When Mel Gibson created and directed the movie Apocalypto in 2006 he wanted to bring to the big screen the story of the Maya civilization and how it came to fall. Along with his team he traveled far and wide throughout Mexico and Central America, visiting many of the Maya ruins in the Yucatan peninsula and beyond in order to best understand how people lived in that era and how such a mighty culture allowed itself to fall from greatness.
The movie depicts a society that displayed both ingenuity and brutality. The building skills and medical knowledge of the Maya were highly advanced, though after their fall did not really progress until after the European conquest. The use of human sacrifices and ritual killings on the other hand betrays a culture where life could be cut short at any moment; even the ball game resulted in the loser often being sacrificed.
Mayan Ruins, Up Close
Gibson went to great lengths in his search for authenticity and he would no doubt have been helped by the huge mass of research that has been carried out in trying to unearth the Maya’s secrets. As visitors to this region we can learn about the lives of the Maya in a surprisingly accessible way at any of the major sites. In the Yucatan peninsula, for example, visitors can explore the ruins at Chichen Itza or Tulum and see first hand how the society built its living quarters and places of social importance such as ball courts and temples.
Interpretative displays and on-site museums provide valuable insights into the lives of the residents of these ancient cities at the time of their greatest influence, while selected archaeological findings allow visitors to see the utensils and decorations that were used over a thousand years ago.
Both Tulum and Chichen Itza are easily accessible from the main coastal resorts, with Tulum lying on the eastern Yucatan coast just south of Playa del Carmen and Chichen Itza about an hour inland of this. Both can be seen in a very rushed day but to give them the time they deserve and to allow ample opportunity to explore these very different sites, a day at each is highly recommended.
Watching the movie Apocalypto before heading to Mexico to visit these Maya sites will add depth to your experience. Watch the movie after your visit and you might question some of Gibson’s direction!
Photo | Andy Jarosz