There’s nothing quite like stepping back in time and exploring the remarkable ruins of ancient civilizations. Gazing upon the impressive structures, you can’t help but marvel at the skill and intelligence needed to build these cities. No trip to Central America is complete without touring the breathtaking Mayan ruins, and you’ll find some of the most spectacular sites in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. From Chichen Itza to Tulum to Tikal, there’s beauty and rich history at every turn.
Top Mayan Ruins in Mexico:
If you’re looking to bypass the crowds, Ek Balam is the place for you. Extensive excavation didn’t begin until the 90s, and even today only the center of the site has been unearthed. The acropolis offers stunning views, but the steep descent on uneven stairs can lead to vertigo, so make sure you know your limits. Since the site is small and quieter than the more popular Mayan ruins, it’ll only take an hour or two to explore. While there, check out the enchanting cenote.
Of all the Mayan tours, Chichen Itza is among the most famous. Once one of the largest Mayan cities, the site is expansive, and you’ll want to dedicate a few hours to explore the ruins. The structures showcase a variety of architectural styles, and reveal a lot about the time of their construction. Arrive early to avoid the worst of the crowds, and head to El Castillo—the main pyramid. Chances are you’ve seen pictures of this famed site. Other must-sees include the Great Ball Court and Temple of the Warriors.
The remote ruins of Coba are a striking sight, with the light stone of the area’s highest pyramid set against a dense, verdant forest. Climb all 130 feet to the top and gaze down upon the many sacbes, or white roads. The roads reveal that Coba was a vital trade city, and held great power within Mayan civilization. Wandering this lightly excavated site offers a truly authentic feel.
Tulum has become a destination hotspot in recent years, and with good reason—the dramatic view simply can’t be beat! The ruins of a once-great port city sit atop a steep cliff with the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea as a picturesque backdrop. Breathe in the salty air as you marvel at the intricate structures and unparalleled scenery.
Top Mayan Ruins in Belize:
After exploring the Yucatán Peninsula, head down to Caracol, the largest Maya ruins in Belize. Once a powerful city-state during the Classic era, it’s not hard to imagine the excavation site in its former glory. Grand pyramids and other structures lie within the Chiquibil Forest Reserve, offering a striking juxtaposition.
You’ll find El Pilar deep within the jungle on the Belize-Guatemala border. These ruins have only been partially unearthed and are part of a conservation project. The goal is to preserve Mayan buildings and artifacts in the context of their natural environment, giving visitors an inside look at Mayan culture and heritage. As one of the most authentic Mayan tours, be sure to dress comfortably so you can traverse the jungle with ease.
Altun Ha is among Belize’s most impressive ruins. Historians know the city was once a powerful trading center, as large amounts of jade and obsidian (which do not occur naturally in the country) were found at the site. Explore the gorgeous temple and surrounding pyramids.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from El Pilar, Xunantunich is an easily accessible site that’s been greatly excavated. The beauty is unmatched when the sun bathes the intricate temple in golden light. These Mayan ruins, known as the Lost City, have provided archeologists with meaningful insight to the people who once lived here. The name Xunantunich was given to the site after its discovery, as no one knows its original name. It translates to “Stone Woman,” and is named after a ghost locals claim began haunting the site in the late 1800s.
Hop on a boat and sail on over to Lamanai! The site is accessed by daily boat tours from Orange Walk. The area is home to abundant wildlife, including crocodiles—Lamanai translates to “submerged crocodile.” You won’t want to miss the remarkable Jaguar Temple (part of which is still under ground), the High Temple, or the Mask Temple.
Top Mayan Ruins in Guatemala:
The famous Tikal is an iconic site that brings countless visitors. Of all the Mayan tours in Guatemala, this is one you won’t want to miss. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been used in beloved film franchises, such as Star Wars and James Bond. Take a full day to truly revel in Tikal’s mixture of overwhelming beauty and rich history. Marvel at the towering temples and flat-top pyramids as howler monkeys screech in the distance.
Quirigua isn’t your usual Mayan city. Instead of pyramids, the site has stelae, or tall stone carvings. The carvings are astonishingly elaborate, and the stelae have stood high for over 1,300 years. Historians believe that the inhabitants of this unique city moved south from Tikal. Quirigua’s distinctive architecture is definitely worth a visit!
This well-known site rose to fame as the backdrop for the 2005 season of Survivor. Now a popular tourist destination, this complex site is home to over 500 structures—some of which have not been excavated. Journey in the afternoon to see the breathtaking sunset over Lake Yaxha.
The white city of Zaculeu is famed for its use of white stone, unlike other Mayan sites. Its relatively small and shouldn’t take more than an hour to tour, allowing you time to visit other nearby attractions. The glistening pyramids are a picturesque site, and it’s easy to climb to the top for mind-blowing panoramas.