Mayan civilization existed between 1300 BCE and 1200 CE. It’s best known today for its amazing ruins, but the Mayans were an advanced civilization. They knew everything about stars, they had a complex written language and precise architecture. Today, intrepid tourists can view Mayan ruins and imagine how they may have looked in their heyday. Here are the eight best spots to explore Mayan ruins, including one hidden so far in the rainforest that visitors need to take a helicopter there.
Where Are Mayan Ruins?
The Maya lived in the modern-day Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, plus Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. When their civilization declined, they left behind hundreds of buildings that we can view the remains of today.
Are Mayan Ruins Only Found in Mexico?
No, Mayan ruins exist in many Central American countries. Back then, the geographical area wasn’t portioned out as it is now. Mayans lived in modern-day Mexico and the majority of Central America, including Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Why their civilization declined is unknown, but archaeologists and historians suggest it was due to a mixture of factors. They include wars, environmental destruction, overpopulation, trade route shifts, and long periods of drought.
The Mayans abandoned established cities between the late 8th century and 925 CE. Inhabitants moved to new areas, including Chichen Itza and Q’umarkaj, until Spanish conquistadores arrived in the early 1500s, and the final Mayan city fell in 1697. The Mayans’ vast civilization and large-scale movement to new areas means their ruins spread over a number of modern-day countries.
How Old Are the Mayan Ruins?
Mayan civilization began to flourish in 250CE. At this point, they built temples, massive cities, and palaces, and the population boomed. The majority of Mayan ruins that tourists visit today date from 250CE onwards. That makes them over 1,750 years old, but Mayans existed before 250CE. Some of their ruins carbon-date to 2,600 BCE.
Best Spots to Explore Mayan Ruins
The best spots to explore Mayan ruins don’t stop with Mexico. Hundreds of Mayan buildings lie uncovered or partially uncovered in El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras, which were once home to the mighty Mayans. If you’re interested in archaeological remains, Mayan cities are relatively unspoiled compared to Egypt, with far fewer pricey tourist shops and pressure sales. Here are the eight best spots to explore Mayan ruins.
1. Xunantunich, Belize
Xunantunich is a one-square-mile complex of ruins that overlooks the Mopan River in western Belize near the Guatemalan border. The site consists of at least 26 large palaces and temple structures. The most famous is El Castillo, a vast stone temple that archaeologists think was once a civic center for over 200,000 people. Despite its crumbling walls, it’s the second tallest building in Belize at 130 feet.
The name Xunantunich means “stone woman” and refers to an alleged ghost that’s wandered the complex since 1892 dressed in white with glowing red eyes. Modern exploration began in the early 1890s, and new discoveries still emerge. In 2016 archaeologists discovered a burial chamber containing a young male with animal bones, jade pearls, and obsidian knives.
2. Copán, Honduras
Near the border with Guatemala is Copan, a ruined city of temples, palaces, and incredible engraved stone stelae depicting Maya royals all the way back to the 6th century CE. You’ll find the famous Hieroglyphic Stairway, the longest piece of Mayan hieroglyphics uncovered, here. This was a capital city in the 5 – 9th centuries when the area was lush, green, and fertile. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a cultural monument.
This is one of the best spots to explore Mayan ruins because it’s quiet and located off the beaten track. Visitors can stay in the new town Copan located nearby.
3. Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal’s Mayan ruins form another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located in Guatemala’s north, Tikal National Park is home to the ruins of a major Mayan city called Yax Mutal. It housed over 100,000 Mayans at its peak in 600 CE. Ruins include six limestone temples over 200 feet tall and well-preserved palaces, but archaeologists think 75% of the city lies undisturbed beneath the thick rainforest.
Visitors must walk a mile through the rainforest to view Tikal’s ruins, but it doesn’t put intrepid tourists off. Tikal is so glorious, it’s very popular.
If the picture looks familiar to you, it’s because Tikal is the backdrop to several scenes in Star Wars Episode IV.
4. Chichen Itza, Mexico
The best-known Mayan ruin is Chichen Itza in the east Yucatan province of Mexico. Chichen Itza covers 1.9 square miles, and millions of tourists flock to see its ruins. The Kukulcan pyramid dedicated to a feathery serpent deity is especially popular. It rises 98 feet tall with nine square terraces climbing the sides.
Architecture in Chichen Itza differs from other Mayan ruins, and that’s chiefly because so many different nationalities lived there. It was a major city in the last few hundred years of Mayan civilization. It even has 13 well-preserved ball courts with tiered seating for spectators.
5. Palenque – Chipas, Mexico
Palenque is a small Mayan city in Chiapas, southern Mexico. It sits on a mountain near the Usumacinta River, and a thick rainforest surrounds the ruins. Experts think only 10% is currently uncovered.
These Mayan ruins were a thriving city in the 7th century, and many tourists believe it has the most intriguing and beautiful architecture. The Temple of the Inscriptions houses its one-time ruler Hanab-Pakal’s funerary monument, plus incredible hieroglyphics that outline the 180 years of the city’s ruling dynasty and their rivalry with nearby cities.
Palenque tops the list of best spots to explore Mayan ruins for advanced amateur archaeologists due to its rich inscriptions and hieroglyphics.
6. Calakmul, Mexico
Calakmul ruins in The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve of Campeche, Mexico, are all that remains of a major Mayan city that was home to 50,000 people. It dates back to 300 BCE and thrived during the golden Mayan age of 250 – 900 CE. Calakmul rivaled nearby Tikal over ownership of the fertile central lands.
More than any other Mayan ruin site, one hundred seventeen stelae were discovered here, and it is home to one of the largest Mayan pyramids, 147 feet “Estructura II.” Tourists can climb it and drink in an incredible view of the surrounding rainforest (you might spot a jaguar!). Seven thousand other structures, including the Gran Acropolis and more pyramids, make these quiet Mayan ruins a must-visit.
7. Tulum, Mexico
Beachfront ruins are not common, but the Mayan-walled city of Tulum sits on an ocean bluff over the Caribbean Sea on the east side of Quintana Roo, Mexico.
This was a port in Mayan times, with a lighthouse consisting of lit-up windows that guided sailors to safety over the barrier reef. Tulum was the last city constructed by Mayans in the 13th and 15th centuries, and as a result, the architecture is varied and highly skilled. Must views include the Temple of the Frescoes, the Temple of the Descending God, and El Castillo.
8. El Mirador, Guatamala
El Mirador is the largest pre-classical Mayan city, and its ruins chiefly lie beneath 2,000 years of rainforest growth. It’s deep in Guatemala’s Peten jungle and difficult to access. To visit El Mirador, tourists take a helicopter, mule or walk for a week through the rainforest.
Over 80,000 people lived here in Mayan times. It was double the size of Tikal. The civic center area alone covers 10 square miles. The architecture here is breathtaking. There are thousands of structures but because it was only discovered in 1926, a great part still lies beneath the rainforest.
One of the most amazing aspects of El Mirador was the inhabitants’ use of bajo swamps to fertilize crops in an otherwise nutrient-deficient tropical rainforest. Mayans brought thousands of tons of mud to the city and created raised terraces to grow cacao, beans, corn, squash, and cotton.
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