Although there are some who believe that the end of 2012 will mark the end of the world, contrary to popular thought, the Mayan people, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization, never wrote this. Yes, 2012 is a significant date on the Mayan calendar, but it’s said to be the start of a new era, not the end of one. 21 December 2012 is thought to mark the end of the 13th Mayan Calendar, a 144,000-day cycle or b’ak’tun since the mythical Maya day of creation 5,200 years ago. According to scholars in the Mayan language, b’ak’tun does not mean apocalypse.
Even if the claims of the Mayan calendar are incorrect, the “apocalyptic” hype is helping to boost tourism in Mexico and Central America, where people can visit ancient Mayan ruins and villages of modern-day descendants of the Mayans. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of Mayan ruins throughout Mesoamerica, the majority still unknown, waiting to be excavated. I’ve been to one site of Mayan ruins, and perhaps its most well known one, Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It was an incredible experience, climbing to the top of El Castillo (the castle) seeing the tops of the other ruins before me, the dense jungle covering everything else (sadly, visitors can no longer climb to the top of El Castillo). Here is a list of other Mayan sites I hope to visit one day.
1.) Palenque (in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico)
Although Palenque is smaller than some other Mayan sites, it is still considered quite significant, as it contains an impressive array of architecture, sculptures, roof comb (a structure that tops a pyramid in Mesoamerican architecture), and bas-relief (a projecting image with a shallow overall depth) carvings. Palenque was a Maya city state that is believed to have flourished during the 7th century until its fall around 800 AD. Less than 10% of the ruins have been excavated, leaving more than a thousand structures still covered by the jungle. Much of the history of Palenque has been reconstructed by reading the hieroglyphic inscriptions on many of the monuments. Excluding the Yucatan Peninsula, I have never been south of Mexico City (Mexico is an extremely large country) and the state of Chiapas is a region of Mexico I would love to explore one day. Temperatures are humid in the high 70s, low 80s year round and from the numerous travel narratives I’ve read by people who have visited, a sweat bath is the only type of bathing one has while there.
2.) Tikal (Guatemala)
Tikal is one of the largest archeological sites and urban centers of the Mayan civilization. It was the capital of a conquest state that became one of the most important kingdoms of the ancient Maya. Although buildings there date as far back as the 4th century BC, it reached its height during the Classic Period from 200-900 AD. The ruins are located in the tropical rainforests of northern Guatemala and are home to incredible fauna, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and toucans for starters. Like many other Mesoamerican ruins, Tikal remained buried by the immense jungle for centuries, although locals were said to have always known of its existence. The ruins contain an incredible array of buildings, but Temple II or Temple of the Masks is undoubtedly my favorite, standing at 125 feet high and the most restored of the major temples at Tikal.
3.) Copan (Honduras)
Located in western Honduras near the Guatemala border, Copan was the capital city of a major Classic period kingdom from the 5th to the 9th centuries AD. It’s believed that at its peak during the Late Classic, Copan was home to a population of at least 20,000 people. Copan is perhaps best known for a series of portrait stelae, monuments that were constructed by the Mayans consisting of tall sculpted stone shafts. As Honduras is not as heavily visited by foreign tourists as Mexico and Guatemala, Copan is also not as known to tourists as Tikal and Chichen Itza. Sadly, looting remains a serious problem at the ruins.
Apocalypse or not, I hope tourism to the sites I listed above, as well as others in those countries, and Belize and El Salvador, increases as they are all incredible sites to see and experience. Hopefully within the next decade, I’ll add another Mayan ruins site to my “visited” list.