The remarkable Maya civilization that once extended through present-day southern Mexico and northern Central America is known for its astounding accomplishments in art, architecture, math and astronomy, as well as for having the only known fully developed written language of the time. But perhaps even more fascinating than the Mayan’s accomplishments is that no one knows what happened to end their powerful civilization.
No visit to Central America is complete without a visit to at least one Mayan ruin. To truly understand the vast size and impressive achievements of the Mayans, it’s even better if you have time to for each of these five:
In Western Honduras, not far from the border of Guatemala, lie the ruins of Copan. Once only a small and non-influential tribal settlement, a Maya prince arrived from Mexico and crowned himself as king. Called the Green Quetzal Macaw, it was this prince that began what would become one of the largest and most powerful Maya civilizations.
Copan became known for its vast number of decorative carved stone sculptures. Today visitors to the Copan Valley can view Maya stone monuments, structures, and pyramids within the ruins.
Located in the El Peton region of Guatemala, Tikal is one of the most impressive ruins due to its sheer size and unique location in the middle of the rainforest. Dating back to 1,000 B.C., Tikal was once one of the most powerful kingdoms of its time, boasting a long line of dynastic rulers; power over neighboring regions; strong economy and trade links; and developments in the arts and architecture.
Not only can you enjoy the astounding beauty of the ruins and marvel at their sheer height, Tikal is also a prime spot for fascinating wildlife encounters within the surrounding rainforest and Tikal National Park.
North of Belize City are the ruins of Altun Ha. If you’ve visited Belize before, then you might already recognize the image from their depiction on Belizean currency.
Altun Ha was an important trading and agricultural civilization; however, it is best known today for the discovery of elite tombs, with rich rulers buried inside amongst a myriad of treasures. One of the most popular is ‘The Temple of the Green Tomb’—deep within it, a king dating back to 600 AD was discovered surrounding by many riches, including large amounts of jade. Also of note is the Temple of the Masonry Altars, where remarkable jade carvings were smashed as offerings.
The Tazumal ruins are much smaller than the other civilizations noted on this list, but as the best-preserved ruins in El Salvador, they make a worthwhile visit if in the area. Artifacts found at Tazumal suggest that the civilization had powerful trade links as far away as Mexico and Panama. A visit to the site today will reveal a 75-foot pyramid, tombs, smaller pyramids, a ball court, and a small museum.
Because the ruins at Tazumal are quite small, try to add on a visit to nearby Casa Blanca, Las Victorias, and Trapiche.
The largest ruins in all of Belize (and arguably the most stunning in all of Central America), the Caracol Ruins are a highlight of any journey to ancient Maya civilizations.
It’s not easy to access Caracol, but the Caana (sky palace) towers—at over 145 feet high—are remarkable to behold. At its height of power there are thought to have been 150,000 people living at Caracol. Remarkably they flourished with no natural water, using dug reservoirs that caught rainwater to survive. On a final note, if you were able to visit Tikal (mentioned earlier on this list), you might be interested to know that Caracol would eventually defeat Tikal.
What are your favorite ruins in Central America?