Discover the mysteries of Mesoamerica’s past by visiting these extraordinary archeological sites—a trip of a lifetime. Here are the 7 most wondrous ancient ruins in Latin America.
One of the best parts about traveling is getting to know not only different contemporary cultures, but catching a glimpse, however dim, of the ancient civilizations that gave rise to them. The present makes much more sense when we understand the past. Before Europeans ever even imagined setting foot on the coasts of the Americas, a wealth of sophisticated and intriguing civilizations were already thriving on the continent—and they left their mark. It’s those amazing peoples, their history and architecture, whose traces, footprints, and vestiges remain for all of us to marvel at—if you know where to look. There are many long-abandoned cities that are a pleasure to visit. And in that spirit, here are the 7 most wondrous ancient ruins in Latin America to get you started.
This legendary 15th-century Incan citadel is world-famous for a reason. Its magnificent architecture is shrouded in mystery, and that always fascinates us. But it is also a strikingly beautiful location. Nestled high above the dramatic mountaintops of the Andes, overlooking the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Machu Picchu is a wonder to visit. Archeologists believe it was constructed as a private imperial estate (after all, its luxurious site and polished dry-stone architecture is fitting for an emperor), though it was in use for only eighty years before being completely abandoned by the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the region. Since the Incas didn’t really use wheels as far as we can tell, it remains a mystery how such an architectural marvel was accomplished—only to be deserted shortly after. Still, in the end the whole of humanity benefited for the Incas’ efforts, as we get to enjoy the beauty of their craft.
One of the last cities built by the Maya, it is also amongst the best-preserved Maya sites to be found anywhere in Mesoamerica. Located on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, these ruins are widely known for having the beautiful, crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea as a backdrop. So, if you’re looking for variety in your trip, you can hit the white-sand beach after you’re done basking in all the site’s culture. Rest assured, there’ll be no shortage of activities at Tulum.
Tiwanaku is one of South America’s largest pre-Columbian archeological sites, and an ancient one as well. Dating from around 110 BC, it’s riddled with amazing ruins and enormous monolithic structures that feature intricate—and mesmerizing—engravings. It is located in western Bolivia, near Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world).
Famous for featuring the finest architecture and carvings ever produced by the Maya, this ancient city had its peak around the 7th century, though its origins date much earlier than that. After its splendor had long passed, Palenque, known as Lakamha (“Big Water”) in antiquity, was almost completely reclaimed by nature, and big portions of it remain hidden under the trees and roots. In fact, it is estimated that less than 10% of the city is exposed, the rest being covered by jungle. And while it’s not the largest among Maya ruins, it certainly remains one of the most beautiful.
At its height, Teotihuacán was huge, both in terms of sheer area and population. Archeologists have reasons to believe that during the the first half of the first millennium AD, more than 125,000 inhabited it, making Teotihuacán about the sixth largest city in the whole world during that time. What will strike you today, however, is the massive scale of its famous pyramids, particularly the Pyramid of the Sun. What happened to the people of Teotihuacán is a mystery, but what they left behind is certainly worth a visit.
The single largest pre-Columbian city in South America, the Chan Chan ruins feature a fascinating insight into the long-forgotten lives of the people who inhabited it over one thousand years ago. It’s located at the mouth of the Moche Valley, Peru, an arid area that gave the ruins their name, meaning “Sun Sun.”
If it’s size you’re looking for, you can’t go wrong with Chichen Itza. This was one of the largest cities the Maya ever built, likely one of the mythical Tollans (“Great Cities”) of Mesoamerican legends. The ruins feature a vast array of architectural styles, more than almost any other ruin in Latin America—a sign of a greatly varied population, fitting for such a prominent center of commerce. So, it’s no wonder why Chichen Itza is one of the most popular archeological sites in Mexico, receiving over two million visitors per year.
As you can see, Mesoamerica holds many secrets yet to be discovered. You can follow in the footsteps of the greatest explorers and travel to these sites rich in history and culture. You most certainly won’t regret it.
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