Mayan Ruins in Mexican Yucatán Peninsula

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Ruins are fallen structures. They are the remains of human-made architecture. Now they exist in a ruinous state because of lack of maintenance or due to deliberate acts of destruction. Sometimes you can hear about these sacred places referred to as ruins, but the correct way to honor and to respect these places is the magical words and studied term of archaeological sites.

There is a famous poem written by English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley called “Ozymandias.” It explores the fate of a ruler who, once upon a time, was a great king. However, even the all-powerful aren’t powerful enough to remain unaffected by the ravages of time. Ozymandias, too, died and his empire crumbled.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The poem looks at ruins as a reminder of what once was or used to be. However, as archeologists would (rightly) argue, ruins serve a purpose other than pondering over our own inevitable end. They provide remarkable insights into the culture of ancient civilizations. They allow us to delve deeper into the ethos of societies that once were.

According to Professor Susan Stewart of Princeton University, the value of ruins transcend solely their architectural value. They help artists and observers view the interplay between nature and human products – ruins altogether change the way we think about the world.

A Brief Introduction to Mayan Ruins

The Maya civilization is known to be the longest-running civilization in history. It began in the Preclassic period around 2,500 BC. Today, the Maya are remembered for their advanced knowledge in many fields – from having a highly developed writing system to an intricate calendar, a deep understanding of astronomy, mathematics, and the sciences. Their art and architecture are celebrated even today.

The Maya were skilled architects and builders who paid a lot of attention to position, layout, and details within their structures. Their size, location, detailing, and preservation provide key insights into the Mayan world. The Mayas have left behind soaring pyramid temples, huge palaces with corbelled roofing, and acoustically perfect ballcourts for us to admire and marvel at. Many of these ruins are today UNESCO World Heritage sites. Isn’t that amazing?

Archeological sites dating back to the Maya period can be found throughout parts of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and southeastern Mexico. Thousands of settlements have been discovered in the region. A conclusive number, however, is yet to be determined given how new sites are constantly being discovered. Take the example of the Maya network discovered beneath the forest canopy in Guatemala (discovered in 2018) or of a Mayan palace discovered in the Kuluba archeological zone in Yucatán (discovered in 2019).

Mayan Ruins in The State of Yucatán

The state of Yucatán is located in southeastern Mexico. Some of the more prominent Mayan Ruins within Yucatán include Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Dzibilchaltun Ruins, Ek Balam, Ake, Acanceh, Oxkintok, Xlapak, Labna, Chacmultan, Sayul, Mayapan, Kabah, and Izamal. We will be digging deeper into a few of these below.

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza, located in the present-day Tinúm Municipality in Yucatán, is one of the most popular archaeological sites in the world. Chichen Itza (which means “at the mouth of the well of Itza” in Mayan) was a large city built by the Maya sometime around 600 AD during the Mayan Classic Period. The site is known for incorporating many architectural styles and consists of various structures from temples to platforms to a ball court (“juego de pelota” in Spanish). The city was a hub of economic and political activity. In 2017, Chichen Itza was declared one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. In the same year alone, it was visited by over 2.6 million tourists.

Read our article to explore more about Chichen Itza’s history, architecture and how to include this visit in during your trip.

Uxmal

Uxmal (which comes from the Mayan Oxmal which means “thrice built”) is another ancient city – this one located 90 miles south-southwest of Chichen Itza. The site covers an area of approximately 150 acres and is an important representation of the Puuc architectural style. The House of Magician, which is the entry point for tourists, is one of the main attractions within the ancient city. It was built in five phases. Other sites in Uxmal include the Governor’s Palace which has a 320-foot long mosaic facade and the House of Turtles next to this palace. It was believed that turtles suffered along with humans during drought and would pray to Chac, Mayan god of rain, along with humans.

Dzibilchaltun Ruins

Located near the coastal city of Merida, Dzibilchaltun Ruins doesn’t have huge pyramids such as in Chichen Itza or Uxmal. It does, however, have its own unique set of attractions such as the Temple of Dolls, Open Chapel, and a structure similar in shape to an amphitheatre. It was still inhabited when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. At one point in time, some 200,000 inhabitants lived here.

Ek Balam

Ek Balam means “black jaguar” in the Yucatec Maya language. Ek Balam is located near Valladolid and though it is not as popular as Chichen Itza or Uxmal, it does provide a great deal of insight into the Mayan way of life. Tourists can enjoy taking a look at the amazing art and calligraphy on the walls. One can also climb ancient structures such as the Acropolis. On a clear day, tourists can see the temples of Chichen Itza and Coba from the top!

Izamal

Izamal used to be an important Mayan pilgrimage site. It was one of the most prominent Mayan sites before 900 AD. It contains one of the heaviest pyramid structures in Mesoamerica. Today, Izamal is a quiet town known as the Yellow City (“La Ciudad Amarilla” in Spanish) because of its golden-yellow buildings!

Mayan Ruins in Quintana Roo

Quintana Roo is located on the eastern part of the Yucatán Peninsula and is the easternmost state of Mexico. It is home to popular tourist destinations such as Cancun, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel. Many Mayan Ruins can be found in Quintana Roo. Other than the famous Tulum Ruins and Coba Ruins, other Mayan Ruins that can be found here include El Rey, Punta Laguna, Kohunlich, Muyil, San Gervasio, Kinichna, Dzibanche, and Xel-Há.

Tulum Ruins

Tulum Ruins is located some 80 miles from Cancun. Researchers believe that during its existence, the city was called Zama which translates to “city of the dawning sun.” While there is not a lot of evidence to prove this, it makes sense since the city was among the first of the Mayan cities to receive sunlight.

Tulum is walled to the east and faces the Caribbean Sea to the west. It was built in the thirteenth century by the Maya during the Mayan post-classic period. Tulum was built to act as a seaport and trading centre for mainly jade and turquoise. The city managed to survive till about 70 years after the Spanish arrived. There are many attractions for those visiting Tulum such as a castle at the edge of a 12-meter limestone cliff which overlooks the Caribbean coast and a temple (the Temple of Frescoes) where one can learn more about Mayan beliefs and spirituality.

Read our article to learn more about the importance of Tulum in the Mayan community of Yucatan. We think it is worthwhile to add this stop to your visit, followed by a day in Tulum. \

Coba Ruins

Coba means “water stirred by the wind” in Mayan – an apt name for a settlement with lagoons on both sides. Archeologists believe Coba to have been an important Mayan city – it was a bustling trade center. Coba is known for its network of stone causeways known as sacbes (which means white roads) made up of white limestone. The highest pyramid here is called Ixmoja. It is 138 feet tall and tourists can climb all the way up if they dare to! You can also find more than thirty engraved stelae here, consisting of Mayan hieroglyphs about life in Coba. May I add here how this is my favorite archaeological site of all? Climbing the pyramid is a magical experience. Learn more about the history and activities to do while visiting the area.

Muyil

The Archeological Zone of Muyil (also called Chunyaxché) is located about nine miles south of the Tulum Ruins. Muyil Ruins is small and not as visited as most of the other Ruins in the Yucatán. Muyil was one of the earliest settlements on the Caribbean Coast and extends across 38 hectares of jungle. It has strong ties to the centre of Coba which is located about 30 miles north/northwest of Muyil.

El Rey

El Rey Ruins are located in the Hotel Zone of Cancún. This site formed an important part of the ancient Mayan trade route. It also functioned as a burial ground for royalty as well as an astronomy center. During the excavation of a temple in 1975 archaeologists found the burial site of a high ranking person here.

Mayan Ruins in Campeche

The state of Campeche is located in southeast Mexico. It shares a border with both the state of Yucatán (to the northeast) and to Quintana Roo (to the east). Mayan Ruins that can be found in Campeche include Calakmul, Chicanna, Edzna, Xpujil, Becan, Hochob, Dzibilnocac, and Balamku.

Calakmul

The extremely well-preserved city of Calakmul used to be the seat of the Snake Kingdom that ruled mainly during the Mayan Classic Period. Calakmul is a six hours drive from Tulum and is home to one of the oldest and largest known Maya pyramids (Estructura II). Calakmul contains elements such as the Maya stelae that provide a lot of insight into Mayan daily life and political and spiritual aspirations of the Mayan people.

Edzna

Edzná is located around 37 miles east of Campeche. Edzná means “House of the Itzáes” – a reference to a governing clan of the Chontal Maya origin. Society in Edzná flourished from around 600 BC to the 15th century AD. At one point of time, Edzná’s over 20 complexes covered more than 10 square miles. One can see a number of white stone roads and man-made irrigation canals here. One enters the site through a plaza known as the “Courtyard of the Ambassadors.” A short path leads up to the Grand Plaza proper called Nohoch Na. The south side of the Great Plaza is bordered by “The South Temple” and a ball court. The temple is an impressive five-tiered pyramidal structure. On top of it lies a Puuc style temple. All in all, the entire site is a great place to learn about the Maya! Plazas, temples, stairways, and other structures contain a wealth of knowledge about the Mayan times.

Chicanná

Chicanná Ruins is located in the Rio Bec Region in Campeche. The site is considered to have been an important settlement for Mayan spiritual ceremonies. Due to the natural elevation in the region, the Maya believed they were closer to the Gods here. Rediscovered in 1966, Chicanná was most likely at its peak from 200 BC to 250 AD. According to archeologists, the settlement had important commercial ties with settlements through the Rio Bec Region.

Hochob

In Yucatec Mayan, Hochob means “place of the corn stalks.” The site, a natural hill, is located in the Chenes region of Campeche State – around 80 miles east of the city of Campeche. The exact timeline for Hochob is not particularly known. Hochob is an archeological zone where the Puuc and Chenes styles can be seen. The main structure here, located on the north side of the plaza, is known as “Structure II.” It consists of three chambers. Here you can find an intricately detailed carved mosaic of Itzamna, the Earth monster. It is an outstanding example of Chenes style decoration. There is also a rectangular plaza called the Ceremonial Plaza. Four huge constructions are located within it with the Main Palace standing out due to its masked facade and annexed chambers. Hochob are most definitely the isolated ruins worth a visit!

All in All…

Mayan Ruins can definitely teach you a thing or two (or thousand!) about the Maya way of life – about Mayan religion, politics, economics, spirituality, and daily life. So the next time you’re in Mexico, make sure to add a few of these brilliant Mayan Ruins to your must-see list of things to do. There is definitely no better way to learn about the Maya civilization than to go to the places where Mayan living once happened!

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