Must- See Ruins in Central America
No trip to Central America is complete without a visit to at least a couple of ruins. There are hundreds of Maya sites spread across five countries in Central America: Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. I’ve compiled a list of my favourites that I have visited so far in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.
Teotihuacan, known as the City of the Gods was an ancient Mesoamerican city around 40km away from the modern day Mexico City. Built between the 1st and 7th centuries A.D, it is known for the huge temples; Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon of which you can climb for an awesome view. The main path between the temples is called the Avenue of the Dead.
Palenque is located in the state of Chiapas and is surrounded by jungle. While a lot smaller than some it’s Mayan neighbours it sure does have the charm and beauty with well preserved Mayan murals, inscriptions and hieroglyphics and a waterfall. Most temples and structures in Palenque date between 600 AD and 800 AD. In 1987 UNESCO recognised Palenque as World Heritage site.
Uxmal, pronounced oosh-mahl means “built three times” and was built between the 6th and 10th centuries. The most recognisable and tallest structure, the Pyramid of the Magician has unique architecture not normally seen; rounded corners. There are many legends about the pyramid but according to one, a magician-god named Itzamna was single-handedly supposed to have erected the pyramid in one night, using his magic. While most pre-Hispanic cities are laid out with geometry in mind, astronomy was the main focus at Uxmal. UNESCO declared Uxmal world heritage in 1996.
Chichen Itza, Mexico
Chichen Itza is located in the Yucatan and has one of the most recognisable structures in all of the Mayan cities, the Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo. The temple has 365 steps- one for each day of the year. Twice a year, a shadow forms on the pyramid in the shape of a serpent and as the sun sets eventually joins a stone serpent head at the base of the steps. Climbing El Castillo is no longer allowed after a woman fell to her death in 2016. Chichen Itza has thirteen ball courts, once of which is the largest known ball court in the Americas at 168m long and 70m wide. Chichen Itza is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico with an estimated 1.4 million visitors. UNESCO listed Chichen Itza as world heritage in 1988.
Tulum is located on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula and once a major port of the Mayan city of Coba. Tulum was built in 1200 AD when the Mayan civilisation was in decline, it therefore lacks the elegance and size of other sites. However, the beautiful turquoise waters make up for this. Arrive early to avoid the crowds coming from Cancun.
Monte Alban, Mexico
Monte Alban is located a short drive out of Oaxaca City and was once the capital of the ancient Zapotecs. Monte Alban means “White Mountain” and has a beautiful view of three valleys. The pyramids and temples all centre on the Great Plaza. Monte Alban was listed as UNESCO world heritage in 1987 and archaeologists do not know why it was abandoned.
Xunantunich, meaning “Stone Woman” is located in Western Belize, about 20 minutes from San Ignacio. The El Castillo pyramid is the second tallest structure in Belize, after the temple of Caracol and has great views of the surrounding jungle and a village across the border in Guatemala. Make sure to listen out for the howler monkeys!
Tikal is located in the lowland rainforest of northern Guatemala and was the largest Mayan city with an estimated population of around 100,000 people. Tikal National Park encompasses 575 square kilometres of jungle and thousands of ruined structures. The largest of Tikal’s six temples is Temple- Pyramid IV standing at 72m high. Tikal was used for filming in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope. UNESCO declared the National Park a world heritage site in 1979. One of the best experiences I had in Guatemala was camping in the National Park and being woken up at 2am by a jungle full of howler monkeys.
I’d also love to visit the following ruins on my next trip to Central America:
Caracol and Altun Ha in Belize
El Mirador, Yaxha, Uaxactan and Quirigua in Guatemala
Tazumal, El Salvador
Stay tuned for more posts from my recent trip to Mexico, Belize and Guatemala