Deep in the dense jungles of Mesoamerica, an advanced civilization emerged 4,000 years ago. Its architectural and cultural achievements have been compared to those of ancient Egypt, Greece and China – with many advances occurring simultaneously as those of its overseas counterparts. Intriguing? To be sure. And visiting the ruins of these mysterious societies is more captivating still. And so we invite you to explore the vestiges of the Maya as part of our Mexico’s Mayan & Aztec Illumination.
Mayans are believed to have developed the first writing system in the pre-Columbian Americas. Art, architecture, mathematics, and a calendar and astronomical system were also central to their culture. The structure of complex societies and organized agriculture predates the construction of cities, but once stones started being quarried for temples, palaces and other buildings, the Mayans went on a building spree. In your small group, you’ll visit four of the most significant and remarkable ruins.
Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, could well be the most famous and spectacular of ancient Mayan cities. Developed late in the arc of Mayan history, between 800 and 1200 AD, its many architectural styles suggest that it had a diverse population. As it grew in size, it also grew in reputation, gaining a place as one of the great mythical cities cited in Mesoamerican writing.
The city was a collection of temples, ball courts, several platforms, a steam bath, and many residences that fan out from the center. Parts of the city are connected by sacbes, or raised causeways that served as footpaths. Also central to Chichen Itza were the several cenotes, or sink holes, that still today are typical of the Yucatan Peninsula. These holes were often quite deep and took on religious significance to locals as they were believed to be portals to the gods of the earth. Sacrifices of gold, jewels and even humans were made to them.
But the centerpiece of Chichen Itza is El Castillo, a magnificent step pyramid also known as the Temple of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent deity whose carved figures can be seen at the temple’s base. Each of the four sides has 91 steps which, when totaled with the “final step” (the temple’s uppermost platform) add up to 365, the number of days in the Mayan calendar system.
The ancient city of Palenque is not as famous as Chichen Itza, but it should be. The mysteries of this UNESCO World Heritage Site have enthralled scholars since its discovery in 1773. Hundreds of buildings are strewn across the jungle that had once swallowed the city whole. Temples, stucco pyramids, funerary structures, a grand palace, intricate bas reliefs, towers, courtyards, and other buildings that mystify archaeologists and are therefore simply given a generic name and number, such as “Structure XII.”
The largest structure is the Temple of the Inscription, a step pyramid built as a funerary tomb for K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, who ruled for 70 years in the 7th century. Scholars flocked to this pyramid when it was discovered that it held many keys to the ancient Maya. Rich and revealing hieroglyphics were found on interior tablets expressing the idea that past events will be repeated on the same date in some future year, a uniquely Mayan notion that often reasserts itself in today’s culture. Inside the tomb, the great ruler was found wearing a death mask made of jade.
In Uxmal, a vast array of structures reflect the dominant building fashion of the Maya. Its most celebrated building, the Governor’s Palace, is a low structure built atop a large platform. It features 20,000 stones carved to resemble fine lace and boasts the longest façade of any Mesoamerican structure. The site’s tallest and most magnificent creation is the Pyramid of the Magician. Its smooth steep surface, rounded corners, and elliptical base set it apart from other pyramids.
Uxmal was remarkably preserved over the centuries, thanks in large part to the well-cut stones that the original builders used. It is second only to Palenque for the elegance of its square-built buildings and its layout. If you want to get a clear sense of a ceremonial center in the Mayan world, visit Uxmal.
Ek Balam is one of largest Mayan ruins in Mexico. Elaborate statues, grand architecture, and intricate stucco facades reveal much about this once-mighty city. The most impressive site at Ek Balam is its Acropolis, a six-story ancient behemoth at 525 feet long, 230 feet wide, and 96 feet tall. Within, archaeologists discovered 72 rooms and El Trono, or “The Throne,” the temple and burial site of the king Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’. And just so his people would always remember how powerful he was, the doorway to the temple resembles the open mouth of a jaguar or, some say, a monster carved there in order to protect the underworld.
Mayan ruins have many stories to tell and many mysteries to unveil. Many visitors are surprised by their size and breadth, which is why a small group adventure is the perfect way to explore them. Join Discovery Tours—and an expert guide seasoned in Mayan history and archaeology—and uncover the mysteries of Mexico’s Mayan ruins for yourself during our fascinating Mexico’s Mayan & Aztec Illumination.