What's the attraction?
It was the end of an era, rather than the end of the world, which was forecast on a stone discovered at the Mayan site of Tortuguero in Mexico's southern state of Tabasco. Whatever lies in wait, 2012 will be a good year to visit the monuments left by the Mayan civilisation. New museums are opening, ruined cities and sites are being restored and celebrations are taking place in the five countries whose territory was home to the Mayans. Also, from 12 June, it will be easier to get to Cancún, the main gateway, as Virgin Atlantic starts competing directly against BA from Gatwick.
City by the Sea
Mexico's Caribbean coast, dubbed the Mayan Riviera, actually has few important remains, since the Mayans were predominantly an inland culture. An exception is the beautifully restored cliff-top site of Tulum. Design Hotels has just opened a pop-up hotel, Papaya Playa, nearby (papayaplayaproject.com). Open until 5 May, it has rooms from US$80 (£52). Journey Latin America (020 3432 1505; journeylatinamer|ica.co.uk) has a nine-day 'Mayan Cities and Caribbean Coast' trip, costing from £820 per person, excluding international flights.
The Mayan World
The Mayan civilisation, which lasted from around 2000BC to 250AD, spread through Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and five states in the south of Mexico. Exodus (020 8772 3936; exodus.co.uk) offers a 16-day group trip, 'La Ruta Maya', which provides an introduction to the great civilisation. Starting and finishing in Guatemala City, it takes in sites including Tikal in Guatemala and the Mexican trio of Palenque, Uxmal and Chichen Itza. The cost, from £2,399 per person, includes flights and accommodation with breakfast; the next departure is on 18 February.
The star of the Mayan show is Chichen Itza - a Unesco World Heritage Site, and also by far the most visited and commercialised |location. There's much academic debate as to when exactly Mexico's Chichen Itza was built and whether or not it was the product of a fused culture of the Mayans and the Toltecs, who succeeded them. In any case, there's much to marvel at, including the great pyramid of El Castillo and a huge ball court, where losing a game may have led to the loss of players' heads. Open 8am-5.30pm daily; admission 166 pesos (£7.70).
Deep in the jungle
El Mirador is a remote site in Guatemala'’s northern Petén jungle, whose main pyramid, La Danta, is a massive 18-storey, 2,000-year-old skyscraper. Getting there requires a two-day trek on foot or by mule from the nearest settlement at Carmelita. Most guided trips to El Mirador start from the more accessible town of Flores. At the Hostal Los Amigos (00 502 7867 5075; amigoshostel.com) you can book a five-day all-inclusive trip for two, for US$420 (£271) per person. The lazy alternative is a day trip for $560 (£362) by helicopter, also from Flores (00 502 2367 2837; miradorpark.com).
The modern Mayan world
Six million Mayan-speaking people still inhabit the region. You can get a flavour of their way of life with a home stay in Belize's southern Toledo district. Stay in a thatched guest house, venture into the jungle to discover medicinal plants and enjoy local music and food; a Mayan dish not to miss is cochinita pibil - pork, marinated in orange juice and spices, slow-roasted in the earth or a clay oven. The package, which costs from B$85 (£28) per night, full board, is organised by the co-operative TEA (00 501 702 2119; teabelize.org).
New Year celebrations
Mexico is planning a number of projects for 2012, including two major new Mayan museums, one in Yaxcabá, and another in Mérida which will have 750,000 exhibits and is scheduled to open in June (020 7488 9392; visitmexico.com). On the big day itself, a year from now, the elegant and beautiful site of Copán in Honduras - the southernmost major Mayan site - promises celebrations, with traditional ceremonies and activities. Audley Travel (01993 838 638; audleytravel.com) includes Copán in a 14-day tailor-made trip to the region, starting at £2,410 per person, including flights.
Who said that?
"It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine." - R.E.M.
"Imagine a New Year's party that comes around only once every 52,000 years, and you'll get an idea of what this means to those of us living in the Maya heartland." - Dr Jaime Awe, director of Belize’s Institute of Archaeology
"A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." - author and historian Will Durant
"A holiday to Mexico's Yucatán peninsula will bring to life the ancient civilisation of the Mayans. Sites replete with temples and pyramids festooned with sacred carvings were swallowed up by jungle but are now gradually being revealed. The best-known sites, Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Tulum, are easily accessible from Mérida and have been fully excavated."
Laura Rendell-Dunn, marketing executive, Journey Latin America.
Where to stay
In Mexico, doubles at Hacienda Uxmal (00 52 998 887 2495; mayaland.com) start at US$117 (£76), room only. Casa del Balam (00 52 999 924 8844; casadelbalam.com) in Mérida has doubles from $118 (£76), B&B. Maison Tulum (00 52 984 871 2643; maisontulum.com) has doubles from $60 (£39), B&B.
In Honduras, Yat B'alam (00 504 265 14338; yatbalam.com) has doubles from $87 (£56), B&B. Doubles at the Lodge (00 501 732 4444; thelodgeatbigfalls.com) in Belize start from $202 (£130), B&B. Doubles at Coppola Resorts (coppolaresorts.com) in Guatemala and Belize start at around US$255 (£165), B&B.