The Mayan Civilisation is a source of great intrigue for visitors to southern Mexico. Flourishing during the Golden Age between 250 AD and 900 AD, before the civilisation diminished for reasons still unknown, the Mayans constructed impressive temples – without any metal tools or pack animals – which can still be seen today. Marvel at these archaeological sites and imagine the buildings as they would have been over a thousand years ago: painted in vibrant red, yellow and blue, and to really get a feel for the place, visit in low season when there are fewer crowds.
The most impressive of all relics from the Mayan civilisation is Chichén Itzá, home to the famous temple familiarly known as El Castillo which is instantly recognisable with its perfectly symmetrical pyramid shape. There are 91 steps on each face, plus five at the top, totalling 365 steps to equal the number of days in a year. This majestic temple holds special astronomical significance: designed precisely so that, on the equinox of spring and autumn, the sun sets over the 91 steps in such a way that creates a shadow in the shape of a serpent in honour of the Mayan God, Kukulcan – or ‘feathered serpent’. Another Mayan gem in the Yucatán is Uxmal, whose Pyramid of the Magician reflects the Mayans’ knowledge of astronomy: it is aligned in accordance with the planet Venus, and its stairwell, climbing 115 ft, aligns perfectly with the setting sun on the summer solstice.
One of Mexico’s most recognised ruin sites is Tulum, with its unrivalled clifftop position overlooking the glittering Caribbean Sea. Built at a slightly later date of around 1200 AD, the ruins themselves are not as spectacular as other Mayan accomplishments – the post-Classic design does not quite rival that of Palenque, for example – but its setting is simply breathtaking, and it’s within easy reach from your luxury hotel in the Mayan Riviera, too. Tulum was the major port for nearby Coba, nestled further inland and at one point home to around 50,000 inhabitants. Coba is comprised of various temple pyramids, the tallest of which soars 138 ft towards the sky.
Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas, is peppered with eerie Mayan ruins that emerge ethereally from a backdrop of dense, emerald jungles. The most visited of all is Palenque, ensconced in the northern reaches of this vast and verdant state, which displays an impressive collection of Mayan structures that date back to 600 AD and arguably some of the finest sculptures of all. Over towards the Guatemalan border, Yaxchilán sits enthroned by the Usumacinta River, shrouded in swathes of green jungle. Once you’ve taken the boat ride down the river to reach this architectural marvel, examine the distinctive roofcombs, lintels and ornamented facades that characterise Yaxchilán; many of whose carvings depict conquests and ceremonies.
The realm of the Mayan Civilisation extended far beyond Mexico’s borders, into what was once Mesoamerica – known to us today as Central America. There are incredible relics of Mayan architecture across these countries, so why not incorporate them into a multi-stop holiday? We recommend Tikal in neighbouring Guatemala, or Carocol in Belize.