Some three thousand years ago, nomadic tribes began to settle deep in the Mesoamerican rainforests, establishing the foundations of the most sophisticated ancient civilization on the American continent. The land they chose, the Maya World, today extends through southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and a sliver of El Salvador and Honduras. It's an astonishingly diverse environment, with the flat, arid plateau of the Yucatn peninsula in the north blending gradually into the lowland jungle of the centre, and in the south a spectacular mountainous region, studded with volcanoes and crater lakes and draped with pine and cloudforests. While the southern coastline is pounded by the Pacific Ocean, gentler Caribbean waters lap the white-sand beaches and coral islands that fringe the region's eastern shores.
This is a land whose natural attractions would draw visitors anyway - and indeed the Caribbean coast of Mexico, and to a lesser extent the cayes of Belize and Honduras's Bay Islands, are big resort areas - but it's the chance to visit the monumental ruins of ancient Maya cities, some of them stranded in dense, tropical rainforest, that sets the region apart. Tikal and Palenque are among the most atmospheric sites, dominated by colossal temple pyramids and set in jungle that screeches with toucans, parakeets, and spider and howler monkeys. To the north, the less humid environs of the Yucatn are home to the equally magnificent architecture of Chichn Itz and Uxmal; further south, the turbulent history of Copn in Honduras is recorded in some of the finest carved monuments and stelae in the Maya World. But these are just a few of the most impressive Maya ruins - scattered throughout the region are the remains of more than a thousand other settlements, for the most part completely unexcavated.
Although all the major cities had been mysteriously abandoned by 1200 AD, the region was never completely depopulated and, despite the depredations of the Spanish Conquest, descendants of the great astronomers, architects and calendar-keepers survive in the region today. Of approximately nine million indigenous Maya, Guatemala is home to over six million, with around two million in Mexico, and the rest in smaller communities in Belize and Honduras. For the vast majority of modern Maya, Spanish has always been a second language, and their nominally Catholic (but increasingly evangelical) faith is still tempered with traditional religious customs. Inimitable Maya textiles continue to be worn, especially in the highlands of Guatemala and Chiapas, and some isolated communities still observe the 260-day Tzolkin calendar of their ancestors. Having survived almost five hundred years of colonial oppression and political persecution, there are unmistakeable signs of a cultural reawakening, as Maya throughout the region develop a renewed sense of pride in their unique identity.
This staggering ancient - and modern - cultural heritage is matched by the region's equally rich natural environment. Offshore, much of the Caribbean coastline is protected by the second longest barrier reef in the world: diving or snorkelling in the warm waters here, amidst a kaleidoscopic world of tropical fish and coral, is an unforgettable experience. Though the smallest of the Maya nations, it's Belize that has the strongest tradition of state environmental protection, which has ensured the preservation of a landscape ranging from the granite peaks of the Maya Mountains, riddled with caves holding Maya artefacts, to the western rivers and jungle, best visited from the ecotourism base of San Ignacio. Throughout the region, however, the network of national parks and reserves is growing, offering protection to some spectacular wildlife, including jaguars and other cats, lumbering tapirs, monkeys and an incredible number of bird species.
Travelling around the Maya World is an adventure in itself. There's an excellent network of roads - of varying quality - almost constantly traversed by buses. This is how most people travel and, though not always comfortable, taking the bus is a quintessential Central American experience - you may find yourself sharing a seat with a Maya woman and her three kids, or even a chicken or two. The countless Caribbean islands of the Yucatn, Belize and Honduras are served by regular boats and ferries; while internal flights can save days of travel and won't necessarily break the bank.
Now that the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala are over, the only ongoing conflict in the region is in the Chiapas highlands, where a Zapatista-led rebellion has been smouldering since 1994; this has little effect on travellers to the area, though. Safety is a real issue, however, and, though it's the usual pickpocketing and bag-snatching that most travellers need to worry about, where risks are more significant we've outlined them in the text.