Lonely Planet's top five ancient cities of Mexico
The temples of Palenque are stunning examples of Mayan architecture. (Ariadne Van Zandbergen/LPI)
Mexico is peppered with ruins from the Aztecs, Maya, Toltecs, Zapotecs and countless other ancient cultures. Besides the famous, spectacular ancient cities, more are still being discovered. Some smaller ruins are surprisingly beautiful, and many have spectacular hilltop or forest settings.
Remote and still-being-explored archaeological sites may unleash your inner Lara Croft just as effectively as the much-visited, better-known ones. Getting to them may be an adventure in itself, and sites that are only partly excavated and developed can leave more for the imagination to work with.
Deservedly one of the top destinations of Chiapas, the soaring, jungle-swathed temples of Palenque are a national treasure and one of the best examples of Mayan architecture in Mexico. Its exquisite design and carving are visible on palaces, temples and tombs, all with a backdrop of emerald-green, jungle-covered hills. Palenque has become a lifelong obsession for some archaeologists.
First occupied around 100 BC, Palenque rose to prominence under the ruler Pakal in AD 630. However, by AD 900, Palenque was abandoned. Due to the high rainfall received in the area, the ruins were soon overgrown with jungle and the city remained unknown to the Western world until 1746, when Mayan hunters discovered their "jungle palace".
Palenque is a massive site with hundreds of ruined buildings spread over 15 sq km. Everything was built without the use of metal tools, pack animals or the wheel!
To add to its mystique, ancient Palenque stands at the precise point where the first hills rise out of the Gulf Coast plain, and the dense jungle covering these hills forms an evocative backdrop to Palenque's exquisite Mayan architecture. The forest around the temples is home to howler monkeys, toucans and ocelots.
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Stroll through the massive ball court and unravel the secrets of the amazing time temple, El Castillo, at Chichén Itzá on the Yucatán Peninsula, to discover why this site was voted one of the "seven modern wonders of the world."
So, what is special about this temple? Like some of the famous Egyptian temples, these temples were built to play with light, and many mysteries of the Mayan astronomical calendar are made clear when one understands the design of the "time temples" here. The temple is most popular at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, when the morning and afternoon sun produces a light-and-shadow illusion of the serpent ascending or descending the side of El Castillo's staircase.
Two giant pyramids, the Avenue of the Dead, the Temple of Quetzalcóatl - Teotihuacán, 50km from Mexico City, is the grandest of Mexico's ancient cities. A millennium before anyone had heard of the Aztecs, it was the centre of an empire that may have stretched as far south as El Salvador.
This complex of awesome pyramids is set amid what was once Mesoamerica's greatest city. It is a huge site and anyone lucky enough to come here will be astonished by the technological might of the Teotihuacan civilization, established in 150 AD.
Set in a mountain-ringed offshoot of the Valle de Mexico, it remained a pilgrimage site for Aztec royalty long after its fall, who believed the gods had sacrificed themselves here to start the sun moving. Thousands of New Age devotees flock here each year to soak up the mystic energies believed to converge here.
This was one of the most prominent Mayan cities in the Usumacinta region, thanks to its prime location over river commerce. Apart from its beautiful, ornamented facades and roof combs, it is set in a jungle that is teeming with wildlife. If you do not see any howler monkeys, you will certainly hear their visceral roars, and there are plenty of spider monkeys and red macaws that inhabit the tall trees here, and are an evocative highlight.
Buzz down the jungle-lined Río Usumacinta in a motor launch to this superb Mayan site and climb Building 41 to look across the top of the jungle to the distant mountains of Guatemala.
The jungle views alone are worth the effort of the trip to Coba. If it is your heart's desire to re-enact scenes from Indiana Jones, then this is your ruin. It is set deep in the jungle, and many of the ruins have yet to be excavated. Walk along ancient pathways, climb up vineyard-covered mounds, and ascend to the top of Nohoch Mul for a spectacular view of the surrounding jungle - the highest Mayan building on the Yucatán Peninsula. Be careful not to picnic beside the lake, as it has large crocodiles!