The Maya civilization were one of the most advanced ancient societies, inhabiting Central America from southern Mexico to parts of Honduras and El Salvador. Early Mayan settlements are dated roughly to 2000 BC, though most of the remaining ruins were built during the Classical period, 250 to 900 AD. By the tenth century, cities were mysteriously abandoned, leaving scientists to speculate whether it could have been from an environmental change, conflict between cities, or if their population had grown so large the land could no longer sustain it. When Spanish explorers arrived in the region, the remaining Mayans were living in small villages in the shadows of their once great structures.
It was from the ruins of these cities that archaeologists have discovered an elaborate hieroglyphic language and calendar system, while visitors can marvel at the detailed architecture and sheer mass of the stone pyramids.
While Chichén Itzá remains the most famous Mayan site with easy access from Cancún, there are hundreds of other ruins to explore across Central America for those trying to avoid crowds. Modern day Guatemala was the center of Mayan civilization and contains some of the most developed architecture, and some sites are within such close proximity that tourists can knock off two in a one day trip, whether you choose to take a guided tour or visit independently.
Set against backdrops of mountains, lush rainforests, and tropical beaches, don’t overlook these 20 Mayan ruins.
20 Copán, Honduras - The City of Kings
This site is close to the border with Guatemala, about 35 miles from the town of Santa Rosa de Copán. It was a major political center whose historical significance encompasses four centuries of the Classical period, having been ruled by a single dynasty.
Archaeologists have also discovered that Copán had calculated the most accurate Mayan solar calendar. Due to the size of the site, it is recommended that visitors book a tour to take full advantage of Copán’s sights and are easily booked from major cities like Guatemala City, Antigua, and San Salvador.
19 Lamanai, Belize - See Central America's Longest Inhabited Ruin
Unlike most Mayan ruins whose names are of modern origin, “Lamanai” was recorded by the Spanish upon the discovery of the city as 1000 years old, meaning “submerged crocodile.” The site is reported to have been inhabited for 3000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously occupied Mayan ruins, and perhaps the best developed. Though many of the old temples and plazas are crumbling and being reabsorbed by the surrounding jungle, the High Temple can still be climbed and offers spectacular views of the New River and Lamanai’s namesake crocodiles and other aquatic reptiles.
18 Yaxha, Guatemala - Where The History Is Worth The Trek
Situated about 18 miles southeast from Tikal, Yaxhá translates to “green water,” reflecting its location between Lake Yaxhá and Lake Sacnab. Although the ruin is one of the largest, it was only discovered in the 20th century and lacks many of the inscriptions that outline its history, so much of its past remains a mystery. Even during peak tourist season, Yaxhá sees fewer visitors than its sister sites, especially since it’s close to the much more famous Tikal. The ruin is a 1.5-hour drive from the town of Flores and prepare for a rough off road drive for the final 10 miles.
17 Iximche, Guatemala - Catch A Traditional Mayan Ceremony
When the Spaniards arrived, the people of Iximche initially had a good relationship with them. The native peoples of the area aided in the conquest of other Mayan cities and Iximche had a strong location on top of bluffs, inspiring explorers to name the site the Kingdom of Goathemala, Central America’s first capital city. However, the partnership was short lived, after which the Mayans deserted their city and the Spanish burned it.
It’s an easy stop from Guatemala City or Lake Atitlan, and religious rituals are still performed here regularly, so keep an eye out for Mayan priests around the site.
16 Caracol, Belize - A Site Larger Than Modern Belize City
Caracol is the largest Mayan ruin in Belize, housing the country’s tallest manmade structure, Caana (AKA the Sky Palace). The entire site contains some 35,000 ruins across 65 miles and has some of the most remarkable hieroglyphics and detailed art across its tombs, temples, palaces, and stelae. Most notably, an inscription detailing Tikal’s fall to Caracol in the 6th century highlights the city’s impressive military tactics. Caracol is located in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, meaning a scenic albeit bumpy drive to the ruins, so be sure to have an off-road vehicle or reserve a guided tour from San Ignacio, which often include stops at other attractions in the forest reserve.
15 Palenque, Mexico - A Must See For Art Lovers
Though a smaller site than others in Mexico, Palenque boasts some of the most sophisticated Mayan architecture, resembling a sort of renaissance city. Palenque is not known for its royal families or the might of its military but represents the more peaceful side of Mayan society. Art lovers will appreciate the Temple of Inscriptions, the site’s largest pyramid. Molded by the surrounding forest and swallowed up by it after desertion, the area is now part of Palenque National Park. Visitors to the area can visit the ruins as well as hike nearby, and there’s a high chance of hearing howler monkeys in the distance.
14 Cerros, Belize - Scenic Ruin Overlooking The Caribbean
This waterfront site is a short distance from Corozal, a small beach town on the Caribbean Sea. The central plaza and pyramids are perched atop a hillside overlooking Corozal Bay, but a large portion of the ruins are submerged due to centuries of erosion. There’s still plenty to see, from stucco masks to ball courts dating to the late Pre-Classic era. The site is accessible by road or, for those looking for an alternative view, by boat or canoe from Corozal. Visitors are able to freely wander the area, and the hill is a great spot for a picnic.
13 Joya de Cerén, El Salvador - The Pompeii of the Americas
El Salvador may not have as many Mayan sites as Guatemala or Belize, but Joya de Cerén is truly unique. Known as the “Pompeii of the Americas,” the site was an agricultural village that was buried by volcanic ash from an eruption of Loma Caldera in the seventh century. Homes are remarkably preserved exactly how the inhabitants left them. Joya de Cerén gives archaeologists a look at how the pre-Hispanic middle class lived, as there are no magnificent tombs or palaces. Though archaeology fans will put this at the top of their itinerary, at a 45-minute drive from San Salvador, it’s not to be missed.
12 Tulum, Mexico - Swim Beside Ancient Ruins
Tulum may attract more beachgoers than history hunters, but if you want to knockout your beach day and take in some culture in one go, this is the place for you. Tulum was a later Mayan construction, inhabited until the 15th century. El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God are the main structures on the bluff, and a similar type of architecture can be found at Chichén Itzá.
The nearby modern town of Tulum is popular amongst millennials for its trendy restaurants, shopping, and yoga studios.
11 Altun Ha, Belize - Perfect Size To Explore In A Day
Although much smaller than its neighbor Caracol, Altun Ha was inhabited for about 2,000 years and only its most impressive pyramids have been excavated since its discovery in the 1960s. Before it was exposed by archaeologists, locals had taken some of its stones to build their own homes. Archaeological digs have suggested the site was a trade and spiritual center. The terrain is relatively mild for those who may be unable to hike to see magnificent ruins at a distance of 27 miles north of Belize City. If you happen to try the local beer, Belikin, its logo features Altun Ha’s Temple of the Masonry Altars.
10 Tazumal, El Salvador - Don't Miss This Photo-Op
If Joya de Cerén captures the way of life for agrarian Mayans, Tazumal is the equivalent for the elite class, and both are close enough to visit in one trip. The site boasts some of the best-preserved Mayan structures in El Salvador, including a drainage system, tombs, palaces and pyramids. The culture had an extensive trading system with far away cities that supported its economy until its abandonment in 1200. The ruins and adjacent museum are in the town of Chalchuapa, about 50 miles northwest of San Salvador. Here, you can climb pyramids to take your Instagram-worthy photo at the top.
9 Coba, Mexico - The Riviera Maya's Hidden Gem
Once supporting a population of 50,000 people and sustaining a portion of it well into the Post-Classical period, the Coba ruins are an important insight into late Mayan life. Unfortunately, many of the engravings are crumbling, but its stelae and pyramids still reveal much of how ritual processes unfolded and how power was distributed in the society. The raised causeways are uniquely complex, not only connecting buildings within the city, but to other areas outside its walls.
Coba is near the popular destination Riviera Maya, though it’s often overlooked by tourists, so you’re sure to expect smaller crowds than nearby Chichén Itzá.
8 Calakmul, Mexico - Not Your Average Tourist Ruin
The ruins of Calakmul are buried in dense rainforest, about 20 miles from the Guatemalan border. The tallest pyramid on the site towers 150 feet high and peeks through the canopy of trees, one of the biggest of any Mayan settlement. Throughout the classical period, Calakmul rivalled Tikal and the two cities were engaged in a continuous struggle for power. Neither overpowered the other, however, and the conflict ended in the desertion of both cities.
Today, the site is part of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve and is often passed over by tourists as there isn’t as much organized advertising as other Mayan ruins.
7 Uxmal, Mexico - Architectural Style Unique To Northern Mayans
The late Classical ruins of Uxmal exhibits a type of architecture called Puuc, and is possibly the best representation of this style, distinctive to any of the ruins on this list.
The structures here are made of limestone, with smooth walls and an emphasis on detailed masks. While the northern Mayan sites were occupied longer than those in the lowlands, Uxmal was younger than its other powerful neighbors, and suffered the same fate and was abandoned at about the same time. The area where Uxmal rests is a grassland encircled by forests, so bring water and expect lots of sun.
6 Xunantunich, Belize - Home Of The Stone Woman
Xunantunich might be a haunted ruin, its name meaning “Stone Woman.” Legend tells of a beautiful Mayan woman with eyes the color of the sun appearing at the base of the central pyramid, El Castillo, to a nearby villager in the 1800s. He followed her up the staircase and she disappeared. Though there have been later reports of the woman, none have been able to follow her past the stairs. Whether or not you see the woman, at 131 feet, the pyramid is a sight to behold itself.
Visitors are taken to the site via a traditional hand cranked ferry across the Mopan River.
5 Cahal Pech, Belize - The Country's Oldest Ruin
At this site you’ll find the remnants of an elite dynasty’s palace, one of the oldest in Belize. The city houses the remnants of multiple monuments, ballcourts, palaces, and stelae, all encompassed within an easy 2-mile distance. The city’s name translates to “Place of Ticks,” but that’s an ancient refence to the cattle on the agricultural area, so don’t let it deter you.
The city is close to the town of San Ignacio as well as the Xunantunich and Tikal ruins. Try Cahal Pech to experience Mayan ruins with few restrictions and even fewer tourists.
4 Tikal, Guatemala - The Center Of Mayan Power
Once the most powerful Mayan city, Tikal was significant for its military and political strength and is contemporarily recognized by UNESCO as carrying both natural and cultural weight. The Grand Plaza is at the heart of the city, surrounded by two of Tikal’s 24 pyramids and its two main acropoles.
Temple I is its most picturesque pyramid, however at 155 feet, the seemingly giant structure is dwarfed by the 230 foot tall Temple IV. Be sure to start at the plaza if your time here is limited, as it can take 2-3 days to fully explore Tikal.
3 El Mirador, Guatemala - Climb The Tallest Pyramid in Central America
El Mirador trumps Tikal as the largest Mayan city in Guatemala, and is home to the largest Mayan pyramid, also the largest manmade site in Central America. It is one of the lost cities of the Mayan Empire, having only been discovered in recent decades and still so thickly covered in rainforest that it cannot support most tourists.
The hike can take up to a week and though it isn’t difficult terrain, the trip, which involves camping, should only be taken by the most dedicated adventurers, but the views and seclusion are paralleled by none other.
2 Uaxactun, Guatemala - Where The Pyramids Align With The Sun
The city of Uaxactun was discovered by an archaeologist from the United States, who named the site “Eight Stones,” after a calendar found there, but the Mayan translation sounds like “Washington,” the home of the archaeologist. The ruins lie close to Tikal but were never a major competitor for power to the city. Instead, evidence suggests it was a ceremonial and astronomical center. The main structures align with the sunrise during certain astronomical events, suggesting some of the most advanced study of the Mayan civilization. They’re easily reached from Guatemala, Belize, or even Tikal to venture further into the rainforest.
1 Quiriguá, Guatemala - Famous For Its Massive Stelae
Quiriguá isn’t the most spectacular site, it doesn’t have towering pyramids or shadowy history. In fact, its history is very well preserved and written clearly across its large collection of some of the largest stelae in the Mayan world. These monuments, upright stones covered in inscriptions and other artistic carvings, mostly line the main plaza and tell stories of Quiriguá’s rulers and military importance.
The site is relatively small, but for the full story of the site, take a guide who will explain each monument. To experience the rustic ruins almost exclusively to yourself, you can camp out near the site.
References: history.com, whc.unesco.org, brittanica.com, mayan-ruins.org