Playa del Carmen, Mexico's virtual guidebook written by locals

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The Mayan World - a Background

Traces of a Lost Civilization

There is plenty of evidence of the Mayan's highly evolved society all around this area. Not only do we have the famous ruins of Tulum, Cobá and Chichén Itzá, but the whole peninsula is dotted with small but interesting archaeological sites. There are even ruins in downtown Playa and throughout the jungle around us. The topography of the Yucatán peninsula is mostly flat, so pretty much every hill, or what might look like a pile of rubble, is an ancient Mayan ruin. We are fortunate to have some of the most spectacular ruins left by the Mayans very close to Playa del Carmen. The largest coastal site, Tulum, is less than an hour from Playa. It definitely wins the award for the most spectacular setting of any Mayan ruin. If you're up for a longer day trip, Chichén Itzá is unforgettable. For a wild, mostly unexcavated jungle ruin, Cobá is a great experience. Muyil was an important trading post and offers some interesting structures.

A Short History

The Maya were one of many people inhabiting the area we today call Mesoamerica. Ranging from northern Mexico to Costa Rica in the south the people of Mesoamerica shared many cultural traits. Through trading and warfare these groups influenced each other to such an extent that it is sometimes difficult to know from where a tradition or a building style originates. Because of their central position between Central America and the Mexican cultures to the north, the Maya were most probably the masters of the Mesoamerican economic system. Apart from the Maya, there were the Olmecs, the Zapotecs, the Aztec and other groups that rose and fell. As a people, the Maya survived and are now the largest single group of native Americans north of Peru. The Mayan civilization in the Southern Lowlands (e.g. Tikal in Guatemala) mysteriously collapsed just after what is considered the Classic Period and power shifted to the north, i.e. the Yucatan peninsula. When the Spaniards arrived, most of the monumental cities were already abandoned, but the Mayan people were far from shattered.

Where and When

El Mundo Maya – the Mayan World – includes Belize, Guatemala, North Honduras, El Salvador and the Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. This is a diverse area with lowlands, mountains and tropical rain forest. The Maya had the ability to thrive in very different environments.

The history of the Maya is divided into five periods:
The Preclassic Period (2000 BC - 250 AD) saw mostly farming settlements, but also the first evidence of the grandeur of the Maya, as they started to build the massive pyramids that rose above the forest of the Southern Lowlands around 600 BC.
In the Classic Period (250-900 AD) there were several prosperous city-states throughout the lowlands, for example Cobá. Toward the end of this period nearly all of the ones in the south collapsed.
During the Postclassic Period (900-1521 AD) the Northern Lowlands continued to thrive to a lesser scale. Chichén Itzá was at its peak at this time. Power switched rapidly from city to city in this time of change, which ended with the arrival of the Spaniards.
The Colonial Period (1521-1821) was a time of hardship for the Maya, as warfare and sickness killed thousands. The last independent Mayan group fell to the Spanish Crown in 1697.
The Modern Period (1821-the present) has seen a further suppression of the Maya, with bloody uprisings and rebellions.

Social Life of the Maya

Mayan social structure and everyday life is shrouded in mystery. When scholars and historians first showed an interest in the Mayan culture, in the 19th century, they found big monuments that looked like peaceful ceremonial centers, suggesting that each city lived in isolation and harmony. They concluded that the Maya were a peaceful people, like no other civilization known to man. This perception drastically changed in the 1960's as archaeologists began to crack the code of the complex Mayan hieroglyphs. With this enlightenment came a greater understanding of Mayan society. We would have known a lot more a lot sooner, if it wasn't for the destructive disposition of the Europeans. The Maya did have a written language and a large number of scrolls and books, called codices. Only four fragmented codices survived the conquest, none of which is in Mexico.

Ironically, one of the most important accounts of Mayan life was written by one of the biggest offenders, Friar Diego de Landa. He was only 25 years old when he first arrived in the Yucatán, a young priest and an inquisitional fanatic. His barbarities resulted in his recall to Spain, but later he was reassigned to the New World and ended up being the first Bishop of Yucatán. He wrote a book about Northern Mayan society, based on his observations during the decade immediately following the conquest. This unique description of Mayan life is the only example of its kind. The following passage from de Landa's book illustrates his understanding of the power of the written word: "We found a large number of books and, as they contained nothing in which they were not to be seen superstitious and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction." The use of the script died out as the Maya died or lost their power. Writing is only one of many lost art forms, including feather work and painting.

Today we learn more and more about the Maya as more sites are excavated. There are still thousands of pots, stelae, ornaments and walls with some of the 800 hieroglyphs the Mayan language used. Unfortunately, they mostly deal with the elite; the rulers, the priests and life at the royal court. There's hardly anything about everyday life, such as records of trade and commerce, lists of agricultural product or building materials. But we learn more all the time. As to Diego de Landa, it's easy to dismiss him as a religious fanatic, and he might very well have been just that. But in his perspective these books posed a serious threat to his authority. They connected the movements of the cosmos to the everyday lives of the Maya and as such, they held a great power that needed to be destroyed. He did not, however, succeed in his quest to stifle the Mayan culture, as two important cultural fundamentals endured: language and ideology.