YUCATÁN PENINSULA, Mexico — What's the Mexican drug-war body count now? 47,000? Ever since the killings began to escalate in late 2006, I've been visiting the country less and choosing spots more carefully.
But the Yucatán Peninsula was an easy call. One of the safest and most rewarding places in Mexico these days is the same steamy, lizard-ridden Maya stamping ground where ritual sacrifice was once business as usual, where the alleged apocalypse — the end of the Maya calendar — is barely 100 shopping days away.
In May I flew to Mérida, Yucatán's capital, about 500 miles south of New Orleans. By noon on the first full day I was clinging to the steeply pitched steps of the Great Temple of Uxmal, about 50 miles south of Mérida, about 100 feet above ground, incalculably far from the 21st century.
From my perch at the temple's highest point, a horizon of green treetops spread before me, interrupted only by jutting stone marvels such as the Pyramid of the Magician, the Nunnery Quadrangle and the stately House of the Governor.
Uxmal is not Yucatán's marquee attraction. That would be the now-unclimbable pyramid at Chichén Itzá about 120 miles east. But Yucatán is full of wonders that allow better access and draw smaller crowds than Chichén Itzá. If you want a workout, a few subterranean thrills and a glimpse of what North American civilization looked like before and just after the Spaniards got here, it's a good place to start.
The Uxmal complex, younger than Egypt's best-known pyramids but older than Peru's Machu Picchu, was built more than a millennium ago. At its peak, it housed perhaps 25,000 Mayas.
Nowadays at Uxmal, there's a nighttime light show and a handful of hotels within walking distance. Like gift shops throughout Yucatán, the one at Uxmal is well stocked with books suggesting that the Mayas predicted the end of the world for Dec. 21, 2012. And there's no denying the creepiness of the ruins' mascots: the iguanas, which race bowlegged across the grass, climbing ancient steps with eerie agility.
Lock eyes with an iguana long enough and an apocalypse begins to seem inevitable. But then look away, and another ruin demands climbing. Or a set of descending stairs will lead you to a cool, blue cenote — sinkholes and water-filled underground caverns that are scattered all over the peninsula.
To give scenes like that my full attention, I didn't bother with Cancún, the tourist magnet 200 miles east, or the several Yucatán haciendas that have been converted into restaurants and luxury hotels. In fact, I never strayed more than 150 miles from Mérida.
At Kabah, just down the road from Uxmal, hundreds of loose stones are laid out like laundry in need of sorting, and one long wall (known as the Codz Poop) is crowded with bug-eyed, long-nosed stone faces carved to honor the rain god Chac. At Labná, an ancient gate leads nowhere special but might be the most graceful, haunting Maya portal still standing.
At Ticul, I had hot chocolate. Not by choice but because the EcoMuseo del Cacao, opened in 2011, includes a hot chocolate-making demonstration among its many exhibits. (There was also a human skeleton and some sentences about the Maya's ritual sacrifices.) The temperature must have been 95 degrees outside — which is why many people visit in winter. But the cook so graciously offered the steaming cup, I had to say yes.
At Cuzama, about 30 miles southeast of Mérida, I paid a man about 250 pesos (about $20) to take me on a bone-jarring ride aboard a horse-drawn cart that rolls on narrow-gauge railroad tracks. The route runs through a henequen plantation (where fiber for rope was cultivated), but the real attraction is below ground: three cenotes.
The first was Chelentun (easy access, with stairs and a handrail), followed by Bolonchoojol (a rabbit-hole entrance with a 25-foot ladder) and Chansinic'che (steep stairs, narrow squeeze). At each, you can climb down, dive and swim beneath the stalactites, surrounded by tree roots and darting little fish, in the cool waters of a slow-moving subterranean river. Shafts of filtered sunlight illuminate the blue waters. Voices bounce crazily off the walls.
There are thousands of these places in Yucatán, some open air, some accessible only by a dark descent on a long ladder, dozens outfitted for easy visitor access. The only problem is that after you've explored a few, if you ever venture to Capri, you'll never understand all the fuss over its Blue Grotto.
The next day, I headed to Cobá, another underappreciated but sprawling set of ruins about 135 miles east of Mérida in the state of Quintana Roo. The archaeological site is so vast that tourists rent bikes to get from spot to spot. With the help of a heavy rope, most climb to the top of Nohoch Mul, a pyramid with 120 steep steps. The view was cinematic — the most remarkable of my trip — because the landscape is otherwise so flat and the foliage below so thick.
Throughout these various ascents and descents, Mexico's most notorious 21st century peril — the drug war — seemed far away. And statistics suggest that it is.
In the Mexican newspaper Reforma's tally of drug-war killings, Yucatán logged just two such deaths in 2011 — the lowest figure among all 31 Mexican states. The U.S. State Department's most recent Travel Warning on Mexico (issued in February) bristles with border-state cautions and alarming numbers, including the 47,515 drug-war deaths nationwide as of September 2011. But the State Department's experts have no cautions to offer for Yucatán.
That peace of mind gave me the luxury of more daydreaming about the Mayas, who drew water from cenotes and sculpted their gods into decorative patterns on buildings. The Maya created a written language and left scores of manuscripts, most of which the Spanish burned. They devised epic ballgames that sometimes ended with the ritual sacrifice of a player. Aristocrats wore jade inlays in their teeth.
Their empire included the neighboring states of Campeche, Chiapas and Quintana Roo, along with parts of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Yet centuries before the Spanish conquistadors got anywhere near here, their empire collapsed and the people scattered to small agricultural settlements.
As a result, few outsiders paid much attention to the Maya until the late 1830s and early 1840s, when explorers such as John L. Stephens and artist Frederick Catherwood spent long expeditions describing and sketching vine-strangled structures throughout the peninsula. Since then, Maya imagery has compelled all sorts of artists and designers, including Frank Lloyd Wright, who drew inspiration from Uxmal, Mel Gibson, who directed the movie "Apocalypto" in 2006, and the makers of the 2009 disaster film "2012." (For a more factual visual take on the contemporary Maya, check out the black and white photographs of Macduff Everton in 2012's "The Modern Maya" or the super-saturated color shots of Jeffrey Becom in "Maya Color," published in 1997.)