People often ask me what my favorite destination is – I don’t have just one but I always include Guatemala, the hub of the Maya world, in my top 5. When National Geographic asked me to share some secrets I leapt at the opportunity. Here’s the story on Nat Geo’s site:  Top 10 Maya Secrets.

By Michael Shapiro

1. The Mayans haven’t disappeared

Just as the fall of Rome hasn’t meant the end of Romans, the decline of great Mayan metropolises, such as Guatemala’s Tikal which reached its apex in the 9th century, doesn’t mean the indigenous people have vanished. According to the CIA World Factbook, 40 percent of Guatemala’s 14 million people are Mayan, and southern Mexico and the Yucatan are home to many more predominantly Mayan regions. Not only are Mayans enduring almost five centuries after the Spanish conquest, but their cultural traditions, agrarian lifestyle, and celebratory festivals continue on. There are more than 20 distinct Mayan peoples within Guatemala, each with their own culture, style of dress, and language, and millions more Mayans live beyond the borders.

A heavy wooden float honoring the Virgin Mary at a festival near Antigua in January 2006. Photo by Michael Shapiro

2. The land is volcanically alive

A chain of volcanoes runs through Guatemala and several of these remain active. From the tourist-friendly town of Antigua, Guatemala, you can often see Fuego Volcano puffing out plumes of smoke or jettisoning fiery tendrils lava, especially vivid at night. Not far from Antigua (about 90 minutes drive) is Pacaya Volcano, which has been erupting continually for years. Travel agents in Antigua sell day tours on which you can hike to within a few yards of molten lava and feel its heat. I kept my distance but our guide got so close he lit his cigarette with the lava’s heat; the ground was so warm his sneakers started to melt.

3. Ancient Mayans loved blood sports

At the center of many Mayan cities was a ball court where teams of the best athletes would try to vanquish one another. The heavy soccer-sized ball was made from hard rubber; some scholars have suggested that human skulls may have occasionally been used as balls. The games, like our Olympics, were cultural spectacles followed by human sacrifices. What we don’t know is whether it was the winners or losers who were offered to the gods. A guide in Tikal firmly believes it was the winners. “Morir en Tikal es un honor,” he told me atop a lofty temple. Translation: to die in Tikal is an honor.

4. Mayans developed the concept of zero

The Mayans’ remarkable Long Count calendar relies on the concept of zero. The concept of zero may have originated in Babylonia around 300 BCE, but the Mayans independently conjured the notion of zero, likely in the 4th century. Zero in the Mayan written language was typically represented by a shell-shaped glyph. The Mayan numerical system is based on factors of 20. So Mayan numbers are composed of units of 1, 20, 400, and so on. To write the number 403, for example, a Mayan would use a symbol for one unit of 400, zero units of 20, and three units of 1. That’s how the they derived the concept of zero.

5. Mayans didn’t believe the end of the world was coming

Apocalyptic movies may have suggested Mayans believed the end of the 5,000-plus-year calendar was an end-times moment, but that’s not how the local people think. Most Mayan people may celebrated the beginning of the new 5,125-year cycle of the Long Count calendar in 2012 just as we celebrated the new millennium. But they don’t believe the end of the world is on the horizon. If anything, they’re hopeful that a new era will usher in an age of higher consciousness, greater peace and enhanced understanding among the diverse peoples on the planet. For most Mayans, Dec. 21, 2012 was be just another day.

A Mayan woman near Guatemala City. Photo by Michael Shapiro

6. Whitewater rivers traverse the Mayan world

When most people think about whitewater rafting in Central America, they think of Costa Rica. But Guatemala has world-class boating, such as the intermediate (Class III) Rio Cahabon, which is not just an exhilarating ride but a way to meet local Mayans, who come out to see rafters in their jungle encampments. The Usumacinta River runs along the border of Mexico and Guatemala – river trips stop at ruins such as Piedras Negras, on the Guatemala side of the border. An American woman, Tammy Ridenour, has been running river trips and leading adventure tours in Guatemala for more than two decades,

7. Much of the Mayan world remains underground

Major Mayan sites, like Palenque and Chichen Itza in southern Mexico, have been largely excavated, but others remain buried under more than a millennium of earth. Even Tikal, the most famous ruin in Guatemala, has mounds that conceal what could be great temples. Lesser-visited Mayan sites, such as the sprawling El Mirador and Uaxactún, both just north of Tikal in Guatemala’s Petén jungle, are only fractionally unearthed and thrilling to visit for the sense of discovery. Belize, too, has its share of barely-excavated ruins, such as Altun Ha, just 30 miles from Belize City. You can see monumental pyramids at all these sites, but so much more remains.

8. Some Mayan pyramids were built to reflect astronomical events

It’s no secret that Mayans were advanced astronomers – what’s lesser known is that many great Mayan structures, such as the El Castillo (Kukulkan) pyramid at Chichen Itza, reflect astronomical events. During equinoxes, an undulating shadow called the “snake” slithers along the side of Kukulkan’s northern staircase. This is caused, only on an equinox, by the angle of the sun hitting the nine main terraces. Also at Chichen Itza is El Caracol, known as The Observatory, which is linked to the orbit of Venus. El Caracol’s front staircase targets Venus’ most northern position, and the corners of the building align with the sun’s position at the summer solstice sunrise and winter solstice sunset.

9. Mayans built saunas

Ancient – and some modern – Mayans enjoyed steamy stone saunas, known as the temascal in the Yucatan, or chuj in the Mayan language of Mam. The Mayan sauna is still popular and offered to visitors at hotels and resorts throughout the Mayan world. Ancient Mayan cities built saunas of stone or adobe mud – these were used for health and spiritual fulfillment. Mayans combined water with fire-heated rocks to create steam, and sometimes elder leaves were added to the mix. “After a time you’ll note that you’re sweating,” blogged a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala in 2011, “and that a layer of grime, what they call grasa, seems to be lifting itself from your skin – and your mind.”

10. No one knows what caused the rapid decline of Mayan civilization

Starting in the 8th century and accelerating in the 9th, Mayan cities suddenly declined; their people either died or retreated from these great metropolises. Cultures that had developed highly advanced irrigation, agriculture, astronomy and building techniques, as well as intricate social structures, rapidly fell apart. No one knows why. Among the theories: increased war among Mayan city-states, overpopulation that led to environmental degradation such as depleted soil, and climate change resulting from deforestation. Other theories suggest that the enlargement of the ruling class of royalty and priests created an imbalance with not enough productive workers. Likely it was a combination of the above factors; we may never know.

Bio: Michael Shapiro is co-author of Guatemala: A Journey Through the Land of the Maya and author of A Sense of Place. To see more of his writing, visit