LOS ANGELES Heard about the end of the world in December 2012 as predicted by the Mayans? The members and editors of online travel consultants VirtualTourist (www.virtualtourist.com) have compiled a list of the "Top Ten Less Crowded Mayan Ruins and Sites" to help you explore the Mayan culture, but keep you off the heavily beaten path to Chichen Itza and Tikal before the impending doom. Reuters has not endorsed this list:
1. Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico
One of the most important cities of Mayan civilization, Calakmul was once home to more than 50,000 inhabitants. Though the city's timeline goes as far back as the Preclassic period (300 B.C. to 240 A.D.), its golden age was in the Classic period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.), when it served as Tikal's main rival and battled for dominance of the central Mayan area. Many visitors might focus on the 6,000 structures within the city, but it's equally important to experience the surrounding Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, which encompasses over 723,000 hectares (292,594 acres) of protected land and wildlife. While the reserve is a paradise for bird watching, the site itself is a hotbed of stelae, or stone monuments, often in the form of a high-relief sculpture, that were popular and characteristic of the Mayan civilization. 117 stelae have been discovered at Calakmul so far, more than any other Mayan site, and all of them from the Classic period.
2. Clenque, Chiapas, Mexico
Palenque was the most important city of the low western lands during the late Classic period, reaching its peak between 600 and 800 A.D. Along with Tikal and Calakmul, it was one of the most powerful Classic Mayan cities, as well as the seat of the distinguished Pakal dynasty. Much of the architecture (tilted facades on the buildings, stucco-sections) is unique and uncharacteristic of the time period; it has become a real hot spot for archeological research interested in architecture and written language. One of the most notable aspects of Palenque is Temple XIII, where the Tomb of the Red Queen was found in 1994. This tomb is significant because it shares the same platform as the Temple of the Inscriptions, suggesting nobility; the remains found are referred to as "the Red Queen" because the tomb was entirely covered in red cinnabar.
3. Yaxchilán, Chiapas, Mexico
Located on the Usumacinta River, Yaxchilán is a great example of the Usumacinta style that dominated the Classic Mayan of the Low Lands from 250 - 900 A.D., with architecture adorned in epigraphic inscriptions and extensive relief sculpture. The city was allied with Tikal, and had a major battle with Palenque, which seems ironic according to a modern map since Palenque is in both the same state and nation as Yaxchilán and Tikal is across the border in Guatemala. The city exhibits strategic planning ,as it was built on a peninsula formed by a bend in the Usumacinta River. Even today, Yaxchilán can only be accessed by lancha (small boat) up the river.
4. Campeche's Edzná, Mexico
Despite being one of the most significant Mayan ruins, Edzná receives fewer visitors in a year than Chichen Itza does in a day. The city's architecture reflects an amalgamation of differing cities and influences, including roof styles and corbeled arches from Palenque and giant stone masks of the Peten style found in Tikal. Founded around 400 B.C., the city reached its peak during the late Classic period, with a gradual decline beginning around 1000 and its abandonment in 1450.
5. Ek Balam, Mexico
Ek Balam, which means "black jaguar" in the Yucatec Maya language, is one of the few Mayan settlements that remained occupied until the arrival of the Spaniards. While not the hardest site to get to (it's in the Yucatan), it is under active restoration, so visitors can get a great overview of the entire archeological process. One unique aspect of this site is the 100-foot El Torre (or Acropolis) pyramid, which easily surpasses Chichen Itza's El Castillo; visitors can still scale El Torre today. Once climbers reach the top, they can see both Chichen Itza and Coba in the distance!
6. Quirigua, Guatemala
Quirigua (pronounced Kiri-gua) is a relatively small site, almost directly across the border from Honduras' Copan. Strategically located on the Montagua River trade route, which was important for the transport of jade and obsidian, it was also originally a vassal of Copan. However, Quirigua rebelled and defeated Copan, then allied itself with Calakmul, after which it erected elaborate stone monuments in a style similar to that of Copan. In fact, one of the monuments at Quirigua, known as "Stele E," is the largest known quarried stone in the Maya world, standing 35 ft tall and depicting a Mayan lord over three times life size.
7. El Mirador, Guatemala
Deep in Guatemala's Petén jungle, El Mirador hides under 2,000 years' worth of jungle overgrowth. Though the well-known Classical Maya ruins in Tikal National Park are frequently visited, the largest Preclassic Mayan city is much more difficult to access. El Mirador is actually over twice the size of Tikal, with over 80,000 people residing at the site from 300 B.C. to 150 A.D. The grandeur and size of the site suggest that there were already complex state societies in the Late Preclassic period, contrary to the popular thought that the Preclassic period was a formative period. El Mirador is only accessibly by foot, horse, mule, or helicopter, lying over 60km from the nearest road.
8. Lamanai, Orange Walk, Belize
Lamanai, the Mayan word for "submerged crocodile," was aptly named. Not only do crocodiles appear in the site's effigies and decorations, but you are likely to see crocodiles while trying to get there. In order to reach the site, you must take a small boat up the winding New River through the tropical rainforest of central Belize. Lamanai was one of the longest continuously occupied cities, starting in 500 B.C. to 1675 A.D. or even later, probably due to its strategic location on the trade route of the New River. The most notable among this site's ruins is the Mask Temple at the northern end of the complex.
9. Caracol, Cayo District, Belize
Once you turn off the main road, it will take you over 2 hours by 4-wheel drive to arrive at Caracol, but VirtualTourist members promise it is worth the trip! Despite being located along the Guatemalan border and about 80 km (50 miles) from the nearest town of San Ignacio, there are 11 causeways into Caracol, signifying the importance of transportation routes throughout the site. Additionally, the excavation data collected in Caracol suggests that the social organization of the settlement included not only elites and specialists living in the urban centers with peasants living on the peripheral, but also a sizable "middle class." There is also evidence of artesian specialization, similar to the guilds found in the European Middle Ages, making this site a very unique find and of great anthropological significance.
10. Joya de Ceren, La Libertad Dept, El Salvador
Joya de Ceren is a Pre-Columbian site in El Salvador that preserves the daily life of the indigenous settlements prior to the Spanish conquest. Often referred to as the "Pompeii of the Americas," Joya de Ceren was buried under ashes of a violent volcanic eruption, therein preserving evidence of the lifestyle and activities of a Mesoamerican farming community around 6th century A.D. This site is unique in that it is still being excavated today, and since excavation was halted for much of the 1980's it is highly likely that middle-aged and older travelers have not had the opportunity to visit these ruins. Visiting Joya de Ceren can easily be combined with visiting San Andres, a nearby site whose findings suggest it had strong contacts with both Copan and Teotihuacan.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)