Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula played a central role, and continues to this day, in the geographical distribution of the Mayan civilization. Arising around 250 A.D., and originally influenced primarily by the Olmecs, the Mayan culture spread across what is now southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.
During the Classic Period (200 A.D. to 1000 A.D.) the Mayans thrived in up to 40 different cities. These seemed to have been mainly ceremonial centers, with the majority living a rural, agricultural life around the cities. Around the end of this period their civilization went into serious decline (scholars attribute this to different reasons such as loss of trade routes, war, drought) and most of these cities were abandoned.
During the Post Classic Period (1000 A.D. to 1697 A.D.) some of the cities of the Yucatan Peninsula, like Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Mayapan, continued to thrive until the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. This geographical area is littered with Mayan ruins of these great cities and many have been excavated, artfully restored and opened for public viewing and appreciation. The end of this period in 1697 is marked by the fall of the last independent Maya city-state, Tayasal.
Originally the Mayan religion was characterized by the worship of nature gods (especially the gods of sun, rain and corn), a priestly class, the importance of astronomy and astrology, rituals of human sacrifice, and the building of elaborate pyramidical temples. Once conquered by the Spanish they were converted (at least nominally) to Roman Catholicism and today modern Mayans practice a hybrid combination of both religions.
One important ceremonial ritual that continues to be practiced is the “temazcal“, or sweat lodge. It is thought that these were used mainly for purification purposes, especially after battles or ball games, and may also have been used for healing the sick, improving health, and during the birth process.
A permanent structure that is built from rock in a circular dome shape, the temazcal has in its center a pit in which volcanic stones are heated. Water, mixed with various items, is then periodically thrown over the hot stones in order to produce vapor and stimulate the senses. This practice is currently being recovered by many sectors of society in Mexico and local practitioners in Tulum allow visitors to participate in these rituals, guided by local Mayan shaman.