Elevate Your Vacation Experience by Climbing Ancient Ruins
Rising out of jungles throughout Central America, ancient Maya ruins capture the imagination of travelers who marvel at their grandeur and mystique. Hiking amongst the structures provides impressive ground views, but climbing an ancient pyramid transforms a memorable experience into an unforgettable one.
Prepare for sensory overload when gazing upon Tikal’s amazing temples for the first time. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tikal comprises more than 3,000 structures, including several awe-inspiring temples open to climbers.
You’ll need agility and good footing to scale the tallest structure at Tikal, iconic Temple IV (Temple of the Two-Headed Serpent), soaring above the jungle canopy at 70 metres (230 feet). From its sun-drenched platform, see three other temples rising through the treetops amid an endless sea of greenery.
Continue the archaeological feast throughout Tikal’s inner urban zone (400 hectares / 990 acres). Follow in the footsteps of Maya royalty, priests, and commoners to the majestic Great Plaza. Lace up your boots for challenging climbs up the Temple of the Jaguar (44 metres / 144 feet) and Temple of the Masks (38 metres / 125 feet). Ascend the temples using wooden staircases, as most structures at Tikal are protected with wooden walkways to protect the ancient construction.
Don’t overlook the detailed hieroglyphs and stone carvings throughout Tikal, which, although inhabited as early as 800 B.C., flourished from 200 A.D. to 900 A.D. with more than 50,000 residents.
What has been uncovered to date, however, may be only a fraction of the Maya’s true scope in the region. Researchers using revolutionary technology recently identified more than 60,000 jungle-covered ruins in and around Tikal in the Maya Biosphere Reserve.
Just 30 kilometres (18 miles) southeast of Tikal, a less visited, yet more picturesque Maya complex unfolds, the ceremonial centre of Yaxhá.
Perched on a ridge overlooking stunning Lake Yaxhá, the ancient city contains more than 500 structures, including nine temples and one of the few twin pyramid complexes outside of Tikal.
Give your legs a workout as you climb Temple 216 (37 metres / 121 feet), towering over the rainforest canopy surrounding the site’s East Acropolis. At the temple-top platform, reward yourself with a 360-degree panorama of the rainforest canopy, nearby pyramids, and the shimmering lake below.
Yaxhá is also a great spot for birding tours. And leave time to for an idyllic cruise across Lake Yaxhá to the unique ruins that dot Topoxté island, one of the last strongholds of the Itzá Maya during the Spanish conquests. As the sun sets behind this post-classic site, the densely shrouded temples and structures lure your imagination back into a bygone era. Afterwards, enjoy some drinks and savour the sunset.
El Caracol, Belize
Surrounded by the untamed Chiquibul National Park, the ruins of Caracol contain five plazas, a cosmic observatory, and thousands of structures, making it the largest Maya centre in Belize.
Let your imagination drift back into ancient times as you climb up the steps of the massive Caana pyramid and browse the three temples sharing its lofty peak, 43 metres (140 feet) above the jungle floor. Enjoy a panoramic view of rainforest canopy as you look out from Caana, the largest of Caracol’s pyramids — and to this day, the tallest man-made structure in all of Belize.
Archaeologists named the site Caracol, the Spanish word for snail, because they found so many of the mollusks there. The Maya, however, called it Oxwitza, which means the Sky Place.
Covering 168 square kilometres (65 square miles) of thick, high-canopy jungle, Caracol contains some 35,000 buildings that have been identified. Once one of the largest ancient Maya cities, Caracol had an estimated population of about 150,000 at its peak (around 650 A.D.).
Immerse yourself in ancient mystique and jungle intrigue at the longest-occupied Maya city of Lamanai, which contains more than 700 mapped structures.
Climb the steep High Temple (33 metres / 108 feet) and be rewarded with a panoramic view of Belize and Guatemala. In the Mask Temple, you’ll see artifacts from Maya, Aztec, and Olmec rulers.
Meaning “Submerged Crocodile” in a Maya language, Lamanai abounds with carvings depicting the toothy reptile. And no wonder, as the 388-hectare (960-acre) complex overlooks the untamed New River Lagoon. As you stroll the water’s edge, keep an eye out for crocodiles sunning themselves onshore or silently prowling the river for food.
Lamanai’s lengthy occupation (roughly 1500 B.C. to 1700 A.D.) means you can see Maya construction techniques spanning from the Classic to Post Classic periods. Many of the sites structures remain covered by jungle vegetation, as archaeological work has concentrated on the larger structures.
Jump-start your imagination even before you arrive by taking a rustic cruise down a tree-shrouded river to reach Lamanai.
For more Maya intrigue, visit riverfront Xunantunich, where the amazing El Castillo temple soars 40 metres (130 feet) over the landscape. Meaning “Stone Woman” in ancient usage, Xunantunich was a thriving city near the end of the Classic Period (300-900 A.D.) with six major plazas at its centre, surrounded by more than 25 temples and palaces.
El Castillo, the second-tallest temple in Belize (second only to the Caana pyramid at Caracol), dominates Xunantunich. A massive structure, El Castillo functioned as a large, multi-purpose centre that served as dwelling, shrine, and administrative hub for the elite rulers.
The eastern and western summits of El Castillo have large stucco friezes with elaborate carvings. At one time the friezes extended around the entire temple. While catching your breath after the steep climb, take a close-up view of the carvings, which depict stories and events from Maya mythology.
From the top, savour a bird’s-eye view of ancient platforms and ceremonial sites bathed in a sea of lush greenery with the mountains of neighboring Guatemala visible in the distance.
One of the ancient Maya’s most lavish cultural centres, Copán features intricately carved stelae and the incredible Hieroglyphic Stairway amongst its more than 4,500 structures.
Climb to the top of Temple 16, which rises 30 metres (100 feet) for a full immersion into the site’s mystique. The view from the top offers a stunning vista of Copan’s entire layout, which spreads out over 24 square kilometres (9 square miles)
From the steps of Temple 16, ancient rulers would look down at nearby Temple 26 to read the Hieroglyphic Stairway, which adorned the platform atop the structure.
The stairway’s 63 steps are completely carved with text that narrates events from 426-775 A.D. Archaeologists are still studying and deciphering the work, the longest known text of ancient Maya civilization. To protect the stairway from the elements, a tent now covers the masterpiece.
You’ll also marvel at the magnificent plazas, temples, and ball courts, that distinguish Copán, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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