Stairway to Heaven

Vieques, Puerto Rico

Imagine yourself being dropped right smack dab into the middle of an Indiana Jones adventure.  That’s what visiting a Mayan ruin is like…sans the bad guys!  Exploring, climbing, and squeezing through narrow passages makes each ruin site a lot like jungle gyms for adults and one of the most fun things we’ve done while housesitting places in Mexico and Belize. 

Visiting the ruin sites have also provided history lessons (check out our post “The Magnificent Maya”) about things that made us go “hmmm,” and are a unique way to connect with an incredible people that lived here thousands of years ago. The Greeks and Romans came up with very little that the Mayans hadn’t already thought of.  But then again, as far as history goes, the Greeks and Romans got more publicity! 

We’ve visited five ruin sites so far: Chacchoben, Kohunlich, Dzibanche, and Kinichna in Mexico, as well as Cahal Pech in Belize. 

We’ve heard that some of the most popular ruin sites, like Tulum in Mexico, can be crowded with tourists, so we’ve chosen some of the “off the beaten path” places, and although we’ve met a few tour groups and individual strollers, we’ve mainly had the sites all to ourselves. I’m a fast walker and explorer, but a slow climber, especially when it comes to descent.  John is a slow walker and explorer (he takes a gazillion pictures) and a fast climber.  Thus, when we visit one of these ancient wonderlands we generally split up and meet each other, at a designated place and time, then go back through everything together.

Also, I’m terrified of heights and play the “old lady” card, a lot, by needing to hold on to something while making an ascent or descent.  But I transformed my Vibram 5-Fingers running shoes into climbing shoes and didn’t look back…or down…, because we’re hooked on Mayan ruins!  Here’s the lowdown on our visits to our first five.


Map link

Even though the Chacchoben ruins themselves date back to about 1000 BC, they weren’t discovered until the 1940s when Serviliano Cohuo, a Mayan man looking for the perfect place to build a farm, accidentally found the main temple of the site.  He settled down on the land, got married and had children. His kids used the visible parts of the temple structure as their playground. 

It wasn’t until 1972 that the Cohuo family allowed a team of archeologists, sponsored by Tulane University and the Royal Ontario Museum, to excavate the site. In 1974, the Mexican government started regulating land possession of historical sites and in 1978 Serviliano was named the honorary guard of Chacchoben and was granted the rights over his farm. His lifelong dream was to see his backyard temples fully restored, but unfortunately he died in 1991, before the most of the full restoration was complete. 

The Terrain
Because the Chacchoben structures are temples, there are many ceiba trees surrounding them.  We learned, while we were in Puerto Rico, that ancient peoples revered the ceiba as being magical and a source of wisdom and strength.

The area surrounding the Chacchoben ruins is very lush.  In fact, Lake Bacalar (Lake of Seven Colors), is less than 20 miles away.  Because of the rich jungle foliage, many of the structures are covered with moss.  Be super careful as you climb!

Details & Recommendations
Hours: Open Daily from 8 am to 5 pm

Admission: 60 pesos. Free on Sundays for nationals and Mexican residents.


  • Allow at least 2 hours, especially if you like to climb and take pictures.
  • Wear good walking/climbing shoes.
  • Make sure your camera or phone is charged, because you’ll want to take a lot of photos. However, if you decide to take a video of the site there is an extra charge.
  • Slather yourself in bug spray.  Mosquitos and bugs love the lush!



The area around Kohunlich was settled about 200 BC and the excavated structures comprised a city that dates from about 250 to 600 AD.  The city, according to historians, was thought to be on a major trade route. 

The coolest thing here was the Temple of the Masks, which has a center stairway adorned with huge, humanized stucco masks on each side. I didn’t know anything about these and discovered them on my own as I was climbing the stairway. Wow, what a find! The temple itself was built to honor the Mayan sun god. Originally, there were 8 carved masks flanking the central staircase, but only 5 remain.  The rest were destroyed by looters.

There is a massive, raised acropolis, or citadel, with a palace complex, around a courtyard located on the northwest portion of the site, as well as a ball court (read about Mayan Ball Games in The Magnificent Maya). There are a total of 8 structures to explore at this site.

My brother Dub is a civil engineer for several municipalities in Texas. He would love the layout and especially the engineering it took to build this place. Kohunlich has a ball court, administrative buildings, spiritual areas and palaces. In total there are 8 groups of structures that we explored. What amazed archeologists, when they started the excavation of the site, was the hydraulic engineering that was used. 90,000 of the site’s 210,000 sq meters were cut to channel rainwater into Kohunlich’s once enormous reservoir. Considering this city was from the Early Classic Period, this is an incredible feat that confirms the brilliance of this particular Mayan society.

Details and Recommendations
Hours:  8am to 5pm – 7 days a week

Admission: Entrance price per person is 60 pesos


  • This site has a lot of shady areas.  You feel like you are in the middle of the jungle, because… you are!
  • There is a small souvenir store as well as small café for drinks and snacks.
  • Make sure your camera and phone are charged.  There is an extra fee if you want to take videos of the site.
  • Clean restrooms.
  • Wear walking/climbing shoes and BUG SPRAY!


Dzibanche / Kinichna 
Map link

These sites were separated by a few miles and we did them both on the same day.  The ticket, for admission, covers both sites.  

The name Dzibanche means “writing on wood” in the Mayan language and was named such because of the etchings, found on the girders, in the Temple of Lintels.  This site is located in a swamp area which, for the Mayans, had especially fertile soil. It is thought that Dzibanche was the capital of the Kan dynasty around 580 to 590 BC.

Howling at the Moon

Okay, we didn’t stay until dark, long enough to actually see the moon, but we were a little creeped out by the eerie, yet fascinating sounds of howler monkeys.  When we first heard them, I told John that it was probably just a Disney or MGM soundtrack, piped in to establish the “mood” of the place. As we listened more closely, we both agreed that we were definitely experiencing the real deal.  Here’s a small sound clip of what we heard. 


Parts of Dzibanche may have been something like a prison, because archeologists have uncovered a structure that has been named the Temple of the Captives. Found were hieroglyphic stairway passages of the Captive Temple, depicting bound prisoners. 

There are three major structures at this site: The Temple of Lintels, The Temple of the Captives and the Temple of the Owl.    

We knew that there were some significant etchings at this site and we kept climbing and exploring until we finally found them. How cool is that?  (see below)


Kinichna:  The True Stairway to Heaven

Folks, this is one humongous pyramid!  It is thought to have been built around 200-600 AD and was known as the “House of the Sun.”  Duh!  You’re halfway to the sun by the time you make it to the top. 

Fraidy Cat, height-challenged Anel reappeared and I was only able to make it halfway up this monolithic monster, but Jaunty John made it all the way to the top. He said the view (see below) was breathtaking so if you ever make it there, and are afraid of heights, put on your big kid britches, look up, and climb baby, climb!  You won’t be sorry.

I think the “Sun God” was irate, because after I wimped out while scaling his temple, I found a carved-out wooden stool at the base of the stairs, sat down, and waited for John.  Within seconds I was covered in ants…the stinging kind!  Guess he showed me what happens to a wimpy girl! 

Details and Recommendations
  8-5 daily

Entry fee: 60 pesos, includes in the entry into both Dzibanche and Kinichna


  • There are clean bathrooms at both sites.
  • Use lots of bug spray!
  • There are no vending machines or concessions, so bring water.
  • Charge your camera and phone for photos.  There is an extra charge to make videos of the site.
  • Wear your climbing shoes and stamina!


Cahal Pech (Belize)
Map link

This is our first Mayan ruin outing in Belize and we chose John’s birthday to celebrate everything “ancient” with this one. 

Literally, Cahal Pech means “place of ticks,” so make sure you really spray down with repellent before this one.  It is thought that the Cahal Pech site was the royal palace of a ruling family, who lived there around 1000 BC. There are over 30 structures on the site which include residential buildings, ball courts, an altar, temples and a sweat-house. The royal burial chamber, of one of the rulers, was also found here. 

There is a small museum at the site, as well as a souvenir shop. 

I particularly loved this one, because of all the narrow, winding passages that connected the structures. It was a blast exploring them all, because you never knew what you’d find at the end of the passage.  

Details & Recommendations:

Hours: 365 days in the year from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm

Entry fee: Belizeans: BZD$5.00
Non-Belizeans: BZD$10.00 
Belizeans enter FREE on Sundays and Public and Bank Holidays
School, Church and Government Groups need to contact the IA office for official Pass to visit this site. 


  • There are clean restrooms and a picnic pavilion at the site.
  • Make sure you go through the museum.  Lots of really cool info and artifacts.
  • There is a souvenir shop to the right of the site entrance.
  • Use lots of bug spray!
  • Make sure you have charged your camera and phone.
  • There is an extra charge for making videos of the site.

Yep, we’re definitely hooked on Mayan Ruins…and loving it!

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