The Ancient Cities of Mexico
The Olmec civilization dates from about 1200 BC to 200 AD. They believed in a jaguar god and created large heads out of stone that look somewhat African in nature. Some of the best lost cities to visit coming from the Olmec period are La Venta, situated near the small city of Huimanguillo in the state of Tobasco and San Lorenzo area in Veracruz. The San Lorenzo location is actually an area consisting of three sites including San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlan and Potrero Nuevo.
La Venta is located on a swamp near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico where there was little stone to be found requiring their cities to be built of clay and earth. The purpose of the city was a ceremonial and civic center where stone monuments and altars were situated all around the town. The Great Pyramid is about 110 feet high filled with earth and is not completely excavated. Nearby are two complex areas. The first plaza contains three mosaics, flat on the ground in a rectangular shape with blocks arranged to form characters including a dragon, jaguar mask and a map of the area. Tombs were also found in the area. The other complex was an area for public activities and has a raised platform in the middle of the plaza with several other platforms around the complex. Four of the famous colossal heads were uncovered in La Venta and were carved around 700 BC, and the tallest is 9 feet 4 inches high and weighs several tons. The closest area the stone could have come from is over 50 miles away, lending to the question of how these ancient peoples transported them to La Venta. Several carved altars have also been excavated at the site. The area was found in 1925 and excavation began in 1941.
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan is south of La Venta and was the capital city of Olmec culture. The largest colossal head excavated is 20 tons or more in weight. The San Lorenzo area is further inland and was an agricultural zone. Large multi-family buildings were found that might have houses over 5000 people and the city had a drainage system consisting of channelled stones that guided water in and out of the city. Excavations began in the early 1900s and the site is open Monday to Sunday from 8 am to 3 pm.
Palenque is a large site related to the Mayans. The ruins lay in Chiapas, Mexico and can be accessed by bus from many locations in Mexico. The ruins are outside of the city, but mini-buses make 10 to 15 minute runs throughout the day. Palenque was discovered in 1567 after being abandoned in 710 AD. The history of the area was read from some of the carvings on monuments filled with hieroglyphic inscriptions at the site. The main sites of interest include stone carvings, early art and buildings that range from several times periods including the Temple of Inscriptions, the Palace and Temple of the Sun, Cross and Foliated Cross. Pyramids are all stepped with an inner chambers dedicated mostly to King K’inich K’an B’alam II.
There is a small cafeteria near the museum, but food is limited. Palenque is open from 8 am to about 5 pm and there is a charge of around 50 pesos to get in the site. It takes more than 4 hours to actually cover the entire area.
Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest Mayan city in the Yucatan Peninsula from 600 AD until the 1200s. It was never totally abandoned, but ceased being a powerful city and by 1588 was part of a cattle ranch with many of the buildings reclaimed by the jungle. Exploration of the area began in the late 1880s and excavation started in the early 1900s. The site consists of almost two miles and buildings connected by paved causeways. Buildings are structured in several different architectural styles and include pyramids and temples with steps rising at different angles about 8 to 181 feet high. Mayans were athletes judging from the many ball courts in the city. Chichen Itza caters to over a million tourists every year and it is best to hire a guide to direct visitors to the best areas to explore.
The site is easily reached by car and regular bus service from Cancun that takes about 3 hours. Towns around the site offer tours and accommodations for those that wish to explore the site for a day or two. There is a night show, so those that might explore during the day and leave for a period of time, can return for free with their day ticket. A light show is narrated in Spanish with headphones available in other languages. Eat at Hacienda Chichen that serves locally grown food and negotiate prices with vendors as their prices are often a little high and they expect a little bartering. Opening hours are 8am to 5pm with the light show at 8pm.
Other lost cities sites worth seeing are Calakmul, another UNESCO World Heritage Mayan site near the border to Guatemala or Tulum, in the state of Quintana Roo, considered one of the last Mayan cities to be lost. Both these sites are smaller and easier to tour with children.
There is little shade except in the surrounding jungle of most sites, so dress appropriately for hot weather and wear sunscreen. Also bring snacks to stave off hunger and water along to stay hydrated. Many times there are small restaurants on the site with limited food. Wear sunscreen and protect the head with a hat. Feel free to bring cameras and take pictures at most sites and always stay within the restricted areas without passing into the jungle where it can be dangerous.