The Massiwas or “People of the Corn” are the people of Mesoamerica we commonly refer to as the Maya – a term these people do not apply to themselves. Interestingly, “Maya” in sanskrit means “illusion,” an apt description for an ancient civilization controlled by an elite group of kings, nobles and priests who employed theatrics and fear. The top caste of the ancient Maya directed the clearing of vast expanses of jungle to build gaudy impressive temples and sprawling cities, exacerbating drought conditions and ultimately leading to their failure as a civilization.
In addition to committing sacrifices atop temples to appease the gods and keep the citizens at bay, the Maya frequently used caves to make offerings and sacrifices as well. The cave was seen as the physical entrance to the underworld, Xibalba, the place the gods reside. We’ve been fortunate to have been able to experience many sites of the ancient Massiwas, the temples above and the caves below. Here are some of our favorites.
Altun Ha, Belize
You may recognize the primary structure, the Temple of the Masonry Altars from the beer bottles littering Belizian recycling bins. The tiny 10 oz. beers aren’t nearly as satisfying as the site.
In addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this beautiful ancient city boasts some of the best Spanish language immersion courses in the world. This contributes to a multicultural mix in Antigua’s lively bars like our favorite, Cafe No Se. Enjoy walking among Maya in traditional dress and hit Kafka for a daily opportunity to enjoy coffee while the nearby Volcán de Fuego or “Volcano of Fire” spouts off. A great place to end a jaunt to Tikal.
Cahol Pech, Belize
This site is easily accessed, sitting atop a hill in San Ignacio – a great home-base for excursions into the many ruins of the region. Cahol Pech is a very old site, with first occupation dated to 1200BC. Reportedly this site was an extravagant dwelling for elite Maya families. Fitting that Cahol Pech literally means, “place of ticks.”
Once an ancient foe of Tikal, Caracol was one of the most important political centers during the Maya classic period from approximately 650-950AD, with initial occupation dating to 1200BC. The name Caracol means “snail” in Spanish, apparently derived from the fact that early excavations at the site found it heavily populated with snails.
Today you just have to keep an eye out for tree vipers and the aggressive and venomous Fer-de-lance (French for “spearhead”), the latter of which is rumored to chase people. Thankfully there are often dogs on site to provide some forewarning. Bonus: If you decide to visit, you get to drive through an active British Special Forces training camp. Our guide neglected to tell us this and we both froze when we turned the corner into a division of soldiers lying on the road in front of us with machine guns pointed in our direction. What fun. Double Bonus: You may get to see Jaguars in the wild. On our first trip to Caracol we saw two Jaguars, a mother and child cross the dirt road in front of us.
Che Chem Ha, Belize
This incredible cave sits on private property and is much less visited than other sites. It also has more antiquities, littered with pottery offerings made long ago. The most difficult decision to make when hitting caves is footwear, and we’ve gone through ’em all. Between guano, mud, scorpion spiders, steep drops and solid stone, caves are always a challenge. But well worth it! Caves are considered the entrance to Xibalba, the Maya underworld where the gods reside. They are sacred and are to be entered with care and respect for the hundreds and in some cases thousands of years of ceremony and ritual they’ve hosted. Speaking of ceremony, there is an enormous chamber in the end of Che Chem Ha with a central altar where they must’ve held some pretty intense ritual.
We were fortunate to have been able to enter Che Chem Ha to make an offering the morning after we enjoyed an evening with Hurricane Richard. Making an offering the morning after a natural disaster event is just what the ancient ones would’ve done, although they didn’t have the benefit of the hurricane-worthy elixir we whipped up with local rum, the Windy Dick. If you decide to hit Che Chem Ha, stay to enjoy the company of howler monkeys through lunch. And please tell William we said hello.
Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico
One of the most well-know of all Maya sites, it’s architecture has definite Toltec influence. Chichen Itza is defined in Maya as “At the mouth of the well of the Itza people.” This could be a physical reference to the enormous cenote on site from which many items and skeletal remains have been reclaimed, or it could be more symbolic. Itza means “enchanter of water,” a reference to sorcery. The people who occupied this site actively participated in human sacrifice to the rain god Chaac. They were also involved with what appears to be a mystery school of sorts, with images of “goggles” and representations of the third eye almost as prominent as serpents and jaguars.
Most people are familiar with the Temple of Kukulkahn, or “Castillo” as the culture-careless Spaniards referred to it. This structure not only shows the shadow of the great serpent god during solstice events, if you clap your hands repeatedly at the base of the steps you will hear the call of the revered Quetzal bird. Definitely a must-see, try to go off-season or beat the tour busses early in the morning. This is a huge site that is easily accessed and very popular. It is also on private land, and the owner has chosen to allow vendors to dominate the walkways.
Coba, Yucatan, Mexico
Coba was a very important Maya site in the classic period from about 600AD to 900AD, enjoying a healthy existence through drought years due to its prime agricultural location on two lagoons. This location may be responsible for Coba’s name, which means “waters stirred by wind.” With a population estimated near 50,000 people, Coba eventually fell to Chichen Itza around 900AD.
Nohoch Mul, Coba’s primary pyramid stands 137 feet high and is the tallest found in the Yucatan Peninsula to date. As of our last visit you could still climb it. Coba’s structure shows influence from Teotihuacan, indicating contact and exchange. The longest of Coba’s 50 sacred white roads, or Sacbes runs 62 miles to Yaxuna, a site near Chichen Itza.
Copan is an incredible site in Honduras that is unique for its 3-dimensional artwork, carved into pillars and staircase. Apparently, the people of ancient Copan sacrificed so many adult jaguars to appease the gods, they began to run out – and had to sacrifice baby jaguars instead.
Ek Balam, Yucatan, Mexico
This lesser-known and lesser-visited site is one of the most incredible we’ve seen, which is why we’ve hit it several times. In addition to hosting the largest single Maya structure found to date in the Acropolis, this site boasts and incredible Jaguar Throne with artwork the likes of which we have never seen elsewhere. The plaster work alone is incredible, but as you begin to study the faces of the so-called “angels” adorning the top of the throne you begin to wonder why these faces do not look Maya.
Yet another curveball is thrown in the odd hieroglyphic figures we see on the doorway into the Jaguar Throne. These look quite Egyptian, though the mudras are nothing new to any culture. This is the only site I’ve seen with so many representations suggesting contact with disparate cultures.
This site isn’t far at all from Chichen Itza and Coba, and is near the wonderful city of Valladolid, a great place to stay. You could also stay with our friend Leigh at her Eco-Resort right there in Ek Balam, and hit the village locals up for a hammock. Incidentally, the hammocks made by the Maya villagers here are considered the best in the world, and boy are they beautiful.
Isla Holbox, Yucatan, Mexico
OK – so this isn’t a Maya ruin site, but it has a Maya name and Maya history. In maya language the “x” is pronounced “sh,” so Holbox is pronounced “Hole-Boshe.” This is an amazing place to stop for a few days and enjoy some rest after hoofing through the region’s ruins, accessible by ferry or private boat only. We hesitate to post this, as this is a great, little-known area on the Caribbean that hasn’t been spoiled by inclusive resorts and Cancun-style American crap. People walk and drive golf carts on the island, there are no cars.
The inexpensive hotelitos on Holbox are operated by European and South American ex-patriots, and the food is unreal – fresh seafood daily, including the mouth-watering lobster pizza. We hung out next to a couple that would put out 1 table daily in the sand outside their home overlooking the Caribbean and serve whatever they caught that morning. If you dig Ceviche, this is heaven. This is also a great place to go swim with the shale sharks, which was absolutely amazing.
Tak’alik Ab’aj, Guatemala
This interesting site has both Olmec and Maya features, suggesting it as a place where ideology was exchanged. First inhabited around 1000BC, Maya culture began to flourish here around 400BC. Tak’alik Ab’aj means “standing stone” in the K’iche Maya language. Anthropologist Ruud Van Akkeren proposed that this site’s ancient name was Kooja (“Moon Halo”), the name of one of the highest-ranking elite lineages of the Mam Maya.
Just outside Mexico City, Tenochtitlan, lies this famous and impressive ruin. Teotihucan means, “the place men become gods.” It was first inhabited around 300BC, and grew to a population of more than 125,000 at its apex. Though not a Maya site, the Pyramids of the Sun, Moon and Quetzalcoatl align with the belt stars of Orion like the early Maya triadic structures.
Many different cultures inhabited Teotihucan including the Maya, but those who constructed it remain a mystery. Some anthropologists claim it was built by the Totonac or Toltec people. The Nahuatl ancestors of the people of Teotihucan claim it was constructed by giants called the “Quitzimenin.” Interesting that we find giant skeletons underneath pyramidal earthen mounds throughout the United States.
Tikal is probably our favorite site to date, if not for the unique and impressive vertical temples, for the dense fauna-filled jungle that these structures pop out of. Howler monkeys, spider monkeys, terrapins, tropical birds – they’re all there adding to the experience of walking through these incredible structures. While we haven’t seen a Quetzal yet, we swear we heard one calling as we strolled the jungle on our last trip.
El Tepozteco, Mexico
Located in the beautiful Cuernavaca region Southwest of Mexico City, this little temple is worth the vertical hike. This small temple is dedicated to the Aztec god of the alcoholic agave beverage pulque, Tepoztecatl. Little is know about when the site was constructed, but the view of Tepoztlan below is great – as is the celebratory glass of pulque upon descent.
Tulum, Yucatan, Mexico
Tulum is a unique Maya site in that it sits right on the Caribbean, enjoying a nice breeze and great view. For this reason and the fact that Tulum is just South of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, this place gets a ton of tour bus action. Get there early and beat the busses that arrive by 10am and you can usually get an hour or two of near solitude.
Sadly our favorite haunt El Crucero is no longer here, swallowed up by the big hoteliers no doubt due to its location right at the entrance road to the ruins. While you won’t miss the racist banter of the local Aussie tour provider contingent, you will miss the best chicken Mole ever cooked – slowly and deliberately overnight by mother and daughter. We will miss you El Crucero!
Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico
One of the last strongholds of the Maya against the Spanish onslaught, Valladolid still has a very traditional flavor. The Catholic church in town is built on the stones taken from local Maya sites, a classic Catholic tool used in wiping out the beliefs of the people they were assimilating. The food is amazing and the town is beautiful, especially Ave 41A.
If you choose to stay here be aware that it can rain like nobody’s business at the drop of a dime. We’re talking deluge here, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why the gutters are so big. Don’t forget to grab a drink at dusk to see the birds hit the park in the Zocalo, very cool.
Just outside San Ignacio near the Guatemala border lies the ancient Maya ceremonial site of Xunantunich, which means “stone woman.” This name was given to the site by locals who kept seeing the ghost of a woman in white entering El Castillo, the main pyramid. The area was initially inhabited around 400BC, though Xunantunich didn’t take off as a ceremonial center until around 600AD.
To get there, head South out of San Ignacio to San Jose Succotz near the Guatemala Border. Catch a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan river and head up the hill to see the ruins. Don’t forget to stop at Benny’s for a dose of Gibnut, the “royal rat.” It’s tasty.