The history of the Mayans in Mexico

In 2000 BCE Mayan people began farming the fertile volcanic landscapes of southeastern Mexico and northern Central America. Over some 1,500 years, these agricultural villages developed into mighty cities, as temples and monuments to the gods of life and death rose up in southern lowlands and the Sierra Madre highlands. Huge stone structures stood tall, carved with elaborate designs and symbols, displaying the Mayans’ sophisticated understanding of astronomy, architecture and mathematics. Steep, stepped pyramids were centrepieces in public plazas where sturdy stone columns, covered in glyphs, recounted the origins of cities that had grown so significantly that they were more akin to states or kingdoms.
The surrounding rainforests of the Yucatán Peninsula provided migrating Mayans with protection and natural resources. The limestone here was easily quarried, and used in the creation of temples and pyramids as well as tools and ceremonial objects. Gold, obsidian and jade were highly prized and used to decorate ornamental pottery and items used in sacrificial rituals. Southeast Mexico became the centre of Mayan civilisation.

As always, all good things must come to an end and unfortunately – long before the arrival of the conquistadors – warfare, widespread disease and natural disasters had already begun to ring the death knell for the Mayans. What was left of their once mighty empire was destroyed by the Spanish in 1524.

Where are Mexico’s Mayan archeological sites?

The Yucatán Peninsula is a vast jut of limestone that divides the Caribbean from the Gulf of Mexico. The northeastern capital, Mérida, is close to many of the Mayan sites in this region, and easily accessed overland or via domestic flights from Mexico City.

Chichén Itzá

The 30m-high pyramid of El Castillo provides the centrepiece for the Mayan site of Chichén Itzá. Other notable buildings include the Grand Ball Court (the largest of its kind), the Temple of the Warriors and the crumbling El Caracol observatory. Situated 200km from Cancún and 120km southeast of Mérida, Chichén Itzá is easily accessible and this means it can get busy. Best advice is to visit from November to March before the heat and crowds of summer and spring break.

Riviera Maya

South of Cancún, along the Riviera Maya, the archeological sites of Cobá and Tulum are also well worth a visit. The 130 steps to the top of Cobá’s Nohoch Mul Pyramid provide premier tree top views over the vast swathes of the Yucatán.

Palenque

In the state of Chiapas, the walled citadel of Palenque has been partially recovered from the surrounding jungle to reveal an exciting series of step pyramids and skull-embossed tombs. Elaborately carved temples sit atop the pyramids either side of a palatial complex containing sculptures, courtyards and a four-storey observation tower. There are also the remains of a city wall, ball courts and an underground aqueduct; however, it's the hieroglyphs, inscriptions and bas relief carvings that often prove the most fascinating.

Toniná is often visited in conjunction with Palenque. This Mayan site’s terraced acropolis is particularly impressive and depicts scenes of decapitation of local rivals from Palenque.

Uxmal

Uxmal is a quintessential example of the Mayan architectural style which was used throughout the Puuc (hill) region of the Yucatán Peninsula. Just 60km south of Mérida, Uxmal would have once been connected to other cities by elevated paved roads (sacbes), such as Chichén Itzá and Palenque. These days, it’s on the Ruta Puuc from Mérida, which connects with the smaller sites of Labna, Kabah, Sayil and Xlapak. The lengthy façade on the Governor's Palace and the Mayan folklore tales swirling around the Pyramid of the Magician, are just a couple of reasons why Uxmal is one of Mexico's most important archaeological sites.

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The history of the Aztecs in Mexico

The Aztecs rose to power in the central regions of Mexico just as the Mayan Empire was beginning to crumble, beginning around 1300 AD. The three main Aztec cities of Tenochtitlán, Texcoco and Tlacopan were consolidated into the Aztec Empire in the 15th century, and they ruled here until the Spanish conquest in 1521.

Occupying the highland valleys, lakes and plateau of central Mexico, the Aztecs made good use of the excellent farming conditions, which included the surrounding waterways. They built aqueducts, canals and water storage facilities, used for the irrigation of fields and terraced farmlands. Central to the Aztec world was the Valley of Mexico, a huge, high-elevation basin in the Sierra Madre Mountains. The most important city state of Tenochtitlán, and the smaller sister city of Tlatelolco, were founded in this region, on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco.
The Aztec Empire thrived from the 13th century and armies of warriors pushed into neighbouring territories including those abandoned by the Mayans. However, it wasn’t all war and bloodshed. There was lots of trade between the Aztecs and the Mayans, and merchants were considered very important members of both societies.

Aztec architecture was extremely innovative and rather than destroying a preexisting structure they tended to build over the top of it. Anything up to four of five layers was often added to temples. Craftsmanship and architectural skills were highly regarded and pyramids were thought to have been built to resemble the surrounding mountains of the Sierra Madre.

From 1519 to 1521, however, the Spanish attacked, massacred and finally conquered the Aztec Empire. Lake Texcoco, which provided water to the surrounding farms, was drained to prevent flooding and disease. Catholic churches were built over the top of ancient Aztec temples, and Tenochtitlán was renamed and gradually expanded into the most inhabited city in the Americas: Mexico City.

Examples of Aztec archaeology
in Mexico

Mexico City

Mexico City’s Templo Mayor was only unearthed during excavations in the late 1970s, and its twin temples to the Aztec gods of rain (Tlaloc) and war (Huitzilopochtli) are one of the most popular sites within the city's UNESCO-listed historic centre. Templo Mayor Museum displays an abundance of Aztec artifacts including objects used for rituals in human sacrifice. Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology is also an excellent means of learning more about Aztec culture with exhibits including Aztec calendars and giant stone heads.

Teotihuacán

The magnificent multi-ethnic city of Teotihuacán was one of the largest on earth and is now one of the world’s most impressive archeological sites. After being abandoned by its original imhabitants, Teotihuacán was taken by the Aztecs and turned into a centre for sacrifice, politics and religion. Situated 50km north of Mexico City, Teotihuacán provides unique insight into the beliefs of the Aztecs, and structures here include the Pyramid of the Sun – the third largest pyramid on the planet – and the equally impressive Pyramid of the Moon. The imposing Avenue of the Dead runs for 4km, passing between the pyramids and leading visitors to everything from museums and ongoing archeological digs to the Temple of the Feathered Serpent and the Palace of Quetzalpapálotl.

How to see Aztec & Mayan
sites in Mexico

Small group tours

Small group tours visit many of Mexico’s most important Mayan and Aztec sites as part of a cultural itinerary. They may also continue into Belize and Guatemala to explore more archaeological sites, or give you time to relax on Mexico’s Caribbean beaches. You’ll be travelling overland and with domestic flights. Small groups typically have up to 20 travellers, plus a tour leader and local guides who join you at each site. Solo travellers are welcome at no extra cost; there is a supplement if you’d like your own room.

Tailor made tours

A tailor made tour of Mexico puts you in charge of how long you’d like to spend at each location, including archeological sites. Local representatives are on hand to greet you and show you around and guides will explain more about the history of each area. Tailoring a tour allows you to take time out on the coast as well as explore Aztec and Mayan heartlands and meet indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec people in Oaxaca, for example. Internal flights and private vehicle transfers can both be included and you can visit as many, or as few, archeological sites as you wish.

Self drive holidays

This type of tour is ideal for anyone who would like to explore Mexico at their own pace, with hire cars available from Cancún airport. Route notes, accommodation and local information are included. Archaeological excursions are typically organised as part of a small group; you’ll be collected from your accommodation and driven to the site for a guided tour.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: DEZALB] [The history of the Mayans in Mexico: Popo le Chien] [Riviera Maya: Pascal] [The history of the Aztecs in Mexico: Justin Ennis] [Mexico City: Antoine Hubert] [Tailor made tours: Sam valadi]
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