El Meco – How to Feel Like Indiana Jones in the Middle of a Major City

As I walked through the ruins of El Meco, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit like Indiana Jones. It wasn’t like I was being chased by bad guys or that I had discovered a priceless jewel inside a secret cavern. It was more the feeling that I was an archaeologist who had discovered an incredible archaeological site hidden deep in the jungle. The irony of it was that even though it felt like I was a world away from modern civilization, the ruins of El Meco lie right inside the city of Cancun – about 8 km (5 miles) north of downtown.

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Amazing Video of El Meco

Check out this amazing video of El Meco by our friends at Dixon Pictures. We had a great time exploring these incredible Mayan ruins with them!

The Ruins I Never Knew Existed

There are plenty of well-known archeological ruins in the Yucatan region of Mexico and a few right in the hotel zone of Cancun. El Meco has been open to the public less than 20 years and even though it contains the tallest structure near Cancun, it remains lesser known than other sites. When we visited the site during the middle of the day, only 3 other people were there. We had the ruins to ourselves and that made it feel even more like a secret discovery.

An image of the El Meco Mayan ruins in Cancun Mexico.
The El Meco ruins are remarkably well preserved and easy to get to from the hotel zone of Cancun. Photo by Debbie Olsen.

Why was this Ruin Called El Meco?

The original name of the El Meco archeological site is unknown. According to a 16th-century historian, the original name of the site might have been “Belma.” The name “El Meco” was the nickname of a 19th-century local resident who was associated with the ruins. The nickname referred to a deformity the man had on his lower extremities. This person was the owner of a small ranch near the ruins and locals began referring to the ruins with the same nickname they used for the man who farmed near them.

An image of a huge tree at the El Meco Archaeological site in Cancun, Mexico.
It feels like the jungle has invaded this ruin and perhaps that’s why I felt a little like Indiana Jones. Photo by Greg Olsen.

Historical Triva: The idea of naming a site after a person who lived near it has been repeated many times throughout history. Did you know that Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park was named after Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon pioneer who owned a homestead inside the canyon? He once described his canyon as “a hell of a place to lose a cow.” Check out our post about the Best Hikes in Bryce Canyon.

An image of an iguana at the El Meco archaeological site in Cancun, Mexico.
There were a lot of Iguanas at El Meco – also lending it that Indiana Jones feeling. Photo by Greg Olsen.

Where is El Meco?

El Meco is situated on the north coast of Quintana Roo near the bay of Isla Mujeres. This strategic location likely made it important to the Mayans who used the coast as a navigation route. The structure known as El Castillo is the tallest ruin in the region near Cancun. For this reason, some people have referred to it as “the lighthouse.”

An image of some steps at the El Meco archaeological site in Cancun, Mexico.
There’s a special kind of beauty to be found in the ancient Mayan ruins. Photo by Greg Olsen.

Two Community Risings

Archaeologists believe El Meco had two significant periods of use. It was first inhabited in the early Classic Period from about 250 AD to 600 AD and then abandoned. The structures visible today were built upon older stones from this first settlement period. The first settlement was likely a fishing community that relied heavily on Coba for its existence. The site was recolonized between 1000 AD and 1100 AD, during the Post Classic Period. By this time, the Mayans had developed a thriving coastal trade system. El Meco’s strategic location likely made it a control point for trade with nearby Isla Mujeres. It is clear from the structures at the site that it was also an important ceremonial site during the post classic period. The site was abandoned around 1600 AD, after Spanish colonization of the region.  

An image of some columns at the El Meco archaeological site in Cancun, Mexico.
We loved having this site almost to ourselves. Photo by Greg Olsen.

What We Liked About El Meco

We enjoyed wandering through the El Meco ruins and having the site almost exclusively to ourselves. Since we were staying in a Cancun hotel, it was quick, easy and inexpensive to get to these ruins. At 17 metres (55 feet) in height, we thought the largest pyramid known as El Castillo (the castle) was impressive. There was a lot of foliage and greenery around the site and iguanas crawling all over the ruins. It really does feel a world away from the big city and its many beachfront resorts.

An image of El Castillo at the El Meco Archaeological site in Cancun, Mexico.
The main pyramid at the El Meco site is called El Castillo. Photo by Greg Olsen.

Getting to El Meco

We caught a cab from our hotel in Cancun and it cost $20 USD one-way. There were four of us, so it worked out to $5 USD per person to travel by taxi. Another option we considered was catching the bus to Puerto Juarez ($1 USD) and walking for 41 minutes from there to the site. Once there, it cost about 55 pesos ($3USD) to get into the archaeological site.  

Where to Stay

There are many wonderful hotels in this region of the Yucatan. We stayed at the Grand Palladium Costa Mujeres Resort & Spa during our time in Cancun.

An image of a huge fungi growing at the El Meco archaeological site in Cancun, Mexico.
This absolutely enormous fungi was growing on a tree stump near the base of the ruins. Photo by Debbie Olsen

Related: Check out our post Fabulously Fun Things to do in Cancun with Kids.

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