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The Mayan World

The Great Plaza is the picture postcard face of Tikal, cleared of jungle and rebuilt. Two enormous pyramids, monuments and tombs of dead kings, climb 44 meters to stretch their roof combs above the surrounding canopy. Smaller complexes that were once administrative centers and residences surround them. Carved stone stelae in the plaza preserve stories of royal deeds.

Pathways hacked through the jungle link the Great Plaza to the other ruins. I avoided the tourist guides, the angry sun-pinked skin, the flapping Hawaiian shirts and the baggy Bermuda shorts. I bought a map and chose a lesser-traveled route. I walked quietly and breathed deeply. Birds called in the verdant green canopy and spider monkeys chattered in the distance. Smells of humid earth and decaying vegetation filled my nose. The intense heat of the flatlands wrapped me in cloying humidity.

The outer ruins lay as they were found. Stones crumbled under probing and strangling roots. Whole buildings slept undisturbed beneath a living blanket of tangled growth. The earth was reclaiming the city, digesting it. The corroding stones radiated mystery and silence, a hint of stories long forgotten and of huge tracts of time.

The Mayan world occupied the upper third of Central America, from the baking jungle flatlands of the Yucatan Peninsula (present day Mexico, Belize and the Guatemalan Petén) to volcanic highlands stretching as far south as Copan in Honduras.

Mayan civilization was not an empire, but a loose collection of entities that shared a common cultural background. Large centers of power like Tikal, Copan or Chichen Itza were comparable to the city states of ancient Greece, and these great agricultural centers were the focal points of Mayan culture.

At its zenith, the Mayan civilization represented one of the most densely populated and dynamic societies in the world. The Mayans were responsible for the only fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, and they continue to fascinate us with their art and monumental architecture, as well as their sophisticated systems of mathematics and astronomy.

But nothing fascinates us more than their demise. What accounted for the stunning collapse of their civilization? Was it an ecological disaster, a catastrophic event, the collapse of trade routes, or a peasant revolt? Many theories exist; none has been conclusively proven.

Though their society collapsed, the Maya did not entirely vanish into the mists of time. Mayan peoples and their descendants remain to form sizable populations in contemporary Mesoamerican societies, and Mayan languages continue to be spoken. In mountain villages and flatland jungle towns throughout northern Central America a slender, fragile thread of life still stretches back through time, providing a blood red connection to the monument builders of old.

Exploring those Mayan worlds was a bit of a pilgrimage for me. As a child I haunted library books with cutaway illustrations of castles and pyramids. I became obsessed with Easter Island. I didn’t care for dinosaurs; I needed something with a dream attached, the echo of someone’s all-consuming desire. I gloated over the unexplainable. I sought not theories, but mystery. Dark corridors. Ancient stones hewn carefully by hand. The musty smell of centuries. But my country had none of that. Those places where stories were contained in crumbling stones were entire continents away. Perhaps that’s why I yearned for them. I’ve always dreamed of the inaccessible. In time. In place. In love.

Original Author: Ryan Murdock Full Bio

Ryan Murdock’s pursuit of travel literature has taken him to some of the world‘s most unforgiving places, including Mongolia, Tibet, Nicaragua, and North Korea, by Russian jeep, motorcycle, dugout canoe, horse and camel. Please visit to learn more about his adventures and to follow his Road Wisdom blog.

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