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Mexico's Mayan past

Simon Calder
28 October 2011

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

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.


A wooden stairway leads down the cliff to the soft sands, strewn with palm trees. The 21st-century traveller is rewarded with indulgence as well as insight: Tulum is one of the prime locations for boutique cabanas, offering ‘Paradise at the edge of the sea', according to one slogan. Apart from the tourist bustle between around 11am and 4pm, Tulum provides a perfect slice of Caribbean life. It is also the one significant Mayan location on the seashore: for all subsequent stops on the tour, you leave the water behind and begin to tangle with the jungle.

Tulum probably served as a port for Coba, which was created at around the same time, 44km northwest. Coba is thought to have had a population of around 50,000 people at its height, spread across a jungly site so vast that a bike is the best way to explore it. The ruins are also a good way to learn about the basic elements of many Mayan cities: pyramids (one here soaring to 42m, or a stack of ten London buses); stelae, stone tablets inscribed with legends; and the ball court, about which there is still heated debate: at the end of the game, did the losers or the winners get sacrificed?

Given the rich rewards of a visit to Coba — not least its location on the fringes of lagoons — it's puzzling why the site is quiet compared with the leading archaeological draw in this part of the Yucatán peninsula, Chichen Itza. Equally strange: why so few travellers take the smallest of detours to discover Valladolid, a drowsy colonial town where you sense little has happened in five centuries since the Spanish arrived. On a warm afternoon (there are no other kinds), the simple trinity of church, cafés and cobbled streets envelops you in contentment. But before you drop off in the sunshine: another big attraction is the cenote. The terrain is pocked with these extraordinary limestone sinkholes: circles of stone that have collapsed and then filled with water. Enterprising locals have capitalised on these phenomena and created veritable resorts in which people swim, snorkel or even dive.

A cenote — into which all manner of offerings were made to the rain gods — is one of the highlights at Chichen Itza. This Mayan city claims supremacy among all the Mayan sites because of its selection as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World', alongside the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal. The Temple of Kukulkan (better known as El Castillo) is the superb pyramid that is at the heart of Chichen Itza. As the morning sun climbs over the site, the structure towers above you: layer upon layer of crisp, white limestone. A temple stands at the top, supported by columns; but what draws your eye is the central staircase, where a pair of serpents appears to slither down. Close to sunset on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the shadows animate the effect. And you won't be at Chichen Itza for long before someone reminds you that the pyramid has 91 steps on each of its four sides. Add the platform at the top, and the result is 365 — one for each day of the year. The clear skies of the region helped the Mayans become the most sophisticated astronomers in the Americas.

Chichen Itza was also the Wembley of pre-Columbian Mexico, thanks to the great ball court — the largest in this part of the Americas. You can stand inside a great long arena, with massive walls. And on either side, close to the top in the middle, something resembling a giant mint with a hole: stone rings carved with serpents. As with ancient Rome, sport was an essential component of Mayan civilisation. For a different view on the ancient architecture, stay around for the sound-and-light show. That's the thing about Mexico's Mayan world: it offers an extraordinary depth of culture, and also gives travellers a breadth of experience from historical marvels to sheer good fun.

To reconnect with our own millennium, breeze into Merida: a big yet relaxed city where you eat splendidly and sleep soundly in colonial style. Then hit the road south for an hour to Uxmal, a small site into which some intricate and extravagant structures in the regional Puuc style are compressed. This antidote to the bustling busloads at Chichen Itza (and worthy holder of Unesco World Heritage status for the past 15 years) is most notable for a dramatic pyramid and a pre-Catholic convent.

Edzna, in the state of Campeche, was one of the most enduring Mayan cities: its origins date from around 500BC, and survived for two millennia. Its name means ‘House of the Itzás', indicating that the Itzá dynasty created before they founded Chichen Itza: the main temple and ball court are not quite on the same scale. In the deep south of Campeche state, Calakmul is much more mysterious. It is the heart of a ‘Biosphere Reserve', in a part of Mexico where humanity is vastly outnumbered by wildlife. This was the location for one of the great Mayan cities, which came to power around the seventh century AD and controlled what has been dubbed the Snake Kingdom. Yet since it was uncovered during an overflight by a biologist, Cyrus Lundell, in 1931, many more questions have come to light: how could such a city support itself in an infertile land where the search for water is a constant problem? And what was its relation with El Mirador, the city 40km south across the Guatemalan border, whose tallest structures are said to be visible from the top of the 45m pyramid at Calakmul.

Moving east, the other great Mayan sites of Mexico are less mysterious and more accessible. Pomona has a dramatic location on hills above the Usumacinta river, actually within the town of Tenosique. Follow the river east, and you end up close to Bonampak — a diversion that is worth making for a single building shrouded in dense forest. The Templo de las Pinturas is decorated with paintings that still dazzle a millennium on.

Palenque's great appeal is that visitors can devote days in relative solitude to unpeeling its layers of interest. It is a big, complex site on the edge of a cheerful town that provides a useful base. Most of the interest is focused on the Temple of the Inscriptions, but aesthetically equal appeal is the way that much of the site is still being disentangled from the jungle. Palenque was among the first Mexican locations to join the Unesco World Heritage list, which it did in 1987. And as you explore, you will be constantly reminded that many people in the region are descendants of the Maya, and speak a version of the original language.

More modern urban respite appears in the shape of Villahermosa, a languid city that offers a glimpse into the lives of the Olmecs — the civilisation that preceded the Mayans. It is also the gateway to Comalcalco, an hour west, which marks the westernmost known Mayan settlement (west of the Mississippi River that empties on the far side of the Gulf of Mexico). Instead of the traditional stone structures, the buildings are clay bricks held together with mortar made from oyster shells. Even if you have visited a dozen Mayan sites, Comalcalco will intrigue you.

Mexico's southernmost point is where it meets the Pacific and the Guatemalan frontier, close to the town of Tapachula. Many travellers pass through here oblivious to the large archaeological site, Izapa, that has clung to a volcanic hillside since well before the birth of Christ — some archaeologists believe it was settled as early as 1500BC. The main attractions: the abundance of carving on the monuments — and the sense that this is one of the world's geographic and cultural crossroads.

The world of the Maya is a tangled, mysterious and beautiful region where Mayan hearts still beat strong — and will continue to do so after 21 December 2012.

DINE LIKE A MAYAN

Anyone whose sole experience of Mexican food is ‘Tex-Mex' cuisine as supplied in a chain restaurant is in for a treat when tasting the real thing. Avenida Quinta, Fifth Avenue, in the resort of Playa del Carmen is best for anyone hoping to dine like a Mayan. The mission statement of the Yaxche restaurant is ‘rescuing and spreading the Maya culinary art'.

The family firm offers a menu based on indigenous recipes created from locally sourced ingredients, such as poc-chuc (pork strips marinated in sour orange juice and grilled). Yaxche also hosts ‘Maya calendar ritual dinners'. Across in Oaxaca, chefs are obsessive about moles — the sauces that enliven the most mundane ingredients.

Chapuline Colorado is a local speciality sold by the sackload in the city market: grasshoppers. Further north and west, meat becomes a staple — with goat almost as common as beef in some localities. Carbohydrates arrive in the shape of corn (the source of the ubiquitous tortilla); beans and rice are also common.

The climate ensures that fresh fruit and vegetables are plentiful. And if you can't find a local drink that appeals, from beer to fine wines to tequila, you're probably better off without it. All of which helps to explain why, a year ago (November 2010), Unesco added Mexican cuisine to its list of intangible cultural heritage.