Back in 2007 I explored parts of Central America (Southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras) and some of the Mayan sites within those countries. Here are my Top 5:
1. Tikal, Guatemala
My favourite Mayan site is this one, near the lakeside town of Flores. The National Park (and World Heritage Site) is surrounded by jungle and if you are interested in wildlife you will probably find you come across quite a bit in your visit. Birdwatchers would be advised to take a dawn walk as apparently this is an amazing opportunity to see the natural birds as well as the ruins. I went after this, and loved the jungle, the ruins and the whole ‘Lost World’ feel. If you climb up the top of some of the ruins (you can do this in Guatemala but not in Mexico) you see a jungle surrounding you, dotted with further ruins, and you could be forgiven for thinking that modern civilisation is a lot further away than it actually is.
2. Palenque, Mexico
Based close to the town of the same name in Chiapas, Southern Mexico this is another jungle based site. If you are fit and able try and get a guide to give you a jungle walk first, arriving from the jungle to see the Temple of the Sun is far better than the approach from the coach park. Although much of the ruins are off limits as far as climbing is concerned, you can climb the Temple of the Count. For small people – those Mayans made some big steps! Here you will get excellent views of the rest of the site.
3. Chichen itza, Mexico
This is a beautiful, pristine site based a few hours outside Merida in Mexico’s Yucatan region. It is also accessible from the popular tourist destination of Cancun. If you are in this neck of the woods and only able to do one site then this is one is a good one to go to. Make sure you have a good guide, and you will find yourselves transported to the world of Apocolypto and the Ancient Mayan lifestyle. My only criticism in that the site can be a bit antiseptic, in that it is almost too clean and tidy, when the majority of sites are jungle based. Saying that is also very well preserved, although you can not climb El Castillo due to the Mexican government not wanting to be sued if you fell off!
4. Yaxchillan, Mexico
Just lying on the Mexican-Guatemalan border on the river Usumacinta, in the Chiapas region of Mexico this site can only be accessed by boat. It is a small site compared to the others in this list, and only parts of it are in good condition, some parts are very much in ruins. Like most it is surrounded by jungle, and living in the trees are howler monkeys, which actually roar rather than howl. Picture yourself surrounded by ancient ruins, a river and jungle on all sides, and hearing the roar of all these monkeys? I felt like I was in Jurassic Park and half expected a T-Rex to charge out the jungle. Definitely worth the boat trip for the atmosphere is nothing else. Also, bring a torch as you can go inside some of the buildings.
5. Copan, Honduras.
Based just outside the small town of Copan Ruinas, near the Guatemalan border, this site still has lots of excavations going on. As a site this is noted for its carvings and stelae, as well as the hieroglyphic stairway. It is not particularly large, but is quite compact with all the main aspects of the site being close together.