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Yucatan/Mayan sites, Mexico

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Did You Know … ?

  • Chocolate was a Mayan discovery, and the Maya used cacao as currency.
  • After a Mayan ballgame, losers or their representatives were decapitated.
  • There are more than 1,600 archaeological zones in Yucatan state alone.
  • Campeche City is built on a village site the Maya called the Land of Serpents and Ticks.
  • In the Americas, only the Maya developed writing that could be used to express all types of thought.

The living, and historic, Maya

The Maya became well known to the world for their calendar, astronomical prowess, textiles, written language, distinctive artwork and the astonishingly large collection of Mayan pyramids, temples, palaces and more, found in southeastern Mexico and in countries to the south. Human sacrifice also was part of the culture.

Mayan civilization dates from about 600 B.C. Over the centuries, various cities and Mayan regions rose to prominence and declined in their turn, but the 16th century arrival of the Spanish brought the deliberate destruction of this unique civilization.

However, within the post-conquest nation states, the Maya still maintain practices that are their own, while incorporating aspects of European culture that were imposed on them.

As a result, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula (encompassing the states of Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatan) and neighboring states Chiapas and Tabasco are rich territory for tourists with history and culture on their minds.

There are literally thousands of archaeological sites. Tourists typically seek out Chichen Itza and Uxmal (Yucatan state); Tulum (Quintana Roo), and/or Palenque (Chiapas). Those who want more have numerous additional options in all the states. Venturesome tourists may choose sites that require a hike or boat trip to access.

Museums add to the understanding of the Mayan story and open a window onto Mayan writing, textiles and other visual examples of their colorful past.

Today, millions of Mexicans are 21st century Maya, and their culture is on view at village markets, in handicrafts offered for sale or at ceremonies and festivals that visitors may witness either by design or good fortune.

Chiapas, the Mexican state with the largest indigenous population, is the best place to seek an intimate understanding of modern Maya. Specialist tour operators fashion itineraries with this in mind.

Geography matters, too. Mayan country includes underground rivers and sinkholes (attractive for anything from a swim to diving and rappelling); mountains and tropical jungles (biking, hiking or boat journeys among the mangroves), and a sunny, beach-rimmed coastline plus, under the water, a major reef system and the world’s longest underwater caves. The Yucatan is a natural for water-based diversions, especially diving.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Take a day trip from Merida, the capital of Yucatan state, to Ek Balam to see its large acropolis pyramid. While at the site, enjoy biking, rappelling and/or ziplining.
  • Visit the Mayan community of Veinte de Noviembre in Campeche state or Cuzama in Yucatan state or the villages around San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas state.
  • From Merida, take a daylong biking tour to the Ake Mayan ruins and a working sisal hacienda.  Or, bicycle through the jungle from Cancun to the Mayan site of Coba.
  • In Chiapas, journey by wooden boat to the Mayan ruins of Yaxchilan and participate in a local conservation program if one is available when you are traveling.
  • Adventure tour operators offer the unique, such as jungle hikes to unrestored Mayan sites and boat transfers to jungle lodges that tend toward the basic.
  • To get an up-close look at Palenque’s details, climb the tall Temple of the Inscriptions and then descend into the restored crypt of the Mayan King Pakal.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Book a tour that includes a Mayan ritual cleansing at a sacred cenote.
  • In Tabasco, visit the Finca Cholula cacao plantation; participate in a ceremonial tasting of the drink in early Mayan form, and eat a traditional meal.
  • Take a Yucatecan cooking class. And, snatch or make opportunities to sample traditional Mayan foods, starting with dishes using avocados and chocolate.
  • Consult a Mayan healer at the Mayan Medicine Museum in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas state.
  • Include Palenque, the top Mayan site in Chiapas state, on your itinerary. If taking in other lesser-known sites, be aware that Yaxchilan is still an active pilgrimage site for the Maya.
  • Come to San Cristobal de las Casas, a center for modern Mayan culture, to spend time at the town’s outdoor market. Buyers and sellers are often decked out in traditional clothing.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Overnight at a lodge overlooking Chichen Itza, and do the same at Uxmal.
  • From Campeche City, visit the Mayan sites of Edzna, known for its 100-foot pyramid, and Calakmul, one of the largest known Mayan sites.  And, if you are collecting archaeological sites, make Comalcalco your destination in Tabasco state.
  • Pause for some museum time, starting with the Museum of Anthropology and History in Merida and other museums focused specifically on the Maya.
  • Lick your lips as you tour the Ecomuseo de Cacao, located on an organic cacao plantation, Tikul Plantation in Yucatan state.
  • Shop for traditional handicrafts when opportunity presents itself. Look for Mayan textiles and hammocks.
  • Hear music and watch a local folkloric dance troupe on some nights in the downtown plaza at Campeche City during peak tourist season. In any season, walk the circuit of the city’s historic walls, which served as defense against pirates.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Mexico Tourism Board at www.visitmexico.com