mayan ruins tikal

The best Mayan ruins to explore outside Mexico

by Guest on September 25, 2014

The ancient Mayans were a prolific city building civilization. The massive stone structures they created sprinkle the landscape all over Central America, even though much about the culture that built them remains a mystery. We do know the Mayans had a complex understanding of astronomy, physics, and mathematics. The buildings that remain provide some of the only clues we have to learning the secrets of the Maya.

Because the Mayans were so industrious, there are many places where you can see Mayan ruins. The most popular places are in Mexico, surrounded by luxurious resorts and beaches perfect for relaxing vacations. But there are a handful of less popular ruins that remain just as astounding, especially for travelers who like to roam off the beaten path. So leave North America behind and experience the less explored Mayan temples and cities of Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, and Honduras.


This country has two significant Mayan sites often visited by Mayan enthusiasts: Tikal and El Mirador. Both offer stunning temples and important ruins, but the history of each place is special.

Tikal is one of the most popular Mayan sites in Central America primarily because it is largest site yet discovered and excavated; it is filled with climbable temples and buildings of all shapes and sizes. In its prime, Tikal was the capital of the largest Mayan kingdom. Because of its sheer size Tikal was the leader in economic, military, and cultural pursuits, and the city was heavily involved in trade and skirmishes with cities throughout the region.

Mayan ruins tikal main plaza

 Tikal is truly spectacular.

Alternatively, El Mirador is one of the more remote Mayan sites, and you’re unlikely to see many strolling around these ruins. While it takes a trek of a few days to reach the site, it’s worth it to see the tallest temple the Mayans ever created: the 60-foot-tall El Tigre. You’ll also see ingenious Mayan infrastructure in the many preserved causeways linking important pieces of the site together. Unfortunately, due to destruction caused by deforestation and looting, El Mirador is falling apart. You can do what you can to help preserve this iconic site, and see it while you still can.

It’s easy to get a Mayan-packed vacation in Guatemala, all the while experiencing a Latin culture distinct from the familiar resorts of Mexico. Plus, you can get everything you want from your vacation budget if you book flights from

El Salvador

Just a short bus ride from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, travelers find what remains of the bustling Mayan metropolis of Joya de Ceren. These ruins are unlike any of the Mayan temples or cities anywhere else because Joya de Ceren did collapse due to the Spanish invasion; rather, the Mayans lost this city during the devastating eruption of Lagunda Caldera Volcano at the end of the sixth century. Thus, these ruins are much more similar to those you’d see in Pompeii, Italy — but with a Mayan twist.

Mayan ruins joya de ceren


Like Pompeii, the volcanic ash preserved the city perfectly, right down to half-eaten food abandoned during the Mayan’s flight. While at other sites you may get a sense of the grandeur of the Mayan empire at its height, at Joya de Ceren feel the day-to-day experience of the Maya. With more than 18 different structures unearthed from the ash, including houses, storage buildings, a restaurant (or kitchen), and a sweat bath, this site still has much to teach us about small Mayan villages.


If you want to get to Lamanai, the Belize ruins, like the Mayans did, you’ll need to walk the 26-mile path along the New River — and daunting as it sounds, completing this journey is almost as rewarding as the seeing the ruins. The name Lamanai comes from the Maya phrase “submerged crocodile,” and it’s easy to see the hidden power of the place. Three huge temples, the Mask Temple, the Jaguar Temple, and the High Temple, jut prominently into the sky, while countless other structures remain unexcavated beneath the jungle growth.

Mayan temple belize

Lamanai was inhabited by the Mayans until late in the 17th century; the natives here were less than welcoming to the invading Spaniards, driving them out when they tried to establish their religion.


mayan ruins copan hondurasOf all the ruins, Copan is easily the most astounding of the Mayan ruins in Honduras, if not all of Central America. While Copan does have temples that rival the rest of the sites on this list, what is truly astounding about this Mayan settlement are the public squares, including the richly decorated and beautifully preserved Ceremonial Plaza full of ornate carvings on monoliths and altars. Additionally, Copan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway Plaza boasts the longest Mayan inscription yet found, consisting of more than 1,800 individual glyphs. Some archaeologists claim that Copan represents the ideal Mayan city.

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