No trip to Mexico is complete without a visit to at least one Mayan ruin. Of course, if you can see five…that’s even better!
The Mayan civilization is known for its hieroglyph writing, architectural feats, and impressive astrological and mathematical knowledge (which produced an astonishingly sophisticated calendar system).Since the Maya of Mexico were the most advanced civilization of Mesoamerica,the ruins attract visitors to Mexico in their droves.
There are nearly 200 Mayan ruins sites you can explore in Mexico and Honduras and the great majority is yet to be discovered! Here, we’ve taken a look at the top five places, each of them revealing their very own magic.
1. Ek Balam
Ek Balam (meaning ‘glorious jaguar’ in Mayan), a rather smallish site covering an area of 1 km² which was inhabited from 700 to 1000 AD, is located in the bush some 25 kilometres north of Valladolid. It’s not (yet) well-known and thus less frequented than the major ruins like Chichén Itzá or Tulúm. It was discovered by the Spanish back in the 16th century and is nowadays perfectly maintained.
The main attraction of Ek Balam is hands down the stucco front with its magnificent pattern and spectacular three-dimensional sculptures, which can be found on the stairs of the main pyramid. The latter is still accessible and has a height of 30 m. Don’t let the extremely steep stairs keep you from climbing it; the view up there is simply priceless!
2. Chichén Itzá
The Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá are the most famous in all of Mexico and represent Maya civilisation at its peak. The downside to this is, of course, the crowds. During peak season, Chichén Itzá can get very busy. However, the ruins found in this huge, 1,600-acre complex are simply breathtaking, no more so than the iconic Kukulkan Pyramid, which dominates the skyline. The Kukulkan Pyramid was named as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
Don’t forget to clap in front of the steps of the Kukulkán pyramid and right in the middle of the Great Ball Court; you’ll be surprised by the result!
Uxmál, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, can be found about 80 km southwest of Mérida – the capital of the state of Yucatán – and (together with Chichén Itzá) represents one of the most important Maya sites of the Yucatán Peninsula. Its period of glory is assumed to have been between the 8th and 10th century when roughly 20.000 inhabitants populated the ancient city. Of the many fascinating structures at Uxmal, the most impressive is the Magician’s Pyramid. Legend has it the Magician’s Pyramid was constructed by a magician-god named Itzamna in a single night. After its construction, the Mayans used it as a school for shamans, astronomers and healers.
Widely regarded as the most atmospheric and impressive of all the Mayan sites in Mexico, the Palenque complex rises out of the Chiapas rainforest. The dense jungle growth enveloping parts of the complex, combined with the dramatic mountain scenery surrounding Palenque, have given it this deserved reputation. The Palenque complex is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More Mayan hieroglyphics have been discovered at Palenque than at any other complex in the world, making the Temple of Inscriptions is a must see.
“Chiapas for me has the most impressive Mayan archaeological sites,” adds Susannah Rigg of Mexico Retold. “Located in lush jungle settings, they are beautiful and evocative as well as being rich in history. Whether you visit Palenque or go further off the beaten track to Yaxchilan or check out the murals at Bonampak, prepare to be awed.”
Perhaps the only temple complex in Mexico that can challenge Palenque’s location, the Mayan temples at Tulum are perched spectacularly on top of a cliff, looking out over the Caribbean Sea on the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. The walled-off site includes the Castillo, an early tower to spot ships from, and the Templo de las Pinturas, a partially restored wall painting believed to be from the 13th century. Although they are architecturally not as interesting as the ones in Uxmál or Ek Balam, the spot itself will absolutely enchant you with its breathtaking surroundings.