The Ancient Mayans were an almost singular focus for our travels for the past few years. It may have begun with the kids’ sudden infatuation with the monumental reproduction of an Olmec head outside the Chicago Field Museum. To this day there’s a drawing of it taped to the kids’ room door with the words, “I love you Big Head!” across the top. Soon after we discussed traveling to the Mexican state of Tabasco to visit the Olmec heads in person. But the kids were still six and eight years old, so we chose to stay closer to home. But the idea of traveling to Mexico lingered.
My personal reasoning for wanting to visit the cities of the ancient Mayan world was simple. Even though I took enough Anthropology courses to graduate with a minor, I didn’t really really come to appreciate the level of sophistication achieved by the indigenous cultures of the Americas until I visited Chaco Canyon in 1997. In one single day, any vestigial eurocentrism I may have had was forever punctured. Here, in New Mexico, was a city one thousand years old that was every bit as ‘civilized’ as any in the world. Tenth century Italians could have learned a lot from the Ancestral Puebloan people. It changed the way I view the world and I didn’t want my children to have to wait until they were 22 to have that experience.
Another reason that the history of the Mayan people (and if you didn’t know, the Mayas are still around) is important is that taken as a whole, it’s about climate change, non-anthropogenic in their case. Touring Mayan sites you can see how they adapted to the hydrological challenges of their environment. But their civilization ultimately became unsustainable in the face of a protracted drought. In the end, it collapsed. This narrative is particularly apparent at the Actun Tunichil Maktun cave in Belize, where a series of increasingly desperate rites to their rain god is apparent, culminating in ritual human sacrifice.
In 2017, we visited Ek’Balam, Kabah, Uxmal, Cobá, Izamal, and Tulum. We returned to the Yucatan in 2018 and visited Chichén Itzá, Calakmul, Becan, and Balamku. In January 2019 we flew to Belize, drove across the border to Tikal in Guatemala and then back to the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Belize. I’ve been meaning to write about these experiences since we began these travels—and maybe some day I will—but in the meantime, I thought I’d share some of the photos.
If you think you might like to visit the Mayan world, here are a few random thoughts:
- Don’t be afraid to rent a car and drive around the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s the safest part of Mexico and it’s wonderful.
- Read about a.) the Ancient Mayans, b.) the history of the Yucatan and the Caste Wars, and c.) the flora and fauna.