The Maya civilization is one of the most mysterious in history. It suddenly rose into prominence circa 1800BCE and disappeared just as mysteriously about 3,400 years later. During its existence, the Mesoamerican civilization pioneered the concept of urban centers and city-states in the Americas.
Its settlements contained numerous pyramids and other sophisticated structures, often adorned with elaborate decorative stucco designs. More importantly, the Maya developed a hieroglyphics and iconographic writing system that paved the way for sophisticated advances in the fields of engineering, mathematics, astronomy and farming. The advent of the writing system also led to a relatively detailed recording of the history of the Maya empire.
Towards the 9th century AD, the maturing Maya civilization underwent rapid sociopolitical developments that oddly led to the bulk of the population abandoning the city centers, and in the process, causing the disintegration of the empire. Historians have suggested that climate change played a part in this massive exodus, but no one is certain of the actual reason. The final death knell for the weakened and disparate remnants of the Maya empire came following the arrival of Spaniards explorers in 16 AD. A series of battles between the two culminated with the fall of the last Maya city, Nojpetén, in the Peten basin in modern-day Guatemala.
At its peak, the Maya empire stretched across parts of southern Mexico, the whole of Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize, and northern Honduras. Today, descendants of the Maya people still numbers in the millions and can be found among the rural and indigenous populations of southern Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula, Tabasco, Chiapas and Sierra Madre), Guatemala and Belize. Many of them continue to speak in dialects that would have been familiar to citizens of ancient Maya city-states.
Serious study of the history of the Maya empire probably began in the early 19th century, and since then, archaeologists have documented a few hundred surviving remnants of ancient Maya ruins. However, if you’re interested in exploring the rich history of these ancient people, the following ten major sites will serve as an excellent start.
Altun Ha | Belize District, Belize
Measuring about 5 sq. mi in size, Altun Ha is located about 31 miles north of Belize City. Altun Ha (Rockstone Water in English), an important religious center, is made up of two plazas consisting of thirteen structures, including the Temple of Sun God, Temple of the Green Tomb and Temple of the Masonry Altars.
Calakmul | Campeche State, Mexico
Campeche (Adjacent Mounds in English), the capital of the Kingdom of the Snake, is considered as one of the most powerful Maya cities, perhaps only second to Tikal. The last ruler of Campeche, Aj Took’, with the hereditary title of Divine Lords of the Snake, presided over the fall of the ancient city in the early 9th century AD. Archaeologists have documented almost 7,000 structures here, with the most famous being a 160 ft. east-facing pyramid, a north-facing 148 ft. pyramid and the eight-room Lundell Palace.
Caracol | Cayo District, Belize
Caracol (Spiral-shaped in English) is located deep in the rain forest of Belize near the Guatemalan border at approximately 1,650 ft. above sea level. Caracol is considered Belize’s most important Maya site, and at its peak, is believed to be inhabited by over 150,000 people – double the number of the entire current Cayo District population. The most impressive structure here is the 141 ft. Caana (Sky Place), Central Acropolis and Temple of the Wooden Lintel.
Comalcalco | Tabasco State, Mexico
Comalcalco (House of the Pot in English) is located inside the present-day Comalcalco Municipality in Mexico. Unlike other major Maya cities, the absence of limestone here led to the use of red clay in the construction of structures, most notably the two pyramids that dominate the city, the Acropolis Este and the Gran Acropolis.
Copan Ruinas | Copan District, Honduras
Copan Ruinas (The Ruins of Three Witik in English) is one of the most beautiful surviving Maya ruins. With its paved cobblestone streets (mainly covered in grass now), whitewashed buildings, artful façade and statues, Copan Ruinas has a rich written 2,000-history that makes it a firm favorite with historians.
Chichen Itza | Yucatan State, Mexico
Chitzen Itza (‘At the mouth of the well of the Itza’ in English) has the most recognizable of all ancient Maya ruins – the Temple of Kukulkan, or more fondly known locally as El Castillo. The beautiful pyramid has 91 steps on each side, and including the final step at the apex, totaling up to 365 steps – one for each day of the year. Easily the most visited of all Maya sites, the Chitzen Itza site also has a 554 feet by 231 feet wide basketball-soccer hybrid ball court where players try to kick a 12-pound rubber ball into wall-mounted hoops. Other notable structures here include the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warrior) and the Osario (high priest) pyramid.
El Mirador | Peten Department, Guatemala
Located deep inside the Parque Nacional El Mirador near the Guatemalan-Mexican border, El Mirador (The Looker, in English) is home to the biggest ever Maya pyramid – the 230 ft. tall La Danta temple. With a total volume of 2,800,000 cubic meters, it is also arguably the biggest ancient structure in the world.
Palenque| Chiapas State, Mexico
The lost city of Palenque was rediscovered in 1773, and since then, has been carefully excavated to reveal the presence of hundreds of exquisite structures inside a 5.8 sq. mi area. These structures provide us with a wealth of information about Maya architecture and art. Some of the more popular buildings here include the Temple of the Inscriptions, Temple of the Skull, Temple of the Cross and Temple of the Sun.
Tikal | Peten Department, Guatemala
Tikal, named by a Guatemalan newspaper in 1853 after its rediscovery, is unanimously acknowledged as the greatest ever Maya city. At its peak, Tikal was home to about 200,000 people and serves as the political, military, economic and cultural capital of the empire. Located deep inside the El Petén rainforest reserve, Tikal’s trove of writings also makes its history the most well known in the Maya diaspora.
Uxmal | Yucatan State, Mexico
Uxmal (‘Thrice Built’ in English), was founded in 700AD by the Maya magician-god Itzamna. The entire city was constructed to follow particular astronomical patterns that align the structures to specific directions at specific times of the year. The Pyramid of the Soothsayer, for instance, was aligned to the movement of Venus. Other major buildings at Uxmal include the House of the Tortoises, Quadrangle of the Nuns and Pigeon House.
Song of the day: The Stranglers – Mayan Skies