Scattered throughout Guatemala, Belize and Mexico are a great variety of fascinating ancient Mayan ruins. The most popular sites, such as Tikal (Guatemala), Palenque (Mexico) and Caracol (Belize) have become rather too frequently visited by tourists. Even worse are the throngs of holidaymakers who take day trips from the dreaded Cancun (Mexico) to visit the now over-run Aztec site of Chitchen Itza. Here I’ll mention some just as spectacular Mayan ruins that don’t have any crowds. These are the real “Lost Cities” - prepare for a remote, adventurous, spiritual travel experience…
El Mirador, Guatemala
Twice as big as Tikal, excavations only recently began at El Mirador, which is found deep in the jungle to the North of Tikal, close to the border with Mexico. Historically very important, it is thought that El Mirador was the focal point of the Mayan civilisation from 200 BC to 150 AD, with a population reaching 80,000 people. The dominant feature of the site are two huge pyramids – some of the highest discovered in the Maya world. El Mirador is like an unexcavated Tikal, without any crowds. It’s an adventurous 5-6 day (round trip) jungle trek from the village of Carmelita – you’ll pass some smaller Mayan sites en route.
Rio Azul, Guatemala
Rio Azul lies deep in the Eastern Jungles of Guatemala, not far from the border with Belize. The site, 100km North East of Tikal, is only accessible during the dry season in 4WD – travel is via the not quite as remote ruins at Uaxactun. Some visitors spend 5 days hiking to these ruins from Uaxactun, but it’s possible to visit in 4WD too. The site covers 300 hectares and the population is believed to have reached 5000 at Rio Azul’s peak around AD 500. There are several particularly fascinating multi-coloured tombs here (see photo)– sadly most were looted in the 70’s.
There are 6000 structures spread over 10 square km at this very large Mayan site in Mexico’s Campeche state. Once populated by up to 50,000 people, Calakmul is now found surrounded by the thick forest of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (see photo above). This amazing Mayan site would be much more heavily visited if it wasn’t in the middle of nowhere – it’s a 2 hour drive from the city of Xpujil, which itself isn’t close to anywhere of particular interest to most visitors to Mexico. Expect to see large, dramatic Mayan structures and only a handful of other tourists. Many who have visited numerous ancient sites in Mexico rate this as the most impressive and special of all. Just get a hire car from somewhere in the Yucatan Peninsula and get some directions…
Piedras Negras, Guatemala
Piedras Negras is one of the most remote Maya sites in Central America, and receives just a couple of hundred visitors per year. Found in the rainforest wildnerness of Peten Region in North Western Guatemala, the only way to visit this spectacularly located site is by organized tour. Part of the fun is getting here – by boat from either Bethal or Frontera Corozal (Mexico). Piedras Negras itself is located on the banks of the Rio Usumacinta, which is the largest river in Central America and divides Guatemala and Mexico. The site itself is pretty much deserted, unexcavated and most of it unexplored. There are various petroglyphs, carvings, stelae, temples and plazas at this lost city in the jungle.