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Some interesting opportunities to explore Central America have come up for us recently. (More about that later!) Despite having travelled to more than 20 countries I’ve yet to step foot on Central or South America. Actually, I’ve never been anywhere that Spanish was the official language (unless you count the US). I’m not sure how my rusty semester of University Español will hold up! It’s a region that a lot of travelling families love so I should give it a go sooner rather than later. We’ll see what the future holds!

In the meantime, here’s an intriguing guest post from Jen at Gear Up and Play about the Mayan Ruins dotted around Central America. These would absolutely be on my must see list!



Even if the world doesn’t end on December 21, an era in the Mayan calendar will. This is an excellent excuse to go see the Mayan ruins now. As an unabashed fan of the Maya, I try to see as many sites as I can. If you have time to indulge, do. The structures at Uxmal and the murals at Bonampak will not disappoint. But if your time in Mesoamerica is limited, then trust in the logic of popularity and go to these five must-see Mayan ruins.


Overlooking the Caribbean, Tulum. Photo by Biajoe.

Tulum (Mexico)

Tulum was a walled city, occupied during the late Post-classic period (1200 CE – 1521 CE), which continued to be occupied nearly a century into Spanish conquest. Like many Post-classic sites, it is greatly influenced by Toltec culture.

It behooves the traveler to make Tulum the first Maya site they visit. The truth is, as ruins themselves go, Tulum is not the most impressive. But if you don’t go here, you’ll feel pangs of longing every time you see a photo of the ruins towering over the turquoise Caribbean. The setting makes the site.

Travel Tip – Tour buses pour in from Cancún and Playa del Carmen. Come early to beat the crowds.


El Castillo at Chichén Itzá Photo by Pascal.

Chichén Itzá (Mexico)

Most famous, and best restored of Yucatan’s Mayan ruins, Chichén Itzá is not to be missed. There’s a lot to see here. As you enter, El Castillo towers before you. More than just a perfect pyramid, it is actually a giant representation of the Mayan calendar. The Great Ball Court, one of eight on the site, is the largest in Mexico. The uniquely shaped El Caracol is believed to have served as an observatory. The ancient Mayan didn’t need a swiveling dome to use with a high-powered telescope, but the shape of El Caracol is oddly reminiscent of modern-day observatories.

Travel Tip – Carved serpents heads decorate the bottom of the staircase of El Castillo. During the spring in autumn equinoxes, shadows on the stairs make the image of a slithering serpent. This affect is re-created every evening at the sound and light show. You can buy your ticket and attend the show the night before you visit the ruins.


Palenque. Photo by Richard Weil.

Palenque (Mexico)

Occupied from around 100 BCE until 900 CE, and reaching it’s peak around 630-740 CE, Palenque is about as Classic Maya as can be. Its jungle location and pristine architecture (note the well-preserved roof combs) make Palenque one of the best Mayan sites. It’s hot and muggy, and lots of people come here, so prepare yourself in advance.

Travel Tip – I greatly enjoyed staying at the hippie-hang out of El Panchán, just spitting distance from Palenque. Nestled in the forest, it is completely self-contained with lodging, good restaurants and a relaxed vibe. I remember returning from the ruins exhausted and lying on my bed listening to drum circles and howler monkeys. Priceless.


Above the canopy – Tikal. Photo by Graeme Churchard.

Tikal (Guatemala)

“You can climb the pyramid if you want,” the guide said. “Going up will be physical. Coming down will be psychological.” It was. With its steep-sided pyramids towering out of the jungle, the Classic Period site of Tikal is one of the most memorable places you can visit. It is also extremely well managed, with knowledgeable guides, wooden staircases which allow you to climb the pyramids without damaging them, and no swarms of vendors.

Arriving early in the morning, travelers are advised to proceed to the Temple IV, on the far side of the site, climb the to the top and watch as the mist clears and one by one the tops of the pyramids appear emerging through the forest canopy. I had every intention of following this advice, but became so enamored with the sounds and sights of the waking jungle that I had to linger. The Mayan structures here are incredible, but Tikal would be worth the price of admission even if there weren’t any ruins. You will trail behind toucans and see so many monkeys that by the end of the day they will seem commonplace.

Travel Tip – if I had my travels to do over again, I would definitely stay overnight in the park. The site is worth more than one day, and staying overnight will allow you to be in the park during the pre-dawn and post-dusk hours when the jungle comes alive.



Carvings at Copan. Photo by Adalberto.H.Vega.

Copán (Honduras)

While the ancient designers of Tikal clearly subscribed to the idea that size matters, those at Copán didn’t seem concerned with this at all. Instead they invested their energy in making beautiful sculptures, which are scattered all over the site. Highlights include the hieroglyphic staircase, and Rosalilia – the temple within a temple. Many of the original sculptures have been moved inside to an onsite museum, allowing you to get a break from the sun.

Travel Tip – The town of Copán Ruinas (The ruins are called “Copán” and the town is called “Copán Ruinas”. Go figure.) is incredibly pleasant. It has all the amenities one could ask for without being obnoxiously touristy. In addition to good restaurant and hotel options, there is a zip-line, a walking path to the ruins, and a local colony of scarlet macaws. If you’ve been going, going, going and are wanting to just sit in one place and chill for a day or two- this is a nice place to do it.


Touring these sights will give you a good taste of Mayan architecture, ingenuity and culture. But don’t fall into the fallacy of believing Mayan culture is only a relic of the past. The Maya live. They are still there- growing their milpas, speaking their languages and making their beautiful weavings. The sleepy Mexican town of Valladolid and the weekly market at Sololá in Guatemala provide excellent opportunities to see how the Maya live today.


About the Author

Jennifer Choban hails from Oregon, USA and now lives in Guanajuato, Mexico.  She keeps busy writing, hiking, engaging in home-improvement projects and attempting to improve her Spanish.  Travel tips and stories of her adventures can be found here at Gear Up and Play.


All photos sourced from Flickr and used under creative commons.

Cover image source by Today is a New Day


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  • Dave

    Funny one about the US – I chuckled. Pretty bummed SA is not on our itinerary (though, you never know). However, we did run into a brazilian girl on the road and she was talking about how dangerous the country was…

  • Michael

    Very helpful guide to the Mayan Ruins, Tikal has always been on my bucket list and I want to spend the night like you suggest but now I want to see them all!

  • Turtle

    I love the extra tips you guys give!
    The Mayan ruins seem to have become so much more popular over the past year (for obvious reasons). I think that even if you’re not an end-of-the-world theorist, they’re pretty interesting places to visit.

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