Pyramids and Palaces
Palenque is the all-time favorite ruin of many travelers, thanks to its elegant architecture, intricate carvings, and superlative museum. Much of what archaeologists know about the Maya calendar, hieroglyphics, and astronomy emerged from studies conducted here.
Toniná is a terrific hillside ruin, featuring a labyrinthine palace and temples, morbid stucco friezes, and impressive views from its high-reaching summit. The site museum here is outstanding.
The Río Usumacinta Valley
Yaxchilán is one of Chiapas’s most enchanting ruins, an ancient city built on a lush hillside overlooking the Río Usumacinta. Getting there is half the fun: an hour-long boat ride down the river, with beefy crocs along the banks and howler monkeys in the trees.
Yaxchilán’s sister city is Bonampak, which has only modest structures but boasts some of the finest murals yet discovered in the Maya world. Housed in an innocuous-looking temple, the brightly colored frescoes depict events like the crowning of a boy king and a fierce jungle battle.
Plan de Ayutla is a unique off-the-beaten-path ruin that has not been formally restored (so there’s no ticket booth or even any signs). It is excavated enough to explore and appreciate the structures, including high vaulted sanctuaries, numerous temples, and a multilevel palace. Best of all, you’re almost certain to have the place to yourself.
The Lakes Region
Tenam Puente is built on a series of broad terraces, which mask the site’s true size and complexity. What looks like a low tree-covered hill in fact contains numerous impressive structures, making it a fun place to explore.
Cross your fingers that Chinkultik will be open—an impressive site, it’s at the center of a bitter dispute between local residents and federal overseers, and is often closed. The site is built on a rocky bluff overlooking a cenote where ceremonial items, and occasionally sacrificial victims, were cast.
The Museo Arqueológico de Comitán has an excellent collection of artifacts from nearby ruins, with a particular focus on funerary items—urns and incense burners, fine jade and obsidian carvings, and small ceramic figurines—all intended to adorn bodies and accompany departed souls into the next realm. A separate room, the Sala Tenam Puente, showcases items from Tenam Puente archaeological site.
Though not strictly an archaeological museum—and badly in need of a face-lift—the Museo Regional de Chiapas has a terrific section on ancient Maya development in Chiapas, including the most extensive and varied collection of artifacts in the state. Displays provide a great overview of the state’s main Maya centers and advancements, from prehistoric times to the present.
The Pacific Coast
Izapa dominated the coastal region for nearly a thousand years, so it’s no surprise that it’s the Pacific coast’s most important ruin. Though not as arresting as Palenque or Yaxchilán, Izapa is intriguing for its possible connection to the Olmecs (Mesoamerica’s first major civilization) and the high quality of its stelae and other carvings.
Museo Arqueológico del Soconusco, Tapachula’s archaeological museum, has an excellent collection of ancient Maya artifacts, including musical instruments and finely carved stelae, most from the nearby site of Izapa. It’s even got kid-friendly exhibits, like stelae rubbings and Náhuatl (Aztecan) vocabulary games.
© Liza Prado and Gary Chandler from Moon Chiapas, 1st Edition