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Explore the Mayan Past

Historians and archaeologists have only lately begun to appreciate the accomplishments of the Mayan people. From the third to the twelfth centuries, the Mayans developed one of the world's great ancient civilizations. Their influence extended from what is today central Mexico all the way down to Honduras. Many of their advances in mathematics and astronomy were unmatched at the time in the Old World.

The Mayans were ultimately eclipsed by other Mesoamerican societies and decimated by the Spanish conquest. However, neither the Mayans nor their culture disappeared. On the contrary, the Mayan peoples have experienced a cultural revival in southern Mexico and Guatemala in recent decades. Mayan languages, cuisine, dress, and traditions are again being celebrated in the region and shared with the outside world.

Mayan Ruins at Chichen Itza The revival has extended into tourism as well. There are more than 50 major Mayan archaeological sites, mostly centered in the Yucatan Peninsula. The most well-known sites, such as Chichen Itza and Tulum in Mexico, as well as Tikal in Guatemala, host tens of thousands of tourists each year. Perhaps more fascinating, however, are remote Mayan ruins off the beaten track. In addition, many native Mayans now serve as tour guides and hold other positions in the tourism industry. The insights they bring into Mayan customs and folklore provide a glimpse into an ancient world.

Visitors to any Mayan site will come away impressed by the engineering and artistry involved in constructing the pyramids, temples, and other examples of Mayan architecture. Equally impressive are the enormous challenges facing the field of Mayan archaeology.

Why Mayan civilization declined remains largely a mystery. What is not in doubt, however, is that many Mayan archaeological treasures were completely overtaken by the dense jungle of the region. Each site has required years of hard, painstaking work to excavate. Even casual observers can spot large mounds in the Yucatan that most likely mark the location of Mayan pyramids that have yet to be unearthed. Slowly but surely, the remarkable Mayan past is being revealed.

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