I love visiting ancient Mayan cities. I don’t know why, but I absolutely love it. I love exploring every nook and cranny of the sites and climbing to the top of all of the buildings. I’ve been to La Patria Maya (The Mayan Homeland) four times – three different trips to Mexico and one to Guatemala and Belize. Over these four trips I’ve had the opportunity to visit 13 different Mayan sites. Some were big, like Tikal, and some were small, like Kabah. Every Mayan site is different. The Mayans were not one cohesive civilization. Like the Greeks they were independent city-states linked by a common culture. As a result, the architectural and sculpturing styles of each city are different. Some of the cities didn’t even coexist with one another in the same time periods, and the terrain and settings differ from city to city as well.
I am lucky enough to have photographs from each city. I am going to provide a brief description of each city along with some of my own thoughts, as well as one photo for each city. These are roughly presented in the order in which I have visited the sites. The only site I have been to twice is Chichen Itza.
Chichen Itza Yucatán, Mexico
Chichen Itza, along with Tulum, is one of the most visited Mayan sites. However, it is a fairly poor representation of the Mayan civilization. After the “collapse” of the Classical Mayan civilization in the 8th century there was a resurgence of Mayan civilization in the norther Yucatán, which was known as the Post-Classical era. Some scholars call this a Toltec, rather than a Mayan, civilization. Nevertheless their architecture and art is impressive. Chichen Itza is notable for its large structures and alignment with astronomical events, which create light spectacles on the solstices and equinoxes.
Uxmal Yucatán, Mexico
Uxmal is also primarily a Post-Classical site, but its design is unique from Chichen Itza’s. It has a pyramid with an ovular base, and many of its buildings are ornately patterned and decorated with stone mosaics and detailed carvings and statues. There are not any other prominent sites with pyramids with ovular bases. The site was also crawling with big long lizards, more so than any other site I have visited.
Kabah Yucatán, Mexico
Kabah was a vassal city to Uxmal. Today, all that remains of the city is a long raised platform and facade with hundreds of masks of the rain god. The masks has a long elephant like nose protruding from them. Very few of the noses remain in tact, but it is remarkable that any of the masks are recognizable so long after they were carved. (I think that’s my friend Kristy desecrating my photo on the bottom right hand side)
Coba Quintana Roo, Mexico
Coba is relatively older than the other sites in its proximity. And it is a large site. You need to rent bikes to easily get around, since the structures are spread out around two lakes. What I remember most about Coba (the only time I was ever there was in 2006, eight years ago) is the pyramids. Coba has a number of large pyramids. In fact, the largest pyramid in the Yucatan is in Coba, larger than Chichen Itza. It is a very impressive site in its own rights, even though it is often overlooked for Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Uxmal.
Tikal El Petén, Guatemala
Tikal is one of the largest sites in all of the Mayan world. It was also one of the most powerful cities during the Classical era. The site doesn’t disappoint this reputation. It has a number of large pyramids. They aren’t stout, rectangular, and symmetrical like El Castillo at Chichen Itza, but instead they penetrate the jungle canopy and are topped by elborately carved roof combs. George Lucas was so impressed by Tikal that he even shot some footage for the Rebel Base in Star Wars at Tikal.
Yaxha El Petén, Guatemala
Yaxha is near Tikal and was a vassal state most of its existence. However, having the protection of a strong neighbor left it a legacy of grand ceremonial temples. They aren’t as skyscraping as Tikal, and they don’t have the ornately carved roof combs, but there is still a multitude of them, and the view of Lake Yaxha from the top of them is superb. The city was actually discovered by an explorer on the lake who reasoned that the hills puncturing the landscape above the lake might not be natural.
Xunantunich Cayo, Belize
This is one of my favorite sites. Xunantunich is small, but the site is lovely and there is an excellently preserved frieze on display which is one of the best examples of Mayan art left in the world. The frieze depicts numerous cosmological events and deities. The site itself is on a ridge above the Mopan River. You can see the entire Mopan River Valley and deep into Guatemala from the top of the pyramid at the site. The pyramid is the second tallest structure in Belize behind one of the pyramids at Caracol. Over 1,000 years later and modern Belize has not surpassed its ancestors. I also enjoyed Xunantunich because I was able to walk to it from my hostel. I walked down the road, took the hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan (there are no bridges) and then I walked up to the site. Unfortunately it was high noon and must have exceeded 100° in the shade.
Caracol Cayo, Belize
Caracol is a hidden beauty. It is deep in the forests of Cayo, so it takes hours of bumping around on packed dirt roads in a van through national parkland to reach the site. However, it is a very large site, when you finally do make it. It has very tall pyramids (as previously mentioned, the tallest structures in Belize) and due to its remoteness the wildlife is flourishing. There were howler monkeys and spider monkeys, a multitude of birds, gnarly spiders, and reptiles galore.
Cahal Pech Cayo, Belize
Cahal Pech is a small city, subordinate to Caracol and Tikal. It is on a hillside in San Ignacio, Belize. Its pyramids are not impressive, but from the top of them you get a nice view of San Ignacio and the Macal River, which splits San Ignacio from Santa Elena. Other than that I don’t recall anything else particularly noteworthy about Cahal Pech.
Palenque Chiapas, Mexico
Palenque is a medium-to-large sized city in Chiapas, Mexico from the Classical period. It didn’t rival Copan, Tikal, or Calakmul, but it wielded power in its region for a time. The site is well preserved. None of the pyramids are impressively tall. However, some burials were found under some of the pyramids with exquisite art, including the sarcophagus of King Pakal and incredible censers (incense burners) that are now housed at the site’s museum, with original colors and all. Palenque is also unique for having a tower in its acropolis.
Bonampak Chiapas, Mexico
Today all that survives of Bonampak is a series of temples dug into a hillside. However, the interior of the temples are painted with murals, and the original paintings and colors, including a vibrant turquoise, still remain visible to this day. The site also has a nice charm to it. Not too big, not too small, with some nice architecture, carved stelae, and of course the murals. If I ruled a Mayan city I think I might choose Bonampak. Some of the larger ones like Tikal or Chichen Itza would be too much of a headache, but Bonampak would satiate my cravings for power more than a small city like Xunantunich or Cahal Pech would.
Yachilan Chiapas, Mexico
This was one of the coolest sites that I have visited. To reach Yaxchilan you drive to the Usumacinta River, which is the Mexican border with Guatemala. Then you take a boat downriver to the site. The site itself is still quite forested, overgrown, and moss covered. This appearance, along with the journey, gave me a Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones vibe. To enter the main plaza at the heart of the site you have to pass through an entrace structure that has pitch black passageways. It felt like a labyrinth trying to mime my way out of the building and into the plaza.
Toniná Chiapas, Mexico
Toniná was one of the last cities to be abandoned in the Classical era. And it has a long history of war, particularly with its northern neighbor, Palenque. The carved statues and murals at the site reflect this legacy. There are carved murals of bound war captives, as well as a dreamscape which has a cosmological scaffolding held up by severed heads. The site itself is a sloping acropolis that rises from temple to temple. From the pinnacle you can see miles and miles around into what appears to be a lush Chiapan valley buffeted by forested mountains. I was really huffing and puffing by the time I reached the top.
BONUS: Actun Tunichil Mukal Cayo, Belize
ATM is not a Mayan city. It is a riverine cave in Belize, accessible like Caracol in one of the country’s national parks. The Mayans believes that the underworld was filled with water and accessible by caves. They literally believed that when they entered ATM they were in Xibalba, their underworld. And in this cave they performed many rituals and human sacrifices, the artifacts of which remain. The most famous is the “Crystal Maiden,” a young women who was sacrificed and left in the cave. Her bones mineralized, and they now shimmer, like crystals. Photo credit for this one goes to the ATM Wikipedia page.
I have some videos from my trip to Guatemala and Belize that I took with Tom and Ty. I’ll have to look for them on my external hard drive because I remember them being pretty funny and well filmed. I also have my own photo from ATM on my external that I can swap in for the Wikipedia picture.