Mesoamerica is a region encompassing central Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica. The term is used to identify this vast area on which empires thrived during the pre-Colombian era before the first European landed. Before visiting archaeological sites in this region, it is worth knowing a minimum about the different civilizations that existed in this part of the world and in which epoch. Before reading this article, I encourage you to read my previous post going over the different civilizations in Central America.
Temples on many sites in Central America will often show signs of multiple civilizations in their art, architecture, and layout. Existing structures were used to build a new layer on top. When archaeologists arrived at an Aztec site and started their excavating work, they often discovered a Toltec temple underneath or signs of one or more previous civilization on a single structure.
Our journey brought us to 9 sites so far, all worth visiting. However, the experience on a site could be amazing or bad for different reasons. I’ve listed them in the order we visited them.
Tula de Allende – Mexico
Having been in Mexico before, I visited Teotihuacan but it was the first-ever site for Tiph explaining the excitement in the air! Also known as Tollan, this site became the capital of the Toltecs after the fall of Teotihuacan around 980 AD. There were only 3 other visitors when we arrived in the morning setting us for a quiet visit. Some stalls were opening up as we walked in but the first tourists’ bus arrived as we walked out the site. On top of the main building are tall pillars, beautifully carved in the shape of Toltec warriors. These are referred to as the Atlantean figures and the first to have built such structures are the Olmecs. The base of the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl – or feathered-serpent – showcases a wall with beautiful bas-reliefs called the “serpent wall”, or Coatepantli. Carvings surround the base of the pyramid, sometimes showing the serpent eating skeletons.
Teotihuacan – Mexico
Ancient capital of the Aztecs, the site is located about an hour bus ride from Mexico City. This is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico, and it is easily understandable upon arriving on the site. Huge disappointment as sellers were spread around the ruins which was an annoyance at times and kind of ruined the experience for us. Luckily, the site is massive so they are not creating too much of a disturbance. Walking the Avenue of the Dead puts in perspective the enormity of the site. Under a searing sun, we joined the long queue to climb up the Pyramid of the Sun. Only then we saw how enormous the site was, making the queuing, also to come down of the Pyramid worth every minute. Perfectly placed at the centre at the end of the Alley of the Dead is the Pyramid of the Moon, another amazing place to have an overview of the site. Luckily, no queue this time to climb halfway up, the other half to the top not accessible. Most impressive is the symmetry of all the structures in front of us. We wandered for most of the day around the site and looking at the other buildings, some better conserved than others.
San Andres Cholula – Mexico
This site is located west of Puebla and dates back to the 2nd Century BCE. It is also known as Tlachihualtepetl, meaning “made-by-hand mountain” in Nahuatl language and refers to the large pyramid that once dominated Cholula. The pyramid is the largest in the world in terms of volume, but only a small portion has been excavated, leaving how huge it must have been to the imagination. After visiting the small but interesting museum, we entered long tunnels following the side of the un-earthen pyramid. Sometimes we passed the stairs going up and down the pyramid, some excavated to a point where we could not see the bottom or the top. It was indeed super large. After a few turns, we were back outside where we walked around some excavated buildings before walking up to the chapel sitting on top of the pyramid from where a 360 degrees view of the region is a feast for the eyes. Popocatepelt, the active volcano we passed a few days before, is spewing ash in the air and the colonial town of Cholula is visible. Not many tourists were on the site and very few sellers made for a nice visit.
Uxmal – Mexico
This is one of the most important Mayan sites in Mesoamerica where most construction works were done around 850-925 CE. Its UNESCO status makes it one of the most significant Mayan site and comes with a high price tag. However, this was the best architectural design and artwork we’ve seen of all the sites we visited, by far. The rain god, Chaac, with its large nose and two-headed snakes, is omnipresent around the site and superbly conserved. Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, is still a very good shape on buildings around the site. The best thing about this site is that sellers are left at the door, making it a joy to wander around the site. It’s also possible to walk in and around the buildings spread across the site relatively large. Going up the Pyramid of the Soothsayer, the view over the site is truly breathtaking. This was one of our favorite sites.
Coba – Mexico
Located on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, this Maya site has the largest network of stone causeways (called sacbe – plural sacbeob – by the Mayan) of the ancient Mayan world. Walking these paths in the thick jungle was great and really gave the impression of exploring ancient ruins, Indiana Jones style. Except for the tuk-tuks wanting to drive visitors around the site, sellers are left at the door and we could freely wander the large site in peace. It’s possible the rent a bike, but not bring your own which we didn’t try to understand. Some structures are left un-excavated, leaving a huge hill in the jungle as you walk by. The tallest pyramid, Nohoch Mul, is the second tallest on the Yucatan Peninsula. Climbing up is possible, but can give vertigo given its steepness, like Tiphaine discovered. The view from above is magnificent. Around the site are many stelae, some well-conserved are documenting ceremonial life of the time.
Chichen Itza – Mexico
This is a major Mayan site from AD 600 to AD 1200 hence a popular stop for visitors. Located on the Yucatan Peninsula where popular Cancun, Playa Del Carmen and Tulum welcome throng of tourists in their luxury hotels, Chechen Itza sees a lot of tourists. Most buildings are well preserved and maintained. El Castillo also known as the temple of Kukulcan, the Mayan name for Quetzalcoatl, dominates at the centre of it all. The Great Ball Court is the largest and best-preserved of its kind in Mesoamerica. The site is vast and there are lots to see with many of buildings to visit, though, it’s not possible to walk within the buildings just like we could at other sites like Uxmal, Tikal, Tulum and most of the other sites we’ve visited. Its UNESCO tag makes it an expensive site to enter, but the most detrimental to the experience was the sellers along the roads on site. Stalls lined up all along the paths within the place, sellers bothering visitors to purchase their souvenirs completely ruined the experience for us.
Tulum ruins – Mexico
Located on the coast of the Caribbean Sea, this Mayan site felt different from any other sites we visited before because of its location on the coast. We decided to visit the site early morning before the busload of tourists arrived and it paid off. We were mostly alone on the site as we started our exploration. The site is compact with all the buildings close to each other making for a quick visit, but when the busload of tourists is showing up it quickly becomes a nightmare. Luckily, we were leaving as groups after groups started crowding the site like ants. Walking inside the structures was restricted and most are nicely preserved.
Altun Ha – Belize
This was our only visit on an archaeological site in Belize. Located about 50kms north of Belize City, the site is in the jungle but neatly arranged. Right from our arrival, we liked the different look and feel of the buildings. We instantly liked the green, lush grass and moss left on the buildings giving a natural look, as if only parts have been excavated. The buildings blended in with the forest surrounding the site. Some structures had only their top fully excavated. Often, restorations works were done to show how the original wall was made using mud and twigs, using a minimum amount of concrete as opposed to what we saw previously in Mexico. In order to walk on top of the buildings, wooden stairs were made to prevent visitors from walking on the original stones to access the top. It’s possible to freely walk around the site without being harassed by touts wanting to sell a wooden jaguar head or a large blanket; they are outside the site. We visited the site mid-morning which meant bus loaded with visitors had not arrived yet. The small museum at the entrance showing some of the findings on the site is worth going. We had to fight our way around clouds of mosquitoes and the price entrance was reasonable. In general, we really liked the site.
Tikal – Guatemala
Circumstances leading to this site made it our favourite, hands down. On our way there, people from a village we passed had blocked the road, not allowing any vehicle to pass. They were protesting, rightly so, because they didn’t have water for 22 days in a row. Going around the blockade and under the yells, we pushed our bikes in the tall grass a few meters along the road. Back on the road, we were completely alone. We saw very little traffic all the way to the entrance of the national park where Tikal is, another 15 kilometres away. We decided to camp at the site and visit the following morning. On the way there we stop and admire howler and spider monkeys play in the trees or try to identify a kind of bird we haven’t seen before. The following morning, after being woken up by the roar of howler monkeys, we got the confirmation the road was still blocked. This meant no tourist bus had made it to the site and we likely would have the site to ourselves. We went to the gate and were given our wristband as we saw a young couple walking out the site, the only people we saw in the first 2 hours of our visit after which we saw 4 other tourists. We basically had the site to ourselves, making it a VIP experience for such an important site.
Located in the rainforest of northern Guatemala, Tikal was the capital of one of the most powerful Mayan kingdom and dominated the region in politics, economy, and military. Tikal was in contact with many regions in Mesoamerica, including Teotihuacan in Mexico who is believed to have conquered Tikal in the 4th century CE. The tallest pyramid built by the Mayan, reaching 70 meters high, is also the tallest pre-Colombian structure in the Americas. To climb it we used wooden stairs built so tourists are not damaging the original stairs, something we thought to be a great idea. Similar wooden stairs are present across the site, helping to preserve the original structures. Needless to say that the view from up there is spectacular. With nearly a 360 degrees view of the thick jungle all around we could see the other tall temples peeking through the canopy. This was postcard picture material. Similar to Altun Ha, the restoration work gave a look and feel of blending with the jungle which we really liked. Because Tikal is in the jungle and national park, wildlife is everywhere and preserved. There were monkeys going from tree to tree all around the site and countless birds chanting as we walked the path in the jungle from one section of the site to the other. We even got really close to a group of coatis with at least 25 members, digging the ground for food. The 5 hours it took to walk around the entire site and lay eyes on every structure were pure joy.
Visiting an ancient site in Central America is a great experience and everyone should put this on their to-do list, without a doubt. All the sites mentioned in this article are worth visiting, but everyone has their preferred and least favoured. For us, Chichen Itza was the worst mostly because of the vendors on the site. Our favourite, as mentioned earlier, was Tikal. All the other fall within the same category of good to visit.
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