Admire colorful murals of battle scenes at Bonampak, watch the shadow of a giant serpent creep up a pyramid in the afternoon sun at Chichén Itzá, marvel at the view of Caribbean waters from the walled city of Tulum. Mexico boasts some of the world’s most impressive Mayan ruins, primarily located in the state of Chiapas and along the Yucatán Peninsula. Step back in time to learn more about life in the Americas before European arrival: these sites provide an invaluable glimpse of the way Mayans worshipped, ruled, worked and played. Don’t forget to visit the towns surrounding the ruins where Mayan cultures are still alive today.
Perched atop an eight-story pyramid, surrounded by jungle filled with swooping toucans and the roars of howler monkeys, any traveler will tell you Palenque is a destination not to be missed.
First inhabited around 100 B.C.E., this Mayan settlement reached its peak around 630–740 C.E. It thrived under ruler Pakal, who began his reign at age 12 and lived at least 60 years; some DNA estimates put him at 80 or older. The site was largely abandoned after 900 C.E., and due to heavy rainfall and quick-growing vegetation, the buildings of Palenque soon disappeared from view.
Palenque gained new attention when Mayan hunters revealed the site to a Spanish priest in 1746, but it wasn’t thoroughly explored until nearly a century later. Today we know there to be hundreds of buildings at Palenque, many of them still unexcavated. Without pack animals, metal tools, or the wheel, Palenque residents managed to create immense, complex structures and even the earliest known pressurized aqueduct. Many of the original buildings were painted red with blue and yellow details.
Visit Templo XIII with its Tomb of the Red Queen, named for the cinnabar-died remains of the female dignitary buried there. Although her identity cannot be verified, many assume she was the wife or mother of ruler Pakal buried in the tomb beside her. Pakal’s mausoleum is Palenque’s highest and most elegant building, the Temple of the Inscriptions. This incredible eight-story structure features detailed reliefs of Mayan nobles and an original three-panel inscription describing nearly 180 years of Palenque’s history.
Venture on to discover the site’s awe-inspiring palace, four stories high and as vast as a city block. Visitors can explore underground passageways and admire a tower built to view the winter solstice. Admission costs 45 pesos.
Known for its well-preserved roof combs and intricate carvings, Yaxchilán is an architect’s dream. This remote site along the Usumacinta River can only be reached by boat ride through the rainforest. Cruise past crocodiles and colorful birds as you approach this stunning collection of buildings tucked deep into the jungle.
Yaxchilán peaked between 681 and 800 C.E. and was deserted shortly thereafter. Its name means “place of green stones” and it consists of 86 known buildings, among them many temples and a palace. To reach the Grand Plaza visitors must traverse the “labyrinth,” a bat-filled maze of linking passageways. Walk further to discover sculptures of crocodiles and jaguars, two acropoleis and giant staircases into the sky.
The true highlight of Yaxchilán, however, lies in the stone lintels at the entrance to nearly every building, largely intact and carved with graphic scenes of conquest, ritual, history and sport. Look closely to learn about the reign of King Jaguar Shield, his wives Lady Xoc and Lady Eveningstar, and his son Bird Jaguar who later came to rule. Women feature more prominently in these carvings than at other Mayan sites, many shown performing the bloodletting ritual. Other scenes depict a brutal version of the Mayan ball game in which a bound human is used as the ball.
You can reach Yaxchilán via boat ride from small town Frontera Corozal near the Guatemalan border. The site is open daily and admission costs 45 pesos.
Hidden behinds walls of dense jungle about 20 miles from Yaxhchilán, Bonampak was not discovered by the outside world until 1946. Many believe it gained attention after being revealed to Charles Frey, a WWII conscientious objector who had integrated himself with a local community.
Bonampak, which peaked between 600 and 800 C.E., was never a massive city and will not impress visitors with its size or buildings alone. Even at the time of its peak it lived in the shadow of nearby Yaxchilán. Rather, this site is famous for its Templo de las Pinturas, filled with breathtaking murals that offer precious insight into ancient Mayan life. In fact, the name of the site itself means “painted walls” in Yucatec Maya.
Using a stucco surface and mineral paints, the artists at Bonampak created vibrant, detailed scenes in red, blue, yellow, purple and green. Some of the images depict gods and mythological creatures, but most depict important moments in the history of the city itself, helpfully marked by planetary hieroglyphs and chronological inscriptions.
Studying the murals, visitors will see wild jungle battles and nobles performing a celebratory dance wearing large, colorful headdresses and masks of gods. In a particularly vivid scene, leader Chan Muwan II, dressed for battle in jaguar skin, observes the torture and sacrifice of prisoners. In another, women clad in white robes practice bloodletting through their tongues.
Bonampak is worth a visit in the near future, as the murals are already flaking due to heat, light, and ironically, harmful past efforts to preserve them. The site is open daily and admission is 37 pesos.
4. Chichén Itzá
Perhaps the most famous archeological site in all of Mexico, the ruins at Chichén Itzá reveal the ancient Mayans’ incredible understanding of astronomy and architecture. First settled by the Mayans around 432 C.E., the site was largely abandoned in the 9th century and resettled by Toltecs in the late 10th century. As a result, the architecture is a fusion of both Mayan and Toltec styles.
The site’s most impressive building is El Castillo (The Castle), a gigantic Mayan calendar made of stone. Each of the building’s nine levels is split by a staircase, creating sections to represent the 18 months of the Mayan year. The older pyramid within features a red jaguar throne inlaid with pieces of jade. During the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the afternoon sun creates the shadow of an enormous serpent along the length of El Castillo’s stairway.
Graceful building El Caracol (The Snail) is admired for its circular design and interior spiral staircase. El Caracol was used as an observatory; the windows of its dome align with certain stars on certain days of the year. This allowed priests to keep track of time and decide when to perform rituals and celebrations, when to plant and when to harvest.
Other highlights include the Platform of Eagles and Jaguars with its graphic carvings of animals seizing human hearts in their claws, and the Great Ball Court, the largest and best preserved of its kind. General admission is 95 pesos.
Situated on a stunning coast of white beaches and clear blue water, to describe the walled city of Tulum as picturesque does not do it justice. When the Spanish first sailed along this coast in 1518, they were blown away by the sight of buildings in deep shades of red, yellow and blue, and by the ceremonial fire burning atop the city’s seaside watchtower.
This scenic port was inhabited from around 1200–1521 C.E. Tulum is a Mayan word meaning “wall” but the settlement’s original name was Zama, city of dawn. Its most impressive sites include the Temple of the Descending God, which depicts an upside down winged creature, thought by some to be the god of the setting sun and by others to be a bee god seeking honey. The Temple of the Frescoes features meticulous murals and relief masks, columns and carvings. Some appear to have been created after the arrival of the Spanish, as one image depicts a rain god atop a horse. This building was used as an observatory to track the movements of the sun.
The most striking thing about Tulum is undeniably its setting against idyllic Caribbean waters. While visitors can no longer climb the site’s highest building, El Castillo, views from the same hill reveal an enchanting mix of jungle and sea. It’s even possible to take a swim mid-visit, near the Temple of the Wind God. Admission costs 45 pesos.
- Kate Newman