While there is little debate that the Mayans had an amazing knowledge of numbers and astronomy, many of us hope their calculations regarding December 2012 being the end of the world are a bit off. However, if there are only a few months left, we should pay our respects to the civilization that gave us the "heads up."
Although many travelers are satisfied with visiting the more accessible and well-known Chichén Itzá and Tikal, Virtual Tourist members always strive for the more off-the-beaten path and unique spots. With this in mind, the members and editors of VirtualTourist.com compiled a list of the "Top Ten Less Crowded Mayan Ruins and Sites." It should be noted that Mayan ruins can only be found in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador.
1. Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico
One of the most important cities of Mayan civilization, Calakmul was once home to more than 50,000 inhabitants. Though the city's timeline goes as far back as the Preclassic period (300 B.C. to 240 A.D.), its golden age was in the Classic period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.), when it served as Tikal's main rival and battled for dominance of the central Mayan area. Many visitors might focus on the 6,000 structures within the city, but it's equally important to experience the surrounding Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, which encompasses over 723,000 hectares (292,594 acres) of protected land and wildlife. While the reserve is a paradise for bird watching, the site itself is a hotbed of stelae, or stone monuments, often in the form of a high-relief sculpture, that were popular and characteristic of the Mayan civilization. 117 stelae have been discovered at Calakmul so far, more than any other Mayan site, and all of them from the Classic period.
2. Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico
Palenque was the most important city of the low western lands during the late Classic period, reaching its peak between 600 and 800 A.D. Along with Tikal and Calakmul, it was one of the most powerful Classic Mayan cities, as well as the seat of the distinguished Pakal dynasty. Much of the architecture (tilted facades on the buildings, stucco-sections) is unique and uncharacteristic of the time period; it has become a real hot spot for archeological research interested in architecture and written language. One of the most notable aspects of Palenque is Temple XIII, where the Tomb of the Red Queen was found in 1994. This tomb is significant because it share the same platform as the Temple of the Inscriptions, suggesting nobility; the remains found are referred to as "the Red Queen" because the tomb was entirely covered in red cinnabar. A VirtualTourist member suggested getting to the park early in the morning, since the morning mist is great for photographs, and the site's location in southern Mexico means very hot afternoons.
3. Yaxchilán, Chiapas, Mexico
Located on the Usumacinta River, Yaxchilán is a great example of the Usumacinta style that dominated the Classic Mayan of the Low Lands from 250-900 A.D., with architecture adorned in epigraphic inscriptions and extensive relief sculpture. The city was allied with Tikal, and had a major battle with Palenque, which seems ironic according to a modern map since Palenque is in both the same state and nation as Yaxchilán and Tikal is across the border in Guatemala. The city exhibits strategic planning,as it was built on a peninsula formed by a bend in the Usumacinta River. Even today, Yaxchilán can only be accessed by lancha (small boat) up the river. For those adventurous enough to make the trip, keep an eye out for the image of Bird Jaguar which can be found throughout the site, particularly on stelae standing over the plaza and on the staircase.
4. Campeche's Edzná, Mexico
Despite being one of the most significant Mayan ruins, Edzná receives fewer visitors in a year than Chichén Itzá does in a day. The city's architecture reflects an amalgamation of differing cities and influences, including roof styles and corbeled arches from Palenque and giant stone masks of the Petén style found in Tikal. Founded around 400 B.C., the city reached its peak during the late Classic period, with a gradual decline beginning around 1000 and its abandonment in 1450.
Since the city was located in a valley, it had frequent flooding problems, which caused the creation of a complex network of canals. The canals were used for trade and transportation, as well as defense, and gave the city an agricultural edge over other cities in the region.
5. Ek Balam
Ek Balam, which means "black jaguar" in the Yucatec Maya language, is one of the few Mayan settlements that remained occupied until the arrival of the Spaniards. While not the hardest site to get to (it's in the Yucatan), it is under active restoration, so visitors can get a great overview of the entire archaeological process. Ek Balam is also not nearly as crowded as other notable Yucatan Mayan sites, such as Chichén Itza and Uxmal. One unique aspect of this site is the 100-foot El Torre (or Acropolis) pyramid, which easily surpasses Chichén Itza's El Castillo; visitors can still scale El Torre today. Once climbers reach the top, they can see both Chichén Itza and Coba in the distance!
6. Quiriguá, Guatemala
Quiriguá (pronounced Kiri-gua) is a relatively small site, almost directly across the border from Honduras' Copán. Strategically located on the Montagua River trade route, which was important for the transport of jade and obsidian, it was also originally a vassal of Copán. However, Quiriguá rebelled and defeated Copán, then allied itself with Calakmul, after which it erected elaborate stone monuments in a style similar to that of Copán. In fact, one of the monuments at Quiriguá, known as "Stele E," is the largest known quarried stone in the Maya world, standing 35 feet (10.6 m) tall and depicting a Mayan lord over three times life size.
VirtualTourist members suggest crossing the border and also visiting Copán, since the two sites share so much history and Copán had such a large cultural influence in the Classic period. The must-see highlight at Copán is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, which contains more than 1,800 individual glyphs, making it the longest known Mayan hieroglyphic text.
7. El Mirador, Guatemala
Deep in Guatemala's Petén jungle, El Mirador hides under 2,000 years' worth of jungle overgrowth. Though the well-known Classical Maya ruins in Tikal National Park are frequently visited, the largest Preclassic Mayan city is much more difficult to access. El Mirador is actually over twice the size of Tikal, with over 80,000 people residing at the site from 300 B.C. to 150 A.D. The grandeur and size of the site suggest that there were already complex state societies in the Late Preclassic period, contrary to the popular thought that the Preclassic period was a formative period. El Mirador is only accessibly by foot, horse, mule, or helicopter, lying over 60km from the nearest road. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the site is difficult to access, this does not protect it from being endangered - deforestation, looting, logging and drug trafficking all threaten the site and its surrounding rainforest. Among the sites many highlights is the Danta Pyramid, the tallest pyramid in the Maya region and the largest in the world, measuring 300m wide by 800m long and 72m high (984 feet wide by 2,625 feet long and 236 feet high).
8. Lamanai, Orange Walk, Belize
Lamanai, the Mayan word for "submerged crocodile," was aptly named. Not only do crocodiles appear in the site's effigies and decorations, but you are likely to see crocodiles while trying to get there. In order to reach the site, you must take a small boat up the winding New River through the tropical rainforest of central Belize. Lamanai was one of the longest continuously occupied cities, starting in 500 B.C. to 1675 A.D. or even later, probably due to its strategic location on the trade route of the New River. The most notable among this site's ruins is the Mask Temple at the northern end of the complex. A VirtualTourist member mentioned that this temple was actually built in five construction phases, lasting from 100 B.C. to 900 A.D. It is also interesting to note that the facial features of the masks are clearly related to the Olmec, the first major civilization in Mexico, particularly in the upper lip and wider nose.
9. Caracol, Cayo District, Belize
Once you turn off the main road, it will take you over two hours by 4-wheel drive to arrive at Caracol, but VirtualTourist members promise it is worth the trip! Despite being located along the Guatemalan border and about 80 km (50 miles) from the nearest town of San Ignacio, there are 11 causeways into Caracol, signifying the importance of transportation routes throughout the site. Additionally, the excavation data collected in Caracol suggests that the social organization of the settlement included not only elites and specialists living in the urban centers with peasants living on the peripheral, but also a sizable "middle class." There is also evidence of artesian specialization, similar to the guilds found in the European Middle Ages, making this site a very unique find and of great anthropological significance.
10. Joya de Ceren, La Libertad Dept, El Salvador
Joya de Cerén is a Pre-Columbian site in El Salvador that preserves the daily life of the indigenous settlements prior to the Spanish conquest. Often referred to as the "Pompeii of the Americas," Joya de Cerén was buried under ashes of a violent volcanic eruption, therein preserving evidence of the lifestyle and activities of a Mesoamerican farming community around 6th century A.D. This site is unique in that it is still being excavated today, and since excavation was halted for much of the 1980s it is highly likely that middle-aged and older travelers have not had the opportunity to visit these ruins. Visiting Joya de Cerén can easily be combined with visiting San Andrés, a nearby site whose findings suggest it had strong contacts with both Copán and Teotihuacán.
While Chichén Itza and Tulum are the more famous Mayan sites, VirtualTourist members know that Mayan secrets can also be found among the lesser-known ruins preserved by volcanic ash and jungle overgrowth. We hope our member's insights and the highlights from each site intrigue you enough to venture off the paved road and discover the Mayans while you still can!