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The Maya Ruins of the Yucatan

The Maya people have an uncanny ability to endure. A dominant civilization in world history, the ancient Mayas thrived in Central and South America from 2000 BC until 1500 AD, withstanding plagues and enemy hordes, climatic devastations and internal strife like no other. They still are enduring, with 6 million living today, many of whom still speak the Mayan language.

The image of the great Maya civilization that has endured the strongest is that of the great ruins. During their Classical Period, which lasted from the third to ninth century AD, Mayas built awe-inspiring temples, pyramids that sought the clouds and cities that guarded rain forests and beaches. Sometimes brimming with more than 60,000 people, these cities were the spiritual focal point to an extensive society of farmers, priests and kings.

The buildings highlight the Mayas' early mastery of calendars and time. Skilled engineers erected temples and monuments aligned with the sun, moon and stars. Of these structures, temple-pyramids were the most striking. Towering over the trees and surrounding structures, these stepped pyramids swelled skyward with stone and toil, becoming manmade mountains that Mayas climbed to be closer to the gods.

To get closer to the heart of the Maya civilization, travel agents will tell you to head straight to the Yucatan Peninsula. Travel agents strive to provide the ultimate vacation experience, and the Yucatan provides many opportunities for families. You can stay at a sparkling resort along the Mayan Riviera, Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and then visit one of the three nearby Maya ruins during exciting day-trips. Beach, sun and exceptional trekking around the fabled ruins—that's a vacation of a lifetime your kids will never forget.

The first of the three major sites of the Yucatan Peninsula is Chichen Itza, the best known, best restored and arguably most impressive Maya ruin. The massive remains portray a balance of ritual, religion, royalty and recreation that defined the Mayas for centuries. The stone carvings are well preserved, especially the chacmools, statues depicting the rain god reclining on its back with its legs drawn up and its hands holding a bowl on its belly.

Chichen Itza's most dramatic structure is the 75-ft pyramid-shaped Temple of Kukulkan, known as El Castillo. This precise astronomical and religious tool has 91 steps on each of four sides, so that the total number of steps, including the uppermost platform, equals 365 which is the number of days in the solar year. During the spring and fall equinoxes, the shadow cast by the edge of the pyramid falls precisely along the balustrade, creating the image of a giant serpent with a large stone sculpture at the base of the steps as its head.

Once you bravely summit El Castillo, you'll be handsomely rewarded with great views of the city and the surrounding jungle. You'll spot the Temple of the Warriors, protected by a forest of stone columns, a large Ball Court, the Sacred Well, where sacrifices were made, the Nunnery and the Platform of the Jaguars and Eagles.

Further to east near the town of Merida rises from the jungle the ruins of Uxmal, rated by many archaeologists as the finest. Upon entering the grounds, you will encounter the Pyramid of the Magician, a 117-foot high structure created from five superimposed temples. According to local legend, it was built by a powerful dwarf magician who was ordered to erect this temple within a night or else lose his life. Luckily he did, for this magnificent structure is a feast for the eyes and a magnetic force for the camera.

Uxmal will make your camera happy, but Tulum will make it explode with pictorial bliss, for its location overlooking the Caribbean shores makes picture taking a delight. Even though the site is small you can cover it twice in two hours, the nearby beaches and Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and prime hiking ground for those who want to experience jungle wildlife living amidst pristine rain forest, will gladly accept your free time.

Exquisitely poised on the 15-meter high cliffs above the Caribbean, Tulum sticks in your memory like no other. Architectural highlights include El Castillo, the tallest structure with columns decorated with plumed serpents and perfect views of the beach below; the Temple of the Frescoes, where fragments of color can still be seen on the murals depicting Maya life; and the Temple of the Descending God, decorated with stucco relief figures of a bee-like god, showing the importance of honey to the Mayas.

The Maya ruins are precious to travelers of all ages, essential to understanding the heritage of the Americas and utterly unforgettable; so don't ruin your next vacation with shoddy planning. Let a trusted travel agent set up your itinerary so you and your family can maximize on sights, sun and relaxation. Travel agents know how to get you to the ruins early before the crowds and the heat arrive, which nearby towns make great overnight stops and which tours from Cancun or Playa del Carmen are the most respected.

Get your children excited about history by exploring the Maya ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula. Click here to find a trusted travel agent in your area and start planning today!