10 “must-see” Mayan temples

The Maya civilization was a Mesoamerican civilization developed by the Maya peoples, and noted for its hieroglyphic script—the only known fully developed writing system of the pre-Columbian Americas—as well as for its art, architecture, mathematics, calendar, and astronomical system.

The Maya civilization developed in an area that encompasses southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. This region consists of the northern lowlands encompassing the Yucatán Peninsula, and the highlands of the Sierra Madre, running from the Mexican state of Chiapas, across southern Guatemala and onwards into El Salvador, and the southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain.

1 : Chichen Itza – Temple of Kukulcan

Chichen Itza was a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya and was a major focal point in the Northern Maya Lowlands from the Late Classic (c. AD 600–900) through the Terminal Classic (c. AD 800–900) and into the early portion of the Postclassic period (c. AD 900–1200).

El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, is a Mesoamerican step-pyramid that dominates the center of the Chichen Itza archaeological site in the Mexican state of Yucatán. Built by the pre-Columbian Maya civilization sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries AD, El Castillo served as a temple to the god Kukulkan, the Yucatec Maya Feathered Serpent deity closely related to the god Quetzalcoatl known to the Aztecs and other central Mexican cultures of the Postclassic period.

Chichen Itza - Temple of Kukulcan
Chichen Itza – Temple of Kukulcan

2: Uxmal – Pyramid of the Magician

Uxmal is an ancient Maya city of the classical period in present-day Mexico. The dates of occupation are unknown and the estimated population (about 15,000 people) is a rough guess. Most of the major construction took place while Uxmal was the capital of a Late Classic Maya state around 850-925 AD. After about 1000 AD, Toltec invaders took over, and most building ceased by 1100 AD.


The Pyramid of the Magician is a Mesoamerican step pyramid, also known as the Pyramid of the Dwarf, Casa el Adivino, and the Pyramid of the Soothsayer. Construction of the first pyramid temple began in the 6th century AD and the structure was expanded over the next 400 years. The pyramid fell into disrepair after 1000 A.D. and was thereafter looted during the Spanish Conquest of Yucatán.

Uxmal – Pyramid of the Magician

3 : Palenque – Temple of the Inscriptions

Palenque, also anciently known as Lakamha, was a Maya city state in southern Mexico that flourished in the 7th century. The Palenque ruins date from ca. 226 BC to 799 AD. After its decline, it was absorbed into the jungle of cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla trees, but has since been excavated and restored by archaeologists.

The Temple of the Inscriptions “House of the Nine Sharpened Spears” is the largest Mesoamerican stepped pyramid structure at Palenque constructed a short time after 683.

The structure was specifically built as the funerary monument for K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, a ruler of Palenque in the 7th century whose reign over the polity lasted almost 70 years. Construction of this monument commenced in the last decade of his life, and was completed by his son and successor K’inich Kan B’alam II.

Palenque - Temple of the Inscriptions
Palenque – Temple of the Inscriptions

4 : Tikal – Temple of Ah Cacao / Temple of the Great Jaguar

Tikal is the ruin of an ancient city, which was likely to have been called Yax Mutal, found in a rainforest in Guatemala. Temple 1 or Temple of Ah Cacao  was a funerary temple associated with Jasaw Chan K’awiil I, a Classic Period ruler of the polity based at Tikal, who ruled from AD 682–734. The tomb of this ruler has been located by archaeologists deep within the structure (the tomb having been built first with the temple being raised over it).

The temple rises 47 meters (154 ft) over the Great Plaza and is topped by a funerary shrine, containing finely carved wooden lintels from sapodilla wood.

Tikal – Temple of Ah Cacao / Temple of the Great Jaguar

5 : Coba – Ixmoja Pyramid

Coba is an ancient Mayan city on the Yucatán Peninsula, located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. The site is the nexus of the largest network of stone causeways of the ancient Mayan world, and it contains many engraved and sculpted stelae that document ceremonial life and important events of the Late Classic Period (AD 600–900) of Mesoamerican civilization.

The site contains several large temple pyramids, the tallest, in what is known as the Nohoch Mul group of structures, being some 24 metres (79 ft) in height. Ixmoja is the tallest pyramid on the Yucatán peninsula.

Ixmoja Pyramid
Coba – Ixmoja Pyramid

6 : Tulum – El Castillo

Tulum is the site of a pre-Columbian Mayan walled city serving as a major port for Cobá. The ruins are situated on 12-meter (39 ft) tall cliffs, along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya; it was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico.

In the central precinct is the Castillo, which is 7.5 m (25 ft) tall and constructed in stages on a previous colonnaded structure. A temple as well as a fortress, El Castillo was originally covered with stucco and painted red.

Tulum - El Castillo
Tulum – El Castillo

7 : Lamanai – The High Temple 

Lamanai is a Mesoamerican archaeological site, and was once a major city of the Maya civilization, located in the north of Belize.  Lamanai is renowned for its exceptionally long occupation spanning three millennia, beginning in the Early Preclassic Maya period and continuing through the Spanish and British Colonial periods, into the 20th century.

One of three prominent temples at Lamanai, the High Temple reaches a height of 33 metres (108 ft) and allows visitors to have panoramic views of the surrounding landscape above the tree canopies. The first phases of the temples construction dates back to 100BC, with a later modification in the late classic phase around AD 600.

High Temple of Lamanai
High Temple of Lamanai

8 : Calakmul – Temple II

Calakmul is a Maya archaeological site in the Mexican state of Campeche, deep in the jungles of the greater Petén Basin region. It is 35 kilometres (22 mi) from the Guatemalan border. Calakmul was one of the largest and most powerful ancient cities ever uncovered in the Maya lowlands.

Structure 2 (or Structure II) is a massive north-facing pyramid temple, one of the largest in the Maya world. Its base measures 120 metres (390 ft) square and it stands over 45 metres (148 ft) high. In common with many temple pyramids in the Mesoamerican cultural region, the pyramid at Calakmul increased in size by building upon the pre-existing temple in order to increase its bulk.

Calakmul - Temple I
Calakmul – Temple II

9 : Tazumal – Structure B1-1

Tazumal is a pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site in Chalchuapa, El Salvador. Tazumal is an architectural complex within the larger area of the ancient Mesoamerican city of Chalchuapa, in western El Salvador.

Structure B1-1 is the principal structure in the Tazumal group and dominates the complex. The pyramid underwent various phases of construction through the Classic and Early Postclassic periods. Structure B1-1 was built upon a basal platform, called the Great Platform by Boggs, that measures 73 by 87 metres (240 by 285 ft) (east-west by north-south).

The main pyramid B1-1 was built upon the Great Platform, behind the western platform and covering the original central temple. The Great Platform was remodelled at least three times before it reached its final dimensions.

Tazumal - Structure B1-1
Tazumal – Structure B1-1

10 : Yaxchilan – Structure 33

Yaxchilan is an ancient Maya city located on the bank of the Usumacinta River in what is now the state of Chiapas, Mexico. In the Late Classic Period Yaxchilan was one of the most powerful Maya states and the dominant power of the Usumacinta River area.

Structure 33, in the Central Acropolis, has been described as a masterpiece in stone and was probably dedicated in 756 by Bird Jaguar IV. The structure overlooks the plaza and the river and would have been prominent to river traffic in the 8th century. In centre of the back wall of the structure, opposite the central doorway, is a niche containing the headless sculpture of a human figure, probably Bird Jaguar IV himself.

Yaxchilan - Structure 33
Yaxchilan – Structure 33

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