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Our guest writer this week is travel journalist James Tennet, who is currently travelling around Mexico, his first stop on a journey through Latin America that will take in up to 16 countries over at least nine months. You can track James's progress at

For more from James elsewhere on Papagaio, read his recent article, On the Trail of the Maya.

1. Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá is numero uno in the Mayan ruin popularity stakes; officially a 'modern wonder of the world' and visited by over 3 million people every year. All this attention is not without reason. The main structure here – El Castillo – may not be the tallest or most beautifully adorned Mayan pyramid, but it is definitely the most authentically-restored and aesthetically-pleasing. The ingenious design is actually a giant Maya calendar that reveals a serpent-shaped shadow climbing the North staircase during the autumn and spring equinoxes. El Castillo is undoubtedly the main showpiece, but there is much else to admire here too - including the largest Mayan ball game court in Mexico, and the mesmerising 'Group of a Thousand Columns'. Entrance is 166 Mexican pesos. Open 8am-6pm.

Stone sculpture

2. Palenque

Rising out of the Gulf Coast plain, the hilltop ruins of Palenque – surrounded by a dense, dark green forest and featuring some the of the best-preserved and intricate Mayan architecture anywhere – are a must-see for any self-respecting Maya enthusiast. The complete site includes hundreds of structures spread over 15 sq. km, but the main core of fully excavated buildings occupies a fairly compact central area. The two most impressive of these structures stand just inside the entrance: the Templo de las Inscripciones and El Palacio. The latter is the larger, comprising a multitude of corridors and rooms set around four main courtyards. However the Templo is arguably the more impressive and ornate of the two, with stairs leading down from its tower into the tomb of Pakal (the 7th century ruler who oversaw the construction and masterminded the rise in prominence of this once great Mayan city). Entrance is 51 pesos. Open 8am-5pm.


3. Ek Balam

When compared to the other sites in this list, Ek Balam is more of a work in progress. Excavations and restorations are ongoing and new attractions are slowly being uncovered and opened to the public, but much of the area is still shrouded in vegetation. Don't let this put you off; the centrepiece structure, The Acropolis, is worth the visit alone. Featuring a huge, climbable pyramid (reaching 32m into the sky) set atop a massive 160m long base, the views it offers are phenomenal. On a clear day you can make out the pyramids of other nearby ruins, including Chichén Itzá and Coba. The Acropolis is fully restored and features many beautiful statues, stuccos and carvings. Entrance is 31 pesos. Open 8am-4.30pm.

El Castillo, Chichen Itza

4. Calakmul

Calakmul is further off the beaten track than the other ruins included in this list, but it is a site of great historical significance with around 7,200 Mayan remnants spread out over a 72 sq. km area. One of the highlights is Estructura II, an enormous pyramid covering almost 2 hectares of land (one of the largest known Mayan structures). The ruins themselves are surrounded by the Calakmul Biosphere reserve – a vast rainforest that merges with many of the ancient structures, blurring the boundary between natural and man-made structures and bringing a vast array of tropical flora and fauna into the complex. This provides an extra incentive to arrive early as you will be more likely to see a variety of unique wildlife (including, if you're extra lucky, the notoriously elusive Jaguar). Entrance is 41 pesos. Open 8am-4.30pm.

Remote city

5. Tulum

Despite the fact that the ruins here are on a smaller scale and may therefore be considered less spectacular than those elsewhere in Mexico, the Tulum site certainly boasts the most spectacular location. Perched on a sheer clifft-op, overlooking the flawless turquoise-blue expanse of the Caribbean Sea, the views here are truly breathtaking. You can even visit in your swimsuit and take a quick dip at the beach contained within the complex. The Mayan structures show less impressive workmanship than other sites but it's still worth taking an hour or so to look around (watch out for the hundreds of iguanas that make their home here). The primary reason to visit is the wow-factor provided by the location, and it's more than worth the trip just for that. Entrance is 51 pesos. Open 8am-4.30pm.


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