Uncovering some of Mexico's lesser-known archaeological sites

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The Piramide del Adivino in Uxmal, Mexico.
The Piramide del Adivino in Uxmal, Mexico. Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Steven Bridger
Chichen Itza, Tulum and Teotihuacan are hardly new words to history buffs visiting Mexico. And while these sites are stunningly beautiful and important parts of Mexico’s indigenous history, they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Mexico’s archaeological treasures. For your clients who are looking to get a closer look at Mexico’s ancient past, check out these five sites

 
Uxmal
This ancient Mayan city in the Yucatan state is one of the most important archaeological sites of Mayan culture. About 40 miles south of Merida, the capital city, Uxmal is a designated Unesco World Heritage Site.
 
Uxmal, which means “thrice-built” in Mayan, is one of the most beautiful ancient cities in Mexico. Pink-hued limestone pyramids rise out of the jungle, the most majestic of them being the Piramide del Adivino, or Pyramid of the Magician. The tallest structure at the site, the pyramid is quite distinctive with its rounded sides and elliptical base.
 
Uxmal was built in phases and with different influences from across Mexico. Its buildings feature intricate carvings, geometric mosaics and makes of the rain god Chaac. A must when visiting Uxmal is a climb to the top of the second-tallest pyramid, the Gran Piramide, for a panoramic view of the city and surrounding region.
 
Getting there: There are daily buses from Merida, or the more adventurous traveler can rent a car. Organized tours are also available from a variety of companies.
 
Calakmul
In the state of Campeche, on the border of Quintana Roo, is an enormous jungle reserve, covering about 15% of Campeche’s territory. Within the 1.8 million acre jungle are some of the most beautiful Mayan archaeological sites, which are little explored by tourists. Calakmul is one of these sites.
 
Discovered in 1931, the site is surrounded by thick jungle. Only a small part of the space has been uncovered and restored, but it is decided that the site was at its prime between 250 and 695 and was occupied for about 1,400 years. It served as the main rival to the Tikal city in neighboring Guatemala. What has been uncovered at Calakmul are burial crypts, along with 120 carved stelae. About 6,000 buildings have been located, but only a few have been excavated. Calakmul was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2002.
 
The area is also teeming with impressive wildlife. More than 230 bird species have been spotted at Calakmul, along with 86 species of mammals, including jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays and spider monkeys. There are also 50 species of reptiles, 400 types of butterflies and 73 varieties of wild orchids.
 
Getting there: A visit to Calakmul is not as easy as visits to some of Mexico’s other more popular archaeological sites. The reserve is 223 miles from Campeche City and can be accessed by Mexico’s Federal Route 186, which is a maintained, paved highway in southern Yucatan. However, as you get closer to the reserve itself, roads are passable only in the dry season and with a proper vehicle.
 
Palenque
Outside the city of Palenque in the state of Chiapas is one of the state’s most important tourist attractions, just five miles from the city. The Palenque archaeological site, tucked in the Tumbala mountains, overlooks the Usumacinta River. When approaching the site, travelers will take in a view of the largest Mesoamerican step pyramid, the Temple of Inscriptions, peppered with hieroglyphics that have been crucial to the study of the Mayan civilization. The temple is 75 feet high and contains one of the only crypts found inside a Mexican pyramid. The tomb of Pakal, a Mayan ruler from the seventh century, shows a variety of jewels, masks, jade ornaments and wall carvings.
 
In its time, Palenque was a massive religious center that spanned 25 miles; only a small fraction of that has been excavated. What travelers will see are inscribed stone slabs, bas-relief sculptures, inlaid masks and more. The environment surrounding the site is breathtaking, as well, with the Misol-Ha waterfall that forms a large pool at its base.
 
Getting there: Palenque can be reached from Villahermosa via highway 186/199. The drive is about 90 minutes.
 
Monte Alban
Mexico’s western state of Oaxaca is most famous for its capital city, gastronomy and coast, but the state is also home to some of Mexico’s most impressive ruins. Monte Alban is an ancient Zapotec capital and archaeological site set on top of a mountain overlooking Oaxaca’s sprawling valleys.
 
At 1,300 feet above the Oaxaca Valley, the site is home to pyramids, temples, plazas and other residential structures all around the Great Plaza, a large open area on the top of a mountain. One of the most impressive structures at Monte Alban is the north platform, which rivals the Great Plaza in size and has some of the best views of the surrounding area. Other attractions include altars, a ball court and ceremonial platforms, among which is the earliest known structure at Monte Alban, a series of rock carvings known as Los Danzantes. Near the entrance to the site is an area of tombs, decorated with paintings and stone carvings. Monte Alban is home to about 170 known tombs.
 
Getting there: Monte Alban is about five miles from downtown Oaxaca. The best way to reach it is via taxi or tour bus.
 
Templo Mayor
Teotihuacan is the best known archaeological site near Mexico City, but travelers ought to know that another impressive Aztec ruin lies just beneath the streets of the city itself. The pre-Hispanic Aztec empire made its home base at Tenochtitlan, now modern day Mexico City, and at the heart of its empire was the Templo Mayor. This was the most important religious area for the Aztecs.
 
The site was discovered in the 1900s near the Zocalo underneath the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral and was excavated in the 1970s. When the Spanish arrived to Mexico City they destroyed the temples and built the magnificent Spanish structures that exist there today. The site is still active as archaeologists continue to unearth artifacts and structures.
 
Today visitors can view sections of the two main religious temples, pyramids, serpent carvings and shrines.
 
Tip: Visit the Porrua Library near the ruins. A rooftop cafe affords views directly above the Templo Mayor, where travelers can relax with a michelada and bowl of guacamole while overlooking the structures.

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