1 Chichén Itzá
The bloodthirsty rites, rich cosmologies and towering edifices of the once mighty Maya civilisation are the stuff of legend. There’s the sensational, sacrificial Platform of the Skulls, with its blood-curdling friezes of warring cadavers and stacked heads. Adjacent is the largest ballcourt in Mesoamerica, where carvings illustrate the grim fate of the losing team.
But other structures attest to the Maya rulers’ sensitive side: their love of art and knowledge of the heavens. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than El Castillo, a 98ft stepped pyramid dedicated to the feathered serpent god Kukulcan. Its proportions echo the Maya calendar, and around the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow ripples down the north steps like the body of a serpent, to meet a huge, carved snake’s head. Goosebumps guaranteed.
2 Ek’ Balam
This citadel is decorated with intricate, symbol-laden friezes moulded in stucco. In the past two decades, more than 40 buildings have been reclaimed from the jungle, including a pyramid housing the tomb of ninth-century ruler Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’. But perhaps the most remarkable are roads paved with white stone to reflect moonlight.
As well as its nightly sound and light show, don’t miss the well-preserved carvings on the Pyramid of the Magician, Nunnery Quadrangle and the Governor’s Palace. While Uxmal receives little traffic, quieter still are the nearby towns Sayil, Labna and Kabah; early birds are likely to have these ruins to themselves.
Clamber up the 130 steps of Nohoch Mul, one of the tallest pyramids in the region, for a superb view over the forest canopy. Cobá’s ruins and stelae (freestanding carvings of gods and rulers) are scattered over several miles, best explored by pedicab. As you leave, look out for crocodiles on the shores of Cobá’s lagoons.
One of the trickiest sites to reach, but arguably the most atmospheric. Of the city’s two pyramids, one is the tallest in Mexico. It’s a great place to get a feel for Maya royalty, too: over 100 stelae depict rulers and their wives. At night, string up a hammock at Yaax’Che Camping, inside the reserve. visitmexico.com
Published in the Trips of a Lifetime 2018 guide, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)