguero is still a truly off-the-beaten-path site, with its pyramids in the jungle.

Only one of the structures is completely excavated, though many more are still hidden under the vegetation. The excavated temple-pyramid is a spectacular building, with two towers on each side of a monster-style doorway. You can’t climb the two side-pyramids – only because they are too eroded – , but you can walk through spectacular the doorway inside the structure.

The jungle path takes you through many other, unexcavated structures.

Beautiful Structures in Chicanná, Campeche


We also found ourselves alone at the ruins of Chicanná, in the same general area. Though the site has no high pyramids, and you’ll find few preserved structures, the ones you see are spectacular. Mixing several architectural styles, with detailed ornate walls, the site is a gem.

The design on Structure II, also called “House of the Serpent Mouth”, inspired the site’s name, Chicanná: chi=mouth, can=snake; ná=mouth.

The Gorgeous Pyramids of Rio Bec, Campeche

Rio Bec
Rio Bec, only partially excavated

Rio Bec is still so remote, you can’t get to its pyramids and the surrounding sites hidden in the jungle without a guide. Not only because you can’t find them, but you can’t ge to the structures in a car. You need a motorcycle or a quad.

Visiting this site was our ultimate Maya ruins/jungle adventure with a local Maya guide who traces his lineage back to ancient times. He is a direct descendant of one of the families who left behind one of the smaller ruins in the vicinity.

Following him, on a quad, we explored ancient Maya pyramids overgrown with vegetation, climbed several pyramids, learned about not only the ancient structures, but also about people who still live near them and preserve the culture once believed lost.

Rio Bec was such an important site from architectural view that archaeologists name a whole style after it. Only partially excavated, and with no real roads leading to it, other than a jungle path, it is still the ultimate off-the-beaten-track Maya site.

Maya Pyramids Among Palm Trees in Kohunlich, Quintana Roo

Kohunlich Maya Ruin
Kohunlich Ruins

Closer to a major road than some of the other ones, Kohunlich gets more visitors. Still, when we entered the site early in the morning, we had some time alone with the ruins.

Kohunlich is large enough to spend a few hours at, especially if you take it slow. You can climb the main pyramids and all the other structures at the site. Shade by palm trees, the walk along the path between them offers a nice respite from the Yucatan sun.

Surrounded by native palm trees, the site is large enough to attract a few visitors, but we only encountered three groups during the time we spent there.

You Can Still Find Yourself Alone With Maya Pyramids Off The Beaten Track in Yucatan

While the best-known Maya pyramids on the Yucatan Peninsula are so popular they are hard to enjoy, if you know where to look, you can still find hidden treasures, even on the Riviera Maya. You can find Maya pyramids to climb, solitude and adventure in several places, although you need to go farther and farther away from the main tourist route.


While at the time of writing this article the mentioned Maya sites were still remote and little-known, as the Yucatan peninsula is becoming better-known and more visited, many of them become popular. I try to update – look for the updates under the respective headings – with new insights, when possible.

About the Author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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