YUCATAN PENINSULA, Mexico—In May I flew to Merida, Yucatan’s capital, about 500 miles south of New Orleans. By noon on the first full day I was clinging to the steeply pitched steps of the Great Temple of Uxmal, about 50 miles south of Merida, about 100 feet above ground, incalculably far from the 21st century.
Ever since the Mexican drug-war killings began to escalate in late 2006, I’ve been visiting the country less and choosing spots more carefully.
But the Yucatan Peninsula was an easy call. One of the safest and most rewarding places in Mexico these days is the same steamy, lizard-ridden Maya stamping ground where ritual sacrifice was once business as usual, where the alleged apocalypse—the end of the Maya calendar—is barely 100 shopping days away.
From my perch at the temple’s highest point, a horizon of green treetops spread before me, interrupted only by jutting stone marvels such as the Pyramid of the Magician, the Nunnery Quadrangle and the stately House of the Governor.
Uxmal is not Yucatan’s marquee attraction. That would be the now-unclimbable pyramid at Chichen Itza about 120 miles east. But Yucatan is full of wonders that allow better access and draw smaller crowds than Chichen Itza. If you want a workout, a few subterranean thrills and a glimpse of what North American civilization looked like before and just after the Spaniards got here, it’s a good place to start.
The Uxmal complex, younger than Egypt’s best-known pyramids but older than Peru’s Machu Picchu, was built more than a millennium ago. At its peak, it housed perhaps 25,000 Mayas.
Nowadays at Uxmal, there’s a nighttime light show and a handful of hotels within walking distance. Like gift shops throughout Yucatan, the one at Uxmal is well stocked with books suggesting that the Mayas predicted the end of the world for Dec. 21, 2012. And there’s no denying the creepiness of the ruins’ mascots: the iguanas, which race bowlegged across the grass, climbing ancient steps with eerie agility.
Lock eyes with an iguana long enough and an apocalypse begins to seem inevitable. But then look away, and another ruin demands climbing. Or a set of stairs will lead you to a cool, blue cenote—sinkholes and water-filled underground caverns that are scattered all over the peninsula.
To give scenes like that my full attention, I didn’t bother with Cancun, the tourist magnet 200 miles east, or the several Yucatan haciendas that have been converted into restaurants and luxury hotels. In fact, I never strayed more than 150 miles from Merida.
At Kabah, just down the road from Uxmal, hundreds of loose stones are laid out like laundry in need of sorting, and one long wall (known as the Codz Poop) is crowded with bug-eyed, long-nosed stone faces carved to honor the rain god Chac. At Labna, an ancient gate leads nowhere special but might be the most graceful, haunting Maya portal still standing.
At Ticul, I had hot chocolate. Not by choice but because the EcoMuseo del Cacao, opened in 2011, includes a hot chocolate-making demonstration among its many exhibits. (There was also a human skeleton and some sentences about the Maya’s ritual sacrifices.) The temperature must have been 95 degrees outside—which is why many people visit in winter. But the cook so graciously offered the steaming cup, I had to say yes.
At Cuzama, about 30 miles southeast of Merida, I paid a man about 250 pesos (about $20) to take me on a bone-jarring ride aboard a horse-drawn cart that rolls on narrow-gauge railroad tracks. The route runs through a henequen plantation (where fiber for rope was cultivated), but the real attraction is below ground: three cenotes.
The first was Chelentun (easy access, with stairs and a handrail), followed by Bolonchoojol (a rabbit-hole entrance with a 25-foot ladder) and Chansinic’che (steep stairs, narrow squeeze). At each, you can climb down, dive and swim beneath the stalactites, surrounded by tree roots and darting little fish, in the cool waters of a slow-moving subterranean river. Shafts of filtered sunlight illuminate the blue waters. Voices bounce crazily off the walls.
There are thousands of these places in Yucatan, some open air, some accessible only by a dark descent on a long ladder, dozens outfitted for easy visitor access. The only problem is that after you’ve explored a few, if you ever venture to Capri, you’ll never understand all the fuss over its Blue Grotto.
The next day, I headed to Coba, another underappreciated but sprawling set of ruins about 135 miles east of Merida in the state of Quintana Roo. The archaeological site is so vast that tourists rent bikes to get from spot to spot. With the help of a heavy rope, most climb to the top of Nohoch Mul, a pyramid with 120 steep steps. The view was cinematic—the most remarkable of my trip because the landscape is otherwise so flat and the foliage below so thick.
Throughout these various ascents and descents, Mexico’s most notorious 21st century peril—the drug war—seemed far away. And statistics suggest that it is.
In the Mexican newspaper Reforma’s tally of drug-war killings, Yucatan logged just two such deaths in 2011—the lowest figure among all 31 Mexican states. The U.S. State Department’s most recent Travel Warning on Mexico (issued in February) bristles with border-state cautions and alarming numbers, including the 47,515 drug-war deaths nationwide as of September 2011. But the State Department’s experts have reported no such troubles in Yucatan.
That peace of mind gave me the luxury of more daydreaming about the Mayas, who drew water from cenotes and sculpted their gods into decorative patterns on buildings. The Maya created a written language and left scores of manuscripts, most of which the Spanish burned. They devised epic ballgames that sometimes ended with the ritual sacrifice of a player. Aristocrats wore jade inlays in their teeth.
Their empire included the neighboring states of Campeche, Chiapas and Quintana Roo, along with parts of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Yet centuries before the Spanish conquistadors got anywhere near here, their empire collapsed and the people scattered to small agricultural settlements.
As a result, few outsiders paid much attention to the Maya until the late 1830s and early 1840s, when explorers such as John L. Stephens and artist Frederick Catherwood spent long expeditions describing and sketching vine-strangled structures throughout the peninsula. Since then, Maya imagery has compelled all sorts of artists and designers, including Frank Lloyd Wright, who drew inspiration from Uxmal; Mel Gibson, who directed the movie “Apocalypto” in 2006; and the makers of the 2009 disaster film “2012.” (For a more factual visual take on the contemporary Maya, check out the black-and-white photographs of Macduff Everton in 2012’s “The Modern Maya” or the super-saturated color shots of Jeffrey Becom in “Maya Color,” published in 1997.)
So why did the Maya fall? Deforestation, drought and wars against neighbors have been blamed. In his 2005 bestseller “Collapse,” University of California, Los Angeles geography professor Jared Diamond cites “kings who sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, covered with thicker and thicker plaster—reminiscent in turn of the extravagant conspicuous consumption by modern American CEOs.”
Before things went south, the Maya astronomers calculated a long-term calendar and forecast that a 5,125-year era in human history would come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012.
And then? Like so many fortunetellers and economists before and since, the Maya were vague on details.
For the 21st century doomsday industry, of course, this was perfect. Now we have books, movies, souvenirs and T-shirts tied to Dec. 21. Even though almost nobody believes it, the idea of extinction evidently sells. Mayaland Resorts was charging less than $200 a night at its lodges at Uxmal and Chichen Itza in May, but this December, the rates will reach $1,000 a night and beyond.
I asked just about every Yucatecan I met, including many of Maya descent, about Dec. 21.
“People say, ‘It’s 2012. I’m not going to die. I’m going to Chichen Itza!’” said Andre Mar Arriaga, manager of the bookshop in Merida’s Regional Museum of Anthropology and History.
In the Valladolid office of MexiGo Tours, guide Gilberto Tec Ligorria noted that “my mother is from Guatemala, and my father is from here. So I’m a mix of two kinds of Mayas. And I think it’s just the end of a cycle.”
To Learn More:
Mexico tourism, http://www.visitmexico.com. Yucatan tourism, http://www.yucatan.travel/en. Merida tourism, http://www.merida.gob.mx/turismo/index(underscore)in.htm.