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The Best of Mayan and Aztec Ruins

Mexico's ancient civilisations were the most sophisticated in Northern and Central America, with national treasures that are cherished and well preserved. Discover Mayan and Aztec ruins boasting temples and palaces that are hidden in jungles or high on hills.


Chichen Itza

This is probably one of the country's most famous historical sites.

Located on the Yucatec peninsula, Chichen Itza was once a large pre-Colombian city built by the Mayan people. It's now dominated by the El Castillo pyramid, the Warriors' Temple, and the circular observatory called El Caracol.

Throughout its 1,000-year-old history this city boasted the most diverse population in the Mayan world. Mayan people incorporated many ethnic groups, a fact which is made clear by the different architectural styles of monuments.

In 2007, Chichen Itza was nominated as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. According to UNESCO, 'its monuments, particularly in the northern group, which includes the Great Ball Court, Temple of Kukulkan and Temple of the Warriors, are among the undisputed masterpieces of Mesoamerican architecture because of the beauty of their proportions, the refinement of their construction and the splendour of their sculpted decorations'.

Tenochtitlan

Tenochtitlan was the capital city and centre of the Aztec civilisation, active from 1325 to 1521. Otherwise known as 'the place where the Gods were created' it's located on an island in the middle of a lake in central Mexico.

It began life as a tiny settlement but by the time of the Spanish conquest in 1521, it had evolved into the greatest Pre-Colombian Mexican empire. It housed a quarter of a million people – twice the population of London or Rome – and showcased dazzling palaces and towering pyramids. Like modern-day Venice, it had an intricate network of canals.

In the middle of this ancient empire was the Templo Mayor, the religious centre for the Aztecs. Climb Temple of the Sun for a great view of the whole area, and for a view of the Avenue of the Dead climb to the top of Temple of the Moon.


Uxmal Ruins

Uxmal, which means thrice built, is an impressive set of ruins located across a 150-acre site. It's considered one of the most intricate and beautiful expressions of Puuc architecture, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

These fascinating structures were mainly built when Uxmal was the capital of a Late Classic Mayan state in about 850 to 925 CE, including the 35-metre Magician's Pyramid, also known as the Pyramid of the Dwarf owing to a myth about a magic dwarf.

Adding to its attraction is Uxmal's setting in the hilly Puuc region. The hills rise up to about 100 metres and are mainly surrounded by the flatness of the north and west of the peninsula. It's worth paying the additional fee to experience Uzmal's nightly light-and-sound show.

Tulum Ruins

This is considered the most stunning archelogical site on the Riviera Maya. Although Tulum Ruins are modest compared to some other sites, its location over a rugged and beautiful coastline and aquamarine water of the Caribbean Sea are breathtaking.

This was formerly a Mayan fortress city, which was at its height at the end of the Classic period. Its most impressive structure is the cliff-top Castillo, an image that is incidentally often associated with the Riviera Maya.

It's worth taking your swimsuit, as a long walkway extends out around the ruins with a staircase leading down to the beach where you can swim and sunbathe. Tulum is the third most popular destination after Chichen Itza and Tenochtitlan. Speak to your hotel about excursions.


Pelenque

Situated on the southwestern side of the Yucatan Peninsula near Usumacinta River, Pelenque is a Mayan city that flourished in the 7th century CE but was abandoned by the 12th century.

The Mayans began construction of Palenque in 200 BCE but it was then absorbed by the lush forest, which comprised trees native to Mexico such as mahogany, sapodilla and cedar. It has since been excavated and restored, attracting many thousands of visitors.

Visit the Temple of the Skull, so named because of the carving of a skull on one of its pillars, and climb into underground buildings at Complex IV. You can explore this area knowing that there is more still to be unearthed, and restored, giving it an air of mystery.

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