Mexico and Central America are nice places to lie on the beach and drink margaritas. But once upon a time, they were part of a huge civilization, with great cities and buildings that rivalled the pyramids of Egypt. It was all built by the Mayans, and if you visit these countries without seeing the ancient Mayan cities, you’re missing a great sight.
Imagine walking down a jungle pathway and turning a corner to see the ruins of a huge temple rising among the trees, with stone stelae at its feet. A thousand years ago someone stood in your footsteps, perhaps watching a procession led by priests wearing jaguar skins and elaborate headdresses. Hard to believe these places exist – and that they can be seen only a couple of hours from the holiday resort you booked.
The Mayan civilization lasted more than 2,000 years, and at different times covered large parts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. And while the Spanish conquistadors put an end to other native American empires, the great Mayan cities had mostly died out by the time they landed. There are still many things we don’t know about them. But what we do know – and what we can see – is amazing.
While every one is unique, most Mayan cities have a few common characteristics: major temples fronted by broad plazas; ball courts where they played a ceremonial game using a large rubber ball (the photo at top shows the one at Copan); and stelae, upright stone tablets or pillars with calendar inscriptions describing events in history. The Mayans had a sophisticated writing system and a knowledge of astronomy so exact that they could even predict eclipses.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit most of the important Mayan cities over the course of several trips. So I can bring you a look at them – kind of an essential guide to the great cities of the Maya. I’ll start in the Yucatan region of Mexico, which is the first place most tourists encounter these sites. However, these are some of the later Mayan cities, so as we head south, we’re journeying back in time.
This is the most famous Mayan city, and the one most northerners ever get to see. It lives up to the billing, too, with a huge complex of temples, monuments, and even an astronomical observatory, called El Caracol. The centrepiece is El Castillo (the Castle), seen above, a classic-looking, four-sided temple with an amazing feature: on the first day of spring and fall, the shadow of the staircase forms the shape of a snake, finally joining the serpent head at the foot of the stairs.
Chichen was a powerful city from 750 to 1200 A.D., but was mostly abandoned by the 1400s. Its name refers to a group of people called the Itza, but it’s thought to have been founded and occupied by people from several different groups rather than just the Mayans. Chichen was influenced by the culture of Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, and its architecture is not typically Mayan.
How to get there Chichen is a two- to three-hour drive from Cancun. You can easily see it on a day trip, or stay in a hotel in the nearby town of Piste and see the site in detail.
If you venture inland from Cancun, to the quaint colonial city of Merida, you have a chance to see one of the Mayan treasures: Uxmal. The excavated site is not that large, but it has some beautiful and remarkable buildings. The most memorable structure is the Temple of the Magician (left), an unusual, conical building that ranks as one of the most dramatic in the Mayan world. The view from the top is iconic, with the green forest stretching to the horizon.
Uxmal rose to power in what Mayan scholars call the late Classic period, from 600 to 1000 A.D. It was one of the largest urban centers of ancient Mexico. And like Chichen Itza, it was heavily influenced by the Mexican cultures to the north, which can be seen in its architecture and decorations. Many of the buildings are decorated with long-nosed images of Chac, the rain god.
How to get there Uxmal is about one-and-a-half hours from Merida. There are several other Mayan sites in the area, and tours are easily available.
This is a Mayan site like no other. Tulum is the only major Mayan city set on the coast, and its picturesque setting is a draw all by itself. You can even walk down to the beach and take a dip. The ruins themselves are not huge; the most imposing structure is the square tower on the cliff overlooking the sea (also called El Castillo). But the site is filled with interesting details, frescoes and murals.
Tulum came to prominence in the 13th century, in the last days of the Mayan civilization. The walled city is thought to have been a trading port, receiving goods such as salt and textiles. The city was still thriving when the Spanish arrived – they were surprised to see its brightly painted walls rising above the sea coast. But it declined soon afterward, apparently due to European diseases.
How to get there Tulum is about a three-hour drive south of Cancun, and two hours south of Playa del Carmen. Organized tours aren’t needed; you can wander the site on your own. Tulum makes an ideal day from the beach resorts. However, the local area is popular with vacationers, too, and is even becoming a snowbird haven.
One of the less-know Mayan sites, the ancient city of Lamanai is nonetheless well worth the trip if you’re travelling through Belize. It’s a fascinating site, filled with major temples and other intriguing features. The major attraction is the Mask Temple (seen above), decorated by two huge faces with crocodile headdresses. There’s also a mystery: a stela commemorating an ancient ruler, under which archaeologists found the remains of five children. Who were they?
Lamanai was one of the longest-lived Mayan cities; the site was inhabited as early as 1500 B.C., and was still thriving in Spanish times. The city was a centre for producing copper, which may explain its longevity. And it was a big place in its heyday, with a dozen major buildings and more than 100 minor structures. Only about 5 percent of the site has been excavated.
How to get there Lamanai is best reached from Orange Walk on a boat trip down the New River. The one-hour boat ride is good fun, with great scenery and lots of wildlife to see.
Of all the large Mayan cities, the amazing city of Tikal rivals Chichen Itza as the most impressive. Looming out of the jungles of Guatemala is a city filled with classic pyramids, whose cock’s-comb headpieces have become one of the symbols of the Mayan civilization. The site is extensive. You walk through a series of plazas and courtyards, surrounded by jungle filled with exotic birds and animals. The main plaza, with a huge temple at each end, is a famous landmark that has been featured in Hollywood movies.
Tikal was one of the earliest of the major Mayan cities, inhabited from 600 B.C. to 900 A.D. At its peak, between 600 and 900 A.D., it was a huge city, covering more than 16 square kilometres (6.2 square miles), with about 3,000 structures. Its population has been estimated at up to 100,000. The ruins include living quarters, where you can stand in the rooms where the ancient Mayans spent their time: here’s some video.
How to get there Tikal is a 45-minute drive from the Guatemalan town of Flores; many tour operators will take you there. Flores is a five-hour drive from Belize City, but you can fly into the Mundo Maya International Airport near town; it’s a one-hour flight from Guatemala City or Belize City.
Almost forgotten in the highlands of Honduras, Copan is actually one of the most remarkable of the Mayan cities. It’s sometimes called the Florence of the Mayan world, because it takes the Mayan decorative arts to heights not seen in the other sites. Most Mayan sculptures were carved into the sides of buildings, in bas-relief, but in Copan you see real figures, almost in full figure. Stelae in the city’s courtyards show ancient kings in realistic detail, with some of the original paint still showing (see the photo at top right in this post). There’s also a monumental stone staircase with an inscription of 2,000 glyphs, the longest ancient Mayan inscription ever discovered.
Copan was one of the later Mayan cities, occupied between roughly 426 and 820 A.D. Its population peaked at about 26,000 people around the year 750. The city was ruled by a dynasty of 16 kings during that time; a stone altar on the site shows all of them, with the first king passing the baton forward. Copan was continuously rebuilt. Beneath one of its temples is another entire temple, still intact — a reproduction on display is spectacular.
How to get there Copan is near a quaint town that’s named for it — Copan Ruinas. But it’s a long trek to get there by bus from La Ceiba or Tegucigalpa; many visitors reach the site by crossing the border from Guatemala, near Antigua.
That’s a look at the Mayan cities I’ve visited, and if you get to all of them, you’ll have had a pretty good overview of the Mayan world. However, there are many more Mayan cities you can visit. The most prominent is Palenque, in the foothills of Chiapas, southern Mexico, but there are literally hundreds of ruins scattered through the jungles of Mexico and Central America. So next time you head south for some time in the sun, take a look to see what’s in the area: there could be Mayan history right under your nose.