Have questions? We're here.
Talk with an expert
Customize any aspect of your trip. 1.406.541.2677
Help Me Plan My Trip
Talk with an expert Ask a Question

Aztecs and Mayas

Mexico has been graced by some of the most advanced and fascinating early civilizations in the world.


The first major civilization in Mexico was the Olmec who lived around the south-central area. The Olmec flourished in the Mesoamerican Formative period dating roughly from 1500 – 400 BC and in 400 - 350 BC they went into decline. The cause for this decline is not definitely known but elements of Olmec culture influenced the civilizations which followed.

The Olmec were known to venerate the jaguar; they left behind many artifacts with the combined characteristics of humans and cats.

Three sites have been found and collectively called San Lorenzo. It is here that the famous gigantic basalt heads were uncovered; each of these is 6-9 feet tall and weighs 20-40 tons. These heads were carved from stone that comes from 90 miles away the site, deepening the mystery of their existence. The huge heads appear to be wearing helmets, and have Negroid features.

The Olmec invented the Mesoamerican ballgame, which was played by several cultures throughout the region. Olmec actually means “rubber people” in Nhuatl, and hundreds of rubber balls have been found at Olmec-associated sites. The ballgame is played on a long narrow court, some longer than football fields. Some games went on for days, and the losing team was sacrificed; the game was also played for fun with less serious consequences.

The Olmec disappeared mysteriously around 200 B.C. and little is known about their decline. They were replaced by a culture that located its capital in Teotihuacan, “City of the Gods”, which had more than 100,000 inhabitants. These people had a developed writing system and architectural styles. Teotihuacan thrived until the 7th century, when it was plundered and burned. The perpetrators of the destruction remain a mystery.


The Zapotecs in the Oaxaca valley rose in the wake of Teotihucan, and their geographical isolation led to the distinct architectural style of Monte Alban. It was a large ceremonial center, as the Zapotecs had kings and priests for whom to build great temples.


The Yucatan peninsula was home to the storied Maya people. The Maya civilization extended through current-day Belize and Guatemala, with the cultural seat located at Tikal in Guatemala. The Maya of Mexico left behind the great ruins of Chichen Itza, which became the cultural seat after the collapse of Tikal. A Mexican cruise or tour will provide the opportunity to visit these mysterious ruins.

The Maya created the only fully developed writing system in the pre-Columbian Americas and excelled at architecture, art, mathematics and astronomy. They mapped the stars and their movements to a degree of accuracy which astounds modern day astronomers.

The Maya were spread over a large area of south and central Mexico reaching down into the north of South America. Their cities flourished between 250 and 900 AD although the civilization itself went back much further. After 900 AD there was the Classic Maya Collapse; not to be confused with the pre-Classic collapse centuries earlier. Neither collapse can be explained with any certainty but the disappearances or collapse of civilizations in early Mexico may have heavily influenced subsequent societies and their fixation with impending apocalypse. This in turn encouraged the sacrificial elements of their rituals to become more deeply ingrained.

Unlike the Aztecs, the Maya were not completely wiped out by conquistadors; they lived on and occupied their cities well after the arrival of the Spanish. The modern day definition of the Maya is people in the region once occupied by the civilization who have a cultural or linguistic link to the Maya.


The mighty Aztecs rose in Mexico around the 13th century. They originated in the northern regions and migrated south to the mid and southern regions of the country. They called themselves the Mexica, which is where the country’s name comes from.

The Aztecs’ migration from the north ended when they came upon a prophetic sign: an eagle balanced upon a cactus, devouring a snake. It was there that they built their capital city of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec were known as fierce warriors and talented architects, a combination that resulted in the largest empire in Central America, surpassed only by the Incan empire Peru. Evidence of their advancements are found in their vast trading network, an apparently highly-stratified society with an imperial administration, and a sophisticated agricultural system.

The Aztecs considered themselves to be children of the sun god, Huitzilopochtli, who was also the patron god of war. They believed that he needed a diet of human blood to augment his strength, which is where the legends of Aztec blood sacrifices originate.

Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, also played a fortuitous role in Aztec culture. Ruler of the Toltecs, he was considered to be the son of the sun god, a fair-skinned god himself. He was a progressive king who was well-respected and made many reforms, including abolishing human sacrifice. He was exiled by crafty enemies after several years of his reign, but the legendary ruler vowed to return someday no matter the amount of time that had passed.

The Aztec empire reached its height under the reign of Montezuma II, covering most of central and southern Mexico. When the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes landed on the shores of Mexico, the superstitious Montezuma believed it was the fair-skinned Quetzalcoatl coming back to his people. The Aztec emperor allowed the small Spanish company into the capital, which numbered over 300,000 in Aztec population. Cortes took the great emperor captive, and held him for 8 months.

In one of Cortes’ absences from the city, his second-in-command Pedro de Alvarado ordered the slaughter of over 3,000 Aztecs in the midst of a religious ceremony, which incited a dangerous rebellion by the famously vicious Aztecs. Upon his return, Cortes attempted to quell the situation by sending Montezuma to appease his people. The Aztecs responded by stoning their emperor to death, and mounting an attack upon the conquistadors.

Cortes retaliated with the more advanced weapons at his disposal, and as European diseases ravaged the Aztecs population, the great empire began to fall. By 1521, the Spanish had laid waste to Mexico.

Why Travel With Adventure Life

More Reasons

Awards and Accolades

All News