If you've ever vacationed in Mexico, you might've witnessed the ancient beauty of the Maya pyramids. The Maya civilization thrived in present-day Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador for thousands of years. By 1800 BCE, the early Mesoamerican inhabitants were already building the foundations of their agricultural society. Roughly 3,000 years later, the civilization left behind a legacy of amazing agricultural, architectural, and scientific achievements, including the incredible structures and monuments that still exist today. Here are some of the greatest Maya ruins you can visit.
Tikal, which is believed to have been the capital of the Maya civilization called Yax Mutal, is located deep in the Guatemalan jungle. Since the site is centered in such a lush environment and has been unoccupied for centuries, archaeologists estimate that only about 25% of the ruins have been uncovered. However, the ruins that have been preserved inside a national park are stunning. The ancient city is home to six massive temples, some of which are over 200 feet tall. Be prepared for a crowd, however. Despite the location’s remote jungle location, the site draws over 100,000 visitors every year. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the "Pyramid of the Magician," a massive monument that was built in multiple stages. In fact, Uxmal means “thrice-built” and is a reference to the long process of erecting the pyramid. At its height, the ancient city had the largest population in the Yucatán Peninsula. The site covers over 50 acres, and the pyramid isn’t the only impressive ruin on the premises: The famed Governor’s Palace is larger than a football field and has the largest façade of any structure in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
Many Mayan ruins lie deep in the jungle, making them hard to access and susceptible to being reclaimed by tropical vegetation. That is not the case with Tulum, however, which is located on the beautiful Caribbean coastline, about 100 miles south of Cancún, Mexico. Tulum was one of the last Maya settlements and its structures were constructed as recently as 1200 CE. As a result, the many limestone temples that remain are well-preserved and make an excellent destination to explore.
This often-overlooked ruin, which lies about 70 miles west of Belize City, is well worth the journey. It features six plazas and over 26 structures. This includes El Castillo of Belize, which is the second-tallest structure in Belize at 130 feet tall. Xunatunich was a ceremonial center for nearly 200,000 Maya people. In 2016, a group of archaeologists found an untouched burial chamber attached to a larger building, which is considered to be one of the largest Maya burial chambers found within the last 100 years.
Copán, which is believed to have been settled in 1500 BCE, is one of the oldest Mayan cities. The ancient city is located in Honduras near the Guatemalan border and is home to many altars and monoliths. There are five full plazas — one of which, the Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza, features the longest known Mayan inscription, with over 1,800 glyphs.
Chichén Itzá, Mexico
No list of Mayan ruins would be complete without Chichén Itzá. Chichén Itzá is considered one of the seven “New Wonders of the World” and is located in the heart of Mexico. Chichén Itzá features the famous El Castillo, a 98-foot-tall temple built between the ninth and 12th centuries. It is not only an impressive monument but is a testament to the advanced understanding of astronomy the Maya possessed.
The sides of the pyramid are aligned in such a way that during the autumn and spring equinoxes, the shadow cast by the mid-afternoon sun creates the appearance of a snake crawling down the side of the structure. Chichén Itzá is also home to Cenate Segrado (Sacred Cenote), a place of worship and sacrifice for the Maya people, and the Great Ball Court, the largest ball court in ancient Mesoamerica.