It’s the stuff of legend. Alongside the sparkling beaches of the laid-back Yucatán Peninsula lies the doomed splendour of the ancient Maya kingdom. An enthralling power that, after reigning for thousands of years, fell catastrophically around 900AD, against the backdrop of the rainforests of Mesoamerica (now modern day Mexico and Central America). A land shrouded in rich jungle and beautifully rugged canyons, nature reclaimed the grandeur.
Despite the encroaching vegetation, extraordinary ruins still remain: soaring pyramids, elaborately decorated temples and long-hidden murals, all attesting to the magnificence and mystery of this ancient civilisation. The secret underworlds of cenotes add to the intrigue – magical emerald-blue pools with pristine waters, these were the sacred wells where the Maya communicated with the gods.
The empire left behind an impressive legacy, developing astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing and creating ornate architecture, all built without metal tools. They were skilled farmers: they cleared vast sections of the jungle and, when groundwater was in short supply, built huge underground reservoirs for rainwater storage. The Maya were equally skilled weavers and potters, clearing routes through the rainforest to encourage extensive trade networks with distant countries.
Between six and seven million Maya still live across Central America today, with the largest group found in Mexico’s Yucatán state. They speak Mayan rather than Spanish, many wear traditional dress and still practise their customs and worship deities that include the corn god (the crop is a staple of their diets and income). Meanwhile, the excavations and restorations of their ancestors’ spectacular buildings continue – so far, each discovery prompting more questions than answers. No one knows where the Maya came from, nor why they left. But, one thing is for certain, this civilisation made their mark on history.
One of 34 World Heritage Sites in Mexico, Uxmal is highly ornamental, mixing lattice work, serpent motifs, pillars and masks of the rain god Chac (greatly revered as the city lacks natural water supplies). This city was once an important regional capital with around 25,000 inhabitants but now the ruin is renowned for its unusual round-sided Pyramid of the Magician. It is also known as the House of the Dwarf as legend has it that it was built overnight by an enchanted dwarf who then became the city’s ruler. The House of the Governor is equally impressive with striking mosaics depicting Chac, serpents and astrological symbols, created using more than 20,000 custom-carved stones. Don’t miss the House of Turtles, a smaller building that takes its name from a frieze of turtles, or the dovecote-shaped Temple of the Dove.
The ‘black jaguar’ city may be half-choked by vegetation but it remains magical and startlingly well preserved. Head to the gargantuan acropolis and scale the massive pyramid atop its base. One of the largest ancient discoveries on the American continent, the pyramid houses the mysterious tomb of the divine ancient Maya king, Ukit Kan Le’k Tok, founder of the city. Its huge entrance is a portal to the ‘underworld’, guarded by a monster-like figure with huge stone teeth and surrounding decoration of winged figures, the ruin boasts some of the richest motifs and statues found so far in Yucatán. Just a mile away is the serene, turquoise Cenote (pronounced say-no-tay) X’Canche, which is well worth a dip.
One of the new seven wonders of the world, this magnificent metropolis is one of the most famous of the Maya ruins. The largest Maya city in Mexico, and a stone’s throw from Cancún, the site is a dazzling array of stepped pyramids, temples and columned arcades. The crowning glory is the Temple of Kukulkan, a towering structure that showcases the accuracy and prominence of Maya astronomy. Visit during the spring or autumn equinoxes, when the morning and afternoon sun produces a light-and-shadow illusion of a serpent slithering down the side of the staircase. Other highlights include The Great Ball Court – the largest discovered in the Americas – where a deadly game of Pok-a-Tok was played. Players had to hit (without using arms or legs) a heavy rubber ball through stone-scoring hoops set high on the court walls. Losers were sacrificed to the gods.
Though only five per cent of this city has been uncovered, there is still plenty to feast your eyes on. Once home to 50,000 inhabitants, now people travel from across the world to climb the tallest Maya temple in Mexico, Nohoch Mol. It’s not for the fainthearted with 120 steep, uneven steps but, at the top, where animal sacrifices once took place, you are rewarded with a dramatic treetop view. Spot some of the estimated 6,500 structures yet to be excavated, which peek just above the undergrowth. En route to the pyramid, stop off at the stelae, ancient stone bulletin boards featuring the Maya’s unique form of hieroglyphics. Swot up on your history and learn all about the Maya, including the governance of Cobá, which apparently had more female than male rulers.
Perched on sheer cliffs above the crashing waves of the Caribbean Sea, this major port was the only Maya city to have been built on the coast. Trading mainly in turquoise and jade, the puzzle of limestone buildings face the rising sun (hence its Maya name, Zama, meaning dawn or morning). Top sights include El Castillo – the castle – which is today used as a lighthouse to guide ships through the dangerous reef below, or the Temple of the Descending God, which houses the crumbling remnants of a stucco-constructed god. The Temple of the Frescoes is Tulum’s best preserved Mayan Site. Peer inside to see the remarkable murals painted in three sections: the first level depicting the underworld, the middle showing the living, and the final, highest piece depicting the creator and rain god. Not far away is the famous cenote, The Pit, a natural sinkhole resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes the groundwater underneath (as shown on our cover).