Inner courtyard in the Palace of Palenque

Virtual Travel to the Land of the Ancient Maya

While I can’t leave home every time I want to visit a Maya site, I can still use virtual travel tours to explore a few. And while virtual travel can not replace the experience of walking through the ancient structures, surrounded by the jungle, listening to thousands of birds, watching iguanas sunbathe on the ancient structures, it can transport me there.

I can still see the structures through the photos and videos used on these tours. Walking through the sites virtually, it’s easy enough to imagine, or remember what it feels like to be there in person.

So, I embarked on a virtual visit to the world of the ancient Maya. I already visited virtually a few art museums, the Met among them, and a few National Parks. During my online visit to the British Museum, I found out about the virtual tours to Palenque, one of my favorite ancient Maya sites.

Virtual Travel to Palenque

Temple of the Inscriptions
The Temple of the Inscriptions

Though I visited Palenque about two years ago, and spent a full day at the ruins, exploring every building, every stela, every piece of artwork, I can’t wait to return. But since I can’t at the moment, I revisited the site virtually.

With the Google Arts and Culture project I drove virtually on the back of a pickup truck to the site. Surrounded by jungle, on the narrow road, I felt like I was back in Chiapas.

The next clip took me into the site, catching the first glimpse of the palace and the Pyramid of the Inscriptions. It was nice to see the site empty, with no tourists, no visitors, just the ancient structures and the surrounding vegetation.

Virtual Tour of the main plaza, with views of the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Palace, and the Ballcourt

Next, I took the guided virtual tour of Palenque, following the footsteps of Alfred Maudslay, one of the first British explorers to ever see these structures. The tour includes 360-photos of the present-day site and old black-and-white photos of the same structures taken by Maudslay in 1891. It was a sunny day when they took the photos of the Temple of the Inscriptions, home of the tomb of the most famous Maya ruler, Pakal, and of the longest hieroglyphic inscription found in the Maya world. The tour also took me through the ballcourt.

Learning about the Hieroglyphic Stairway of Palenque, one of the most famous Maya artifacts

My favorite part of this virtual visit is the piece about the Hieroglyphic stairway, presented by the British Museum. You’ll even learn to read the glyphs and the passages written on the stairway, relating to the reign of King Pakal.

They present photos of the hieroglyphic stairway, highlighting the text you’ll learn to decipher. Other photos showcase the famous tablet from the Temple of the Inscriptions, the longest Maya hieroglyphic text found so far. Through these texts you’ll learn about the history of Palenque during the reign of its most famous ruler, Pacal.

A Virtual Tour of the Palace

The virtual tour of the Palace showcases photos and videos from inside the Palace today and photos taken by Maudslay in 1891. The difference gives you an idea of how much work went into reconstructing the structure.

The Group of the Cross Temples

Finally, you can even explore the Group of the Cross Temples, including the Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Foliated Cross, and the prettiest small temple of the Maya world, the Temple of the Sun.

Besides the tour, which includes photos from both present-day and from Maudslay, you’ll find 3-D images of all three temples.

Explore More of the Maya World with Google Arts and Culture

Though it started with Palenque, the Google Arts and Culture site has more stories and sites to help you explore the ancient Maya world virtually.

The stories range from tours of the sites and certain objects, life in the ancient world, and the modern-day Maya. They also have stories about the early explorers who first set eyes on the abandoned ruins and about the preservation of these sites.

After reading a few of these stories, and watching videos, I set off on a virtual visit to another major site, Chichen Itza.

Virtual Travel to Chichen Itza

Pyramid of Kukulcan. Chichen Itzá
Chichen Itzá. The Pyramid of Kukulcan.

I would’ve been surprised if Google Arts and Culture didn’t offer a virtual visit to Chichen Itza, the most popular Maya site. Their virtual tour starts at the Grand Plaza with the Pyramid of Kukulcan in its center. It then takes you on a walk to the Sacred Cenote. From there, it follows the path back to the Temple of the Warriors.

From there, you’ll walk to the Osario Complex, an older part of the city. This area looks like a smaller version of the Grand Plaza, and the Ossuary, seems to be a mini-version of the Castillo.

As you keep walking, you’ll reach the Caracol, or the Observatory, one of the most famous buildings in Chichen Itza. Finally, you’ll walk around the Painted House and the Nunnery Complex.

You’ll also have a chance to visit the great Ballcourt, the largest in Mesoamerica. You’ll learn about the ballgame of the ancient Maya on this narrated virtual tour.

If you want to keep exploring, you can take a virtual tour of the Temple of the Jaguars, decorated with some of the pretties reliefs and paintings at the site.

Other Ways to Experience Ancient Maya Sites When You Can’t Travel

If you want to explore more than the major sites, take a virtual tour of Kohunlich, one of the lesser-known Maya sites in Quintana Roo. I just visited the site during my last trip to the area, and the virtual tour brought me back. Drag to look around, and move through all the structures at the site.

You can read books about the ancient Maya, from some of the first travel books written in the 19th century to studies by some of the leading Mayanists of today, and fiction stories.

Or, you can watch documentaries, like Breaking the Maya Code, based on Michael D. Coe’s book with the same title. You can rent it, or stream it for free from Kanopy, the public library’s online system.

The virtual tours, books, and movies can’t replace a visit to any of the archaeological sites. Still, I felt they were worth my time. I enjoyed revisiting the sites virtually, and I even learned a few facts I didn’t know or have forgotten.

About the Author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

Scroll to Top