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Rough Guide Maya World 1e [Paperback]

Rough Guide
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Book Description

March 29 1999 Rough Guides
INTRODUCTION

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.


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Where to go

In Mexico's Yucatn peninsula, the entire Caribbean coastline of Quintana Roo state is blessed with stunning white-sand beaches. The arrival point for most visitors is the manufactured mega-resort of Cancn, the region's twentieth-century temple of the sun; further down the coast, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen have also been heavily developed. If you're in search of somewhere quieter, head for relaxed Tulum, with its cliff-perched Maya ruin - many travellers' favourite spot on this coast - or for complete undisturbed peace, there are any number of tiny beaches dotted between the resorts. Further south, Laguna Bacalar and the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve offer spectacular scenery and wildlife-spotting possibilities.

Mrida, the capital of Yucatn state and the largest city in the region, is a likeable place with a maze-like market and a stately collection of well-preserved colonial buildings. It's an excellent base for visiting most of the well-known sites. Chichn Itz, probably the most visited of them all, is in easy reach, as is Uxmal with its vertiginous pyramid temple. A series of lesser sites lie nearby in the Puuc hills. Moving into the neighbouring state, the colonial capital city of Campeche makes an enjoyable excursion. From here you can visit the decorative Chenes ruins, of which Edzn is the most accessible. To the south, stretching down towards the Guatemalan border, the immense Calakmul biosphere reserve is surrounded by ruins in the distinctive R'o Bec style.

In Chiapas, modern Maya culture is more in evidence, especially around the delightful highland city of San Crist-bal del las Casas, a focal point for the local Tzeltal and Tzotzil Maya. Chiapas also has some first-class ruins. Palenque is perhaps the finest, but along the R'o Usumacinta lie a number of smaller sites, none with a more splendid location than Yaxchiln, situated in a great loop in the river. The exquisite pools and waterfalls of Agua Azul are another major attraction, while the unspoilt scenery around the fifty Lagos de Montebello offers endless hiking and camping opportunities. The state of Tabasco has rather less to offer the visitor aside from some fascinating archeological sites, including La Venta, Comalcalco and Malpasito.

It's in Guatemala, where over half the country's population is indigenous, that Maya traditions and customs are most obvious. The mesmerizing beauty of the Western Highlands is the first place to head for, where the strength of traditional culture is most apparent in the markets and fiestas. Lago de Atitln is postcard picturesque - a vast lake dwarfed by three giant volcanoes, its shores ringed by some of the most traditional villages in the country. The scenery around Quetzaltenango is also breathtaking, with more volcanoes and alpine peaks dotted with indigenous villages; it's an easy trip from here to the weekly market at San Francisco el Alto, the largest and finest in the Maya World. Chichicastenango has another fantastic market: this is the one everyone goes to for textiles, masks and souvenirs.

Guatemala City, with poverty and pollution to match most Latin American capitals, is probably not worth spending too long in, especially as the old colonial capital of Antigua is just an hour away. Antigua could hardly be more different - a supremely relaxing historic city, with an endless supply of cafs, restaurants and bars to revitalize the jaded traveller.

The sparsely populated north and east region of Guatemala is home to the country's finest Maya ruins, most buried in the dense rainforest of the Maya biosphere reserve, giving you a chance to see some of Petn's wildlife too. If you only see one ruin in Guatemala, make it Tikal, a vast complex of gigantic temples, acropolises, palaces and plazas. Further south, the mist-soaked hills, caves and rivers around sleepy Cobn and the jungle-coated gorge of the R'o Dulce are also worth exploring. The one notable ruin in these parts is Quirigu, whose spectacular stelae are the largest in the Maya World. Belize also harbours a rich number of Maya sites. Caracol, Xunantunich, Lamanai and Lubaantun are the main ones, though only Caracol compares in scale to the great ruins of Mexico or Guatemala. It's the natural environment that's Belize's main draw, from the abundant flora and fauna of the lagoons at Sarteneja and Crooked Tree in the north of the country to the Cockscomb Basin, a reserve designed to protect the jaguar, in the south. Offshore are scattered hundreds of tiny islands known as "cayes", the main targets being upmarket Ambergris Caye, and Caye Caulker, the choice spot for young independent travellers. Other, mostly uninhabited cayes offer dramatic scuba-diving and snorkelling, with the coral atolls of Lighthouse Reef and Glover's Reef perhaps offering the ultimate underwater scenery.

Belize City is the only sizeable town in the country, but it's no beauty and you won't need to spend much time there - nor in the sleepy capital, Belmopan. Make your way, instead, to San Ignacio in the west, surrounded by forested hills and rivers, or Dangriga, a centre of Gar'funa culture and a good stepping-stone to the Maya Mountains and central cayes. In the far south, Punta Gorda is a centre for the Maya who make up over half the population of Toledo district.

In Honduras's western highlands, the magnificent ruins of Copn offer exquisitely carved stelae and a hieroglyphic stairway that represents the longest known glyphic text. North of here, the cities of San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba serve as stopping-off points en route to the idyllic Bay Islands. Each of the three main islands has its aficionados, but Utila is the cheapest and most popular with backpackers, while Guanaja and Roatn are geared up more for scuba-divers on package holidays.

The Maya slice of El Salvador holds some of the most fantastic scenery in the country. One of the biggest attractions is Lago de Coatepeque, a pristine crater lake bordered by Cerro Verde and the Izalco volcano. The Maya ruins here are less imposing than further north, though Tazumal, and Joya de Cern, where an entire community was buried in volcanic ash, are well worth a look.


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Most helpful customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing and sloppy Jan. 11 2003
Format:Paperback
I spent a month in Central America, circling from Belize through Northern Guatemala into Chiapas back into South-Central Guatemala into Honduras back up to East Guatemala and into Belize again. Normally, I always travel with Lonely Planet guidebooks. However, I got this book instead of the one by Lonely Planet covering the same basic area because I had read negative reviews of the LP version here on Amazon. I won't make that mistake again -- the Rough Guide to the Maya World is a disappointment.
The Good:
The strongest point was the the cultural background, though counterintuitively, it is relegated to the back of the book as kind of an afterthought. Based on my past experiences with LP, I still believe that Lonely Planet is more comprehensive, though, so this is faint praise for the Rough Guide.
The Bad:
Maybe this happens with all guidebooks to volatile regions, but much of the info was woefully out of date. At least one of the five or so restaurants listed in every city I visted had gone out of business. Prices, especially for expeditions from Flores, had very nearly doubled in some cases.
On a related note, and much less forgivable, some places were in different locations than they were marked on the maps. In some cases, the text gave the right address, but the map was mismarked. In other cases, text was scattered across the maps in a way that you couldn't figure out which building it was referring to. LP crushes the Rough Guide both in the quality and quantity of maps -- several times I wandered into town with no map, something that LP will never do to you.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing Coverage of Mayan Sites Sept. 20 2000
Format:Paperback
It was time for our annual trip to foreign fields, so Imogen and I visited Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula in September 2000. We took two guidebooks with us -- the Rough Guide to the Mayan World and a slightly out of date Lonely Planet Guide to Mexico. Our intention was to visit several Mayan sites on the vacation, so we chose the Rough Guide expecting the coverage of the Mayan sites to be good. As it turned out, we found the Rough Guide to be particularly disappointing in the coverage of the Mayan sites, particularly when compared with the Lonely Planet guide. The Rough Guide reads as if it has been cobbled together from the different Rough Guides for the different countries that make up the Mayan region. We did not think there had been sufficient effort to build a focus on the Mayan world.
While out in Mexico, we went on two highly enjoyable trips to the two major Mayan sites in the state of Yucatan -- Chichen Itza and Uxmal. There are maps of both of these sites in both guidebooks, but the description and explanation in the text of the Lonely Planet guide surpasses that of the Rough Guide. However, where we felt the Rough Guide really disappointed was in the coverage of minor sites. We journeyed to Uxmal via the Ruta Puuc. This is a roundabout route that takes in four minor sites before reaching the grand finale of Uxmal. The Lonely Planet guide had at least a couple of paragraphs on each of these minor sites and occasionally a map. The Rough Guide had almost nothing for some of the sites. When we were traveling to the sites on a very smooth road, it amused us to read the description of the barely paved road we were actually using according to the Rough Guide. I suppose the Rough Guide made us feel like we were undertaking a far more difficult and romantic adventure.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 2.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing and sloppy Jan. 11 2003
By pootamadre - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I spent a month in Central America, circling from Belize through Northern Guatemala into Chiapas back into South-Central Guatemala into Honduras back up to East Guatemala and into Belize again. Normally, I always travel with Lonely Planet guidebooks. However, I got this book instead of the one by Lonely Planet covering the same basic area because I had read negative reviews of the LP version here on Amazon. I won't make that mistake again -- the Rough Guide to the Maya World is a disappointment.
The Good:
The strongest point was the the cultural background, though counterintuitively, it is relegated to the back of the book as kind of an afterthought. Based on my past experiences with LP, I still believe that Lonely Planet is more comprehensive, though, so this is faint praise for the Rough Guide.
The Bad:
Maybe this happens with all guidebooks to volatile regions, but much of the info was woefully out of date. At least one of the five or so restaurants listed in every city I visted had gone out of business. Prices, especially for expeditions from Flores, had very nearly doubled in some cases.
On a related note, and much less forgivable, some places were in different locations than they were marked on the maps. In some cases, the text gave the right address, but the map was mismarked. In other cases, text was scattered across the maps in a way that you couldn't figure out which building it was referring to. LP crushes the Rough Guide both in the quality and quantity of maps -- several times I wandered into town with no map, something that LP will never do to you.
Some info which would have been interesting to know and very easy to list (population, for example, or detailed info about the climate and temperature, or info about local artwork and craftwork, or even descriptions of what the particular crafts and food that made a town famous) were absent.
Listed durations for Guatemalan buses were laughable. Take whatever the Rough Guide says a trip will last and add about 33%. Maybe even 50%. If they say that a trip will last five hours or more, expect it to take a full day. Belize and Mexico were generally more accurate.
The physical book itself was not very durable, and after taking generally good case of it for 3 weeks, pages started to fall out even though I had not bent the book or otherwise harshly handled it. This made me really appreciate LP's durable spines.
One very irritating trend in the book is that borders often have different and conflicting information listed for them, depending on which country chapter you are reading -- for example, the Guatemala chapter will describe the border as staffed by very corrupt officials and with 3 connecting buses every day into Mexico, while the Mexico chapter won't mention the border guards and will list 5 connecting buses into Mexico. It's as if the writers for each country never compared their notes, or went at different times, or the editors never proofread everything to have it all add up. In short, the border info is pretty sloppy.
Worst of all, border taxes (legitimate ones for boat and air departures rather than the shakedowns the books describes and which seldom actually happen) were out of date -- you have to pay a big chunk of change to leave Guatemala by plane or boat, for example, and Belize always gouges you for leaving, though not the same price for each means of transport. Check with online bulletin boards for up to date info.
Conclusion:
Like I said, the Rough Guide disappointed me. While probably only about 15% was wrong, I ended up spending considerable time and money because of those shortcomings. Even though the LP guide for the same area has been trashed by Amazon users, I would still advise getting that book, if only for the benefit of having a complete set of maps at your disposal. Also, in my experience, LP books are more coherent and readable. Sight unseen, I say go with LP instead.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing Coverage of Mayan Sites Sept. 20 2000
By "robinofloxley" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
It was time for our annual trip to foreign fields, so Imogen and I visited Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula in September 2000. We took two guidebooks with us -- the Rough Guide to the Mayan World and a slightly out of date Lonely Planet Guide to Mexico. Our intention was to visit several Mayan sites on the vacation, so we chose the Rough Guide expecting the coverage of the Mayan sites to be good. As it turned out, we found the Rough Guide to be particularly disappointing in the coverage of the Mayan sites, particularly when compared with the Lonely Planet guide. The Rough Guide reads as if it has been cobbled together from the different Rough Guides for the different countries that make up the Mayan region. We did not think there had been sufficient effort to build a focus on the Mayan world.
While out in Mexico, we went on two highly enjoyable trips to the two major Mayan sites in the state of Yucatan -- Chichen Itza and Uxmal. There are maps of both of these sites in both guidebooks, but the description and explanation in the text of the Lonely Planet guide surpasses that of the Rough Guide. However, where we felt the Rough Guide really disappointed was in the coverage of minor sites. We journeyed to Uxmal via the Ruta Puuc. This is a roundabout route that takes in four minor sites before reaching the grand finale of Uxmal. The Lonely Planet guide had at least a couple of paragraphs on each of these minor sites and occasionally a map. The Rough Guide had almost nothing for some of the sites. When we were traveling to the sites on a very smooth road, it amused us to read the description of the barely paved road we were actually using according to the Rough Guide. I suppose the Rough Guide made us feel like we were undertaking a far more difficult and romantic adventure.
On a brighter note, the Rough Guide did a better job of describing the town of Merida. We found Merida's bus service particularly confusing since there are at least five bus terminals that are well used. The Rough Guide gave a slightly clearer account of which terminals to use. One small point is to ignore all of the prices in either of the books. This accuracy is not the fault of either of the books but just the nature of the Mexican currency. Both books make it clear that the prices will be inaccurate, however it is still worth repeating. Just by way of an example, the Rough Guide quotes the entry price for Uxmal as 4 US dollars. We actually handed over 80 pesos each, or closer to 9 US dollars. This magnitude of difference was not uncommon. I suspect the Rough Guide was written when the Mexican peso had just dropped to a low against the dollar and prices in Mexico had not adjusted.
Viva Mexico! But take the Lonely Planet Guide!
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