In the footsteps of the Mayans on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

Journeys to Ponder — By on July 9, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Other articles in the “Ancient Ruins Tour of the Americas” series:
From Aztecs to Zapotecs in Mexico
– The Mayan world of Central America (coming soon)


The Mayan civilization continues to fascinate contemporary observers and not just because of interest in the year 2012 and the Mayan calendar. In fact, the Mayan culture that reached its peak in the late first millennium had not only a written language, but also very impressive architecture and well-developed systems of math and astronomy. The cities of the Mayan world stretched across much of what is now southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, so if you’re interested in tracing Mayan history through its ruins then it could turn into quite a trip. Perfect for a career break!

In this overview, we’ll look at the Mayan ruins of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and will cover Central America in a future article. If you’re continuing on from the previous piece in this series (which looked at ruins in central and southern Mexico), then we left off at the Mexican town of Villahermosa. From here, it’s a short trip to Palenque, which represents the western edge of what was the Mayan empire.

Mayan ruins at Palenque

Mayan ruins at Palenque.

Southern and Western Yucatan Peninsula

Palenque is one of the most magical and interesting of the Mayan sites because of its setting amidst the jungles of Chiapas and its extensive hieroglyphic records. The most famous structure here is the Temple of Inscriptions, but there are many other notable buildings, among them The Palace and the Temples of the Cross.

More Mayan ruins are scattered through the jungles of Chiapas, but they’re not as easy to reach. If you’re intent on hitting as many relics as possible, though, then Bonampak, Yaxchilan and Chinkultic can be visited with a bit of effort or through an organized tour.

Palenque can also serve as a jumping off point for some ruins in the southern Yucatan that aren’t easily accessible from other cities. You can first head to the Rio Bec ruins – including Becan, Chicanna and Xpuhil – that are situated east of the town of Escárcega. Also in the region but even more off the beaten path are the impressive ruins of Calakmul, near the Guatemalan border. One of the largest of the Mayan sites, with hundreds of structures, it’s in the midst of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.

From here, you can head north towards the city of Campeche and then commence a clockwise tour of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula that will bring you to at least another 10 sites. Campeche, on the Gulf coast, has an historic city center and is close to several ruins, with the most notable being Edzna.

Then, just south of Merida are the ruins of Uxmal, one of the larger Mayan cities of its time and among the best preserved of the Yucatan sites today. Uxmal’s most famous structure is the Pyramid of the Magician, which has a unique rounded shape. The smaller ruins of Kabah, Sayil and Labna are also nearby and were jointly declared a World Heritage Site with Uxmal. Other destinations near Merida that are worth a visit are Mayapan and Dzibilchaltun, the latter of which has a museum with Mayan and Spanish artifacts.

Chichen Itza

Temple of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza.

Eastern Yucatan Peninsula

From here, the route turns east towards Chichen Itza, one of the most visited of all the Mayan sites. In 2007, in fact, it was voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Chichen Itza was an important regional capital in the northern reaches of the Mayan lands  and there are numerous temples, pyramids and other buildings for visitors to explore. The most well known and photographed is the Temple of Kukulkan, a step pyramid that is also known as El Castillo, or “the castle.” During the spring and fall equinox, the pyramid casts a serpent-shaped shadow at sunrise and sunset. Among the other fascinating structures are the Temple of the Warriors and the Great Ballcourt.

From Chichen Itza, it’s not far to the Yucatan’s Caribbean coast. This is a popular vacation region and you’ll no doubt want to relax a bit on the beaches of Cancun or Playa del Carmen. But the nearby Mayan sites of Tulum and Coba are also worth seeing.

Tulum is a small site but is one of the most visited due to its proximity to Cancun. It is also well known for its location on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean. Coba is less frequently visited but is a larger site and boasts the Yucatan’s tallest pyramid, Nohoch Mul. Many of Coba’s structures have yet to be cleared from the jungle, which lends an aura of mystery to the ruins.

That’s 18 Mayan sites on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and there are other smaller sites that I haven’t covered here. It will keep you busy for a while exploring the ancient history of this fascinating Indian civilization. But remember, this is only the northern half of the Mayan world. There are other equally impressive sites awaiting you in Central America, which we’ll cover in the next article.

Photo credits: Peter Andersen via Wikimedia Commons (Palenque), and Uspn via Wikimedia Commons (Chichen Itza).

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