December 21, 2012 marks the winter solstice, an auspicious day for the ancient Maya and one associated with the end of a cycle in the Mayan calendar, a complex system of interlocking calendar wheels or periods, which recorded time as far back as a year equivalent to 3114 B.C. in the Gregorian calendar, and stretches many thousands of years into the future. Mayan scholars tell us that the day that the thirteenth b’aktun or 394-year cycle in the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar ends and a new one begins is actually December 23.
Let us put aside once and for all the prophecies of cataclysms that many doomsayers have touted on the Internet, the end of this period is not the end of all things, far from it. It is the dawn of a new era – a chance for a fresh beginning, a time for reflection and renewal. It is a time for heightened consciousness about the fragility of our planet and for us to come together to protect and cherish it and work for peace and positive change in our lives and the world during the fourteenth b’aktun.
It is also a time to visit the treasures of the Maya World and to marvel at the art, architecture and astronomical achievements of the civilization that once dominated southeast Mexico and Central America from 1,800 B.C. until the coming of the Spaniards in the 16th century. The Maya are still a thriving population today, six million strong–one million of them in the Yucatan, keepers of the old ways and proud of their heritage.
Here is a short guide to some of the major archaeological sites in the states of Yucatán and Quintana Roo to get you started and there are many more. What are you waiting for? Start exploring!
Two and a half hours from Cancun, the ancient capital of the Itzae Maya, Chichén Itzá is the most famous city in the Yucatán. It was once a major power and a sacred center where rulers and astronomers once watched the heavens for portents. A masterpiece of architecture and art, the city still has an aura of power and mystery.
Archaeologists have found fragments of pottery in Chichén Itzá indicating that there was a settlement at the site as far back as 300 B.C., although it wasn’t until the Late Classic period A.D. 750-900 that the first stone temples and palaces were built and the city began to expand. At the height of its glory A.D. 800-1150, Chichén Itzá controlled the Yucatán politically, commercially and militarily. Its power began to wane around 1150 and by 1250 the city had been abandoned.
The principal buildings are the Pyramid of Kukulcán (El Castillo), the Observatory, Temple of the Warriors, Ball Court, Temple of the Jaguars, Tzompantli and the Las Monjas complex. A short walk from the central square is the Sacred Well, a huge cenote, which was the site of sacrifices to Chaac, the rain god.
The Pyramid of Kukulcán is a solar clock. It is so precisely aligned that during the Spring and Fall Equinoxes (March 21 and September 21), the north face of the pyramid catches the rays of the setting sun and triangles of light and shadow form along the staircase, creating the illusion of a gigantic serpent, Kukulcán (the feathered serpent god) returning to earth to rejoin his followers.
The magnificent buildings we see today have earned Chichén Itza a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing.
A 30-minute drive north of Valladolid is the ancient city of Ek Balam, “black jaguar or star jaguar” in Maya. The city flourished between A.D. 250-1200 and its crowning glory is the façade on the upper level of the Acropolis, the principal building, which features the magnificent stucco figure of an ancient lord thought to be the first ruler of the city and founder of a powerful dynasty. The figure’s ornate feathered headdress resembles wings and led many people to refer to him as “el angel” or the angel.
An hour’s drive from Mérida, Uxmal is one of the loveliest ancient cities in the Maya World. During the Late Classic period (A.D. 600-900), it was a regional capital, controlling southwest Yucatán and a chain of smaller cities referred to as the Puuc Route: Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná.
Apart from location, these sites share a unique architectural and artistic style called Puuc. In recognition of their outstanding cultural worth, UNESCO declared them a World Heritage area in 1996.
Highlights at Uxmal are the Magician’s Pyramid, the Nuns’ Quadrangle, a gracious courtyard surrounded by four palace-like buildings with magnificent friezes, the Temple of the Birds, Palace of the Governor and the adjoining Great Pyramid, The House of the Turtles and El Palomar. “Uxmal” means “thrice built” in Maya.
Thirty minutes south of Uxmal, Kabah is the second largest site in the Puuc hills and was one of its vassals. It is famous for the Codz Poop, or the Palace of the Masks, a name that does justice to its magnificent façade consisting of 250 masks depicting Chaac, the Mayan rain god.
Seven kilometers south of Kabah is Sayil, which means
“place of the ants” in Maya. The principal building on site is the three-tiered Palace, a long building containing 94 chambers, porticos, columns, Chaac masks and sculptures of the descending or diving god, also seen in Tulum on the Caribbean coast.
The smallest of the Puuc Route sites, Xlapak is best known for the Palace, a tiny building covered with intricate carvings and masks depicting Chaac the rain god, in a forest clearing.
Ten kilometers to the east of Sayil, Labna is famous for its huge arch, which was the gateway between the ceremonial plaza and a courtyard surrounded by palaces in ancient times. The arch has an open work roof comb and its finely carved façade features Chaac masks, Mayan huts, nobles and geometric motifs.
Located 30 miles south of Merida, Mayapan was the last capital of the Maya in the Yucatan. Founded around A.D. 1250 during the post-Classic period of Mayan civilization, it was abandoned in 1450. Several of Mayapan’s most important buildings show similarities to those at Chichen Itza, leading archaeologists to speculate that it was settled by Maya from Chichen, which was abandoned around 1250.
Perched on a rock bluff overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, Tulum is one of the Maya World’s most spectacular sites. “Tulum” means “wall” in Maya, a reference to the sturdy stone barrier that protects it on three sides, the fourth being the sea, but in ancient times the city was known as Zama or Dawn.
An inscription on a stela or standing stone found at the site reveals that Tulum was inhabited as far back as A.D. 564 although it reached its peak during the Post-Classic period (1250–1521) as a port on the sea and land trade routes.
The principal building at Tulum is a temple known as El Castillo; other important groupings are the Temple of the Descending God, Temple of the Frescos and the House of the Columns.
From Tulum, visitors can head inland to the ancient city of Coba (25 miles/41 km from the coast), one of the Maya World’s largest archaeological sites.
Coba means “waters ruffled by the wind” in Maya and the pyramids and temples at this jungle site are clustered around four shallow lakes. The city reached its peak during the Mayan Classic period, A.D. 250-900, when it was an important trade center. Archaeologists believe that it may have had links with Tikal in Guatemala.
The principal buildings or groups at Coba are Nohoch Mul, at 42 meters, the tallest pyramid in the northern Yucatán, the Cobá group, La Iglesia (another pyramid), Las Pinturas, the Ball Court, Xaibe and the Macanxoc group which has nine circular altars and eight stelae.
Cobá is also famous for the sacbes or ceremonial Mayan roads that radiate from the heart of the city. The longest sacbe in the Maya World links the city with the site of Yaxuná, near Chichén Itzá and is 101 kilometers long.
A 20-minute drive south of Tulum, Muyil (also known as Chunyaxche) is located on the shores of a lagoon with the same name and is the largest of the 23 archaeological sites found to date in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
In ancient times Muyil was a trade enclave with links to cities deep in the Yucatan and ports along the Caribbean coast and in Central America. The Maya dredged and widened a natural canal running through the wetlands between the city and the sea to create a trade route for their canoes.
Climb the waterfront observation tower for a spectacular view of the jungle and the lagoons of northern Sian Ka’an.
Continue along Highway 307 and Chacchoben is the next archaeological site, look for the turn-off marked “Chacchoben” near the village of Limones.
Chacchoben, which means “red corn” in Maya, is the largest archaeological site found to date in central Quintana Roo. The buildings known as the Great Acropolis, the Vias and Group II have been restored and work is continuing at the site. Ceramic incense burners and traces of glyphs associated with time keeping, planets and the equinoxes and solstices point to its importance as a ceremonial center.
Archaeologists have discovered that Chacchoben was inhabited from around A.D. 200 and reached its peak in A.D. 700. It was abandoned and later resettled during the Post-Classic period. By studying the architectural style they deduced that it had links with cities in the Peten region of northern Guatemala.
Located on the shores of Chetumal Bay, 16 kilometers to the north of the state capital, the archaeological site of Oxtankah has temples dating from A.D 200-600 and much simpler later buildings built around AD 1000. The ruins of a Spanish chapel built some time during the 16th or 17th century, also lie on the site.
The most famous archaeological site in southern Quintana Roo, 60 kilometers to the west of Chetumal via Highway 186, Kohunlich was first reported in 1912 by Raymond Merwin. The name “Kohunlich” is derived from the English words “cohune,” a native palm tree, and “ridge.”
Excavation work has revealed that the city was founded around 200 B.C. and reached its peak during the Classic period of Mayan history (A.D. 200 – 1000). Building work appears to have ceased around 1200.
Kohunlich is famous for the huge stucco masks that flank the staircase of the Temple of the Masks. Archaeologists believe that they depict the city’s rulers who chose to identify themselves with the sun god, Kinich Ahau, to legitimize their rule. Other important groups of buildings are the Acropolis, the Courtyard of the Stelae, the Palace of the King, Merwin Plaza and the elite residential areas known as the 27 Steps Complex and Pixa’an.
Located in the jungle 81 kilometers northwest of Chetumal via Highway 186, Dzibanche is an ancient city that is still revealing its secrets. Discovered in 1927 by Thomas Gann, Dzibanche means “writing on wood” in Maya, a reference to the calendar inscriptions found on the carved lintel of zapote wood above the doorway to Temple VI.
Experts believe that Dzibanche was the largest and most important city in southern Quintana Roo in ancient times and may have been involved in a power struggle with other city-states in the region such as Calakmul in Campeche. The city reached its peak between A.D. 300 and 1200.
The most important groups of buildings are the Temple of the Lintels; the Gann Plaza, which is flanked by the Temples of the Cormorants, Captives and Toucans; Xibalba Plaza, the site of the Temple of the Owl and the North and South Palaces.
An outlying district of the city, Kinichna (“House of the Sun” in Maya) is located about two kilometers north of Dzibanche and is dominated by a temple called the Acropolis.
More Maya World Highlights
If you are planning a longer vacation why not venture further afield in the Maya World? Not to be missed are the archaeological sites of Edzná and Calakmul in Campeche. Calakmul is a huge ancient city and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the biosphere reserve of the same name, close to the Guatemalan border, that dominated a chain of lesser sites such as Xpuhil, Becan, Chicanna and Balamku, and struck fear into the hearts of rival rulers throughout the region.
The Gulf coast state of Tabasco is famous for Comalcalco, the only Mayan city built with clay bricks instead of stone, Pomoná and Tortuguero, where the fragment of a stela or standing stone with a carved inscription referring to December 21, 2012 and a vague reference to the return of a god – the only one found to date – was recovered.
Chiapas boasts some of the most beautiful and important Mayan cities that flourished during the Classic period or Golden Age of Mayan culture. The white city of Palenque, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is nestled in the forest-covered foothills of the Sierra Norte de Chiapas; Yaxchilán is on the shores of the Usumacinta River deep in the Lacandon Jungle and Bonampak is famous for the vivid murals showing scenes of courtly life, war, prisoners, rituals and sacrifice, that adorn three chambers in an ancient temple. Other archaeological sites in Chiapas include Toniná, Izapa, Chiapa de Corzo, Tenam Puente and Chinkultik.
Palenque – Photo by Ryan McFarland
Crossing international borders, more Mayan masterpieces await in Central America. Visit Lamanai, Altun Ha, Xunantunich and Caracol in Belize. The Petén region of northern Guatemala is peppered with archaeological sites, headed by Tikal, the largest city of them all. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is famous for its soaring twin temples topped with roof crests, and for the powerful dynasty that ruled it in ancient times. Other major Petén sites include El Mirador, Uaxactún, Yaxhá, Topoxte, Zotz, Ceibal, Dos Pilas, Altar de Sacrificios and Piedras Negras. Further south, Quiriguá is another UNESCO World Heritage Site with immense stelae (one of which is 33 feet high) that was at war with the nearby city of Copán in Honduras. Copán is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and through the patient study of the hieroglyphic inscriptions on stelae, temple walls and staircases, archaeologists have managed to identify long-lost rulers and chart their fortunes.
And of course, ancient pyramids, palaces and temples are only the beginning of the Maya World’s many attractions. Take the opportunity to meet the modern-day descendents of the temple builders by visiting their rural communities and learning about their daily lives and timeless traditions. Explore colonial cities such as Mérida, Valladolid, Izamal, Campeche and San Cristóbal de Las Casas and finally, revel in nature, as wonders are all around you. Visitors to the Maya World can dive the world’s second longest coral reef, the Mesoamerican Reef, cruise to offshore islands, relax on powder-white beaches, swim with whale sharks, turtles and rays and snorkel in crystal-clear cenotes or sinkholes. In Chiapas and Guatemala they can climb mountains and volcanoes and visit spectacular waterfalls and lakes. Wherever they are, they can go in search of some of the colorful animals and birds that make their home in the area’s jungles, cloud forests and wetlands.
You’ll find additional posts on the archaeological sites and colonial cities of the Yucatán Peninsula in the History section of this blog.