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Location Who Were the Maya What it Offers Ancient Maya Achievements
Maya Cuisine Modern-Day Maya Recent Discoveries Discovering the Mayan Land
A Natural Heritage Maya World Handicrafts Joya de Cerén Legacy and Archeological Sites


The Maya World defines the geographical boundaries of the ancient Maya empire which spread through the countries of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, western Honduras and the five Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas. The total area is around 500,000 square kilometers.

Who Were the Maya...

The Maya were one of the most brilliant and powerful cultures known to Mesoamerica, indeed their civilization spanned a period of 3,000 years. They had a written language, were skilled architects, adventurous traders and gifted artisans. They lived in an agrarian society and had a well-developed religious system which venerated the cosmos. Royal dynasties spawned rulers who built the exotic temples and commanding ceremonial centers which still stand today.

Maya civilization is divided into three different time periods. The Pre-Classic spanned the years 2000 B.C. - 250 A.D.; the Classic the years between 250 A.D. - 900 A.D. and the Post-Classic dated from 900 A.D. - 1500 A.D., just prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the New World. The Maya reached their peak during the Classic period when they produced some of their most extraordinary works. By the time the Europeans arrived, the empire had mysteriously disintegrated and what was left of it was weak and in disarray. Many Maya groups, however, continued to defend their homeland against the invaders and refused to give up their ancient beliefs. Indeed, centuries of Spanish rule could not eliminate their language, traditional dress or religious ceremonies, and today visitors have the opportunity to meet the modern-day Maya.

What it offers...

The region offers lovely, timeworn pyramids and temples which represent the highest artistic expression of the culture. Not to be outdone, Mother Nature steps in with an exciting display of rain forests, mountains, untamed jungle, tranquil lakes and tumultuous rivers. Myriad ecosys at work and abundant flora and fauna make the area suitable for eco-minded or soft adventure tourists. There are also palm-fringed beaches, luxury resort hotels, the underwater wonderland of the Great Maya Reef for divers and a multitude of colorful villages inhabited by the descendents of the ancient Maya to visit. In short, the Maya World has something for everyone.

Ancient Maya Achievements...

Now considered one of the most advanced civilizations ever to exist in ancient America, the Maya are credited with a series of astonishing breakthroughs. Their civilization endured for more than 3,000 years, from around 2,000 B.C. to 1521 A.D. Mayan history is divided into three periods: Pre-Classic, from 2000 B.C. to 250 A.D., Classic (when the Maya reached their peak), from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. and the Post-Classic or period of decline, from 900 A.D. to 1521 A.D. when Spanish rule of Mexico began.

They were characterized by:

  • monumental-style architecture set in urban and ceremonial centers
  • an empire controlled by a network of city-states with dense populations
  • a well-ordered social class system with defined occupations and trades.
  • a system of hieroglyphic writing, the use of codex ( bark paper books) and a calendar.
  • development of arts and sciences such as medicine.
  • trade carried on within a wide sphere. Commercial routes extended from the Maya World north to Central Mexico and south as far as Panama.
  • an agrarian society based on the cultivation of corn. Irrigation was practised in some areas.
  • a well-defined religious system based on the cosmos and nature which required honoring the god of the sun, moon, rain and corn, for example.
  • Apart from social and political policies, the most dramatic achievements of the culture included a calendar which was infinitely more accurate than the Gregorian in use today, the invention of the "zero" in their mathematical system and the development of astronomy and astrology to a high science by charting the movements of the sun, moon and stars.

    The Maya were also very creative and excelled in sculpture, painting, pottery and other arts. The carved facades of their temples and palaces rival those of ancient Greece and Rome and the jade artifacts, polychrome ceramics and bone carvings found at sites throughout the area are eloquent testimony to their skills.

    Maya Cuisine...

    The ancient Maya lived in an agrarian society, growing corn, beans, squash, yucca and a form of sweet potato and supplementing their diet with wild game tracked by hunters and fish caught in nearby rivers, lakes and seas

    Corn formed the backbone of Maya cuisine in the form of tamales, tortillas and atole, a hot breakfast drink. The Maya even worshipped a corn god to ensure good harvest.

    Chocolate, which comes from a bean of the cacao tree, was known as the "drink of the gods" because, by law, only the nobility could drink it. An old story from Chiapas relates that after the Spanish made chocolate widely available, the mestizos drank it in church to sustain themselves during long Masses. Chiapas, today, has a special chocolate drink called tascalate made from a mixture of chocolate, ground pine nuts, achiote, vanilla and sugar.

    Chicle, a milky sap extracted from the chicozapote tree found throughout the Yucatán peninsula and the Petén region of Guatemala, launched the worldwide chewing gum industry.

    The Yucatán probably has one of the most varied cuisines in the Maya World. Regional specialties are chicken and pork pibil, made with achiote spice (similar to paprika), marinated in orange juice and baked in a pit. The sour orange, which is native to the region, is also used to make a superb dessert pie.

    Wild turkey, duck, pheasant and deer were hunted by the ancient Maya. Although deer hunting is now restricted in Mexico, delicious turkey and wild game can be found on most menus. Tabasco is the only place in the world where you can enjoy such surprising dishes as "pejelagarto (an alligator-headed fish) seasoned with amashito chile and lemon. The Yucatán also has a superb hot chile called habanero which usually is served on the side for the faint of heart.

    Beef, pork and chicken dishes are common in the Maya region. Many herbs are used in seasoning, like epazote for tamales. But a rare herb called chipilin, found in Chiapas and Tabasco, is used in tamales stuffed with diced shrimp. The king of Chiapas tamales, however, is made with chopped pork, egg, olives and prunes, and covered with spicy mole sauce made with bananas.

    Fish and seafood dishes reign supreme along the Caribbean coast of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Ceviche, or raw fish, shrimp, lobster, squid or conch, is chopped and marinated in lime juice which "cooks" it. Belizean cooking bears many similarities to Caribbean cuisine and many recipes were indeed introduced to the country by Creoles from the islands. Coconuts from the area's many palm groves, turn up in as flavoring in many seafood dishes.

    Tropical fruits such as mangos, bananas, guava, papaya, pineapple, watermelon and mamey, are plentiful in the Maya World. In some areas, liqueurs are made from honey and fruit while breakfast preserves are made from bananas, guavas and mango.

    The Maya Legacy & Major Archeological Sites...

    Today the legacy of the Maya is recognized worldwide thanks to excavation work, the deciphering of their glyph language and diligent research. They not only developed a calendar as accurate as our Gregorian but were also highly-skilled astronomers, astrologers, urban planners and excelled as mathematicians.

    Their grand cities with monumental temples (the word "pyramid" was introduced by the Spaniards) were built without the use of today's tools. Yet, each major city-state was carefully planned with temples and palaces in the center, a nearby ball court for the famous pre-Hispanic team sport and the surrounding adobe houses of the common people at a respectable distance from the ceremonial center of town.

    One of the Maya's unique contributions to architecture is the Korbel Arch, also called the Maya Arch, which was formed by projecting stone blocks out from each side of a wall until they met forming a peak. This technique was a handy substitute for a true arch. The Maya also invented the wheel but, dismissing its usefulness, only used it for children's toys.

    When it came to mathematics, time and calendars, the Maya were geniuses. Believing that time repeated itself in cycles, they devised two calendars, one ritualistic, which was used for religious celebrations and astrological predictions, and the other a solar calendar. Both calendars were based on the calculation that a year had a little more than 365 days, a more precise system than the Gregorian calendar. Following the movement of the sun, moon and stars with such accuracy, the Maya were able to predict such mystifying phenomena as eclipses and the Spring and Autumn equinoxes.

    The construction of the Kukulcán Pyramid at Chichén Itzá was planned so that each Equinox the dying sun would cast a shadow of a serpent writhing down the steps of the pyramid. At nearby Dzibilchaltún long streams of sunbeams hit the exact center of two windows opposite each other while at Edzna, Campeche, the mask of the sun god is beautifully illuminated during the Equinox.

    The Maya also incorporated the concept of zero in their mathematical system long before it was discovered by others. Instead of the decimal system, however, they used a vigesimal count, multiplying by 20 instead of ten. Eventually, they used the katun or a 20-year period to record the passage of time.

    Another major step forward by the Maya was the invention of their hieroglyphic writing system. Glyphs embellished stelae and temples throughout the Maya world and cover the famous hieroglyphic stairway at Copan. Hieroglyphics were used to record historical events or, as at Copan, the achievements of the royal dynasty. Unfortunately, actual books or codices written by the Maya on deerskin or tree bark and formed like concertinas, were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors. Only three codices, which have found their way to foreign museums, escaped destruction. The codices related Maya mythology, history, religious beliefs and arts and sciences through brightly-painted ideograms, or symbols. Maya scholars were not able to interpret the glyphs until 20 years ago when a team of Mexican and U.S. experts broke the code at Palenque. The Maya also had a strong oral tradition which was strengthened after the destruction of the codices.

    A text of the ancient "Popol Vuh" or "Book of Advice", written in the Maya Quiche language of Guatemala, was discovered by a 17th friar and rescued from oblivion. Translated into Spanish by the monk, Popul Vuh described the creation of the universe, according to Maya beliefs and legends. In Mexico, the "Chilam Balam," a book of history, astrology, medicine and prophecies written in Maya using Latin script, was found in the Yucatán peninsula and also saved.

    The Maya culture produced fine sculptors who created beautifully-proportioned figures in perfect balance and harmony on stelae. Doorframes were elaborately carved while facades and columns of buildings were covered with masks and friezes to honor the gods.

    Pottery-making also developed into a popular handicraft. The clay pots, dried in the open air instead of being baked in kilns, were just as likely to turn up in a householder's kitchen as at a temple ritual. Ceremonial pieces were often painted with mythological figures. Gold jewelry was principally for ceremonial use. while the most precious stone, jade, was so highly valued it was used either as an offering for the gods or as decoration on a nobleman's costume. People also hung pieces of jade carved in the shape of an animal or a bead around their neck to ward off illness.

    Joya de Cerén...

    Once a Maya farming settlement, this important site was buried under 14 layers of volcanic ash from the nearby Caldera Volcano 1,400 years ago, hence its name "The Pompeii of the Americas." The excavations carried out at Joya de Cerén to date have turned up nearly 70 adobe houses, petrified corn shoots and cooked beans on the point of being eaten. Specialists from Italy are working at the site, which appears to have been abandoned by its inhabitants just before disaster struck. Joya de Cerén is especially important because of the bounty of information about the lives of 7th-century Mayan farmers that it is yielding, a group about whom little was known before.

    Excavations are still underway at Joya de Cerén, El Salvador, which proved to be a Mayan agricultural settlement buried under volcanic ash for more than a thousand years. Clues to the life and customs of the Mayan peasant farmer are being discovered for the first time

    Maya World Handicrafts...

    Today's handicrafts are still produced using ancient techniques and retain their importance within the Maya culture.

    Many villages specialize in one particular craft which has been perfected through the generation of artisans. Pieces often contain references to mysticism and reveal the artist's personal view of the cosmos. Any of these treasured handicrafts can be found on display at Mayan markets.

    The tianguis, as the markets were called, were centers of local and regional trade. There's no better example of this colorful living tradition than the market of Santo Tomas Chichicastenango in the Guatemala highlands, which comes alive every Thursday and Sunday.

    Weaving is the outstanding Maya craft, an ancient art that has survived uninterrupted for centuries and is now become famous all over the world. Many of today's traditional designs are found engraved on ancient stelae at Mayan ruins, which bear witness to their timelessness and authenticity.

    The Maya say weaving was a gift of the Moon Goddess Ixchel to their women . She also gave them the backstrap loom and told them what sacred symbols to use in their designs. Textiles made from cotton were used by the ancient Maya just as they are today. Ceremonial vestments were infinitely more decorative and nowadays they are commonly used to dress the figures of saints inside churches.

    The Maya also make baskets, pottery and wood carvings of animals, saints and brightly-painted toys and chests. Ceremonial masks are yet another specialty, some portray men with blue eyes and beards and represent the Spaniards. Many masks are used in religious dances usually depicting the Conquest.

    The Modern-Day Maya...

    The modern-day Maya still live within the boundaries of their old empire, the area now comprising Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and the five Mexican states of Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Population figures vary with estimates ranging from four to six million depending on the criteria used for the survey.

    Although changes were imposed upon them by the Spanish conquistadors 500 years ago, the Maya managed to preserve many of their ancestral traditions, giving their culture a rich timeless quality. A visit to any Maya village will confirm this.

    During the Classic Age of the Maya over a thousand years ago, various powerful city-states ruled the area but by the time the Spaniards arrived, these urban centers had been abandoned and the empire was disintegrating. Many of the Maya, especially in Chiapas and Guatemala, were living in hidden recesses of the mountainous sierra. But for the visits of missionaries who set out to convert them to Roman Catholicism (and abolish human sacrifice), these villages lay isolated from the mainstream of development for hundreds of years. This left many traditions undisturbed, which today fascinate both historians and anthropologists.

    The Maya practice their own brand of Christianity which is a blend of Catholic tradition and ancient ritual. In some churches in the Maya World, healing rites are carried out with the aid of the sacrifice of a live chicken and offerings of eggs, coca cola and aguardiente in the presence of Catholic icons. Sometimes there are neither Catholic priests nor masses. However, religious celebrations, especially the village saint's day, are filled with a mixture of pomp, ceremony and devotion. Lasting from a day to a week, the celebrations usually include colorful folk dances, music and processions. Some of the more traditional communities still honor the old deities like the corn god to ensure good harvests.

    Recent Discoveries In The Maya World...

    PALENQUE, Chiapas. One of the most spectacular new finds was the discovery of a royal tomb with a well-preserved skeleton inside. Site archeologists surmise that the bones are probably those of a queen, either the mother or grandmother of the famous ruler, Pakal the Great. Two companions were buried with the queen, a common practice in Mesoamerica, and a jade mask was also found. The tomb's importance lies in the manner of their burial, in this case, in a simple stone vault, devoid of any embellishments or decorations.

    Pakal, whose tomb was found in the Temple of the Inscriptions in 1952, was buried in a much more dramatic fashion with a sarcophagus decorated with hieroglyphics and beautiful stone carvings. He was accompanied by seven companions, probably a sign of his exalted status in the Palenque dynasty, and a false chamber had also been built to foil grave robbers.

    The new find is the first recorded discovery of a tomb of a female Maya ruler. It was uncovered by a French psychic who felt a strong energy emanating from Temple 13, next to the Temple of the Inscriptions, while she was standing on top of it during a visit to the site. She informed archeologists that there were tombs inside and said they must ask the permission of the souls to enter. They did, and soon beheld the queen. Relics from the tomb will eventually be exhibited in the on-site museum.

    Copán, Honduras. Another royal tomb has been discovered in Copán in Honduras but with another burial style. Archeologists believe they have found the sarcophagus of the founder and greatest ruler of the Copán dynasty, Ku'k Mo', who reigned during the 5th century A.D. Ku'k Mo' is credited with starting a written history of Copán which he had inscribed on the specially-built Hieroglyphic Stairway.

    The tomb lies deep within a pyramid and was found behind a sealed wall painted with a beautiful Mayan mural. A nearby chamber has an altar with hieroglyphic inscriptions. High-tech implements are being used to extract the tomb so that it can re-enter the atmosphere without being damaged. A $60,000 US restoration is being planned after which the tomb will be put on display in a local museum.


    Millenniums ago, the Maya forged a civilization now considered one of the most important ever to exist in the Ancient World. In an extraordinary burst of creativity which lasted around 600 years, the Maya built immense cities, temples and pyramids, created a huge trade network and made breakthroughs in the arts and sciences that placed them leagues ahead of their contemporaries. Then, for reasons unknown, their culture went into decline, cities were abandoned and the inhabitants disappeared.

    The nations where they reigned Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and five Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Chiapas and Tabasco  are referred to collectively as the Mundo Maya, in Spanish, or Maya World. The area encompasses approximately 500,000 sq. kilometers.

    The ancient Maya bequeathed a magnificent legacy. Throughout the Maya World, archeological sites await discovery and ethnic groups proudly adhere to the traditions and beliefs of their forefathers. Furthermore, the cultural heritage is matched only by the diversity of landscapes found in the area and its rich wildlife.

    The Mundo Maya project is a regional development program involving all five countries which looks to tourism to elevate the standard of living of area inhabitants. It seeks to promote the region as a multidestination, focusing on the sheer abundance of its attractions. Key concerns in the program are sustainable development, environmental protection, restoration of archeological sites and colonial monuments, the preservation of indigenous cultures and the promotion of ecotourism.

    The programs had its beginnings in 1988 when the five countries sent representatives to the "First Regional Meeting", also attended by observers from international organizations and a consultancy firm from Spain which was asked to create a strategy for successful marketing of the project. The position of Project coordinator has been passed from country to country, with Honduras currently occupying the role. Funding has come from the government and private sectors of the countries involved plus the European Economic Community which initially contributed one million dollars.

    A Natural Heritage...

    Options for ecotourists in the Maya World range from such splendors as Río Lagartos, Yucatán, home of the only wild colony of flamingos in North America; the rain forests of Chiapas which echo to the roar of the howler monkey and the calls of over 600 species of bird and the Mario Dary Reserve in Guatemala, an undisturbed area of cloud forest which is the habitat of the elusive quetzal, a bird famous for its emerald green plumage. Then there's the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve in nature-loving Belize, the only jaguar sanctuary in the world, and Cuero y Salado Reserve in northern Honduras, a series of lagoons and channels through the mangrove forest ideal for birdwatching and manatee spotting.

    The five nations take ecology seriously and the number of reserves in the area is growing rapidly. Special attention is also being paid to environmental awareness programs aimed at local inhabitants.

    The Maya World also possesses such treasures as the Sumidero Canyon, the Agua Azul waterfalls and the Montebello Lakes in Chiapas; the Coconá Caves in Tabasco and the Dzitnup Cenote (sinkhole) in Yucatán. The untamed mountain ranges that form the backbone of Chiapas and the Central American nations are breathtaking and offer plenty of opportunities for hiking, horseback riding and climbing. One can even scale a volcano in Guatemala or El Salvador if the mood hits. The mountains also have hidden rivers for rafting and caves for spelunking, not to mention deep volcanic lakes such as Atitlán in Guatemala, Coatepeque and Ilopango in El Salvador and Yojoa in Honduras.

    Copán is the most famous archeological site in Honduras. Highlights include the stelae thought to represent ancient kings and the Hieroglyphic Stairway which has the written history of the dynasty recorded on it.

    Sun worshippers can soak up a few rays in resorts along the Quintana Roo coast, on the Belizian Cayes or the Bay Islands off the coast of  Honduras. All these destinations offer peerless white-sand beaches, palm trees and the incomparable turquoise waters of the Caribbean, not to mention a complete roster of activities including sportfishing, yacht tours, watersking, snorkeling and diving.

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