Mayan History and Culture
The Yucatan's Grand Tour
Mayan history and culture is filled with mystery. And one of the biggest mysteries has to do with the widely held belief that the Mayan culture suddenly and inexplicably "disappeared."
A better reading of what actually happened may be that the culture didn't disappear entirely but sank into a centuries-long hiatus extending from the Spanish Conquest until the mid 1900s.
The man responsible for almost single-handedly bringing the Maya to the attention of the modern world was the remarkable John Lloyd Stephens. His journeys throughout the region, accompanied by English topographical artist Frederick Catherwood, led to the publication of two large works, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. These books soon became best-sellers, and marked the beginning of an international campaign to restore our understanding of the Mayan history and culture that has continued ever since.
Today in the Yucatan, Chiapas, and Guatemala approximately seven million Mayas live on in cities, towns and villages throughout the region. The Maya have also joined the Mexican diaspora and now live in cities in North America.
Undoubtedly, what triggered the "myth" about the "vanished Mayan civilization" is the so far unexplained abandonment of their cities. There are various theories as to why this happened, the topic is hotly debated. It seems, however, that it resulted from a combination of factors: more or less constant warfare among the Mayas themselves, climate change and agricultural practices unsuited for large urban centers.
What remains today is a bountiful material record with over a hundred archeological sites in the Yucatan alone, and an enduring modern culture primarily in small towns and villages.
You can gain a rich understanding of Mayan history and culture on a ten "day" loop that begins at Tulum on the Mayan Riviera, travels west across the peninsula as far as Uxmal south of Merida, and then continues on to the southeast rejoining the coast at Chetumal. I put quotation marks around the word "day" because this could just as easily be a 10 week trip, depending on how much time you want to spend in each area.
Day One Begin at the dramatic late Post Classic site Tulum, an easy two hours south of Cancun.
Day Two Travel inland about 45 minutes to Coba
Day Three Follow Route 180 (the libre or toll-free road) to Chichen Itza.
Day Four Just off Route 180, visit Izamal and see both the archeological site and modern, small town Mayan culture
Day Five Break the trip in Merida, the Yucatan state capital, before continuing on to Uxmal and Labna on the Ruta Puuc.
Day Six Break the trip again in the pirate city of Campeche. While you're there visit Edzna and the 2,600 year old capital of one the Yucatec Maya ruling dynasties. the house of the Itzaes.
Day Seven - Eight Travel southeast into the interior to Calakmul, Becan and Rio Bec, among others, once a center for southern lowland Maya civilization. Stay in a "junglow" at Rio Bec Dreams and have the proprietors organize your tour of local sites.
Day Nine Relax in Chetumal, capital of Quintana Roo, and visit the archeological and anthropological museum to fill in the missing pieces from your tour of Mayan sites.
Day Ten Travel back to Cancun along the Mayan Riviera through the Reserva Biosfera Sian Ka'an, the largest nature preserve in the Yucatan.
Note: A site not on this list is without question one of the most beautiful and important of all Mayan sites: Palenque in Chiapas. This is worth a trip all by itself and one could easily spend 10 days (or 10 months!) visiting nearby sites elsewhere in Chiapas, and in Guatemala and Honduras. We have left it out for now, as our site so far is focused on the Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo.
For an excellent overview of many of the important Mayan sites click here.
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