The Mayan Empire: remind me where it is
In its heyday, the Mayan empire covered the whole of south-eastern Mexico – an area that extends west almost as far as Oaxaca – plus northern Guatemala, parts of Honduras, Belize and north-western El Salvador. The Mayan civilisation flourished for some 700 years, until the middle of the 10th century, although Mayan communities had settled in these regions hundreds of years before.
The greatest of the achievements of the Mayans – such as Chichén Itzá, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World – date from the 7th to the 10th centuries; towards the end of this time frame, many of the great city-states that made up what we loosely call the Mayan empire began to self-destruct. The people, their traditions and their language survived, however.
The Spanish conquistadors, who first arrived in Mexico in 1517, did not conquer all the Mayan territories until the mid-16th century (and the Lacandó* communities in the Mexican jungle assert that the invaders never successfully subjugated them). Some Mayan sites, such as those in Mérida and Izamal in the north-east Yucatan peninsula, were taken apart, stone by stone, to build Catholic churches.
Other Mayan creations, such as Palenque, Yaxchilá* and Bonampak, were reclaimed by the jungle. Even though these sites have been partially cleared, you can still sense the excitement that the first non-Mayan explorers must have felt when tracking down these "lost" cities.
Where should I start?
The best gateway to the Mayan world is Cancú*, a lively resort on the east coast of the Yucatá* peninsula. You can fly there on mainly charter airlines, including Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com) and First Choice (0870 750 0001; www.firstchoice.co.uk), from a wide range of UK airports. The beautiful beaches, modern hotels and bustling restaurants comprise a major attraction in their own right, but it is also an ideal place from which to begin to explore the civilisation of the Maya.
There are relics even within the resort itself – walk through the grounds of the Park Royal Pirámides hotel, on Boulevard Kukulcá* (00 52 998 885 1333; www.parkroyal hotels.com.mx), for example, and admire the crumbling ruins of the Temple of the Scorpion. (It isn't signposted, but from the main reception, a footpath leads you up past the hotel swimming pool and to the hill that is topped by this late-Mayan edifice.)
The place where the Spanish first set foot on Mayan soil is close by: the Isla Mujeres, named the "Island of Women" for the number of female statues the conquistadors found. Fast passenger ferries to the island operate from Puerto Juarez, north of the resort, every half-hour, for 35 pesos (£1.70) each way; some ferries also run from Playa Tortugas in the hotel zone, as the strip between the Caribbean and the lagoon is known.
Something more substantial?
A 100-mile stretch of coastline south from Cancú* has been branded the "Riviera Maya", and by far the most impressive ruins on the Mayan Riviera are those at Tulum, a fortified coastal town 80 miles south of Cancú*. Entrance to the site is through a gap in the walls that surrounded the city on three sides; on the fourth side is the Caribbean.
Tulum was a trading city, like many of the settlements along the coast, its inhabitants exchanging honey, salt and fish for cotton and conches. Inside are several groups of buildings, including a palace, residential dwellings and temples. The most remarkable of these is the Temple of the Frescos, whose inner walls are decorated with murals of a goddess in the underworld, partially restored to their original green and red colours. This is thought to have been one of the last monuments built by the Maya before their conquest by the Spanish. The site is open 8am-5pm daily (00 52 983 837 2411), admission 35 pesos (£1.70).
As with all the big Mayan sites within day-trip range of Cancú*, the coach-borne crowds tend to arrive at around 10am and stay until 3pm. It is therefore well worth visiting in the first or last couple of hours of the day, which is easier if you stay overnight.
Along the shoreline running south from the ruins at Tulum, there are plenty of accommodation possibilities, from $10 (£5) for a hammock to luxury-resort doubles from $300 (£150).
A modern wonder?
Head for Chiché* Itzá, the most celebrated of the Mayan cities, just voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. This u o fascinating and imposing site is 130 miles west of Cancú*, and 75 miles east of the main Yucatá* city of Mérida. It is surrounded by hotels, and the best placed is Hotel Mayaland (00 52 985 851 0100; www.mayaland.com), which has its own entrance to the site. Open 8am-6pm daily, admission 45 pesos (£4).
Chiché* Itzá flourished during the 9th and early-10th centuries. Unlike some Mayan sites, it was never completely abandoned. The cleared areas are dominated by El Castillo, a large pyramid with steps on all four sides leading up to a temple; tourists are no longer allowed to climb it. In front of the Castillo is the main plaza, a sacred space on whose western side is the Ball Court, an important feature of life at the time of the Maya, and the largest of its kind. The game of pelota was played here, although exactly how is a matter of debate. What seems certain is that it was a ritual as well as a sport, and the loser was sacrificed at the end of the game. Open 8am-5pm, 45 pesos (£2).
How do I get around?
Southern Mexico is extremely well served by bus. Long-distance services between the main cities are usually regular, reliable and reasonably priced, and use modern, air-conditioned vehicles; the best source for timetables, fares and bookings is www.ticketbus.com.mx. First-class buses cost around £5 for 100 miles. Local connecting services to the smaller towns and archaeological sites are often provided by crowded minibuses; the alternative is to strike a deal with a taxi driver, perhaps fixing a day rate.
Car hire is also feasible, and if you hire in Cancú* or Mérida there is plenty of choice. The main highways are well-maintained and destinations clearly signposted. Beware, however, of driving at night: dangers range from hitting one the endless topes (speed humps) too fast, to the occasional case of armed robbery.
For longer links, such as the northern cities of Mérida and Cancú* to Chiapas state, flying is a tempting option. Aviacsa (www.aviacsa.com.mx) and Aeromar (www.aeromar.com.mx) operate regular services – at least as far as Villahermosa, not far from the Mayan attractions in Chiapas. Prices are typically four or five times the bus fare, and journeys about six times faster.
Where can I stay?
There is no shortage of places to stay, on all budgets. Among the new breed of boutique hotels, Mosquito Blue in Playa del Carmen (00 52 984 873 1245; www.mosquitoblue.com) offers chic quarters within reasonable reach of Tulum, Cancú* and Chiché* Itzá. For independent travellers, there are now a number of Western-style hostels, offering friendly, clean and comfortable accommodation at low prices. A consortium called the Mexican Mayan Route Hostels includes the excellent Nomadas hostel in Mérida (00 52 199 877 0090; www.nomadastravel.com).
Where else should I go?
Due south of Mérida is the important Mayan city of Uxmal. This is a large site, huddling in the Puuc hills, with some interesting buildings. Among these are the Governor's Palace, the Nuns' Quadrangle and the Great Pyramid, all decorated with images of Chac, the rain god, an important figure in Mayan culture, especially in a region noted for its lack of rain. Open 8am-5pm daily, admission 45 pesos (£2).
But the place that no one should miss, at least according to Elizabeth Baquedano, who lectures on the Maya at London University, is Palenque. She describes the site as "one of the most beautiful jewels of the Mayan world, in terms of its architecture, the size of the site, and the importance of the archaeology". Explorers who first discovered Palenque were so impressed by the grandeur of the buildings that they thought they must have been constructed by the Greeks. Serious excavation didn't begin until 1949, when the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz began work on the Temple of Inscriptions.
Little by little, he discovered a large, vaulted room containing the sarcophagus of the Mayan ruler Pakal, who ruled the city for more than 70 years in the 7th century. The skeleton inside was adorned with precious jade jewellery, and the face was covered with a jade death mask. This discovery was of immense significance, contributing greatly to our knowledge of the Maya.
The site (00 52 916 348 3406) is five miles outside Palenque, and also has an interesting museum full of Mayan artefacts. It opens 8am-5pm daily, and admission is 48 pesos (£2).
I'd like to explore the jungle
It is most easily accessible in the Mexican state of Chiapas, where the Lacandó* rainforest stretches south-east from Palenque to the Guatemalan border. This is the territory of the Lacandó*, a Mayan tribe who fled to the forest to avoid being conquered by the Spanish, and they have managed, at least until recently, to isolate themselves. The modern Lacandó* community is small, and is centred around villages such as Lacanjá Chansayab, from where visitors can go swimming or rafting in the Lancanjá river, or hike through the jungle to the hidden ruins of Lakam-Ha. You can get back to nature at the Rio Lacanjá Campamento, a collection of rustic, riverside cabins with a single light, a mosquito net, a double bed and a veranda, all yours for 290 pesos (£14) a night, with meals available at extra cost. Book through Explora in San Cristóbal (00 52 967 674 6660; www.ecochiapas.com).
A few miles south of Lacanjá Chansayab is Bonampak, a small Mayan site that is worth visiting to admire the murals, discovered in 1946, by chance, inside one of its temples. They are among the most complete in the Mayan world, but their significance is in what they reveal about the Maya: far from being a peace-loving people, as had been thought, it is clear that they were a warlike people, involved in slaughter and ritualistic torture. The site (00 52 916 348 3406) opens 9am-5pm, admission 33 pesos (£1.50).
While in this area, which is on the border with Guatemala, make a short trip downriver to Yaxchilá*, the most atmospheric of all Mexico's Mayan sites because so much of it has been taken over by nature. Hire a guide to explore the extraordinary collection of temples linked by extravagant stone staircases.
Where can i meet the maya?
According to Professor Carlos Guizar, an expert on Mayan culture, a modern Mayan encounter involves heading off the beaten track. "I recommend going to the little towns," he advises, "not the big hotels in the Mayan region. The Maya are in the little towns, the little squares, the little markets".
In southern Mexico, the Maya from the highland villages converge on the colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas to buy and sell their produce and traditional crafts in the market around Santo Domingo church. They wear traditional costumes whose colours indicate which village they are from. Some of these communities, like San Juan Chamula and Zinacantá*, are easy to reach from San Cristobal: go to the market and look for a "combi", a form of collective taxi that operates on a fixed route, usually linking villages to the nearest town and stopping on request.
The church that dominates the main square at Chamula is an unusual place of worship. There are no pews, and the marble floor is likely to be covered in newly mown grass, cleared in patches for family worship, which involves dozens of candles. You buy a ticket (30 pesos/£1.50) from the tourist office on the square.
Although these places feel remote, outsiders can expect a warm welcome, says Elizabeth Baquedano: "They are used to having visitors, and if you make an effort to speak a word or two in Spanish, you'll be received with open arms." (Mayan dialects such as Tzotzil are, however, still widely spoken.)
The place to visit, eat and stay in San Cristóbal is Na Bolom (00 52 967 678 1418; www.nabolom.org), a museum-restaurant-hotel complex where the profits are ploughed back into projects aimed at improving life for the Mayan community.
Can someone organise my trip?
Many operators offer tours of parts of the Mayan empire, but they tend to concentrate on the main attractions of Chiché* Itzá, Uxmal, Palenque and Tikal (in Guatemala). Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) arranges bespoke tours in the region, and Kuoni (01306 747002; www.kuoni.co.uk) offers several options, among them a 14-night Mexican-highlights tour that includes visits to Chiché* Itzá, Uxmal and Tulum; and The Traveller (020-7436 9343; www.the-traveller.co.uk) offers "The World of the Maya", accompanied by a lecturer. Stops include Chiché* Itzá, Tikal and Mexican coastal sites, and the 18-day tour costs £3,250 including flights, bed and breakfast accommodation, and dinner on most nights.
Are there places still waiting to be rediscovered?
One of the sites still being explored is Calakmul, once one of the most important Mayan cities. Located in a vast forest reserve in the state of Campeche, it is a magnificent combination of jungle, wildlife and ruins that date back to 435BC. The site opens 8am-5pm daily. Back at Chiché* Itzá, archaeologists say that there is far more to be uncovered. About 30 miles away, you can get a sense of the work still to be done at the handsome town of Izamal, where there is a massive Mayan pyramid that has been largely left as it was found. More surprisingly still, the Hotel San Miguel Archangel, on Calle 31 (00 52 988 954 0109; www.sanmiguelhotel.com.mx), actually boasts a small Mayan pyramid in its back garden, where an outdoor bar has been set up.
Where can I find out more?
Lonely Planet and Rough Guides both produce guidebooks to the Yucatá*, extending south to include Chiapas. Nick Rider's Cadogan Guide to the Yucatá* and the Mayan Lands (£14.99) is scholarly and entertaining. Also, contact the Mexico Tourism Board (020-7488 9392; www.visitmexico.com/).
To hear Simon Calder's podcast on Mayan Mexico, go to www.independent.co.uk/mexico
The Yucatan's secret aquatic wonderland
One of the main features of the landscape of the Yucatá* is the lack of rivers and streams: all the water in the region is underneath the limestone rock, and is accessible through natural sinkholes known as "cenotes".
There are thought to be around 10,000 of them, the most impressive of which is the Sacred Cenote at Chiché* Itzá. It is a well, 60m across, that was used for sacred ceremonies and as an entrance to the underworld. Other cenotes may be little more than small breaks in the rock.
Every Mayan village in the region had its cenote. The bigger the settlement, the larger the well. Most have lost their original purpose and are today used for leisure pursuits: swimming, snorkelling and diving.
Many of these pleasure cenotes are found just inland from the Mayan Riviera, particularly at the southern end of the coast. They include the Gran Cenote, which is a couple of miles north of Tulum. Diving expeditions are organised at this and several other cenotes in the area by Diving Playa del Carmen (00 52 984 8030 809; www.divingplayadelcarmen.com).