Maya Site Overviews

 

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      Here are brief descriptions of many of the major Mayan sites in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. 

All of these sites are included in one or another of our tours listed under the Mayan Ruins Tours link above.

            

     - BELIZE -

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Xunantunich - A Classic ceremonial center, Xunantunich features a 135-foot tall temple known as El Castillo, which is decorated with an ornate stucco frieze.  Xunantunich is located atop a ridge above the Mopan River, within sight of the Guatemala border. Its name means "Stone Woman" in the Maya language, and, like many names given to Maya archaeological sites, is a modern name; the ancient name is currently unknown. The "Stone Woman" refers to the ghost of a woman claimed by several people to inhabit the site. She is dressed completely in white, and has fire-red glowing eyes. She generally appears in front of El Castillo; ascends up the stone stairs and disappears into a stone wall.  One of the few Maya sites built atop a hill, this partially restored ruin has three carved stelae in the central square.  The structures surrounding the three plazas show evidence of an earthquake during the late classic period.  However, the site thrived well into the Terminal Classic when most sites in the Maya world had collapsed.  This site is reached by crossing the Macal River via hand-cranked ferry.

                

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Lamanai - This city, lying on the banks of the New River Lagoon, was occupied from 1500 BC to the 19th century, giving it one of the longest occupation spans in the Maya world..  Lamanai is one of Belize's largest ceremonial centers.  In addition to exotic features of ancient art and architecture, there is a well-preserved Late Preclassic temple with a large stucco mask dating to 100 BC.  Historical occupation is represented by the ruins of two Christian churches and a sugar mill.

  8. Lamanai, Orange Walk, Belize  

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Caracol - This is the largest site in Belize  Constantly at war with Tikal, Caracol dominated this region after winning a 562AD conflict.  Some of the special features of Caracol are the giant dated inscriptions on circular alter stones and huge reservoirs hewn out of solid rock for the storage of water.  The 140-foot high platform of Caana, or sky place, is the tallest man-made structure in Belize. 

The site was occupied as early as 1200 BC, but had its greatest period of construction in the Maya Classic period, with over 40 monuments dated between 485 to 889 which record the dynastic sequence of the rulers.

Ancient Caracol was one of the largest ancient Maya cities, covering some 65 square miles (168 km²) with an estimated peak population of about 120,000, or possibly even 180,000 people.

   

 

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Altun Ha - Restored in the 1970s, this is the most explored site in Belize.  The Classic Maya complex consists of two adjoining plazas, highlighted by the Temple of the Altars where over 300 jade objects were unearthed and the Temple of the Sun God where the largest piece of sculpted Mayan jade ever discovered, the head of Kinich Ahau, the Sun God and the decomposed remains of a codex were found. 

Archeological investigations show that Altun Ha was occupied by 200 BC. The bulk of construction was from the Maya Classic era, c. 200 to 900 AD, when the site may have had a population of about 10,000 people. About 900 there was some looting of elite tombs of the site, which some think is suggestive of a revolt against the site's rulers. The site remained populated for about another century after that, but with no new major ceremonial or elite architecture built during that time. After this the population dwindled, with a moderate surge of reoccupation in the 12th century before declining again to a small agricultural village.

 

     - GUATEMALA -

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Tikal - One of the best-known of the Mayan sites, this is also one of the most excavated and restored.  Tikal was one of the major cultural and population centers of the Maya civilization. Throughout much of the Classic period, Tikal was one of the largest and most powerful cities in the Maya world.  The city has some of the highest temples in Maya territory, famous for their steepness and the roof crests decorated with stuccoed relief. 

 Monumental architecture was built here as early as the 4th century BC. The city was at its height in the Maya Classic Period, approximately 200 AD to 850 AD, after which no new major monuments were built, some of the palaces of the elite were burned, and the population gradually declined until the site was abandoned by the end of the 10th century.

After a defeat at the hands of Dos Pilas, Tikal entered in a decline period known as "the Hiatus", until Jasaw Chan K'awiil defeated in successive battles Dos Pilas, Calakmul, Waka', and Caracol, returning the supremacy of the Classic Mayan world to Tikal.

Located here is an excellent museum containing a beautiful collection of Classic ceramics, jade, shell and bone jewelry and sculptures. 

                 

Howler Monkey

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Quirigua - Despite its small size, this late Classic site has some of the most original and beautiful sculptures in the Mayan world.  Long dependent on Copan, the layout of the primary site is like a small version of that famous site.  Here are huge steles (including many of the largest in the entire Mayan world) and enormous rocks carved in the shapes of animals (called zoomorphs).

   

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Uaxactun - This Middle Preclassic site has groups of stone structures built on the five hills that constitute the heart of the city.  The major pyramid has a staircase on each side and masks of cosmic creatures.  From the top of the pyramid the ancient Maya saw the sun rise from behind the central temple on the spring and autumn equinoxes.  The sun rose behind the left-hand temple on the summer solstice and behind the right0hand temple on the winter solstice.

 

     - HONDURAS -

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Copan - For more than 1,000 years Copan was a center of culture and learning in the Maya world.  This beautiful Classic period site is one of the few Mayan sites in Honduras and has one of only a few hieroglyphic staircases in the Maya world.  The Copan staircase is by far the largest.  This stairway is composed of 2,500 blocks of carved stone and records the history of 17 rulers of a single royal dynasty.  The wealth of its monuments, the staircase and particularly its many elaborately carved stelae, make Copan one of the most important Mayan cities.  Fine pottery, jewelry and jade carvings are displayed at the nearby Museo Regional de Arqueologica.

           

     - MEXICO -

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Chichén Itza -  Mid-way between Merida and Cancun, Chichén-Itza is undoubtedly the best-know of the Maya cities.  Built around 500 A.D., Chichén-Itza belongs to the Late Classis and Early Preclassic periods.  The name Chichén Itza is derived from the Mayan language: "Chi" - mouth, "Chen" - well and "Itza" - the tribe that inhabited the area.

The architectural characteristics of Chichén Itza and that have a direct relationship with. The Mayan Toltec style are the ball court,  "El Castillo", the group of 1,000 columns "El Tzompantli", El Edificio de las Aguilas", the temple of the warriors, and the market. All of these buildings have the same decoration motives found in Tula. The most frequent representations are warriors and Quetzalcoatl. The cult of the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl in Tula and Kukulkan in Mayan, was very important. The largest Ball Court in Mesoamerica is found in Chichén Itza. The pyramid known as "El Castillo" is surely the place where the ceremony of the descent of Kukulkan was held. The pyramid has special astronomical layout so that a game of light and shadow is formed. On March 21st the body of the serpent metaphorically descends from the temple on top of the pyramid and arrives at the heads at the foot of the staircase. Excavations in the interior show that there is a smaller "Castillo" in its interior.

In the temple of the warriors there is a temple on the top where the entrance columns are typically Toltec. Another one of the buildings that has a Toltec seal without is the "Muro de los Craneos". These buildings were destined to be the mausoleums of the tying up the years. Every 52 years the ancient Mayans and other cultures would tie up a sheaf of years to end a cycle. Another important building is "El Caracol", an astronomical observatory.

         

bulletPalenque - This archaeological site takes its name from Santo Domingo de Palenque, a town founded in the seventeenth century.  Palenque is one of the best preserved Mayan sites.  The city not only had access to the most imaginative architects in the Mayan civilization, but also the best scribes.  Consequently, it has some of the most beautiful buildings, sculptures and calligraphy.  Numerous impressive structures survive at this Classic site, including the Temple of the Inscriptions, which rests above the crypt of the ancient Maya rule, Lord Pacal; the multi-level Palace; and the Temple of the Count.

What makes Palenque a major community in the Mayan world is its evolved architecture and vast trade networks which linked it not only with the Mayan sphere, but with more distant Meso-American domains as well.

The ancient city holds over 200 buildings of varying size and complexity, all adapted to a landscape extending 2,800 yards from east to west, and 1,100 yards from north to south, giving it a total area of some 620 acres.  Palenque is nestled in the lower foothills of the Sierra Madre of Chiapas, which fringe the coastal plain of the Gulf of Mexico, amidst a high tropical forest abounding in surface water. It began as a farming hamlet, perhaps some time around 100 BC, that is, during the so-called Formative Period [2500 BC - 300 AD].

The interpretation of Palenque's inscriptions and other archaeological information has provided the names of its rulers and other leading figures. Moreover, even birthdays, marriages, and the start and finish of armed conquests can be dated and Palenque's alliances have been pinpointed and its rituals and the accuracy of its calendar definitely established.

           2. Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

bulletUxmal - Uxmal is considered by many to be the most beautiful of the Maya cities. Due to its relatively good state of preservation and the quality of the Pu'uc-style stone mosaic decorations, this is one of the best-know and most frequently visited of the Mayan sites. 

The name Uxmal means “three times constructed". Uxmal is located 78 Km. to the Southwest of Merida, immediately after the mountain chain Pu'uc that runs for the Southwest. According to investigations the first inhabitants of Uxmal arrived around 800 B.C. It is possible that many of the current buildings belong to this period, but the excavations could not verify it.

Agriculture was one of the main activities of the inhabitants in Uxmal, this is verified by the construction of "chultunes" (cisterns) founded there, that were used to accumulate the rainwater. With this the city grew to become a powerful political center in the zone.

During the Early Classic Period (200-600 B.C.) Uxmal acquired typical attributes of the region and other sites; it shared the style called Pu'uc, as well as an architecture known as typical Chenes of Campeche's north zone.  In the Late Classic Period, Uxmal created its own architectural style known as Delayed Pu'uc, this style is characterized for including motives with serpents.  During the years 700 to 1000 B.C. Uxmal was dominating economically and politically a vast territory of the region, not only had it implemented a complex system of agriculture, but it also developed barters with other regions, principally obsidian and basalt. It was in this period when the Xiu came to this area. This group brought new ideological elements that were reflected in the architecture and decoration of sculptures. An excellent element was the adoration to Kukulcán or Quetzalcoatl.

The most impressive structures are: The House of the Magician or of the Dwarf. It is one of the most extensive and high structures. Its name comes from a Mayan legend known as the "legend of the dwarf" of "Uxmal".

     

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Tulum - Famed for its remarkable position on the shores of the Caribbean Sea and its wall paintings (similar to those found in Mayan codices, or folded bark paper books), Tulum was an important city and port in the century before the Spanish conquest.  This site offers some of the finest examples of monumental paintings and strictly religious architecture in the Mayan world.

In Maya, Tulum means "Wall", and the city was christened thus in the early 1900's because it is a walled city and one of the very few the ancients ever built. Research suggests it was called Zama or "to dawn" in its day, which is appropriate given the east-facing location on the Caribbean.  Tulum is the most visited of the Maya sites in the Yucatán, and not because of its proximity to Cancun. Although the ruins are structurally less impressive than Chichén Itzá or Uxmal and much less extensive, they have the azure Caribbean as a backdrop - a startling contrast and heaven for the photographer or artist. Because the area is small and there is comparatively little climbing involved, you can gain a fair appreciation of Tulum in a couple of hours.

The layout of the site is unusually structural, with parallel streets surrounded by walls originally five meters high and seven meters deep. Most of the walls can still be seen, indeed the present day entrance to the ruins is as it was in ancient times, through a gate on western side of the fortifications.

       

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Bonampak - Bonampak is located in the Lacandon Forest of the Chiapas and in the Lacanja River Valley. This site occupies 1,000 acres. The main buildings were built along the top of a chain of hills that runs through the middle of the valley from the Cojolita Range to the side of the river. However, only the Grand Plaza cluster has been explored and is open to the public. This plaza is at the south end of Bonampak, where you can see the famous building with wall paintings.

When it was constructed Bonampak was a site of no more than average importance, but today this Late Classic site has the Maya world's finest surviving frescoes. This comprehensive collection of Mayan wall paintings provides historians (and Mayan enthusiasts) with detail and vital information on the dress, ceremony, war and sacrifice in the Maya world.

The pictures show the last ruler of Bonampak, Chaan Muan II, presenting his son as the heir to his throne, as well as war preparations, which involved propitiatory self-sacrifices by the ruling family. Also shown is the development of the battle, including the taking of prisoners, who are sacrificed in a pompous ceremony with dances and more sacrifices.

These events took place between 790 and 792 A.D. and mark the last happenings and the end of the lineage of the Bonampak lords. After that the city remained abandoned in the jungle for almost 12 centuries.

       

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Yaxchilan - Yaxchilan is one of the great sites from the Classic Mayan period [250-900 AD]  .Known for temple facades and lintels elaborately decorated with stone mosaics, Yaxchilan is accessible by boat down the Rio Usumacinta. 

Known for its numerous exceptionally fine engraved monuments, this site lies half hidden in the thick jungle overgrown next to the Usumacinta River. The development of the city took place between 350 and 810 A.D. In construction works the architects, following the natural lay of the land on the banks of the river, arranged the buildings in an east-west direction atop rises along the south side of a broad plaza.

It began as a hamlet of hunter-farmers but eventually rose in status in the region. It is believed to have attained prominence some time around 410 AD during the rein of Skull-Mahk'ina 1, lord of Yaxchilan. At the time Tikal still held sway in the area, while Yaxchilan was, until Piedras Negras rose in influence, the main port for the Palenque region.

          

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Kabah - This site is well-known for its most impressive structure, Codz-Poop (Palace of the Masks), whose facade is adorned with 400 masks. 

Kabah has been interpreted as “Man of the strong or powerful hand ". The city was always in the Mayan's conscience, even after the Spanish conquest and it is mentioned in the ancient texts of Chumayel's Chilam Balam; for this reason it is supposed that it was a place of importance similar to Uxmal.

It is distinguished by a long occupation, its strategic location and for the quality of the carved stones that embellish and give meaning to their constructions. Kabah has a small town with a central temple that marks the entrance to the city. From this place, the building concentration is increased until ending in the great arch of entry to the monumental area.

            

bulletEk Balam  - Ek Balam means “Black Jaguar". Its origin dates from the year 400 BC, in the Preclassic period and its splendor developed between 600 and 900 AC in the late classic.

The ornamentation here is very peculiar and a great variety of features exists on the front of the buildings.  The facades are of carved stone or shaped polychrome stucco or of a mixture of both elements. The archaeologists deduce that it was an important city, by the great dimensions of its buildings and because it was protected by three walls, two of them surrounding the central part where the most important constructions are found. The walls allow for four entrances which are culminations of an equal number of "sacbes" or raised roadbeds. These causeways divide in the direction of all four cardinal points.

Ek Balam's central part has two squares. In the major one there can be seen the twin pyramids and a habitational building.  There same one finds the Acropolis, which is the greater one of the structures. The Acropolis is formed by several levels of constructions and terraces.

          Photo: Javier Hinojosa

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Labná - The arch at Labná has become one of the main images used when wishing to portray something "Mayan". It is located at the foot of El Mirador, and is on the opposite side of the city to where tourists enter the site.

Measuring about 42 feet wide and standing 20 feet high, the arch shows one of the definitive architectural "fingerprints" of this people... namely the Mayan or Corbelled Archway. The arch once served as the entrance to the city and has a small room on one side where a guard on sentry might find shelter from the elements. Both sides of the arch are richly carved in the classic Pu'uc style.

The Main Facade (the one that faces towards the interior of the city) is decorated in a style that is similar to the Nunnery Quadrangle in Uxmal. That is, in each of the small doorways that acted as guard houses have a sculpture over it called a Xanil Nah, which was essentially a stone representation of a the thatched roof hut that the Maya used as living quarters. These stone huts are overlapping a cross-hatched "X" design similar to overlapping long parallel poles in an "X" pattern to signify a house, or in this case, the arch, as having a special function. This face also has a Chaak mask on the north-west corner of the frieze.

Either side of the doorway on the External Facade has two square spiraling Muyal or "Cloud" scrolls marking this building as a community or cloud house, thereby welcoming visitors into the city. Between the cloud symbols are the stone columns that are said to represent petrified trees.

  

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Kohunlich - Kohunlich, unlike most Mayan sites is actually not a Mayan name, but is an English version of 'Cohoon Ridge.' Cohoon is Belizean name for a species of fruiting palm common to the area. The name has been "Mayanized" into "Kohunlich". The ruins weren't discovered until 1967 by a local Mayan. The Cohoon palms create a park like feeling to Kohunlich that is peaceful and beautiful.  The site is best known for its giant masks of the Sun God ‘Kinich Ahau.’

The masks flanking the main stairway at Kohunlich are the main highlight of this structure. They are made of carved stucco and each one is slightly different from the others. Some of them still have some pigmentation. These masks were created during the first phase of construction and were then covered over, as was common practice, during the construction of the later phase. This accounts for their remarkable state of preservation. The masks are now protected by a thatched roof, making it awkward to photograph and even more difficult to draw. Nonetheless, it is a superb example of Maya Art.

     

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Calakmul - A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Calakmul was a superpower of Maya civilization 1,500 years ago. Calakmul, which means “City of the Two Adjacent Towers,” is centered around two ornate pyramids standing 14 stories high. To date, more than 6,250 structures have been found in the area, some containing tombs and jade masks.

This large Maya center stands amidst the high forests of southern Campeche, only 20 miles from the Guatemalan border. The archaeological site was first discovered in 1931 by American Biologist Cyrus Lundell while conducting an aerial survey of the region. Based upon recent excavations and epigraphic research there, William Folan and Joyce Marcus have concluded that the ancient city of Calakmul was occupied from the Middle Preclassic to the Postclassic periods. The apogee of the site, however, appears to have occurred during the Late Preclassic through Late Classic times, the period associated with Calakmul's numerous carved monuments.

Calakmul is one of the largest known Maya sites. It is estimated to cover 70 square kilometers, and to have had a population of 50,000 during the height of its power. The central urban core of Calakmul is delineated on the north by a substantial wall, probably for defense of the most important political structures and residences. It has been discovered that the site is ringed by water management features including canals and arroyos, isolating a central 22 square kilometers.

           1. Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico

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Xpujil - This site is a prime example of the Rio Bec style of Maya architecture. Xpujil was discovered and explored by the Carnegie Expedition in 1938. The site boasts a three-towered structure, unlike the two-towered temple structures found at other sites in the Rio Bec area.

   

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Chicanná - Chicanná means "Serpent-mouth House" in Maya.  The site was discovered and named by Jack D. Eaton in 1966 during reconnaissance of the area prior to the formal start of the National Geographic/Tulane University archaeological study centered at Becán. Chicanná and its near neighbor, Becán, were built during the same time period (roughly A.D. 600 to 830). However, the architecture at the two sites is quite distinct.

While Becán is characterized by monumental structures grouped around grand plazas, Chicanná exhibits small scale elegance and loosely scattered structures built on low platforms. There is more intact architecture and specifically more intact architectural sculpture at Chicanná than there is at Becán. Despite the difference in the scale of architecture at the two sites, the sculpture at Chicanná will give one a clearer picture of how the sculptural facades at Becán might have looked when they were intact.

     

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Coba - Coba is located around five small lakes. A series of elevated stone and plaster roads called "sacbes" radiate from the central site to various smaller sites near and far. Some of these causeways go east to the Caribbean coast and the longest runs over 100 km to the west to the site of Yaxuna. The site contains several large temple pyramids, the tallest, known as Nohoch Mul, being 42 meters in height.

Coba is estimated to have had some 50,000 inhabitants (and possibly significantly more) at its peak of civilization, and the built up area extends over some 80 square km. The site was occupied by a sizable agricultural population by the 1st century. The bulk of Coba's major construction seems to have been made in the middle and late Classic period, about 500 to 900, with most of the dated hieroglyphic inscriptions from the 7th century. However Coba remained an important site in the Post-Classic era and new temples were built and old ones kept in repair until at least the 14th century, possibly as late as the arrival of the Spanish.

      

bulletEdzna - This Mayan city was founded around 600 to 300 BC as a small agricultural community. As the years passed it became an important economical, political and religious entity. Edzna reached its most important era between 600 and 900 AD as a grand regional capital. Over the years, an important hydraulic system of aqueducts, holding tanks, and canals were developed, allowing Edzna to be independent as they had water, the most important resource for continuation of civilization.  The rainwater flowed to artificial deposits called Chultunes. 

Some think Edzna means House of the Itzaes (a group of Indians), others think it is House of Echoes, while others believe it is House of Gestures. Whatever it is, this is one of Campeche's most visited site and an important one in the Mayan World.

The ruins cover an area of three kilometers east to west and two kilometers south to north.

       4. Campeche's Edzná, Mexico

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Becan - Becan means "The Road of the Serpent" in Mayan. Becán was an active city for a very long period of time. Dates as early as 600 B.C. and as late as 1450 A.D. have been identified. The site covers some 63 acres, although the entire site boundaries are still undefined. This archaeological site was built from carved limestone. Becan represented an important political and military control place, and is considered the capital of the Rio Bec region.

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Sayil - Sayil means "place of the leaf-cutter ants" in Maya.  Stephens and Catherwood visited "Zayi" during their 1841 expedition to the Yucatan. Stephens wrote: "After proceeding a mile and a half we saw at some distance before us a great tree-covered mound, which astonished us by its vast dimensions... Our guides cut a path, and clearing the branches overhead, we followed on horseback, dismounting at the foot of the Casa Grande. It was by this name that the Indians called the immense pile of white stone buildings, which, buried in the depths of a great forest, added new desolation to the waste by which they were surrounded. We tied our horses, and worked our way along the front. The trees were so close that we could take in but a small portion of it at once...".

 

Tours to these Mayan ruins are available in the many tours offered by The Mayan Traveler. 

For a complete listing of those tours please clink on the Maya Ruins Tours link below.

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