The Yucatan Peninsula in southeastern Mexico is a vast territory measuring approximately 76,300 square miles that includes over 700 miles of Caribbean and Gulf coastline. Its subtropical jungle interior comprises what once was a significant proportion of the ancient Mayan Lowlands and is therefore the perfect destination for anyone who would like to experience the Mayan culture and learn about it through the fascinating findings of archaeology.
The enchanting colonial city of Merida, located on the western side of the peninsula, is at the same time modern, cosmopolitan, a major center of commerce and also the gateway to an exciting collection of Mayan ruins all within easy access of the city. The following are some of the most important of the nearby ancient Mayan cities:
Located in the municipality of Tinum, Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and one the most visited Mayan ruins in the country.
A powerful economic power in the ancient Mayan world with established trade routes reaching as far as South America, the city of Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence by the end of the Early Class period, at around 600 AD. Archaeologists estimate that between 900 AD and 1050 AD, this ancient city expanded and became the region’s capital controlling most parts of the Central and Northern Yucatan Peninsula.
The central area of the city covered approximately 5 square kilometres and scholars have found evidence that smaller settlements belonging to the city extended even further out.
All the buildings of the city were connected by an intricate network of paved causeways, called “sacbe”, which in Maya translates as “white road”.
Many of Chichen Itza’s important buildings have been carefully restored. When visiting look out for:
1. “El Castillo” (“The Castle”), also known as “The Temple of Kukulkan”, a monument dedicated to the snake deity Kukulkan which was built somewhere between the 9th and 12th centuries.
2. 13 Ball Courts dedicated to a ball sport with ritual associations played since 1,400 BCE by the pre-Columbian peoples of Ancient Mesoamerica. Major formal ball games were held as ritual events, often featuring human sacrifice.
The ruined city of Mayapan (Mayan for “Banner of the Maya) is one of the lesser visited sites that offers visitors an amazing opportunity to learn about the growth and development of the Mayan culture in this region.
Mayapan seems to have been settled somewhere around 1000 A.D. and eventually grew to a large city state with an estimated population of 12,000 inhabitants within the protected walls of the city center, and an additional 5,000 inhabitants living outside of these walls. During the period of the fall of Chichen Itza, King Kukulkan II of Chichen Itza took over as the King of Mayapan and ruled the city between 1263 and 1283 A.D. in an effort to regain his power in the region. After his death, the aggressive Cocoom family obtained power and used Mayapán as a base to conquer northern Yucatan. They succeeded and the Cocoom ruled for 250 years until 1441-1461 A.D. In 1461 A.D. the Xiu family, based in Uxmal, slaughtered the Cocoom family and took over the city. In the mid-15th century Mayapan was destroyed by war, later burnt and then abandoned.
Close by is the town of Mani, with its historically important church and convent, which was the site of the infamous 1562 burning of the Mayan Codices and manuscripts by the Bishop Fray Diego de Landa. Like most Spanish colonial churches of Yucatan it was built by using the cut stones of Pre-Columbian Mayan temples. The great bonfire Landa held turned to ashes almost all written records of the Mayans. Only three codices are known to have survived. Landa proclaimed the books contained “nothing but the lies of the Devil” and he burned them to aid his mission, converting the Mayans to Christianity.
A visit to the city of Mayapan makes for a great day trip from Merida, as it is less than an hour away and is an incredible place in which to learn about this fascinating ancient Mayan history. It is open daily and specialized tour operators are recommended in order to make the most of the journey.
Dzibilchaltun is also a lesser known site, yet its history is incredibly important and the excavated portions accessible to the public are incredibly photogenic.
Located only 10 miles to the north of Merida this city was once a wealthy port and had a peak population of about 20,000, although it declined with the rise of neighbouring Chichen Itza. It is also among the oldest Mayan cities, as confirmed by evidence of its occupation between the year 500 B.C. and 1500 A.D.
Dzibilchaltun occupies an area of approximately 7 square miles, within which there must have been over 8,000 architectural structures, although few of them have been excavated. Given its location near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, its economy was based on the production and use of marine products (salt, shell tools, seafood) as well as on those produced inland, such as maize.
The most famous structure is the Temple Of The Seven Dolls (Templo de las Siete Muñecas), so named because of seven small dolls or figurines found inside. Visitors can also see the Museum of the Maya People which hosts a collection of representative pieces of the area, as well as a recreation of a traditional Maya house.