Are you building a shelter, stocking up on canned goods, preparing for the end of the world in 2012? A recent poll suggests that 1 in 10 people believe that the ancient Maya predicted that the world would end on December 21 of this year! If you speak to the modern day Maya, you’ll find that they do not share this belief. They view the end of the 13th Bak’tun (a span of 5125 years) as the beginning of a new cycle, a change that could bring balance and harmony to the universe, but certainly not Armageddon. The mythology regarding 2012 may have some people in a panic, but the positive result is a renewed interest in this fascinating and mysterious culture.
The “Mundo Maya”  (Maya World) is a geographical region in Mesoamerica that covers Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala and Mexico. The ancient Maya civilization is well known for its advanced knowledge in mathematics and astronomy, art and architecture, and of course, the system of calendarization. The civilization is believed to have originated in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico around 2600 B.C., reached a peak in the Classic period (250 to 900 A.D.), and continued until the dynasty came to an end with the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. The remains of the civilization are found throughout the Mundo Maya in restored archaeological sites and those sites yet to be discovered, their secrets hidden under the thick jungle fauna.
Fortunately, you do not need to be Indiana Jones to discover the Maya world for yourself. Visitors to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico (home to popular beach destinations such as Cancun and the Riviera Maya) can easily visit several of the most important archaeological sites, as well as some hidden gems that are a bit off the beaten track.
Chichén Itzá is by far the most well-known site and for good reason. The city was one of the major centers of the ancient Maya civilization. It was a thriving community of commerce, academia, art and worship. The soaring Kukulkán pyramid, the centerpiece structure dominating the central plaza, was built to honour the serpent god. Every spring and fall at the time of the equinox, thousands of visitors gather to witness the “descent of the serpent,” a play of shadow and light creating the image of a snake slithering down the northern face of the pyramid. Located in the state of Yucatán, Chichén Itzá is an easy three hour bus ride from Cancun. Many organized tours are available, most include transportation, food and beverages, and a certified, multi-lingual guide. (It is highly recommended to hire a guide for any archaeological site. Seeing a site without a guide is like watching a movie without any sound, pretty but with no story or drama).
The archaeological site of Tulum may not have the same historical significance as Chichén Itzá, but it is definitely one of the most beautiful ruins sites to visit. Set on a soaring cliff on the Caribbean Sea, Tulum was formerly called “Zama,” meaning “place of the dawn.” It is believed to have been a port city, and a “sacbe” (white road) connects the seaside location to the inland city of Cobá. It is a compact site and is extremely well-preserved. Located about 2 ½ hours south of Cancun, it’s a popular day trip for visitors to the beach destinations of the Riviera Maya. Go early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds.
For visitors looking for something off the main tourist track, a visit to Cobá (about 45 minutes inland from the town of Tulum) allows you to climb “Nohoch Mul,” the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán Peninsula. Much of Cobá still lies buried in the jungle, where its mysteries await to be discovered. The “Puuc Route” in the state of Yucatán, about 80 kms south of Merida, is a stretch of smaller archaeological sites including Kabah, Labná, X-Lapak, Sayil, and Uxmal. It is possible for the adventurous to see all these sites in one day including a visit to the nearby Loltun caves.
The “Mundo Maya” in Mexico extends beyond the Yucatán Peninsula; the states of Campeche, Chiapas, and Tabasco provide their own links to the Maya civilization. Calakmul, Edzna, Comalcalco, Yaxchilan, and Palenque are just a few of the archaeological sites that allow visitors a further look into the mysteries of the ancient world.
As the 13th Bak’tun approaches, the entire world has its eyes on the calendar and the Mundo Maya. The Maya world in Mexico awaits, ready to receive thousands of travelers and to share the wisdom and knowledge that has been passed down for generations. A visit to Mexico may be just the catalyst you need to stimulate changes within you and to begin your own new cycle.
“Ka xi’ik teech utsil” (Maya for “good luck to you”)