The Temple of the Inscriptions is the most famous structure in Palenque. (Photo: Images )
Among the most prominent historic attractions in Mexico and Central America are the sprawling stone cities erected by the Maya, a civilization that first appeared in 1800 B.C. and vanished by the 16th century. The centerpieces of many Mayan sites are stepped pyramids that served as temples, funerary monuments and, in some cases, both. Due to safety and conservation concerns, visitors are no longer allowed to climb many of the most important pyramids.
The Mayan pyramid that most readily comes to mind is the Pyramid of Kukulcan on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, which is part of the Chichen-Itza ruins. The temple was dedicated to the plumed serpent god. Ideally, your visit would coincide with the summer or autumnal equinox, when diamond-shaped shadows reminiscent of a slithering snake unfold on the northern balustrade throughout the day until arriving at the sculpture of a snake's head on the ground. The event is known as the "descent of Kukulcan."
The tallest and best-known structure at the ruins of Uxmal in the the state of Yucatan in Mexico is the Pyramid of the Magician. Its name stems from a myth that attributes its construction to a dwarf with magical powers said to have erected the pyramid overnight. The Pyramid of the Soothsayer, as it is also known, is exemplary of Puuc-style architecture and one of few known pyramids with rounded sides. Ascending the pyramid is no longer possible.
Perched on a cliff by the sea, the most prominent building at the ruins of Tulum in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo is known as El Castillo, or the Castle. The staircase that leads to the temple at the summit is no longer accessible to the public.
The ruins of Coba, a Mayan city-state that flourished between A.D. 632 and 800, are also located in the state of Quintana Roo. Here visitors can climb the highest pyramid, Nohoch Mul, which at 193 feet high offers the best view of the surrounding lowlands and forests. Also noteworthy, but not climbable, is the Iglesia, or Church, pyramid, the site's second largest.
In Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, lies the Mayan city of Palenque, which archaeologists date to A.D. 200. Palenque's crowning jewel is the Temple of the Inscriptions, which houses the sarcophagus of Pacal the Great, who ruled from A.D. 615 to 683. As its name suggests, the pyramid has yielded insight into Mayan history through the extensive hieroglyphic texts found within. Though the crypt is not open to the public, Palenque is nonetheless one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico, according to "National Geographic."
The foremost Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala is the city-state of Tikal, home to five pyramids. Most buildings here were constructed between A.D. 250 to 900. Frommer's recommends watching a sunset from atop the tallest of Tikal's pyramids, Temple IV, which at 213 feet ranks among the world's largest Mayan structures. It is no longer possible, however, to climb the best-known of Tikal's pyramids, the Temple of the Great Jaguar.
One of the largest and most-famous Mayan sites in Belize is Caracol, approximately 5, 000 structures of which have been mapped. Caracol boasts the country's largest man-made structure, a 143-foot pyramid known as Canaa, which you can climb for a fantastic view of the rain forest that surrounds it.
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