The Mayan world of Central America

Journeys to Ponder — By on July 30, 2010 at 7:20 am

Other articles in the “Ancient Ruins Tour of the Americas” series:
From Aztecs to Zapotecs in Mexico
In the footsteps of the Mayans on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula


Tikal ruins in Guatemala

Mayan ruins at Tikal in Guatemala.

Now that we’ve explored the northern Mayan lands of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on our “ancient ruins tour of the Americas”, it’s time to tackle some of the remarkable ruins left behind by the Mayans in Central America. While Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are separate countries, a glance at a map will show you how these sites once fit neatly into the Mayan world alongside southeastern Mexico.


From Mexico’s Caribbean coast, the easiest route forward will take you south into Belize. In the northern reaches of the country, near Corozal, are the smaller ruins of Cerros and Santa Rita. More impressive are the Lamanai ruins, near Orange Walk town. Sprawling over 950 acres, there are hundreds of buildings at Lamanai, though only 70 have so far been excavated,. Set on the banks of the New River Lagoon, the site includes three large pyramids, including the Jaguar Temple and the High Temple.

Close to Belize City are the Altun Ha ruins. Hundreds of structures here also lie unexcavated amidst the jungle, but visitors can see the Temple of Masonry Altars, some impressive tombs and smaller pyramids.

The most striking Mayan ruins in Belize – Caracol and Xunantunich – are in the western part of the country, in the Cayo district. Caracol, which was once home to as many as 150,000 people, is the most well known Mayan site in the country, and the 136-foot Caana pyramid is even today the tallest building in Belize.

Xunantunich is tinier than Caracol, but it has been more fully excavated and is easily accessible. The Castillo pyramid dominates the site, which includes a ceremonial center, residences, a ballcourt complex, and a contemporary museum.


Guatemala is home to the spectacular ruins of Tikal, which are only a few hours’ drive from the Belize border. An extensively excavated city set amidst the jungle landscape of Guatemala, Tikal may be the most impressive of all the Mayan sites. The city included about 3,000 structures and residents built a network of causeways to link different areas. There are five large temple-pyramids, some of which were more than 200-feet high. The Great Plaza is bordered by the Temple of the Great Jaguar and the Temple of the Masks. There are also palaces, altars, stelae, residences and tombs scattered throughout the site, which is both a national park and a nature reserve.

Although Tikal is by far the most spectacular site in Guatemala, there are other ruins worth seeing if you’re a Mayan enthusiast. If you happen to be especially adventurous, you can trek to El Mirador or other difficult to reach sites in the jungle of the Mirador Basin. Otherwise, you might think about visiting Uaxactun, which is just north of Tikal, or Quirigua in southern Guatemala, which is famous for its carved stelae.

Honduras and El Salvador

Quirigua is just a few miles from the Mayan site of Copan, just over the border in Honduras. We’re now approaching the outer reaches of the Mayan world, but Copan is also a World Heritage Site and is considered to have some of the best preserved ruins in the region. It is especially known for its hieroglyphic staircase and stelae.

Finally, there are also several Mayan destinations in yet another country, El Salvador. Although not as spectacular as some of the sites you would have seen earlier on this tour, there are interesting ruins at such places as Tazumal and San Andres, while Joya de Ceren (the “Pompeii of the Americas”) is a farming community that was buried and preserved by a volcanic eruption.

If you made it this far, congratulations, for you’ve completed an exhaustive tour of the Mayan world, and perhaps of other ruins in central and southern Mexico before that. If you have more time left on your career break, and want to learn even more about the ancient cultures of the Americas, then soon we’ll be taking a look at the Inca ruins of South America.

Photo credit: Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons.

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