YUCATAN 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 Yucatan 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 Merida, Yucatan'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 Merida and 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 Yucatan's marquee attraction. That would be the now-unclimbable pyramid at Chichen Itza, about 120 miles east. But Yucatan is full of wonders that allow better access and draw smaller crowds than Chichen Itza. 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 Yucatan, 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.
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 stairs will lead you to a cool, blue cenote - sinkholes and water-filled underground caverns found all over the peninsula.
To give scenes like that my full attention, I didn't bother with Cancun, the tourist magnet 200 miles east, or the several Yucatan haciendas that have been converted into restaurants and luxury hotels. In fact, I never strayed more than 150 miles from Merida.
At Kabah, 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 Labna, an ancient gate leads nowhere special but might be the most graceful, haunting Maya portal still standing.
At Cuzama, about 30 miles southeast of Merida, I paid a man about 250 pesos (about $20) to take me on a bone-jarring ride on 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 fish, in the cool waters of a slow-moving subterranean river. Filtered sunlight illuminates the blue waters.
There are thousands of these places in Yucatan, some open air, some accessible only by a dark descent on a long ladder, dozens outfitted for easy visitor access.
The next day, I headed to Coba, another underappreciated but sprawling set of ruins about 135 miles east of Merida 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.
Out of harm's way
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, Yucatan 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 reported no such troubles in Yucatan.
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.
So why did the Maya fall? Deforestation, drought and wars against neighbors have been blamed. Before things went south, the Maya astronomers calculated a long-term calendar and forecast that a 5,125-year era in human history would come to an end on Dec. 21, 2012.
Even though almost nobody believes it, the idea of extinction evidently sells. Mayaland Resorts was charging less than $200 a night at its lodges at Uxmal and Chichen Itza in May, but this December, the rates will reach $1,000 a night and beyond.
I asked just about every Yucatecan I met, including many of Maya descent, about Dec. 21.
"People say, 'It's 2012. I'm not going to die. I'm going to Chichen Itza!' " said Andre Mar Arriaga, manager of the bookshop in Merida's Regional Museum of Anthropology and History.
At the Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman outside Valladolid, I raised the subject with manager Diego Moo, who keeps a slingshot at the ready in case turkey vultures fly too close to the water. Maybe, Moo suggested (in Spanish), his Maya ancestors were predicting the end of the pure Maya race.
This may seem pessimistic, given that several million Maya endure, many of them farming in Yucatan. But old ways are fading, Moo said, and Mexico's bloodlines are more mixed than ever.
On my last full day in the country, I finally got to Chichen Itza, where the 12/21/12 hucksterism is at its most intense. It was about 9 a.m. when I stepped up, well ahead of the crowds, and paid separate entrance fees to the state and federal agencies eager to get their cut.
Hundreds of vendors were setting up throughout the archaeological zone, peddling shirts, hats, carvings, calendars, hammocks, dresses, jade jaguars, Cuban cigars and enough refrigerator magnets to drag Iron Man to his knees. Much of the merchandise was doomsday-based.
The site's marquee attraction is the restored Temple of Kukulcan (aka El Castillo), and it's a sight to behold, a four-sided pyramid guarded by feathered serpents. In 2000 I climbed it, along with a few thousand others that day. But now you can't.
Local guides say climbing has been banned since Adeline Black, an 80-year-old visitor from San Diego, suffered a fatal fall while ascending the ruin in January 2006.
You also can't swim in Chichen Itza's Sacred Cenote. But as you stand at its lip and look down, remember that just last year scientists found bones here of six apparent human-sacrifice victims. Two were children. Estimated time of death: between 850 and 1250.
If I had this trip to do again, I'd give Merida just one night. I'd sleep instead in the countryside, perhaps at the Pickled Onion, a restaurant and B&B in Santa Elena (near Uxmal), or perhaps at one of the big hotels at Uxmal so I could walk to the ruins.
I'd also spend a few more nights in Valladolid, which has twice the charm and about 8 percent of the population of Merida. The Hotel El Meson del Marques on the plaza charges about $60 a night, and I had the most elegant meal of my visit at Taberna de los Frailes, a short walk away.
Another change I'd make: more time in Izamal, where the Convent of San Antonio de Padua was built atop a Maya temple in 1561 and most of the downtown is painted yellow.
If you go
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code) and 52 (the country code for Mexico).
Where to stay: Hotel Casa Lucia, 474A Calle 60, Merida (999-928-0740; www.casalucia.com.mx). Opened in 2003 with 15 rooms, a pool and cafe. Doubles from about $120, including Wi-Fi and continental breakfast.
Hotel Hacienda Merida, 439 Calle 62, Merida (999-924-4363; www.hotelhaciendamerida.com). Eight rooms and a pool, highly stylish. Parking is a block away in an unmarked lot. Doubles from $129.
The Lodge at Uxmal, Uxmal Archaeological Zone (800-235-4079, no international or Mexico code necessary; www.mayaland.com). Several lodgings neighbor the Uxmal ruins, but this is the closest. Opened in 1997 with 40 rooms and two big pools. Doubles $175-$250 most of the year. This December, rates rise briefly to $1,000 a night or more.
Hotel El Meson del Marques, 203 Calle 39, Valladolid (985-856-2073; www.mesondelmarques.com). Faces the main square. 90 units. A 17th century mansion, converted in 1967. Groovy '60s pool in back. Rooms for two about $56-$70, more for suites. Free parking and Wi-Fi.
Day tours: MexiGo Tours, 204C Calle 43, Valladolid (985-856-0777; www.mexigotours.com). Escorted day trips $35-$85 a person. Also bike rentals.
To learn more, go to www.visitmexico.com, www.yucatan.travel/en and www.merida.gob.mx/turismo/index_in.htm.