The Maya civilization was one of the great Pre-Colombian civilizations, extending throughout the northern Central American region, including the present-day nations of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, southern Mexico and western Honduras. During the Classic period (250–900 AD) most Mayan city states reached their peak of urbanism and large-scale construction. The most notable monuments from this period are the ancient Mayan temples that were built in almost every important Maya city.
For reasons that are still unknown, most of the Maya centers went into decline during later centuries and were eventually abandoned leaving only the Mayan ruins. There are several possible reasons for their downfall including soil exhaustion, water loss and erosion. Other possibilities include catastrophes such as earthquakes, diseases and invasions by other surrounding people and cultures.
Located in northern Belize, Lamanai was once a considerably sized Maya city. The ancient ruins are not completely uncovered yet. Archaeological work has concentrated on the investigation and restoration of the larger structures such as the High Temple, a 33 meter tall temple. Since it was still occupied by the Maya when the Spanish arrived, Lamanai, which in Maya means “submerged crocodile”, is one of the few Mayan sites to retain its traditional name.
Coba in Mexico was a large ancient Maya city that was home to about 50,000 inhabitants at its peak. Most of it’s monuments were built between 500 and 900 AD. New temples were built and old ones kept in repair until at least the 14th century however, perhaps as late as the arrival of the Spanish. Coba contains several large temple pyramids, the tallest, the Nohoch Mul pyramid is about 42 meters (138 ft) high. Today only a small portion of the site has been cleared from the jungle and restored by archaeologists.
Siting high on the Vaca Plateau, 500 meters (1650 ft) above sea level, Caracol is the largest Maya site in Belize. It was once one of the largest ancient Maya cities, covering some 168 square kilometers (65 mi²). At it’s peak around 650 AD it had an estimated population of about 150,000, more than twice as many people as Belize City has today. The largest pyramid in Caracol is Canaa (Sky Place), at 43 meters (143 ft) it is still the tallest man-made structure in all of Belize.
Located in western Honduras, Copán was a relatively small Mayan city well-known for it’s remarkable series of portrait stelae. The stelae and sculptured decorations of the buildings of Copán are some of the very finest surviving art of ancient Mesoamerica. Some of the stone structures at Copán date back to the 9th century BC. The city grew into one of the most important Maya sites by the 5th century with more than 20,000 inhabitants but was mysteriously abandoned a few centuries later. The highest point in Copán is the ancient Mayan temple now known as Temple 16, rising 30 meters (100 ft) above the city’s Great Plaza.
Tulum is situated on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. It once served as the major port of the Mayan city of Coba. Tulum was built around 1200 AD when the Mayan civilization was already in decline and therefore lacks the elegance of some other famous sites. The tropical beach backdrop however makes this a unique Maya site which should not be missed.
Calakmul is a Mayan site hidden inside the jungles of the Mexican state of Campeche. It is one of the largest Mayan cities ever uncovered with over 6,500 ancient structures identified. Calakmul’s 55 meter (180 foot) high pyramid is by far the largest structure at the site. Like many other ancient Mayan temples the size of the pyramid at Calakmul was increased by building upon an older existing temple to reach its current size.
Palenque is an archaeological site that was located on the western edge of the Maya empire in the present-day state of Chiapas, Mexico. Palenque is much smaller than some of it Mayan neighbor cities, but it contains some of the finest architecture and sculptures the Maya ever produced. Most structures in Palenque date from about 600 AD to 800 AD including the Temple of Inscriptions, the only Mesoamerican pyramid built as a funerary monument.
Uxmal, meaning “built three times” in the Mayan language, is one of the best preserved Mayan sites in Mexico. The most recognizable and tallest structure at 115 feet is the Pyramid of the Magician. The layers of the temple pyramid are oval unlike the rectangular or square layers of other Mayan pyramids. The pyramid appears to have been built in five phases, starting from the sixth century continuing periodically through the 10th century.
Situated in the lowland rainforest of northern Guatemala, Tikal is perhaps the most breathtaking of all the Mayan sites. Restored buildings are scattered around the area while many more ruined buildings are still hidden by the jungle. Between ca. 200 to 900 AD, Tikal was the largest Mayan city with an estimated population between 100,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. Tikal contains 6 very large temple pyramids. The largest, Temple-pyramid IV, is some 72 meters (230 feet) high and was finished around 720 AD. Climbing to the top of one of these ancient Mayan temples offers a great experience with beautiful panoramic views from above the tree tops.
El Castillo is the nickname of one of the most spectacular Mayan temples that dominates the archaeological site of Chichen Itza. The design of the temple has special astronomical significance. Each face of the pyramid has a stairway with 91 steps, which together with the shared step at the top, add up to 365, the number of days in a year. Climbing El Castillo is no longer allowed after a woman fell to her death in 2006.