Central America

4 Of The Best Mayan Ruins To Visit – A Quick Travel Guide

Deciding which out of the thousands of archaeological sites to explore in Central America are the best Mayan ruins to visit can be a challenge. Mayan civilization extended from south eastern Mexico, through Guatemala, Belize and portions of Honduras and El Salvador and as such there is much to see in the ancient cities they abandoned.

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to most Central American countries and to have visited some incredible Mayan archeological sites. In this post I’ll tell you which 4 sites I consider the best Mayan ruins you should include in your itinerary. I’ll also offer up various options for guided tours and some travel tips to help you get the most from your visits.

Image shows 2 serpent heads appearing on a staircase of one of the structures at Chichen Itza, one of the best mayan ruins to visit.

History of Mayan Civilization

I am not an historian nor am I an expert in the history of Mayan civilization. I do think it helpful however to have a (very) high level understanding of Mayan history, particularly as it pertains to Mayan ruins. Set out below is a very short and high level summary collated from my own reading. If you prefer a more detailed account, then I would suggest this Wikipedia Article.

The history of Mayan civilization has been divided into three main periods:

  • Preclassic Period: c. 2000 BC to 250 AD
  • Classic Period: AD 250 to 950
  • Post Classic Period: AD 950 to 1539

Within each time period there is a further breakdown into early, middle and late but for the purposes of this blog post I’ll use the broader three periods listed above.

The Preclassic Period

This period is notable for being the period within which the Maya developed and grew their first civilization. Smaller villages began growing into cities and the Maya were beginning to raise stelae by 400 BC. By around 350 BC, Tikal was already a significant city.

The Classic Period

This period is regarded as the golden age of Mayan civilization. It marked the peak of large scale Mayan construction and growth of some 40 Mayan cities, some reaching 50,000 inhabitants.

It was also during the latter stages of the Classic Period that Maya civilization began its collapse, such that by the 9th and 10th centuries, many cities were abandoned. Various reasons have been put forward for this including warfare, over population and drought.

The Postclassic Period

Although diminished, there continued to be a Maya presence, however, over time, there was a gradual decline of existing and new cities. It was during this time period that the decline of Chichen Itza took place.

In the 1500s, the Spanish arrived in various expeditions and there followed numerous battles with the Maya until, in 1697, the last independent Mayan city fell to the Spanish.

The Rediscovery of Mayan Ruins

Many of the Mayan’s great cities were abandoned to the jungle where they remained hidden under lush vegetation until the 1800s when they began to be rediscovered. As a result, archaeologists started to understand some of the Mayan writing system, their religion, rituals, ceremonies and Mayan understanding of mathematics and astronomy.

Today, there are still many Mayan structures awaiting excavation and study.

Do the Maya still exist?

Yes! Many descendants of the Maya still live in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. I have read estimates of between 6 and 7 million Maya people living in these countries.

Which Are The Best Mayan Ruins to Visit?

The decision as to which Mayan ruins you choose to visit will depend very much on where in Central America you are travelling to. I have therefore identified a must see Mayan ruin in each of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. As far as the latter is concerned, I recognise that whilst Mexico is officially regarded as part of North America, its prominent role in Mayan civilization means I have included it in my list of countries with a must see Mayan ruin.

Here, in my view, are 4 of the best Mayan ruins to visit:

1. Honduras: Mayan Ruins of Copán

My first experience of Mayan ruins was at Copán in Honduras and it had a lasting effect on me. In fact, its the reason why I was so keen to return to Central America and visit other Mayan sites.

Considered by many to be one of the best archaeological sites in Central America, the Mayan ruins of Copan are located close to the town of Copán Ruinas in western Honduras, about 14 kilometres from the border with Guatemala.

Image shows a view over the Mayan Ruins of Copan in Honduras.
Mayan Ruins of Copán

The site covers around 80 hectares and comprises thousands of structures. It gained UNESCO World Heritage status in 1980 and is also home to many glorious scarlet macaws!

The ruins are divided into various groups, the main one of which is known as the Principal Group. Within this group there are numerous structures, stelae and altars to see. In my view, the most impressive are the Hieroglyphic Stairway and the Ball Court.

Copan is open daily from 8am until 4pm. Current ticket prices are as follows:

  • Site entrance fee $20 (US Dollars – USD)
  • Museum entrance fee $10
  • Tunnels entrance fee $15

To learn more about this fascinating site, read my post Mayan Ruins of Copán – What To See & Do. For suggestions on how to spend your time in the nearby town of Copán Ruinas, be sure to read my post Best Things to Do in Copán Ruinas.

Overall, I would highly recommend visiting Copan. The carvings and glyphs are unrivalled and given that Honduras is not as visited as other countries in the region, the site, which is large, was not as crowded or as overrun with tourists as some of the other prominent Mayan archaeological sites.

Here is a possible tour option from San Pedro Sula:

2. Guatemala: Mayan Ruins of Tikal

Possibly the most famous Mayan ruins in Central America are those at Tikal in northern Guatemala. Known for size of the site and the enormity of the structures on it, Tikal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Image shows the view looking toward Temple II at Tikal, one of the 4 best Mayan ruins to visit.
Temple II, Tikal

The closest town to Tikal in Guatemala is Flores. If you are planning to visit from Belize (as I did), you will likely travel to Tikal from San Ignacio, crossing the border in order to do so.

Tikal is dominated by a number of enormous temples, some of which you can climb. Stelae and altars are across the site, including in the Great Plaza. Tikal is also home to a lot of mammal and bird life.

Tikal National Park is open daily from 6am until 5pm. Current ticket prices are as follows:

  • Adult – 150 Guatemalan Quetzals (GTQ) (about $20 USD)
  • Children – under 12 are free.
  • Sunrise tour – 250 GTQ
  • Sunset tour – 250 GTQ
  • Tickets purchased after 3pm are also valid for the next day
  • visiting Uaxactun (Mayan ruins accessible from Tikal) – an additional 50 GTQ

Discover more about Tikal and how to get there in my post How to Visit Tikal from Belize.

Overall, the awe-inspiring pyramids, thick jungle surrounds and profusion of wildlife make visiting Tikal an experience like no other and definitely one of the best Mayan ruins to visit.

Here are some possible tour options:

Additional Ancient Mayan Sites in Guatemala

If you are planning to travel through Guatemala and looking for other Mayan ruins to visit then consider the following – note that there are many options available and that this list is in no way exhaustive:

  • El Mirador – a large Mayan site also known as the lost city of the Maya because of the overgrown jungle. Access is by organised tour – there are no roads into the site. Those keen to visit but don’t fancy the hike can opt for this Helicopter Tour!
  • Yaxha – located about 70 kilometres from Flores, there are various pyramids, structures and stelae to view and climb
  • Uaxactun – close to Tikal, this site is best explored by tour
  • Quirigua – small site known for its carved stelae

I suggest starting your research as to potential half and full day tours with these options:

3. Belize: Mayan Ruins of Lamanai

I loved visiting the Mayan ruins at Lamanai, especially as the best way to get there is by speed boat! Lamanai is in an isolated jungle location on the shore of the New River Lagoon in the Orange Walk District.

Image shows a full view of the Mask Temple at Lamanai, one of the 4 best Mayan ruins to visit.
Mask Temple, Lamanai

The word ‘Lamanai’ means submerged crocodile, a theme that is reflected in some of the carvings seen at the site. The impressive Mask Temple can be climbed and offers great views over the surrounding landscape. The Ball Court, although quite small, is notable for the discovery of liquid mercury in a pot beneath a marker on the court.

Lamanai is also home to a variety of flora and fauna, including troops of howler monkeys…you’ll likely hear them before you see them!

Lamanai is open daily from 8am until 5pm. Current ticket prices are as follows:

  • Residents Entrance fee – $5 (Belizean Dollars)/$2.50 USD
  • Non-Residents Entrance fee – $10 (Belizean Dollars)/$5 USD

Read my post Amazing Lamanai Ruins of Belize to discover much more about this hidden jungle gem!

Overall, visiting Lamanai felt like a truly unique experience and one I would definitely recommend you include in your Central America itinerary. Here are some possible tour options:

Additional Ancient Mayan Sites in Belize

If you are planning to travel through Belize and looking for other Mayan ruins to visit then consider the following – note that there are many options available and that this list is in no way exhaustive:

  • Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave – hike, swim and climb your way through the ATM Cave to see Mayan artifacts, pottery and, most famously, the skeletal remains of victims of human sacrifice. An incredible experience getting there let alone exploring the cave – learn more about my experience in my blog post Discover The Astonishing ATM Cave
  • Caracol – large ancient Mayan city located around 40 kilometres from the town of San Ignacio and the Maya ruins of Xunantunich
  • Xunantunich – close to the border with Guatemala, it’s the site of the second tallest structure in Belize (after the temple at Caracol)
  • Altun Ha – closest Maya site to Belize City

I suggest starting your research as to potential half and full day tours with these options:

4. Mexico: Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza

Undoubtedly the most well known Mayan ruins in the Americas, Chichen Itza is a bucket list item for many visitors to Mexico. Located in the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza is often visited by those staying in Cancun, although it is, of course, accessible from other parts of the country.

Chichen Itza was a significant centre in the Mayan world by around 600 AD but began to decline in the 1100s. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988 and in 2007, its most recognised structure, the Temple of Kukulcán, was voted one of the new seven wonders of the world.

Image shows the Temple of Kukulcan, the famous pyramid at Chichen Itza, one of the 4 best Mayan ruins to visit.
Temple of Kukulcán, Chichen Itza

In addition to the Temple of Kukulcán, Chichen Itza is also home to one of the largest ball courts in the Mayan world. It’s simply enormous! There are many other significant temples and structures to see at Chichen Itza.

Chichen Itza is open daily from 8am until 5pm (last entry at 4pm). Current ticket prices are as follows:

  • Adults (13+) – $643 Mexican Pesos (MEX) (about $39 USD)
  • Kids (3-12) – $95 MEX
  • Mexican Citizens $285 MEX (Free on Sundays)
  • Nighttime admission – $708 MEX on Fridays and Saturdays and $450 MEX on Sundays

Read my guide on the Best Way to Visit Chichen Itza and check out the tour I joined:

Overall, a visit to Chichen Itza should be high up on everyone’s list. The iconic sight of the Temple of Kukulcán alone is worth the heat and humidity!

Additional Ancient Mayan Sites in Mexico

If you are planning to travel through Mexico and looking for other Mayan ruins to visit then consider the following – note that there are many options available and that this list is in no way exhaustive:

  • El Rey and San Miguelito ruins – located in Cancun in the Quintana Roo State, both sites are easily accessible within the Hotel Zone. Read my post on creating you own Perfect Cancun Itinerary for more information
  • Palenque – smaller than Tikal, Copan and Chichen Itza, Palenque contains some of the finest architecture, sculpture and carvings the Mayas produced
  • Tulum – a walled archaeological site that overlooks the sea, the Tulum ruins are located in the area known as the Riviera Maya and are accessible by day trip from Cancun
  • Uxmal – well preserved site with impressive pyramid
  • Kohunlich – best known for its Temple of the Masks, the Kohunlich Mayan ruins are located about 65 kilometres from Chetumal

I suggest starting your research as to potential half and full day tours with these options:

Tips for Visiting Mayan Ruins

Having visited a number of incredible Mayan ruins, I can safely say that they share various characteristics and that the following tips will apply equally to all:

  • Central America can get very hot and humid so stay hydrated
  • dress in lightweight, cool clothing
  • wear a hat – the added shade will be very welcome
  • wear comfortable shoes and watch out for uneven surfaces
  • wear bug spray and sunscreen
  • keep a look out for the resident monkeys and don’t stand under the trees they’re in for long!

For those keen to visit the ATM Caves in Belize, do read my blog post Discover The Astonishing ATM Cave for specific advice as to what to wear.

Final Thoughts

Ever since I first stepped foot in an ancient Mayan city I have been fascinated by them. The structures alone are impressive, but add to that the carvings, stelae, rituals, astronomical elements, culture and jungle surrounds and you have something that you simply cannot leave off your Central American itinerary.

With so many Mayan sites open to visitors it can be hard to know where to begin. I hope this post has helped narrow down some of the options by providing you with a list of 4 of the best Mayan ruins to visit and enough travel inspiration in the form of additional options to make your time in Central America as fascinating and enjoyable as mine has been.

If you are looking for further information to help plan your Central American itinerary, do check the posts on my Central America page and travel advice on my Resources page.

Image shows the author of this post standing on some stone steps and looking up at the camera at the Mayan Ruins of Copan, Honduras
Copan, Honduras

Disclaimer – Information correct at the time of writing but do check before visiting

Disclosure – This post may contain affiliate links. That means that if you book something using them, I will earn a small commission but you will not pay anything extra. Thank you for supporting my blog.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.