Travel: South America

South America has sun, scenery and culture, but book now ... the Mayans said the world ends in 2012

In the tourist office on the Plaza Grande in Mérida the staff are confused. What on earth is this foreigner doing, showing them postcards? When I point to the empty box where a stamp should be, their faces erupt in broad, triumphant grins. Yes, that’s where the stamp goes! To make myself clearer, I mime dropping my postcard into a postbox. Their subsequent discussion in lightning fast, heavily inflected Mexican Spanish doesn’t seem to involve giving me directions to a post office, or anywhere else I might buy stamps.

It’s lunchtime in the Palacio de Gobierno, the main civic building in this picturesque colonial town in Mexico’s Yucatán province. Behind us, around the palacio’s open courtyard, are the huge, modernist murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco that depict the cruel suppression of the Maya peoples in the 16th century by invading Conquistadors from Spain (there’s a panel upstairs depicting marauding English privateers too). In the bookshop next door they sell postcards of the murals (but not stamps), as well as cards showing the plaza, marketplace, cathedral, and the many Mayan temples within striking distance of the city, including the world-famous sites at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá. You’d think someone before me would have wanted to send one of these postcards home.

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We’re in the Yucatán partly because it’s about as far from the border with the United States as it’s possible to get. The briefest glimpse at the Foreign Office travel advisory for Mexico is enough to put you off venturing anywhere within trafficking distance of that. To be honest, it could put you off going anywhere in Mexico. Bus hijackings, shootings, kidnappings, armed robberies, dodgy taxis, ATM thieves, pickpockets – the warnings are more immediate than the much-publicised Mayan prediction that the world ends on 21 December this year. Yet here we are in Mérida and the laid-back friendliness of the people is humbling. If their days are running out, they haven’t noticed. Time passes comfortably: in the main square old people chat on benches, while young lovers stroll past, laughing and smooching at any time of day. I’ve never felt safer.

The laid-back sensation is odd, because Mérida has a growing international reputation, not just as a starting point for trips to the Mayan sites but as the cultural hub of the Yucatán. The historical centre is all grand public facades and private colonial mansions, many reborn as boutique hotels. The marketplace is one of the biggest and most colourful in Mexico. The cathedral, founded in 1562, is the oldest in the Americas. The university was founded in 1624; and they say there are more PhDs per capita in Mérida than anywhere else in Mexico.

The town boasts a fine anthropology museum, too – in a palace built at the height of its commercial power in the early 20th century. The museum has a modest section on Mayan ceremonial sculpture but is more interesting for its display case of elongated skulls – the Mayans distorted their babies’ features (the more elongated the head, the higher their status). Most importantly, this is the place to go for an introduction to the sophisticated mathematics behind the Mayan calendar and its prophecies.

We’ve booked the services of a local guide for our trip to the Yucatán. We could have travelled by tourist bus or signed up for day trips from our hotel, but Sammy (real name: Balam Tun, or “Little Stone Jaguar”) is friendly and informative, and it’s a luxury to have his undivided attention. He not only shows us the sites at Uxmal, Kabah, Izamal and, finally, Chichén Itzá but undertakes to find out where the post office is. His credentials for guiding, he tells us, are that he’s Mayan, not Spanish. In reality, today’s Maya have at least a little Spanish blood, but Sammy grew up in the countryside, outside the Catholic tradition, and he tells us how different that felt – as a child he used to help his grandfather, the village shaman, in his healing ceremonies.

Some Mayan traditions have survived, despite the widespread conversion to Catholicism in the 16th century. Plenty has changed, however. An hour and a half’s drive from Mérida, at the deep, creeper-clad limestone pool at Chichén Itzá, where human remains were dredged up by archaeologists in the early 20th century, Sammy puts us straight on the nature of human sacrifice. The victims whose bodies in earlier times were thrown into the water-filled cenote, or sinkhole, were not the young virgins of popular myth but members of the community who could be spared: there was a pragmatic, if brutal, side to the ritual.

Chichén Itzá was the centre of the cult of the snake god, a deity introduced to the Yucatán Maya by invaders from up country. Today it’s the centre of the tourist cult, with the vast site full of stalls and hustlers selling traditional masks and miniature Chac Mools – the iconic, semi-reclining figure with the surprised expression on his face like an awakened sunbather, whose exposed midriff served as a sacrificial altar.

The echo of a hand clap from the side of the great pyramid is supposed to mimic the great quetzal bird of the Toltecs. Well, it’s an impressive squawk. At the autumn solstice the shadow cast by the setting sun makes a snake-like shape across the steps of the pyramid. The god makes his way along the processional route to the sacred pool to drink – the very route taken by the sacrificial victims.

The great stones for the pyramids – expanded with a further layer every 52 years – were rolled for great distances on logs, pulled across the flat terrain by human labour. For all their interest in science and technology, the Maya seem to have dismissed the wheel for any serious purpose. They had ox carts but only in miniature, as children’s toys.

In the year when the world is supposed to end, two other structures at Chichén Itzá give the visitor pause. The ball court seems to have hosted deadly games of Mayan basketball. The ritual involved a player being sacrificed at the final whistle. And then there’s the great observatory, vital for the Mayan study of the stars and their obsessive calculation of the times and the seasons. Were they right? Will the earth stop spinning come December, or will it simply be, as some killjoys have suggested, just the start of a new series of 52-year cycles? We’ll see. What I want to know is, will my postcards have found their way through the Mexican postal system by then?

THE FACTS: Journey Latin America offers tailored packages to Mexico, including Highlights of Mexico, 14 days for £1,301, and Mayan Cities and the Caribbean Coast, nine days for £820. International travel not included.

For more details, tel: 020 8747 8315, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk