Before Europeans ever stepped foot in the Americas, civilizations here already thrived. Although much has been destroyed over time, there are many spectacular sites that remain around the continent. Anyone who knows me, also knows that I am a junkie for ancient ruins. I’ve been to the famous ones like Angkor Wat, the Acropolis and Pompeii. But I won’t shy away from even the most obscure ruin sites. The list below is a very short overview of the top sites that you can easily visit on a trip in Central or South America. But keep in mind that countries like Peru literally have dozens of sites and likely many more to still be discovered!
Chan Chan, Peru
A striking sand-like look, the Chan Chan ruins are quite unique. Many have visited traditional Maya ruins, with pyramid-shaped structures located in vast jungles (more on these later). But Chan Chan belonged to the Chimú civilization and was built in the 9th century. The site is located near Trujillo, about 10 hours north of Lima. While popular with tourists, it’s definitely less famous than Machu Picchu and can make for a really great weekend getaway from Peru’s capital. Plus, you’ll get great photo ops thanks to smaller crowds of tourists.
Ciudad Perdida, Colombia
Colombia has surprisingly few places that could be names ancient ruins. There are definitely some striking destinations around the country, but ruins don’t typically make the list. However, Ciudad Perdida or the Lost City should definitely be on your radar. Located on the Northern Caribbean coast, the ancient indigenous city is both fascinating on its own, but also makes for a really great hike. It is believed to be built by the Tairona people, around the same period as the Chan Chan – in the 9th century. A visit to the Ciudad Perdida is not for everyone though. It requires a 2-4 day strenuous hike through mud and tropical heat.
Finally, we get to the Maya’s, which will of course dominate this list. Most of Central America and Mexico was at one point or another dominated by the Mayas, with Guatemala and Honduras featuring some of the most important archaeological sites today. Copan was actually one of the capitals, believed to thrive between 5th and 9th centuries. It is also surprisingly well preserved, with many intricate details of the architecture still visible. Once again, this site won’t be overrun by crowds, so it’s a great option a little more off the beaten path. To get to Copan, there are local flights within Honduras and also buses from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Please exercise caution when traveling in Honduras, as the country faces important security issues.
I promise that Machu Picchu is on this list, but I couldn’t leave out Kuelap – the less heard of ancient ruin site in Peru. One of the oldest structures on this list, it was built by the Chachapoyas people in the 6th century. The site is not as intricate as some others, but nevertheless very well preserved. Visitors can marvel at the round conical structures, as well as the spectacular views over the Utcubamba Valley. Unfortunately, it is quite a challenge to get to Kuelap. The site is located close to the town of Chachapoyas in the Amazon region of Peru. While you can fly most of the way through Chiclayo or Tarapoto, it will still be a few more hours by bus. However, a great option is to combine a trip to Kuelap with a visit to Chan Chan, since there are overnight buses serving Chachapoyas from Trujillo.
Going back north to Central America, Belize makes for a neat country to visit on many accounts, including the ancient ruins that you will find here. The Mayan ruin is quite a bit younger than many of the others on this list, built in the 16th century. However, it is particularly unique because to reach it, you will need to travel through the jungle by boat. The ride is quite scenic and upon arrival you will be rewarded with spectacular pyramidal temples and plazas. Keep in mind that much of the site remains uncovered.
Machu Picchu, Peru
You have surely heard of Machu Picchu! It is likely the most famous ancient ruin in the region, and one of the top ones in the world. And there is good reason for this – the ancient Incan citadel is absolutely stunning. Don’t let the herds of tourists that come here every day scare you away. The trip is still worth it. The stunning scenery, the vast site, the particularly special feeling that you get up here… To get to Machu Picchu you have the option of taking a 4 day hike through the Andes, coming up by train from Cuzco or using a mini-van and walking combo to get to the site. When you are planning your trip to Machu Picchu, try to include some extra time in the region. There are many more attractions and ruin sites. These include Sacsayhuaman in Cuzco, Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Moray in the Sacred Valley, among others.
For another unique experience, head to the Tikal ruins in Guatemala. The site is huge and set in the beautiful luscious jungle. Also a Mayan site, it is believed that it may have been built as far back as the 1st century! You can get to the top of some of the pyramids and see the roofs sticking through the tree-cover, which is absolutely mesmerizing. You are also likely to be surrounded by the sounds of animals, including Howler monkeys, who make a noise similar to jaguar calls – a little scary but cool at the same time. To get to Tikal, you’ll need to go to Flores, which is an overnight bus ride or a short flight away from Guatemala City.
Bolivia boasts incredible sight-seeing, including the believed birthplace of the first Inca on the Isla del Sol, and plenty of dinosaur footprints throughout the Andes Mountains. However, Tiwanaku is one of the few surviving ancient temples in the country. Only a few hours from La Paz, it is the easiest site to reach on this list. It is also quite unique in its design. The site pre-dates the Incas, but there is no agreement on when it was actually built. However, archaeologists believe that it can date as far back as 1,500 BC!
We often forget the rich pre-Columbian history of the American continent, however the ancient sites scattered throughout Central and South America remind us of the important civilizations that preceded. While most of the surviving sites belong to the Mayas, the Incas and the Aztecs in Mexico, there are plenty of other smaller sites that you can visit. Each boasts unique architecture and setting. However, the real treat is often the journey to reach the site itself, often isolated and hidden from the world.