How To Explore Mayan Culture In Mexico

By | 18 April, 2017

The Mayan world is one of the richest pre-Hispanic cultures to ever grace South America. They had a fully developed hieroglyphic writing system, and were well known for their knowledge of maths, astrology, architecture, mythology and arts.

There is perhaps no better place to get a flavour than a visit to Mexico. With entire cities hidden among jungles and temples atop high hilltops, as well as a Mayan culture that is still alive today, head to the Southeast regions of Chiapas and Yucatan to see what the ancient civilization has to offer.

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Mexico, said to attract around 1.4 million visitors a year, is the city ruins of Chichen Itza, located in the Yucatan Peninsula. The city is a fascinating fusion of different Mayan architectural and cultural styles, and is thought to have had a diverse population. It is one of the largest Mayan civilizations, and may even have been one of the mythical cities referred to in Mesoamerican culture.

The main attraction at Chichen Itza is El Castillo, a huge temple dedicated to the feathered serpent god Kukulkan. On the spring and autumn equinox, the corners of the pyramid casts a shadow that looks like a serpent crawling down, though it is unclear whether this was intentional in the design.

The Yucatan region features many other lesser-known ruins and pyramids for those who want to explore away from the crowds, and many of the towns and cities on the Peninsula offer authentic Mayan cuisine for those who like to travel with their tastebuds.

The Tulum archaeological zone is also a must-see. It was settled over 1,500 years ago, and is now a national park that offers visitors the chance to explore the charming walled city, which was once one of the most crucial ports of the Mayan world.

The original name of the settlement was Zama, which means city of dawn, and it certainly has a mystical feel about it, with temples to the Descending God, the Wind God and Frescoes Temple all offering a glimpse at the life of worship and ritual that the Mayan ancients led. Elaborate temple wall paintings give further first-hand knowledge of Mayan culture, and the area has plenty of local food. The views over the Caribbean sea don’t harm the ambience!

Another major site is the Yaxchilan, which is most famous for its roof combs and intricate carvings. This place can only be reached by taking a boat down the Usumacinta River, which cuts through dense rainforest, adding to the sense of adventure and also thinning out tourist numbers somewhat. Here you can find a total of 86 known buildings, including a number of temples and a palace, as well as sculptures carved into huge blocks.

Other amazing areas to visit to see the ruins include Bonampak, which has astounding temple paintings, and Palenque, which has an eight-story structure that details 180 years of history, as well as an aqueduct.

One of the best ways to truly get a sense of Mayan life is to take part in activities that help you to relate to the lifestyle and customs. Mexico has many ‘cenotes’; natural freshwater pools that Mayan people considered sacred. The story goes that these pools are guarded by ‘aluxes’, the mischievous Mayan equivalent of leprechauns or fairies which flit about after sunset. Why not take a dip in these holy waters?

Another activity that is accessible to travellers seeking Mayan culture in Mexico, is the Temazcal ceremony. The word means ‘house of heat’. Think of it like an early steam room. You sit on benches around a pile of very hot rocks. A shaman enters, and imparts Mayan wisdom and folklore while you sweat it out. The experience can be quite intense, but represents a genuine cleansing ritual from ancient times. It is available as a tour experience in cities, but it is possible to seek it within smaller Mayan villages.

There’s much more to Mayan culture than the their end of the world predictions! The best way to understand a culture is to be inquisitive, so make sure you aim to do more than simply look at temples and take pictures. Really try to imagine how the people lived and worshipped, and ask local people to guide you in customs and traditions.

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