The first millennium A.D. is hardly known as the Age of Enlightenment. Unless, of course, you're describing the Maya of Mesoamerica. The great Mayan civilization excelled in mathematics, astronomy, architecture and astrology. While Europe was still groping its way through the Dark Ages, the Maya were building enormous cities, developing a complex calendar, world view and religion, predicting eclipses and sipping the first chocolate.
They've also endured. Descendants of the Maya are still with us, speaking Mayan dialects and observing ancient traditions. And great Mayan monuments continue to attract visitors to the Mayan world today.
In the early nineteen nineties, five countries with a rich Mayan heritage formed the Mundo Maya Organization. They hoped to tap into increased interest in all things Maya, which was developing due to the much-publicized "re-set" of the Mayan Long Count calendar at the end of 2012.
It's an impressive collaboration. As a group, the five Mundo Maya countries ... Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador ... preside over a veritable Mayan treasure trove. Their combined territory of more than 125,000 square miles includes hundreds of archaeological sites, zones and Maya towns and villages.
UNESCO has designated 17 locations in the Mundo Maya as World Heritage Sites. Most of the premiere Mayan sites are located in National Parks. Ongoing explorations and "digs" frequently reveal important new discoveries. So, the list of A-level attractions continues to grow.
The Mundo Maya presents opportunities for clients interested in culture, history and archaeology. The terrain of the Mayan world is like none other. It includes dense jungles filled with unique flora and fauna; arid regions floating on underground rivers;,volcanoes; dramatic canyons; swamps; beaches and sacred sinkholes called cenotes. The largest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere gives the region one of the world's top diving spots.
Since forming the Mundo Maya Organizations, each of the member countries has worked on infrastructure improvements, marketing campaigns and outreach to attract more tourists. Major tour operators and specialty providers offer programs appealing to everyone from the eco-tourist to the luxury traveler (and both in some cases).
Here's an overview of some of the top sites.
Mexico's Mayan heritage spans the five states of Campeche, Chiapas, Tabasco, Quintana Roo and Yucatan. Many of its Mayan archaeological sites are well-established tourist attractions. Among them are Chichen Itza , Uxmal and Tulum in the Yucatan. But, the buzz surrounding the Mayan calendar has focused attention on some lesser-known, but intriguing sites in the Yucatan and neighboring states. They include Coba, Calakmul, Palenque, Edzna and Dzibilchaltùn.
More modern-day Maya reside in Guatemala than in any other country. It's a distinction Guatemalans boast about The country has many exceptional landmarks from the once-great civilization. They include Tikal, the largest city built by the Maya. Known for its impressive pyramids, temples and acropolis, Tikal has long been one of the country's most-visited attractions.
The "crystal skull" legend of Indiana Jones fame had its origins in the Mayan ruins of Belize. Though not as well-known as their counterparts in Mexico or Guatemala, the Mayan ruins of Belize hold a distinctive appeal. Prominent sites include Cahal Pech, Caracol, Altun Ha and Lamanai. Belize, formerly British Honduras, is the only native English-speaking country in the Mayan world.
Near the Guatemalan border in western Honduras lies Copan. Dubbed the "Athens of the Mayan world," this archaeological site was an important ancient Mayan capital. Today, the site attracts visitors to its elaborate monuments and writings carved in stone. A vibrant community of Mayan descendants lives in the surrounding area.
The smallest country in Central America features a Mayan site with an unusual history: Joya de Ceren. Buried under volcanic ash in the 7th century, it's known as the "Pompeii of the Americas." In addition to well-preserved structures, the site has also revealed numerous botanical discoveries. The nearby San Andres Archaeological Site and the ruins of Tazumal are also major Maya must-sees.