The civilization known as the Maya was one of the most popular and advanced civilizations that inhabited central America. The earliest reports of Mayan temples and ruins were dated back to 2000 BC, but most of the modern day ruins are closer to 500 AD. Something strange happened within the civilization where most of the ruins we know of today were abandoned and all the people living in them up and vanished. Many have speculated that this was due to population increasing, climate change, or conflict among the Mayan civilization and the different cities within it.
Over the years these amazing Mayan ruins have been slowly discovered revealing even more information about their civilization. Everything from their ancient language to the Mayan calendar was discovered while in search of these ruins. While you may know of the main and most popular Mayan ruin as Chichén Itzá there are several others spread out all across Central America that are worth noting and may even be worth visiting. Places like Guatemala feature much more architecturally advanced designs in the Mayan ruins. Don't worry most of the ruins are near each other so several can be easily visited in a days time.
The Copan Ruins is close to the town of Santa Rosa de Copán near Guatemala's border. It had a single ruler and was an important part of Mayan history. The ruins served as a hub of sorts for politics. Archaeologists discovered that the Copan ruins have the most up to date and the accurate Mayan calendar. The ruins are fairly large so you will want to plan to be walking around a lot and plan a lot of time to see everything that Copan has to offer. Once you are done seeing the Mayan ruins of Copan you can take the rest of your time enjoying the sights at the nearby cities of Guatemala City, Antigua, and San Salvador.
Most of the ruins you will see on this list are of original names given to them by the Mayans. However, that is not the case with Lamanai located in Belize. The name Lamanai was given to the structure by the Spanish who originally discovered the structure after the Mayans vanished. The structure is the oldest inhabited Mayan ruins with it being inhabited for over 3000 years. The structure has seen better days but you can still easily climb the High Temple and get a great view of the surrounding jungles. You may even see your fair share of wildlife like crocodiles!
Yaxhá located in Guatemala is a Mayan temple that when translated means green water. This is likely due to the location of the temple being between two lakes known as Lake Yaxhá and Lake Sacna. Yaxhá is one of the largest Mayan ruins in the world but that doesn't mean it has the most to look at. In fact, Yaxhá is one of the Mayan ruins in which most of the history of it is unknown. It was only discovered in the 20th century and since then little has been discovered about its past. Due to this lack of history, the site doesn't see many tourists but it is still worth the visit to see the amazing architecture.
While there isn't much left of Iximche it is still definitely worth a visit to see the amazing architecture and the views from the hill that it was built on are amazing. The history behind the Iximche ruins is interesting in regards to the inhabitant's relationship with the Spaniards. The Iximche would help the Spaniards overturn other Mayan cities and due to their location atop the hill, they had great defenses. However, this didn't last very long as the Mayan's disappeared and the Spaniards decided to destroy what was left as best they could.
The Caracol ruins located in Belize is unique in its structures that tower over the lands of Belize. The structure known as the Caana is the country's tallest manmade structure. The Caana is nicknamed the Sky Palace as you can see just about anywhere from the top of it. The Caracol ruins are also the largest Mayan ruins in the entire country reaching over 35,000 total ruins within it. There has been much of the Mayan's history uncovered in this large temple, some of which were interesting tactics the Mayans used such as their battle plans! If you are looking for great views and to learn a lot about the history of the Mayans then this is your best bet.
Palenque ruins located in Mexico is one of the smaller of the Mayan ruins but that isn't saying much as it still boasts a lot of history within it. Not only that but the architecture used to make the ruins are some of the most unique on this list. The ruins resemble that of renaissance type architecture. While there isn't much in the way of Mayan battle strategy here the ruins are known to have highlighted the more artistic side of the Mayan culture. The ruins are part of the Palenque National Park, so not only can you visit the ruins but you can hike the beautiful trails after you are done absorbing the history of the Mayan culture.
If you want to visit Cerros located near Belize you will have to travel to the Carribean to access it. The pyramids and other structures overlook the Corozal Bay and make for beautiful sights. However, over the years parts of these structures have begun to be submerged into the bay making them inaccessible. The site has a lot of history and culture including things like masks and other culture-defining pieces that came from the Pre-Classic era. The best way to get to the ruins is by boat but there is a road that you can use to access it as well.
Joya de Cerén located in El Salvador doesn't have many neighboring ruins but it may be worth it to go out of your way to see these ruins. In the seventh century, a volcano known as Loma Caldera exploded covering the civilization and its ruins in ash. This is how the ruins garnered the nickname “Pompeii of the Americas". Due to the large amount of ash that covered the villages and the ruins, many of the structures are better preserved than many of the other Mayan ruin sites. It gives a great look into the past of Mayan architecture.
The Tulum ruins are located right on the coast so if you are a fan of soaking up the sun and the ocean then you may want to consider visiting the ruins. Located in Mexico the Tulum ruins overlook the ocean and were one of the latest Mayan temples to be built in the 15th century. The two main structures worth checking out are the Temple of the Frescoes and the Temple of the Descending God, both of which have similar but unique architecture. The nearby town is great if you are into trendy restaurants and shopping areas. The Tulum ruins are located in the perfect spot!
The Altun Ha ruins are located right next to the aforementioned Caracol ruins but are much smaller. These ruins were inhabited for around 2,000 years and feature impressive architectural achievements. After digging was done people found out that Altun Ha was mainly used as a trading post and spiritual center for the Mayan people. Before the site was being excavated it is said that locals around the area took some of the materials from the ruins to build their own homes. Altun Ha is fairly easy to get to and is definitely worth the visit if you are already in the area visiting the Caracol ruins.
Tazumal was home to the higher class people of the Mayan society. Located in El Salvador the Tazumal ruins are easily accessed if you are already visiting the Joya de Cerén as they neighbor each other. The site is home to some of the most well-preserved structures in the Mayan history. The site features many things like tombs, pyramids, and its own drainage system. The civilization that lived here was prominent in using the temples as trading posts and it helped build its own little economy inside this Mayan civilization. You can find all of this in Chalchuapa where you can learn even more about the Mayans.
If you want to know more about the Mayan culture right before the end then exploring the Coba ruins in Mexico is your best shot. The civilization was able to sustain over 50,000 people for quite some time. Many things have been revealed through these pyramids such as the distribution of rank and power among the citizens of this Mayan structure. However, much of the main structures are now crumbling and it is getting harder and harder to witness these preserved ruins as time goes on. You will want to see the Coba ruins before it is too late.
The Calakmul ruins are located near the Guatemala border in dense rainforest. Even though it is packed away in a forest the tallest structure can still be seen sticking out of the top of the trees along the skyline. This structure is one of the tallest structures in any Mayan settlement reaching upwards of 150 feet in the sky. The ruins were prominent in the classical period as they were in a constant fight for power with another Mayan colony known as the Tikal. Neither side would have won this fight as the desertion of the Mayan colonies would end any conflict between the two.
The architecture style seen at the Uxmal ruins located in Mexico is called Puuc and this is one of the few Mayan ruins in the world that represents this style perfectly. What makes these structures different from the rest is the materials they use to build (limestone) and the fact that the architects would add extra detailing in the mask of the structure. While the Uxmal colony had unique architecture it wouldn't save it from the fate that all other Mayan colonies suffered, abandonment. Now the structure rests in the middle of large open fields and it is a beautiful sight to climb.
Xunantiunich is worth the visit just because of the haunting story behind it. The ruins are said to be haunted by a stone woman which is why the name Xunantunich translates to Stone Woman. It is said that a beautiful woman would appear at the bottom of the central pyramid, El Castillo and when people would follow her to the top she would disappear into thin air making people think she was a spirit of sorts. Whether or not you believe in the story of the Stone Woman the structures at Xunantunich are still amazing.
The Cahal Pech ruins located in Belize offer a lot compared to the other ruins on this list. For example, the Cahal Pech ruins include monuments, ball courts, palaces, and many other structures all within a small vicinity. If you want to dive headfirst into the Mayan culture these ruins will allow for a great look into the past. Don't be wary of the translation the name of the ruins has to mean Place of Ticks as this was to refer to the livestock that used to roam the grounds of the ruins. The Cahal Pech ruins are located near the Xunantunich ruins and a few other ruins.
Tikal was perhaps one of the most important sets of ruins in the Mayan culture as it served as the epicenter of all the other ruins. The Tikal ruins were used as a hub for the Mayan military efforts and were the center of many political efforts as well. The ruins have a main plaza that is surrounded by 24 pyramids all of which are accessible. It is said that it takes upwards of two to three days to fully explore all that the Tikal ruins have to offer. Get ready to do some climbing as well as the two tallest structures reach over a hundred feet high.
If you thought the Tikal ruins were large wait until you see the El Mirador ruins. These are the largest Mayan ruins in Guatemala and they also feature the country's largest Mayan pyramid. Only being discovered recently there hasn't been much opportunity to dive deeper into the history that these ruins hold. Since the ruins are held deep within the dense forests of Guatemala it can be hard for tourists to make it to the site. In fact, the best way to get to the ruins is by hiking which can take up to a week including camping along the way.
The Uaxactun ruins were discovered by an American archeologist who named the ruins 'Eight Stones' based on a calendar that was found in the ruins. The ruins aren't very large and they are located close to the Tikal ruins. The structures here were used more for ceremonial purposes instead of being used as a military front. The site was also used for astronomical purposes. The main structure even lines up with the sun during astronomical events and shows just how advanced the Mayan civilization was for their time. Due to the ruins being so close to the Tikal ruins and other ruins in the area, it isn't very hard to reach.
While the Quirigua ruins don't have the tallest pyramids or the largest structures they are rich in history. The site features small structures that have much of the Mayan history and culture scribed on to them. In the central plaza, there are tablets explaining the military procedures and the different rulers in the Mayan society. Taking a guided tour of the ruins will help you better understand what is written on these structures and it will help you learn much more about the Mayan culture and history. There is even a place to camp nearby the ruins if you want to spend several days soaking in the history of the ruins.