Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is home to beautiful beaches, tropical breezes, and one of humanity’s most enduring puzzles — the disappearance of the Maya.
Almost every travel destination on the Gulf of Mexico gives you tropically-warmed surf, sand and climate in abundance. The Yucatan Peninsula, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, is true to that rule.
But the region also gives you a little something extra.
Are you one of those folks who likes to bring a good mystery to read on vacation? Well, when you come down here for a visit, save the page-turner novel for the flight down and back. This region has a mystery of its own for you — a real one, centuries old.
Your first clue is in the area’s touristy nickname — the Riviera Maya.
The name comes from the Mayan people. Their civilization extended from southern Mexico down through most of Central America.
Now, back when I was a grade-school student in the 1960s — you know, prehistoric times? — teachers like to cast people like the Maya as being “primitive.” Well, these folks were anything but that.
Over the centuries, they built incredible cities of stone, hundreds of them, some complete with schools, hospitals, libraries, sports arenas. About the only things missing were freeways and smog.
Just how advanced were the Maya? Well, let’s see. They:
- created an accurate 365-day calendar of their own.
- figured out the mathematical concept of zero about a millennium before Europeans did.
- accurately tracked the sun, moon and planets.
- developed their own writing system, 700 years before the birth of Christ.
- were expert farmers, creating terraced fields that they irrigated.
- Wrote and published thousands — some say tens of thousands — of books. Real books, on paper.
And if none of that is reason enough for you to show the Maya some love, there’s always this: These are the people who invented chocolate.
From about 1800 BC to roughly 800 AD or so, the Maya had it all working.
Then, something happened. Nobody knows exactly what that something is, but everyone knows the results. The Maya abruptly started abandoning their great cities — all of them — and fleeing into the jungle.
By 900 AD, it was over. When the Spanish showed up a few centuries later, what few great Mayan cities they found were overgrown and devoid of human life.
And what of all those thousands of Mayan books printed over the centuries? Only four are known to still exist — and no one alive today can read them.
Scientists from all over the world have tried to figure out the mystery of the Maya. So far, no one has. Decades of research and exploration have yielded a handful of theories, guesses, suppositions. That’s it. That’s all.
So instead of wondering if your car will start in the morning after spending the night under a snowdrift, spend a pleasant week or so on the Riviera Maya. Run your toes through the warm, white beach sand and order another margarita or a Montejo beer while you ponder this question:
Why would a skilled, smart and prosperous people let their entire civilization vanish without a trace?
You can start your investigation in Tulum, just outside the beach town of Playa del Carmen. There, you’ll find the remains of a Mayan city, overlooking the clear, warm waters of the Gulf. Bring your camera. Bring questions. Then head back to Playa del Carmen and form your own theories over a great seafood dinner and drinks on 5th Avenue.
If you don’t solve this mystery on your first visit to the Riviera Maya, no worries. You can always come back. And you should. The great Mayan cities may be long gone, but the beaches and the Montejo will still be here.
Thinking about a visit to the Riviera Maya? We’ve got one for you! Check out the box above.
Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.