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(2014 - Winter/Spring Issue)


The Mayan calendar had sparked great debate over its so-called prediction of the end of the world.

December 21, 2012 was the date on which the calendar was said to end, although some scholars say it was simply a transition from one era to another. Aside from their controversial calendar, the Maya are well respected for their art, architecture and advanced mathematical and astrological skills, all of which are evident in the structures they left behind. 

Mayan ruins run throughout Mexico and Central America. Many are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and have been well preserved, serving as great travel destinations and opportunities to learn about this sophisticated ancient culture.

Tikal, Guatemala

The Tikal ruins are among the most outstanding in the Mayan world. The site first opened to the public in 1955 when many buildings were still to be unearthed and became recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Excavation continues as some buildings still remain partly or fully covered by jungle flora. The ruins are surrounded by Tikal National Park, a wildlife preserve covering 575 square kilometres (222 square miles) of tropical forest. Spend the night at one of several hotels near the ruins and experience the night-time serenade of monkeys and birds. The tallest of the structures, known as Temple IV, can be climbed and offers a spectacular vista of the seemingly endless jungle. Tikal is located 60 kilometres from Flores and can be reached easily by bus. Flights from Guatemala City arrive daily in Flores.

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Palenque is situated in the heart of the lush Chiapas jungle and is known for its elegant architecture and sculptural art. The ancient city was at its peak around the seventh century and dominated a large part of the Mayan area that now encompasses the states of Chiapas and Tabasco. Groomed trails lined with vendors selling Mayan calendar replicas and other souvenirs weave through the public area of the ruins, which is only a fraction of the 15 square kilometres the ancient city is believed to have covered.

The town of Palenque, located just east of the archaeological zone, is a good place to spend the night before visiting the ruins, which become overrun with tour buses and crowds around mid-morning. Shuttle buses leave town for the ruins regularly. English-speaking guides are available and are worth the extra cash to get a true sense of the political and cultural power this site once commanded. Officially licensed guides wear identification issued by the Mexican Secretary of Tourism.      

Toniná, Chiapas, Mexico

If you’re worried you left your StairMaster at home, you’ll be relieved when you step into the Gran Plaza of Toniná—facing the Edificio de Siete Pisos(seven-storey building)—one of the Mayan world’s most imposing temple complexes. Over a period of more than a thousand years, subsequent rulers added palaces, rooms and temples to this massive structure. The seven levels lead up to the Temple of the Smoky Mirror, with a breathtaking view of the lush green valley below that truly makes you feel as though you’re on top of the world. Although less popular than nearby Palenque, Toniná is worth a visit. After all, this was the city that brought the political powerhouse to its knees and eventually became the dominant city in the west. Toniná is located 14 kilometres east of Ocosingo and can be accessed by combis leaving from Tianguis Campesino, Ocosingo or by taxi (approximately $7). 

Copán, Honduras

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Copán is celebrated for its impressive artistry. Its set of hieroglyphic stairs, each one carved with the graphic symbols of the Mayan alphabet, is believed to tell the story of the rulers of Copán. Unfortunately, the stairs crumbled when they were first unearthed and only the first 15 levels have been put back together in order. While Copán is one of the most impressive artistic sites to visit, it’s also one of the most expensive at approximately $35 including park fees. Buses leave from San Pedro Sula regularly and overnight tours can be organized from Antigua, Guatemala. 

Altun Ha, Belize

This small, yet well-preserved site features two large central plazas surrounded by mid-sized pyramids. Only a few of the temples and tombs have been uncovered, with hundreds more lying under jungle foliage. Many jade artifacts have been discovered here, including the famous head sculpture of Kinich Ahau (the Mayan sun god). The head is the largest carved jade piece found from the Mayan era. The impressive amounts of jade excavated from this site in the early 1960s and ’70s led archaeologists to believe Altun Ha was an important commercial trading centre in the Mayan era. There is no public transportation to the site, but day tours can be organized with hotels and tour operators in Belize City.

Chichen Itza, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

A UNESCO World Heritage Site and voted one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007, Chichen Itza is evidence of the Maya’s sophisticated mathematical and astrological skills. The most popular structure—the pyramid Temple of Kukulkan (also known as El Castillo)—has four sides, each with 91 steps, plus a top platform, adding up to 365 steps—one for each day of the year. Twice a year, on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow falls on the temple in the shape of a serpent. As the sun sets, the shadowy snake descends to join a stone serpent head at the base of the great staircase. Tours to Chichen Itza can be arranged from Merida and Cancun. 

Tulum, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

While its architecture doesn’t compare to nearby Chichen Itza, Tulum is worth a visit simply because of its pristine location. The name Tulum is Mayan for “wall.” Archaeologists believe Tulum was an important port town and was one of the last of the ancient cities to be abandoned. Its buildings run alongside the turquoise-watered white sandy beach, offering stunning photo opportunities. Tours to Tulum leave from Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

Travel Planner

For more information on these and other Mayan ruins, visit mayaruins.com.
For information on UNESCO World Heritage Sites, visit whc.unesco.org.

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