Mexico: Apocalypto now!

Mel Gibson's film depicted Mayan culture as savage and brutal. But the modern day reality is far more mysterious.


Mel Gibson has a way with cinematic experiences that talk to our most base sentiments. His film Apocalypto (2006) is testament to this. Anyone who has seen it would think the Mayans were a savage people hell-bent on mayhem.

He uses the decline of the ancient Mayan civilization as the backdrop for 90 minutes of gratuitous violence.

He shows how the ancient rulers of pre-Columbian Maya assuaged their gods by offering human sacrifices on top of their temples and how the tribes ravaged villages and sought to enslave each other. It ends with the arrival of Spanish ships on the horizon that heralded a colonial era for Mexico.

But not a word about how this central American civilization flourished for around 2,000 golden years during which time they built enormous cities, developed precise astrological systems, pyramids and temples that they used as observatories to predict the next solar eclipse. They even developed a calender that started around 3114 BC and which suddenly ended on December 21 2012. Many thought this symbolised the end of the world but perhaps it was just the end of an age spiritually speaking.

These mysterious people were adept at creating cities within lush rainforests and as their civilisation declined and cities abandoned, the jungles grew so much they became hidden beneath lush growth. Two thousands years later, archeologists are uncovering them.

Getting there

Fly: British Airways and Aeromexico fly to Mexico city for around £600 return. From there, pick up a domestic flight with Aeromexico. Flights cost around £100.
Stay: Hotel Plaza Campeche, centrally located in Campeche city. Standard rooms £61 per night,
Chicanna Ecovillage Resort, located in Xpujil. Standard room including breakfast around £61,

As more and more of the jungles were cut back, stepped temples, columns and stone structures began to emerge telling the story through stelae and hieroglyphics, of their ways and customs to anyone willing to visit.

The greatest city was Calakmul, one of the largest Mayan cities ever discovered and home to 50,000. It's inside the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve deep in the Peten jungle. It has been dubbed the Snake Kingdom, thanks to the snake head emblem it adopted.

Time passes quickly when you have 120 or so stelae with their depictions of ornately dressed people and calendar pictographs to look at. But the climb to the top of the pyramid (its only 148ft high making it one of the tallest of all Mayan pyramids) is worth the tears for the views over the rest of this immense site and to be able spot frisky spider monkeys and toucans perching or playing in the tree tops.

Another well-preserved Unesco World Heritage site is Chichen Itza which flourished between 750 to 1200 (it means the mouth of the well of the Itzás), in the Yukatan Peninsula. It has several accolades: it is one of the largest archaeological sites in Mexico and shortlisted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It was also the most important hub of Mayan civilization and is home to the El Castillo (Temple of Kukulkan). This has a special astronomical layout where the play of light forms the shadow of a serpent which descends on the temple during the equinox in March. It is thought to be the embodiment of the Mayan calendar because it has 91 steps on each of the four sides (totalling 364) and a top platform making a total of 365, which matches the days of a solar year.

There's also a ball court where ritual games were held and where losers where killed.

It was abandoned in the 400s and lost to the jungle but they left no records as to why they abandoned their home.

Another is the Edzná Archaeological Zone, discovered in 1907. Between 900 and 1200 AD it grew into a major commercial centre with 200 buildings. Twenty of these have been preserved. The immense size of its great Gran Acropolis is more than one eyeful can take in.

Its structure is so acoustically clever that it forms a whispering gallery allowing softly uttered words to be audible from 460 feet away. Priests and kings could address the people. The five-storey temple pyramid that overlooks the acropolis is 38 metres high.

Another two major finds are Becan whose name means "cliff formed by water" which perhaps reflects a 1.9 km long pit surrounding its main structure and Chicanna meaning House of the Serpent's Mouth.

The latter got its name from a huge mask in the central facade of the structure which represents Itzamna, a godly reptile. The elegance and opulence of the decorations in its structures are the defining reason to visit.

It's all pretty heavy stuff, but there's lots of light relief opportunities. At Chicanna, I took the opportunity to stay at the Chicanna Eco Resort located in the jungle. My home for the night was a bungalow surrounded by tropical plants. Falling asleep was surprisingly easy, even though the backdrop was the sound of birds and other animals that made up the nocturnal hum.

At Eco Adventure site at Miguel Colorado there is the opportunity to zip ride over a quiet lake, hike around it or swim surrounded by outstanding scenic beauty.

The walled city of Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico was the most invaded by pirates. It has a lovely port location and it was within its wall that the Spaniards set up home while the Mayans lived in surrounding neighbourhoods. There are two ways in: Sea Gate and Land Gate which flank the main road, 59th Street, which makes for an interesting walk, passing typically colonial architecture. At Land Gate I followed the sound of song and arrived at Salon Ricon to witness a live band doling out Mexican tunes. Turns out it was featured in Hollywood blockbuster Original Sin with Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie.

Just outside the city walls is the Fort of San Miguel. Once a fortification complete with drawbridge and gunpowder stores, it now contains artefacts and steals found in the Calakmul archeological zone including necklaces of jade, jars and glasses which all speak of a civilised people.

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