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Before the development of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, discerning travelers knew this part of the world simply as “the Mayan country.” The most dazzling civilization in pre-Hispanic America put down deep roots in the Yucatan, beginning about 1200 B.C. Many of the sites within easy driving distance of Mayakoba date from the Mayans’ heyday, from about the fourth to the tenth centuries A.D. At these places – standing in their massive ball courts or in the temples that top their striking, stepped pyramids; walking their network of roads, admiring their graphic, contemporary-looking carvings and murals – visitors have a window into a mysterious, intriguing society.
Sophisticated business people whose currency was the cocoa bean, the Mayans traveled the sea in large canoes bartering salt, textiles, pottery, herbs and incense. They grew corn, their sacred plant and staple food, using a system that involved burning fields and leaving others fallow. Their limestone architecture, harmonious and uncluttered, relied more on the elegance of their proportions and impressive size than decoration. The Mayans’ most astonishing gifts were in the realm of time, which obsessed them. They reckoned the solar year to be 365.2422 days long, and a lunar month 29.5209 days. These figures were only improved upon (to a minute degree) by 20th-century scientists.
For all that we know about the Mayans, they remain enigmatic. Who was thrown into the cenotes, the underground caves that were sacred to the Mayans -- enemies, slaves, the brightest and best? Whose hearts were torn out and deposited in the laps of reclining statues like that of Chac at Chichen Itza? Were the winners or the losers of the famous Mayan ballgame sacrificed? Scholars remain divided on these questions, and the Mayan mystique persists.
Guests at Mayakoba are well placed to visit important Mayan sites, as well as smaller ones. Tulum, the most gloriously positioned Mayan complex, is enclosed in a rare wall and poised over the sea about an hour from Mayakoba. Its ensemble of some dozen buildings includes a watchtower, the two-storey Temple of the Frescoes and the beautifully carved Temple of the Descending God. Coba, also about an hour from Mayakoba, is a very different experience. Formerly one of the Mayans’ greatest cities and the hub of their road system, Coba today has 6,000 structures accessible through quiet footpaths in the forest. The Great Pyramid, 120 steps high, is a standout and, although few buildings have been restored, Coba is an evocative, memorable scene. Chichen Itza, the most popular Mayan site, is about three hours’ drive from Mayakoba, and gives a good idea of the ceremonial center of a Mayan city-state. Focused around the dramatic, 91-step pyramid called El Castillo, the complex also features a massive ball court, a warriors’ temple where a statue of Chac awaits human hearts, a platform for the heads of sacrificial victims, several temples, a palace, an observatory, a cenote, even the rubble of a Mayan sweathouse.
More than ancient buildings testify to the presence of Mayans in the Yucatan. At sites such as Tulum and Chichen Itza, you’ll see trilingual signs – in Spanish, English and Mayan. Forty per cent of the people in Merida speak Mayan. The Mayan women are easily recognized in Playa del Carmen and other towns by the immaculately white folk dress they wear, its square neck, sleeves and hem flamboyantly embroidered with flowers. The distinctive Mayan house – like an elongated oval with a palapa or thatched roof -- can be seen in the villages around Chichen Itza.