The Best Maya Ruins You've Never Heard Of

Temple of Five Stories
WITHOUT PEER: The view from Edzná's majestic Temple of Five Stories (Liza Prado)
History of the Maya
Maya history is typically divided into three periods: the Pre-Classic period from 300 B.C. to A.D. 250, the Classic Period from A.D. 250 to 900, and the Post-Classic era, lasting until 1521. After centuries of flourishing artistic, architectural, and cultural achievements, a major, and mysterious, disruption occurred about A.D. 900. Experts have speculated many reasons for the disruption, ranging from climatic change to epidemic—but peasant revolt seems to be the favorite. Whatever it was, the cities were abandoned and there appears to have been a sudden loss in technical expertise and artistic excellence, signaling the start of a period of decline. Most of the ancient cities were repopulated by A.D. 1000, and continued to have been inhabited until at least A.D. 1521, and some of the more remote cities even longer. After 1521, the Spanish tried to systematically destroy Maya civilization. They burned the codices, which were ancient bark paper books, one of the great crimes of world cultural history.

Read More on the Maya:
The Maya Ruins of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, & Honduras
Map of the Maya World
Biking the Riviera Maya
La Ruta Maya

Chichén Itzá. Uxmal. Palenque. For anyone headed to Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula and interested in seeing Maya ruins, these are the "must-see" sites on any itinerary. Dig further and you'll uncover more favorites, like Tulum, Cobá, and the series of sites that make up the Puuc Route south of Mérida.

If you've only got a few days to spend on Maya ruins, by all means get the biggies under your belt—they're terrific. But if you've got extra time, or are back for a second or third round of ruin-hopping, consider visiting some of the area's lesser-known zonas arqueológicas (archaeological zones). And by lesser-known we don't mean less impressive—not by a long shot. Visit the largest pyramid, and the tallest pseudo-pyramid, in all of Maya Mexico. Admire some of the best-preserved stucco and stone artwork anywhere in Mesoamerica. Trek deep into a nature reserve, where you'll spot birds, monkeys, maybe even a jaguar or mountain lion. Or just skip Cancún's distinctly 21st-century bustle for a day to journey back to the ninth-century heyday of the Maya empire.

And going off the beaten path doesn't necessarily mean traveling through crocodile-infested waters (well, except in one case). The sites mentioned here are easily reached by bus, car, or boat.

Liza Prado and Gary Chandler are the authors of numerous guidebooks to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, including Yucatán Peninsula and Cancún & Cozumel, both published by Moon Handbooks.

LIZA PRADO and GARY CHANDLER are the authors of numerous guidebooks to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, including Yucatán Peninsula and Cancún & Cozumel , both published by Moon Handbooks.

Published: 6 Oct 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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