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Where to see Mayan ruins without the crowds

VirtualTourist.com picks the top not-so-busy sites to visit in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala

Most scientists don’t believe those interpretations claiming the Mayan calendar fixed Dec. 21 as the end of the world. However, if there are only a handful of weeks left, we should pay our respects to the civilization that gave us the “heads up.”

Although many travelers are satisfied with visiting the better-known Chichen Itza and Tikal, VirtualTourist.com compiled a list of “Top Less Crowded Mayan Ruins and Sites.”

Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico

One of the most important cities of Mayan civilization, Calakmul was once home to more than 50,000 inhabitants. Its golden age was in the Classic period (A.D. 250-900), when it battled for dominance of the central Mayan area. Many visitors might focus on the 6,000 structures within the city, but it’s equally important to experience the surrounding Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, which encompasses about 292,600 acres of protected land and wildlife. While the reserve is a paradise for bird watching, the site itself is a hotbed of stone monuments that were popular and characteristic of the Mayan civilization.

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Palenque reached its peak between A.D. 600 and 800. Along with Tikal and Calakmul, it was one of the most powerful Classic Mayan cities. Much of the architecture (tilted facades on the buildings, stucco-sections) is unique. One of the most notable aspects of Palenque is Temple XIII, where the Tomb of the Red Queen was found in 1994. This tomb was entirely covered in red cinnabar. Get to the park early in the morning, since the mist is great for photographs, and the site’s location in southern Mexico means very hot afternoons.

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

Located on a bend in the Usumacinta River, Yaxchilan exhibits strategic planning. Even today, Yaxchilan can only be reached by lancha (small boat) up the river. Keep an eye out for the image of Bird Jaguar, which can be found throughout the site, particularly on stone monuments standing over the plaza and on the staircase.

Edzna, Campeche, Mexico

Despite being one of the most significant Mayan ruins, Edzna receives fewer visitors in a year than Chichen Itza does in a day. The city’s architecture reflects an amalgamation of differing cities and influences. The city reached its peak during the late Classic period, with a gradual decline beginning around 1000 and its abandonment in 1450.

Since the city was in a valley, it had frequent flooding problems, which prompted the creation of a complex network of canals. The canals were used for trade and transportation, as well as defense, and gave the city an agricultural edge over other cities in the region.

Ek Balam, Yucatan, Mexico

Ek Balam, which means “black jaguar” in the Yucatec Maya language, is one of the few Mayan settlements that remained occupied until the arrival of the Spaniards. It is under active restoration, so visitors can get a great overview of the entire archaeological process. Ek Balam is also not nearly as crowded as other notable Yucatan Mayan sites, such as Chichen Itza and Uxmal. One unique aspect of this site is the 100-foot El Torre (or Acropolis) pyramid, which easily surpasses Chichen Itza’s El Castillo. You can still scale El Torre today – and from the top, see the ruins of Chichen Itza and Coba in the distance.

Quirigua, Guatemala

Quirigua (pronounced “Kiri-gua”) is a relatively small site, almost directly across the border from Honduras’ Copan. One of the monuments at Quirigua, known as “Stele E,” is the largest known quarried stone in the Maya world, standing 35 feet tall and depicting a Mayan lord over three times life size.

Cross the border and also visit Copan, since the two sites share so much history and Copan had such a large cultural influence in the Classic period. The must-see highlight at Copan is the Hieroglyphic Stairway.

El Mirador, Guatemala

Deep in Guatemala’s Peten jungle, El Mirador hides under 2,000 years’ worth of jungle overgrowth. El Mirador is actually over twice the size of Tikal, with a population of over 80,000 people between 300 B.C. and A.D. 150. El Mirador is only accessible by foot, horse, mule or helicopter, lying more than 37 miles from the nearest road.

Among the site’s many highlights is the Danta Pyramid, the tallest pyramid in the Maya region and one of the largest in the world, measuring 984 feet wide by 2,625 feet long and 236 feet high.

Lamanai, Orange Walk, Belize

Lamanai – the Mayan word for “submerged crocodile” – was aptly named. Not only do crocodiles appear in the site’s effigies and decorations, but you are likely to see crocodiles while trying to get there.

The most notable among this site’s ruins is the Mask Temple. It is also interesting to note that the facial features of the masks are clearly related to the Olmec, the first major civilization in Mexico.

Caracol, Cayo District, Belize

Despite being about 50 miles from the nearest town, there are 11 causeways into Caracol, signifying the importance of transportation routes throughout the site.

Additionally, the excavation data suggests that the social organization of the settlement included not only elites and specialists living in the urban centers with peasants living on the peripheral, but also a sizable “middle class.” There is also evidence of artesian specialization.

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