When the Spanish conquistadors and Franciscan friars arrived on the Yucatán Peninsula in 1517, they encountered a remarkable civilization: the ancient Maya. Renowned as one of the most sophisticated pre-Columbian civilizations in Mesoamerica, the Maya developed sophisticated systems for hieroglyphic writing and calendars, while also acquiring advanced knowledge in areas such as mathematics and astronomy. However, the Spanish newcomers swiftly conquered the Maya, colonized their lands, and destroyed much of their historical records. With undisputed control over the Yucatán Peninsula, the Spaniards established cities like Mérida, Campeche, and Valladolid. In 1847, following Mexico’s independence, a civil war broke out on the peninsula. It began with the descendants of the Maya, who had long been exploited, rebelling against the European settlers. This conflict, known as the Caste War, eventually resulted in the defeat of the Maya and subsequent bloody retaliations.
The Yucatán Peninsula, a vast limestone platform, is covered by a dryish subtropical broadleaf jungle. The peninsula boasts over 7,000 cenotes (sinkholes), which are common geological formations found in limestone with limited soil development. These cenotes held great significance to the ancient Maya, who believed they served as sacred gateways to Xibalbá [underworld]. Within the peninsula’s interior, one can find scattered indigenous Maya villages like Los Tres Reyes, where traditional ways of life endure just as their ancestors lived. These communities reside in huts topped with palm-leaf roofs, preserving their distinct language, customs, and culture. On the east coast of the peninsula lies the Maya Riviera, showcasing some of Mexico’s finest beaches. Popular tourist destinations in this region include Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. Additionally, the coastal islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres attract divers due to the stunning coral formations of the Great Mesoamerican Reef, which is the second longest barrier reef in the world.
Some of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Mesoamerica grace the Yucatán Peninsula. These sites include cities nestled among lush jungle vegetation, such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Cobá, and Ek’ Balam, as well as those perched on coastal cliffs like Tulum. The ancient Maya began establishing their first settlements about 2000 BC. By approximately 250 AD, they entered the Classic Period, a time when flourishing city-states formed a complex network of alliances. Within these city-states, the Maya constructed monumental buildings adorned with intricate decorations. Among the prominent structures were pyramid-temples, ball courts, astronomical observatories, and palaces. The various sections of a city were often connected by raised limestone roads knonw as Sacbé. Additionally, longer roads linking different settlements have been discovered. The Maya excelled in sophisticated art forms, particularly in portraiture. They documented their history and ritual knowledge in folding books, although only three uncontested Maya codices have survived due to destruction by the Spanish Conquistadors. One after another, the major cities of the Classic Period were abandoned by the 15th century and largely forgotten until the 19th century.
Chichén Itzá [mouth of the well of the Itzáes] was one of the largest Maya cities. While the precise date of the initial settlement in the southern part of the site remains uncertain, the construction of the northern section took place during an 11th-century AD renaissance. During its heyday as a bustling hub for trade, religion, and military activities, which lasted until approximately the 13th century AD, Chichén Itzá was home to a population exceeding 35,000 people. The city likely had a diverse population, which could account for the various architectural styles found throughout the site. Despite the substantial crowds of visitors, exploring Chichén Itzá is highly recommended for its iconic structures, and exceptional cultural and historical significance, which led to its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988
The most iconic structure at Chichén Itzá is the grandiose step-pyramid known as El Castillo [The Castle]. This temple, constructed atop an older structure sometime between the 8th and 12th century, is dedicated to Kukulcán, the revered plumed serpent deity of the Maya who bears a close connection to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl. The pyramid is composed of a series of square terraces with stairways on each of its four sides, leading to the temple located at the top. Adorning the balustrades of the northern staircase are intricately carved heads depicting Kukulcán. Interestingly, within the visible pyramid, there is a second pyramid. The temple atop the pyramid houses a remarkable red throne carved in the shape of a jaguar and encrusted with jade. Behind a screen, one can find a Chacmool – a Maya sacrificial stone sculpture portraying a reclining figure with a dish on its stomach. Notably, the pyramid was designed to achieve a sophisticated acoustic effect. Clapping one’s hands in front of the staircase near the base of the pyramid rewards visitors with a chirping echo, considered a divine message from the god Kukulcán. Please note that climbing the pyramid and entering the sanctuaries is not allowed.
The pyramid is renowned for its impeccable astronomical design, with its four sides precisely aligned with the cardinal directions. Additionally, various structural elements of the pyramid correspond to different aspects of the Maya calendar. The nine tiers on each side of the pyramid are separated by a staircase, forming 18 terraces that symbolize the 18 20-day months of the Maya calendar. Each of the four staircases consists of 91 steps, resulting in a total of 365 steps when combined with the temple platform at the top, symbolizing the number of days in a year. The pyramid’s faces are adorned with 52 panels, representing the number of years in the Maya sacred circle. During the spring and autumn equinoxes (March 20 and September 22), an enthralling optical illusion takes place on the north staircase. The morning and afternoon sun casts light and shadow in such a way that an illusion of the plumed serpent ascending or descending the side of the staircase is created. This mesmerizing illusion is nearly as impressive during the week leading up to and following each equinox.
The Gran Juego de Pelota [Great Ball Court] is the largest and most impressive ball court in Mesoamerica, and it is just one of the eight courts found within this ancient city. It is enclosed by towering walls and flanked by temples on its sides. The walls are adorned with stone reliefs depicting players wearing protective gear and scenes of decapitation. Based on these reliefs, it is believed that a soccer-like game was played with a hard rubber ball. Two teams would compete against each other, aiming to manipulate the ball through a stone ring mounted high on the court’s wall. The players were only allowed to use their knees, elbows, or hips to keep the ball off the ground, without using their hands or feet. Interestingly, the losing captain, and sometimes even the entire team, would often be sacrificed after the game. However, this act was considered an honorable way to die. Beyond being a sporting event, the ballgame held ritual significance. A modern version of the game, called ulama, is still played today. The court itself showcases intriguing acoustics, where a conversation at one end can be heard up to 135 meters away at the other end, and a clap generates multiple loud echoes.
The Platforma de los Cráneos [Platform of Skulls] is a T-shaped platform embellished with carved skulls and eagles depicted tearing open the chests of men to consume their hearts. Archaeologists speculate that it was used to display the heads of human sacrifice. The carvings on the adjacent Platforma de las Águilas y Jaguares [Temple of the Eagles and Jaguars] present similarly gruesome scenes, showcasing eagles and jaguars devouring human hearts. A bit further lies the Platforma de Venus [Temple of Venus]. It is believed that the Maya utilized this platform for observing the planet Venus, managing to measure the 584-day Venus cycle with only a two-hour margin of error.
The Templo de los Guerreros [Temple of the Warriors] is situated on a small pyramid decorated with stucco and stone-carved animal deities. Positioned at the top of the stairs are statues depicting the rain god Chac and the plumed serpent god Kukulcán. The entrance to the temple is guarded by a Chucmool statue, along with two columns intricately carved to resemble snakes. Extending to the east and south at the base of the pyramid is a forest of pillars known as the Grupo de las Mil Columnas [Group of the Thousand Columns]. Many of these columns are embellished with warrior figures.
The Osario [Ossuary] is a smaller step-pyramid similar to El Castillo. It features four sides with staircases leading to the top, where a temple is located. However, unlike El Castillo, the Osario has a square shaft at the center of the platform that provides access to a natural cave beneath. This cave served as a burial chamber; and within it, archaeologists have uncovered several tombs containing human remains and artifacts such as jade beads.
The building, named as El Caracol [The Snail] by the Spanish conquistadors because of its interior spiral staircase, served as an astronomical observatory. The observatory’s dome contains multiple slits, strategically aligned with the positions of specific celestial bodies on significant dates according to the Maya calendar. Additionally, the four external doors of the observatory, each facing a cardinal direction, are decorated with masks representing the rain god Chac.
The Edificio de las Monjas [Nunnery], is a substantial structure believed by archaeologists to have functioned as a palace for Maya royalty. Its multitude of small rooms drew comparisons to European convent cells, which led the conquistadors to give it the name. Adjacent to the east is a smaller building known as La Iglesia [The Church], which is adorned with intricately carved masks that cover nearly its entire surface.
Only a fraction of Cobá has been excavated thus far, leaving the majority of its vast area still engulfed by dense jungle vegetation. Consequently, many of the remnants remain as piles of rubble covered in roots and vines, appearing to the untrained eye as nondescript rocky mounds. Situated amidst a cluster of lakes, this city thrived from approximately 300 to 1000 AD, hosting an estimated population of up to 40,000 inhabitants within its expansive grounds. Positioned at the heart of a network of sacbeob – raised roads paved with limestone – Cobá boasts a greater number of these roads than any other known location. The majority of travel along these roads occurred during the night to take advantage of cooler temperatures, with the luminous white limestone aiding navigation in the darkness. Additionally, Cobá is renowned for its collection of stelae, intricately sculpted and carved by the ancient Maya, providing insight into various aspects of ceremonial life and documenting significant historical events.
There are four main groups of buildings to explore, the Cobá Group, Macanxoc Group, Group D, and Nohoch Mul Group. The most prominent structure within the Cobá Group is a massive pyramid known as La Iglesia [The Church]. Adjacent to the base of the staircase, visitors can find the upper fragment of a stela accompanied by a circular masonry altar and two square altars located a few meters to the west. The site holds significant reverence among local Mayas, who perceive the stela as a representation of the virgin Colebí. They make offerings here, light candles, and pray for a fruitful harvest and luck in their hunt. Another notable feature in this group is the impressive Juego de Pelota [Ball Court], one of several found throughout the site. It includes two interesting ball court markers embedded in the playing field: one featuring a jaguar and the other displaying a skull.
The Macanxoc Group is accessible via by Sacbé 9, the widest road in Cobá, emphasizing the importance of this area. Situated on a vast platform, overgrown with vegetation, a complex of structures is believed to be the main ceremonial center of the site. Notably, the complex is renowned for its collection of eight stelae. Among them, five portray a female ruler who assumed the throne between 640 and 682, while the remaining stelae depict male rulers from the 7th century. According to local legend, the stelae represent ancient kings who turned to stone during the day and come to life at night.
Group D comprises various structures, including the Conjunto Pinturas [Paintings Group] and the Xaibé [Crossroads]. The pyramidal Templo de los Frescos [Temple of the Frescoes] features traces of glyphs and frescoes on its lintel, as well as remnants of vividly colored murals inside. Situated at the intersection of four sacbeob, the structure known as Xaibé stands out with its unconventional design for Maya architecture – a four-tiered conical structure adorned with two medial moldings. While its rounded shape has led to speculation that it served as an observatory, there is no concrete evidence to support this hypothesis
Located approximately 1.5 km to the north is the renowned Nohoch Mul [Big Mound], also known as the Great Pyramid, which is the most famous structure within the site. Standing at a height of 42 meters, it is the second tallest Maya structure on the Yucatán peninsula. Although the climb to reach the temple at the top is challenging due to the steep ascent and the deteriorated condition of the stones, the breathtaking panoramic view of the seemingly endless expanse of flat, shrubby jungle makes the effort worthwhile. Adorning the doorway of the temple is a carving of the Descending God. In front of Structure 10, stands the site’s best-preserved stela, portraying a ruler adorned in lavish attire, gripping a large scepter, and exerting authority over two kneeling captives, while two more captives stand at his feet.
Ek’ Balam [Black Jaguar] was a significant Maya city and religious center that flourished during the 8th century. Today, much of the archaeological site remains hidden beneath the dense vegetation of the lush jungle. However, visitors have the opportunity to explore the ceremonial center of the city, which is enclosed by an unusual double perimeter wall designed for fortification. One of the main highlights of the site is its remarkable stucco friezes, making it a compelling destination to explore. Due to its relatively low tourist footfall, it is highly probable that you will have the opportunity to enjoy the site’s tranquility and solitude.
Within the walled enclosure, the structures cluster around two plazas: the South Plaza and the North Plaza. Dominating the south side of the South Plaza is El Palacio Oval [The Oval Palace], a multi-tiered structure composed of several oval buildings stacked on a rectangular base. Its rounded shape has led to speculation that it served as an observatory. On the western side of the square stands the structure known as Las Gemelas [The Twins], two identical temples situated side by side on a raised platform, each accessible via its own staircase. Some archaeologists propose that these monuments were used for ancestral worship. Separating the southern and northern squares is a Juego de Pelota [Ball Court].
The most impressive structure in the North Plaza is the colossal tiered pyramid known as the Acrópolis. This grand edifice, expanded over time, consists of multiple structures stacked upon one another. It encompasses numerous temples, chambers, courtyards, and passageways spread across six levels. At the base of the central stairway, two serpent head statues with Maya hieroglyphic texts are positioned. On the fourth level of the Acrópolis lies the impressive chamber known as Sak Xoc Nah [White House of Reading], adorned with intricately carved stucco façade. The entrance to the chamber showcases a massive open fanged mouth of a deity. The wall is decorated with winged human figures (sometimes referred to as Maya angels), masks, skulls, and geometric motifs. The remarkable preservation of the façade can be attributed to its careful covering with a protective stone wall early in Ek’ Balam’s history. The chamber served as the tomb of the ruler Ukit Kan Le’k Tok (770 – c.802), and within it, archaeologists discovered a vast array of funerary artifacts, including over 7,000 pieces of jewelry. On both the east and west sides of the North Plaza, there are large overgrown mounds awaiting excavation.