Architecture / Mexico / Travel

Mexico’s Mysterious Maya

Every traveler must certainly remember their first trip abroad, and for me, that was Belize in Central America. The trip’s downside was catching my first case of dengue fever, but the upside was a visit to the ruins of the Maya city of Altun Ha.

The fever was a harsh introduction to international travel, but Altun Ha lit a fire of curiosity about ancient cultures and antiquities that still burns brightly today. And recently, Terri and I stoked the fire with our very own Ruta Maya through Yucatán and Chiapas of southern Mexico.

Southeastern Mexico is the ancestral home of the Maya, so its concentration of ruins provides travelers with lots of impressive options. As always, we prefer variety, so we cherry-picked three well-preserved sites that were different styles and easily accessed: Uxmal, Palenque, and Chichen Itza.

The Maya Culture is known for its towering architecture, intricate calendar, ahead-of-its-time mathematics and astronomy, as well as its complex hieroglyphic writing system. But despite what continuing archaeological research has shown, the question of exactly what happened to this sophisticated society largely remains a mystery.

We came to the Yucatán with our own set of questions about the Maya. At it’s peak, there were 40 widely-scattered cities. Why was every one abandoned? Why was human sacrifice and bloodletting one of the major tenets of their religion? Why was astronomy so important and what part did the movement of the planets play in their lives?

Finding answers, and to be honest, a colder-than-normal winter, inspired us to fly a few hours south to Merida and set out to find the Maya. In our next few posts we’ll let you know what we found.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

57 thoughts on “Mexico’s Mysterious Maya

    • The Maya are fascinating Alison, and the culture is an interesting study in human history as well. And it doesn’t hurt that this is a relaxing part of the world to visit. ~James

  1. Belize (Placencia) is the only country in the world Mark and I ever considered living in. But then we found a sailboat and set of adventuring that way. 🙂 The Mayan ruins you picked are very different from each other. We visited them, and many others, on our year-long RV trip throughout Mexico and Central America in 2006. Palenque was one of our all-time favorites. Your photos are spectacular! I’m curious about your answers to the questions…

    • Liesbet, I spent quite of bit of time in Belize, but I was working, so most of my time was in the jungles in the north of the country. Still, it’s a fascinating place and in my experience, the people were welcoming and friendly. Of the three ruins we visited, Uxmal was our favorite city, and Palenque was our favorite location. Its mountain-side location surrounded by jungle is fabulous, and I suspect, it hasn’t changed much since the days of the Maya. ~James

    • Jo, it was a trip we’d talked about for years, and it was wonderful to finally make it a reality. And thanks, we are both well, and hope things are going smoothly on your side of the pond too. BTW, we just spent a few days in London and went to see “Kinky Boots.” Absolutely fabulous! ~James

    • Gilda, maybe it’s because it was my first experience, but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for this part of the world. I’m sure that you’re prepared for this, and probably looking forward to it, but it will be hot, hot, hot in July – sunscreen, hats and agua por favor. And another word of advice: it isn’t a problem everywhere, but depending on where you’re visiting, think about mozzie spray. Dengue hemorrhagic fever is not fun. ~James

      • Hi James, I will be loading up on the mozzie spray…going for some vaccinations today, but unfortunately no vaccine for Dengue fever. We are visiting Peru before going over to Mexico…DEET spray will be my best friend 🙂 Thanks for your advice

    • Thanks Shelley. Years ago we decided that car rental was more hassle than it’s worth, so our approach is to use public transport when possible, and if that’s too difficult, we hire a car and driver. Given this, for Chichen Itza, we took a public bus from Merida, hired a car and driver for Uxmal, and we stayed in Palenque town and took taxi/colectivo to and from the ruins which are close by. Of course, all this depends on your tolerance and hassle factor, but this all worked well for us. ~James

  2. I had to scroll this page down, and up, and down again, and up again. I’ve been dreaming to go to Mexico, and it’s now on top of my travel wish list. You’ve probably noticed that I have a penchant for ancient ruins, so you can imagine how bad I want to see those centuries-old Maya pyramids and temples with my own eyes. I really can’t wait for your upcoming posts! By the way, I guess you went there in early April? It looks like the weather was nice during your stay.

    • Bama, you can probably tell from our posts that we share your love of ancient ruins as well. If you come to this part of the world there’s an abundance of antiquities that are wonderful and relatively close by. In addition to Mexico’s Maya and Aztec cultures, the northern part of South America has Inca ruins as well. And as for the weather, you’re obviously accustomed to heat, but if you want a more pleasant temperature, the autumn, winter, and spring are best in this area. Also, Cancun, on the east coast of the Yucatán is a very popular beach getaway, so plan for high season crowds. ~James

  3. Love your photos. Looking forward to what you learned. It amazes me how advanced they were and how “uncivilized” they were at the same time. I wish I could convince Steve to travel to Mexico!

    • Laura, the concept of what it “uncivilized” goes to the heart of why I find the Maya so intriguing. Both the Maya and Aztecs saw wholesale human sacrifice as a way to appease the gods and to ensure that the living had rain, abundant crops, successful hunts, etc. It sounds barbaric today no doubt and the human race has advanced beyond these concepts. But not so long ago the Catholic church carried out the Inquistion. I’m don’t think the “heretics” would have considered it “civilized.” ~James

    • Thanks Kathy. We are both well and haven’t really stopped traveling, but have just taken a bit of slow-down on the blogging. After 7 years and almost 600 posts, a little breather was in order. ~James

  4. Have visited Chichen Itza twice and Tulum once. Would love to spend more time exploring more ruins…I find it so fascinating…only been to Merida once…had to drive one of our daughters there from Cancun..passport stolen and American consulate is located in Merida. Didn’t realize the importance of Merida historically being a center of so much of the archeological dig activity and exploration on the Yucatan…too much Cancun focus on my part???? 🙂

    • Ahh man, Kirt. Stolen passports are a pain in the neck for sure. I had one stolen once and for a couple of years afterwards, going through immigration seemed to be more of a hassle. Not sure if they tagged me or what, but it was a nuisance. BTW, we based ourselves in Merida for a few days, and its a nice little town in its own right. The only warning is that the traffic can be noisy, so plan accordingly. It was a great base for Chichen Itza and Uxmal. ~James

    • Thanks Darlene. Even though much of the stonework at the ruins has been restored, the rough textures and bright, limestone color as a contrast against a clear blue sky are fun to play with. ~James

  5. I was so excited to read this post and, having spent a month in Merida several years ago, know you’ll enjoy the city and the areas surrounding it. We spent 6 months in the Yucatan area of Mexico, Chiapas and Tabasco, visiting many of the Mayan ruins, large and small, some world famous (Chichen Itza) and many less-known in 2012 and 2013. Our interest quickly turned into a passion that later took us further to Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Every time we heard some visitor complain about being “ruined out,” we’d shake our heads because each ancient city has its own history, mystery and distinct character. One of our favorites was the stunning Uxmal which seemed to be under-rated with few visitors and Palenque was altogether marvelous in its jungle setting with the early morning roars of the howler monkeys in the background. I’m looking forward to your posts and revisiting the ‘happy trails” of the Mayan Ruta through your eyes and photos. Anita

    • We’re kindred spirits Anita. On this trip we visited Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque. Of these, Uxmal and Palenque were our definite favorites for exactly the reasons you state. In fact, this very moment I’m writing our next post which will be on Uxmal. Also, we fell in love with Palenque, both the “Junglebook” ruins on the mountain and the town below. Our hotel was in the center on the unlikely named “Merle Green” Street, and it reminded us so much of Bali. We could sit on our patio with our morning coffee and watch the macaws grouse at each other in the trees. And you’re right about every ruin having its own character. I’ve done lots of reading about the Maya since our trip and come to realize that, unlike many other ancient cultures, there was no unified “Maya Empire.” Instead, there were 40 city states in widely scattered locations, each with its own king and distinct character based on geography, agriculture, and religious rituals. Interesting stuff. So, as you can probably tell I have a personal interest in the Maya, and our blog readers will probably tire of hearing about them before I’m through. All the best to you and Richard. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment Pam and for dropping by the blog. Yep, you don’t hear much about dengue in Mexico and Belize, but I’m living proof that you can catch it there. Of course, I was in the jungle in northern Belize where the mosquitos fly in squadrons, but one of them nailed me good. Actually, I was very, very ill and spent a week in the hospital. Scary business. But the good news is that after my last case of dengue that I picked up in SE Asia, I’ve have 2 of the 4 types and am immune … to 2 of the 4 anyway. 🙂 ~James

  6. Peggy and I spent a delightful day at Chichen Itza once. We had a motel close to the ruins and were able to go over there and wander around as the sun set and all of the tourists had departed. Very impressive. –Curt

    • Curt, like most any of these sites in the world, it’s usually about crowds. And as you know, it’s amazing how different a visit can feel when you have the place to yourselves. And BTW, there’s still a big ol’ fancy hotel right by one of the entrances at CI, and it’s really nice. We didn’t stay there, but we had a cool drink and took advantage of their nice banos. Hope all is well with you and Peggy. ~James

      • It was back in the 90s, James, and the ‘big old hotel’ was a small but comfortable motel, as I remember. Nice banos are always a plus. 🙂 Things are going well here. I am gearing up to do a thousand mile back trip down the PCT this summer. Peggy will be with me on some sections and doing back-up on other. I’ll be posting wet the opportunity presents itself. –Curt

  7. So glad you posted these interesting pictures, and I look forward to what’s coming next. This is untouched country for us, and we may never get there, so keep pumping out the info and photos. No pressure, of course! So sorry to read that you contracted dengue fever. We hear about dread diseases such as this when we go to our local health department and get shots for our next trip. We love it when they tell us, “You’re good for another ten years on this vaccine!” Thanks for always good posts.

    • Not to worry Rusha, there’s a few more posts in the quiver. I’ve always been interested in the Maya, and before the series is finished, you’ll probably be tired of it all. In particular, it’s interesting to me that the Maya culture pretty much developed and flourished without outside influence from the first hunter/gatherers to its demise, which mostly happened pre-Conquistadores. They’re a study of human creativity on one extreme and the consequences of hubris on the other. Very interesting stuff. And, BTW, Merida is only a 3 hour flight from Atlanta … just sayin’. 😉 ~James

  8. This post brought back some great memories. When we lived in Mexico several years ago we took a 10-day ruins tour, which was fabulous. We went to all 3 of these sites. Looking forward to hearing about your time in Merida, a city we also enjoyed.

    • LuAnn, this is an easy part of the world for travel and has lots of stuff to see, that’s for sure. We don’t do rental cars so anymore, so transport is important. And over the years, with nice buses and low-cost airlines, it has gotten easier to move around Mexico. But, given Cancun and the Chichen Itza day tours, it’s unfortunate that travelers don’t see more of the Maya sites. ~James

  9. It’s been so long since I’ve been to any Mayan ruins; you may have piqued my appetite to go back! To this day, when I think of Mayan temples, my mind goes back to a vacation during my first pregnancy, when I foolishly scrambled up the steep steps and then realized that getting back down with a severely altered center of gravity might be difficult and risky to my first child. Luckily, I was sure-footed and that baby is now scrambling up stairs all over the world himself!

    • Lexie, you’ve brought up something I’ve never thought about: changes of center of gravity and balance issues for pregnant women. I can imagine this would be an issue for those steep, Maya stairs. One thing that I learned on those stairs was that when coming down, size 12 feet aren’t the best equipment for those skinny steps, but, still better than being pregnant. 😉 As for the Yucatan, it’s such an easy trip with no long flights, no jet lag, inexpensive hotels, and great ruins. Yep, it makes a dandy trip. ~James

    • Susan, having a “sub-plot” is lots of fun and provides a focus, which means we sometimes notice things that we otherwise would have missed. In addition to making travel more interesting, it makes it more rewarding. ~James

  10. There seems to be two types of people; those who are drawn to the ancient cultures and their relics, and those who could care less about them! I marvel at the construction, the hieroglyphics, petroglyphs and wonder about those people and what their lives were like. Wandering the sites always fills me with a relaxed curiosity, and it’s difficult to leave.

    You’ve given us some great images; thanks!

    Perhaps we should start a ‘Dengue X 2’ club! The rainy season is still in progress here, and of course the dengue/chikungunya curse is making its rounds. A doctor told me that this year’s strain is different from the one from three years ago, though perhaps this year’s plague is the one that ‘bit’ me in Costa Rica a long time ago! Doesn’t matter, I’ll continue to use repellent when in town!

    • It’s great to hear from you Lisa, and I hope that all is going well for you. I’m sure that you’re never very excited about the rainy season for lots of reasons, particularly the disease possibilities. We didn’t see any skeeters on our trip to Mexico, but you can believe that I had my DEET handy. I don’t want to be in the dengue X 3 club! As for ancient cultures, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said I fell in love on my first trip abroad. The more I travel and see of different cultures, I become more interested in the path and progress the human animal made from being an insignificant hunter-gatherer to what we are today – warts and all. It’s particularly interesting for cultures like the Maya, that developed in isolation. Very cool. Take care and slather on the repellent. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment Jamie and for dropping by the blog. With a little smile from the weather gods and some luck with crowds, the ruins in the Yucatan can be very photogenic. ~James

  11. My husband and I went to Cancun in February to get out of the Washington State snow. Our favorite part was touring Mayan ruins- we saw Tulum and Caba. Glad I stumbled onto your website!

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. The Yucatan is a wonderful winter refuge for sure. With the ruins, beaches and warm, sunny weather it’s a perfect escape. ~James

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