Are the impressive Maya ruins of Central America on your bucketlist as well? For us, it was one of the reasons to travel for two months around Guatemala, Belize and Mexico and visit many of those magical archaeological sites. We were enchanted by misty jungles with ancient partly overgrown temples and palaces in remote locations. We loved climbing to the top of those mysterious pyramids for amazing views and visiting both the most famous and more off-the-beaten-track Maya cities. After visiting many Mayan complexes for over two months, we created a list with the 10 best Maya ruins in Central America to help you visit the most beautiful sites on your trip.
The location of the best Maya ruins
If visiting a Mayan temple is on your bucket list, you should book a trip to Guatemala, Belize or Mexico.
The Maya were a pre-Columbian society in Central America. They lived in cities that were often located at strategic trading locations. From these cities, the Maya elite managed to control a large part of the area. With that power and prosperity, the Maya cities developed into political and economic centers, where grand palaces and magnificent Maya temples were erected for more than a thousand years. These ancient city-states have been overgrown by the jungle over the centuries, but have been excavated again in recent centuries. Those special Mayan complexes are now the most popular and touristy sights in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico in Central America. We should also mention the well-known Mayan city, Copán, which is in Honduras but on the border with Guatemala.
Travel tip: prepare by watching the documentary The Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake Kings to learn more about Tikal and the Maya. You can watch it on the paid channel Disney Plus. A free Discovery Channel documentary can be found on Youtube as well, Lost World of the Maya.
Mayan Cities Map
Best Mayan ruins in Guatemala
The most famous Mayan site in the world is the Tikal Mayan ruins, which are now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tikal was once the largest Mayan city. Not only in size, but certainly also in power and influence. For about 1400 years, this place in the jungle of Guatemala was the location of a powerful city-state, now leaving the remains of thousands of ruins, temples and pyramids. Tikal may have had as many as 100,000 inhabitants and still consists of 6,000 to 10,000 buildings. Only a small percentage of the ancient Maya city has still been excavated, but that part is enough to keep you entertained while wandering for hours through the archaeological park of Tikal.
Read more: a practical travel guide to visiting Tikal.
The vast area that Tikal covers, includes pyramids, temples, royal palaces, houses, administrative buildings, cisterns, terraces, monuments and much more. Most impressive are the enormous pyramids and temples that tower high above the tops of the jungle. You can climb some of these for a phenomenal view of the ancient Maya empire. Make sure to visit the Grand Plaza, where the most famous temples are located, such as the Temple of the Great Jaguar and the Temple of the Masks. As popular and touristy as Tikal may be, a visit to this Mayan city should be on your bucket list. The archaeological area is large enough to spread out the many visitors, although you will of course also meet many other people at the largest and most beautiful Mayan temples.
Not far from Tikal is the Mayan city of Yaxha, a much lesser-known, but also very impressive temple complex. While all travelers flock to famous Tikal, neighboring Yaxha is more of a hidden gem in Guatemala. The size of the complex is enormous, the view from the highest temple is phenomenal and the location on a deep blue lake is unique. Yaxha probably had a population of over 20,000 and about 500 buildings have been found in the area.
Read more: visiting Mayan city Yaxha in Guatemala.
One of the highlights of a visit to Yaxha is the sunset from the main temple (Structure 216, also known as the Temple of the Hands). With a height of 30 meters, this temple towers above all other temples and the jungle treetops. You’ll have a perfect view of the two lakes on which Yaxha is located. The views are stunning all day long, but at the end of the day visitors gather at this amazing spot to watch the sun go down behind the lakes, just before the archaeological park closes.
Yaxha is unique in Mayan archaeology because of its waterfront location. The lakes were once part of an important riverine trade route between major Mayan cities. With a bit of luck, you can find a motor boat (a lancha) at the jetty at Yaxha that will take you to the island in the lake and back. Because there is another temple complex on this lake island called Topoxte. The temples themselves are not that interesting, but they are said to be among the oldest Mayan ruins in Central America. The magical atmosphere of temples on an island, the roar of the howler monkeys and the few other visitors make this a special experience.
#3 El Mirador
Located deep in the jungle near the border between Guatemala and Mexico, is one of the largest and most mysterious of all Mayan cities: El Mirador. Places like Tikal and even Yaxha attract many visitors, but El Mirador is so remote that few people come here. You can only get there by helicopter or multi-day hike through the jungle. Not much of the ancient city has not been excavated and restored, compared to other Mayan complexes, adding to the mysterious atmosphere surrounding this place.
The highlight of El Mirador is the temple El Dante, which is also said to be the tallest Mayan pyramid of all. The temple is said to be 77 meters high. Just as impressive is the temple El Tigre with a height of 55 meters and a popular spot for sunset or sunrise, as this temple is close to the base camp where you will camp during a hiking tour. As one of the largest Mayan complexes, there is much more to see than just these two temples, although a large part is completely overgrown by the jungle and there is still a group of archaeologists on site for excavations. You’ll need at least a full day to explore El Mirador with your guide.
Tip: watch the documentary Finding the Lost Largest Pyramid, created by Yes Theory, which shows a group of influencers and filmmakers hiking deep into the jungle to visit El Mirador.
Best Mayan ruins in Belize
The ancient Xunantunich Mayan Ruins are an incredible place to visit when traveling around Belize. As one of the most unique places to visit in Belize, the Maya complex gives an intriguing insight into the country’s history. The largest structure El Castillo is still one of the tallest buildings in all of Belize and offers a beautiful view of the ancient Mayan city and the beautiful jungle of Belize! You can easily visit the Maya complex from San Ignacio, as it is right along the road from the city to the border with Guatemala.
Read more: visiting the Xunantunich Mayan ruins.
The complex consists of several squares, surrounded by ancient Mayan structures. During your visit you will immediately see that not the entire Maya city has been excavated. Part of Xunantunich consists of overgrown hills, under which even more structures are hidden. Xunantunich does not only have temples, but also many palaces. The most striking building of Xunantunich is El Castillo which was not a temple, but a palace. Remarkable and not to be missed are carvings on the east side of the El Castillo structure. We did not see anything like this in any other Maya city in Central America. Visitors can climb to the top of El Castillo for a beautiful view of Xunantunich and the jungle environment. From several sides, there are stairs leading you up the terraces to the highest level. Visitors can also climb other buildings and temples. But because these are less high, the view is a little less spectacular.
Caracol is often called the most impressive Mayan city in Belize. The location certainly adds to the dramatic effect of this Mayan city, as Caracol is located deep in the Belizean jungle. As the location of Caracol is extremely remote, you cannot get here by public transport. The easiest way to visit Caracol is by a rental car or with an organized tour from San Ignacio.
Around the seventh century, Caracol was probably one of the most important cities for the Maya in this region. Throughout history, the city has fought many wars with neighboring Mayan cities such as Tikal in Guatemala. At its peak, Caracol probably had about 140,000 inhabitants. The ruins of Caracol were discovered less than a hundred years ago and excavations only started in the 1950s. Caracol has still not been fully restored, like the well-known Tikal for example. It will probably never be fully restored though, as Caracol should remain part of its jungle environment, partly covering the buildings, which is also part of the history and story of the Mayan ruins.
Extra: the ATM caves
One of Belize’s most acclaimed Mayan sites are the Actun Tunichil Muknal caves you can visit from San Ignacio. This excursion is hailed as one of the most unique things to do in Belize and is certainly very different from most places you can visit in Central America. The ATM-tour takes you to an ancient Mayan cave, where human sacrifices were found.
Where a visit to Mayan ruins normally requires little physical effort, the ATM tour is a unique adventure. After a short but strenuous hike through the jungle you reach the entrance of the cave system. The system is largely flooded, so you will have to swim through the caves to get to the well-known cave that this tour is all about. In the caves, it is pitch dark and the only light comes from the headlamps of you, the guide and the rest of the group. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photos during the tour.
Especially considering that the ATM cave is an ancient Mayan sacrificial site where many bones have been found and still lie, you’ll get that this is one of the most adventurous things to do in Belize. The tour is physically strenuous and you need to be reasonably fit to properly accomplish all the swimming and scrambling work to get to the main cave.
Most beautiful Mayan temples in Mexico
#6 Chichén Itzá
The ruins of Chichén Itzá may not be the most beautiful or largest on this list, but they are the most famous of all Mayan Ruins in Mexico.
They are close to other popular destinations in Mexico and therefore the most visited. We have to admit that the iconic El Castillo pyramid of Chichen Itza is indeed impressive to see. It is even called one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But Chichén Itzá is more than just this famous pyramid. The entire complex is huge! There are dozens of other Mayan buildings and there is also a cenote that was important to the Mayas and the location for their human sacrifices.
You can visit Chichén Itzá on a day tour from Cancún or Tulum. But also easily by yourself with a rental car or public transport from the colorful town of Valladolid. It is about a 40-minute drive from Valladolid.
The Calakmul ruins are not only among the most beautiful Mayan temples, but this Mayan site includes the largest pyramids in all of Central America. Calakmul was once the largest Mayan empire in today’s Mexico. The only city that could match Calakmul is the famous Tikal archaeological site in today’s Guatemala. It might surprise you that Calakmul isn’t included in all Mexico travel guides and travel blogs, but that’s because it’s not that easy to reach. The ancient Mayan empire is located deep in the jungle of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. From the main road, it takes about two hours of driving on a straight bumpy road just leading to the Calakmul pyramids.
Read more: visiting the Mayan empire Calakmul.
One of the highlights of this once mighty Mayan empire are the two huge pyramids with beautiful jungle views: Estructura II and I of 50 and 40 meters high. Unlike other ancient Maya ruins in Mexico, you can actually climb these pyramids for stunning jungle views. The complex of Calakmul is very big, keeping you entertained for hours. You will visit impressive pyramids, but also old palaces, city walls and many stelae.
The ruins of Palenque are not located in the much-visited Yucatán Peninsula, but in the jungle nar Palenque in the Mexican state of Chiapas. A visit is an absolute must during your visit to Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, as Palenque is one of the largest and best-restored Mayan cities in Mexico.
Read more: visiting the Palenque Mayan ruins.
The Palenque complex is very different from the ones we visited before. Some of the structures have been neatly restored and the area around them has been cleared to get a good impression of the old city. But a number of ruins are still hidden in a lush jungle with monkeys, tropical birds and waterfalls. One of the unique buildings in Palenque is the old palace in the heart of the city, as you usually find mainly temples at Mayan sites. Palenque’s ruins are also worth a visit because of the historical inscriptions on some of the temples, the possibility to see a temple inside and the free entry to one of the best Mayan museums in Mexico.
#9 The Tulum Mayan ruins
A trip around Mexico is not complete without a stop in Tulum, which is one of the most popular and most visited towns in Mexico. Whether you are staying in Tulum in a beautiful beach resort or more downtown in Tulum Pueblo, a visit to the Mayan temples should be on your to-do list.
You will probably notice that the ruins look a bit like a fortress: on one side are the steep cliffs at the coast and on the other, the city is surrounded by an ancient wall. They are the only coastal ruins in Central America, making them unique in the ancient Maya world. One of the Mayan temples was probably a kind of lighthouse, on which a fire burned at night. The ancient city was one of the last places where the Maya lived. Even after the Spanish colonization of Central America, Maya lived here for a long time, until Western diseases wiped out the population.
Not far from Tulum are the Mayan ruins of Coba. That makes Coba a popular day trip from Tulum, but it is also highly recommended to spend one or two nights in Coba and visit both the archaeological area and the amazing Mexican cenotes in the area. We stayed at the small-scale jungle resort Aldea Coba, near the ruins and cenotes.
Read more: visiting the Coba tempels and cenotes.
The ruins of Coba are scattered throughout the jungle. To easily get from one temple to another, you can rent a bicycle close to the entrance and cycle around the jungle area. The highlight is the large pyramid Nohoch Mul, which you can also climb. The steps are quite steep, so make sure to use the rope when climbing. Also special about the old city of Coba are the elevated roads called “sacbe”. These roads connected not just the clusters of pyramids and residential buildings in the old city, but even Coba and neighboring cities. There were elevated roads from Coba to cities as far as Chichen Itza! When cycling or walking around Coba, you will mostly use those ancient Mayan roads as well. Cycling on these jungle roads between the Mayan temples will be an unforgettable experience on your Mexico trip.