Top 13 Ancient Ruin Sites In Central America And South America

Top 13 Ancient Ruin Sites In Central America And South America

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 ruin sites. I've been to the famous ones like Angkor Wat, the Acropolis and . 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 America or South America. But keep in mind that countries like Peru literally have dozens of sites and likely many more to still be discovered! In no particular order here are my top 9 Ancient Ruin sites:

1. Chan Chan, Peru

With a striking sand-like look, the Chan Chan ancient ruin site is 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 . 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.

Chan Chan Ancient ruin site in Peru South America

2. Ciudad Perdida, Colombia

Colombia has surprisingly few places that could be named ancient ruin sites. 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, and 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-to 4-day strenuous hike through mud and tropical heat.

Ciudad Perdida Ancient ruin site in Colombia South America

3. Copan, Honduras

Finally, we get to the Maya's, which will of course dominate this list. Most of Central America and was at one point or another dominated by the Mayas, with and 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 ancient ruin 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, and Guatemala. Please exercise caution when travelling in Honduras, as the country faces important security issues.

Copan Ancient ruin site in Honduras Central America

4. Kuelap, Peru

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.

Kuelap Ancient ruin site in Peru South America

5. Lamanai, Belize

Going back north to Central America, makes for a neat country to visit on many accounts, including the ancient ruin sites that you will find here. The Mayan ruin site of Lamanai 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.

Lamanai Ancient ruin site in Belize Central America

6. 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 a 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.

Machu Picchu Ancient ruin site in Peru South America

7. Tikal, Guatemala

For another unique experience, head to the Tikal ancient ruin site in Guatemala. This ancient ruin 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.

This is one of the great pyramids of Latin America, with most others in Mexico, like the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán in central Mexico. However, these are not part of this article.

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.

Tikal Ancient ruin sites in Guatemala Central America

8. Tiwanaku, Bolivia

Bolivia boasts incredible sightseeing, 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 , it is the easiest site to reach on this list. It is also quite unique in its design. This ancient ruin 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!

Tiwanaku ancient ruin site in Bolivia South America

We often forget the rich pre-Columbian history of the American continent, however, the ancient ruin sites scattered throughout Central America 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.

9. Coricancha, Cusco, Peru

Corichanca was the Inca's Temple of the Sun and was built in the shadow of Peru's Andes mountains. It was the centrepiece of the Inca empire, one that impacted city planning in South America. Cusco was the capital city of the Inca empire and it was a remarkable feat of engineering and willpower to build this city in such harsh terrain at an altitude of 3400 metres.


Unfortunately, during the Spanish colonisation, the Baroque Santo Domingo Convent was built on top of the Coricancha, all that remains are the original stone foundations of the temple. The Spanish demolished most of Coricancha and melted down the gold plating to be sent back to . You can visit and still admire the Inca masonry inside the Coricancha.

There are some other Inca ruins surrounding Cusco like the Puma shaped site of Sacsayhuaman.

10. Ingapirca, Ecuador

Ingapirca is a provincial capital located in 's Canar province. Its fame derives from the Ingapirca Ruins – an extensive collection of ancient Incan constructions situated north of town; they include the Temple of the Sun, one such structure initially intended for religious and astronomical purposes. Also displayed at this museum site are relics recently unearthed during excavations: remains exhibiting an array of associated artefacts have been assembled for observation and inspection! Make sure you dress up warmly as it can get quite chilly.


11. Caracol, Belize

Nestled in the lush rainforests of Belize, Caracol is an awe-inspiring ancient Maya city. Once a powerhouse in the Maya world, Caracol's influence rivalled that of Tikal in Guatemala. Today, visitors can explore the sprawling site, which includes Caana, one of the tallest Maya buildings.

Top Ancient Ruin Sites In Central America And South America - Caracol, Belize

The blend of nature and ruins here is breathtaking, with howler monkeys and tropical birds often seen amidst the ancient structures. The site's remote location adds to its allure, offering a more untouched, off-the-beaten-path experience.

12. Canta Gallo, Nicaragua

Canta Gallo in Nicaragua is a captivating site that reflects the cultural diversity of pre-Columbian Central America. Here, the remnants of ancient structures merge with the natural landscape, offering a unique glimpse into the region's past. Known for its petroglyphs and stone carvings, Canta Gallo is a place where art and history intersect.

Top Ancient Ruin Sites In Central America And South America - Canta Gallo, Nicaragua

The engravings, some depicting scenes of daily life and others with more mystical themes are a highlight for visitors and provide a tangible connection to the ancient inhabitants of this land.

13. Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

Joya de Ceren, often referred to as the “Pompeii of the Americas,” is a remarkably preserved ancient village in El Salvador. Engulfed by volcanic ash around 600 AD, the site offers an extraordinary snapshot of everyday life in a pre-Hispanic farming community. Unlike other ruins that predominantly feature temples and palaces, Joya de Ceren provides insights into the daily lives of ordinary people, with preserved structures like homes, kitchens, and workshops.

Top Ancient Ruin Sites In Central America And South America - Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must-visit for anyone keen to understand the full spectrum of ancient Mesoamerican life.

About The Author

Anna Vichnevetskaia

Travel is my passion. Not only because it's fun (which it is), but because there is something new to learn in every single place, someone new to meet and a different or unknown to embrace.

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