Mayan Sites of the Yucatan Peninsula

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza The last of the great Mayan city-states was Chichen Itza, which flourished from roughly 900 AD to 1200 AD, when internal struggles among its elite weakened the city sufficiently that it fell to its eastern rival, the city-state of Mayapan.

Its magnificent pyramids and temples, many of which have been extensively restored, make it one of the grandest and most glorious of all Mayan sites.

At Chichen Itza, Mayan civilization reached its pinnacle. Art, astronomy, medicine, agriculture, architecture -- they all flourished here. Walking among the magnificently restored buildings and manicured grounds, visitors can experience the full flowering of this enormously advanced people.

The major structures include the Castillo, or Temple of Kukulcan; the Nunnery Complex; the Caracol, which was the center for astronomy; the Temple of the Warriors, with its magnificent colonnade of carved stelae; the ball-court and Temple of the Jaguar; and the marketplace. Two cenotes, or natural wells, were the primary reason the city was situated at this location. One provided water for the people and the crops; the other was the sacrificial well, where animal and often human victims were tossed into the dark waters in rituals of purification, celebration and renewal.

The Castillo is perhaps the best-known pyramid in the entire Mayan world. Exquisitely proportioned, every aspect of its architecture had religious meaning as well as functional purpose. Less well-known is the fact that the Castillo as it is seen today sits atop an earlier structure; and that a steep, dark stairway inside the building takes visitors to a secret chamber, where the brilliant red Throne of the Jaguar scowls at those brave enough to intrude on this powerfully sacred site.

Everywhere at Chichen Itza one encounters strong, silent testimony to the power and achievements of this remarkable civilization. The reflecting basins at the Caracol, each sculpted with a god-figure, allowed Mayan astronomers to chart the positions and movements of the planets and stars. The magnificent carvings on the walls of the ball-court tell the grisly yet enthralling story of the ritual version of the Mayan game of Pok-ta-Pok, and portray the losing captain being decapitated in the spring renewal ritual. The Temple of the Warriors celebrates the battlefield exploits of this mighty race, and pays hall of fame-like homage to its greatest fighters. Everywhere the carvings portray the supreme jaguar and feathered serpent gods, the morning star Venus, and the enigmatic lord Kukulcan.

No words nor even pictures can do justice to the splendor that is Chichen Itza. Only when a visitor has the personal experience of staring down into the cenote of sacrifice, or into the eyes of the red jaguar, is the full force of the past truly felt. Come, drink in the past, the glory of the Maya and Chichen Itza.

The Caves of Balancanche

Less than two kilometers from the Hotel Mayaland sits the entrance to the long, winding Caves of Balancanche. A deeply sacred site to the ancient Maya, these caves were only discovered in 1959, and remain in the pristine condition in which they were found.

Sculpted out of the Yucatan limestone by underground rivers, the caves still contain ponds and streams. Sacred to the Mayan water god Chaac, ceremonial sites deep within the caves still contain literally hundreds of clay pots and other religious vessels. As one strolls through the dramatically lit chambers, surrounded by these beautifully carved and painted artifacts, it is easy to imagine a solemn religious procession proceeding by torchlight to the depths of the inner world.

For any visitors with more than a day to spend at CHICHEN ITZA, a visit to the Caves of Balancanche provides an insightful and awe-inspiring glimpse into ancient Mayan life, and a close-up look at some of the best-preserved pottery crafted by Mayan artisans. The hotel provides free transportation for its guests to the caves.

Old Chichen

Three hundred years before the magnificent pyramids of CHICHEN ITZA began to rise towards the heavens, another city was built just over a mile away. Known today as Old Chichen, it survives now as ruins among the underbrush, accessible by foot and horse trails and whispering of an even more ancient time.

The number of structures makes it clear that Old Chichen was a city of importance in its time, approximately 600 to 850 AD. The tallest pyramid, though overgrown by plants and vines, clearly foreshadows the Castillo of the later city; and many other temples, palaces and undefined buildings hint at a vibrant people living lives of ritual and routine.

That even these earlier Mayans were a people of achievement is made clear by the ruins of an advanced aqueduct system, transporting precious water for agriculture and human consumption. Several other buildings in Old Chichen have unique and mysterious aspects to them; indeed, sitting as they do, defiant among the overgrowth, they inspire a visitor to imagine what the first explorers might have thought when they encountered these stark monuments to an ancient people.

Old Chichen is accessible by a foot trail that starts behind the Nunnery complex at CHICHEN ITZA. It is more easily reached -- and its story more fully told -- on a guided horseback tour from the stables of the HOTEL MAYALAND. What it lacks in grandeur, Old Chichen makes up for in mystery and antiquity; it has its own power, its own special feeling with which to reward the adventurous visitor.


Uxmal Uxmal is acclaimed to be the architectural masterpiece of the Maya civilization. The Great Pyramid, the Palace of the Governors, the House of the Magician and the Nunnery Quadrangle are magnificent structures; and the extensive restoration work performed at this site gives visitors a spectacular experience of the scope and grandeur of this powerful city.

Uxmal achieved its greatest glory between 800 and 1000 AD, although its decline did not apparently come as a consequence of the rise of CHICHEN ITZA to the east.

The bulk of the structures we see today are multi-roomed, and are thought to be the homes of a large and powerful elite class. Archeologists can only guess at how many thousands of peasants, living in the surrounding countryside, were commanded by these warrior-nobles. Exquisite carving, mosaics and other decorations typify many of the structures, which represent some of the finest of achievements of what is known as the Puuc architectural style.

Some very fine carved stelae have been discovered here, and the study of their inscriptions and those found on the buildings themselves has played an important role in the ongoing decoding of Mayan writing. Most Mayan numbers, more than half of their alphabet, and many other important symbols, or glyphs, have now been deciphered by the experts, and the evidence from Uxmal has provided essential clues in solving this ancient mystery.

Paradoxically, not that much is known about the civilization here. Only one ruler, Lord Chac, has been specifically identified. The people may have been less war-like than some of their cousins in other Mayan city-states, as there are few of the monuments and inscriptions celebrating victory in battle that are so prevalent at other sites. Being reasonably close to the coast, Uxmal probably engaged in considerable trade; agriculture and perhaps salt production were other key industries. The large ball-court tells us that sports and recreation -- at least for the upper classes -- were also part of life in Uxmal.

The buildings are heroic in scope and majesty, yet are covered with gorgeous, finely detailed art. The entire site is imbued with a rare power, as if the spirits of the Mayan nobles remained on their land, whispering the epic secrets of their ancient world to the visitors of today.


South of UXMAL, and connected to the larger city by a sacbe, or Mayan road, sits Kabah. While almost certainly subordinate to its northern neighbor, Kabah was nonetheless an important location in its own right, and greets today's visitors with its own special ambiance.

The best-known structure here is the Palace of the Masks, an imposing building used for religious rituals and other state ceremonies. Its terrace contains extensive hieroglyphic texts behind an altar that may well have been used for human sacrifice. Carved panels, doorjambs and lintels make this a breathtaking example of the incredibly advanced and complex Mayan stone carving art.

The people of Kabah grew crops, participated in the great Mayan trade routes, and kept a wary eye to the north. The relationship between smaller cities and larger ones could change dramatically with the ascension of the new ruler in either location. A benevolent protector might be succeeded by a ruthless tyrant, eager to accrue greater glory by capturing slaves and increasing his dominance; a willing subject-king might be succeeded by an ambitious rebel, eager to gain fame by freeing his city from the dominance of a powerful neighbor. The succession of a new ruler was a major event in the Mayan world, and one can imagine that spies from many nearby city-states were among the throngs gathered to watch the rituals and pageantry that marked the beginning of a new reign.

Today, Kabah sits silently, its days of intrigue and influence faded into the depths of history. But the visitor willing to sit among the ruins, to cast an inquisitive eye over the glyphs and carvings and to picture the color and life of a past millennium will be well rewarded by this compelling reminder of an ancient age.


A rarity among Mayan sites of the Yucatan, the ancient city of Sayil actually sits amid several steep hills. From the steps of its Great Palace, one looks out at the ruins of several other significant structures, including a ball-court and several smaller palaces. Altars and stelae are plentiful, as are the ruined foundations of thousands of small dwelling structures. A series of causeways links the various building clusters, providing a relatively clear picture of the plan of the city.

As many as 10,000 people may have lived in the central area of Sayil during its peak years, roughly 800 to 1000 AD, with perhaps another 5000 to 7000 in the surrounding farming areas. Sayil's downfall appears to have been rapid, quite possibly the result of invasion and destruction by the powerful warriors of CHICHEN ITZA.

Though small, Sayil is a beautiful and important Mayan site, with some fascinating architectural details and well-preserved hieroglyphics. With ongoing research and reconstruction, this city continues to come back to life, and perhaps one day to tell us the story of its brief glory and abrupt decline.


Originally discovered and partially rebuilt in the 19th century, Labna has been somewhat neglected since then. Located only about six miles from Sayil, Labna's structures are similar in style and scope, suggesting a close relationship between the two cities.

The largest structure in Labna is a pyramid, which is topped by a partially-collapsed temple that was most probably added at a later date. The central palace area is entered into through a well-restored, Puuc-style archway that is considered one of the finer examples of this type of architecture.

It is likely that this city too fell before the onslaught of the mighty Itza. Until more work is done here, however, the story of Labna remains largely hidden among the collapsed buildings and the encroaching underbrush.


Located in the northwestern Yucatan less than fifteen miles from the coast, Dzibilchaltun is sometimes overlooked when the major Mayan cities of the region are considered. Nonetheless, this city and its surrounding area were home to about 8000 structures and a population of some 25,000 people at their peak around 800 AD.

While the ruins here cannot rival the magnificence of UXMAL or CHICHEN ITZA, Dzibilchaltun is still an important site. Some of the building rubble from several structures has been consolidated in the restoration process, resulting in a smaller number of attractively reconstructed buildings.

The most famous is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, an architecturally valuable relic originally built around 700 AD. As so many early Mayan structures were, this temple was built over by later rulers of the city, and the current excavation has left clear evidence of the overlaying pyramid.

The chief activity at Dzibilchaltun was agriculture, an ongoing struggle in this dry region with so many mouths to feed. The low land and proximity to the Gulf did allow the people here to produce large amounts of salt, a major Mayan trade commodity and most likely the source of the city's prosperity.

In addition to the Temple of the Seven Dolls and several other structures, some interesting carved stelae make Dzibilchaltun, if not a "must-see" site, still well worth visiting, especially for those interested in developing a more comprehensive picture of what life was like for the Maya a thousand years ago.


Tulum Staring out for eternity over the turquoise waters of the Mexican Caribbean, the temples of the walled city of Tulum present a unique aspect of the Mayan legacy. Astronomy and celestial navigation, maritime trade, even weather forecasting were among the Maya achievements at this small but powerful city state.

Tulum rose to prominence around 1200 AD, in what is referred to as the Post-Classic Period in Mayan history, a little more than three hundred years before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Though none of its buildings is particularly large, they are among the most beautiful of Mayan structures, with their dramatic rise against the craggy Yucatan coastline.

The dominant pyramid is the Castillo, which is also noted for the extensive, colorful and detailed murals found inside the building. Other buildings were used for purposes ranging from religious rites (a practice continued well into the 20th century) to serving as an ancient form of lighthouse for the immense seagoing canoes the people of Tulum used in their trading, which was a key source of wealth for the city. Indeed, the beach which served as the city's "port" is clearly evident as a break between the short cliffs that typify the coast at this point.

Tulum was inhabited until the conquistadors arrived. Like ports and trading centers throughout history, Tulum was one of the first places to encounter the invaders from across the sea -- and one of the first to taste the bitter fruit of conquest.

Today, Tulum again stands proud, as one of the more popular Mayan sites for visitors. Its breathtaking backdrop and finely-wrought architecture give it a beauty unlike any other ancient Mayan city; as it always was, Tulum is truly unique.


One of the largest cities of the Mayans, Coba rose to prominence in the Late Classic period of Mayan History, in 600 AD, and eventually fell before the might of CHICHEN ITZA sometime around 950 AD. At its height, the Lords of Coba ruled over a huge territory, exacting tribute from small city states hundreds of kilometers away.

Among the great achievements of the people of Coba were towering pyramids, advanced agricultural practices (essential for feeding the 30,000 people estimated to have lived within the city itself), and the building of a system of roads that linked virtually the entire dominion together. These roads, or sacbe, were tremendous aids to commerce -- and to the waging of war.

Several small nearby lakes made Coba a rarity among Mayan sites: a city with abundant water. Given that other locations rose and fell with their water supplies, these lakes no doubt contributed to the prominence and longevity (it is among the longest-inhabited of all Mayan cities) the city achieved.

The largest structures at Coba are the huge Late Classic temple called Nohoch Mul and a giant pyramid called the Castillo. Both rise more than 75 feet above the surrounding forests. Many other structures are still being excavated and even discovered, emerging from the cloak of a thousand years of overgrowth.

Because Coba is still in the fairly early stages of discovery and reconstruction, it offers visitors a fascinating look at the lengthy and complex process of restoring Mayan cities. Coba also benefits from the vastly increased scholarly knowledge of Mayan architecture -- and Mayan life in general -- as experts painstakingly piece together this mammoth site. The gratuitous destruction and historical errors that have flawed other locations have not been visited upon Coba, leaving us to speculate that once this restoration is complete, the city may rival the greatest of all Mayan centers. Today's visitors have the privilege of seeing the story as it first begins to unfold, an epic tale still in its early chapters.

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