Top Mayan Sites to Visit: Palenque and Tikal

The Childcraft books — Great Myths and Legends and Mysteries and Fantasies — were my gateway drug into National Geographic.

Sandwiched in between stories on the Bermuda Triangle, the Lost City of Atlantis and the at-that-time unknown final resting spot of the Titanic was a story on the lost civilization of the Mayans.

I was hooked. Why had this incredibly advanced civilization collapsed under mysterious circumstances? Why had the Mayan abandoned their massive cities and pyramids to the gods?

My 10-year-old mind raced with the possibilities, fuelled by the stunning NatGeo photographs of explorations deep into the impenetrable jungle of Mexico and Central America. I read, too, about the Inca and the Aztecs but the Mayans always held my beating heart.

When I finally stood in front of El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, at Chichén Itzá I could feel my eyes welling up with tears. It was real and I WAS HERE!

Amazingly, as I travelled to more Mayan sites, Chichén Itzá would fade on my list of favourites. It’s the most famous and most visited Mayan site in Mexico but that’s also what makes it less special to me.

Here is the first entrants on my top five list of Mayan sites to visit in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize:

1.) Palenque

Dominating the heart of Palenque is a stepped pyramid topped with the Temple of the Inscriptions. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

If there is a more beautiful Mayan city than Palenque, I’ve yet to see it.

Spread across a lush carpet of green, the city’s buildings are surrounded by dense jungle shrouded in mist. The only sounds are the guttural cries of howler monkeys and the gentle tapping drops of rain.

Dominating the heart of Palenque is a stepped pyramid topped with the Temple of the Inscriptions, the final resting place of the city’s greatest ruler K’inich Janaab Pakal, (also known as Pacal the Great).

To the left of the temple is the Great Palace, the size of a city block, where traces of red and blue paint still adorn the white walls that feature carvings of warriors wearing elaborate headdresses.

The Temple of the Sun and its impressively preserved roof comb in Palenque. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Established in the Early Classic Period (AD 200 to AD 600), Palenque flourished until it was abandoned sometime in the late AD 700s. In western records, the city is first recorded hundreds of years later in 1567 by Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada during the time of the Spanish conquistadors. The priest is the one who gave the city the name it’s known by today.

The city again fades from memory until 1787 when Antonio del Rio, a Spanish captain, visits. His writings eventually draw more explorers to Palenque, including self-trained British archaeologist Alfred P. Laudslay. As he wrote in the late 1800s:

“The great forest around us hung heavy with wet, the roof above us was dripping water like a slow and heavy rainfall, and the walls were glistening and running with moisture.”

The description is still apt in the 21st century when I visit the UNESCO world heritage site. The air is humid and the mist occasionally turns into rain that sends a group of tourists scurrying under the protection of a giant throne-covered tree where howler monkeys shake limbs at them in warning.

I wait it out under a thatched roof next to the temple and marvel at the city, which is delicate and refined in its style and covered in carvings laying out the city’s rich history. At its height, archaeologists believe more than 6,000 people lived here in hundreds of buildings not yet unearthed over 2.2 kilometres.

A Mayan stone carving from the walls of the Great Palace in Palenque. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

In 1952, deep below my feet, Pakal’s untouched tomb was found by Alberto Ruz Lhuillier. A beautiful reproduction of his massive carved stone sarcophagus lid can be found in the small museum in the park, which can be found by taking a well-laid out path that meanders past waterfalls and across a gorgeous swing bridge.

The carvings on the sarcophagus, which show Pakal reclined at an angle, are quite famous thanks to Erich von Däniken’s best-selling and widely debunked Chariots of the Gods? Von Däniken posited that the carvings are proof of alien influence on Mayan civilization. (It’s a fun read when you’re 12).

Almost a million people visit Palenque each year but when they leave each night the city is once again taken over by the jungle. Sometimes early in the morning, our guide tells us, howler monkeys can be seen lining the steps of the pyramid and jaguars are known to prowl through the ruins.

How amazing is that?

For more information, including hours and ticket prices, visit

2.) Tikal

Taking a break on the steps of the well-preserved Mayan Temple of the Masks (also known as Temple II) in Tikal. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

If you’ve ever doubted how big a Mayan city could be, prepare to be amazed at Tikal.

Walking here feels like you’re in the New York City of the ancient Mayan world. Ruins of an estimated 3,000 buildings radiate out for 16 square kilometres making this city in the Guatemalan jungle one of the largest Mayan metropolises yet found.

Like its soaring Temple IV, which stands almost 50 metres high, Tikal towered over its sister Mayan city states with its powerful warriors and its trading prowess for centuries, which shows in both its size and the ambition of its architecture.

One of the most exciting ways to view Tikal is to climb to the top of Temple IV where you can see the tops of pyramids rising above the jungle canopy. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

I arrived early at Tikal – it’s the best way to beat the hordes of tourists at all of these sites – and carefully climbed a flat-topped pyramid to eat my breakfast from the corner store in San José where I had stayed overnight by the shore of Lake Peten Itzá.

Overhead are trees with limbs as furry as the legs of a tarantula and beautiful – but shy – green parrots with colourful red and yellow faces. Aside from the occasional bird call, Tikal is quiet and truly feels like I’ve stumbled into another world. It makes you feel small.

A section of Tikal’s Grand Plaza showing the North Acropolis, which served as a Mayan royal necropolis. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Inhabited from the sixth century BC to the AD 10th century, Tikal was home to up to 100,000 people at its zenith, archaeologists estimate. First studied by Western explorers in the 1800s, the site was made a national monument in 1931 and has been attracting visitors since the 1950s making Guatemala an early leader in the development of its Mayan history for tourism.

One of the most exciting ways to view the city is to climb up the steep but well-maintained staircase at Temple IV. When you emerge at the top, take a seat on one of the stone steps and drink in the view of the tops of two white and grey pyramids rising above the jungle canopy. It is simply breathtaking and so worth the hard climb on the knees. Not even the trees can overcome these staggering ancient feats of human engineering. This same view was even used in the first Stars Wars film released in 1977.

Back down below, you can explore the impressive Great Plaza with its Temple of the Great Jaguar (also known as Temple I) and stelae covered in hieroglyphics that tell of the city’s glorious battles and rulers, as well as the wonderfully named Lost World Complex, the Twin Pyramids and untouched mounds that harbour even more secrets.

Moss-covered ruins dot the cleared streets in the ancient Mayan city of Tikal in the jungles of Guatemala.

It’s wise to follow the advice of guides who warn not to wander off the trails. Virtually all of Tikal’s buildings remain buried under dense foliage and the jungle teems with poisonous spiders, snakes and large predators like the jaguar and puma. Legend has it, they say, a Canadian couple wandered away some years back and weren’t found for days or was it weeks? Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

For more information, including hours and ticket prices, visit

Next up on my top five list: Yaxchilán and Bonampak; Chichén Itzá; and Actun Tunichil Muknal.

© Jennifer Robinson and, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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