Whether you’re staying in Tulum, along the Riviera Maya, or vising multiple ports from your Princess Caribbean Cruise, you can channel your inner Indiana Jones, while touring Mayan ancient ruins. The mysterious Mayas lived throughout the Yucatan Peninsula in southeastern Mexico. On this stretch between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, they built large cities with pyramids, temples, palaces, ceremonial structures and plazas — there are more than 20 ruins sites on the peninsula. Yet little is known about this lost civilization.
Clues have pointed to an intense knowledge of mathematics and the solar system, and of rituals that include human sacrifice; of a structured society, with priest-rulers, yet without a single ruler, nor capital. What’s clear is that the Mayas left behind some of the most impressive ruins in the world, famous sites that have been carefully rebuilt as well as jungle covered structures only recently discovered. We’ve highlighted some of the most intriguing sites below.
Setting: Cliff-top, overlooking the Caribbean Significance: Mayan fortress and city above the sea, with 60 impressively well-preserved buildings, dating from between 700 and 1000 A.D. Must-see: Peak into the Temple of the Frescoes and you’ll catch glimpses of a three-level mural symbolizing the Mayan Universe — the dark underworld, living order, and heavens. And stand in awe at the sea views from the summit of the imposing watchtower El Castillo.
Setting: Deep jungle, between two lakes Significance: Older than Chichen Itza and larger than Tulum, it’s believed that Coba was once the main trade city in the eastern Yucatan (from about 632 A.D. to 800 A.D.). Must-see: In Coba’s Nohoch Mul temple grouping you’ll find the tallest Mayan pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula, at 138 feet. From the top, take in views of the jungle that overwhelms the mostly unexcavated, 26-acre site, with ruins just visible between the trees.
Setting: Agricultural area, then and now Significance: Ek Balam (“Dark Jaguar”) is a fairly new site in terms of excavation, and was probably an agricultural center. Must-see: The large and impressively restored Caracol includes a central pyramid that’s par with the highest pyramid at Chichen Itza and flanked by two smaller pyramids. Get a chill from the perfectly frightful stucco relief of an underworld god with gaping mouth on one of the ceremonial doors.
Setting: Clearing in the forest Significance: The best preserved and rebuilt of the Mayan ruins and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Don’t miss this one Must-see: Looking up at the millennium-old, 75-foot-high stone Pyramid of Kukulkan (aka El Castillo), dedicated to the feathered serpent god, you’ll find yourself caught up in the mystery of this place and people. Don’t miss the intricate carvings at the Temple of the Warriors, bloody history of the ball court — if you lost the soccer-like game of pok-a-tok, you lost your life.
Setting: Fertile plains of the Puuc Range Significance: Large and striking ceremonial complex, dating between 700 A.D. and 1000 A.D. Must-see: The tall Pyramid of the Magician, unusually egg-shaped at its base, offers some of the best views of the Yucatan. The smaller Great Pyramid breaks the mold with its construction on nine levels. Take time to view some of the most intricate stone carvings in the Yucatan — the Mayan hieroglyphics uncovered here have scholars pumped to discover more.