The Maya civilization was one of the great Mesoamerican and Pre-Columbian civilizations. The Maya were renowned for having the most sophisticated and developed writing system in the Western Hemisphere as well as their monumental achievements in art, architecture and astronomy. At its height, the Maya cultural area spanned the Yucatan Peninsula and highlands of Chiapas and Campeche in Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of western Honduras and El Salvador.
Contrary to popular belief, although the Spanish Conquistadores overthrew Maya states and ended Maya civilization in that sense, the Maya people and their cultural heritage never really died. There are millions of people who identify as Maya and speak Mayan languages and despite the turmoil that was created by the Spanish conquest, many of them have carried on traditions that have existed for over a thousand years.
In contrast to the Aztecs and the Inca, the Maya cultural sphere never merged into one empire. Throughout all periods of its history, the Maya were politically organized as city-states and chiefdoms competing and interacting with one another.
Mayan cities often show elements of distinctive architectural styles that correspond to regional differences at different points in time. The architectural styles include:
- Peten style
- * Elements: prominent stairways, stepped terraces, tall, slender pyramids, interiors have arched ceilings and stucco masks
- * Sites: Tikal, Xunantunich, Uaxactun, El Mirador
- Puuc style
- * Elements: veneer over stone/concrete, lattices and frets, Chac masks, corbel arch, alignment to central plaza 14 degrees east of north
- * Sites: Uxmal, Sayil, Kabah, Labna
- Rio Bec style
- * Elements: Twin non-functional towers with false staircases, non-functional temples with no interior rooms, false doorways
- * Sites: Xpujil, Rio Bec, Becan
- Chenes style
- * Elements: carved mosaic facades, doors framed with monster masks around a doorway/mouth
- * Sites: Dzibilnocac, Hochob, Edzná, Chicanna
- 1 Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, Merida. Large permanent collection of Mayan artifacts as well as a number of interactive exhibits.
- 1 Bonampak. Set deep in the jungles of Chiapas, Bonampak eluded European interest for centuries. It is best known for its colorful murals depicting the city's history and interaction with other Maya city-states.
- 2 Becan, Xpujil. Fortified city with walls and a moat, known for compact construction and Rio Bec architecture.
- 3 Calakmul. One of the two Maya superpowers along with Tikal during the Classic Period. The rivalry with Tikal was intense, with both city-states and their vassals engaging in Cold War and actual wars over many centuries.
- 4 Chichen Itza. Arguably the most popular Maya archeological site among tourists. It was one of the largest Maya cities and incorporated a diverse range of architectural styles.
- 5 Coba. Large city ruins about 30km inland from Tulum, known for its far reaching network of sacbeob, a system of raised paved pathways that functioned like an interstate highway system between Mayan city-states. The site dates from about 300 BC.
- 6 Comalcalco, Comalcalco. Interesting site whose architectural style is similar to Palenque. Probably reached its peak around 900 AD.
- 7 Edzna. An impressive site in Campeche state, with a long period of occupation spanning the Preclassic to Postclassic periods.
- 8 Ek' Balam. Large Maya archaeological site that was the seat of King Ukit Kan Lek Tokʼ. His well-preserved tomb in the site's largest pyramid is the site's most well-known feature.
- 9 Izamal. A sacred town and place of pilgrimage among the Maya faithful. Two great Maya temples, one dedicated to the sun god Kinich Kak Moo and another to the creator Itzamatul, are still standing and visible from a great distance.
- 10 Izapa, Tapachula. Oldest of Mexico's major Maya sites, dating to 1500 BC, but largely ruined with little to see. Close to Guatemala border.
- 11 Kabah. Smaller site known for the Codz Poop, an amazing wall of masks with long snouts that are thought to have been used for illumination.
- 12 Mayapan. After the fall of Chichen Itza in the 13th century, a group of Itza Mayans searched for a new home until they settled at Mayapan. Large numbers of Itza followed between 1263 and 1283, building Mayapan into the most powerful city of the northern Yucatan (for a while).
- 13 Palenque. Palenque was a medium-sized city that contained some of the finest Maya art and architecture. It is one of the most studied Maya archeological sites.
- 14 Toniná. An aggressive warmongering city-state in the western Maya region that was a rival to Palenque for much of its history.
- 15 Tulum. One of the best preserved coastal sites and one of the last cities to be constructed. Served as the major port for Coba. Jade, copper, gold, obsidian, salt and textiles were all traded on the shores of Tulum.
- 16 Uxmal. Considered to have the most characteristic Yucatan architectural style, Uxmal thrived between the 7th and 10th centuries.
- 17 Xcaret. A busy port of navigation and trade on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. Some of the original structures have been enveloped in an ecotourism park.
- 18 Yaxchilan. Large city-state deep in the jungle on the Usamacinta River along the border of Guatemala. Remote, well-preserved site with several significant temples.
- 19 Actun Tunichil Muknal. The cave contains skeletal remains, some of whom were sacrifice victims, and elaborate pottery from the Pre-Classical Period (700-900).
- 20 Altun Ha. The most famous artifact discovered at Altun Ha was the "Crown Jewel of Belize", the jade head of the Maya sun god Kinich Ahau. One of the country's greatest national treasures, the jade head appears on nearly all banknotes in Belize.
- 21 Caracol. At first a client state of Tikal, Caracol surged in prominence from the early 7th century. During its golden age, Caracol supported a population more than twice that of Belize City, the largest city in modern Belize, and covered a much wider area.
- 22 Lamanai. Famous for a trio of temples: the Jaguar Temple, Mask Temple and High Temple. All of them have been fairly well preserved though face the ongoing battle of being covered by the dense jungle growth.
- 23 Lubaantun. Emerged during the late Classic Period. What distinguishes Lubaantun from other sites is its unusual architecture, with black slate being the primary material used instead of limestone, and its large collection of small ceramic figurines.
- 24 Xunantunich. The best known structure at the site is "El Castillo", Belize's second tallest pyramid. Xunantunich thrived for about a century longer than nearby sites.
- 25 Aguateca. Likened to Pompeii because of the remarkable preservation of how everyday people lived in Maya times.
- 26 Cancuén. Site of the largest palace in the Maya world, a 3-story structure encompassing 23,000 square feet with 170 rooms and 11 courtyards. Abandoned around 800 AD.
- 27 El Mirador. A large preclassic Maya site which was abandoned by the end of the 9th century and never to be inhabited again. Buried deep in the jungle, the remoteness of El Mirador has prevented it from becoming a popular tourist site.
- 28 Iximche (Tecpan Guatemala). The Postclassic capital of the highland Kaqchikel Maya, and focus of the first short-lived Spanish colonial settlement.
- 29 Mixco Viejo (Jilotepeque Viejo). The postclassic capital of the highland Chajoma (or eastern Kaqchikel) Maya, which for many years was confused with the capital of the Pocomam Maya. Well restored.
- 30 Nakbé. A major Middle Preclassic site that was important throughout the Maya sphere because of its extensive limestone quarries, a key material used to build many of the grand temples.
- 31 Piedras Negras. Compared to other sites, Piedras Negras is known for its sculptural wealth.
- 32 Qʼumarkaj. The most well known late postclassic Maya city that was based in the highlands. Qʼumarkaj was a thriving city until the Spanish conquest. Many structures in the site remain but archaeologists have not done much restoration work on some of the ruins. The core of the city contains a central plaza, many temples, palaces that have been reduced to rubble, and a Mesoamerican ballgame court.
- 33 Quirigua. A small Classic period site that became embroiled in the greater political maneuverings of its time and dramatically rebelled against Copan (Honduras), its overlord. The site has an impressive body of sculpted stelae in a similar style to Copan.
- 34 Takalik Abaj (Kooja). An important Preclassic and Classic Maya city that had important links with the Olmecs and Teotihuacan, and a large amount of interesting sculpture on display.
- 35 Tikal (Yax Mutal). The preeminent Maya city of the Classic Periods and lowlands. Tikal was a political and cultural superpower in its time, extending its influence far beyond.
- 36 Zaculeu (Saqulew). The Classic and Postclassic capital of the Mam Maya, which fell to the Spanish after a bloody siege in 1525.
- 37 Copán Ruinas. Was the capital city of a kingdom during the Classical Period for four centuries. On the Mesoamerican southeastern frontier, the city was almost completely surrounded by non-Maya people. Famous for its elaborate stelae.
- 38 El Puente.
- 39 San Andrés (Campana San Andrés). On the southernmost fringes of the Maya cultural sphere, San Andrés was the capital of a locally important regional capital during the Classic period.
- 40 Tazumal. On the southernmost fringes of the Maya cultural sphere, Tazumal was a major city from the preclassic all the way to the late postclassic period. It contains some of the oldest metal artifacts in Mesoamerica.
The staples of the Maya diet were maize (corn), squash, beans and chili peppers. Corn was always nixtamilized (soaked in limewater or lye), which added vitamins to the corn and made it a complete protein. Many types of meals were made from corn, including tortillas, tamales and gruels of varying consistencies. Cassava was also a widely grown crop, the energy and nutrient-rich tuber vegetable playing its part in sustaining a dense population for its time.
Meats were mostly obtained by hunting though dogs and turkeys may have been domesticated. The most common source of game was white-tailed deer. In the coastal areas, and in the larger inland cities where transportation networks were well developed, seafood was part of the Maya diet.
The Maya were the first people to cultivate the cacao plant and drink an ancient form of chocolate. Avocados were a commonly eaten fruit and used in a variety of dishes.