Oh, Maya!

Art, architecture and adventure combine in Mayan Mexico to give visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience that they can take home with them to cherish until the next time they venture into this unparalleled destination.
Text by Sandy Lindsey | June 24, 2018 | Lifestyle

Hidden in the jungles of Mexico and Guatemala and reaching deep into the limestone shelf of the Yucatan Peninsula is a virtual feast of Mayan temples and pyramids. From 2600 BC through 900 AD there flourished one of the most advanced civilizations of its time: The Maya. Unlike most other ancient civilizations, the Maya have never disappeared and are still present today. However, it is this Pre-Columbian period that attracts adventurers and general travelers alike from around the globe who arrive to see this extensive collection of ancient architecture and artwork as well as well as centuries-old mathematical and astronomical systems that are impressive, intriguing and…perhaps true!
The Maya left behind so many treasures that it’s rare for travelers to make enough time to see them all in one journey. There’s Teotihuacan, an ancient city which was never truly “lost,” that includes the Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon, Avenue of the Dead and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. And Palenque is home to the Palace & Temple of Inscriptions, and a secret door that was discovered in Temple XII, leading to an underground temple and the tomb of the Red Queen. Tulum, located on the eastern Yucatan Peninsula, is a walled city that’s as famous for its dedicated religious architecture and massive wall paintings as it is for its location on the Caribbean Sea.
Although all the aforementioned were on our must-see list, our first stop takes us to Chichén Itza, nestled between Cancun and Merida. This is the city that most people think of when they think of The Maya because it’s home to the monolithic Kukulcán Pyramid dubbed El Castillo, or The Castle, of movie and postcard fame. We recommend putting on a heavy-duty pair of walking shoes (leave the trendy cross trainers in the hotel room) because climbing the pyramid is an effort not undertaken lightly but well worth the sore muscles once you see the stunning view of the 14 massive structures of the 2.5-square-mile site and the lavish jungle surrounding them from the top. In contrast, the interior of the pyramid is dark and humid and has been known to daunt more than a few tourists each day.
Chichén Itza is also home to the jaw-dropping Temple of the Warriors. The temple sits arrogantly atop a huge, steep-step platform. Its extensive artwork is an excellent example of Mayan-Toltec craftsmanship. There are monumental columns featuring plumed serpents; great statues of reclining people known as the Chac Mool; stone altars carved with jaguars, tigers and eagles; and let us not forget the warriors “guarding” the 4 faces of the pillars in the halls. Another fascinating slice of history is the Temple of the Skulls, so called because of the rows upon rows of skulls carved into the stone platform. The skulls are a still-life of the tradition of cutting an enemy’s head, sticking it on a pole and displaying them all in a row. Continuing the gruesome yet fascinating theme are carvings of eagles ripping out the hearts of humans.
Equally fascinating is Uxmal, another very popular destination for its fairly good state of preservation and its relatively convenient drive from Merida. Sturdy shoes come in handy here as well, especially as you climb the largest structure in the area, the Pyramid of the Magician.
This landmark has an interesting legend, which says it was built overnight by a boy magician who then became the city’s new ruler. In reality, the city’s name means “thrice-built” and refers to the Mayan practice of constructing a new temple over an existing one. In the case of the Temple of the Magician, a total of 5 stages of construction have been discovered by archaeologists.
Moreover, the nearby Palace of the Governor is considered to be the best example of Puuc architecture seen today. It’s one of the last construction projects of its era occurring around 987 AD and rests on an artificial raised platform, with a rather plain lower section and richly carved upper detailed with a god-like creature in a long plumed head-dress as well as masks, lattices and the ubiquitous serpents.
A bit more primitive is Yaxchilan, considered an excellent example of the Classic Mayan period, 250-900 AD, this ancient city in Chiapas, Mexico, is especially intriguing because it remains slightly untamed, as about half the city is still hidden in the dense jungle next to the Usumacinta River. The prime ruins include temples and palaces adjoining a large terrace plaza situated above the river. There are some particularly impressive sculptures at hand including giant carved stelae, intriguing narrative reliefs on the lintels above the temple doors, alters, stairs, bas-relief carvings and mural paintings. In all, more than 120 breathtaking structures comprise the site.
As with all the best vacations, there may not be enough time to do everything on your itinerary. But rest assured: If these structures have been around for as long as experts estimate, they will still be there when you plan your return trip to experience everything you missed the first time around.