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