With a history spanning several centuries and a territory that encompassed huge swathes of Central America, the Mayans truly were one of humanity’s first great civilizations.
Even today, so many years after the mysterious demise of their empire, the legacy of the Mayans endures, with huge stone reminders of their presence still dotted about the region.
Reportedly haunted by the ghost of a still wandering Mayan woman, Xunantunich lies 80km from Belize City and boasts twenty-six palaces that have been preserved in remarkably fine condition. Like the famous Chichen Itza, it too claims its very own El Castillo, a towering structure that remains testament to the Mayan’s architectural prowess.
Easily accessible from the capital, Altun-Ha is an ideal first stop for any visitors in Belize. This site has the distinction of being where the largest jade-head sculpture was unearthed, a huge, intricately carved relic that depicts the face of the sun god, Kimich Ahou. Although the piece is not on display here, guests can content themselves with the great imposing towers that dominate the skyline.
Without doubt the most defining feature of Honduras’ premier Mayan site is the astonishing hieroglyph staircase that can be ascended and marvelled at for hours. It is also home to one of the best examples of Mayan craftsmanship, the intriguingly modern-looking stelae sculptures as well as the large open plazas that remain tribute to the great political power that Copan possessed. Many visitors also enjoy the atmosphere of the town of Copan which, with a sizable expat population, has many of the comforts the wandering history-hunter may be craving.
With a myriad of temples, some of which stretch to over 200 feet tall, there can be no doubting the importance Tikal played in the ancient Mayan world. This UNESCO world heritage site ranks as one of the biggest settlements the empire ever produced and is thought by historians to have been one of (if not the most) significant centers of political life. Every aspect of Mayan life is on display here, from the ornate corridors of power to their complex spiritual practices, from their reverence for art to their surprisingly advanced agricultural techniques, Tikal bears witness to a civilization that dispels any allegations of primitivism.
Also known as Lakamha and located in southern Mexico, Palenque is arguably the country’s most well-preserved and generally impressive examples of Mayan architecture. What is perhaps most intriguing about this site however is the sheer volume of carvings on display, many of which depict the bloody rivalries the city had with its neighbors. Shrouded in the often misty rainforest, Palenque is considered by many to be the most to be the most atmospheric of all Mexico’s Mayan ruins and with less than ten percent of the site discovered, it could just be a chance to unleash the Indiana Jones within and discover your own piece of this forgotten kingdom.
An indisputably iconic site, Chichen Itza presents what to many is the archetypal vision of Mayan civilization. Lying just 125km from Cancun, the area is easily reachable to tour, taxi, bus or rental car, and offers visitors the opportunity to ascend the 365 step Castillo or imagine themselves in the midst of the sprawling courtyard or, perhaps most impressively of all, witness the mesmerizing light show that occurs during the spring and autumn equinoxes. What makes Chichen Itza unique however, is the blending of cultures that occurs here, the diffusion of painting and architectural influences that have been drawn from throughout the Mayan world, culminating in an aesthetic sure to command your imagination and wonder.