El Petén

This impressive sight is also impressively hard to get to, requiring 4x4-only driving or horses. Nakum was a significant port on the Holmul river, a waterway that linked Tikal with the Caribbean coast, though it reached its cultural peak in the Late Classic Period, well past Tikal's prime. It's 17km north of Yaxhá, a 1½-hour drive over a rough road that's impassable from August to January. It's at its best between March and May.

Remote as this spot is, it's particularly exciting to find such a formidable group of structures here. The excavated section is not huge, but it packs a lot in. Major excavations of the site have recently been completed. Archaeological research focused on the predominance of talud-tablero-type structures (stepped building style, with alternating vertical and sloping sections) in the south section, suggests a connection with Teotihuacán in Mexico. The question remains why Nakum flourished during the Terminal Classic at a time when its contemporaries were collapsing all around it.

The site features two major architectural groups, the North and South Sectors, connected by a causeway; most of the excavated structures are in the latter. The most interesting of these, in the part dubbed the Plaza Central, features an unusually well-preserved roofcomb with a clearly visible mask. In tandem with the pyramidal structure opposite, it presumably served as some kind of astronomical observatory.

Moving south from the Plaza Central, you enter the South Acropolis, a walled compound on a raised platform comprising 12 courtyards surrounded by 33 buildings that housed palatial residences. This arrangement was in place around AD 900, though there is evidence that the site had been occupied for the previous 14 centuries. What's unique about some of the courtyards here, like Patio 1, is that they were completely enclosed by buildings, a layout not found elsewhere in the Maya world. Outside the South Acropolis to the east are stelae bearing dates from the 9th century, among the latest recorded dates in the Maya lowlands.

El Sombrero Eco-Lodge in Yaxhá can arrange horseback rides with a night spent sleeping in hammocks. To get here independently, you'll need a 4WD and a permit from the park's administration at Yaxhá. Should you wish to spend the night, Nakum has a handful of tent platforms, free of charge, but bring food and water.

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2. North Acropolis

7.22 MILES

The trio of pyramidal temples at the North Acropolis are built atop older structures dating back to 100 BC. Comprising of seven platforms, the…

3. Greater Astronomical Complex (Plaza F)

7.29 MILES

To the northwest of the site stands one of Yaxhá's most ancient constructions, the Greater Astronomical Complex (Plaza F). The arrangement includes an…

5. Yaxhá

7.36 MILES

The Classic Maya sites of Yaxhá, Nakum and El Naranjo form a triangle that is the basis for a national park covering more than 37,000 hectares and…

7. South Acropolis

7.41 MILES

A complex of palatial structures from which Yaxhá's aristocracy could watch the games going on in the ball court below.

8. Twin Pyramid Complex

7.43 MILES

This largely unexcavated complex consists of two identical pyramids facing each other across a lawn. Similar to one of the arrangements at Tikal, it is…