10 Most Beautiful Surviving Maya Pyramids

One of the most cited classical Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya, originated in the Yucatan in around 2600 B.C. They were a phenomenal bunch of cultural abundance whose works heralded as milestones in and around present-day Mexico, Guatemala, parts of Belize, and Honduras. 

Among other astounding inventions of the Maya, perhaps the most stunning is the tall structure flaunting their intricate and elaborate architecture, known as the Pyramid. There are many surviving places, temples and pyramids that spin the zeitgeist of a typical Maya civilization-all of them built without using metal tools. 

Today we enlist the ten most beautiful and enduring repositories of 4,000-year-old Mayan architectural significance, the Pyramids. 

10. Lamanai

The high temple of Lamanai situated in the north of Belize
The high temple of Lamanai situated in the north of Belize
Source: Wikimedia Common

Did you know only about the great pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx? Well, take a break and explore the hidden cove in northern Belize called the Lamanai ruins of Maya. 

Lamanai was a focal point in trade during the Early Preclassic Maya period, which sustained over three millennia, still thriving in the Spanish and British Colonial periods into the 20th century. It was not just an occupational site, but an outstretched and magnificent Maya city itself. 

Fortunately, it acquired its old name Lamanai or submerged crocodile in the Maya language even after the Spanish invasion in their city. It scores Lamanai a place in one of the few monuments to retain their original names. As the name suggests, figurines of crocodiles dot the site. 

It boasts 950 acres of land and as one of the largest sites in Belize, features numerous minor structures, a ball court and other figurines. The most notable, however, is the High Temple (the third tallest Maya structure of Belize), which is 33 metres tall. There is also the Temple of the Mask, representation of an Olmec God; the Maya Sun God and the Temple of the Jaguar Masks. 

A fun fact is that researchers have explored only 5% of this ancient ruin. Therefore, a mysterious chunk of Lamanai lies submerged under a thick jungle. It also houses the ruins of a sugar mill dating to the 19th century and Catholic church of the 16th century.  

9. Coba 

Painting Complex in Coba
Painting Complex in Coba
Source: Wikimedia Common

Coba was a Maya settlement situated between two water bodies, the Coba Lagoon and the Macamxoc Lagoon at an area of more than 80 square kilometres. In the Maya dialect, it means waters stirred by the wind, which is an appropriate name based on its geographical layout. 

It is a true wonder of the Yucatan, featuring a vast land, breathtaking water bodies, a canopy of widespread thickets and most importantly, Nohoch Mul, the highest Maya monument there (137 feet in height). It also features ball courts and as many as 6,000 other minor structures. 

Still, its unique factor is that unlike other Maya ruins sites, it links the central monument with many other sites by over 50 sacbéob (white roads). The trinity of structures within the Coba ruins is Nohoch Mul; Conjunto Pinturas, a sanctuary for spirituality and Macanxoc, which is near the lagoon bearing the same name. 

The sizable land was initially an agricultural hub with not many people. Irrigated by two naturally occurring lagoons, the production was prolific. It attracted settlements. 

It was not until the 1920s when it was discovered due to its inaccessibility and still, most of it remains unexplored. 

8. Caracol

Amazing view from top os Caracol
Amazing view from top os Caracol
Source: Wikimedia Common

With an area of more than 65 square miles, Caracol is the largest Maya site in Belize. Despite its ancient name being Uxwitza (Place of Three Hills) and its Early Classic name, Ux Witz Ajaw, an archaeological commissioner named it as Caracol, meaning snail in Spanish for the roads to the site resembled the circular conch of a snail. 

It was rediscovered only in the 1920s, initially by a woodcutter and later by archaeologists. When uncovered, the site revealed one of the oldest carved stelae and others that were at least 24,00 years old. The most notable discovery is the Caana (Sky Palace), the tallest structure ever made by man in Belize with a height of about 141 feet. 

Alongside Canna and stelae, it boasts many altars, ball courts, plazas, observatories, acropolis, over 35000 buildings and numerous tombs. Yet, it is what had surfaced during the excavations. A larger part of Caracol remains untouched, covered by the thick and lush Belizian jungles. 

However, a recent study of Caracolian glyphs dictates its victory over a city-state, Tikal, reflecting its power and glory during its days. 

7. Copan 

The famous site of Copan
The famous site of Copan
Source: Wikimedia common

Away from Mexico, we now land amidst Honduras, where one of the most peculiar pyramids resides: Copan, built three thousand years ago when it was one of the vertices of the Maya sites for trading purposes. The area of Copan consists of a singular tall pyramid and surrounding structures, each designed to serve a different purpose. 

Amongst other structures were a sacrificial altar, ritualistic accessories, figures of ancient gods and a stadium, where presumably the competitions took place. Today, it falls under a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. 

Heavily influenced by the Teotihuacan, it was a traditional agricultural site with over 20,000 residents at the peak of its time. The Copan covered some 250 acres, with a 30-metre tall artificial platform forming an acropolis of 12 acres. Some other monuments such as courts also dot the site but are smaller. 

It is known for numerous remarkable carved stelae, especially portrait stelae. These and the sculptured decorations are the surviving art of ancient Maya. Some of them were as old as the 19th century B.C. The highest peak of Copan is Temple 16, which is about 30 meters (100 feet) above the Great Plaza.

6. Tulum 

Temples - God of Wind and Castillo on left and right, respectively
Temples – God of Wind and Castillo on left and right, respectively
Source: Wikimedia Common

Traditionally, Tulum was named Zamá in Maya language, translating to a place of the dawning sun. It is, for its view of the Caribbean and the rising as well as the setting sun, named well.

It was a protected fortress used for the seaport, fortified by colossal limestone walls from three directions and the ocean cliff at the fourth side. When it rose to prominence, about 1600 people inhabited the place. It was a trading hub, where jade and turquoise, etc. were exchanged. 

Tulum is a bundle of ceremonial monuments, all-encompassing within a picturesque background. Some of the most important structures are the El Castillo (the Castle), which used to be a lighthouse. 

Other major attractions are the Temple of Frescoes opposite to the Castle, with colourful murals inside; the House of the Columns, a complex supported by sky-reaching columns; the House of the Halach Uinic, the preserved house of the halach uinic (high-priest). 

All in all, the beautiful setting sun amplifies the beauty of the site in Tulum while the crashing waves reverberate the sacred energy of the Maya world. 

5. Calakmul 

Calakmul - a monument in Mexico
Calakmul – a monument in Mexico
Source: Wikimedia Common

The majestic pyramids of the Calakmul are named Structure I and Structure II. These stone blocks with various tiers were built when the site was flourishing, during the 2nd to the 7th century. 

Within the conserved area lie about a hundred unique structures with the largest one being 140 meters tall. 

Covered by impassable jungle, it was only unveiled in the 1930s by an American researcher. They discovered more than 4900 buildings of different purposes within. Now, enlisted under the World Historical Site by UNESCO

Ca means two, lak means adjacent and mul translates to a pyramid from Maya language. Therefore, it means City of the Two Adjacent Pyramids. The city survived for roughly twelve centuries (550 B.C.- 900 A.D). And its ancient name was Ox Te’ Tuun (Three Stones). 

During its peak period, it inhabited over 50,000 people, 6700 monuments and several sacbeob for trade and 117 stelae pairs of their ruler couples. With an area of more than 27 square miles, it houses more structures than any of the Maya ruins of that region. 

Structure II is more than 45 metres (148 feet) in height, which is one of the tallest amongst the Maya buildings. Therefore, Calakmul is an ancient structure-rich gem that offers incredible views from towering pyramids. 

4. Palenque 

Collage of images of Palenque from different angles
Collage of images of Palenque from different angles
Source: Wikimedia Common

The Palenque pyramids grace their countenance atop the Tumbalá mountains, overlooking a jungle. The Maya builders have skillfully balanced the architecture of the temples with the existing landscape. It is more like a harmonious artful site, enlisted by UNESCO as the World Heritage Site. 

Usumacinta River is nearby, which was used as a means of transport by the citizens of the Palenque in ancient times. Not only that, one of its tributaries, the Otulum was channelled into a pressurized canal, for the first time in the world. 

While many details are yet unknown, it is for sure that the Palenque is one of the favourite sites to study for archaeologists. They have estimated its area to be 1780 hectares, including more than a thousand buildings. Yet, it is only less than 10% of the whole city. 

The time of its flowering was during the 7th century, while mostly inhabited from 226 B.C. to 799 A.D. During its period, it dominated regions of five countries: El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. 

The major highlights of this site are the Temples of the Crosses Group, boasting intricate carvings and ritualistic signs of the Maya gods; the Temple of Inscriptions, ornately carved interior that also covers the tomb of King Pakal. 

3. Uxmal

Uxmal - Pyramid of the Magician
Uxmal – Pyramid of the Magician
Source: Wikimedia Common

Uxmal translates to thrice-built, referring to the Pyramid of the Magician, erected over the remaining pyramids. The Pyramid of the Magician is also the highest structure of that area, standing 117 feet (38 metres).

The surrounding area of Uxmal lacked any water sources. Thus, they honoured Chac (the God of Rain in Maya) at Uxmal. It was different from other Maya structures that had an on-site cenote or a fresh water supply. Another distinct feature is its architecture which is purely Maya or Puuc style, unlike other pyramids. 

The other highlights are The Pyramid of the Magician (built over five superimposed building), The Nunnery Quadrangle (The Nunnery), The Palace of the Governor, (the epitome of the Puuc architecture), House of the Turtles (carved with turtles on the walls) and the Temple of the Doves (whose roof looks like a dovecote).

The 90 steps reaching to the pinnace of the Uxmal are very steep, forming a 60 degree angle. The doorway into the temple on the top aligns with the setting sun on April 12 and August 31. These dates are significant in the Maya calendar for tracking the Sun’s zenith. 

2. Tikal 

Picture of Tikal (Guatemala) taken on August 2006
Picture of Tikal (Guatemala) taken on August 2006
Source: Wikimedia Common

Nestled deep within the dense rainforests of northern Guatemala, lies the ruins of a once-thriving ancient Maya world, the Tikal. Researchers said that the site encloses about 3000 structures, some of them dating back to the 4th century. The Tikal houses the relics of the capital city of an ancient kingdom, Yax Mutal. It was a powerful city of the Maya empire during 200-900 A.D. 

Heliographic records suggested that the Mayan ruler, Yax Ehb Xook ruled most of its parts, especially the low-lands. The city went on to inherit his name as Yax Mutal. Archaeologists have found traces of agricultural activities and the remains of ceramics around the site, meaning it had been of agricultural, religious, military and political importance during their reign. 

The significant buildings are The Great Plaza, the central site; The Acropolis, main palace of the rulers; The North Acropolis; The Mundo Perdido; The Temple of the Great Jaguar, the burial site. Additionally, there persists evidence of ball court and several sacbeob or paved pathways.  

It also features Temple IV; standing at a 230-feet height, it is the tallest pre-Columbian monument. Several carved stone monoliths depict the rituals of ancient times. It lies within the biosphere preserve of the Peten rainforest, which is still awaiting to unveil other mysteries of the Maya civilization. 

1. Chichen Itza   

El Castillo - Pyramid of Kukulcan
El Castillo – Pyramid of Kukulcan
Source: Wikimedia Common

Derived from Maya, Chichen Itza is a string of words yielding different meanings. Chi means mouth or edge; che’en means well. Together, it means at the edge of the Itza’s well. Itza was the dominant ethnic group in northern Yucatan itz means magic and á means water), also known as Water Magicians.

The design of Chichen Itza is incredibly urbane and possesses a peculiar set of veneers. The structure, architecture and tiers are such that it aligns at Spring Equinox and one can witness a beautiful dance of light and darkness upon the stairs of the Kukulkan Pyramid. A shadow of the serpent descends on the terraces, signifying the cultural importance of the plethora of Yucatan snakes in their area. It is also evidently the best time of the year to visit the site. 

The architecture of the buildings are very planned as well as constructed in clusters. At the centre of it all lies the El Castillo (Temple of Kukulkan), a pyramid built over an older temple. Besides this, the others include the Great North Platform, the Ossario Group, the Central Group and the Old Chichen. Among them, the most visited site is the Great North Pyramid, housing the Kukulkan Pyramid and the Temple of the Jaguars. 

It is well-known that the Mayas were visionary astronomers. Towards the north of the Kukulkan Pyramid is a place devoted to planet Venus (Platform of the Venus), whose positions in the sky had a distinctive effect on them. When clapped from the Kukulkan Pyramid, we can hear an echo resembling that of a serpent. Similarly, when clapped from an end of the Ball Court, it reverberates nine times from the middle. There is also a natural cave at The Ossario Group and a sacred cenote nearby. Indeed, it is a wonder of the world. 

This culturally rich site serves as a pilgrimage and is one of the most visited places in Mexico. It has been enlisted under the Seven Wonders of the World along with the World Heritage Site by UNESCO. 

Conclusion 

Inheriting the ideas and inventions of the previous civilization, the Mayas expounded their techniques of pressurized canals and astronomy. They were the best in agriculture, politics, culture, religion and commerce. Yet, the most incredible testimony of their existence is naturally the pyramids. 

These stone blocks, made without using tools or any formal architectural knowledge, are meticulously built using naturally occurring stones. What is more interesting is that most of these revelations are only the tip of the iceberg as more than 80% of the ancient ruins are yet to be unearthed, while the reasons for abandoning these sites are also obscure. 

All in all, these fine pieces of historical sentiments are the most famous, most beautiful, and the most mysterious. 

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Cite this article as: Sandhya Ghimire, "10 Most Beautiful Surviving Maya Pyramids," in HistoryTen, November 19, 2020, https://historyten.com/mayan-civilization/most-beautiful-surviving-maya-pyramids/.
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