From its high point, visitors overlook the entire breadth of the fortressed city, where the upper class lived within the walls among the limestone, magnificently engineered buildings. The working class that built the city and provided it with food occupied thatched-roof structures on the perimeter.
Today garden-like and well-groomed, Tulum provides transportation to one of four wall gateways via Eltrencito (train tram). At the exit gate are the usual clusters of retail ventures, including folkloric shows and costumed Maya who make money posing with you for photos.
My favorite of the major ruin sites, Cobá still allows you to climb the dizzying 138-foot temple. I also liked that admission includes use of a bicycle to reach the far-flung buildings. If you cannot pedal, “Maya limos” (pedi-taxis) await for an extra fee.
Another plus for Cobá: You have access to one of the temple’s inner sanctums and passageways. Maya expanded their temples every calendar cycle by building another around the original, and this is the only one I visited where I could make it into the interior, where the king lived.
The site is also known for its intact stelae, carved stone slabs. Cobá’s deal specifically with the significance of 2012 on the calendar.
New to the ruins pilgrimage, Muyil straddles the edge of the 1.25 million-acre Sian Ka’an (translation: Where the Sky Was Born) Biosphere Reserve. Not officially opened to tourism, Muyil is a bit of a secret. Here you can visit on your own or through Community Tours Sian Ka’an, a co-op of Maya people who have taken the touristification of the site into their own hands.
Small, scattered, and a work in progress, this site is as ecological as archaeological. The tour ends with a dip in a freshwater lagoon and cenote, a Mexican sinkhole. Its specific interest lies in its feel of an archaeological lab, where return visitors can witness the progress of turning rubble into walls.
The relatively low-rising temple here is unique in that it combines two of the most important structures found in a Maya city. Besides its function as a place of worship, it has a rotund formation at its top that suggests an observatory. The Maya, known for their advanced astronomical knowledge, would collect rain in the round structures and use it as a mirror for the heavens.
You will find other small sites at Cozumel’s humble San Gervasio ruins, and — off the coast of Cancun — at Isla Mujeres, whose temple once paid homage to the important deity Ix Chel, goddess of fertility.
Built on the site of one of the ancient kingdoms, which date back to 1200 B.C., Xcaret theme park spoon-feeds visitors a taste of Maya lite. Recreating various architectural elements of Maya and Mexican culture, plus beaches and animal habitat, one of its greatest attractions is its evening cultural show.
Similar to the Arabian Nights and Medieval Times-style dinner theater arenas in the Orlando area, it presents a worthwhile and dramatically colorful two-hour pageant that includes a pok-ta-pok game and performance art from different Mexican regions.
Perhaps a more meaningful way to experience Maya culture is by getting to know some of the surviving 10 million Maya people who live throughout the region. A visit to a major Maya city such as Valladolid allows visitors to interact with the short, slant-eyed Mayan-speaking ladies in their flower-embroidered blouses and dresses and to sample their cuisine in restaurants such as La Casona.
“For Mayas, the obsession was time and space,” said Pedro.
The hoopla about the end of the world, oddly enough, stemmed originally from one calendar at one ruin in Guatemala that mentions 2012. Another reference has recently been found.
Because of unusual astronomical phenomena this year, including the close encounter with Venus, the surviving Maya population has embraced the occasion as the end of one of their complex but accurate calendar’s cycles and the beginning of another.
Mexico tourism has embraced it as a vehicle for boosting tourism numbers, especially in recent times when drug-related crime has made Americans think more than twice about visiting.
However, if the recent Maya spotlight is drawing you to a pilgrimage between now and Dec. 21, 2012, when the era turns over a new page, you’re not alone.
“Tourism officials in Mexico are expecting a surge of visitors — both foreign and domestic — to the Maya region as the time draws closer,” said Joshua Berman, author of Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize & Honduras.