Brilliant mathematicians, astronomers, artists, farmers, and the architects of one of the most amazing empires the world has known, the Maya Civilization was a Mesoamerican culture that stretched through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Long before European imperialists sought to conquer Mexico's rugged coastlines and wild jungles, the Maya civilization had built a series of massive and modern cities with an intricate system of trade routes and roads stretching throughout the country that allowed the Maya to reign for hundreds of years.
The traditional Mayan languages are still spoken in Mexico and Central America regions, and the culture thrives in many communities; however, most magnificent Mayan cities were abandoned by 900 AD. So well-built were these cities that many of them have survived the centuries remarkably intact.
Mayan ruins can be found across Mexico, making for fascinating historical destinations where travelers can walk the stone streets and marvel at the massive palaces and temples. For travelers seeking an inspiring educational experience, a walk through some of Mexico's Mayan ruins will encourage a newfound appreciation for the incredible indigenous cultures of Mexico.
10 Chichen Itza
Perhaps the most famous of all Mayan ruins, Chichen Itza, is located on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico and was one of the most influential cities in the Maya Empire during the 5th Century. The vast city spread across two square miles and featured the famous El Castillo palace, which displays the Maya's knowledge of astronomy and mathematical genius.
There were countless residences, temples, commercial centers, and amphitheaters for games. Today, Chichen Itza has been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and travelers can visit and explore the magnificence. It is a short two-hour drive from popular Yucatán tourist destinations like Cancun, Tulum, and Playa Del Carmen, making for an unforgettable full-day excursion during a Mexican vacation.
Coba was not open to the public until the 1970s, so it has escaped the crowds of tourists that flock to some of the more well-known ruins in Mexico. It remains only partially escalated. Coba is one of the few remaining Mayan ruins where tourists can climb the pyramid. From the top of the towering pyramid, travelers will be met with sweeping views of the surrounding jungle, allowing the imagination to visualize the bustling Mayan city. As an added bonus, it's only about a 40-minute drive from the ever-popular Tulum.
The Tulum ruins are immensely popular amongst tourists on a beach vacation in Tulum, Cancun, and Playa del Carmen and make for a quick and easy half-day trip to balance out the beach bliss, tacos, and tequila with some of Mexico's rich indigenous history. A visit to the ruins is perfect if you're looking for non-touristy activities to enjoy during your trip. El Castillo, the main palace of the Tulum ruins, overlooks the pristine turquoise waters of the Caribbean and is a spectacular place to watch the sunrise. There is a beautiful little beach beneath the ruins for swimming after exploring the incredible city on the sea that once served as an important route connecting the Maya cities in Mexico and Honduras.
Palenque, or Lakam'ha in the Itza language, is an ancient Mayan city that dates back to 226 BC. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, many consider Palenque the most beautiful of all the Mayan ruins. Nestled within rolling hills and surrounded by streams and waterfalls, giving it the Itza name meaning "place of many waters," it has been the site of many important archeological discoveries, including inscriptions of births, deaths, and royal lineage. The most famous site at Palenque is a tomb located within the Temple of Inscriptions.
Calakmul is located deep in the tropical jungles near the Mexican border with Guatemala. The ruins can be found within the vast Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in the second-largest tropical forest in North, Central, and South America, surpassed only by the Amazon. The city was once home to 65,000 Mayan people, and the ruins include the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán; tourists who venture into the jungle to Calakmul can climb to its magnificent heights and marvel at the thick jungle that surrounds the ruins in all directions.
5 Ek' Balam
Pyramids, ball courts, and an acropolis are just a few of the wonders visitors can enjoy on a trip to the Ek'Balam ruins. Ek'Balam is named for one of the jungle's most majestic predators - the jaguar. At the top of the main pyramid is a sculpture of an enormous jaguar jaw, which honors the sacred animal to the Mayan people. Other carvings feature shamans, winged creatures, and skulls. There is also a tomb for the influential leader Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok who ruled the city in AD 800. Much of the town still remains uncovered, having been swallowed up by the thick jungle surroundings.
Another prominent Mayan city in the Yucatán state in Mexico is Uxmal. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and sits about 90 miles from the popular Chichen Itza. It features a stunning pyramid called the Pyramid of the Magician, used in ceremonies by Mayan religious leaders. Some scholars believe Uxmal to be one of the final Mayan strongholds after the Spanish invasion, and while estimates of dates vary, some say it continued to thrive into the 10th Century.
Becan is unique because it contains both a moat and a massive wall. Seven separate bridges can be used to enter the ruins, including a gigantic pyramid. Other notable architectural marvels include twin towers, mysterious stairways, and temples. It's an ancient settlement that originated between 700 - 350 BC.
2 Edzna Ruins
Archeologists believe that the Edzna Ruins may have been one of the original seats of power of the Itza before they founded the more popular Chichen Itza. The most intriguing feature of the Edzna Ruins is the vast system of underground systems to capture rainwater, as the site wasn't near a water source, basically creating plumbing long before Europeans had ever dreamed of it. The large Castillo called Cinco Pisos has five levels and features intricate carvings. There is also a fascinating temple honoring the Sunrise God and the Sunset God.
Located in Chiapas, Bonampak is a delight for lovers of art, archeology, and history. Brightly colored murals cover the walls of the main structure and remain remarkably well-preserved even after a thousand years. The city sits along the Usumacinta River, which made it a prominent player in the Mayan trade, and the paintings offer fascinating glimpses into Mayan culture and daily life.
A 2.5-hour drive can only reach the ruins down a jungle road, but this visits Bonampak all the more spectacular as adventurous travelers will enjoy the incredible ruins without the crowds that flock to the more easily reachable ruins.