Long before I heard the end of the world rumors I was fascinated with ancient Mayan culture. The fact that a civilization could reach such advancements such as an almost perfectly accurate calendar, full understanding of the seasons, a working knowledge of solar and planetary movements, and much more, all without the help of computers or even a calculator just mesmerizes me. So when I began to plan my travels, I knew I’d be visiting more than a few ancient Mayan cities.
Will the End of the World Come on December 21, 2012?
If you talk to local experts at any of the great Mayan cities you will undoubtedly hear, no the world is not going to end. They will then explain that the Mayan calendar consisted of 5 phases and at the end of each phase a rebirth or change occurs. The fact that there’s not a 6th phase isn’t because the Mayans forsaw the end, but because they believed that the entire calendar cycle would start back over again. Let’s hope they’re right!
While we wait to see what will come on December 21, 2012, I thought I’d share the top 5 best Mayan ruins to visit.
Top Mayan Ruin to Visit – Number 5 – Chichen Itza, Mexico
Named as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza is probably the most famous of Mayan cities to visit. Located in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico it draws thousands if not millions of tourists each year with its close proximity to Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and Cozumel.
There are two main structures that will impress everyone who visits Chichen Itza. First there is the main pyramid, El Castillo. It is not only a large and grand pyramid, it also displays some great effects on the winter solstice (ie. December 21, 2012). On this day each year, the sun aligns just right casting a shadow across the staircase rails. The shadow appears to be a continuation of the serpent heads prominently guarding the bottom steps. You can see the serpents body stretch all the way back to the top of the pyramid where the great ruler of Chichen Itza once stood. So if you haven’t yet decided where to spend your last day on Earth, I’m sure Chichen Itza will be packed.
The second grand structure is the ball court. The Mayans loved to play their unique ball game and Chichen Itza sports the largest ball court found to date. This game was more than just a game as it was thought that the losers would often pay with their lives.
Top Mayan Ruin to Visit – Number 4 – Copan, Honduras
Situated next to a quaint mountain town by a similar name, Copan Ruinas, the Copan site is vast and has gorgeous views. Its also a contrast to Chichen Itza with far less visitors. In fact the sunny day I visited, there were probably less than 20 people in the entire city. I felt like I had the place almost to myself.
Copan sets itself apart from other ruins as it provides a glimpse into Mayan construction as well as archaeological excavation you can’t get anywhere else. As new Mayan rulers took over leadership it was standard practice to construct grand buildings to demonstrate their power. This often meant building right over top of other buildings. In Copan, archaeologists discovered this attribute in a couple of locations and instead of simply publishing their research and putting the blocks back in place over their excavations, they chose to leave the tunnels in tact. This means that you can walk in and under the current pyramids and come face to face with the previous architecture including original paint, stone carvings, and more.
Top Mayan Ruin to Visit – Number 3 – Caracol, Belize
Caracol is not a site that is easy to reach but it’s well worth the adventurous drive. Situated in Belize just steps from the Guatemalan border, Caracol was a prominent Mayan city state prior to the collapse of the Mayans, even defeating the great city of Tikal along the way.
Due to its remote location and iffy roads, Caracol is also a city you can almost have to yourself. The pyramids here are as impressive as those in Mexico and there are also complexes of temples built in strict alignment with the seasons so that the Mayan people would recognize the change of the season by the location of the sun in relation to these temples.
Caracol is also a place that still hides more than a few mysteries. Like most other Mayan ruins, no one is truly sure why the people left their great cities. In addition, Caracol was likely to have supported more than 100,000 people but has no known natural water source nearby. And finally, only a small portion of this expansive site has been excavated. That means there’s much more to learn about this great city and probably about its neighbors.
Top Mayan Ruin to Visit – Number 2 – Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal is another very famous Mayan site. Even if you don’t recognize it by name, you’ve certainly seen it before. Tikal was the largest city in the Mayan Classic Period and was a political and social center but more recently the city gets its fame as the backdrop for the most recent Star Wars movie, Episode IV: A New Hope.
Tikal is a massive and well excavated site set in one of Central America’s largest tropical rain forests. This means that on your visit to Tikal you will not only experience the grand ruins of a great Mayan city but that you will also come into contact with many birds and animals indigenous to the area.
Having climbed more than a few Mayan pyramids before I reached Tikal I was pretty happy to see that railing and even stairs had been added to some of the pyramids here making it much easier, not to mention safer, to climb these great structures. Even with this dash of safety, the climbs are grueling and definitely not for those scared of heights. Some of the temples tower as high as 70 meters or 230 feet. On one of the pyramids it took me quite some time to get up the courage to climb back down (climbing up is always easy for me but going down almost always freaks me out a little).
Top Mayan Ruin to Visit – Number 1 – Palenque, Mexico
It was a tough choice to make between Tikal and Palenque for the number one spot. What pulled Palenque ahead is the diversity of this site. I loved the setting. Much like Tikal, Palenque is set in the jungle but Palenque is also built across the side of a mountain making some of the views just amazing.
The main pyramid at Palenque housed the tomb of Pacal. His tomb is unlike any other found to date and is in the league of the Egyptians for impressive points. During an excavation at the center of the pyramid a tomb was unearthed that revealed a massive sarcophagus with intricate carving of the history that came before Pacal’s reign. To see this impressive relic you have to visit the museum by the exit which has created an impressive display area chilled to keep the sarcophagus preserved. It definitely gives you an Indiana Jones discovery moment.
What also grabs me about Palenque is the palace structure with its diverse complex of various chambers, rooms, courtyards, and even what appears to be a bell tower. Underneath the palace there is also network of tunnels that you can explore.
When you make your way to the temples set into the mountain side if you’re lucky you may also be greeted with the eerie sound of howler monkeys in the jungle. This sound really makes you feel like your back in the days of the Mayans. Check it out on You Tube: Palenque Howler Monkeys.