With 2012 upon us, and with it the reported destruction of the universe, all things Mayan are the “It” thing. Heading to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador or Belize to check out the remnants of what was once an incredibly advanced and sophisticated society, before the shit goes down? We got along to a substantial amount of Mayan ruins on our past trip, with archaeologist Jess leading the way and enthused novice Jamie pumping out the questions. From our experiences, we put together a bit of a list detailing some of the major sites that should help you out in choosing which ones to get along to. Part 1 in this series covers some of the main sites in Mexico. This is by no means a complete list, but hopefully it gives you a bit of an idea of where to start!!
Chichen Itza – Yucatan
As one of the new “seven wonders of the world”, this is probably the best known of all Mayan sites. It is this popularity though that kind of diminishes the experience. Tour groups bus in and out of Chichen Itza like it is some sort of weird Disneyland without the rides. To preserve the temples and other structures, almost everything is roped off (understandably). However, my major problem with it is that it is extremely poorly signed. There are only very brief descriptions at the bases of temples describing what is inside or on top. No photos or replicas to at least give you a sense of what you are missing. Enough focus on the negatives. You don’t become a new wonder of the world for no reason. The main temple at Chichen Itza is off the charts. The shadow representing a snake winding down the stairs on the equinoxes is a truly amazing feat of engineering. The size of the ball court is astonishing. It’s hard to imagine anyone actually playing a game there. If you choose to visit Chichen Itza, be sure to arrive early to beat the rush as well as the hassle from the vendors.
HOT TIP: This site will be a mecca for tourism on the 21st of December. It always attracts a crowd on this day to witness the snake slithering on the stairs, but for 2012 it will be something else. Might be a good place to say goodbye!
SECONDARY HOT TIP: In order to get there early, stay the night in the nearby town of Piste. There are some cheap hotels and you can walk there in the morning instead of bussing in.
EXTRA SPECIAL BONUS THIRD HOT TIP: Skip the light show, it sucks.
Coba – Quintana Roo
Coba is not too far from Tulum, and can easily be seen in a day trip from the city. Its spanse is immense. Expect to walk kilometres upon kilometres if you want to see it all. Alternatively, you can catch a bike taxi, or even hire your own on site. The highlight of Coba is the height of the main temple, and the fact that you can still climb it. Although, this might not be for too much longer. It is a pretty steep staircase, and not for the faint of heart. It can also be embarrassing when a 5 year old jogs past your struggling arse. The other attraction of Coba is that many of its structures seem to be one with the jungle. Trees grow and roots growing from their bounds. Definitely Indiana Jones/Lara Croft worthy.
HOT TIP: Pack water, and good hiking boots. More than most other sites, you are definitely going to need them.
Tulum – Quintana Roo
The obvious highlight of Tulum is that it is built atop a cliff that overlooks a Caribbean sea of paradise. The buildings themselves aren’t too impressive, almost appearing as they were built in a rush. There are, however, some intricate and well preserved, paintings on one of the structures in particular. Tulum is also a popular spot for the tour buses to roll in, so be sure to get there early.
HOT TIP: Tulum is hot, and there just happens to be a pristine beach right there. Bring your togs (Australian for bathers) and cool down after your morning visit. Plenty of cold beers to be enjoyed along the beach as well.
Calakmul – Campeche
One of the most important of all the Mayan cities, Calakmul is one not to miss for the keen adventurer. It is not on the tourist trail, making it a bit of an effort to get to. This, however, is its blessing as well. We arrived super early, before anyone else was there, even the archaeologists. We had the place to ourselves, save for the wild turkeys, boars, toucans and maybe a jaguar or two that we didn’t quite see. It was pretty epic to be able to walk around this site, up and down the temples and through the jungle without anyone else around. Getting to Calakmul is a little expensive, with a taxi or hire car being the only ways. So, at this stage, it only attracts the hardcores.
HOT TIP: We went during “mosquito season”. It was ridiculous. Cover as much skin as possible, even if it is hot. Trust us, you will not regret it when you have to breaststroke through a sea of everyone’s most hated little biter.
SECONDARY HOT TIP: Stay overnight in Xpujil, about a 60 kilometre ride away. From there you will be able to catch a taxi in. Get some other people interested so you can split the cost.
Xpuhil and Becan – Campeche
I grouped these two sites together since they are pretty damn close. If you visit Calakmul, you will most likely stay in Xpujil. The Xpuhil site is in the town of Xpujil itself, and Becan just a couple of kilometres down the road. They are both really great sites, and probably should get a little more recognition. The highlight of Becan is a painted stucco mask on the side of one of the temples that was only discovered a few years ago. While it is kind of hidden behind some foggy Perspex, you can still make out its magnificence. As for Xpuhil (damn, I love the name of that site), if you look around a bit you can find a staircase on one of the towers of the three-towered structure that leads right through its middle.
HOT TIP: If you see Calakmul, take the extra time to check out these two sites as well. They are definitely worth it, and you will more than likely be the only one there. One more time, XPUHIL!!
Palenque – Chiapas
For us, this was one of the favourites. The setting of the site is mind-blowing in itself, deep within the jungle, the flowing rivers, the waterfalls and the monkeys. Then the temples standing amongst all that! Not to mention a museum that contains, amongst other things, the jade mask of Pakal and a replica of his massive tomb. You can climb most of the temples around Palenque, except for the one that contained Pakal’s tomb. The paintings and reliefs that are at the tops are roped off, but you can still get a very close look at them. There are a LOT of temples, we were stuffed by the end of the day.
HOT TIP: You can’t swim in the rivers by the site, trust me you will be tempted to break that rule. Just outside though there is a thin track that leads to a small waterfall. Maybe ask around as to its whereabouts. A great way to end what will be an exhausting day.
SECONDARY HOT TIP: While the town of Palenque doesn’t deserve the pretty bad reputation it gets, it is still worth staying in the jungle. El Panchan is located about halfway between the town of Palenque and the ruins themselves, deep in the thick of it all. There you will find a host of places to stay and some delicious food, Don Mucho’s pizza in particular. Just jump in a taxi or a colectivo from the town to get there, its super easy.
Uxmal – Yucatan
Pretty unlike us, we decided to skip this site. Looking back on it now, I think we regret it a bit. It is not too far from Chichen Itza, but since is a lot less popular for visitors. From all reports, and from looking at a ton of photos, it is yet another special site. Its highlight looks to be the Aldivino, or Magician’s Temple, unique that it has rounded sides. Uxmal was built with more care than other Mayan sites, so remains in very good condition comparatively.
HOT TIP: If you are going to Chichen Itza, go to Uxmal as well. Else, you will end up like us in regretting your decision.
Check back over the coming days for the sites of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize.