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Mexico's Mayan past

October 2011

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At the end of 2012, the Mayan calendar is predicting a time of great prosperity and celebration in Mexico. To mark this unique event, Simon Calder takes a tour of one of the most fascinating regions on earth
Chichen Itza

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Cancun marks the start of a Mayan trail that will take you through time and space

The end of the world as we know it? For the holidaymakers splashing or snorkelling along Mexico's Caribbean coast, 21 December 2012 probably won't feel cataclysmic — just another day in a close approximation to paradise. But south along the shore at the dramatic cliff-top Mayan ruins of Tulum, or at fragments of past glories buried deep in the jungles of southern Mexico, you might find some apprehensive students of Meso-America's greatest civilisation.

According to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar, the end of one cycle within the Mayan 'Long Count' on 21 December next year will resemble an apocalyptic version of the Millennium bug. In fact, the arithmetic is not so sinister: Midwinter Day (coincidentally) in the northern hemisphere happens to be the start of the 13th 394-year cycle since the beginning of time in 3114BC, at least according to Mayan creation myths. And it marks the coming of a new era, one of galactic prosperity, peace and understanding.

Which is quite enough chronological calculation for now. For travellers more concerned with seeing the sights than doing the maths, the impending event will focus attention on one of the most fascinating regions on earth. Over a span of three millennia, the Mayans created magnificent cities on terrain ranging from strange limestone formations on the Yucatán peninsula to rich rainforest in the deep south of Mexico. Time and turmoil has failed to erase their legacy: indeed, you can even find a small Mayan temple in the grounds of a hotel on the shore in Mexico's foremost resort, Cancún. And this also marks the start of a Mayan Trail that will take you through time and space, and help you understand who these people were, and how they lived. The journey reveals fascinating corners of one of the world's most exciting countries.

Over a Riviera Maya cocktail (melon liqueur, orange juice and grenadine), plan a meander through the Mayan lands. Start in the far northeast, where history mingles with unashamed indulgence. Follow the Riviera Maya south from Cancún, and you reach one of the most visually stunning places in the whole of Mexico: Tulum. The ruins perched on the cliff-top, overlooking the languid Caribbean, are the remains of a large Mayan city, constructed between 400 and 900AD (there is no evidence of any cataclysm occurring at the star of the tenth cycle of the long count in 830AD). The sheer bulk of the walls shows that this was a fortress guarding the maritime trade route along the coast — and also a reminder that the Mayans did not have a cohesive empire of the kind that the Inca people briefly enjoyed, but instead comprised a collection of city-states whose monarchs competed for control.

Tulum was one of the last grand flourishes of the Mayan Empire: war and famine combined to weaken it before the Spanish arrived. Even so, the conquistadores were so impressed when they saw the city that they compared Tulum to Seville (though it is fair to observe that embellishment was as an important a virtue as military skills among the Spanish invaders). Time and the sea have taken their toll, but early in the morning or late in the afternoon - before or after the tour groups — you can still appreciate the might of the site and its sublime location: 'history on sea', if you will.

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Travel essentials

Way to go

British Airways flies to Cancún, three times a week from London Gatwick and daily from London Heathrow via Miami with American Airlines and Iberia. BA also flies daily to Mexico City from London Heathrow and City. Flight time: about ten hours.

Avios points

Join the Executive Club and earn up to 24,806 BA Miles when you fly Club World to Cancún (return). Or to redeem your BA Miles, 50,000 will get you to Cancún.

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Posted by Simon Calder


Mexico, Cancun, Mayan

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