A highlight of Central American travel is exploring ancient Maya culture.
Chichen Itza in Mexico was named a Wonder of the World in 2007, and is probably the most well-known of all the ruins in the surrounding area. But the Maya civilization spread throughout the entire region during its height of power (between 250 and 900 AD), which means that Chichen Itza is just one of many ruins to explore.
There’s incredible ruins in nearby nations such as Guatemala, Belize and Honduras – and they’re well worth seeking out. Without further ado, here are six lesser-known spots that we think are just as wonderful as Chichen Itza:
1. Calakmul, Mexico
There’s a lot that’s special about the ancient city of Calakmul. First of all, it’s home to one of the oldest and largest Maya pyramids in existence; the ‘Estructura II’, or Structure 2, stands at over 45 metres high. Climbing it (yep, you can climb it), you’ll be rewarded with incredible views over the jungle. The pyramid is just one of almost 7,000 preserved structures scattered around the huge site – make sure you also check out the Gran Acrópolis and the other two pyramids. Secondly, the ruins are buried deep in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a highly protected area home to rare tropical vegetation, monkeys and jaguars, and over 350 species of birds. A guided nature walk with a local guide is a must. And finally, because it’s so far from everywhere, in contrast to busy Chichen Itza or Teotihuacan, you’ll barely see another tourist while you’re here. Definitely worth the trek.
What to visit near Calakmul:
If you’re the kind of traveller who likes to get off the beaten track, Calakmul’s for you. It’s a solid six hours drive from Tulum (or five if you’re coming from Campeche on the other side of the Yucatan Peninsula), and there’s not much to do other than explore the ruins once you get there. There’s a handful of accommodation in town (with Intrepid you’ll stay in an ecovillage); even from there it’s a good 1.5-hour drive to get to the gates of the archaeological site, and another half-hour’s walk to get to the ruins. Bring good walking shoes and lots of water.
2. Tulum, Mexico
Perhaps the most unique ruin, Tulum sits on an ocean bluff overlooking stunning views of Caribbean Sea. You can even jump in the ocean from the base of the temples during your visit!
Tulum served as the primary port for the nearby city of Coba. The central structure likely served a lighthouse-like function. You can look out the windows over the barrier reef, which archaeologists suspect helped sailors navigate into the port – they would align their ships with the windows to avoid hitting the reef.
What to visit nearby Tulum’s ruins:
Tulum is unique not just because for its beachfront ruins, but because it also happens to be a popular travel destination! The ruins are walking distance of the adorable beach town, which makes for a great day trip or overnight stop for those exploring the Riviera Maya. The beachfront area of Tulum is increasingly trendy, with clothing boutiques, high-end restaurants and chic accommodations.
3. Copan, Honduras
Smaller than all the other ruins on this list, Copan is especially worth a visit because of one particular feature – the stelae. These incredible and detailed stone reliefs depict Maya royal ancestors dating back to the 6th century. They are some of the best in all of Central America!
Although Honduras is increasingly safe for tourists (hence why Intrepid offer tours there), its less-than-stellar reputation makes it more of an off-the-beaten-path destination. If you venture to Copan (and you should!), you are likely to be one of the few visitors and so can explore the ruins freely, making for incredible photo opportunities!
Why to visit Copan itself:
Only a few miles from the ruins, the modern city of Copán is one of the most traveler-oriented places in Honduras. It manages to retain an authentic energy among its 3,000 residents, and you’ll notice locals mixing with expats in the plazas. The white adobe architecture and cobblestone streets add to the charm of this friendly town.
4. Tikal, Guatemala
Even if you’ve never been to Tikal, you might be familiar with its facade – it was used as a backdrop in Star Wars: Episode IV. During your visit, stand atop Temple IV to imagine the Millennium Falcon landing in the jungle!
Thought to be a capital city during the Maya times, Tikal is perhaps the most naturally breathtaking ruin on this list. Situated in a dense rainforest, you walk nearly a mile just to enter the site! Archaeologists estimate that only 25% of the ruins are uncovered, leaving the rest to the wilderness.
Tikal has six main temples, some of which are 200+ feet tall. At its peak in the 600 AD, Tikal may have been home to 100,000 Maya people. Named a UNESCO world heritage site, Tikal is a popular destination – expect to see many other visitors during your stop.
What to visit near Tikal:
Situated in the Peten region of Guatemala, the island city of Flores will be your homebase while visiting Tikal. Popular with backpackers, it is easy to walk the cobblestone streets of this small, quiet city. Be sure to find a restaurant where you can enjoy Pepian, the famous Maya dish indigenous to this region.
5. Xunantunich, Belize
Translating to “Stone Woman,” Xuanatunich is an often overlooked stop on the ruin trail. But with six plazas and more than 26 structures, it would be a shame to miss this massive complex. Thought to be a civic center servicing 200,000 Maya residents that lived nearby, the “El Castillo” is the second tallest building in Belize!
The name Stone Woman comes from folklore stories where people describe seeing a female ghost at the site. The story claims that she is dressed in white with glowing eyes, walking from El Castillo down the stairs and through a stone wall into the temple. See if you can feel her presence on your visit!
Although Xuanatunich is one of the lesser-visited Maya ruins, it is easily accessible from Belize City as a day trip. There are regular (and cheap!) buses, or you can sign up for an organized day tour. Better yet, make Xuanatunich a stop on a longer trip through Central America. It is a perfect overnight stop for travelers traversing the Belizean-Guatemalan border, which is only a mile away. Look for accommodation in the jungle town of San Ignacio where you can soak in pristine rivers and waterfalls.
Visit Belize: See the highlights of Belize on this epic 8-day adventure.
Read more: 6 reasons why it’s Belize’s time to shine.
6. Palenque, Mexico
Similar to Tikal, Palenque is surrounded by jungle and is located on dramatic mountain in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. It is truly beautiful! There is some debate about why Chichen Itza was named the World Wonder instead of Palenque because many visitors find Palenque to be the most impressive of Mexico’s ruins.
Regardless, the site dates back to 700 AD with its iconic pyramids that are synonymous with Maya ruins. Palenque is smaller than the other ruins on this list, but it is special because of the stunning hieroglyphics inside the Temple of the Inscriptions. Some of them have even been relocated to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. This temple also happens to be the only known funerary monument discovered from Maya times.
What to visit near Palenque:
To be honest, the nearby Palenque town doesn’t have much to offer visitors (except wifi and accomodation). Instead, you can stay at one of the boutique accommodations in the forest on the road to the ruins. Sleep in thatched cabanas and wake up to the sounds of wildlife in the surrounding jungle.
Regardless of which of these ruins you visit, walking in the steps of the Maya people is a unique experience that will open your eyes to the amazing architectural prowess of this ancient civilization. If you’re planning to travel in Central America, the ruins are sure to be a highlight.
Ready to explore the ruins, beaches and incredible culture of Central America? Check out Intrepid’s range of trips there.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Megan Arzbaecher, Nir Nussbaum, Intrepid Travel x2, Megan Arzbaecher, Intrepid Travel x2.)