The fascinating Maya civilization originated in the South and Central American regions, or present day nations of Southern Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Western Honduras. The Mayan culture is so rich, it has been studied extensively throughout the centuries.
The ancient Mayan Temples that were built during the classical period of the Pre-Columbian Civilizations, or 250-900 AD are still popular sites to visit today. Archeologists have been spending many years exploring the ruins those civilizations have built centuries ago and are still, in some cases and to some extent, almost intact today.
Due to natural erosion, soil exhaustion, water loss and earthquakes some temples are unfortunately not as well preserved.
A Brief History of the Mayan people
The Mayans were a community of inhabitants from Latin America that settled around 1800 B.C. They had their own traditions and way of life that makes them interesting to the rest of us. Even today, there are still around 7 million descendants of the Maya that still live their lives like their ancestors, with their customs and traditions and prefer to speak the Mayan language rather than Spanish.
Mexico is the largest site for ruins and archeological Mayan sites that have been excavated and opened to the public for visiting in the last few decades. It is very interesting to visit and learn a little about how the Mayans used to live, and what makes their civilization so unique.
The Mayans were agricultural by nature, and they harvested crops such as beans and maize. Throughout the years they have developed techniques that are considered quite sophisticated for their production, and they cleared out jungles for the expansion of their crops.
Very manual, spiritual and God fearing people, they worship more than 150 Gods, such as the God of Rain, for example.
They made some amazing strides in the areas of math and astronomy, and developed the Mayan Calendar, which is still referred to today. The original Mayan Empire, which was powerful at some point in history has been destroyed due to diseases and invasion from other peoples. Some of those temples have been ruined or even altogether wiped out, but the Mayan people still exist today.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the 15 most beautiful Mayan temples that you should totally see. There are probably thousands of temples worth discovering, but these are the most popular ones.
A large Mayan city that is located in Mexico, Coba was home to roughly 50,000 inhabitants. Its monuments were built between 500 and 900 AD, and some of its largest temples are Nohoch Mul, a pyramid that is close to 140 feet tall that visitors can climb.
The massive site still sits amid the jungle, and archeologists managed to restore only small portions of it. It covers about 80 square miles and it features five large lakes. Although it is not one of the most popular tourist destinations, for those with a vivid imagination it is still worth exploring.
14. Ek Balam
Ek Balam, or Black Jaguar in Mayan, is best known for the preservation of the King Ukit Kan Lek Tok’s tomb, which is buried in the largest pyramid. The city contains 45 structures enclosed by walls that are part of the ruins in the Yucatan peninsula near Valladolid. The views from the top of the main pyramid are definitely a must see.
You can spend an entire day exploring the site, and feast your eyes on the beautiful works of art and the calligraphy that is still present on some walls of the buildings. Then you can have a dip in the XCanche sinkhole, which is filled with crystal clear fresh water.
13. Templo Mayor
Located in Mexico City, Templo Mayor, or The Greater Temple, was considered the center of the Mayas’ universe at some point. It is part of the Tenochtitlan and historically it was dedicated to the Gods of War and of Rain and Agriculture. That is the site where the human sacrifices to those Gods were done, as well as many coronations of their kings.
The ruins are located near a cathedral, and it is believed that the cathedral was built using stones from the temple. The temple itself was excavated and it is still going through seven phases of rebuilding. Their on-site museum is a must-see for anyone who goes to Mexico City.
Situated on the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, Tulum once served as a major port for the Mayan city of Coba. It used to be a major trading center between the 11th and 16th centuries. Because it was built in 1200 AD, around the time the empire was starting to already be in decline, it lacks the grandiosity and elegance of some of the more famous sites.
However, the breathtaking tropical beach backdrop makes it still worth a visit. The Temple of the Frescoes houses some of the most beautiful painted murals, so it’s really a must-see if you’re planning to spend your summer vacation in Tulum.
Located in the western side of the Yucatan Peninsula near Mexican city of Merida, Uxmal, which means “built three times”, is a set of Mayan ruins that were once a great religious city. The Mayan high priests used to perform ceremonies as well as sacrifices perched high on the religious buildings of Uxmal.
Mayan priests used to practice astrology as well, and they used their knowledge to track the cycles of the moon and the stars. Legend says the Pyramid of the Magician was built overnight due to challenges a dwarf received from the king of Uxmal.
Nestled outside Mexico City, these impressive ruins are primarily Aztec, but the mix of culture is apparent in its design. The city’s rich history that can be learned from the artifacts and the items found from the city ruins point to a mix of Mayan elite. Its main attraction is the Pyramid of the Moon. Within those digs archeologists found remains of animals and humans that were sacrificed as a ritual to their Gods.
When in the area today, there is The Citadel, a large plaza surrounded by temples, The Avenue of the Dead, where the road aligns with the setting sun once during the year, as well as the Pyramids of the Sun as main attractions to visit.
For a change of scenery, Lamanai is located in northern Belize, and it was considered a fairly large Mayan city. In Mayan, Lamanai means “submerged crocodile”, a tribute to the reptiles that inhabit the banks of the river, and it is one of the few sites that still kept their original name.
Until the 1970s the majority of the site remained unexcavated, but since then archeologists started restoring the larger structures, such as High Temple, Jaguar Temple, and Mask Temple. From atop the High Temple, which sits at 108 feet tall, you can enjoy views of the jungle and the nearby lagoon.
The largest Mayan site of Belize, Caracol sits 1650 feet above sea level on the Vaca Plateau. It spreads over 65 square miles, and around 650 AD it reached its peak of inhabitants, counting almost double of Belize’s city population today, at 150,000 people. Canaa, or rightly called, Sky Place, is the tallest man-made structure in all of Belize, standing at 143 feet.
Built in 330 AD, it became one of the most important political centers of the Mayan empire through 600-800 AD. When visiting, you can climb their majestic temples to get a peak at the view of the Chiquibul forest reserve.
Well known for their series of portrait stelae, Copan is a pretty small Mayan city located in western Honduras. Their remarkable stelae and sculptures that are decorating the buildings in Copan are some of the most fascinating art that survived the era of the ancient Mesoamerica. The ruins of Copan feature large open plazas, among which sit many monoliths and altars.
The Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza is where you can find the longest Mayan inscription, which is made up from 1800 glyphs. Temple 16 is an ancient Mayan temple that sits 100 feet above the city’s Great Plaza, which is the world’s biggest archaeological digs.
These spectacular ruins are some of the most visited sights in Costa Maya and because they are surrounded by jungle, you might even get to see armadillos, pumas or spider monkeys while visiting this unique place. The downside is that only part of the site is open to the public, but that’s because some of the temples are still under restoration and not quite ready to accept visitors, but it is still worth a visit.
The city was considered as the center of ceremonies for the Mayans, and it was the largest community back in 360 AD. The main attraction is the Gran Basamento, Maya’s important ritual plaza.
5. Monte Alban
Back over the Mexican side, Monte Alban was one of the first pre-Colombian cities. Founded around 500 BC, the city was supported through agriculture throughout the centuries. It is located in the southern state of Oaxaca, and the site remained inhabited for about 13 centuries.
Due to its major historical influence, it is now a UNESCO world heritage site. Monte Alban is a popular tourist destination, and many of its attractions have surprisingly remained intact. The astronomical observatory, palaces, tombs and temples are all open to visitors, as well as a historical ball court where games of Ollama ( a sort of football) were hosted back in those times.
If you prefer to be away from lots of tourists, this is the perfect site for you to explore for a full day undisturbed. The Mayan ruins of Calakmul are located in the heart of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a huge jungle near the border of Guatemala that has protected wildlife such as jaguars and howler monkeys.
The ruins are home to two massive pyramids, as well as an extensive system of water reservoirs. When you visit you are allowed to climb atop these structures and feast your eyes on the lush tropical forests, expansive central plaza and the multiple palaces.
Located in the present-day state of Chiapas, Mexico, Palenque is also a UNESCO heritage site today, surrounded by forests and wildlife. Most of their structures date back from 600 to 800 AD, including the Temple of Inscriptions. It is the only Mesoamerican pyramid that was built by King Pakal’s first son as a funerary monument, which is what makes it so special.
The king’s tomb is located in the temple, and the humidity in the burial chamber is so intense the walls literally drip water, so visitors cannot enter it without special permission. Although one of the smallest Mayan cities, it should not get overlooked, because it offers some of the best architecture and sculptures the Mayan culture has to offer.
Located in Guatemala’s Peten basin and the Tikal National Park in northern Guatemala, Tikal is one of the largest Mayan settlements in Mesoamerica. Once called Yax Mutal when it was thriving, it is home to the Great Plaza, which is surrounded by two majestic temple-pyramids.
A breathtaking site all around, it has many restored buildings that are scattered a bit over the area, but there are many more ruined buildings that are hidden by the jungle. Their six largest temple pyramids offer you a great experience, especially if you climb the largest one which is around 230 feet tall. The views from above the treetops are truly panoramic.
1. Chichen Itza
Last but not least, Chichen Itza is most definitely the greatest and most popular Mayan city in Mexico. It is most likely the most visited Mayan site in the entire world, that’s why it has been also named a New Wonder of the World. One of the phenomena that attracts most of the tourists is the bi-annual equinox. When the sun is setting, it creates shadows on the pyramid steps which resemble the body of a serpent.
The other highlight is the mighty Kukulkan Pyramid, which, at 75 feet tall, was built as a monument for astronomical and sacrificial purposes. Nicknamed El Castillo, the most spectacular temple which has 91 steps on each staircase on each side of the pyramid for a total of 365 with the shared step at the top. Unfortunately it doesn’t allow tourists to climb it anymore after a deadly incident in 2006.
These are the most beautiful Mayan temples we think you should totally visit when you’re wondering those parts of the world. It is always interesting to see some of the most mesmerizing structures of the world with your own eyes and immerse yourself in history and culture!