Long before Christopher Columbus and the rest of Europe established, colonies, towns and trading posts in the America’s, the continent was already home to some of the greatest cities ever known. However as Europeans arrived bringing war and disease with them, many of the cities became abandoned, retaken by the jungle, and lost to legend. Eventually though, researchers and explorers began to hear stories of these ancient cities of stone and gold. A real life game of treasure hunt was started as expedition after expedition disappeared into the jungle in search of these fabled cities. What they found is now attracting millions from around the world.
One of the most famous of all the Central American sites is Chichen Itza. Located midway between Cancun and Merida in Mexico, Chichen Itza was built by the Mayans somewhere between 750-900AD. Its dominating feature is the huge 30 metre step pyramid El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan. The pyramid is so perfectly built that just twice a year, on the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow is cast down the 365 step staircase which lines up perfectly with a serpents head statue at the base, giving the illusion of a giant serpent slithering down the pyramid. There’s many other impressive structures at the complex including a ball court, observatory and the Temple of the Warriors. In the surrounding jungle is a large cenote (flooded sinkhole) full of jewellery, pottery and human bones thought to have been thrown in as sacrifices in times of need.
Also located on the Yucatan Peninsula near Chichen Itza is Tulum. Another Mayan site, Tulum is one of the youngest pre- Columbian cities built somewhere between the 13th and 15th centuries. The city essentially served as a port and when the Spanish conquered the peninsula, they kept on using as such. Tulum is unique as being one of the very few remaining cities to be located on the coastline, and the temples overlooking the beaches and ocean make a spectacular photo op.
Perhaps the most accessible and easily most visited of all pre-Columbian cities lies right smack-bang in the middle of Mexico City. The Aztec city was the capital of their empire and after being conquered by the Spanish, it was all but destroyed and rebuilt as Mexico City. Although it was always known to be there, it wasn’t thought anything had remained until construction workers dug up remnants while preparing a building site. Today a portion of the city called Templo Mayor has been excavated and lies right between the Plaza de la Constitution and the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral.
This massive complex on the outskirts of Mexico City is a must visit for several reasons. It’s one of the largest pre-Columbian cities ever built, although it’s not known who actually built it. The broad Avenue of the Dead runs through the middle of the site and is lined with many temples and pyramids. However there is two pyramids which dominate the rest, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. At 65 metres, the Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest by volume in the world, and the Pyramid of Moon isn’t far behind. However the best thing about the site is that tourists are still allowed the honour of climbing up the pyramids! It can be a hard slog in the disabling heat, but the views from the top are well worth it.
Although smaller than most of the other sites, Palenque is notable for its fine architecture elaborate sculptures and carvings throughout the site. Palenque was built by the Mayans and is incredibly old, dating from about 226BC! The site is also significant because it has largely avoided the plundering that the other ancient cities have endured, thanks mainly to its extremely well hidden tomb entrances. The first wasn’t discovered until 1948 at which time the site was under control of the government and archaeologists. Since then several tombs have been entered, some of which contained sarcophagi adorned with all sorts of jewellery and artefacts.
Laying south of the border in Guatemala, Tikal is one of the largest Mayan cities ever discovered and is home to over 200 structures. Long abandoned, the city was rediscovered relatively late in 1848 after explorers heard local rumours of a city with white buildings towering over the jungle. And that’s exactly what they did find. Tikal has several major pyramids, one of which soars to 70 metres in height! So spectacular is this jungle enveloped site that it was used by George Lucas in the Star Wars film, A New Hope.