Where did they come from? Where did they go, and why did they leave? These are the fundamental questions that have perplexed archeological scholars regarding the Mayan civilizations of Central America.
We booked a trip with Overseas Adventure Travel for February of 2009 to explore the most significant Mayan ruins in four countries: El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. Along the way, we expected to hear many of the theories put forth regarding the sudden disappearance of the Maya.
The Mayan civilization began around 2000 B.C. and flourished for three major periods – pre-classic, classic and post-classic – into the 16th century. During the classic period, sophisticated calendars, advanced numerical systems and several alphabets (glyphs) were developed, comparable to anything the Egyptians and Greeks had.
After flying into San Salvador and visiting a very early and recently discovered Mayan farming village site called Joya de Cerén, we traveled to western Honduras to one of the earliest of the successful Mayan city states, Copán. As with many of the temple complex sites, Copán is still mostly unexcavated, but one can observe many tall jungle-enshrouded mounds that contain long-covered temples.
Leaving Honduras, we traveled into Guatemala where we picked up an armed police escort. The mountainous border regions are rife with bandits, although the local government had recently allocated resources to bring law and order to the region and it does seem to be having a positive effect.
Antigua was our first destination in Guatemala, and we found it a wonderful Spanish colonial town. Here we visited a macadamia nut plantation, hiked the surrounding foothills and distributed school supplies in the nearby village of San Luis Pueblo Nuevo.
After Antigua, we traveled farther west toward the coast and the town of Panajachel, which is on the shores of Lake Atitlan. The lake is 5,000 feet above sea level and is actually the crater of an extinct volcano that last erupted 85 thousand years ago and spewed ash as far away as Canada. It left a crater eleven miles wide by 18 miles long. The lake is more than 1,000 feet deep, which makes it the deepest lake in the western hemisphere.
Several active volcanoes are near the lake and we observed spewing smoke and ash on a daily basis. It was here that we had an exhilarating zip-line experience, as we speed-glided on a cable above the jungle canopy from the top of a mountain down to the lake shore.
Of particular interest in this area were the many villages surrounding Lake Atitlan that consisted of peoples of Mayan descent. Maybe this is one of the places the ancient Maya populated after abandoning their city states farther east. Fabric weaving is an important industry the villages and each had its own distinct pattern and color of fabric.
Next we took a bus to Guatemala City and then boarded a plane to Flores, which is close to the Mayan city state of Tikal. Tikal has been studied and excavated since 1924 and is one of the most visited Mayan sites. According to the interpretation of the glyphs, Tikal and Copán were major rivals during the classic period and when a captured Copán king was sacrificed in Tikal, Copán started its precipitous downfall.
We then crossed the Guatemalan border into Belize to visit the last of the great city states on our tour, Lamanai, which in the Mayan language means “submerged crocodile.” Lamanai was one of the last Mayan cities to be abandoned and is currently only about 5 percent excavated, so has yet to yield many of its secrets.
One of the prominent theories purported about why the Maya left their cities, is that a prolonged drought caused famine and led to political unrest and finally the complete dispersal of the populations so they could better fend for themselves in smaller living units.
Because Lamanai resides alongside a major river and a deep lake, the effects of a long drought might not have been as catastrophic, allowing the people of Lamanai to remain in their city longer than in the other city states.
Whatever the reasons for the demise of the Mayan civilization, answers are still being put forth as more excavations are accomplished and new glyphs are deciphered.
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