When you think of classical civilizations, chances are the Mayans will be one of the first to spring to mind. Originating in the Yucatan and dominating Central America for 1200 years, they’re known for their architecture, art and hieroglyphs.
The countries of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala in particular are all home to an abundance of Mayan ruins, places where you can explore the fascinating monuments of this mysterious ancient civilization. We’ve picked out some highlights…
Perhaps one of the most commonly spoken about Mayan sites, Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities. The site is home to various buildings and statues, all in various states of preservation – including those that have been either party or completely restored. In particular, the step pyramid of El Castillo is one you’ll certainly recognise from photographs of Chichen Itza.
Far smaller than other popular Mayan sites, but still considered one of the civilization’s greatest cities, Palenque is home to some of the most notable architecture of the period. The Temple of the Inscriptions records the city’s history in hieroglyphs, and also leads down to the tomb of the most famous Mayan king, K'inich Janaab' Pakal.
According to Mayan chronicles, Uxmal was founded around 500 A.D. But one fascinating story from the more recent histoy of Uxmal involves the UK’s very own Queen Elizabeth II. On February 27th 1975, she was present to celebrate the inauguration of the site’s sound and light show. As the sound reached the point at which the Maya prayer to the rain deity, Chaac, was played, a torrential downpour began – so Her Majesty and the other attending dignitaries were forced to make a quick dash for cover.
One of the largest Mayan sites, the UNESCO world heritage site of Tikal National Park is home to thousands of ruin buildings, as well as hundreds of square miles of lush jungle. Wildlife including monkeys, toucans, parrots, falcons and even the occasional jaguar and cougar can be found amongst the rainforest terrain.
The picturesque Tulum ruins sit on the East coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, perched on the cliffs overlooking the blue Caribbean Sea. Tulum was one of the last original Mayan cities, and today, it’s one of the best-preserved of all Mayan sites. Easily accessible via land and sea, it played an important role in trading, and was also easily defended against invasions thanks to the high walls surrounding it.
The name ‘Xunantunich’ is a modern one, meaning ‘stone woman’ in the Maya language. The site was given this name as a reference to the ghost of a woman claimed to inhabit it. People have reported this woman, dressed in white with red, glowing eyes, to ascend the steps of one of the ruin buildings and disappear.
Away from the more populated areas of the Mayan region, you’ll find the Maya Mountains, a range straddling Belize and Guatemala. On an exploration of the mountains, you’ll discover important ruins, such as the city of Lubaantun, the palatial hilltop home of Cahal Pech and Chaa Creek, where unexcavated ruins still remain.