Mexico is famous for many things including its rugged mountain ranges, spectacular coastlines, warm hospitality and strong tequila. In addition its approximately 89 indigenous languages, all deeply rooted in Pre-Columbian civilization, make this pluricultural nation a bucket list destination for those who want to interact with the surviving indigenous cultures of this country.
In particular the Yucatan Peninsula, and as far south as Belize, Honduras and Guatemala, is a region that was dominated by the Mayans, a colorful, intriguing people whose history is a rich blend of political, religious and natural struggles to survive the ever-changing context in which this wonderful culture in constant transition continues to live and grow.
The colonial city of Merida, located on the north-western side of the peninsula, is a perfect base from which to begin explorations into ancient Mayan history. A quick search for nearby Mayan ruins will reveal a number of options, including famous ancient cities like Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Kabah, and specific regions like the Puuc Route, where smaller sites are grouped close together.
The ruined city of Mayapan (Mayan for “Banner of the Maya) is one of the lesser visited sites (Chichen Itza can get very crowded and insistent peddlars are often an unwelcome distraction) 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.