Mayan culture refers to both a modern-day people who can be found spread over a vast region of the Americas, as well as to their ancestors who built an ancient civilization that reached its peak during the first millennium A.D. They are an indigenous people of Mexico and Central America who have continuously inhabited the lands comprising modern-day Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas in Mexico and southward through Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras.
The designation “Maya” comes from the ancient Yucatecan city of Mayapan, the last capital of the Mayan Kingdom in the Post-Classic Period. The Mayan people refer to themselves by ethnicity and language bonds such as “Quiche” in the south or “Yucatec” in the north (though there are many others).
The Mayan civilization was never unified; rather, it consisted of numerous small states, ruled by kings, each centered on a city. Sometimes, a stronger Mayan state would dominate a weaker state and was able to exact tribute and labor from it. Also, contrary to popular belief, the Mayan civilization never vanished. While many cities were abandoned around 1,100 years ago, other cities, such as Chichén Itzá, grew in their place.
Though the region was Christianized in the 16th century during the Spanish Conquest, the old traditions and beliefs are still observed in a hybrid between European Catholicism and Mayan mysticism. The Day-keeper of a village still interprets the energy of the day and rituals are still performed in caves and on hills. On the Island of Cozumel shrines to the Virgin Mary and the goddess Ixchel are interchangeable and, often, one and the same.
So next time you consider traveling, try the Yucatan Peninsula with its rich cultural heritage, numerous freshwater wells (“cenotes”) in which to swim and dive, it’s delicious regional cuisine, it’s year-long warm weather and it’s amazingly hospitable Mayan culture in transition.