There are a number of large archeological sites in southern Mexico and Central America, each of them possessing a unique character defined by its landscape, even as many of the architectural forms are repeated from site to site. What stands out most is how robust these sites are compared to those of Europe or the Western U.S. Here, little imagination is needed to complete the picture of life in these ancient cities.
Monte Alban is Zapotec city set on a hilltop overlooking the Oaxaca City, its elevated position offering sweeping views of the surrounding valley and giving it a rarefied and even heavenly feel. One of the highlights is its collection of danzantes, stone etchings of contorted figures. Originally thought to represent dancers, it is now believed that they are depictions of conquered enemies.
Palenque is an ancient Mayan city cut out of the Chiapas jungle. Its central palace is a labyrinth of halls, chambers, and towers that weave in and out. Various temples populate the surrounding jungle, the most prominent of which is the Temple of Inscriptions. Inside, a hidden passage discovered in 1948 leads to a chamber wherein former ruler Pakal (603-683CE) is buried in a elaborate tomb decorated with all manner of opulence. Though the sarcophagus remains in situ, a detailed replica is on display in the museum near the entrance of the park.
Tikal is an enormous Mayan city built deep in the Guatemalan jungle and covering an area of sixteen square kilometers within the larger Tikal National Park. Long jungle paths separate the structures, many of which remain completely covered by earth, appearing as unnatural mounds in the forest. The dense canopy offers encounters with wildlife, including spider and howler monkeys, blue morpho butterflies, ocellated turkeys, and white-nose coati. Approximately five hundred jaguars live in the park, too, about one per square kilometer. Among the various structures are temples, residences, alters, ball fields, and even what is believed to have been a jail.