Ancient American Cultures

Ancient American Cultures

B asked me a while ago why I love to travel. I had several reasons: so many beautiful places to see, foods to eat, experiences to have, etc. Among the other reasons, one stood out that I have never really thought about before. I told B that a great benefit of travel is that I get to see the things I learned about in school. We all know that if you actually experience something, it means a lot more to you than if you just read about it. By traveling to a place and seeing it in real life, it is harder to forget about it once you leave. I know this to be true from experiencing, first hand, the ruins and cities of ancient american cultures.

Ancient American Cultures: Maya

The Maya people have lived in the Yucatan area of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras for thousands of years. They really kicked some serious butt with congregating in big cities, writing in hieroglyphics and carving in stone during the classic period, from around 250 to 900 AD. If you go to Central America and look at Mayan ruins, they will most likely have come from this era.  

Guatemalan kids
Mayan culture continues today

I visited Guatemala, Belize and Honduras on a month-long backpacking trip when I was young enough to rough it in places that I wouldn’t dream of staying in at this point in my life. This allowed me to experience the culture of the Maya, as most people I interacted with were direct descendants. The two big names that I visited on this trip were Copan, Honduras, and Tikal, Guatemala.

Copan, Honduras

Copan, located close to the eastern border of Guatemala, is not the easiest place to travel to. We stayed in the town of Copan Ruinas. Whilst there, the whole town lost its power and we had to use our flashlights to maneuver around. (Manage your expectations if you visit here.) When we got to the ancient city of Copan however, we were not disappointed. The complex is quite large and there were not many people visiting. We signed up for a tour and spent the next few hours learning all about how this city ruled the roost long ago. We were able to climb on the stone towers and amble around, just imagining what life would have been like.

Copan Ruins
Copan ruins

We learned from our guide that Mayans had figured out leap year and a calendar just by observing the earth and the stars. Incredible. VERY different from what I see when I look at the night sky. One thing that struck me about Copan is that while they have excavated a lot of the temples and structures, if you walk just a little off the path, you’ll see what look like mini hills, covered with trees. These are actually more buildings that have not been uncovered yet.

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal is in northern Guatemala, next to the city of Flores. We arrived there having traveled from Belize. But when we left, we took a flight from Flores to Guatemala City, saving us a lot of time busing through the Guatemalan jungle.

If you’ve seen Star Wars, you’ve seen Tikal. Picture a dense forested area with big stone temples popping out of the tree line. This is Tikal. Buildings here are much more vertical than they were in Copan. Like Copan, there are many more structures that haven’t been excavated. The things that have been excavated are several incredible stone temples.

Tikal ruins
Keep your eyes peeled for Ewoks!

Again, we hired a guide to show us around the complex (stopping for a bit so he could show us a tarantula…gross!). The temples were just what we expected. You are not allowed to climb all of them, but we could climb a few. It struck me as odd that for people who were on the short side of things, they sure built some high steps on their buildings.

Ancient American Cultures: Inca

The Inca were the largest of the pre-Columbian American cultures, and lived in the eastern part of South America, stretching from Ecuador down to Chile. Their civilization didn’t last very long–just a few hundred years from around 1200 until the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s. They burned bright, albeit not very long.

Machu Picchu

Alright, there are lots of really cool Incan ruins strewn about this area. But let’s be honest, Machu Picchu is the Big Daddy. It is incredible to go up this steep mountain and see the stone walls and structure built on top. I think the most impressive thing about the Inca building style is that the stones fit together perfectly. They didn’t use anything to stick them together. They just carved them to be side by side and slid them in place.

Machu Picchu Posing

Most people who visit Machu Pichhu stay in the town of Aguas Calientes at the bottom of the mountain. This town isn’t super great, but come 4:00 a.m., it is hopping with people loading up in buses and strapping on hiking boots if they feel like climbing up the hill. (I’ll be honest, I rode the bus). When you get to to the top and enter the complex, it is nice to find a quiet place to take it all in. I did this with grazing llamas being my only company.

Ancient American Cultures: Mississippians

Although I graduated with a degree in American History, I somehow missed the class where we learned about how the Mississippi culture thrived in the central and southern states of the U.S.A. Just before we went to St. Louis to attend the Antiques Roadshow, I came across an article discussing the Mississippi civilization. From 800-1600 AD, most people who lived in this area of the U.S. were part of the Mississippi culture. Instead of stone structures, they built large mounds of dirt and constructed wooden buildings on top of the mounds.

Cohokia, Illinois

Just across from St. Louis are the mounds of the ancient city of Cohokia. If you looked out at the horizon, you’d have no idea that the big hills were slowly created by people pouring out buckets of dirt. (I’m actually not sure if they had buckets.) It is really cool to see these things. It was a sweltering, humid day when we visited so we only climbed up a few of the mounds. But it was awesome to learn about this civilization that was only recently known to me and is in our very own country.

Cahokia, Illinois
Man-built dirt mounds

Ancient American Cultures: More to Come

I fully plan on visiting two more of the big Ancient American Cultures; both are in Mexico. Someday soon I will travel to Mexico City and learn about the Aztecs and Veracruz to learn about the Olmecs.


Travel can bring so many joys to your life. Next time you head off on an adventures, think about where you have learned about this place and why you want to go there. Fortunately, once you leave you won’t take just pictures, but a more ingrained knowledge of the area that you will be slow to forget.

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