The Ancient Maya knew how important rain was for their grand civilisation and so, when drought hit them, they turned to the gods.
First they offered gifts like food, asking for rain in return. It didn’t come.
Believing the gods wanted a stronger demonstration of faith, the Maya performed blood ceremonies where they would cut sensitive parts of their body and offer the blood to the gods. Still the rain didn’t come.
With desperation, the Maya turned to the ultimate offering – human sacrifice.
Some people volunteered to be sacrificed, partly for honour and partly because they believed it would lead to a better afterlife. And babies were also sacrificed because they represented purity.
Still the rain didn’t come.
What the Ancient Maya didn’t realise was that the gods couldn’t give them rain, even if they wanted to.
The Mayan civilisation had just grown too big – and too conceited!
In its effort to expand its cities, aggrandise its buildings, and enrich its leaders, the Mayan civilisation destroyed the environment around it, cutting down forests and redirecting the natural path of water.
The Maya were the cause of the drought – or at least, a large contributing factor – and ultimately their greed may have led to their own downfall.
The Mayan civilisation
The Maya were one of the Ancient World’s great civilisations and now I’m here to see what’s left of it for myself on a two-week journey with G Adventures through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.
In search of answers to the mysteries of the Maya, I’m going deep into jungles, on riverboats, to the coast, and through the now-dry plains of this fascinating region.
The Ancient Maya are not as intertwined with our historical narrative as, say, the Ancient Greeks. We don’t see their legacy in our everyday lives like we do with the Ancient Romans.
But there is something exciting and exotic about the Ancient Mayan world. Perhaps it has to do with the dramatic images of human sacrifice with which they’re associated. Or it could be because of the legends around their calendar predicting the end of the world.
It certainly has a lot to do with the enormous cities they have left for us in the wilds of Mexico and Central America – and the mystery about why they were all abandoned so suddenly.
Historians have a lot of theories about what led to the remarkable downfall of the Mayan civilisation. It might have been because of war, invasion, or trade issues. Or perhaps a mixture of all those things.
It probably also had a lot to do with the changing climate in the region, partly caused by the Maya themselves. Droughts would mean a lack of food, which would lead to fights over natural resources and eventually an exodus to new lands.
As I take this journey through the Ancient Mayan world with G Adventures seeing Mayan ruins in Mexico and Central America, it’s hard not to think about the parallels with today.
G Adventures puts on emphasis on sustainability, ethical tourism, and supporting local communities. But not all of society cares about this kind of thing… and I can’t help but wonder sometimes if our civilisation is going the same way as the Mayan.
Mayan Discovery: The sites
G Adventures has quite a few excellent tours through this region, giving you options for different themes, durations, and styles.
As part of my role as a G Wanderer, I’m on a tour called Mayan Discovery that begins in Cancun in Mexico, then travels through Guatemala and into Belize, before heading back up to Cancun.
The itinerary makes sense geographically and we’re able to see a lot over the two weeks. But, in general, it means we start towards the end of the history of the Mayan civilisation and journey into the past, towards where the seeds for the downfall would first be planted.
Throughout it all, we also explore other parts of the region and experience the wonderful cultural and natural offerings in Mexico and Central America. Not everything is about the Ancient Maya.
There are plenty of opportunities to relax at the natural swimming holes (called cenotes), waterfalls, and beaches.
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Why do I seem to be doing such silly things these days?! This is another of the cenotes in the Yucatan region of Mexico, formed when the ground collapses and reveals a natural pool. And I am the fool who is jumping off a high cliff down into the water (with a bit of encouragement from my @gadventures group)!! #gwanderers
For the more adventurous, there are activities like caving, snorkelling, and kayaking.
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“We don’t have any Nemo fish,” the local diver tells me. “But we do have Nemo’s school bus!” The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest in the world – and one of the best protected. On a day of snorkelling with my @gadventures group, I saw SO MUCH! I’ll edit it together soon but here’s a short highlight. Full itinerary link in my bio. #gwanderers
Along the way, we get a chance to learn more about the colonial history in this part of the Americas and the legacy that has left in the lives of the locals.
And, of course, there is the modern world. Here, we find new trends but also influences from the past, particularly in areas like food, music, and art.
Before I tell you about some of the specific places you see on the Mayan Discovery tour with G Adventures, have a look at the map of the route that the trip takes.
The first stop is Chichen Itza, one of the most famous Mayan ruins in Mexico.
It is also one of the most recent, built in the Late Classic Period around 900 AD after many of the cities further south had been abandoned.
It’s an impressive site with a large collection of buildings of different styles. It would once have had a substantial population living here but now it’s the large groups of tourists who fill the area.
Although it’s certainly an important Mayan city (and a World Heritage Site), I think it is particularly famous because it’s so close to the resort cities of Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
I hope the tourists who come out just for a day trip and see no other Mayan sites realise that it’s actually quite different to the others architecturally.
At least it’s possible to get some nice photos of the main pyramids without people climbing all over it. But that’s just because they’re not allowed to anymore.
As we go deeper into the heart of the Mayan world, we’ll come to places where the pyramids are empty simply because there are no other people there to climb them.
A bit further west across the Yucatan Peninsula, we visit Uxmal, a contemporary of Chichen Itza that was once the most powerful in the region.
Even though the two cities would have had economic and political relationships, the architecture of the two is very different.
Here at Uxmal, we find much taller pyramids and temples. It’s easier to get a sense of how the ruling elite used the urban layout to project a sense of hierarchy.
What’s particularly interesting here at Uxmal – and one of the reasons it is also a World Heritage Site – are the ornate friezes that have been carved into the rock walls of the buildings. In them, you can see beautifully-detailed images of animals and masks, representing the gods.
By the time we are at the next Mayan ruins of Palenque, we are deep in the jungle.
The city feels large but it would actually have been smaller than the ones we’ve already visited. Perhaps it’s the cedar and mahogany trees growing so densely amongst the restored pyramids and temples that makes it feel more expansive.
The individual buildings here are stunning – with some of the finest architectural design and artwork. But, unbeknownst to the Maya, this was contributing to their climate problems.
Here at Palenque, many of the buildings were decorated in stucco. But stucco is made by melting limestone and to make one tonne of it, they needed 10 tonnes of wood to make the fire hot enough.
All the jungle I see around me today – none of it would have been here at the peak of Palenque’s power.
Yaxchilan and Bonampak
I didn’t think it was possible to get deeper into the jungle than Palenque but the next day I’m proven wrong, as we drive to a remote spot where we board a boat to go up the river to the isolated ancient city of Yaxchilan.
This is the most adventurous experience of Mayan ruins exploration for us, exploring a jungle site as howler monkeys shout and spider monkeys jump in the branches above us.
It’s also an excellent site to see more of the language of the Ancient Maya. They were a very intellectually-advanced race and had the only known written script in Mesoamerica.
The characters of their writing were complicated hieroglyphics – and you can still see a lot of them carved into parts of the buildings here at Yaxchilan.
The Mayan civilisation was not a single kingdom. Each of these cities we’re visiting would have operated as their own states. There were different power bases in different areas and, like most of human history, their relationships constantly shifted between trade, conflict, alliances, and colonisation.
There were probably imaginary borders between these different Mayan states, and they would have changed all the time over the centuries. But none would have looked like the borders we see today.
And so, on our journey to see a broad swathe of the Mayan empire, we next travel from eastern Mexico into Guatemala.
Present-day Guatemala is home to the ruins of one of the oldest and most powerful Mayan cities – Tikal.
The earliest buildings found at Tikal are from about the 4th century BC and the city grew from there until about the 9th century AD. It’s estimated that, at its peak, Tikal may have had 120,000 residents!
The temples and pyramids here soar up through the jungle like skyscrapers, the tops peaking out from the trees, reaching towards the sky.
The Ancient Maya were much more advanced than most of their contemporaries in the Americas and they had a very good understanding of mathematics and astronomy.
In cities like Tikal, the design and placement of these skyscrapers were not accidental. They had direct relationships to the stars and important numbers.
Aside from visiting Tikal, there’s not much time in Guatemala unfortunately. It’s my only real disappointment from the tour, that I don’t get to see more of this fascinating country.
But there are lots of different G Adventures trips in this region – many of which spend longer in Guatemala – so there are always other options here, if you would like to see more.
For me, it’s on to Belize to see a different side of the Maya. There are ruins of cities here and, with this tour, there is an option to go and see the most impressive one at Caracol.
However, I choose to go underground instead.
While the focus so far has been on the cities that the Ancient Maya built, like most indigenous cultures around the world, they had an important connection to their own geography.
In the jungles of modern-day Belize, one of the most important natural characteristics were the large underground caves that had formed in the karst limestone.
The Maya believed these were the entrances to the underworld and they could get closer to their gods here. So, they became focal points for worship and religious ceremonies.
Climbing through the Crystal Cave as a day trip from San Ignacio in Belize is an incredible experience – but also one of the most challenging things I have done in a while.
There is no need for ropes or special equipment, but I need to concentrate on what I’m doing for the whole four hours we are underground, making sure I am using the right handholds and putting my feet where they won’t slip.
Going deeper into the cave is almost a perfect representation of how the Maya feel deeper into despair when they faced the drought they could not stop.
Archaeologists have been able to determine that just inside the cave entrance, the Maya made food offerings. When that didn’t work, they went a bit further in to do blood letting ceremonies, and then even deeper to make human sacrifices, trying to appeal to their gods for rain.
As we climb through, we see pottery and even human remains from more than a thousand years ago, still here from those ancient ceremonies.
But really, it’s the natural formations of the cave that are so spectacular. The cave dazzles and offers and ever-changing presentation of limestone beauty.
What else is on the tour?
In many ways, this is what I find throughout the whole of this Mayan Discovery tour. There are plenty of Mayan ruins and other artefacts from the Mayan Civilisation to see – and they are fascinating – but it’s the overall landscape that I find myself enjoying even more. The natural and cultural landscape.
In the first couple of days, we go swimming in the natural pools that have formed in the Yucatan peninsula called cenotes, with crystal clear water and striking settings.
In the city of Merida, we see the colonial architecture from the Spanish era and see how a large Mexican city has transformed itself into a modern day centre.
We have a barbecue by a river one day and go sliding and jumping amongst the nearby waterfalls.
There’s time for a bit of relaxation at the beach or a swim to cool offer after an exciting afternoon of exploration.
And, of course, there are couple of days on the beautiful island of Caye Caulker in Belize, with a boat trip to go snorkelling on one of the world’s greatest reefs, and enough Caribbean flavour to bring some wonderful Central American diversity to the trip.
It’s a great mix of activities that let you explore and relax in equal measures.
How does the tour work?
While the main sites are all included with the tour, a lot of these activities like caving and snorkelling are optional and there are other choices available. It means you can have some flexibility to customise your trip.
Also, rather than have every activity included (and hence the cost of every activity included), you can make choices along the way about which things you would really like to do and spend your money accordingly.
It’s one of the things I like about going on G Adventures tours. You feel as though you have some independence and, if you want some time along to chill out or explore something in particular, that’s easy to do.
It’s the same with meals. Most of them are not included in the tour and so you are free to choose where you would like to eat (and how much you would like to pay).
Of course, there are many times when we choose to go out as a group and have a nice meal together. But there are also nights when I decide to get something quick and casual on my own, or just hang out with a couple of the group members.
When you’re travelling through places like Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, this is a real bonus! I love the food here and I want to try as many things as possible.
Sometimes I may feel like fine dining and other times I way prefer street food. Because nothing is locked in, I get to taste a wide range of meals – all of them authentic and delicious.
Previously I have written about taking G Adventures tours in Jordan and in Namibia. Because of the logistics of those trips, there was less flexibility in where to eat and what to do. On the Mayan Discovery, there are a lot of opportunities to make your own choices.
With that in mind, you may be wondering who the Mayan Discovery tour would be suitable for. The short answer is – almost anyone!
There are people from 18 to 80 who take this tour and it accommodates them all. You do need to have a decent level of fitness because there’s a lot of walking but it’s not overly strenuous physically.
The level of comfort is average. You’ll stay in basic hotels but they are clean and comfortable. Sometimes we are in our own vehicle but there are also times we catch local buses for long journeys.
I like this aspect – it feels much more natural and gives you interactions with the local community – but you need to be prepared to not have first class service the whole time.
One of the approaches that G Adventures always takes is to make sure you are being looked after, but you’re not isolated from the reality of the countries you’re travelling in.
Ultimately, I think this trip is for anyone who has an interest in the world. We hear a lot about the Roman Empire, the Incas have take on a legendary status, and Egyptians have long been a source of fascination.
I feel like the Mayan civilisation is not talked about in the same way – if it is, it’s in trivial ways about human sacrifice or predictions of the end of the world.
But I have come to realise that there is such a wealth of history in these ancient people. And there’s a lot we can learn from them (particularly from their mistakes) that is still just as relevant today.
As I’ve mentioned, my tour with G Adventures is called Mayan Discovery. The name could not be more appropriate for my experience.
I travelled on this tour with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Mexico and Central America.