Best Places to See Mayan Ruins
Have you ever wanted to find out what it was like to live life as a Mayan? Keen to learn more about this ancient civilisation and see some of the most impressive Mayan temples in the world? View our guide to the best places are to see the most spectacular ancient Mayan ruins in Central America.
Spectacular Mayan Ruins in Mexico
Start in Mexico and you can uncover some of the world’s untold stories whilst admiring breath-taking scenery. Absorb the culture by starting your stay in Akumal, a beautiful beach-front community just over 62 miles south of Cancun and explore the history of the Mayans – right around the corner.
Tulum is a pre-Columbian Mayan City which still upholds so many of its famous ruins. If you are staying in Akumal, Tulum is only a short journey following mostly on the 307. As you walk through in the Mexican heat, which usually sits no lower than 24C even in its coldest of months, you will certainly be fascinated by the history within.
At sites such as this you are sure to find local tour guides offering their knowledge – take it. These tour guides have a remarkable understanding of the events that unravelled here and how the Mayans came to an end, detailing the fatalities and disruptions that took place which eventually led to the cities abandonment. The guides are totally worth the money you pay and with their help you can delve into the past and lose yourself for an hour or so. Hey, the tour guides may even carry bulbs from a flower for you to feed the territorial, yet harmless, iguanas that live here!
Once the tour guides have answered all of your questions and filled you with facts you may want to unwind by the sea and relax. After walking amongst the archaeological site you will find steps leading you to the powerful blue Caribbean Sea where many will be seen riding waves and sunbathing on powdery white sand. An informative signpost will highlight how the ground you are about to step on is relatively young in the eyes of the world although it is pre-human. Here you will read how this is in fact the second longest barrier reef in the world and it is wonderfully still forming to this day.
On your way home, why not stop off at a cenote for a swim? A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, caused by the collapse of limestone bedrock, exposing water from the ground underneath. They are especially associated with the Yucatán Peninsula and often used by Mayans for sacrificial offerings. There are a large number of cenotes located in Tulum including Naharon, Temple of Doom, Tortuga, Maya Blue, Vacaha and Nohoch Kiin as well as many others for you to discover.
Take another day to explore and visit the Mayan ruins at Ek’ Balam, a city that once controlled the region around the commencement of the Common Era. Here your tour guide will discuss with you the sports that the Mayans would play showing you the infamous ball court built in 841, their beliefs when it comes to religion and gods, and they will help you depict art forms which have astonishingly remained and been highly protected. It’s actually a fact that one of the tour guides on this site is of Mayan descent. He speaks of his origin and family, his cultural values and personal faith – try and find him if you can!
Enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience by climbing the temple that is believed to hold the tomb of Ukit Kan Le'k Tok', a significant ruler in Ek’ Balam. Here you will see the doorway in the shape of a monsters mouth – many of which believe is to represent a jaguar – and keep your eyes peeled for large tarantulas that continue to roam the walls. Climb to the top and look out in awe of some spectacular views. Your day at Ek’ Balam will certainly be one you’ll always remember.
If you’d like to give your brain a break from all the learning you’ve been doing why not get active in Akumal! Take a few days off and go quad biking in the jungle – or why not go ziplining through the jungle at Xplor? When staying in Akumal, AKA “Place of the Turtle” in Mayan language, you shall always have something interesting to do. Whether you end up volunteering to help with the protection of sea turtles or taking a day’s course in snorkelling you’ll never have a dull day.
Chichen Itza is home to one of the most recognisable Mayan temples – this site attracts thousands of visitors every year partly due to its location close to Cancun which makes it a great day trip for holidaymakers and people on cruises. El Castillo, the largest temple has over 91 steps but unlike other temples in the region you can’t climb it to help preserve it for future generations. You can also see lots of ancient sculptures and an old games arena.
Go deep into the Mexican state of Campeche and you will come across Calakmul, an ancient Mayan site located in lush jungle. This is one of the largest Maya sites in Mexico with over 6,000 ancient artefacts located. The tallest pyramid in Calakmul is over 180 feet high and looms high over the stunning jungle below.
Coba is an ancient Mayan city on the Yucatán Peninsula that was once home to around 50,000 people. Here you can see lots of well preserved old temples including the Nohoch Mul pyramid which is about 140 feet high. Archaeologists are still uncovering this site, most of the oldest temples still remain hidden in dense jungle.
Palenque is one of the smallest Mayan cities in Mexico but it is also one of the most popular. Located in the state of Chiapas in Southern Mexico on the border with Guatemala, you will get to see some of the most incredible structures and sculptures in Central America. Be sure to spend time at the Temple of Inscriptions which is beautiful.
Uxmal is one of the most recognisable sites and very important in Maya culture. The temples here are very well preserved and the tallest structure is impressive at over 110 feet high! The main pyramid temple which was built around the 6th century looks very different to others Maya temples with an oval surface rather than steps which makes it very distinctive.
And if you feel like expanding your knowledge further, plan a trip to see other Mayan sites in the region which include…
Caracol is the largest Mayan site in Belize and a popular destination with international visitors. Located high on the Vaca Plateau, (1650 ft) above sea level, be sure to check out Canaa which is the largest ancient pyramid in Canaa.
Travel to Northern Belize and visit the ancient Maya city of Lamanai. This mysterious site is still being excavated although some of the largest structures on the site have now been uncovered. High Temple at 33 meters tall is one of the most impressive temples to see.
A popular day trip from both Mexico and Belize, Tikan is one of the most spectacular Mayan ruins to visit in the region. Located deep in the Guatemalan jungle there are lots of resorted temples scattered over a large site, some of which are over 200 feet high. This city used to have a population of around 150,000 people and there is still so much archaeologists haven’t yet restored. It is still allowed to climb to the top of some of these ancient Mayan temples where you will get spectacular views across the jungles surrounding the site.
Copán located in Western Honduras is one of the best Maya sites in the country. During its peak, this city was one of the most important Maya locations in the region but was mysteriously abandoned. Copán is home to several unique statues, temples and sculptures – a lot of which are in amazing condition considering the site dates back to the 9th century BC. Temple 16 looms high over the area and is one of the most beautiful Maya ruins in Central America.
By Mia Hole