The Ancient Cities of Mexico
A high point of many Mexico vacations is a visit to one of the ancient cities built by the Maya and other civilizations of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Many ruins exist in Mexico but some have a particular appeal and draw visitors from every corner of the globe.
Chichen Itza is the most famous Mayan archaeological zone in Yucatan and one of the biggest in Mexico as a whole. From around 600 - 1200 AD the city was a focal point in the northern Maya lowlands.
There is less opportunity to get close to the buildings here than at other sites. El Castillo, dedicated to Kukulkan the Plumed Serpent, is no longer open for visitors to climb up but you can still climb the stairs of the Interior Temple and the Observatory. View the magnificent Temple of the Warriors and the sinister figure of chacmool gazing to the west; traditionally the direction of death, darkness and the colour black.
The Great Ballcourt is one of the most impressive features of the site; an area where people literally played for their lives when the city was inhabited. If you speak quietly at one end of the court it can be heard hundreds of feet away at the other side due to the acoustics.
The ruins of this ancient Maya city are a wonderful example of the puuc style of architecture. The decorative Governor’s Palace has the longest facades in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The 115ft tall Pyramid of the Magician can’t be climbed but the Great Pyramid at this site and many other buildings are accessible. Uxmal is a much quieter site to visit than Chichen Itza or Palenque. Enjoy the tranquil surroundings and look out for iguanas basking in the sunshine.
Ek Balam is one of the less visited ruins in Mexico and climbing buildings is more widely permitted. Sculptures and artworks here have been well preserved and restored which makes for an immersive atmosphere. The Acropolis and various carvings such as those of the winged Maya warriors are so clear and clean that the gap of time between the Maya civilization and the modern day seems to shrink significantly. Other sights here include the oval palace and the tomb of Ukit Kan Lek Tok with fangs carved around the door of the tomb. A gem among Mexico travel experiences.
The ruins of Palenque are a popular destination on Mexico tours. Embedded in the surrounding jungle the ruins provide a look at some of the best examples of Maya architecture in the country. Due to the beauty of these ruins Palenque is a busy site. The elegance of the temples, tombs and structures fascinates and enthrals thousands of visitors every year. Hieroglyphic tablets, pyramids and sculptures here are vivid demonstrations of the high level of artistic ability the Maya people possessed and the buildings themselves attest to their architectural and organizational skills. The layout gives a glimpse back through time to a century where hundreds of thousands of inhabitants called the great metropolis of Palenque home.
The Palace, Temple of the Inscriptions and the Temple of the Lion are all impressive monuments. Some buildings here are partially claimed by the jungle and not yet excavated. The way the jungle is being eased back from this lost city makes the experience of visiting it very exotic and memorable for many on a Mexico vacation.
Near San Cristobal de las Casas is the Mayan archaeological site of Tonina. This site is known for the Mural of the Four Suns and El Templo de los Prisioneros or Temple of the Prisoners. The site also has a museum which is a great addition. Many of the statues, stucco sculptures and artworks deal with the subject of battle and conflict reflecting how Tonina was an aggressive city particularly towards its near neighbour, Palenque.
Yaxchilan is located in the Lacandona Rainforest on the banks of the Usumacinta River. This location makes the site more difficult to get to which in turn makes for fewer crowds. This city was at the height of its power under the ruler Shield Jaguar who ordered the construction of buildings such as structure 33. To get a good view of the site climb Edificio 41.
The mural paintings of Bonampak are the most important classic Maya mural paintings and the best preserved in Mexico. The city was under the influence of Yaxchilan during the Classic period and some of the monuments were built under instruction from this nearby city.
Bonampak means Painted Walls in Yucatec Maya; the murals inside Templo de las Pinturas depict aspects of life in the city such as ritual blood letting, sacrifice and the birth of the ruler’s infant son. These vivid frescos are not only an example of early sophisticated painting techniques but act as a window into details of courtly life at that time.
Oaxaca lies outside the main Maya region and contains many important ruins left by other indigenous Mesoamerican people. Monte Alban was the capital city of the Zapotec civilization during its heyday. One of the most wonderful things about Monte Alban is that it stands on a hilltop providing 360-degree views of the surrounding Valley of Oaxaca. Monte Alban is large and impressive with a main plaza, ball courts, pyramids and sculptures. Artwork at Monte Alban depicts sacrificial victims and bloodletting. The most famous building on the site is Building J which is presumed to have been an astronomical observatory. The walls of Building J are covered with “conquest slabs” detailing communities which were conquered by Monte Alban.
Edzna is located in the Mexican state of Campeche just over thirty miles south-east of the city of Campeche. The reason for the decline and abandonment of Edzna, like much of Maya history, remains a mystery. Elements of the puuc architectural style can be seen here and the quietness of the site gives the ideal environment to absorb the detail and grandeur of the structures. The most significant building here is Edificio de los Cincos Pisos (Building of Five Stories). Other important structures include the Platforma de los Chuchillos (Platform of Knives), the Nonochna (Big House) and the Pequena Acropolis containing the Templo de Mascarones (Temple of the Masks). Look out from the top of the main temple over the stillness of the grand structures and the surrounding jungle stretching into the distance beyond them.
Coba is located in Quintana Roo, Yucatan. The ruins are spread out over a large area so a bike ride makes an ideal way to get around. The elevated limestone roads or sacbeob are a major feature of the site. The jungle backdrop as well as the resident crocodiles in the lakes make Coba one of the ultimate sites for adventurous travellers. Climb the 120 steps up the 130 ft high pyramid of Nohoch Mul for panoramic views of the dense jungle. You can also climb the ruins of the Grupo Coba.
The Maya ruins of Tulum are famous for their spectacular coastal location. Tulum is situated on a cliff looking out over the Caribbean Sea and although the ruins themselves are not the most impressive to be found in Mexico the location makes them a popular destination for visitors. The site itself is relatively small and after descending to the beach visitors can take a dip in the turquoise waters. Important structures here are El Castillo, Temple of the Frescoes and the Temple of the Descending God. Tulum offers a chance to appreciate the history of the Maya and the modern day beauty of Mexico at the same time.