With so many archeological wonders in Mexico, it would be silly to vacation here without visiting at least one site. The ancient Maya, Zapotec, Olmec, and many other indigenous groups have left behind incredible marks all over this beautiful country. Gigantic temples, pyramids, religious artifacts, houses, aqueducts, hieroglyphs, sculptures, ball courts, and much more lay in wait for your observation.
But what do you need to know before visiting these ruins in Mexico? These six tips will tell you everything you need to bring, what to expect when you arrive, and how to have the most hassle-free experience while visiting ruins in Mexico. Read this, then take a trip back in time and see what humans were capable of thousands of years ago.
Here are the six things you need to know before visiting the many archeological ruins in Mexico:
1) Cost, Cash, and How to Get in FREE
First, a little bit on the cost to visit ruins in Mexico.
At the large majority of sites, the prices are quite affordable: usually around $2 – $4 USD ($40 – $80 pesos). But this is not always the case. In fact, some of the most popular ruins in Mexico have fees running up to around $25 USD ($500 pesos) per person. The difference in prices is due to the agencies which levy the fees.
INAH: Nearly every ruin site in Mexico falls under the authority of the National Institute of Archeology and History (INAH). This is a federal Mexican agency charged with the research, preservation, protection, and promotion of Mexico’s vast heritage. You will find an INAH fee at nearly every single ruin in Mexico you can visit. (This is also the agency that sets most of the rules for the ruins in Mexico.)
INAH fees can range from less than $1 USD up to around $4 USD (about $80 pesos). In rare cases, the entrance can be completely free.
However, other entities can charge fees to access ruins in Mexico as well. And those can add up.
State fees: Some states have started adding their own fee on top of the INAH one. Many states, such as Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Campeche generally do NOT charge a state fee. But the state of Yucatan, where some of the most popular ruins in Mexico are located, is extremely strong handed with theirs. At the sites of Chichén Itzá, Ek Balam, and Uxmal, the state of Yucatan charges relatively-high fees of about $20 USD (around $400 pesos).
Other agencies: Additionally, some archeological ruins in Mexico have entrance ways which are controlled by other groups. For instance, at the ruins in Calakmul, there are three different areas which levy a fee. First is $50 pesos ($2.50 USD) to the area’s ejido, which is communal ownership of land charging for the privilege to go through their property. Next is $75 pesos (just under $4 USD) to CONANP (National Commission for Natural Protected Areas) since Calakmul is located within a protected area. Then finally is the $75 peso INAH fee. Calakmul ends up costing $200 pesos total (about $10 USD) per person to get all the way to the ruins.
As a result, the cost of archeological sites in Mexico can range from free to around $25 USD ($500 pesos) per person. At the large majority of sites outside of the state of Yucatan, the prices are usually around $2 – $4 USD ($40 – $80 pesos).
Cash and credit cards: Most archeological ruins in Mexico do NOT accept credit cards. Even the expensive Ek Balam in Yucatan didn’t when we visited. Some, like the famous Chichén Itzá and Monte Albán in Oaxaca, do actually accept credit cards though. To be safe, you should bring enough cash to cover your fees, but feel free to ask if they accept cards (aceptan tarjetas?).
How to get in FREE: If you have Mexican citizenship or reside in Mexico, you can get FREE admission on Sundays. And the more expensive sites have resident discounts on most other days. If you have one, don’t forget to bring your INE identification card!
2) Get There Early!
We strongly encourage you to get an early rise and make it to the sites as close to opening as possible, which is usually at 8 am. The tourists will be in short supply and the sun will be low. Making for better photos and a more pleasant day.
It’s hard to describe the difference in experience you have if you show up early compared to mingling with the crowds. The ruins in Mexico can give you an intimate connection to lost civilizations. But if you’re surrounded by hoards of people, it is much more challenging to feel the emotion at the site.
Also, since Sundays are free for a lot of people, those are the busiest days. Best to avoid going then unless you are a Mexican citizen or resident and get free admission.
3) What to Bring: Sun Protection, Shoes, & Camera
A few sites force you to check any backpacks or large bags before entering. This is uncommon, but it can happen, so be prepared to grab your essentials if needed. This seemed to be most common in the state of Chiapas.
Sun protection: Most INAH areas have a small shop and stand at the entrance, but very little, if any, shelter once you enter. So bring sun protection such as hats, long-sleeved shirts, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
Shoes: Wearing stable shoes is usually a better option than sandals, flip flops, or shoes that aren’t meant for walking much. Many sites have stairs you can climb and trails allowing you to explore vast areas. Often times the steps can be tiny, crumbling a bit or covered in pebbles. Best to be prepared for walking and climbing.
For the sketchiest staircases, it helps to make a zig-zag pattern going up and down. As you climb or descend, walk toward one side, then back to the other. Having your foot diagonal across each stair allows more solid contact with the ground and decreases the chances for a slip-up.
Rain protection: If there’s a chance of rain, you’ll definitely want a rain jacket or umbrella. A dry-bag can be a lifesaver for cameras, phones, and other delicate items. Having a dry bag and rain jackets handy saved us (and our electronics) more than once.
Bug repellant: Bug spray can be important at some sites. Especially if they’re deep in the jungle, like two of our absolute favorites: Yaxchilán and Calakmul.
Camera & phone: Don’t forget your camera! What would a visit be without the ability to capture the memory?!? Your phone can also be valuable to use to take a quick picture of the map at the entrance or use a GPS tracking app (like Motion X GPS) to make sure you know where you’re going. Some of the ruins in Mexico are spread out over large areas and it is quite possible to get a bit turned around.
4) What NOT to Bring: Drones & Tripods
INAH, who sets most of the rules for the ruins in Mexico, has some very specific rules on what can be brought into the archeological sites. One of the biggest prohibitions is on what INAH deems to be considered “professional” photographic equipment. But what does that mean?
First, regardless of what the letter of the law says, each ruin in Mexico may enforce them a bit differently. Based on our extensive experience all over southern Mexico visiting more than a dozen different sites, here is what you can generally expect.
Cameras: You can bring in most cameras. Point and shoots, cell phones, and SLRs of all sorts are permitted without question and without a permit. You will see countless tourists snapping away on their relatively high-end Canon and Sony cameras. And you don’t need to be concerned about bringing yours along.
On the other hand, an SLR with a gigantic 300mm lens and an entire case of photography equipment might be problematic. If it is clear that you are there for the sole purpose of taking professional photos, you might encounter some issues. If you are there for that reason, then you’ll need to apply for a professional permit BEFORE visiting the site. Be warned, these permits are expensive and you will need to substantiate the reasoning behind your professional needs. Generally, a one-day permit for still photos is around $250 USD ($5,000 pesos) and a one-day permit for video recording is around $500 USD ($10,000 pesos).
Drones: ALL drones – even the tiny little DJI Spark – fall into the professional video recording category at INAH sites. So unless you get the $500 USD permit, you are prohibited from using a drone at ruins in Mexico. No kidding. This rule was clearly stated and enforced at every site we went to.
We have seen people attempt to use their drones at the sites. It puts all of the guards into an immediate panic, running around the site, searching for the perpetrator. They usually force that person to either delete the footage right there or pay for the permit fee. And I imagine they’re going to have to get even more heavy-handed since people still try to use them. So just leave the drone at home or at your vacation accommodations. There are plenty of great areas to use drones in Mexico, but INAH sites are not them.
Tripods: Here is another strange caveat. All tripods are considered professional camera gear. So unless you get the minimum $250 USD permit ahead of time, you cannot bring or use tripods at archeological ruins in Mexico. And we did have our bag checked at some places.
Go Pros: GoPros and video-cameras often full into another category of “non-professional video recording equipment.” When this rule is enforced – which is not always the case – it is usually just $45 pesos (about $2.25 USD) for a single day pass to use them. And you can buy these at the door. Some places simply don’t care, and in fact, we were even told there was no reason to buy one.
(And just to clarify: general cameras with the ability to shoot video are NOT included in this category. Those can be used at every site we visited without restriction. So a video-specific device – like GoPro or a handheld camcorder – might be problematic, but a camera that can take video is just fine. DSLRs included.)
Overall, bring your personal-use camera and if you want to get GoPro footage, be prepared to drop an extra $45 pesos at the entrance. If you want to bring a tripod, serious photographic equipment, or fly any type of drone, you’ll need to obtain an expensive permit ahead of your visit.
5) How to Get the BEST Photos
Show up early! Yep, repeating this one again. The lack of crowds and better early morning light will make for superior photos across the board.
Offer to take photos of others! Kindly ask them to take some of you. Since tripods aren’t allowed, it’s time to go back to old-school methods of actually talking to other human beings. They’ll be happy to help out!
In Spanish, you can say “me tomas una foto?” to ask people to take a photo one of you. And when you’re done, you can ask if they’d like you to return the favor and take one of them by saying “te tomo una foto?”
Also, keep in mind that these areas tend to be busy. Everyone wants the shots from the best vantage points. So be patient and aware of others. Wait your turn and once it comes, try not to hog the spotlight too long. Take a few moments to get the shot and move on. Being respectful and aware of others makes these visits more enjoyable for everyone.
6) Do You Need a Guide?
Guides can be incredible, but they can also take away from the experience a little bit. On the one hand, they provide more detailed information. On the other, it means you’ll be stuck with a group of people and have to stick to their time schedule.
Many of the best sites have lots of signs throughout the site in Spanish, English, and the local indigenous language. So guides are not absolutely necessary.
But at some of the bigger sites, it can be very helpful to have a guide point out the important relics and carvings – often giving more detail on the historical leaders of the area and the meaning behind the glyphs. If you’re a true history buff, a guide is important as the signs don’t fill in a lot of details.
However, a lot of the information is repetitive if you’re familiar with archeological ruins in Mexico. For example, most of them have large ball courts where they played a game. We’ve heard the rundown on this too many times to count. (And funny enough, we keep hearing conflicting stories: some say the victor was put to death, others say the defeated.)
There are official guides near the entrance of almost every site. They will have some sort of identification and will usually be grouped together waiting for tourists. English tour guides often charge a bit more than Spanish-speaking ones. They can be as high as $600-$800 pesos per person ($30-$40 USD).
Summary of Six Tips for Archeological Ruins in Mexico
Head on out as early as you can! Remember your sun and rain sun protection. Bring sufficient cash for the entrance fees, especially if in the state of Yucatan. And leave the professional camera gear and drones at home. You’re going to have a blast transporting yourself back in time at the ruins in Mexico!
Want to read more about some of our favorite ruin sites?! Check out these posts:
Do you have any other tips for making the most of these visits? We’d love to know about them! Leave us a comment below.