The Mayans were an ancient culture, although still alive today, leaving behind many spectacular ruins. It starts at the top of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, down through Belize and Guatemala and into Honduras. On my 6 week trip through Central America I was able to visit different Mayan sites in each of these places.
The first site I visited was in Mexico – a place called Tulum. It’s a very popular Mayan site given it’s proximity to Cancun and is also one of the most recent of the Mayan sites, surviving up to 70 years after the Spanish occupation. It’s a ruins site right on the beach giving it an incredible backdrop and a welcomed treat after baking in the Mexican heat in June! Only part of the beach is free for swimming though, part is reserved for nesting Sea Turtles! We met a particularly friendly, and big, Iguana who decided to perch on a rock right in the middle of our little ‘camp’.
A big attraction in Mexico are the Cenotes. They are basically caves filled with fresh water and were believed to be the entrance to the underworld by the Mayans. Some of them are quite extensive and lead to the sea, and others are smaller and popular with tourists where you can jump in. Some were even ancient sites for human sacrifice…
Heading into Belize the scenery became a lot greener. Instead of just going to visit the Xunantunich Ruins in western Belize, I thought I would ride there! It’s a great way to see the scenery and I love anything animal-y.
The Xunantunich ruins are not very touristy, which means we got to explore them with only two other groups, but have actually been visited by many members of the British Royal Family, most recently Prince Harry. The ruins make up quite a small site, but you can climb the main temple and it gives you amazing views, you can even see Guatemala, not that there’s a sign. Part of the ruins, the ‘ball courts’ are more hidden in the trees and we managed to see some Howler monkeys relaxing in the trees. They don’t start to howl until noonish but I wouldn’t want to be underneath them when they do! They have an incredibly loud howl which is more like a roar.
Moving into Guatemala, which later turned out to be my favourite country, the first place we visited was Tikal. Tikal National Park is a HUGE ruin site, covering 576km2 and only 22% of the ruins have actually been uncovered. At it’s height, Tikal dominated in it’s region politically and economically, making it hugely influential. It is also famous for featuring in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
Much of the site is covered in forest, which is why so much of it hasn’t been discovered and actually makes it a really nice place to walk around. If you get there super early you may even be lucky enough to spot a Jaguar! But there’s plenty of wildlife even if you’re not an early riser (like me). I saw various birds including Toucans, wild Turkeys and Coati’s.
Tikal, in my opinion, is the nicest and most spectacular of the ruins. Nicest because it is surrounded by forest, which gives you the opportunity to spot wildlife, find bits of ruins not yet uncovered and provides shade in the heat of the day. Most spectacular due to its sheer size and the opportunities to climb some of the temples for incredible views. It gets a lot of tourists but as it’s such a vast site, and covered in forest, you don’t really notice.
The ruins in Honduras are in Copan, which is very near the Guatemalan border. By the time I had got to Copan though, I had actually seen quite a few ruin sites and I fancied something different. I decided to go to the Macaw Sanctuary, the national bird of Honduras. You can see pictures of the Macaws in the post Wildlife of Central America.
Copan was a major city influential in the southern Maya area and forms quite a big site.
I would recommend using a guide when visiting these sites, they provide so much insight and knowledge that it really makes the experience different from just seeing some old, ruined remnants. They can tell you stories about the place and the people who inhabited it, which really brings the place to life.