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Mayan city ruins, Palenque, Mexico

Maya and Aztec Empires in Mesoamerica

Mayan city ruins, Palenque, Mexico

Of all the world's ancient civilizations there are few more famous than the Maya and Aztec empires which developed across Mexico and Central America, within the area known as Mesoamerica.

Maya empire

The Maya empire covered a huge area, stretching across the Mexican states of Chiapas, the Yucatán and Quintana Roo right down through Guatemala and Belize to Honduras. The Maya were highly intelligent, possessing great knowledge of astronomy, and were capable of advanced mathematical and calendrical calculations.

Aztec empire

The Aztec culture had a rich and complicated set of mythological and religious beliefs. One of these beliefs, which they dedicated to their gods, was human sacrifice. The cities themselves were dominated by giant stone pyramids topped by temples, many of which survive to this day.

These ancient civilizations had certain traits in common: they both had a form of writing, a calendar, a ball game, both built grand temples and had advanced agricultural methods. They were also distinct from each other in many respects and visiting their remains today makes for fascinating experience, not only to learn about the history, but also their unique settings.

Top 10 ancient civilizations of Central America & Mexico

Ruins at Tikal

Tikal & El Petén

The north of Guatemala, known as El Petén, is an area of lush lowland jungle whose depths conceal countless Maya ruins, half-buried and entwined by tree-roots and lianas.

Pyramid, Copán, Honduras


The Copán ruins are set in the hills in the west of Honduras, near the border with Guatemala and can be easily incorporated into a trip combining the two countries.

The View from on top of Caana, Caracol's and Belize's Tallest Buliding

Cayo District & Caracol

The Cayo District incorporates the forests of western Belize, centered around the town of San Ignacio, near to the border with Guatemala. Caracol is the largest Mayan archaeological site in Belize.

Palenque, Mexico


Mystical, jungle-clad Palenque is the largest and most famous of the Mayan sites, which once commanded an area stretching across the coastal plain as far as the Gulf of Mexico.

Teotihuacán, Mexico


Teotihuacán is a magnificent ancient Toltec city best known for its two main towering pyramids.

Chichén Itzá, Mexico

Chichén Itzá

The ruins at Chichén Itzá have most recently become one of the seven new wonders of the world. This ancient Mayan capital is the most famous of the archaeological zones in the Yucatán.

Pyramid of the Magician in Uxmal


The ruins of Uxmal are situated to the south of Mérida. Uxmal was an important city; probably built around 700 AD, although inhabitants are thought to have lived in the area as far back as 800 BC — nearly 1,000 years before the city was built.

Tulum, Mexico


The archaeological site of Tulum is spectacularly situated on a clifftop, majestically overlooking a palm-fringed beach and the turquoise Caribbean Sea.

Yaxchilan temple and surrounding jungle, Chiapas


Yaxchilan really is a lost city, still surrounded by jungle and vines. Your visit will be accompanied by the guttural growls of local howler monkeys, and toucans will be observing you from a distance.

Mural at Bonampak, Palenque


The excavated part of the lost city of Bonampak is relatively small and the main attraction is without doubt 'The Temple of the Frescoes'. Located inside are three carefully-restored frescoes depicting Mayan lords performing various rituals.

Read more about trips to Central America

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They're just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

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Further reading