Solange Hando follows the Maya Trail in the Yucatan peninsula, south-east Mexico.
Between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, the peninsula is full of Pre-Columbian sites, created by frequently warring city-states who unlike the Incas or Aztec Alliance, never built an empire. We know them as the ‘Mayas’, referring to the last great ‘capital’, Mayapan, abandoned in the mid-1400s.
Yet from around 1000 BC a new civilisation flourished in Mesoamerica from the Yucatan lowlands down to the southern highlands. The classic period, 350-950 AD, was its true golden age though right up to this day, six million Mayas still live in their ancestral lands, proud of their different identities and over 28 languages.
‘Day one, early start,’ warned the guide, ‘ it’s 120 miles to Chichen Itza and we want to see it before the crowds arrive.’
Ready? Well, I closed my eyes, still dreaming of the late-night parade in Cancun then… there it was, the deserted entrance to the most iconic site, no backpack, no climbing, just three hours or so rambling in the middle of nowhere among ancient monuments.
Kukulkan beckoned, the great pyramid temple dedicated to the feathered serpent god whose shadow zigzagged down the steps during the spring equinox. Up at the very top, the high priest would lay offerings to bring back the rain while far below 20,000 worshippers listened to his prayers. The Mayas knew all about acoustics and even today if you clap your hands, you can almost hear the call of their sacred bird.
We wandered around silent temples, both Maya and Toltec, marvelled at the ‘snail-shaped observatory used by astronomers and the ‘mouth of the well’, worshipped by the Itza tribe, where humans were thrown to appease the gods. Equally disturbing was the games court when watched by the high priest, the winner would be sacrificed as the most worthy offering. It was a spine-chilling place but birds sang in the trees and stall-holders kept to their area, waving colourful rugs and Mexican hats to the startling sound of jaguars, the ‘God of War’ roaring among the toys.
‘See that queue at the gate? day trip from a cruise, let’s go.’
We spent the night in Merida, Yucatan’s historic capital, 60% Maya, where the Spanish grew rich on sisal, the ‘green gold’. Colonial buildings, colonnades, balustrades, secret courtyards, pastel-coloured walls that looked like ice-cream, it was delightful. We enjoyed a traditional walk along the tree-lined boulevard past myriad café-terrace and horse-drawn carriages garlanded in flowers. Meanwhile Independence Square looked up to the local ‘Big Ben’ and the twin-towered cathedral glistened in the late afternoon sun.
The surrounding area is rich in ancient sites and the next morning we discovered Uxmal. The Magician Pyramid was built three times, they say before the wizard managed to kill the king, but my favourite monument was Temple Mayor where I climbed 70 high steps before coming down backwards. Up at the top, next to the royal throne, the views stretched for miles and I spotted a lovely golden oriole in a nearby tree. With hardly anyone there and not a trader in sight, the atmosphere was amazing.
Time for lunch? Off we went to Santa Helena, a traditional village with thatched oval huts, and after hibiscus juice, we feasted on chicken and rice wrapped in banana leaves, cooked for hours in a garden pit.
Then we continued to Kabah to see a palace and 260 masks while a local artist carved Maya symbols from cedarwood. There were orange trees all around and turkey vultures circling overhead.
Campeche To Palenque
One hundred miles south, it was Campeche, a friendly laid-back city in its own eponymous state, lapped by blue waters on the Gulf of Mexico. We strolled along the palm-lined promenade, tasted fresh seafood in a thatched restaurant and watched pelicans diving into the water. We explored the walled historic centre, listed by UNESCO for its beautifully restored colonial buildings, gazed at musical fountains and artwork and after a glowing sunset over the Gulf, the evening lights were magical.
I could have stayed a whole week -beaches just out of town-but the Mayas were calling, so many sites, preserved or ruined. We decided on Edzna, the only one, said the guide, spanning the entire Maya history from 200BC. We marched down the grassy avenue -a former trading route-, climbed up the Five Floor Temple and took a close look at the petroglyphs illustrating the most advanced writing in Mesoamerica.
Later we drove along the coast past fishing villages and turtle sites, before heading inland through orchards and sugar cane and a few isolated farms. The first mountains rose in the distance as we entered the State of Chiapas, claiming just two seasons, commented the guide, the ‘wet’ and the ‘wettest’. He was right and when we reached the Palenque National Park and its archaeological site, it was almost as dark as the night. Ghostly indeed since unlike the others, this was a burial place out in the jungle and as we looked at the Palace of the Skull and listened to tales of the Red Queen, howler monkeys sent shivers down my spine.
Indigenous Highlands And Beyond
After a quiet night lulled by crickets, we followed a near-deserted road towards lush woods and valleys and mountains with scenic views. Our first stop was the Agua Azul waterfall where cascades tumbled into a turquoise river, a wonderfully refreshing sight after the awesome Palenque. You could paddle, even swim here and there, or scramble up the path all the way to the top. But with 200 miles ahead of us, all twists and bumps, there was no time to linger. Soon the fragrance of mountain pines drifted through the windows and after a gorgeous panoramic break in Ocosingo, we stopped in Tonina, the enemy who defeated Palenque. Framed by mountains among rolling farmland and meadows, Tonina boasts the largest Maya building, a multi-purpose Acropolis set on an artificial hill.
Now we were heading through indigenous land where although under Mexican rule, ethnic groups set up their own laws enforced by local sheriffs. We were warned: no close-up photographs or lose your camera and be shamed on the town square pedestal. Having promised to behave, I looked around the market in San Juan Chamula, scrumptious local produce sold by women in colourful tops and ample skirts made of black sheep wool, but most fascinating was the church. Nothing unusual outside but step in and you’ll see Catholic and Maya rituals all in one and a marble floor covered in pine needles, no pews, just light a candle and kneel on the ‘wood of the gods’. At over 7000 feet, our last night was in San Cristobal de las Casas, a friendly town with elegant buildings, colourful squares and the tingling sound of xylophones, the traditional instruments, late into the night.
Now we were ready to explore Guatemala before returning via Belize to Yucatan. Then as we approached Cancun at the end of the trip, one more archaeological site awaited us, Tulum, perched on a clifftop overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The Maya often felt safer inland but moving around in times of need, the coast was the last place to go. The Spanish arrived in the early 1500s and Tulum was abandoned by the end of the century.
All images (c) Solange Hando
Tell Me More About The Maya Trail
Visit Mexico has more information on archaeological sites, including Maya cities.
Jules Verne Travels across Yucatan as part of its Maya and Aztec tour.
Where to stay in Yucatan
Casa Del Balam in Merida, spacious rooms, pleasant courtyard and pool
Hotel Plaza Colonial in Campeche, perfect location in the historic centre
Hotel Nututun in Palenque, quiet and comfortable by the river
Casa Vieja in Cristobal de las Casas, colonial style, lovely garden