Great story-tellers, obsessive star-gazers and meticulous time-keepers, the ancient Maya were also fabulous architects. Organized in city-states without a centralized capital, the Maya developed several architectural styles throughout the region they inhabited, with many cities displaying special architectural strengths in different areas. While the Maya region -- made up of present-day Mexico and northern Central America -- is packed with impressive archaeological sights, a few ruins and buildings stand out as especially important for their beauty and architecture.
Uxmal and the Governor's Palace
The ancient city of Uxmal in the Yucatan Peninsula is the heart of the Puuc region, known for its distinctively ornate architectural style. While the Maya often faced their buildings with decorated stucco, the Puuc region incorporated geometric design directly into the building stones. The Governor's Palace on the site is a prime example of Puuc architecture, an elevated palace crowned by a spectacularly intricate vault with abstract designs and carvings of mythical and religious figures. The oval-shaped Pyramid of the Soothsayer is also unique in Mayan architecture. Uxmal is about 50 miles south of the city of Merida in southern Mexico, accessible by car or public bus. The archaeological park is open all day for a flat entrance fee and presents a light and sound show at dusk.
Copan and the Hieroglyphic Stairway
The city of Copan in present-day Honduras is conspicuously short on the towering pyramids you might expect in an ancient Mesoamerican city. In their place, however, Copan has some of the most detailed sculptural work and extensive carved inscriptions in the Maya world. The Temple of the Inscriptions, for example, includes a stairway over 300 feet wide, with carved edges featuring more than 1,800 individual glyphs -- the longest known inscription in the Mayan world. The ruins -- open from dawn to dusk for a daily entrance fee -- are accessible by foot from the town of Copan Ruinas, near the Guatemalan border.
El Mirador and the La Danta Pyramid
Mayan architecture is better known for its details and proportions than size, but the main pyramid at El Mirador is one noticeable exception. The newly-discovered city in present-day Guatemala is attributed to the "pre-classical" period of Maya civilization, having thrived long before "classical" cities like Tikal and Copan reached their height. The city's tallest pyramid is still being excavated, but the pyramid of La Danta -- at 230 feet -- is already recognized as the tallest in the New World and, according to some archaeologists' calculations, may prove to be more massive than the Great Pyramid at Giza. The remote site of El Mirador is only accessible by foot, usually on planned 4-5 day excursions from the town of Carmelita in northern Guatemala.
Tikal and the Great Acropolis
The ancient city of Tikal reached levels of wealth and power experienced by few Mayan cities. At the center of the city is the Great Acropolis, with many of the structures built during the city's height. On one side of the acropolis rises a tall and slender pyramid -- almost resembling a modern skyscraper -- dedicated to one of Tikal's greatest kings. The rest of the square is surrounded by secondary pyramids and a huge ceremonial platform with numerous sculptures and smaller pyramids. The archaeological park -- a UNESCO world heritage site -- is accessible by bus from the city of Flores in northern Guatemala and open from early morning to dusk. Arrive early to experience the huge city with few visitors and lots of tropical birds and monkeys in the surrounding jungle.