12/23/2012 08:48 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2012

Maya Apocalypse 2012: A Second Chance To Explore Central America (PHOTOS)

Cancun - On December 21, the eyes of the world turned towards the ruins of the Maya Empire and the eyes of those amid that megalithic rubble turned heavenward. For many here, the end of the 13th baktun and the beginning of a new cycle of the Maya calendar -- treated elsewhere as an excuse to celebrate nothing in particular -- was profoundly important occasion to celebrate something profoundly specific.

The specifics were varied. Among the celebrants at Chichen Itza, were those expecting an alien incursion to begin at 11:11 and others awaiting the commencement of a new harmonious age. This latter interpretation of the occasion, while a more accurate interpretation of Maya tradition than the prophecy of doom that sent cultists into their boltholes, was and is unquantifiable. Though there is no sense in arguing that a new age hasn't begun in the Mundo Maya it is unclear what this age might look like

Though many of the Maya on hand in Chichen Itza -- predominantly to sell keepsakes -- expressed a genuine belief that their lives would change at least marginally for the better thanks to both redoubled international interest in their culture and an astrological alignment, few foreign celebrants expressed knowledge of or interest in the Maya world beyond the conspiracy theories and prophetic fever dreams it inevitably evokes. That silliness aside, this jungled, hot and, yes, mysterious part of the world is worth a second, post-apocalyptic look.

At the height of the Maya empire, travelers wandering the forest paths and massive highways between city states like Tikal and Caracol experienced a vast variety of cultures, climates and even languages. The same can be said today. Guatemala and Belize share little beyond a border and a Maya heritage and the Yucatan's laid back beaches and colorfully quaint Ciudades are more different still.

Though it may be harder to find commonalities in this region than difference, but they may be the best arguments for it as a destination.

Each country's Maya communities are held in high esteem by non-Maya locals -- many of whom have some Maya blood -- and treated with profound respect. These communities in southern Belize, across much of the Yucatan and both in Guatemala's highlands and forested east may not be flourishing economically, but their continued existence seems guaranteed simply by the love shown to them.

It is extremely common in the Mundo Maya to hear the virtues of the Maya race extolled at length. They are kind, polite, hardworking and knowledgeable about the landscape. This is certainly how I experienced them. Though they'd be well within their rights to resent the outsiders who took this landscape by force and massacred their forebears, they never seem to ask for anything but to be treated with dignity. Because they are the ultimate model minority, many people here take tremendous pride in their Maya blood and there is a real sense of New World pride, which is quite fascinating as that identity doesn't exist in the US beyond the small Native community.

Travelers who spend time with the Maya invariably come away fascinated by the experience and more interested in pre-Columbian history, which in this part of the world is one part detective novel, one part "Game of Thrones."

The Maya are also largely, if indirectly, responsible for the areas of protected land readily accessible in each country. Because ruins are big business and best displayed within a natural context, large sanctuaries -- most notably the Maya Biosphere though it isn't exactly tourist friendly -- are common here. The trails through tropical jungle forest and even toward tropical beaches and caves are thus protected by the Maya legacy, which makes wandering them all the more fascinating: There is always the chance you'll happen upon the remains of a temple or find a glyph-tattooed rock.

In Belize, locals like to tell tourists that there are more ruined Maya buildings in the country than actual buildings. Whether or not this is true, it is indicative of the way the landscape is still more strongly defined by an ancient culture than a modern one. That the low population density of the region allows the landscape to also be defined by, well, the landscape, makes traveling here all the more beautiful.

And the ease of traveling here sets the region apart. The Yucatan, unlike some other regions of Mexico, shares a tranquilo vibe with its southern neighbors. Even during the high season that began last week, tourists will invariably find an available room and a helpful host. That this gets less true as travelers approach Cancun is an extremely strong argument to treat that whole city as an airport.

In Belize, which really does seem more like a Caribbean Island than a Central American country, the towns and even cities are small enough that everyone seems to know everyone. Finding anything is just a matter of asking, a process facilitated in no small part by English being the national language. There is no particular need to set up tours months before hand -- unless you're visiting over Christmas -- given how far politeness and some American currency can go.

Though Guatemala is too dangerous and unpredictable to allow for a completely laid-back experience, there are pockets in which visitors to the country can let their hair down. The island of Flores in Lake Peten is not only scenically peaceful in an almost alpine sense, but somehow worlds away from the poverty that dominates the shoreline. Guatemala thus offers travelers a chance to engage with the very real issues affecting this part of the world -- migration, drugs, poverty -- without being threatened by them. The experience is worthwhile because it contextualizes a lot of the culture that workers have brought over the border into America, humanizing a so-called "issue."

The final, and in many ways the most significant, virtue shared by all the Mundo Maya's destinations is their proximity to each other. Nothing is more than a day away from anything else and, because of that, more energetic travelers can have a wild diversity of cultural experiences over a relatively short amount of time.

This is all to say that, now that the world has failed to end, American travelers should be looking south towards the Yucatan, Belize and Guatemala for their next big -- if inexpensive -- trip. It doesn't cheapen the Maya's profound and lasting legacy to admit that part has facilitated the growth of tourist infrastructure well-tailored to anyone willing to go a few extra miles to see something spectacular.

The new harmonious age would do well to look like this.

Maya Mundo Musts:

Belize's Cayes: Belize's barrier islands are relentlessly relaxed and offer tourists access to some of the best snorkeling and diving on earth.

Road Trip Belize: Belize is a small enough country that locals in San Ignacio, near the Guatemala border, take day trips to the beach. Driving the western highway and stopping at local attractions, including the excellent Belize Zoo, is a perfect way to pass a few happy days.

Tikal: The Guatemalan jungle temple is by far the most stunning Maya ruin. Getting there is both a hassle and an excuse to briefly tour the nearby countryside, which is as comely as it is poor.

Tulum's Cenotes: The sacred caves dotting the limestone landscape inland from Tulum's perfect beach are spectacular beautiful and surprisingly romantic.

Valladolid: No one goes to the Yucatan to see Valladolid, but they should. The charming ciudad is beautiful and offers visitors both great food and access to nearby ruins and caves. A better idea than using this as a base for exploration: Not leaving.



Chichen Itza's Apocalypse