What makes the ancient Maya culture so mesmerizing today? For some, it’s the beauty: From the graceful pyramids of Palenque, in Mexico, to Guatemala’s Tikal, rising above a green canopy of rain forest, the Maya left behind a stunning artistic architectural legacy. You’ll also be awed by the unique civilization they created, which peaked between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D. The Maya invented the America’s most sophisticated written native language, came up with the concept of zero long before the Europeans, and developed a calendar more accurate than the one we used today. In fact, while Europe languished in the Dark Ages, Maya kings with names like “Smoke Imix” and “Moon Jaguar” presided over grand pyramids and palaces.
Most are intrigued by the central mystery of the Maya glyphs, stone carvings and murals that adorn the temples and ceremonial cities were left to become enshrouded in jungle, their culture lives on in the customs and language of their descendants. You’ll hear many different Maya dialects throughout this region.
Set inland, about 125 miles from Cancun, the vast park-like site of Chichen Itza is filled with architectural treasures. Among its highlights are the delicately carved stones mosaics of the Nunnery Annex, the fine acoustics of the grand ball court, and the Temple of the Warriors, bristling with columns. Peek into the sacred Cenote to see where gold, jade and other offerings were thrown to appease the gods. As you scale the four-sided Pyramid of Kukulkan (El Castillo), remember that you’re actually climbing a huge solar clock: Its steps, plus the platform on top, add up to the 365 days of the solar year. During the spring and fall equinoxes, sun and shadow cast a serpent shape that appears to slither along the steps of this towering temple.
The Latin city, Merida, the Yucatan Peninsula’s most charming city, revels in music. In the limestone-laced Puuc Hills, about 50 miles south of Merida stand some of the most elegant structures of the Maya world. Intricate geometrical designs of cut and carved stone are the hallmark of the Puuc style that characterizes the Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, and Labna sites.
The largest complex, Uxmal, greets you with its imposing Pyramid of the Magician-the oval-shaped Maya pyramid. Uxmal’s Palace of the Governors, a building as long and lean as the best modern architecture, is crowned by a dazzling geometrical frieze made from 20,000 cut stone. Within the vicinity are the Loltun Caves, containing Maya pictographs and lovely formations.
The Maya sites of the Rio Bec region in the southern Yucatan Peninsula include Becan (known for its moat), Chicanna (featuring massive doorways representing an earth monster’s gaping mouth), and Kohunlich, remarkable for its pyramid decorated with giant masks that portray the sun god.
Known for its fine regional anthropology museum as well as La Venta, a park and museum displaying the giant basalt heads and other sculptures carved by the Olmecs-Mexico’s most ancient civilization – Villahermosa is the closest city to Palenque, which is regarded as one of the most beautiful sites in the Maya world.
Topped with pierced “roof combs” to make them taller, Palenque’s graceful temples are set against a backdrop of jungle-covered mountains. Wild bird calls and the splashing of a river hidden in the rain forest add to its beauty. Follow the tunnel into the Temple of the Inscriptions to see what, in 1952, was the first tomb ever found beneath a pyramid in the Americas. The jade mask and other adornments found in this royal tomb are displayed at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
One of Mexico’s natural wonders is the Agua Azul, where turquoise cascades tumble out of the rain forest into a series of swirling pools-they’re Mother Nature’s version of a whirlpool bath!