Although it’s just one of several ancient civilizations that developed in Mesoamerica, the Maya civilization is one of the best known and largest. The Maya region extends over most of southeast Mexico—including the states of Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana Roo, and portions of Chiapas and Tabasco—and stretches into Central America. The Maya made major advances in mathematics and astronomy, they also had a complex writing system and well-developed art and architecture. On a visit to one of their ancient cities, you can be astounded by the achievements and enigmas that remain around this ancient culture.
One of the most impressive Maya sites, Chichen Itza is located in the central Yucatan state. At its height between 600 and 1200 A.D., it was the administrative center of the Maya world, as well as a religious center and trading hub. Some of the outstanding buildings include a circular observatory known as El Caracol, the Warriors’ Temple, and the main temple, El Castillo (also known as the Temple of Kukulcan). This site is famous worldwide for the play of light and shadow on the steps of the pyramid that occurs during the equinox. The site also contains a sacred cenote, a natural well that the inhabitants of the region considered one of the main entrances to the underworld, home of the gods.
Travel Tip: Be sure to get to Chichen Itza early before the crowds and the heat set in. After touring the site, visit the Ik-Kil cenote for a refreshing dip before your trip back to your hotel.
With a privileged scenic location overlooking the Caribbean Sea, Tulum is on the Riviera Maya about 80 miles south of Cancun. It was a major religious and commercial hub between 800 and 1600 A.D. The 40-foot-tall (12-meter) limestone cliff and the high wall surrounding the site provided defense against invaders from both land and sea. The most prominent structure is El Castillo which has a temple on the upper level with three entrances. Its facade was decorated with sculptures and masks in the corners. The Temple of the Frescoes has unique corner masks gracing the exterior and inside are the remains of a mural painting depicting ancient ceremonies and Maya deities including the creator god, Itzamná, and the goddess of fertility and medicine, Ixchel. The Temple of the Descending God is so named because there is an unusual figure that appears to be diving headfirst toward earth above the main doorway.
Travel Tip: The beach at Tulum is very enticing. Wear a swimsuit underneath your clothes so you don’t have to waste time changing after visiting the archaeological site.
Located in the lush green jungle in the northern part of Chiapas state, this site is characterized by its elegant and well-crafted architecture and beautiful sculptural art. When it was at its peak during the late Classic period (roughly 600 to 900 A.D.), its influence extended over a large part of the Maya highlands area—what is today the states of Chiapas and Tabasco. Inscriptions at Palenque document a dynastic sequence stretching from the 5th century through to the end of the 8th century. The site is best known for the Temple of the Inscriptions, the mortuary shrine containing the tomb of king Kʼinich Janaabʼ Pakal.
Travel Tip: Don’t miss the site museum at Palenque which contains a replica of Pakal’s tomb as well as an impressive collection of sculptured art, busts, jade jewelry, and intricately decorated incense burners.
The ancient Maya city of Uxmal (pronounced “oosh-mal”) is located in Yucatan state, 50 miles south of Mérida. Proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, Uxmal flourished during the Classic period from around 700 to 1000 A.D. during which it was a major center of worship. This is one of the most representative settlements of the Puuc region which is characterized by intricately decorated facades with frets, tall crests, panels with hieroglyphics, and masks of Chac, the Maya rain god. The central part of the ancient city contains pyramids, plazas, palace structures, and a ball court. Among the most representative buildings are the colossal Magician’s Pyramid, the grand Nunnery Quadrangle, and the House of the Doves. The Magician’s Pyramid, standing over 105 feet (32 meters) tall, is the tallest manmade structure in the Puuc region.
Travel Tip: Uxmal is about an hour’s drive from Mérida. You can visit this site as a day trip along the Puuc Route which includes a few smaller archaeological sites including Labná, Sayil, Kabah, and X-Lapak.
Located in Quintana Roo state about 120 miles south of Cancun and 40 miles northwest of Tulum, Cobá was built around two large lagoons. The city developed centralizing economic and political power and controlled several nearby towns during its peak between 300 and 800 A.D. A series of elevated stone and plaster causeways known as sacbe (plural sacbeob) connect Cobá to various smaller sites; the longest runs over 60 miles west to the site of Yaxuna. One of the tallest pyramids in the area, Nohoch Mul, at over 135 feet (41 meters) in height, is one of the very few high pyramids you can still climb. It’s located about a mile from the main entrance to the site. There are bicycles available to rent or you can hire a rickshaw with a driver to give you a lift to Nohoch Mul.
Travel Tip: You can visit both Tulum and Cobá on a day trip from Cancun. On the road between Tulum and Cobá, you’ll pass the Gran Cenote, a great spot to enjoy a refreshing dip
Bonampak is an extensive site in the jungle of southern Chiapas state. Much of the ancient city remains unexcavated and is covered by vegetation. The most amazing find here is the Temple of the Paintings, which has three chambers covered in vivid murals that depict events in the lives of the last ruling family of Bonampak, King Chan Muwan and his wife Lady Rabbit. Each room has a separate theme: the first has images of celebration with musicians and dancing; the second shows warriors, battle scenes, and sacrifice; and the third is a display of ritual bloodletting. Dating to around 790 A.D., these are some of the best-preserved examples of the painted art of the Maya.
Travel Tip: Located about 110 miles from Palenque and 27 miles from Yaxchilan along the Carretera Fronteriza (Highway 307), Bonampak is best visited on an organized tour from Palenque. If you go independently, be sure to arrive at your lodgings before nightfall as it is not recommended to travel in the area after dark.
You’ll need to take a boat to reach Yaxchilán which is located deep within the tropical rainforest in Chiapas state, just across the Usumacinta river from Guatemala. This site is known for its detailed facades and large ornamented roof combs and lintels. Besides beautiful architecture, Yaxchilán also contains many examples of ancient Mayan script, with numerous texts appearing on stelae, altars, and lintels. The inscriptions convey information about the life and times of the Maya people, narrating conflicts as well as the establishment of alliances with other groups. But the inscriptions mainly tell us of the dynasty of rulers of the site including Jaguar Shield I (681 to 742 A.D.), Jaguar IV Bird (752 to 768 A.D.) and Jaguar II Shield (771 to 800 A.D.).
Travel Tip: Hire a boat from Frontera Corozal for a one-hour trip along the river to the archaeological site. You can visit both Yaxchilan and Bonampak on a day trip from Palenque, or stay in the Lacandon jungle at the Campamento Río Lacanja.
Located in the state of Campeche, deep in the jungles of the greater Petén Basin region, Calakmul is very close to the border with Guatemala. Recent investigations show that during the Classic period, this was one of the largest and most powerful cities in the Maya highlands and it headed the political organization of the region, along with Palenque in Chiapas state, and Tikal in Guatemala. Inscriptions found at the site show that Calakmul and Tikal had an intense political rivalry that lasted nearly a century. The site has unique urban planning, with a settlement pattern adapted to its surroundings featuring five architectural groups that were connected by squares. There are over 6,500 structures at Calakmul, the largest is the great pyramid (Structure 2), which is over 40 feet (12 meters) high, making it one of the tallest Maya pyramids.
Travel Tip: The archaeological site is located within the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, and although it is a major site, it is remote and few people visit. It’s a good idea to go with an organized tour such as the one offered by Ka’an Expeditions.
Dzibichaltún was a large and important city in the far north of the Yucatán Peninsula, about halfway between Mérida and the port town of Progreso. The site is an inland settlement just 9 miles from the ocean, so it enjoyed the advantages of being a port location and having reasonably fertile and habitable terrain. The site was occupied from the late Pre-Classic to the late Post-Classic period, but its main buildings date to the Classic period. A sacbe (“white road”) leads to the main structure, the Temple of the Seven Dolls, getting its name from seven terracotta figures that were found inside. Twice a year, on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the rising sun shines through one window and out another, evidence of the incredible mathematical and astronomical knowledge of the ancient Maya. Many people gather every year to see this effect.
Travel Tip: The site has an interesting museum, the Museum of the Maya People, so be sure to check that out, and bring your swimsuit for a refreshing dip in the Xlakah Cenote located within the archaeological site. It is a particularly beautiful cenote with crystalline water and lilies floating on the surface.
A beautiful Maya city, located in the lowlands of Yucatan state 16 miles north of Valladolid, Ek' Balam was at its height from 770 to 840 A.D. Only a small portion of the entire site has been excavated and the elite ceremonial area is surrounded by concentric walls which may have been used for defense as well as to restrict access. The largest structure at Ekʼ Balam is the Acropolis. It houses the tomb of King Ukit Kan Leʼk Tok', an important ruler who was buried with a rich offering made up of more than 7,000 pieces including ceramic vessels, and objects made of gold, shells, and snails. The building towers at over 100 feet (30.5 meters) high and there’s a stunning view from the top for those daring enough to climb the steep steps. There are decorated panels along the facade including interesting and intricately carved winged figures outside the tomb. Raised causeways stretch out in all directions, a testimony to the connections the dwellers of this ancient city had with other settlements.
Travel Tip: X’Canche cenote is about a mile from the archaeological site. You can rent a bike or hire a rickshaw driver to take you there for a swim. You’ll have to navigate some steep steps to get down to the cenote, but down by the water there’s a rope swing where you can release your inner Tarzan.
Founded during the second half of the 8th century, the walled city of Mayapán is considered to be the last great capital of the Maya culture in the Postclassic period. Located about 25 miles south of Mérida, in its heyday this city exercised dominion over the entire Yucatan Peninsula. The site seems to be modeled after Chichen Itza, with structures that are near replicas of Kukulkán Pyramid and Observatory. The excavated Central Plaza has structures that served civic, administrative, and religious purposes, and there are also residences for the site's governing class. The Hall of the Frescoes, located on the southern side of the Central Plaza, consists of a corridor with columns resting on a low-lying platform and contains fragments of mural painting.
Travel Tip: Mayapán makes a great day trip from Mérida. It’s closer, less crowded, and much cheaper to visit than Chichen Itza. There are not many organized tours that go here, so you’ll have to go independently: rent a car, or take public transportation. Just make sure to go to Mayapán the ruins, not the town of the same name!
Located 30 miles southwest of the city of Campeche in the state of the same name, Edzná was at its peak during the Classic period between 550 and 810 A.D. At this site you'll see a combination of three different Maya architectural styles, Puuc, Petén, and Chenes. The Great Acropolis is a central platform that supports five structures including the “Five-Floor Building” which had intricate stucco carvings on each step, remnants of which can still be seen today. The Temple of the Masks gets its name from stucco masks representing the Sun god that decorate it. This god is represented with crossed-eyes, nose rings and earrings, ear shells, and a spectacular headdress. The site had a well-developed hydraulic system of rainwater collection, storage, and irrigation with canals and “chultunes,” bottle-shaped underground water storage chambers that functioned as cisterns.
Travel Tip: A visit to Edzná makes a great day trip if you’re staying in Campeche. Take an organized tour that includes other archaeological sites, or rent a car and go on your own. On the way back, make a stop at the restaurant at Hacienda Uayamon for a great meal and to discover the beautiful 17th-century hacienda.
Kohunlich is a large site in the state of Quintana Roo, 40 miles east of the state capital Chetumal. This ancient city was built in an area which is partly flat and partly hilly, with small ravines and creeks passing through. Kohunlich has administrative buildings, ceremonial areas, and palaces as well as residential complexes and a ball court. The principal structures were built during the city’s peak in the late Classic period (600 to 900 A.D.). The Temple of the Masks was decorated with eight large faces (only five of which are preserved) molded in polychrome stucco. They are thought to represent real historical figures who are shown with attributes related to the sun. The building of the 27 steps, a large platform which was used as an elite residential area, is the farthest structure from the entrance. Climb to the top of the platform for great panoramic views of the jungle below.
Travel Tip: Kohunlich is a large site but rarely visited. Although the Explorean Kohunlich resort is very close by, there are few tourist services here for the general public so be sure to take drinking water and snacks or a picnic lunch with you.