You’ll find ancient Maya ruins and archaeological sites all over Mesoamerica. Though some of the most spectacular ones are in Guatemala and Belize, you’ll find more accessible ones in different states of Mexico.

Ranging from fully excavated sites in open areas, to others, still hidden in the jungle, they are all spectacular.

From the early explorers who first saw these ruins, travelers have wondered who built these elaborate structures. Thanks to many scholars who studied them, we have our answers. At least most of them. We now know who were the ancient Maya, and understand a lot about their history.

The Ancient Maya

The ancient Maya culture started around 3000 BC, although in the beginning, they didn’t build anything lasting. Starting from 1800 archaeologists distinguish a few phases of the ancient Maya civilization, the Preclassic (1000 BC – 250 AD), Classic (250 AD – 925 AD), and Postclassic (925 – 1530).
Though the different stages have distinct characteristics, over this time span, the ancient Maya created an elaborate and sophisticated culture.

They developed a complex hieroglyphic writing system and used it to write on books, ceramics, and stone. Though only four of their books survived, we know they wrote on fig-bark paper and on deerskin, folded like an accordion.

Their number system was based on twenty, and they represented it by horizontal lines and dots. Lines had the value of five, and dots had the value of one.

They used these numbers and their writing system and to record history using exact dates, part of a complex calendar.

The Maya calendar system combined two short cycles, a 260-days, and a 360-days into a longer cycle of 56 years. They took it even farther, to a long count spanning centuries. The first such long count went all the way to modern days, ending in December 2012 according to our count.

This complex calendar system was based on the movements of the sun, moon, and planets combined. Since the ancient Maya had a thorough understanding of the movements of the planets against the stars, besides developing this calendar system, they could also predict solar and lunar eclipses with accuracy.

And while they did all this, they built cities and city-states, filled with monumental structures, one more elaborate, artistic and sophisticated than the next.




So how and why did this great civilization collapse? The ancient Maya and just about everyone who builds a civilization seems to forget the basics. We can’t survive on wealth alone.
Just like we are destroying our environment with our modern technology, they destroyed their own by deforestation and overpopulation in their major cities. Then a major drought gave it a final blow.

Recently, scientists found evidence of an extreme drought in Mesoamerica between the years 800 – 1000. This was a natural disaster the elaborate cities lead by an elite could not survive.

The people who up until then believed their rulers could fix anything, realized they had to rely on themselves. So they abandoned the elaborate cities and palaces, and moved on to a different way of life.

They didn’t go far though. Since they had no use for elaborate buildings and large cities, they returned to the land that could sustain them. They went off to live in small huts, growing corn on small patches of land they cleared in the jungle. It was the ultimate returning to nature lifestyle, building their homes only as large as they needed them, using only as many resources as they needed to survive.

Bibliography: Michael D. Coe, The Maya – Ninth Edition

Further reading: Mesoweb, Maya Decipherment

The Maya Today

Living in most of the same places they did when they built the ancient pyramids, the Maya today are the largest group of indigenous people of the Americas North of Peru. Their homes are on the Yucatan Peninsula, in Chiapas, Guatemala, Belize, parts of Tabasco, and in the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador.

Their Culture and Languages

Although they are one people, they speak a variety of Mayan languages, from Yucatecan to Cholan and about thirty other dialects. They live in small villages and larger towns, speak their ancestral language, and still follow some of the old customs and rituals as their ancestors. Though most of them converted to Christianity a long time ago, they made this new religion their own, incorporating some of their old deities and rituals.

You’ll hear them talking in Mayan among themselves when you travel through the towns adjacent to the ancient ruins. You’ll see women wearing their gorgeous traditional embroidered dresses called huipiles, with designs that tell a story for those who know how to read it. Or, at the least, tells those who understand the patterns where the wearer is from, since each region has its own specific design.

It’s Easy to Make Friends with the Maya

I find the Maya are generally reserved, but friendly once they get into a conversation with you. And, I also find them easier to understand when they speak Spanish since it is a second language for them so they speak it slower. At least that’s my guess. Over the years of traveling through the Maya regions of Mexico, we made a few Maya friends, some we still keep in touch with. I even learned a bit of Mayan from them, while they learned English from us. They find it fascinating that we are interested in their culture, so they love to share it.

Maya or Mayan – Which One Is Correct?

Reading about the Maya you’ll see both forms of the word. And you would assume that you should use the word Mayan as an adjective. Theoretically that seems to be correct, and it might become the norm at some point, since it tends to be used in that way.

However, Mayanists, scientists, archaeologists refer to the ruins, structures, pyramids, asMaya. The only time they useMayan is when they refer to the Mayan languages, over thirty of them. At this point this is the correct way to use the two words.

So, the correct way is to say Maya people, Maya pyramids, Maya ruins and Maya archaeological sites. On theater hand, it is Mayan languages the indigenous people of Yucatan, Chiapas, or Campeche speak.

My Introduction to Ancient Maya Ruins and Archaeological Sites

The first time I ever set foot inside an ancient Maya structure, in 1995, I was in awe. And it wasn’t even a major site, or a major structure. My first glimpse of an ancient Maya structure was of a small one, a site I haven’t heard of or read about at the time

Inside of the House of the Jaguar. Xel-Ha Ruins, QR

On my first trip to Yucatan I visited Xel-Ha Ruins, the ancient Maya site just off the highway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. At the time, I was able to enter the House of the Jaguar, where I saw ancient Maya murals for the first time, with their original colors, painted thousands of years ago, still preserved. That first experience started my love affair with the ancient Maya sites in Mexico and beyond.

A Journey into the World of the Ancient Maya – through Books and Documentaries

Although Xel-Ha was new to me, that didn’t mean I haven’t heard of the ancient Maya civilization before. In fact, by the time I first set foot on their land, I read several books published about them at the time, watched documentaries about digs at different sites, and I even studied their writing system.

It all started when I met my husband, Jeff, who was fascinated by the ancient Maya. By the time I met him, he had visited several sites in Mexico and Guatemala, and attended a Maya Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania. His collection of books included just about every professional book published about the ancient Maya at the time, from discovering the ruins of their cities, to their history, and study of their writing system.

These books sparked our first conversations about the subject, and it wasn’t long before I was as excited about this ancient civilization as he was. We talked about the ancient Maya pyramids and other structures, and about the explorers, scientists, epigraphers, and linguists studying them.

Reading about the Ancient Maya

I read travel books written by 19th century explorers, and studies written by the leading Mayanists of the time. Everything I read fascinated me, the history and writing system of the ancient Maya as well as the stories of explorers who first walked through the ruins of their civilization.

I wanted to walk in the footsteps of those early explorers, even if it wasn’t much exploring left for us. I still wanted to se the sites. And since it Tok me while to get there, by the time I did, I knew what I was looking at – for the most part at least.

The Incidents of Travel in Yucatan and the others in the series by British explorer John L. Stevens with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood are some of our most-read books; When we set off in search of ancient Maya sites, we often try to follow the footsteps of these early explorers.

Of course the sites we see now don’t look the same they did in the early days. We can easily access most of them. However, when there, we often compare our experiences with theirs. It was a very different time for exploring, but still great to read about.

Finally Visiting Tikal in 2024

Although Tikal was the site I read most about, it wasn’t until this February 2024 that I actually got to see it. If possible, it even exceeded my expectations…

The iconic Temple I of Tikal
View of Tikal from the top of its highest pyramid, Temple IV

More About Tikal

I couldn’t cover everything I knew and learned about Tikal, and the amazing experience I had in only one post… so I wrote separate ones about its amazing pyramids and wildlife in the park.

Temple I, the most recognizable of all the pyramids of Tikal

Starting with the most famous of the pyramid-temples, Temple I, through the tallest in all of Mesoamerica, Temple IV, Tikal is home to seven well-known pyramid temples. You can read about them and the lesser-known structures here.

Howler monkeys in Tikal

From howler monkeys perched on the highest branches overlooking the pyramids, to coatimundis walking around and on the structures, spider monkeys jumping above our heads in the canopy, to colorful ocellated turkeys, we saw plenty of wildlife in Tikal.

Visiting Ancient Maya Ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula

The Yucatan Peninsula, comprising the states of Quintana Roo, Yucatan, and Campeche, has been easy to visit since the 1980s. It is also full of Maya ruins, now easy to explore. Though it wasn’t always the case.

Maya Sites in the Early 1990s

When we first started traveling there, in the early 1990s, most of these ruins were still off-the-beaten track. The Maya Riviera didn’t exist as a destination.

The only two sites people knew about were Tulum and Chichen Itza. Even there, we could explore the whole sites without worrying about crowds. We climbed the Kukulcan Pyramid in Chichen Itza, walked though the Old Chichen (now closed), stood on top of the Temple of the Warriors, walked through the Mercado. We walked through every structure in Tulum, and climbed most of them.

When we visited other sites we knew about from our books, we were usually alone at them. We met a few other visitors in Uxmal and Coba, but they were generally travelers just as fascinated by the ruins as we were. Ek Balam wasn’t even excavated yet; we were the only visitors at the ruins, where we climbed the mound we guessed was a pyramid underneath (now it is one of the most visited structures, known as the Tower). No tourists went off in search of Maya archaeological sites at the time.

Still Returning to Revisit Sites We Know and Explore New Ones

We’ve seen a lot of changes since. But we still keep returning, can’t stay away for too long.

Sometimes we return yearly, or every two years, or we take a break now and then for a few years. Some parts of the peninsula feel like home now.

We know some of the ruins intimately, understand their history, timeline, and architecture. We met and keep in touch with local Maya, descendants of those who built the ancient structures. Some of these sites feel like home.

But we also find new things every time we return. Most of the time, we miss the old, the new only adds crowds and pollution. Other times though, we find something new we get excited about, new structures just getting excavated, new sites opening up for visitors.

After landing in Cancun, we always rent a car, and start driving. Depending on how much time we have, we still explore all three states on the peninsula.

Maya Archaeological Sites on the Yucatan Peninsula

The Yucatan Peninsula comprises three states of Mexico.

Quintana Roo

Quintana Roo is the most developed for tourism, with cities like Cancun and its international airport, and international beach resorts. It is also the busiest, popular both for its gorgeous, white-sand beaches, and its ancient Maya sites.

Posts about the archaeological sites in Quintana Roo we visited:

Yucatan state

Yucatan, with Merida as its capital (known as the safest city in Mexico), is home to Chichen Itza, and the Puuc sites, including Uxmal.

The following are the Maya archaeological sites in we wrote about in the state of Yucatan:

Campeche

Campeche, south of the two, is the least visited of the three states, but still home to some of the largest and most spectacular Maya archaeological sites.

The following are the sites in Campeche we visited and wrote about:

Classic Maya Ruins In Chiapas

Although the Yucatan Peninsula is filled with Maya ruins and archaeological sites, the ones I’ve read most about are further south. Some of the most beautiful sites, built at the height of the Maya Civilization, are in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

These are the sites I’ve read about even before I first set foot in the land of the ancient Maya. These were the sites I wanted to see the most. However, because they were harder to get to, I have only visited in the past several years.

My post about Palenque stopped working, but while you’re waiting for it, the following two sites also make a great read.

Yaxchilan structure 33
The most beautiful building at Yaxchilan, Structure 33, on the hill

Yaxchilan: Visiting The Ruins

Road Trips In Search Of Maya Ruins

More often than not, we explore Maya ruins and archaeological sites on road trips. We fly into Cancun, where we rent a car, and set off on a road trip. We often remain on the Yucatan Peninsula, but sometimes we also drive farther into Mexico, to reach Maya archaeological sites we can’t fly closer to.

Following our footsteps, you can use the following article as a road trip itinerary.

About the author

Emese-Réka Fromm, author of this post and owner of Wanderer Writes, is an avid traveler through Maya archaeological sites, and loves to learn about this ancient civilization. Besides visiting and revisiting the sites over and over for thirty years, she reads professional archaeological books about the ancient Maya civilization, written by some of the leading Mayanists. In 2023 she attended a lecture by David Stuart at the Mesoamerican Meetings at the University of Texas in Austin.

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