I’d been dreaming of visiting Mexico – the Yucatán Peninsula and its intriguing Maya ruins to be precise – since I was a little kid and couldn’t be happier when I hit the ‘Book’-button on one of those flight search engines in order to confirm my trip in December 2012. After spending a vast amount of my free time in the following months with planning and arranging my journey of 2 weeks it was finally time to interrupt the freezing European winter and to discover the relics of the glorious days of the Yucatán’s native inhabitants.
It is assumed that there are about 70.000 (!) Maya ruins spread all over southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras and the great majority is yet to be discovered! During my trip I had the chance to visit the following five sites, each of them revealing their very own magic:
1. Ek Balam
Ek Balam (meaning ‘glorious jaguar’ in Mayan), a rather smallish site covering an area of 1 km² which was inhabited from 700 to 1000 AD, is located in the bush some 25 kilometres north of Valladolid. Fortunately, despite being reachable in the course of a daytrip from Cancún, it’s not (yet) well-known and thus less frequented than the major ruins like Chichén Itzá or Tulúm. It was discovered by the Spanish back in the 16th century and is nowadays perfectly maintained.
The main attraction of Ek Balam is hands down the stucco front with its magnificent pattern and spectacular three-dimensional sculptures, which can be found on the stairs of the main pyramid. The latter is still accessible and has a height of 30 m. Don’t let the extremely steep stairs keep you from climbing it; the view up there is simply priceless!
2. Chichén Itzá
Chichén Itzá, undoubtedly the most famous Maya ruin and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, can be reached in approximately 45 minutes from Valladolid. Make sure to arrive early (8-9 AM) in order to avoid the crowds brought over by innumerable coaches from Cancún. Chichén Itzá is estimated to have been inhabited between the 8th and 11th century AD and has a total size of 8 km². The most important buildings at Chichén Itzá are the world-famous Kukulkán pyramid, the Great Ball Court where the Mayas used to play the Mesoamerican ballgame ‘Juego de Pelota’, the ‘Temple of the Warriors’ with its Group of a Thousand Columns, the ‘Cenote Sagrado’, a perfectly circular waterhole where the gruesome sacrifices where held, and ‘El Caracol’, one of the rare round buildings in Mayan architecture which is theorized to have been an observatory for astronomical events.
Uxmál, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, can be found about 80 km southwest of Mérida – the capital of the state of Yucatán – and (together with Chichén Itzá) represents one of the most important Maya sites of the Yucatán Peninsula. Its period of glory is assumed to have been between the 8th and 10th century when roughly 20.000 inhabitants populated the ancient city. I was mesmerized by the 38 m tall ‘Pyramid of the Magician’ with its oval ground-plan, which happens to be unique in Mayan architecture! During my visit I also discovered the Great Pyramid (which is 30 m tall and still climbable), the ball court, the ‘Governor’s Palace’ which, with its splendid frieze and perfect proportions, is told to be the most outstanding Mayan building there is, and much more.
One last fun fact on Uxmál: hundreds of iguanas of all sizes populate the site, so keep your eyes open while wandering around.
Calakmul, a very remote UNESCO World Heritage Site located right in the heart of the jungle and merely 30 km away from the Guatemalan border, was by far my favorite ruin. In order to get there you’ll either need to rent a car or take a taxi (though I recommend the former), since there’s no public transport available. The day before we spent the night in Campeche, a charming colonial city on the Gulf coast of Mexico, and from there it took us around 5 hours to reach the site.
Some facts and figures about Calakmul: Together with Tikal (located 100 km south in today’s Guatemala) it represented the most important and at the same time the biggest city in Mayan history! The site covers an area of approximately 25 km² (!), where archaeologists found more than 6000 buildings and structures. It is estimated that 60.000 – 100.000 inhabitants once populated the ancient city.
A must-do when visiting Calakmul is climbing the 53 m tall pyramid ‘Estructura II’ – reaching the top and looking at the endless jungle around you will be an unforgettable experience! While strolling through the paths, I encountered different kinds of monkeys, peacocks and armadillos. Rumour has it there even exist jaguars, but (un)fortunately I didn’t bump into one of them.
Tulúm represents the only Maya site located directly on the shore and in addition receives the most visitors of all the ruins! The ancient city was mainly populated between the 12th and 14th century AD and contains about 50 buildings (temples, palaces and houses). Although they are architecturally not as interesting as the ones in Uxmál or Ek Balam, the spot itself absolutely enchanted me with its breathtaking surroundings.
When visiting the ruins, the same rule as in Chichén Itzá applies – if possible, go there first thing in the morning, as huge amounts of tourists arrive at around 10 AM.
Tulúm is considered to be one of the most stunning beaches in the world, so make sure you bring a towel and soak up the sun on the white sand!
In conclusion, the Yucatán Peninsula not only captivates with its Maya ruins, but also with its friendly and helpful inhabitants, its National Parks such as Celestún or Sian Ka’an, its mind-blowing turquoise Caribbean sea, the beautiful Cenotes and much more, so go book your flight there and do it now! I might just do the same.
This is a guest post by Sarah Rainer.
Sarah Rainer is a 24-year-old travel/fashion/