The main examples of the architectural, sculptural, pictorial and scientific heritage of the Mayan world in Mexico can be found in these 10 archaeological sites that are part of the itinerary of all tourists interested in this type of wonderful and historic places.
1. Chichen Itza
This Mayan archaeological city located in the municipality of Tinum in the state of Yucatan is a World Heritage Site and was selected as one of the new Seven Wonders of the Modern World, being the only site in North and Central America on the recognized list.
The constructions that have been preserved were erected by the Itza between the 9th and 12th centuries, during the Late Classic and Early Post Classic periods. The Itza were a Mayan people called the “wise initiates” who are believed to have come from the Petén region of present-day Guatemala.
Chichen Itza became the main center of power in Yucatan and its decline began in the 13th century as a result of conflicts with other Mayan peoples. When the Spanish conquerors arrived in the territory, Chichen Itza had already lost its political power, although it retained its religious importance.
From the pre-Columbian city you can currently admire the Pyramid of Kukulcán, several squares, an astronomical observatory, ball game courts, residential rooms, the sacred cenote and other sites.
The Pyramid of Kukulcán was the main temple and is one of the most important Mayan buildings in all of Mexico. It was called El Catillo by the Spaniards, it has a height of 30 meters, with 9 levels and a central staircase in each of its 4 facades.
In the main temple, Kukulcan was venerated, a Mayan god as powerful as Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, if not his very incarnation.
The Castle has relevant attributes related to the Mayan sciences, one of them being its architectural alignment for the observation of lighting and shadow phenomena, particularly during the days of solstices and equinoxes.
A mathematical symbolism of the Pyramid of Kukulcán is that it has 4 stairways with 91 steps on each, which adds up to a total of 364 steps. If the upper platform is added, the length of the solar year is amazingly reached.
The sacred cenote came to have such ceremonial importance that it received pilgrims from various Mesoamerican peoples that were located outside of present-day Mexico. The cenote now has a diameter of 60 meters and a depth of 13, and was the place of worship of Chaac, god of water and rain.
El Caracol was an astronomical observatory and in it the Mayans marked the main astronomical events, such as solstices, equinoxes, eclipses and transits of Venus.
Other buildings of artistic and ceremonial importance in Chichen Itza are the Wall of Skulls, the Temple of the Warriors, the Group of a Thousand Columns, the Temple of the Boards, the House of the Nuns and the Casa Colorada.
Chichen Itza, Definitive Guide: How to Get There, Meaning, Climate and History
This Mayan city whose ruins are located in the Chiapas municipality of Palenque, bordering Guatemala, was the seat of one of the most important Mayan dynasties of the pre-Hispanic era.
Palenque was built during the Classic period and its buildings are one of the best examples of the skill of the Mayan architects and the talent of their artists.
The grandeur and majesty of Palenque has made it an obligatory place of pilgrimage for national and world specialists in architecture and archaeology, with buildings such as the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Palace, the Ensemble of the Crosses and the Aqueduct standing out.
If the rescued complex is exceptional, it is believed that several hundred buildings are buried in the thicket, with many examples of the ingenuity of the Mayan engineers and the acuity of their artists still to be discovered.
The Temple of the Inscriptions is located on the esplanade called the Great Plaza and owes its name to the number of hieroglyphic texts and beautiful stucco reliefs. The interpretation of these signs has helped to understand in depth the Mayan culture.
The Temple of the Inscriptions was started by Pakal the Great, one of the most important government figures of the Mayan civilization, although the famous sovereign died before its completion.
In 1949, the tomb of Pakal the Great was found under the temple, a pyramid that contains in its dimensions and structure various allegories of science and Mayan mythology.
The Palace is an imposing building erected by Pakal the Great and in its center stands a 4-body tower that was used as a defensive watchtower and as a point of observation of the sky.
The Set of Crosses is made up of 3 main buildings, the temples of the Cross, of the Sun and of the Foliated Cross, and was built to celebrate the rise to power of Chan Bahlum II, successor of Pakal the Great.
In the Temple of the Cross there was a panel depicting a monster sprouting from a corn plant, which is currently on display at the National Museum of Anthropology .
The Aqueduct is a structure that has remained as a witness to the skill of the Mayan hydraulic engineers in channeling the waters of the Otulum River.
The sector of El Acueducto that has been preserved is a vaulted structure that reaches up to 3 meters deep, passing under the Main Plaza and continuing downstream to a site called Baño de la Reina, where a stone bridge was built.
In Palenque there is the Alberto Ruz Lhuillier site museum, named in honor of the archaeologist who discovered the tomb of Pakal the Great in the middle of the last century.
About 100 km from Playa del Carmen and 47 km from Tulum, deep in the jungle in the continental territory of the state of Quintana Roo , is the Mayan archaeological site of Cobá.
There are several versions about the meaning of the term “Coba”, one of them being that of “what has humidity”, a definition that very well depicts the warm and humid environment of the Yucatecan jungle.
Most of what remains of the pre-Hispanic city of Cobá was built during the Classic Maya period, although the most recent structures have been dated to the 14th century.
Until the 7th century, Cobá was the dominant settlement in northern Yucatán and its political importance waned towards the beginning of the second millennium after Christ, although it retained its ceremonial importance.
The main building of Cobá that has survived is the Pyramid of Nohoch Mul, 42 meters high, the tallest among the pre-Columbian structures of the Yucatecan peninsula.
It has 120 steps that must be climbed very carefully, because they are slippery due to the humidity.
The prize for promotion is at the top and, like the ancient Mayans, there you can be entranced by spectacular panoramic views of the dense jungle dotted with lakes. A rope helps for ascent and descent.
Due to some testimonies provided by its architectural elements, it is believed that Cobá had links with the centers of power in central Mexico, particularly with Teotihuacán.
Cobá was connected by stone roads with other Mayan settlements, the longest being one of about 100 km that reached Yaxuná, near Chichén Itzá.
After its decline from the year 1000, Cobá seems to have had a certain resurgence between the 13th and the end of the 15th centuries, as evidenced by some constructions from that time.
When the Spanish arrived, the political importance had already shifted towards the coastal region and the first conquerors found Cobá depopulated.
To go to Cobá you have to reach the municipal seat of Tulum and access highway 109 that goes to Nuevo Xcan, traveling 47 km until you reach the archaeological site. The route is also covered by public transport.
The services in Cobá are basic, and include restrooms and some points of sale for food and souvenirs.
The Cobá ejido charges a parking fee and there are some local guides who offer their services on foot and by bicycle.
It is the most representative archaeological site of the Puuc architectural style in the entire Mayan world, a concept characterized by its smooth lower walls and its profusely ornamented friezes.
Uxmal was erected during the Classic period and is located in the municipality of Santa Elena, 62 km south of the city of Mérida, the Yucatecan capital.
In the extensive complex, the Pyramid of the Magician, the Quadrangle of the Nuns, the Governor’s Palace, the House of the Turtles and the Court for the Ball Game stand out.
The Pyramid of the Magician is the main building, with a height of 35 m. It has 5 differentiated structures built at different times, each with its own temple.
Information about its construction is found in its own hieroglyphic texts, the first level or Temple I being from the 6th century, while the fifth level or Temple V dates from the 10th century.
Temple I stands out for its decoration with small columns and Chaac masks. The Queen of Uxmal was found on this level , a sculpture of a serpent’s head from whose open mouth a man sprouts.
Temple V tops the pyramid and is accessed by a steep staircase of 150 steps. The walls of this level are ornamented with fretwork forming intertwined snakes.
The Quadrangle of the Nuns is a platform 120 meters on each side located behind the Pyramid of the Magician and has a large number of rooms, which is why it received its name by analogy with a convent.
The walls and walls of the buildings in the quadrangle have the typical Puuc decoration, with smooth lower walls and detailed ornate upper ones. Chaac masks, snake heads and geometric figures can be distinguished in the decoration.
The Governor’s Palace is a construction of three bodies with a total height of 9 meters and it is believed that it was an observatory from which the movements of the planet Venus were followed.
The upper part of the palace walls are decorated with Chaac masks, garlands, small columns, thatched-roof huts, thrones, and feathered headdresses. Above the main door is the figure of a ruler crowned by a large plume and two-headed serpents.
The House of the Turtles was named for its decoration with turtles and the ball game court is the only one that has been found in the Puuc area.
In front of the spectacular and luminous Caribbean Sea of the Riviera Maya , is the Mayan site of Tulum, to enjoy an unforgettable vacation that combines archaeological tourism with beach and marine gastronomy.
Tulum was a maritime crossroads for the trade of the coastal Mayan peoples between the 13th and 16th centuries. When the Spanish arrived in the territory, its native inhabitants abandoned it and the walled pre-Hispanic city was covered by dense vegetation until the important heritage was rescued.
The main pre-Columbian building in Tulum is El Castillo, erected facing the sea on a cliff, offering one of the most spectacular postcards in Mexico, with the structure rising gracefully with the beautiful turquoise blue sea as a background canvas.
The Castle was an astronomical observatory and among the elements of its construction there are some referring to the Sun and the planet Venus.
Due to its construction on the cliff, very close to the sea, it is believed that El Castillo also served as a lighthouse, especially due to the dangers for Mayan coastal navigation that the Great Reef, located a few meters from the coast, entailed.
It is thought that El Palacio was the main residential building of the nobility in the pre-Columbian city of Tulum and is equipped with numerous bedrooms, with an original L-shaped design that was later expanded by adding the wing on the west side. It is decorated with images of the Mayan gods, including Kukulcán.
Another interesting building in the archaeological site of Tulum is the Temple of the Descending God, in which the stuccoed figure of a character in a niche is found on the lintel.
Along the cliff on which the walled city is located, there is a staircase that descends towards the sea, which awaits bathers with the warmth of its waters, the whiteness of the sand and the beautiful gradation of blues.
In the municipality of Tulum, just 7 km from the municipal capital, is Playa Paraíso, which many describe as the best in Mexico.
Playa Paraíso is a wonderful place with transparent turquoise blue waters and fine-grained sand and nearby there are hotels, restaurants and other services to enjoy an unforgettable stay in the Riviera Maya.
This Classic period necropolis, located in the Tabasco municipality of Comalcalco, is the westernmost site of the Mayan civilization.
The lack of stone fountains in the area forced the Mayan builders to build the complex with bricks and stucco made with oyster shells.
The complex is made up of the Great Acropolis, several temples, squares and a cemetery, among the main structures.
The Great Acropolis is a group of buildings that had civil and religious purposes, arranged on several levels. The central building is El Palacio, 9 meters high and made up of two parallel galleries facing north-south.
To the southeast of El Palacio is the Tomb of the Nine Lords of the Night, considered the most important of the complex, particularly for its 9 characters in stucco reliefs.
Also on the Great Acropolis are the Temple of the Seated Figures and the Popol Naah, the latter a construction located on the top, which was used for activities such as music, dance and prayer.
In the so-called North Plaza Complex there are 4 temples that stand out for their decoration with stuccoed figures and their groups of sloped stairways delimited with balustrades.
In 2011, the Comalcalco Cemetery was discovered, the first known of the Mayan civilization. The funerary complex is made up of 66 bodies in urns and 50 in their surroundings, assuming that the first were elite characters and the second people of lower rank.
Along with the burials, ceramic rattles, whistles, razors, knives, flint and obsidian carvings, metal fragments and tens of thousands of sherds were found.
The skeleton of a dog was also discovered in the cemetery, an animal that in the Mayan culture had the function of guiding the dead on their journey through the underworld.
The main element in the erection of the Comalcalco buildings was brick, but the Mayan masters did not limit themselves to making smooth pieces, with the sole practical purpose of construction, but also decorated them with figures of a different nature.
In Comalcalco several thousand bricks decorated with human representations of both sexes and in various positions have been inventoried; animal figures, such as rodents, cervids and primates; and fantastic beings with which the Mayan artists gave free rein to their imagination.
Comalcalco’s artistic bricks are also engraved with architectural representations, glyphs, and geometric shapes such as circles, triangles, and rectangles.
It was a Mayan settlement on the banks of the Usumacinta River, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, built during the Late Classic period, standing out for its stone lintels and hieroglyphic texts that describe the main historical events of the city.
Yaxchilán was a great political rival of the Maya of Piedras Negras and Tikal, in present-day Guatemala, and in present-day Mexico, he fought with his ethnic brothers from Palenque. The deposit is located in the Chiapas municipality of Ocosingo, on the border with Guatemala.
The set is made up of a large number of buildings that are distinguished by their lintels, stairs and stelae. Lintels 15, 24 and 25, preserved in the British Museum, stand out for their beautiful artistic conception.
Lintel 15 is a superb limestone carving that was above a door of Building 21 and was removed in 1983. It depicts Lady Wak Tuun in a bloodletting ritual, in which the wife of ruler Bird Jaguar IV carries a basket with the tools for the rite.
The limestone carving of Lintel 24 is classified as one of the masterpieces of Mayan sculpture. It is another bloodletting ritual in which Lady K’ab’al Xook and her husband, the Mayan ruler Shield Jaguar II, participate.
Lintel 25 is another limestone carving in which Lady K’ab’al Xook appears, this time in an invocation to the Vision Serpent to celebrate her husband’s arrival on the throne of Yaxchilán.
Other pieces of magnificent art are Lintels 9, 12, 18, 26, 32, 43, 47, 54, 55 and 58, all preserved in the National Museum of Anthropology.
The stela was widely used as an artistic element at the Yaxchilán site. Stela 1 stands in the center of the Great Plaza and contains scenes of Bird Jaguar IV, his parents, Kin, the sun god; and images of a crocodile and a jaguar.
Stela 11 is preserved at the site after it could not be sent to the National Museum of Anthropology because it was too heavy to fly. This monument is carved on both sides, representing in one part the transfer ceremony of the government of the city from Shield Jaguar II to Bird Jaguar IV.
Stela 18 was able to reach the National Museum of Anthropology and is a representation of the triumph of Escudo Jaguar II over Aj Popol Chaj, ruler of Lacanjá.
It is a Mayan ceremonial center located near the border with Belize, 69 km from the Quintana Roo capital of Chetumal.
It is a site whose indigenous name is unknown, since Kohunlich is not a Mayan term but a phonetic transcription that comes from the English word “cohoonridge”, the name of an old logging camp that was in the place.
The site was discovered in 1912 by Raymond Merwin, a pioneer of Mayan archaeology, who visited it during his exploration of pre-Columbian sites north of the Río Hondo.
The archaeological zone covers an area of 8.5 hectares and its main buildings were erected between the 6th and 7th centuries, during the Early Classic period, although archaeological evidence shows that the settlement already existed in the 3rd century.
Kohunlich is made up of several ritual and residential complexes, among which the Acropolis, the Temple of the Masks and the Palace of the Stelae stand out.
In the Temple of the Masks, several monumental stucco reliefs have been preserved, of remarkable artistic conception. These reliefs still have part of the red paint that covered the walls of the temple.
In this temple it is possible to find apron moldings and openwork columns on the walls, reminiscent of the architectural styles of El Petén and the Río Bec region.
It is believed that the Acropolis was a high-level residential complex, while the Palacio de las Estelas was an administrative center.
The large number of areas exposed to view in the archaeological site of Kohunlich allows to form an idea of the common life and of the Mayan religious rites.
During its heyday, Kohunlich was an important point of commercial connection between the Mayan cities of the Yucatan Peninsula and other pre-Hispanic Central American towns.
To get to the Kohunlich site you have to take federal highway 186 Chetumal-Escárcega. The crossing to the site is at km 60, at the height of the town of Francisco Villa, and the additional route is only 9 km from the deviation.
The entrance to Kohunlich is priced at 55 MXN and the place opens every day between 8 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon.
This archaeological zone located in the Chiapas municipality of Ocosingo, in the middle of the Lacandona Jungle, stands out for its pre-Hispanic murals, honoring the word “Bonampak” which in the Mayan language means “Painted Walls”
Bonampak belonged to the series of Mayan cities established along the Usumacinta River basin, between the current territories of Mexico and Guatemala, and was a subject of Yaxchilán. The preserved buildings were erected between the end of the 6th century and the beginning of the 9th.
The Temple of the Murals shows in a masterly way the scenes of the warrior life of the Mayans of Bonampak.
The frescoes discovered in 1946 were made during the last decade of the 8th century, using an elaborate paint product of a mixture of water with pigments, lime and an organic binder.
The wall paintings cover an area of 112 m 2 and artistically describe a battle and its preparations and aftermath, including the victory celebration.
The mural work is divided into 3 rooms with a chronological conception. In room 1, high-ranking characters were painted, getting ready for battle. This mural shows a procession of priests parading to the beat of music played by wooden trumpets, drums and other instruments, which is played by an orchestra.
Room 2 contains scenes from the bloody battle, which took place on August 2, 792, and includes the execution of the defeated warriors.
Room 3 shows the victors celebrating their triumph, with the image of the ruler Chaan Muan II standing out on the scene performing a ritual of self-sacrifice in which he offers his blood to the gods.
Finding yourself in the thick of the Lacandon Jungle, it would not be surprising if among the ruins of Bonampak you would come across some specimen of the tropical jungle fauna, such as a spider monkey, a tapir, an anteater or a lion cub; the jaguars are a little further away.
To go to the site, after reaching Palenque, take federal highway 307 towards San Javier and then towards Lacanjá Chansayab, finding the site 13 km from the last intersection. The total route from Palenque is about 150 km.
Access to the Bonampak archaeological site is between 8 AM and 5 PM and is priced at 46 MXN, plus an additional fee charged by the Lacandones.
It is a monumental Mayan complex located in Chiapas, 10 km from Ocosingo, 85 km from San Cristóbal de las Casas and 115 km from Palenque.
The word “Toniná” means “the stone house” or “big stone houses” in the indigenous language and stone is precisely what abounds in the buildings of the place.
Among the constructions of Toniná, the Acropolis stands out, an impressive set with a 70 m pyramid, which is one of the largest structures of pre-Hispanic Mexico.
The Acropolis has 7 platforms, 10 temples and 4 palaces, most of these structures connected to each other by labyrinthine corridors and stairs.
Among the most important buildings of the Acropolis are the Palace of War and the Temple of the Earth Monster.
On the sixth platform, at the foot of the Temple of the Earth Monster, is the Mural of the Four Eras, a jewel of Mayan art dating from between 790 and 840, which represents the Mayan gods framed in the legend of the four suns .
The court for the ball game, with one side 70 meters long, was one of the largest in the Mayan world.
On the third platform of the Acropolis is the Palace of the Underworld and on the fourth is the Palace of Grecas and War.
The Temple of the Smoking Mirror and the Temple of the Prisoners, located on the last platform, are the highest in Mesoamerica.
At the Toniná site there is a temple for each of the 13 gods of the Mayan Olympus, whose construction highlights some architectural elements and various aesthetic expressions.
To go to Toniná from San Cristóbal de las Casas, take highway 199 towards the city of Ocosingo for a distance of 96 km. Then you have to access an 11 km dirt road that leads directly to the site.
The site is accessed from Tuesday to Sunday between 9 AM and 4 PM and the entrance fee is 46 MXN.
Did you know all the treasures that these architectural sites of the Mayan civilization in Mexico keep? We hope that very soon you will be able to visit those that you have not visited and that you will tell us about your exciting experiences.
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