5 Mighty Mayan Ruins in Central America

Temple V, Tikal, Mayan Ruins

Fair to say that before I travelled through Central America at the start of 2015 I knew very little about the region’s history. I mean, I vaguely knew there were Mayans, Aztecs, pyramids and human sacrifice, but that was essentially it. Pre-colonial Latin American history is not really something they teach you in Australia. Now after visiting these countries I feel I have a slightly better handle on some aspects of the history here. By no means am I saying I’m an expert now, but at least I now have an appreciation for the different time periods in which the Mayans and Aztecs lived. Most of what I learned was through visiting one of the main draws these countries have to offer – their Mayan ruins.

When it comes to Mayan ruins, the best countries to visit are the northern part of Central America, i.e. Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras. It’s here that you will find some incredible sites to explore Mayan history firsthand and marvel at their feats of construction. Here are five Mayan Ruins in Central America that you should seek out. To keep things interesting, I’ve chosen to omit the famous Chichen Itza site in Yucatan, Mexico.

 

Lamanai, Belize

Lamanai is an archeological site found in the depths of the jungle in Northern Belize. From the town of Orange Walk the ruins are accessible by a speedboat trip down New River, passing jungle, sugarcane plantations, rum distilleries and Mennonite communities. Along the river, you’re bound to see some local wildlife, from birds and iguanas, to bats and crocodiles.

Speedboat down New River
Speedboat down New River

Once you dock at the Lamanai site, it’s a walk into the jungle through giant ferns and vine-strangled trees. The three big sites of Lamanai are the Mask Temple, Jaguar Temple and the High Temple. The first, the Mask Temple, contains two giant faces (replicas) sculpted into the face of the pyramid. The temple is also deceptive in its height.

Next is the High Temple, which lives up to its name. Like the majority of temples mentioned here, you’re able to climb to the top if you’re willing to clamber up steep, uneven steps. From the summit, you get spectacular views of the surrounds, from the river to the endless jungle.

High Temple
High Temple at Lamanai

Lastly is the Jaguar Temple, which unlike the others, is situated in a large field indicating the clearing of jungle to access the ruins. Atop Jaguar Temple, trees still grow, so you can imagine how hard it would have been to locate these temples when they were covered and hidden in the depths of the jungle. Similar to the Mask Temple, the front face of the temple bares images, this time the blocky faces of jaguars.

Where to Stay: Orange Walk

Highlight: Climbing High Temple and realizing just how isolated the ruins are today

 

Copan, Honduras

The ruins of Copan lie just outside of the hilly town of Copan Ruinas near the border between Honduras and Guatemala. As the town is quite small and the ruins are walking distance, there aren’t big crowds to contend with while visiting the site. The ease of access to the ruins from town, together with the site being straightforward to navigate mean that it is possible to visit on your own, although you will miss out on some interesting insights into the history and culture.

Whereas most of the other ruin sites on the list are generally spread out, Copan feels quite self-contained. As you explore, it feels like the ruins are atop one another and that you are gradually climbing to the summit. The Mayans would only build their pyramids on flat ground, which is why you generally see large grassy fields surrounding these structures and that is more than evident here at Copan.

Copan Great Plaza
Copan Great Plaza

Across these fields particularly in the first area of the Great Plaza are many examples of Mayan stelae, rectangular stone sculptures featuring mythological and ritual carvings. None of the other sites can compete with Copan’s sculptures or carvings in the quantity or state that they are in.

The vast Acropolis is the main focus of the Copan ruins, a large pyramid with sections still in disrepair, trees sprouting from the stone. While there are multiple staircases, several are not in a state to be used. To gain access to the upper levels of the Acropolis, you need to walk away from the Great Plaza and up a small path off to the side. Once on top, you’re given fantastic views of the site and surrounding landscape, not to mention an arena-like plaza complete with seating.

Plaza atop Copan Acropolis
Plaza atop Copan Acropolis

Near the entrance/exit there is a small enclosure where you can get up close with some macaws, vibrantly coloured birds indigenous to the area. You’re bound to see some other wildlife in the form of lizards and other birds, but the macaws are quite impressive.

Where to Stay: Copan Ruinas

Highlight: The masterfully inscribed staircase of the Hieroglyphic Stairway something unique amongst the sites on this list

 

Xunantunich, Belize

While the name Xunantunich might be a mouthful, it is the smallest group of ruins on this list. Of course this means there is less to see but it does make it easier to cover in a few hours, perfect for a half day trip. A significant benefit of Xunantunich is that it easily accessible from the town of San Ignacio in western Belize, just a short drive/bus ride west towards the Guatemala border. As the transportation often make up a significant cost of tours, Xunantunich can be explored on your own if you simply want to enjoy the presence of the monuments, without the history lesson.

Acropolis at Xunantunich
Acropolis at Xunantunich

To gain access to the ruins you must first take a tiny car ferry over the small river running down from San Ignacio. Once you’ve made your way to the front entrance there are several buildings hosting information boards about the site and its history. Continuing uphill you reach the first of the ruins and soon you are able to see pretty much the entirety of the site. It really isn’t a big place.

There are several ruins here, like the usual Pitz court where the Mayans played their ball sport. But the main draw is the Acropolis, a towering monument accessible by narrow winding stairs. Usually climbing these pyramids is fairly easy with the big straight stairs but that’s not the case here. There are some interesting chambers to look into, but the top is where the view is. From the top you can see pretty much the entire site, not to mention the surrounding countryside.

Howler Monkey
Howler Monkey

A special memory of mine at Xunantunich was when I witnessed two groups of howler monkeys have a confrontation presumably over territory. The cry of one howler monkey is impressive to behold, but the sound of two raucous groups having a screaming match was terrifying and awe-inspiring.

Where to Stay: San Ignacio, roughly 10km from site

Highlight: The precarious view of Belize and across the border into Guatemala from the top of the El Castillo Acropolis

 

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal will help you appreciate the fact that these ruins used to be cities, the way its stretches out in all different directions. You will walk down ancient roads, now lost in the infinite jungle, but which were once part of a great Mayan city. Tikal was a city of great significance because it was the capital of one of the most powerful, aggressive and expansive Mayan kingdoms. As such, you’re bound to hear reference to Tikal when learning about the history of other Mayan sites. You’re also able to clearly see the deliberate way in which the city is laid out, pyramids reflecting each other with strict geometry.

Temples of Tikal, Mayan Ruins
Temples of Tikal emerging through the forest

A particularly special sight at Tikal is of the pyramids breaking through the forest canopy, with only their tops visible above the sea of branches and leaves. In fact, it is this view that gave Tikal one of its claims to fame; the site was used as a location back in the day for Star Wars: A New Hope. That particular view is from the upper section of Temple IV, reached by a long, long staircase that make its way up the back of the pyramid.

As you move through the site, you move from temple to temple, each numbered Temple I, Temple II etc. For every giant pyramid you see, there’s several more lower lying buildings in ruin, covered in moss. There’s so much to see that on a day tour of the site you don’t have the time to stop at every single spot. Yet despite the vast number of ruined buildings, they each have a distinct appearance, both in shape and surroundings. Temple I and Temple II sitting at either end of the Central Plaza are the main focus of the site.

Temple I, Mayan Ruins
Temple I in Central Plaza at Tikal

Lastly, through the jungle there is the opportunity to spot various wildlife including toucans. Here was my first chance to spot a toucan and was quite surprised to find that their call sounds sort of like a frog croaking.

Where to Stay: Flores or Tikal campsite

Highlight: Emerging from the dense jungle to find Temple V

 

Caracol, Belize

Caracol is probably visited by tourists the least  of the sites on this list and if I’m being honest, it was my favourite ruins that I visited. The lack of tourists may be due to the considerable, two-hour drive required to reach the site through multiple forest reserves. While visiting here, I think we only saw two other small groups exploring this massive site. The site actually covers roughly 200 square kilometers, so tours really only provide a glimpse into what Caracol has to offer.

This is only the top section of Caana in Caracol
This is only the top section of Caana in Caracol

When it comes to never-ending pyramids, Caracol’s Caana Acropolis is king. Just when you think you’ve finally reached the top and are finished with steps, you’re met with more. The ruins at Caracol are a great example of how open to tourists these archaeological sites are. Nothing feels off-limits, everything is able to be climbed or explored. I do hope these sites retain their sense of freedom as their number of visitors grow in the future.

We were even fortunate enough to speak with part of the archeological team from the University of Central Florida who have been returning annually to excavate the site for a number of years. The site is so remote, that they actually build a camp and live there while working. The opportunity to talk with a team working on a site and see what they were working on was unique among my visits to ruins, as most sites cordon off areas that are going through excavation.

Caracol Soccer Field, Mayan Ruins
I always thought Mayan ruins were the best spot for a soccer field

Finally, on our drive to back along the dirt road to San Ignacio, we were incredibly lucky to see a puma standing ahead of us in the road. Our local guide, who had been running tours for 15 years and lived there his whole life said that it was only the sixth puma he had even seen!

Where to Stay: San Ignacio

Highlight: Finally reaching the top of Caana Acropolis after climbing on hands and feet up its endless stairs

 


Have you visited any of these Mayan ruins? Do you think I’ve left any out? Let me know in the comments.

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5 Mighty Mayan Ruins in Central America, via @travelsewhere

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23 Comment

  1. Duncan says:

    We also loved the smaller site near San Ignacio, Cahal Pech, as you get it to yourself and it is adorned by trees on top of the ruins, so it is still as it was freshly discovered in some parts. Plus Palenque and Uxmal were incredible ruins we highly rate in Mexico.

    1. David says:

      I missed Cahal Pech when I was there unfortunately. I didn’t see enough of Mexico, but I’ll have to look these up for next time. Thanks for sharing Duncan!

  2. Thanks for a great post. We have never been to any of these, but visited Tulumn and Chichen Itza while in Cancun. I would really like to see High Temple at Lamanai sometime. Looks incredible. Thanks again for sharing.

    1. David says:

      Thanks Samantha for coming and taking a look at my site. What did you think of Tulum and Chichen Itza? I thought they were both pretty impressive.

  3. Andrew Hoge says:

    How much would it cost to see all these sites? How many weeks would I and my wife need to see these sites?

    1. David says:

      That’s tough to answer Andrew because there are all sorts of ways of visiting these but I’ll do my best. From the town of San Ignacio in Belize, you could visit Caracol, Xunantunich and Tikal all by day trip. If you add a couple of days to head up to Orange Walk and do a visit to Lamanai, you’re looking at about 1 week to see 4/5. Copan is quite apart from the rest of these but you could probably reach it within a couple of days and again it will only take 1 day to see. All up, 2 weeks would be sufficient and you could fit in maybe a visit to another place or two for a really full schedule. As for prices, they will definitely vary but according to my notes tours to Lamanai was $50usd/pp; Caracol was $93usd/pp; Tikal (from Flores, GT) was $38usd/pp; Copan was $18usd/pp; and entry to Xunantunich was $5usd/pp.

      I’ll update the article to incorporate this information. Thanks for reading and asking.

      1. Great overview on how best to visit these sights David and how many days to allow for travelling. This answers my question and I’m sure others question on how best to tackle this adventure 🙂

  4. What a great over view of the Mighty Mayan Ruins. Travel tips on how to reach each ruin and a the places to stay are a plus along with some interesting history. I have been to Central America a few times and have yet to visit these wonders. I pinned this for my later use. Great photos and thanks for sharing 🙂

  5. Laura says:

    Wow this gives me some great fodder for my travel wishlist. Thanks for sharing! Love the detailed description of the getting-there.

  6. Midori says:

    Absolutely beautiful! I didn’t know almost any of them! Thanks for the post!

  7. I haven’t been South America – to be honest it has always appealed to me less than other continents. However I had literally no idea just how many Mayan ruins there are? I think I am revising my bucket list!

    What years were these ruins actually lived in? And did the Incas and Mayans live during different time periods? Finding it really interesting!

  8. Garth says:

    Mayan ruins are on our bucket list probably like everyone else, only really read about Tulum and Chichen Itza as they are so accessible on a beach type holiday, we were hoping to go this year, but changed our minds. Great to read and see all these other ones, it’s a fascinating part of history I know little about, but looking forward to learning about and experiencing on a trip like this, to these different countries one day.

  9. You made it to some great places! I think the Mayan culture and history is so fascinating! Glad you to see all of these!

  10. I didn’t realize how massive the High Temple at Lamanai was until I saw the tiny people at the top. Caracol’s Caana Acropolis sounds like my worse fear because stairs are my enemy, it will take me twice as long to get to the top compared to others. It’s very neat that UCF has an archeological team in the area.

  11. Lisa (Simple Sojourner) says:

    Love all your pictures. Belize is on my short list, would love to wander around those old ruins. Plenty of areas to hike too! Love learning all the history surrounding these areas.

  12. Barry says:

    I will join you in saying I don’t know much about South American history before the Spanish arrived. But much to my girlfriends annoyance I do love learning about these things so i’m sure I will have to drag her to visit at some point.

  13. So many incredible places in that part of the world! Would absolutely love to explore these ruins – so much history there and stunning landscapes. Awesome that you even got to meet some archaeologists and learn more about the areas!

  14. We really want to visit South America and I loved reading all of the Mayan Ruins we can visit – I didn’t realise there were so many scattered around, but then again, as you have already said, Mayan and Aztec history isn’t also widely taught in the UK either. Thank you for bringing to our attention all of these amazing places with such a rich and fascinating history. Pinned for future reference! #feetdotravel

  15. I’ve visited those Tikal and Copan, and your picture of Tikal is very similar to the end of Star Wars, A New Hope! I didn’t know Xunantunich or Caracol existed, I’ve got to go back to Belize!

  16. Clair Kelly says:

    Great post. You are giving me serious wanderlust here.

  17. Fabulous post! The Mayan Ruins are definitely at the top of my bucket list!

  18. It’s funny you should mention soccer. Standing in a big, grassy field at Chichen Itza, I thought it looked like a soccer field! That just whet our appetite to see more ruins, so this post will be a handy guide. Thanks for sharing!

  19. ramie1970 says:

    I’d love to visit all those Mayan and Aztec sites. Same as the Inca ruins, like Mach Picchu. One day I will – they’re on my list! Thanks for sharing. Interesting post.

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