What Went Wrong?

The 64,000 cocoa question (for a time the Maya used chocolate as currency!) is what went wrong? What caused this highly developed, safisticated and scientific culture to collapse? Scholars have proposed various theories all of which cluster around themes strikingly familiar to contempary times; overpopulation, war, overtaxing of the environment, drought. Its been noted that they would have had to cut down a tremendous number of trees in order to process lime stone into the plaster they used to cover their buildings; that a continous state of war (and the public spending that accompanies that) may have corresponded with an unexpected, drought-induced crop failure to push a society on the brink over the edge, that a system of slash-and-burn agriculture and an ever-growing population were not sustainable. Regardless, the story of the Maya seems to serve as a warning for modern times.

Carlos Adampol Galindo's photo of Palenque.

Why were these sites abandoned? Photo by Carlos Adampol Galindo.

But one might ask, as a warning for whom?

The “collapse of Mayan culture” in no way meant that the people died out. They are still there today. The decision to stop building giant monuments and to abandon their great cities was a decision the people made themselves. It’s as if one day the 99% just said, “Fuck it. We’re not doing this anymore.” Afterall, the pyramids, temples, ball courts and other monuments we’ve visited on our Mayan tour reflect the life of the Mayan elite. Heavy taxes must have been levied in order to create these marvels. But what of the working class people? Those who carried the stone, dug the cisterns and grew the corn? When I’ve asked my tour guides how the regular ancient Mayan people lived, they’ve responded, “Not so differently from how they live today.” In other words, humble homes and substitance farming.

This begs another question. What of the life of the Maya between the end of the Post Classic period and the arrival of the Spanish? How was their society organized? Did they live in anarchy? And might it not be true that that period of time, when they didn’t have to contribute to the building of monuments or the waging of wars, nor be enslaved by Spanish overlords, might that not have been the best period of history from the point of view of the Mayan working stiff?

The Maya Today

We may never know the answer to these questions, but if it’s true that average Mayan then lived a similar life to the way many Mayans live today, then our tour of Mayan sites needs to include contempory Mayan life in order to be complete. Opportunities abound in Guatemala, Beliz, Hondurus and southern Mexico.   In Chichicastenango, a group of women coached and assisted me in weaving a scarf on a back-strap loom. I’ve watched people lay out elaborate burnt offerings, spreading colored powder like a “plus sign” (which the Spanish would see as the sign of the cross) pointing to the cardinal points. And I’ve marveled at how similar the face of the young man who worked the front desk of the hostel in Valladolid  looked to the carvings I’d seen at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.

So here’s hoping that you enjoy seeing the Maya as they were then and are now. And that we will all be able to learn a lesson or two from their history.

Guillén Pérez's photo of a modern Maya performing an ancient ceremony.

A shaman performs a ritual in Chichicastenango. Photo by Guillén Pérez.

Entering Chichén Itzá, the visitor is immediately confronted with a pyramid so striking it encapsulates what most of us think of when we think of Mesoamerican ruins. But El Castillo is more than just a perfect pyramid, it is actually a giant representation of the Mayan calendar.

The sprawling site of Chichén Itzá is so large and impressive, it spans two civilizations. It was originally a late Classic Mayan site, but the population declined around the 9th century. Then it was invaded by Toltecs from the north. The architecture of Chichén Itzá reflects both of these cultures; our old friend Chac Mool (the Mayan rain god) sits besides the invading Quetzalcóatl (the plumed-serpent god of the Mexican highlands).


Frank Kovalchek's photo of El Castillo at Chichén Itzá.

The iconic “El Castillo”. Notice the serpent heads at the bottom of the stairs. Photo by Frank Kovalchek.

Carved serpents heads decorate the bottom of the staircase of El Castillo.  During the spring and autumn equinoxes, shadows on the stairs make the image of a slithering serpent. This affect is re-created every evening at the sound and light show.  (You can buy your ticket and attend the show the night before you visit the ruins.)

OliBac's photo of Chac Mool at Chichén Itzá.

The Mayan Rain God – Chac Mool, holds a bowl or tray. Is it for receiving sacrificed hearts? Photo by OliBac.

El Castillo is not the only remarkable structure at Chichén Itzá. An unusually shaped building called El Caracol (Spanish for the snail) is believed to have served as an observatory. The ancient Maya didn’t need a swiveling dome to use with a high-powered telescope, but the shape of El Caracol is oddly reminiscent of modern-day observatories. If you haven’t explored the fascinating subject of archeoastronomy, this might be the time start.

Jim G's photo of the observatory at Chichén Itzá.

“El Caracol” – the observatory at Chichén Itzá. Photo by Jim G.

To give you an idea of how immense the site is, Chichén Itzá includes, eight (yes, eight!) ball courts. The Great Ball Court is the largest in Mexico. From what we are told, the game entailed hitting (perhaps with the hips) a hard rubber ball through stone hoops which protrude from the sides of the court. It doesn’t look easy. Various carvings have lead scholars to speculate that the losers (or perhaps the winners depending on who you listen to) of the ball game were later sacrificed. No pressure there!

Brian Snelson's photo of the Great Ball Court at Chichén Itzá.

Does the Latino love of fútbol (soccer) date to preColumbian times? Photo by Brian Snelson.

Surviving Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá’s big. It’s hot and crowded and doesn’t have much to offer in the way of shade (though the museum offers a bit of respite from the relentless sun). My recommendation is to get here early, scour the ruins for a few hours and then (keeping your ticket) leave through the rear exit and walk 3km east to Ik Kil park, where a lovely cenote (lime stone sink hole-turned swim pool) is just waiting to cool you off. After a refreshing dip, you’ll be ready for a few more hours exploring Chichén Itzá.

Less likely to appear in one of those cable channel documentaries, or on the cover of a guidebook or the travel agency poster, Uxmal is the least well known of the Mayan sites mentioned in this series. That does not mean that you will be in any way disappointed in the ruins. Only that you’ll be able to enjoy them without battling the occupants of multiple tour buses.

greg.road.trip's photo of carvings at Uxmal.

Uxmal: Lesser known, but equally impressive. Photo by greg.road.trip.

Got Water?

A visit to Uxmal starts with yet another opportunity to appreciate Mayan ingenuity. Unlike the jungle sites of Palenque and Tikal, Uxmal is located in the relatively dry Puuc region of the Yucatan Peninsula. So building a city here required harnessing that all-important natural resource- water. Visiting Uxmal, one encounters large, lime-stone lined, capped cisterns which were used to capture and store water for use in the long dry season.   Images of Chac Mool, the rain god, are scattered throughout the site, further testament to the importance of water.

Puuc Architecture

Cities of the Puuc region were constructed relatively late in the Mayan era and architectural features reflect the growing influence of the cultures of highland Mexico, which were probable trade partners. Notable elements include carved serpents and intricate geometric designs.


Keith Walbolt's photo of Uxmal.

Carvings at Uxmal. Photo by Keith Walbolt.

 Visiting Uxmal

Uxmal is located about one and one half hours south of Mérida, on the route to Campeche. You can either hop off of the intercity bus enroute, or book a day trip from Mérida (which will likely also take you to the ruins at Kabah). I found the guides to be well qualified and informative. The site is large, but not overwhelming and can easily be seen in a day. Along with the usual fantastic birdlife one sees at Mayan ruins, Uxmal hosts a large population of giant iguanas, who laze in the sun and bask on the warm rocks. One gets the feeling they think the site was built just for them.


Olivier Bruchez' photo of an Uxmal resident.

He’s bigger than you think! Photo by Olivier Bruchez.

Kabah and the Ruta Puuc

The second most important city in the region was Kabah. The thing that struck me about Kabah was an ancient, paved, ceremonial (it passes through an impressive arch) road, which connects it’s Great Pyramid to the Palace. I use the word “road” instead of “path” because the track is quite wide, which is puzzling because to the best of our knowledge the Maya did not use wheels or pack animals.

Continuing south, you can follow the Ruta Puuc which will take you to multiple other late (750-950 BCE) Mayan sites. However, this can be tricky to do without a car, so check bus schedules ahead of time.

Esparta Palma's photo of Uxmal.

Uxmal. Photo by Esparta Palma.


If you are only going to see one Mayan site in your life, I would recommend Palenque. With its gleaming white lime stone buildings, intact roof combs, intricately carved stele and lively jungle atmosphere, Palenque has it all. It’s not nearly as large (a lot of promising mounds in the jungle have not yet been excavated) as Tikal or Chichén Itzá, which means you can enjoy it without becoming too overwhelmed. There are some other cool things to visit nearby, waterfalls and, of course, more Mayan ruins. Furthermore, there is a really fun place to stay.

An en Alain's photo of Palenque.

Intact roof combs are one of the hallmarks of the Palenque ruins. Photo by An en Alain.

Palenque, located in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, is Classic Maya. Ruins date from around 226 BCE to 799 CE, and the city appears to have reached is peak in the 7th century. Once the site was abandoned, it was quickly swallowed up by surrounding jungle. Like Copán, Palenque has a lot of information written in hieroglyphics. This allowed archeologist to reconstruct its history. There was a time when many historians believed that Mayan were peaceful people and that war was not a part of their story. Now we know that’s not really the case. The written record of Palenque documents a long rivalry with the neighboring city-states of Calakmul and Toniná.

Carlos Adampol Galindo's photo of Palenque.

Makes you feel small…Photo by Carlos Adampol Galindo.

Meet the Monkeys

You’ll hear them before you see them. And it’s a sound you won’t soon forget. The fearsome screech made me imagine a terrifying, extra-terrestrial monster devouring a dog. Actually, they’re just friendly, little, leaf-eating monkeys, called Howlers because of the blood-curdling noise they make.

Near By

Two other Mayan sites lie within a short distance of Palenque. Yaxchilan, about 195 km from Palenque, has to be reached by boat. Though the architecture is less spectacular than at Palanque, the jungle is awesome. If you haven’t had enough howler monkeys, this is the place.

Bonampak (148km from Palenque) is a well intact site famous for its murals. For its colorful, gruesome, bloody, penis-impaling, fingernail-pulling-out murals.  Ouch! So much for the myth of the “peaceful Maya”!

There are also some not-to-be-missed waterfalls nearby, most famously Agua Azul.

zoutedrop's photo of a waterfall at Palenque

As with other Mayan sites, the natural setting is one of the highlights. Photo by zoutedrop.

El Panchán

The bus rumbles through a small, un-noteworthy modern town of Palenque on the way to the ruins. I didn’t stop there, and I don’t think you should either. The place to stay is in the delightful, jungle hippy-camp “El Panchán”. Nestled in the greenery, El Panchán is a completely self-contained little colony with lodging, restaurants and fun. The sounds of the monkeys mixes with the drum circles – a great place to hang out after a day of hiking around the ruins.


Adalberto.H.Vega's photo of a carving at Copán.

Fabulous carvings are scattered all of over Copán. Photo by Adalberto.H.Vega.

Michael Angelo’s ancient Mayan cousin must have lived here. Seriously. Copán, which lies in the northwestern part of Honduras not far from Guatemala, is covered with spectacularly carved stele and sculptures. History written in stone. You can see Mayan carvings at other sites, but nothing compares to those at Copán.

Copán was occupied for over 2,000 years from pre-classic through post-classic times. The city reached it’s height in the Late Classic era and is believed to have been home to 20,000-25,000 people. Walking around the ruins and reading my guidebook, I couldn’t help but think that one of the rulers- a man named 18 Rabbit, was a bit of an egomaniac, reminiscent of Ramesses II (only not as obsessed with size).

Although Copán was a regional power in its time, the site is compact and easy to enjoy without becoming too overwhelmed. This makes it an excellent place to explore the classic elements of Mayan architecture such as the tiered layers of rock which were used to form the Mayan arch and the ubiquitous ball courts.

Adalberto.H.Vega's photo of an arch and ball court at Copán.

The Mayan arch. Photo by Adalberto.H.Vega.

And of course, there are pyramids.   Two of these maybe considered highlights. One, Structure 26, boasts a stairway with Mayan writing carved into every step- The Hieroglyphic stairway.

Another, Rosalilia, is a pyramid within a pyramid. As happens in cities that are occupied for thousands of years, new structures were built on top of old ones. In the case of Rosalilia, special care was taken to preserve the inner building, which is entombed in Structure 16. Thus protected from the elements and from humans who wanted to loot or recycle building materials, Rosalilia offers us a chance to see what Mayan temples looked like in their time. There is a full-scale replica of Rosalilia in the Copán museum, allowing visitors to see her in her brilliant colors, while still protecting the original.

Dennis Jarvis's photo of the Rosalila replica in the museum at Copán.

Rosalila! Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

Like other Mayan ruins, Copán is an excellent place to enjoy the natural wonders of Central America. Things are lush and green, and a flock of scarlet macaws call this place home. The adjacent town, Copán Ruinas (the ruins are called “Copán” and the town is called “Copán Ruinas” – don’t ask), is a fabulously pleasant place to hang out. With plenty of good restaurants, affordable hotels and a walking path from town to the ruins, it has all the amenities without being annoyingly touristy. There’s even a zip-line.

Adalberto.H.Vega's of carvings at Copán.

Interesting characters? Photo by Adalberto.H.Vega.

Builders of monuments, creators of calendars and discoverers of chocolate, the Maya easily hold their own as one of the most fascinating civilizations to have left their mark on the world. Mayan sites are some of the primary attractions which bring travelers to the American isthmus.   Today we’ll begin a tour of the some of the more famous Mayan sites with a visit to the towering monuments protruding from the jungle in Guatemala – Tikal. But first a little context…

Pedro Szekely's photo of Tikal

Great Plaza at Tikal. Photo by Pedro Szekely.

Mayan Basics

The Maya developed city-states starting from around 1800 BCE, in the area which is now Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Mayan history is generally divided into three periods: Pre-classic 1800 BCE – 250 CE, Classic from 250-900 CE and Post-classic from 900 CE until the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors.

Corn (maíz) was the basis of their subsistence, as it remains for the people living in this area today. The landscape was also characterized by large deposits of limestone, which the Maya used to carve monuments and decorate their temples. They had a pantheon of gods for whom they would sacrifice humans and make other (often bloody) offerings. Their hieroglyphic writing allowed them to record their history. They are also notable for their scientific advancements, such as the first known use of “zero” and the development of a strikingly accurate calendar systems.

For reasons that remain unknown, Mayan civilization began to decline around 900 and most sites were eventually abandoned. This does not mean that people died out. There are plenty of Mayan peoples populating their traditional lands today. But most of their great cities had been abandoned before the Spanish arrived. Experts debate about the cause of this decline, but that’s a subject for another post. Let’s get to Tikal.

kangotraveler's photo of ruins at Tikal.

Mayan ruins at Tikal. Photo by kangotraveler.

Visiting the Park

Located in the northern, El Petén, region of Guatemala, Tikal is easily accessed from either Flores or Santa Elena.

I found Tikal to be a fabulously well-managed park. Guides were knowledgeable, there were no flocks of vendors and wooden staircases have been constructed which allow you to climb the temples without actually climbing on the temples.

Katrina's photo of stairs going up a temple,

You’ll get plenty of exercise the day you visit Tikal! Photo by Katrina.

The entrance fee is upwards (charged in Quetzals which varies in value) of $20 USD, but totally worth it.

If you’re staying in nearby El Remate, Santa Elena or Flores, get your hiney out of bed early to be at the park when it opens at 6 AM. When I visited, the only lodging available in the park was camping or a spendy lodge. If I had it to do over, I would cough up the cash and stay in the park. There’s a lot to see here. Tikal claims to be the biggest excavated site on the continent. And the local wildlife is most active at dusk and dawn.


Travelers are often advised to make their way immediately to the top of Temple IV, on the far side of the park in order to sit atop the temple and watch the pyramids emerge as the morning mist clears. This is, no doubt, a spectacular way to start the day, but I got distracted on the way there by all the exciting sounds of the jungle. That’s the thing about Tikal, the ruins are spectacular, but even if there were no ruins here, it would be worth the price of admission just to see the jungle. By the end of the day, I had seen so many monkeys, I wasn’t even bothering to look anymore. And birdwatchers will surely check more than one species of toucan off of their list.

Mike Murga's photo of temples protruding above the canopy

Only in Tikal…Photo by Mike Murga.

More than any other Mayan site I’ve visited, the builders of Tikal seemed obsessed with size, specifically height. The temples soar, reaching above the forest canopy towards the heavens. As the guide explained, their quickly-narrowing design gives the optical illusion of even more height. Climbing the stair-ladders (steeper than your average set of stairs) up one temple after another, I understood the guides comment. “Going up is physically challenging, coming down psychologically.”

Tikal is believed to have been home to around 100,000 people at its peak in the mid sixth century. It had conquered neighboring cities and was the dominant power in the region. The relics left behind, plazas, temples and artifacts filling two museums, make a fascinating introduction to the Mayan world for any traveler.

4Neus' photo of Tikal

A view that’s hard to beat. Photo by 4Neus.

My hostel was only a couple of blocks from the bus station, but I had already fallen in love with the town of Valladolid by the time I got there.  (Doubly remarkable if you consider the neighborhoods most bus stations are in.) The streets were colorful and tranquil.  An atmosphere of friendliness filled the air.

Downtown Valladolid

Meandering along, I came to the town square.  In any Mexican town you’ll find a zócalo- a town square with trees and benches, and a fountain or bandstand in the center.  Valladolid was no exception, except that  the statue in the middle of the fountain surprised me.  Statues tend to be of some political figure- Miguel Hidalgo or Benito Juarez, or some such man.  This statue wasn’t of a man at all.  It was of a woman.  She was dressed exactly like the local Mayan women who sat on the benches in the square, and she held a humble water jug.  How endearing to see the nobleness of women doing daily tasks celebrated!

Fountain in Valladolid. Admittedly, they could have painted her skin a little darker, but isn’t it great to see local life celebrated? Photo by ann-dabney.

Downtown Valladolid also has its own cenote.  A cenote is a limestone sinkhole, filled with cool fresh water – as in, the perfect place for hot, sweaty travelers to cool off.  Cenote Zací is conveniently located in a park in the center of town.

Time to cool off…Cenote Samulá. Photo by Frank Kovalchek.


I wondered down the street towards the Templo de San Bernadino, but got distracted by the chocolate museum.  Yes, there’s a chocolate museum.  (See why I like this town!)  Now we all know that the ancient Maya created a brilliant civilization, what with their sophisticated calendar, complex writing system and coming up with the concept of zero.  But to my mind, nothing speaks so highly of the culture as their reverence for cocao.  The Mayans had a goddess of chocolate.  They sometimes used cocao beans as currency.  How ingenious is that! Not only does it solve one of life’s major dilemmas- money or chocolate, but it also meant that money literally grew on trees.  The museum illustrates the complex process involved in making raw cocao into chocolate (very similar to the process for making coffee beans into coffee) and, of course, ends with tasting and a chance to buy samples.


The museum of San Roque, located in the center of town, displays items from daily Mayan life, as well as historical information on the 1847 War of the Castes.  This was a bazaar episode in which, in an effort to win independence from authorities in Mexico City, the European rulers of Yucatan decided it would be helpful to arm their slaves.  Predictably, the enslaved Mayan population turned the weapons against their overlords.

In a subtle way, the Maya here are still fighting.  The day before coming to Valladolid, I had toured the ruins of Uxmal and Kabah, outside of the city of Mérida.  It was a long, hot day in the sun and I dozed off for a few minutes during the ride back to town.  When I woke, all the other passengers were asleep and the driver/guide seemed to be blinking a lot.  I decided it behooved me to make conversation, so I told the driver how nice it was that there were no vendors at the ruins we had just visited, and how I remembered there being many vendors at Chichén Itzá.

It turned out that until 2010 Chichén Itzá was privately owned, first by the American, Edward Thompson, who shuttled some of the artifacts off to the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, and later by the wealthy Barbachano family.  Somewhere a long the line, the local Mayan population decided that they have as much right as anyone to be profiting from the site. Fair point, I suppose.  So, they began swarming in, without permits, to sell their wares.  It remains a sticky issue.

In the Neighborhood

Valladolid makes an excellent base for visiting Cenote Dzitnup and Cenote Samulá, as well as the nearby Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá and Ek´Balam.   Visiting the ruins while staying in Valladolid gives one a chance to notice how similar the local people look to the faces in the thousand-year-old carvings.  The Maya live on.