The world of the ancient Maya is resplendent with countless archaeological sites; some are world-famous, such as Tikal, Chichen Itzá, Copán, Palenque, Tulum…. But there are many others of equal beauty and significance, that have received much less attention in the media. You can explore the shortlist below or just scroll through the site descriptions. They're in alphabetical order.
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Located 30 miles north of Belize City and six miles from the Caribbean, Altun Ha was a major ceremonial center that flourished during the Classic Period. Covering about one square mile, Altun Ha has about 500 archaeological structures and is thought to have had between 8,000 to 10,000 inhabitants, including the surrounding areas, at its peak. “Altun Ha” means “rockstone pond” in Yucatec Maya, although its true ancient name is unknown.
Altun Ha is also known for its breathtaking jade carvings and art. The Temple of the Green Tomb, dating to 550–600 AD, has yielded close to 300 jade objects—along with a smashed codex, whose paper had unfortunately disintegrated. The most spectacular find, however, comes from the Temple of the Masonry Altars, which at over 58 feet is the tallest structure in Altun Ha: a six-inch-high, ten-pound sculted head of Kinich Ahau, the Sun God.
This Classic Period Maya site is best known for its magnificent murals, thought to be the finest in Meso-America. In fact, “Bonampak” means “painted walls.” Painted on the interior walls and roofs of three structures, the frescoes detail the history of the Maya who lived here. The Templo de las Pinturas (the Temple of the Paintings) in particular has remarkably well-preserved frescoes with ochre and faience colors.
Built along the Lacan-há River in the seventh and eighth centuries in the modern state of Chiapas, Bonampak was of secondary religious and political importance to the major Mayan centers in the region such as Palenque and Yaxchilán. Eventually abandoned to the jungle, Bonampak was not discovered until 1946 by the American explorers Charles H. Frey and John Bourne.
Located in what is today southwestern Belize, Caracol (Spanish for “snail”) dwarfs all of the other Mayan sites in the region. Stretching out over 30 square miles of thick jungle, at its peak between 650 and 700 A.D. Caracol boasted over 35,000 occupied buildings, a population estimated between 150,000 and 200,000 inhabitants—which is about half of the entire population of Belize today—and over 22 miles of roadways called sacheoh, "white roads" made of blocks topped with crushed stone and plaster that radiated outward from Caracol’s epicenter and linked the entire site together. The massive, 138-foot Caana pyramid, “Sky Place,” is the tallest structure in either ancient or modern Belize.
Here, numerous hieroglyphic texts have been found on stelae, altars, ball-court markers, capstones and wall façades. One artifact in particular, an elaborately carved ball-court marker from the end of the early Classic Period, has been interpreted to record Caracol’s military victory over Tikal, a well-known Maya site located over 60 miles away in Guatemala.
One of the most immediately recognized Maya sites, and the most extensively restored in Mexico, Chichén Itzá is thought to have been the most powerful city of the Maya from the 10th to the 12th centuries, and to have been inhabited and shaped by the Toltecs as well as the Maya. Its name means "at the mouth of the well of the Itzás." The Itzás were a Maya-speaking people from the Petén rainforest around Tikal, and are thought to have moved into the city in 964 A.D.
The temples of Chichén Itzá are laid out like an enormous calendar, and in fact interact with the heavens themselves: during the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, the steps on the northern side of the legendary Temple of Kukulkán, the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalcoatl), cast a shadow of a moving serpent that glides up the pyramid as the sun moves through the sky. The temple has 365 steps, 52 panels and 18 terraces. To date, archaeologists have fully explored only about 20 or 30 of the sites’ several hundred buildings.
Voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World on July 7, 2007, Chichén Itzá is the second most visited Maya sites in Mexico.
Copán is a designated World Heritage Site, the largest site in the southeastern part of the Maya region. Believed by archaeologists to be the cultural center of the Maya world, Copán was a thriving civilization. Tens of thousands of people made their home in the Copán Valley. Of the numerous stelae, statues, pyramids and other structures in this spectacular site, arguably the most famous and perhaps the most fascinating is the Hieroglyphic Stairway. It is the longest carved text in Precolumbian America, outlining the history of Copán and its 16-ruler dynasty formed by Yax K'uk Mo', in 2,200 blocks and over 70 steps. Just as beautiful are the high-relief stelae in the Central Plaza, carved in greenish andesite.
Spreading across 29 acres, Copán was built on the banks of the Copán River on an artificial terrace of close to a million cubic feet of earth. Over time, the swelling population spread out from the center and built homes in areas that had formerly been used for crops. Copán's nobility built smaller, rival complexes increasingly further away from the center that may have contributed to the kingdom’s eventual fall. In fact, it was the king of one of Copán’s vassal cities, Quiriguá, who defeated Copán’s 13th ruler, 18 Rabbit, and sacrificed him—betraying the very man who put him in power.
After this event, Copán never really quite recovered. Despite its wealth, power and size, Copán went into decline in the 9th century along with the rest of the Classic Maya civilization.
Check out images of Copán in our media gallery.
Discovered by accident in 1740 when a Spanish priest named Antonio de Solis struck a buried wall while planting a field, Palenque is among the most striking of Maya sites. It was the capital of the important Maya city-state B’aakal or B’aak during the Classic Period. Its highly expressive relief sculpture, its temples, terraces, altars, plazas, burial grounds and ball court reflect centuries of magnificent art and architecture.
At its peak, the city stretched out over an area of nearly 50 square miles. Located near the Usumacinta River in the State of Chiapas, Mexico, Palenque is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its ancient name was Lakam Ha, which means “Big Water,” no doubt named so for the numerous springs and cascades that run through the land.
Palenque’s most renowned ruler was the king K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, aka Pakal the Great, who took the throne at the age of 12 in 615 A.D. An unusually tall man, Pakal ruled for 68 years and is one of the most famous Maya rulers. Under his rule, the city became an important regional capital and his ambitious building campaign to reinforce his power set the stage for expanded construction by his successors. One of Pakal’s most important buildings was the Palace, an engineering marvel with running water, mansard-type roofs and walls covered with stunning stucco carvings of rulers, gods and ceremonies. He was buried in the Temple of the Inscriptions, with an exquisite jade mask and body armor made of hand-carved jade strung together with gold wire.
One of the smaller Mayan sites, Quiriguá is known for its fine sculpure, in particular its zoomorphs—large boulders carved to represent animals—and stelae, which at 33 feet high are the tallest in the entire Mayan world. In fact, the largest carved Mayan stela is here, a 65-ton, 35-foot stone carving known simply as Monument 5. Interestingly, the monuments of Quiriguá are carved in sandstone, not limestone like in most other Mayan cities.
In 725 A.D., Quiriguá became a vassal city of Copán, whose king 18 Rabbit named Cauac Sky the ruler of Quiriguá. It was Copán’s most important subject city, as it secured trade routes and access to water. Thirteen years later, Cauac Sky defeated 18 Rabbit in battle and sacrificed him. While this battle proved catastrophic for Copán, Quiriguá quickly rose to become an autonomous city and assumed Copán’s place as the dominant regional power, embarking upon an ambitious building campaign.
However, Quiriguá’s glory was short-lived, succumbing to the general decline that overwhelmed Mayan culture in the early 9th century. 810 A.D. was the city's last recorded date, and it is assumed that Quiriguá was completely abandoned by 900 A.D.
Tik’al was one of the largest cultural and urban centers of the Precolumbian Maya, and exercised a dominating political, military and economic influence in the southern Maya lowlands throughout most of the Early Classic Period. Located in modern-day Guatemala, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has plenty of palaces, shrines, altars and soaring temples to enchant visitors from all over the world. The Maya lived, worked and built here for over 1,100 years, expanding Tik’al to an area of 25 square miles. At its peak during the Classic Period, the city is believed to have had 100,000 residents and was ruled by one dynasty of 39 successive rulers.
Tik’al’s glory was not without its troubles, however. It appears Tik’al took part in multiple alliances and conflicts with other Maya states, including Caracol, Uaxactún, Calakmul, Dos Pilas and Naranjo. Some evidence suggests that Tik’al was conquered by Teotihuacán in the 4th century. At the end of the Early Classic, Caracol defeated Tik’al and took its place as the pinnacle and center of Maya power in the area.
Toniná was one of the last Mayan cities to fall prey to the wave of decline that swept the Mayan world in the 9th century. Indeed, the very last recorded date of the Classic Period, 909 A.D., appears here.
A remote but enchanting place, Toniná sits at an elevation of 2,950 feet above sea level and is thought to have been built by an astronomical society. It was a place of calendars and rituals; its name refers to the home of celestial lights and the deities of time. The iconography of Toniná reflects two distinct eras: the first, lasting from 300 to 700 A.D., is marked by depictions of birds from the Underworld and was governed by deceased suns; and the second, lasting from 700 to 900 A.D., marked by celestial lights, felines and the morning and evening stars.
The dominant feature in Toniná is a terraced Acropolis with 13 temples sitting on seven platforms, surrounded by plazas, ball courts and other smaller structures. The lavishly decorated eastern wing of the Acropolis housed palaces of the dynastic families and other key members of Toniná’s ruling class. It was from the four temples on the seventh platform of the Acropolis that the nobles and priest-astronomers and priests oversaw the four regions of the sky, defied the forces of darkness and maintained order in celestial phenomena.
Located on the east coast of the Yucatán peninsula in the State of Quintana Roo in Mexico, Tulúm was a major port and the largest coastal Maya city. It was also the only city known to have been inhabited when the Spanish arrived. Some archaeologists believe its former name may have been Zama, the “City of Dawn.”
Built atop 12-meter (39-foot) cliffs, Tulúm—which means “fence” or “wall” in Yucatec Maya—is a powerfully defended fortress with thick slanted walls preventing access by invaders. Its architecture is classic Maya: the Temple of the Frescoes has vaulted roofs and traces of blue-green frescoes, and El Castillo (the Castle), the iconic structure most often shown in tourism brochures and web sites, sits imposingly at the edge of a 40-ft cliff. Tulúm seems to have been an important site for the worship of the Descending God, as evidenced by a temple dedicated to this deity and numerous murals and other art and architecture throughout the city.
Tulúm’s strategic location in a point of convergence for both sea and land routes made it a major trading center. Commodities such as salt, textiles, ceramics, and feathers, artifacts made of copper and flint, as well as more precious materials such as gold, jade and obsidian were transported by seafaring canoes a network of inland canals and rivers connected to the sea.
Check out images from a modern-day trip down one of these canals in our image gallery!
Uaxactún carries a special importance in the study of Mayan history and culture. Although it was a ceremonial center of only modest size compared with some of the larger cities such as Tik’al, intensive excavations and archaeological study here have yielded insights and understanding critical to Maya history and culture. For example, the Carnegie Institution of Washington established the first sequence of successive Mayan ceramic styles for the Formative through the Classic Periods (circa 300 BC – 900 A.D.), which has provided the basis for the entire lowland Maya chronology. Prior to radiocarbon dating, such sequences were the most reliable technique to date archaeological sites, events and cultures.
The earliest examples of the use of zero by the Maya are also found here, on Stelae 18 and 19, dating from 357 A.D. It is thought that Uaxactún existed longer than any other Mayan city.
In addition, the first Maya astronomical observatory ever discovered was found here, formed by a series of buildings aligned in a special North-South pattern that allowed the early Maya to mark the summer and winter solstices and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, by watching the sun rise behind these buildings.
Uaxactún means "eight stones" in Yucatec Maya, and was given this name by archaeologist Sylvanus Morley who discovered it in 1916; its ancient name was Siaan K’aan, meaning “Born in Heaven.”
Uxmal is considered to be one of the most complex and breathtaking expressions of the Maya Puuc architecture, which blends ornate stone mosaics and cornices with vaulted arches and rows of columns, and features constructions with a plain lower section and a richly decorated upper section. The name Puuc, which means “hilly country,” takes after the hills around Uxmal. In fact, Uxmal, which means “thrice built,” forms part of the “Puuc route” of Mayan sites which include nearby Sayil, Kabah, Xlapak, and Labná. This style flourished in the Late Classic Period.
Uxmal’s architectural gems include the 120-ft-high Pyramid of the Magician, the Quadrangle of the Nunnery, and the Governor’s Palace, called by some the most magnificent structure in all of the Americas. It covers five acres and has a 300-ft façade frieze built with 20,000 individually cut stones.
The Maya at Uxmal greatly revered Chac, the god of rain, primarily due to the lack of natural water resources. Unlike other Mayan cities in the Yucatán peninsula that relied on cenotes, underground caves, for water, Uxmal had no cenotes and instead its people needed to collect water in chultunes or cisterns dug in the ground.
Perched on the western bank of the Usumacinta River, Yaxchilán ("the place of green stones") lay along the trade route between Palenque and Tik’al in the midst of a dense, biologically diverse jungle and stood as the dominant power of the region. It had a long rivalry with Piedras Negras and for some time with Tik’al and Palenque. Yaxchilán’s heyday lasted about 400 years.
The only well-known Maya site in Mexico that can only be reached by boat or plane, Yaxchilán reached its peak during the Late Classic Period, from about 680 to 770 A.D. It’s known for its beautiful temples, detailed façades, grand stairways and large ornamented roof combs and lintels.