The Mayan Ruins of Central America

Eleanor Hughes


Spectacular Mayan ruins dot Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, shrouded in rainforest, on open ground, or overlooking the Caribbean. There’s more than a bunch of rocks to look at – see soaring temples, intricate designs carved on stones, open plazas and ball courts. Enthusiastic guides bring the ruins to life and pass on their knowledge of the Mayan civilisation – the theories on why it died out, their way of life, their counting system, their beliefs, and much more as you walk in Mayan footsteps through ancient cities once teeming with life.

Visit Coastal Tulum, Mexico

Overlooking the Caribbean Sea on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, Tulum was one of the last Mayan cities to be built, around the late 13th Century. A major port, its clifftop walls still remain. The main sight at what is a flattish, open grassed area with clusters of palm trees, is El Castillo, a 7.5-metre high pyramid. From here there are fantastic views over white sandy beaches and the turquoise ocean which provided the Mayan with much of their food. Organised along ‘streets’ many stone building platforms with stairs leading up to them remain, the wooden houses and thatched roofs which sat atop long gone. Walls and columns still stand as does the Temple of the Frescoes with sculptured figures along its walls.

Visit the ruins early, they do get crowded and it gets extremely hot. Tulum has a number of resorts along its beachfront or for a freshwater dip check out the picturesque cenotes (natural water-filled sinkholes) in the vicinity. Alternatively, Tulum is a day trip from Cancun (130 kilometres away) or Playa del Carmen (64 kilometres). 

Tour Tikal, Guatemala at Sunrise

Tikal was first settled somewhere between 900 – 300 BC, with construction thought to have commenced about 300BC and continuing for 800 years. Tikal National Park, 575 square kilometres of jungle, is home to thousands of ruins.

Sunrise tours begin at 4 a.m. Still pitch black for around an hour, torchlight is required to walk silent forest paths to Temple IV. A climb of 65 metres brings visitors to the top of the pyramid temple. The day slowly dawn, the forest awakens. The sun slowly silhouettes a number of temples to the sounds of chirping, whistling, and howling, howler monkeys… unless it’s misty.

The tour then progresses along forest paths amongst a number of structures and an opportunity to climb several steep-sided temples, some of the highest Mayan ruins found. It’s extremely atmospheric wandering through the rainforest in the mist or watching it clear from the top of a temple revealing other distant pyramids towering above the forest canopy while green parrots screech and yellow-billed toucan fly over.

Onsite hotels are located just outside Tikal National Park, where guides pick visitors up from hotel lobbies at 4 a.m. for the sunrise tour which ends at 9.30 a.m. Staying at onsite hotels gives the opportunity to remain in the park all day. Tikal is approximately 1 ½ hours from Flores which can be reached by bus or plane from Guatemala City.

Travel by Boat to Yaxchilán, Mexico

Yaxchilán is located on the banks of Usumacinta River, the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The ruins are only accessible by a 45 minute-ish, small boat trip from the town of Frontera Corozal, Mexico.

Take an early morning visit, it’s quite mystical travelling along the rainforest-lined river in a mist as the day awakens. Being one of the first to arrive amongst sun-dappled ruins nestled in the forest gives a feeling of being the first to discover it.

Occupied from around 250AD to 900AD, green moss-covered temples, Ceiba trees atop with roots winding amongst ruins, appear to have grown up out of the jungle. Vegetation covers stony mounds hiding unexcavated structures, howler and spider monkeys swing through trees above. The site is known for its sculptured stone lintels, hieroglyphics carved on stone blocks describing the history of the city and roof combs – walls rising above rooflines to give the temples greater height and quite ornate. See intricate carvings of bejewelled rulers. Steep, uneven rock stairs lead to temples looking down over open, grassed spaces, once plazas.

There’s accommodation in Frontera Corozal or tour here from Palenque, a larger town, 190 kilometres away.

See a Palace in Palenque, Mexico

Palenque ruins, considered one of the most important archaeological sites of Mesoamerica, are located a few kilometres out of Palenque. Spread over 15 square kilometres of jungle, only a central part has been excavated. El Palacio is perhaps the most interesting, still being reconstructed it has ornate carvings, corridors, rooms, an ancient toilet, and four main courtyards. Climb tiers of temple stairs (you’ll be puffing – they’re steep) and enjoy views over the complex of temples, plazas, tombs and an intricate drainage system. Distant temples are glimpsed amongst foliage where tree-covered mounds are still to be excavated.

In the far west of the Yucatán Peninsula, there are direct flights to Palenque from Mexico City, or buses from numerous Mexican towns including Mérida and San Cristóbal de las Casas. 

Visit Iconic Chichén Itzá, Mexico

With the impressive 25 metre El Castillo at the centre of it, probably the most photographed and well-known Mayan ruin, Chichén Itzá is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

El Castillo was built so that in the spring and autumn equinoxes it appears as if a snake twists down its stairs to a carved snake head at the base. Clapping at the bottom of those stairs results in a bird-sounding echo. Incredible.

See Mesoamerica’s biggest ball court with large stone hoops high on the sides of walls where decapitation scenes are carved. These walls create an amphitheatre, echoing voices. There are sacrificial platforms, a plaza of columns – hundreds of carved stone pillars lined up, and a huge number of other structures, some with a little colour remaining on their carvings. Here too, is a sacred cenote, a natural well of bright green water.

Arrive early to avoid crowds. Stay in the small, nearby town of Pisté or day trip from Cancún, Mérida, Playa del Carmen or Tulum.

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