Yucatan — one of Mexico's safest spots — is full of Maya lore and wonder
That peace of mind gave me the luxury of more daydreaming about the Mayas, who drew water from cenotes and sculpted their gods into decorative patterns on buildings. The Maya created a written language and left scores of manuscripts, most of which the Spanish burned. They devised epic ballgames that sometimes ended with the ritual sacrifice of a player. Aristocrats wore jade inlays in their teeth.
Their empire included the neighboring states of Campeche, Chiapas and Quintana Roo, along with parts of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Yet, centuries before the Spanish conquistadors got anywhere near here, their empire collapsed and the people scattered to small agricultural settlements.
As a result, few outsiders paid much attention to the Maya until the late 1830s and early 1840s, when explorers such as John L. Stephens and artist Frederick Catherwood spent long expeditions describing and sketching vine-strangled structures throughout the peninsula. Since then, Maya imagery has compelled all sorts of artists and designers, including Frank Lloyd Wright, who drew inspiration from Uxmal; Mel Gibson, who directed the movie "Apocalypto" in 2006; and the makers of the 2009 disaster film "2012." (For a more factual visual take on the contemporary Maya, check out the black-and-white photographs of Macduff Everton in 2012's "The Modern Maya" or the super-saturated color shots of Jeffrey Becom in "Maya Color," published in 1997.)
So why did the Maya fall? Deforestation, drought and wars against neighbors have been blamed. In his 2005 best-seller "Collapse," University of California, Los Angeles geography professor Jared Diamond cites "kings who sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, covered with thicker and thicker plaster — reminiscent in turn of the extravagant conspicuous consumption by modern American CEOs."
Before things went south, the Maya astronomers calculated a long-term calendar and forecast that a 5,125-year era in human history would come to an end Dec. 21, 2012.
And then? Like so many fortunetellers and economists before and since, the Maya were vague on details.
For the 21st century doomsday industry, of course, this was perfect. Now we have books, movies, souvenirs and T-shirts tied to Dec. 21. Even though almost nobody believes it, the idea of extinction evidently sells. Mayaland Resorts was charging less than $200 a night at its lodges at Uxmal and Chichen Itza in May, but this December, the rates will reach $1,000 a night and beyond.
On my last full day in the country, I finally got to Chichen Itza, where the 12/21/12 hucksterism is at its most intense.
It was about 9 a.m. when I stepped up, well-ahead of the crowds, and paid separate entrance fees to the state and federal agencies eager to get their cut.
While I roamed, hundreds of vendors were setting up throughout the archaeological zone, playing radios, making faux jaguar roars on little ceramic kazoos and peddling shirts, hats, carvings, calendars, hammocks, dresses, jade jaguars, Cuban cigars and enough refrigerator magnets to drag Iron Man to his knees. Much of the merchandise was doomsday-based.
Guides told me they expected about 2,500 visitors on the day I was there, compared with 8,000 on busy days in December. About 40,000 came for this year's spring equinox, one guide told me, and many are hoping for 80,000 on Dec. 21.
The site's marquee attraction is the restored Temple of Kukulcan (aka El Castillo), and it's a sight to behold, a four-sided pyramid guarded by feathered serpents. In 2000 I climbed it, along with a few thousand others that day. But now you can't.
Local guides say climbing has been banned since Adeline Black, an 80-year-old visitor from San Diego, suffered a fatal fall while ascending the ruin in January 2006.
You also can't swim in Chichen Itza's Sacred Cenote. But as you stand at its lip and look down, remember that just last year scientists found bones here of six apparent human-sacrifice victims. Two were children. Estimated time of death: between 850 and 1250 AD.
So was it a perfect trip? Oh, no.
Merida's traffic drove me nuts and gave me plenty of time to scrawl "miserable city driving torture" in my notebook while creeping along at 2 mph. For the carless, the city's 16th century cathedral, its plaza loud with bird song, and the poc-chuc (grilled pork with citrus juice) at La Chaya Maya on Calle 62 are good fun. But if I had this trip to do again, I'd give Merida just one night.
I'd sleep instead in the countryside, perhaps at the Pickled Onion, a restaurant and B&B in Santa Elena (near Uxmal) that's run by an English expat named Valerie Pickles, or perhaps at one of the big hotels at Uxmal so I could walk to the ruins.
I'd also spend a few more nights in Valladolid, which has twice the charm and about 8 percent of the population of Merida. The Hotel El Meson del Marques on the plaza charges about $60 a night, and I had the most elegant meal of my visit at Taberna de los Frailes, a short walk away. While I ate, songs of worship seeped into the night from the neighboring Ex-Convento de San Bernardino de Siena.
For the record, I predict an uneventful Dec. 21. But if you get to Yucatan and you're lucky, the Maya past, present and future may flash before your eyes.
Mexico tourism: www.visitmexico.com.
Yucatán tourism: www.yucatan.travel/en.
Mérida tourism: www.merida.gob.mx/turismo/index_in.htm