For those born in the 21st century, it’s difficult to imagine what life was life before computers, cell phones, or cable TV. Now try to imagine life without metal tools. It’s almost incomprehensible!
It was during such an era that the Maya Empire came into existence. Evidence of their civilization dates back to around 1800 BC. By the 6th century AD, the Mayans were at the height of their power, having built an empire of great influence that excelled in agriculture, pottery, hieroglyphic writing and mathematics.
The Maya people spread across the Yucatan Peninsula in what is now Belize, Guatemala and parts of Mexico. Their location and concentration made them less vulnerable to attack than other civilizations of that time, and so their empire grew and flourished.
It’s the challenge of looking back so many years and trying to imagine what life would have been like that attracts so many people to ancient cultures. In Guatemala and Belize, Mayan History comes to life amidst the rocky ruins, tucked away in remote jungles. But the magic really comes to life once you realize that aspects of this ancient culture still live on today…
Mayan History in Guatemala
One of the largest archaeological sites of pre-Columbian Maya civilization, the impressive limestone ruins of Tikal cover an area of over six miles. Its towering pyramids and temples (some of which measure over 230 feet tall) are a sight to behold.
Trying to imagine how they managed to construct such massive, intricate structures around 600 BC is enough to stop even seasoned travelers in their tracks. The impressive scope of Tikal even earned it the distinction of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Tikal is surrounded by rainforest, which a wide variety of animals call home. The sounds of birdcalls and Howler monkeys bounce off of the 3,000 structures that make up the ruins. With the confluence of nature and the spirits of an ancient civilization, it’s no wonder many consider it one of the most spiritual spots on Earth.
An impressive collection of carved stelae (upright stone slabs or columns) and sculpted calendars make Quiriga an awe-inspiring component to understanding Mayan culture. The ruins of 17 monuments make up this ancient city, which thrived from 426 to 810 AD. The expressions of creativity in the stone monuments and carved sandstone— all of which were created without metal tools— make it easy for visitors to imagine when this public space bustled with daily life.
The ruins of Aguateca are some of the best preserved remnants of Mayan history in Guatemala. The monuments are modest in comparison to the more artistic ones of Quiriga, but they’re still impressively intact.
Located in northern Guatemala’s Petexbatun Basin, a visit to Aguateca requires travelers to approach along the Laguna Petexbatun and La Passion River. This hour-long boat ride exposes visitors to stunning views of the surrounding cliffs and jungle.
Mayan History in Belize
Caracol is located in Western Belize, near the border with Guatemala. Nestled into the base of the Mayan mountains, these ruins were once the center of the most powerful Mayan kingdom, which was known as Oxwitza.
“Caracol” means snail, and the name describes the empty shells that once made up this extravagant city. Caracol is more secluded than most Mayan ruins found in Belize, so getting there is half the fun. Visitors will venture through jungle and pine forest before crossing the Macal River.
Once you arrive, the reward is definitely worth the journey. The secluded nature of the ruins make it easy to let your mind wander back in time as you explore. Most of the city is still waiting to be excavated, but there’s still plenty to see, including the 140-foot-tall “Sky Palace,” one of the tallest man-made structures in Belize.
Travel back to 400 BC and join the thousands who once inhabited Cerros, which is located at the mouth of the New River. These Mayan ruins were initially discovered in 1900, but they didn’t begin uncovering the structures until the 1970s. You can almost pretend you’re one of the first to discover the ballcourts, stepped pyramids, canals, and raised fields that make up Cerros.
Lamanai was one of the largest ceremonial centers built by the Maya peoples, and it remains one of the most impressive to visit. The location of the ruins on the banks of the New River Lagoon gives them a uniquely picturesque appeal.
While most Maya civilizations were brought down by drought, the people of Lamanai stuck around much longer thanks to their nearby water source.
Lamanai was inhabited from the 16th century BC through the 17th century AD. The 26-mile boat ride that’s necessary to reach the archaeological ruins is a treat in itself, exposing visitors to loads of local flora and fauna along the way.
In the Mayan language, Xunantunich means “stone woman.” Legend has it that a man was hunting near the site and spotted a beautiful Mayan woman at the entrance to a cave. The man was so in awe of her that returned to the village to share his sighting. More villagers would claim to have seen her, but none were able to follow her into the cavern.
Xunantunich is located on top of a ridge above the Mopan River, about a kilometer east of the Guatemalan border. Evidence suggests it was settled as early as the ceramic phase of the Preclassic period (around 1000 BC-400 AD). But archaeologists believe that construction of the main buildings began around 800 AD, just as other Maya civilizations were beginning to crumble. Some suggest that Xunantunich’s hilltop location gave it a strategic advantage.
The core city– six plazas and more than two dozen palaces and temples, ball courts and hundreds of mounds yet to be unearthed– is around one square mile and made from limestone rock raised from the ridge upon which it sits. At its center is the pyramid known as “El Castillo,” the second tallest structure in Belize at 130 feet.
Experiencing Mayan Culture
Travelers visiting any of these ancient Mayan ruins in Guatemala and Belize will discover culture in the cracks and intricately carved surfaces of these impressive structures.
They’ll also witness details of Mayan culture that are still utilized and celebrated by Mayan descendants today. From shamanic practices to tortilla-making, Mayan culture is much more expansive and lively than an old stone structure might reveal.
Volunteers with Discover Corps will immerse themselves in this ancient culture, learning to play the marimba (Guatemala’s national instrument), tasting traditional Mayan foods, and creating colorful Mayan-style textiles.
It can be a challenge to imagine a civilization that existed so long ago. But the culture of the Maya peoples still lives on today. Adventurous travelers will find Mayan history coming to life amidst the ruins and the nearby villages, where Maya culture continues to be celebrated. -Britany Robinson
BIO: Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her works appears in BBC Travel, Mashable, Green Global Travel, The Daily Dot and more. Her blog, Travel Write Away, shares advice and musings on travel writing. When she’s not planning her next big trip, she’s scoping out Portland craft beers and local hikes.