While origins of the Mayan culture can be traced back several thousand years, the population of these people increased significantly about 800 BCE as the earlier Olmec Indians began to disappear from the area and continued for some 1600 years more. The Mayans controlled some or all of the lands of the Olmecs, the Totenacs, the Mixtecs and other Indian cultures during that long span of history. Their civilization stretched from the Yucutan all the way down to what is now Honduras. They built large cities which became centers of their religion and their commerce and government
and then abandoned those places for occasionally unknown reasons. Lack of water, wars, disease, and other likely catastrophes caused the people to uproot themselves and move to other sites. We need to remember that the Yucutan itself is a riverless area. The cenotes or deep, watery wells supplied the water needs of the area as they do today.
The discoveries of written language, astronomical observations and incredible architecture are what make visitation to the major sites so fascinating. One can start with Uxmal and Chichen Itza in the Yucutan as well as smaller sites to get an idea of the architectural beauty the Mayans achieved without the use of wheeled carriers for the great stones they built with and without the true arch and keystones which are almost universal in equivalent buildings in other parts of the world. Temples like El Castillo and the Palace of the Magicians are central to the cleared, cluster of impressive buildings in that area of the Mayan culture. Further south in Chiapas we come to Palenque where the jungle has encircled the great site with its many structures of palaces and temples and an impressive group of buildings nestled alongside the forest. A drive through the neighboring country of Belize takes the traveler to several small, yet still quite interesting sites, until that path terminates at Tikal in Guatemala, one of the most impressive locales of all. The encroaching forest that encircles this great center with its towering temples and central plaza reminded me of Ta Prohm in Cambodia where one can witness nature even today slowly enveloping some of man's most elaborate creations. In both places the battle between the mighty roots of the jungle trees and great pillars that hold up the buildings created there hundreds of years ago is dramatic and adds to the fascination of the site.
While there are a few more places the Mayans constructed for the ages, the last of the major treats is in Honduras to where the empire's border stretched. In the structures at Copan in Honduras one can get perhaps the most informative view of the classical period up to the beginning of the tenth century. This group of buildings was unearthed toward the end of the nineteenth century and it contains an acropolis with a monumental stairway and a host of sculptures and glyphs that provide perhaps more insight into the now extinct Mayan culture than any of the other great cities that sit along this amazing path. And all of this is but a couple of hours away. Don't rush to fly over the oceans until you have trodden the jungle trails to the south of us.
Temple of Eagles and Jaguars
Chichen Itza, Yucutan, Mexico