Their fall is portrayed in bloody style in Mel Gibson's new film - but what was the legacy of the Maya? Chris Moss reports from Mexico.
It was a movie moment. The soaring canopy was swaying in the breeze, keel-billed toucans hopped from tree to tree, and I was at the top of the Temple of the Cross at Palenque, Mexico, with Tacho, a full-blooded Mayan warrior. Well, a tour guide, but if you squinted and took a sip of mezcal he looked the part.
I couldn't resist asking Tacho to demonstrate his exotic language. He obliged, narrating a fable which told of a beautiful woman who seduced men into the jungle in order to kill them. In Mayan, with its plosives and unfamiliar consonant clusters, it sounded like an ancient incantation. My romantic response, that this language belonged here, seemed a tad precious. But Tacho was less sceptical. "I always feel at home at these sites," he said. "I don't feel that in any Mexican town or city. Only at the pyramids and temples, where I know my people lived magnificent lives." Six months ago, Tacho's fluency in this ancient tongue - spoken by up to six million Mayans in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras - landed him a job as translator, script consultant and voice coach on Mel Gibson's film about the Mayans, Apocalypto, which opened this weekend.
"I'd gone to audition as an extra," he explained. "But when Gibson found out I could write as well as speak Mayan he asked me to work on the script and tutor the Mexican actors." Far from resenting Hollywood's arrival in the area, he was thrilled to have taken part in the film and said it would "be a great platform for promoting Mayan culture".
Palenque, in the lowlands of the Chiapas region of Mexico, was built during the Classic period of the Mayan civilisation, which lasted from the 3rd to the 9th century. The Maya were innovators in astronomy, writing, mathematics and, most obviously, architecture. They also excelled at decapitation, disembowelment and tearing the hearts out of living people. Gibson, who has already given us his controversially gory version of the Passion story, indulges in some of this and his warrior heroes - Jaguar Paw, Smoke Frog and Blunted --are engaged in slaying and being slain for much of the film. Some US critics have complained that Apocalypto is more about machismo than Mayans, while others have said the ultra violence is lyrical and hypnotic.
Mel's Mayan city is not unlike Thunderdome, the gladiatorial arena featured in the third Mad Max film. From the top of a skinny, ramshackle pyramid, a motley gang made up of crazed priests, despotic overlords and the requisite spoilt fat boy have humble, forest-dwelling Mayans executed to appease the gods and end the plague that is devastating the crops. Hearts are torn out and heads cut off and thrown down the steps like footballs. Those not selected for sacrifice are made to play British bulldog while being shot at with bows and arrows and slingshots, or targeted by expert javelin throwers. Those who make it to the other end get an axe in the head.
Apocalypto relies more on adrenalin than archives. Gibson doesn't completely skew the historical record, but compresses and simplifies it to maintain the pace. No one knows why the Mayan civilisation ended, so he has his Mayans subjected to internecine warfare, famine and disease - all at once. Then, in a scene reminiscent of the close of the film versions of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, three Mayans run on to a beach to find themselves face to face with the Spanish Armada.
Hernán Cortés made landfall in the Gulf of Mexico in 1519, at least 300 years after the Mayans had abandoned their cities. But, hey, what's history when you're bent on laying on an all-American allegory about the birth of a nation?
That said, the bloodletting is not all poetic licence. Roberto, an expert history guide, led me to me some reliefs, one of which portrayed a man whose abdomen had been savaged in some act of ritual punishment. At another site, Bonampak, he had seen "murals depicting the heir ritual, in which one tribe attacked a neighbouring tribe to sacrifice individuals to honour the coming of age of their king's son ". Wandering from the sacrificial altars to the ball court - where losers were probably slain - to a temple raised in tribute to the jaguar god, I could easily imagine Mayan citizens engaged in violent, sacred performances that melded war, religion and sporting prowess.
It's the setting that makes Palenque so special. The main burial pyramids and ceremonial buildings are constructed from limestone slabs that, despite the lichen and mosses, glow against a backdrop of dense vegetation that bursts out of the steep hills all around. Apart from the toucans and parrots, the only sound in many corners is of a stream that trickles through the underground aqueduct the Mayans built to beautify their environment. The fringes of the site are dotted with partially excavated residences and workplaces where the ruins compete with a tangle of lianas and orchids. Humidity seems to be sweating from every knotted trunk and curved leaf, and the jungle is always reclaiming its stolen territory.This teeming wilderness preserved the site. "The Spanish had been living in this region for three centuries and heard nothing about the site," said Roberto. "In 1773, some Indian hunters told the local priests about the existence of a ruin and the bishop organised an expedition."
But there had been an earlier visitor. Another bishop, Diego de Landa Calderón of Yucatan, burnt many of the codices and texts in the 16th century. Archaeologists now use his records of what he demolished and destroyed to rescue the past.
The collapse of the Mayan kingdom was probably due to a disease that ravaged the close-knit tribal network. In any case, the rise of the Aztecs in the 14th century was a watershed and the arrival of the conquistadores marked a definite end to the Mayan world.But the culture and cosmology of the Mayans endure across Chiapas - mainly in villages and isolated rural settlements. En route to those, we headed first for San Cristóbal de las Casas. Familiar to many as the seedbed of the 1994 Zapatista guerrilla uprising led by Comandante Marcos - a movement created at least in part to fight for Indian land rights - the city is also a crossroads for indigenous traders and has long been the site of a standoff between colonists and natives.
The winding road from the lowlands to San Cristóbal - at 6,890ft above sea level - takes you through a series of cañadas, corrugated seismic folds which form canyons swathed in subtropical rainforest - and, on the morning of our trip, a swirling mist. Amid the mahogany trees and wild figs lining the roadside were shiny coffee plants. Palenque had shimmered beneath a blue sky, but in the highlands, wedged between the Pacific and the Gulf, we passed through dense fog before entering San Cristóbal.
The city, one of the best preserved in Latin America, is home to 150,000 mestizos and Indians. It is a place most travellers use as a stopover between visiting Mayan ruins and nature reserves, only to find that they would like to stay put a few days, even weeks.
Founded in 1528, it is named after Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, the fervent defender of indigenous rights. San Cristóbal remains low-slung and convivial and does its best to move to ancient rhythms.
On the main pedestrianised thoroughfare, called Hidalgo, Indians from a variety of settlements move among the mainly mestizo population. San Cristóbal is full of markets. The sprawling food market is a joy, with hundreds of stalls selling chocolate, tropical fruits, maize of every shade, fried ants, cheeses and chillis of every size and potency. Another market, run by serious co-operatives, sells beautiful textiles and lace for serious dollar prices. The main plaza is the classic epicentre of community life.
Roberto showed me the bishop's mansion, the cathedral next door and also the San Nicolás church, built for African slaves - that is, to keep them out of the cathedral. The Spanish encomienda system - in which Indians were forced to work the land - had left San Cristóbal with a legacy of dissent and seething tension between landowners and patrician city fathers on one side and native subsistence farmers on the other. Yet Indian culture, with its roots in the Mayan legacy, prospered independently of governments and guerrillas.
Seven miles away, at the village of San Juan Chamula, I was plunged into a milieu where Indian customs not only endured but glowed with energy. I had seen some of the villagers in the markets, but there they had been in a minority, their white ponchos and embroidered skirts at odds with the urban setting. In San Juan, their Mayan language, Tzotzil, dominated the street banter; motifs from their belief system - flowers, maize, ceiba trees - decorated pavements, monuments and the façade of San Juan Bautista, their most important church ( John the Baptist is more revered than Jesus here). They marry only within their community and spurn any who turn away from their brand of Catholicism to adopt Protestant Christianity. Famously proud, they allow tourists in their homes to see their traditional back-strap looms but charge a fee for the pleasure and strictly forbid photography during religious ceremonies.
But it was inside San Juan - which had neither priests nor pews - that I witnessed the emotion and spirituality of the Mayans. Pungent incense whirled around the interior, lit only by thousands of candles. Men stood around smoking and drinking from bottles of cola or high-grade firewater called pox (pronounced "posh ") even as they made appeals to assorted Christian saints. Some of these were shunned as unhelpful, partly to blame for the destruction of another local church, and the hands of their statues have been cut off. But the sculptures of more highly valued saints and disciples were adorned with mirrors; the Mayans had polished obsidian to create reflective surfaces, which they believed could be used to divine the future. The stone floor was covered with pine needles to transform the nave into a sacred forest. Women kneeled, pouring out enigmatic, incessant prayers, each holding a live cockerel by the legs and waving it first over the flames of the candles and then over a member of their private circle or congregation. The key moment of worship involved a sudden pause, in which the woman - as the shaman of the group - violently twisted the neck of the confused bird and so put to death any evil spirits that had been drawn out.
When Tacho had said he had felt at home at Palenque, what he probably meant was that his people hadn't ever really abandoned the life and lore of the Mayans. Across the Mayan region, their markets kept the ancient diet alive, their churches were filled with syncretistic spirits. Whereas in many countries Unesco sites stand in splendid isolation, in southern Mexico there seemed to be vital, subterranean links between the past and the present.
This, I think, is the reason for going on the Mayan trail. Gibson's film will seduce some with its vivid depictions of battles and end-of-the-world conflagrations. He has taken a difficult Mayan text, the Popol Vuh - transcribed by Spanish colonists from hieroglyphs found in Guatemala - and given it flesh and (plenty of) blood.In the late 1990s, the Zapatista uprising drew a wave of tourists keen to meet Marcos and a new breed of Mayan and pro-Mayan guerrillas. But the real warrior spirit of the Mayans is a more complicated affair and even the archaeological wonders are but an outward sign of an inward, mystically resilient will to survive. At the top of the pyramids and in the recesses of the church of San Juan, the real-life movie keeps on rolling.
Chris Moss travelled with Last Frontiers (01296 653000, www.lastfrontiers.com), which offers tailor-made visits to Central America. A 12-night trip starts at £2,595 per person, based on two sharing, including stays in Mexico City, San Cristóbal de las Casas and Palenque; excursions to the sites of Teotihuacán, Tonina, Palenque and Chichén Itzá; a visit to the Indian village of San Juan Chamula; return flight from Heathrow to Mexico City, internal flights and some meals.