Where to See the Most Impressive Mayan Ruins
The Mayan empire ruled a large part of Mesoamerica from 1800 B.C. to 900 A.D. After mysteriously falling from power, they left behind countless archaeological treasures.
Visiting Mayan ruins is one of the best ways to understand the wide-reaching impact of this once powerful empire in Mexico and Central America. Though many sites remain unearthed or undiscovered, the ones open to visitors are absolutely astonishing. Several are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and one is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Ready to learn about this fascinating civilization? Head to these five countries to see Mayan ruins.
Who Were the Mayans?
Why are the Mayans such a big deal?
For over 3,000 years, the Mayans were one of the most powerful civilizations in Mesoamerica, with the height of their power lasting from 250 to 900 A.D.
As an empire that conquered a large part of Mesoamerica, the Mayan civilization exerted great cultural influence over the region. The empire partially imposed its language and traditions on all the people who lived in its acquired territories.
This civilization is famous for many things. One is the size of its cities. In its classic period, the empire had over 40 cities, some with populations of around 50,000 people. Though tiny by modern standards, compare this to London in the year 1000 A.D., when the population was 10,000 to 25,000 people.
Astrology and mathematics were other things that the Mayans excelled in. The Mayan calendar was intricate and very accurate, even by modern standards. Most impressively, the civilization used the concept of zero as early as 350 A.D., around 800 years before Europeans.
What Happened to the Mayans?
After the Spanish arrived in Mexico, the Mayans fought long and hard battles with them. Mayan cities continued fighting for independence a full 176 years after the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan fell in 1521.
Despite common misconceptions, the Mayans did not disappear. There are over 6,000 native Mayan speakers today, and many more thousands keep their ancestral culture alive despite not speaking the language. Mayan influence can be seen in the cuisine of Central America, in the present-day names of cities and in religious ceremonies.
You can partake in some of these traditions when you visit historically Mayan territories. For instance, you can do a temazcal ceremony, an ancient practice of purification that takes place with a shaman in a sweat lodge.
But where can you find the relics left over by this ancient civilization?
The Most Important Mayan Ruins in Guatemala
Although people tend to associate the Mayans with Mexico, the capital of the Mayan empire was actually Tikal, which is located in Guatemala. The Mayans spread throughout most of Guatemala's territory, to the extent that it would be difficult to visit the country and not find Mayan people or culture.
For this reason, Guatemala is the best place to learn about the Mayans and to see their ruins. UNESCO-listed Tikal should, of course, be your priority, as the largest site left behind by the empire. This incredible archaeological complex extends 6.2 square miles and has the remnants of over 3,000 structures.
Other Mayan Ruins in Guatemala
Intrepid travelers will also want to go to El Mirador, a rare Mayan site whose inaccessibility has kept tourists at bay. To reach it, you must do a five to six-day (round-trip) hike or trek by mule through the jungle. Expect minimal comforts, but the reward of seeing this hidden pre-Classic Era city is very much worth it.
Other amazing Mayan sites in Guatemala include Aguateca, which is considered the best-preserved site in the country, and Tak'Alik Ab'Aj, which combines elements of Mayan and Olmec architecture and culture.
The Most Important Mayan Ruins in Mexico
Mexico was another center of Mayan culture and is home to some of the empire's most important sites.
You can find Mayan ruins in the Mexican states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Chiapas and Tabasco. Yucatan is the most famous of the states for travelers seeking to visit archaeological treasures as it holds the most famous Mayan city: Chichen Itza.
One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza is truly incomparable. The complex is defined by the Castle, a pyramid that once served as a temple to Kukulkan, an important feathered serpent deity. Twice a year, during the equinoxes, thousands of people gather outside the pyramid to watch the sun create the illusion of a slithering serpent, meant to represent the coming of Kukulkan.
Other Mayan Ruins in Mexico
But if the jewel of the Mayan world isn't enough to satisfy your curiosity, there are countless other sites to visit throughout the country. In Quintana Roo, the Tulum Archaeological Zone is very popular, since its proximity to the sea gives it breathtaking beauty.
Calakmul in Campeche is part of a protected biosphere reserve, so you'll get fewer people and have the amazing experience of trekking through ruins in the jungle. Also in Campeche is Edzná, whose numerous inhabitants mastered irrigation to control water for living and farming.
In Chiapas are Palenque and Yaxchilan. Palenque was one of the most important cities of the Classic Mayan period and home to one of the most powerful dynasties of the time. Yaxchilan was a rival city-state to both Palenque and Tikal, as well as a center of commerce. Today, much of its allure consists of it being relatively unknown and, therefore, devoid of suffocating crowds.
The Most Important Mayan Ruins in Belize
Like in Guatemala, the territory that is now Belize was completely engulfed by the Mayan Empire. Visiting Mayan ruins is one of the country's most popular activities, as well as one of its biggest sources of pride.
Belize has 12 major Mayan sites, the largest of which is Caracol. At its height, it was bigger than present-day Belize City, the country's largest metropolitan area (though not its capital). The highlight of your visit will be the Sky Palace, or Canna, which rises around 143 feet.
Other Mayan Ruins in Belize
The remote sites of Lamanai and Xunantunich offer a great adventure, since you have to take a boat or a hand-cranked ferry to get to them. This alone makes a visit well worth it, though you will also be impressed by the beauty of the ruins surrounded by the jungle.
You'll have the opportunity to see plenty of wildlife as well, including numerous species of birds and howler monkeys. Climb the Castle in Xunantunich for a 360-degree view that, on good days, goes as far as Guatemala.
If you don't have a lot of time in Belize, you can visit Altun Ha, which is located a mere hour away from Belize City. This makes it easily accessible for even cruise passengers visiting Belize for a few hours.
The Most Important Mayan Ruins in Honduras
The Mayans extended their reach to the northwestern areas of present-day Honduras, mostly in the departments of Copan, Ocotepeque and Santa Barbara.
Copan is named after the country's most important and most famous Mayan site. As one of the cultural and commercial centers of the empire, Copan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also the best-preserved archaeological complex in Honduras.
Other Mayan Ruins in Honduras
Near Copan, you'll find El Rastrojon. Unlike most other important Mayan sites, el Rastrojon was not a city, but a military complex. It served as a defense point for Copan during the many wars between the Mayan city-states.
Other sites near Copan are El Puente, a smaller Mayan city, and Rio Amarillo. In the latter, you can witness Mayan burial rituals, as 145 burials of Copal's elite have been found.
The Most Important Mayan Ruins in El Salvador
Most people aren't aware that El Salvador has its own Mayan sites, probably because none of the centers of the empire were located within its borders.
Still, no visit to El Salvador is complete without a trip to at least one of its Mayan ruins. Most people focus on El Tazumal, in the Santa Ana department. Though it was only inhabited for about a century, it showcases the intricate irrigation and drainage engineering that the Mayans achieved.
The archaeological zone also serves as evidence of the Mayan ritual of human sacrifice, as it holds 23 tombs holding the bodies of 33 victims.
Other Mayan Ruins in El Salvador
Joya de Cerén is another interesting site, mostly because it's one of the very few in which the lives of the lower classes have been well-preserved. As with most civilizations, written records and artifacts tend to focus on the elite classes, given that these were the people with access to long-lasting precious metals and stones.
This former agricultural town has no large temples or grand structures of the ruling classes, but small homes where you can see how the majority of the Mayan population lived.
At Casa Blanca Archaeological Site, you'll find an interesting mix of Mayan, Aztec and Toltec cultures. Cihuatan is interesting because of its large size and for being one of the southernmost Mayan sites in Central America.
The complex is also distinguished for having been built during the post-Classic period, after the sharp decline of the Mayan Empire's power.
Where Did the Mayans Live?
This map shows the extent of the Mayan Empire and the locations of their civilization.
As you can see, Mayan influence stretched across Central America from the coast of the Pacific Ocean to the Yucatán Peninsula, which separates the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.