Posts Tagged 'La Ruta Maya'

Copán Ruinas


Located just 1 km outside a small town of the same name, Copán Ruinas, a Unesco World Heritage site and once home to one of the most important of all Maya civilizations, was our last and final stop on la ruta Maya.  Known for its remarkable sculptures, for which it is unique in the Maya world, and hieroglyphics, many of which are on display, Copán had a culture so developed it is often labeled the ‘Paris of the Maya world.’ 

It is believed that people lived in Copán since 1200 B.C., possibly earlier, and excavated artifacts show influences from as far away as Mexico.  The vast number of structures discovered indicates that at the peak of Maya civilization the Copán valley had over 20,000 inhabitants (a population not reached again until the 1980s).  As recently as 2005 the ruins have been the site of political demonstrations.  In September of that year, 1500 indigenous Maya – descendents of the original builders of Copán – occupied the ruins and barred visitors for five days in protest of stalled government land reforms.



“Towering pyramids poke above the jungle’s green canopy to catch the sun.  Howler monkeys swing noisily through the branches of ancient trees as brightly colored parrots and toucans dart from perch to perch in a cacophony of squawks.  When the complex warbling song of some mysterious jungle bird tapers off, the buzz of tree frogs fills the background and it will dawn on you that this is, indeed, hallowed ground.” – Lonely Planet Central America


tulum beach bar

Located 130 km south of Cancún the well preserved cliff-top Maya ruins at Tulum beach overlook expansive stretches of sparsely populated white sand beachfront and the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean.  Cabañas, camp sites and beachfront bars are scattered along the beachfront.

cobáInland about 42 km west of Tulum, the ancient city of Cobá was among the largest of the Maya cities.  It’s architecture more closely resembles that of Tikal (in Guatemala) than of Chichén Itzá or Uxmal.  Cobá is home to the tallest Maya structure on the Yucatán Peninsula, the 42 meter high great pyramid Nohoch Mul.  It was an exhausting climb to the top, but we did it!

Chichén Itzá


The best restored and most unique of the Yucatán Peninsula’s Maya sites, Chichén Itzá’s architecture is a blend of highland central Mexican and Puuc styles.  The 25m high Pyramid of Kulkulcán is one of Chichén Itzá’s most impressive structures and a stone representation of the Maya calendar.  Unfortunately, most of the structures are roped off and closed to climbing and visiting the site feels sort of like visiting a theme park.  Vendors crowded all of the walkways trying to do business in U.S. dollars, tour buses were continually arriving from Cancun and by early afternoon Chichén Itzá was flooded with bathing suit clad tourists shopping for souveniers.

Uxmal & Mexico’s Yucatán


After waking up early to the sounds of what might possibly be the loudest hostel in Mérida, or all of Mexico for that matter, we headed about an hour south of the city to the ruins of Uxmal.  Once the capital of an ancient Maya civilization located in the Yucatán’s Puuc region, Uxmal flourished from 600-900 A.D.  It’s puuc-style architecture features many intricate carvings and geometric mosaics.  Stucco masks depicting the rain god Chac adorn many of the buildings, not surprising given the scarcity of water in this region.  It is speculated that these severe drought conditions led to the abandonment of the site around 900 A.D.  Today, Uxmal is home to a population of enormous iguanas, some nearly the size of a small dog.  They’re everywhere, sunning themselves on the ancient structures and it’s possible to get within a few feet of the giant creatures before they retreat back into hiding.

Unlike many of the ruins we have visited, Uxmal has some very modern facilities, several gift shops, fancy hotels, restaurants and even a gormet coffee stand on site.  I almost fell over when the can of soda I asked for cost twenty pesos.  Not to mention the high cost of admission and the fact that bus travel in the region can be as much as two or three times the cost of a similar ride in Oaxaca or Chiapas.  Tourism is big business in the Yucatán and this region of Mexico is much different from the Mexico to which I had become accustomed.  Absent are the packs of homeless dogs, there aren’t children working in the streets or begging for money, buildings are free of grafitti, no one is protesting anything and I can hardly remember what it’s like to be awoken by the sound of firecrackers at 4 a.m.  Instead fancy tour buses make brief stops at all of the attractions, officers are on hand to assure everyone makes it across the streets safely and everyone speaks a little bit of English (or at least they claim that they do).

Travel is expensive in the Yucatán and apparently many Mexicans cannot afford the higher costs.  Unfortunately, in our experience so far, it’s primarily foreigners marveling at Mexico’s most impressive sights.  Besides the site employees, Carlos was the only Mexican national at Uxmal and he’s been the only Mexican on several of the buses we’ve taken.  Back in Mérida our hostel bed is costing us nearly 50% more than what we’re used to paying for a hotel room with a private bath and cable TV.  Most of the other backpackers that have come through our hostel seem to do as we are doing and pass through this region of the country relatively quickly.  In fact, the majority of people packed up and took the first bus out of the city as soon as Carnaval ended.



One of the great Maya cities of the Classic period, Palenque flourished from around 500 to 700 A.D. before being abandoned around 900 A.D.  Located in one of the rainiest areas of Mexico the ruins were quickly overgrown and hid from the outside world for centuries.  With the exception of the central plaza, much of the 15 square kilometer site has yet to be completely uncovered.  Palenque’s dense jungle setting, waterfalls, streams and surrounding hills form an impressive backdrop to the exquisite architecture.  Declared a unesco world heritage site in 1987, Palenque is one of the marvels of Mexico and attracts thousands of visitors each day.



In a dense jungle setting, far from roads on the bank of the Usumacinta River is the ancient Mayan city of Yaxchilán.  To reach the ruins from Palenque requires 173 km of overland travel and an additional 22 km by boat. 

lanchasWe boarded one of the lanchas pictured here at the Frontera Corozal embarcadero and began our 40 minute ride up the Usumacinta, which also serves as the border between Mexico and Guatemala and has afforded us our first views of Mexico’s neighbor to the south. 

One of the most important Classic Mayan cities in the Usumacinta region, Yaxchilán was settled prior to 250 A.D., peaked in power and importance between 681 and 800 A.D. and was abandoned shrortly thereafter.

monkeysThe highlight of the day was arriving to find a jungle full of howler monkeys and spider monkeys swinging from branch to branch in the trees above.  There were even a few mama monkeys carrying babies on their backs.



Set deep in the Lacandón jungle, 148 km southeast of Palenque, Bonampak was never a major city and spent most of the Classic Period under Yaxchilán’s influence. 


Hid from the outside world until the 1940’s, Bonampak has since gained fame for its astonishing and brightly colored murals found inside the Temple de las Pinturas.  These murals have also helped to give Bonampak its name which translates to ‘Painted Walls’ in Yucatecan Maya.



Back on La Ruta Maya, we traveled a little over two hours north of San Cristóbal de las Casas to the town of Ocosingo.  From there it was a further 16 km through the countryside to reach the impressive hillside temple complex of Toniná.  Comprised of pyramids, platforms and hidden chambers, Toniná’s ceremonial core towers a stunning 80 meters above the Gran Plaza.  The Templo de Espejo Humeante, or Temple of the Smoking Mirror, is the site’s tallest structure and affords some excellent views of the ranchlands below.  Known as the Place of the Celestial Captives, Toniná was a strong military power and it was here that many of the captured rulers from Palenque and other great Mayan cities were imprisoned and beheaded.  With the latest recorded date on record of AD 909, Toniná is believed to have been one of the last surviving cities of classic Maya civilization.