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Mayan Ruins in Central America

Central America's Ancient Mayan Ruins, From Copan to Tikal

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The ancient Mayan ruins of Central America are priceless. Truly, Central America's Mayan sites are a major reason, if not the reason, to travel to Central America. Not only do they stand out in the Americas, but their size and intricacy also rivals ancient ruins all over the world.

From massive archaeological ruins like Tikal in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras, to smaller yet equally mysterious sites like Tazumal in El Salvador and Xunantunich in Belize, the Mayan ruins of Central America are certain to linger in your memory.

1. The Tikal Ruins, Guatemala

Tikal's Grand Jaguar Temple
Kirsten Hubbard
The Tikal ruins of Guatemala's northern El Peten region are known as the most impressive in the Mayan Empire. They seem to go on forever, poking up out of the Peten jungle like ancient gods. If you can peel yourself out of bed at 4:30 am, a pre-dawn trek to greet the sunrise atop Temple IV makes for the memory of a lifetime.

2. The Altun Ha Ruins, Belize

The Altun Ha ruins are one of the most well-preserved Mayan ruins in Belize. A great deal of jade and obsidian were excavated in Altun Ha, suggesting the Mayan site served as an ancient trading center. Particularly notable was the 15-centimeter jade head of the Maya Sun God, Kinich Ahau, discovered in a tomb in Altun Ha's Temple of the Masonry Altars.

3. Nim Li Punit, Belize

Ballcourt at Nim Li Punit
Kirsten Hubbard
Nim Li Punit sits in the hills below Belize's Maya Mountains, and boasts panoramic views over Belize's coastal lowlands to the Caribbean. Archaeologists believe the Nim Li Punit ruins served as a trading center in the ancient Mayan empire, drawing traders and merchants from other Mayan villages.

4. The Uaxactún Ruins, Guatemala

Just 25 miles north of Tikal, the Uaxactún Ruins are set in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve. The name Uaxactún means "Eight Stones", but it's also a pun on "Washington", the U.S. Capital. Because Uaxactún's four primary structures align to the sunrise during equinoxes and solstices, archaeologists believe they were used in the ancient Mayan study of astronomy.

5. The Lubaantun Ruins, Belize

The Lubaantun Ruins
Kirsten Hubbard
The Lubaantun Ruins in southern Belize's Toledo District are particularly mysterious. Famously, Lubaantun is said to have been the discovery site of the Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull. Lubaantun boasts several other unique characteristics, such as the hand-cut black slate and limestone bricks of its structures.

6. The Copan Ruins, Honduras

Copan Ruins Skull Carving
Kirsten Hubbard
The Copan ruins of western Honduras are some of Mesoamerica's finest. The carvings, sculptures, stelae and hieroglyphic texts found at Copan are often strikingly elaborate, while the flock of scarlet macaws guarding Copan's entrance make the Mayan site even more memorable.

7. The Xunantunich Ruins, Belize

The Xunantunich Ruins are located in western Belize's Cayo district, right up against the Guatemalan border. The most striking feature of these Mayan ruins is the 130-foot-tall El Castilo temple, which appears to be crowned. Xunantunich was the first Mayan site in Belize to be open to the public.

8. The Tazumal Ruins, El Salvador

The Tazumal Ruins of El Salvador
Jorge Quinteros
Though small in comparison to other Central America Mayan sites, the Tazumal ruins are the best-preserved in El Salvador. Artifacts excavated at Tazumal provide evidence of trade between Tazumal and Mayan cities as far as Mexico and Panama. Spookily, Tazumal means "the place where the victims were burned," in the Mayan language of Quiché.

9. The Lamanai Ruins, Belize

Lamanai, a Mayan site in the Orange Walk District of northern Belize, is only accessible via a 90 minute riverboat cruise through the beautiful Belizean jungle. Unlike other ancient Mayan ruins, much of Lamanai was built in layers. Successive Mayan populations built upon the temples of their ancestors, instead of destroying them.

10. The Caracol Ruins, Belize

Caracol is the largest Mayan ruin in Belize. At its height, it occupied an area much larger than Belize City, with double the population. As of now, traveling to Belize's Caracol ruins requires a two-hour journey on an unpaved road. But those who've visited the remote Mayan site claim it may even rival Tikal -- which Caracol defeated in AD 562.

11. The Quiriguá Ruins, Guatemala

The Quiriguá Ruins are set against the Motagua river in the Izabal region of Guatemala. Quiriguá is home to many massive stelae -- including one that's 35 feet tall! The Mayan site also possess a number of boulders carved in detailed animal shapes, called Zoomorphs.
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